Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, bestselling authors individually and together, return to the world  of their New York Times and USA Today bestselling Obsidian and Enduring Flame Trilogies with Crown of Vengeance. Here, readers will learn the truth about the Elven Queen Vielissiar Faricarnon, who was the first to face the Endarkened in battle and the first to bond with a dragon. She worked some of the greatest magics her world has ever known, and paid the greatest Price. Crown of Vengeance is an exciting fantasy adventure that will appeal to fans of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series. No previous knowledge of Lackey and Mallory's collaborations is necessary to enjoy this fast-paced, action-packed novel, but returning readers will be excited to discover this amazing story. Review "A thoughtfully created world, engaging characters, and a tighter plot than many fantasy epics make this new novel a must-have.” —VOYA on The Phoenix Unchained “Lackey and Mallory combine their talents for storytelling and world crafting into a panoramic effort.  Filled with magic, dragons, elves, and other mythical creatures, this title belongs in most fantasy collections.”  —Library Journal on *To Light a Candle "Delightful."  —Booklist on The Outstretched Shadow*

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To all of those who have accompanied me on this journey: my dear coauthor, Mercedes Lackey; our mutual agent, Russ Galen; our skilled and long-suffering editor, Melissa Singer (without whom this book could not have been what it has become); my dear Dennis, always the ready gadfly; and of course, my beloved Diogenes, faithful friend and companion, this volume is respectfully dedicated. And to Rafal Gibek and Terry McGarry, princes among copyeditors, my deepest thanks for your yeoman labors on my behalf.

—James Mallory


Many thanks to our tireless, unbelievably good copyeditors, Terry and Rafal. Authors rant when copyeditors are bad and never say a peep when they are outstanding.

Well, we’re changing that. Thank you, Terry McGarry and Rafal Gibek. Without you this book literally would not have been possible.



The Endarkened cannot make, they can only mar.

—Thurion Pathfinder,

The Scroll of Darkness

Before Time itself came to be, He Who Is had been: changeless, eternal, perfect. And all was Darkness, and He Who Is ruled over all there was.

Then came the Light, dancing through the perfection of the Dark, separating it into Dark and not-Dark. Making it a finite, a bounded thing. Where there had been silence, and Void, and infinity, there came music, and not-Void, and Time …

A world.

At first, He Who Is did nothing, for it was only by the creation of that which was not he, not his, that He Who Is was able to perceive Himself, and He was spellbound by the discovery of His own beauty.

But the Light was not perfection. The Light was change, a change as infinite as the changelessness of He Who Is. Time was swift to One Who had only known timelessness, and by the time He Who Is became aware of the danger, it was too late to avert it.

But it could yet be repaired. And so He Who Is turned the Light’s weaving against it, for by its very nature, the Light implied the Dark. All things in its World possessed opposites, for no thing could be named if it did not possess an antithesis. Fire and water, time and eternity, leaf and star …

Life and death.

* * *

The first life raised up by the Light was green: leaf and branch, bud and seed, flower and fruit to sweep over the face of the land. It changed the harsh stone, beautifying it with a thousand living shapes. It flourished for a time, until He Who Is conjured plague and blight and rot that swept across the land, devouring the green life down to bare rock, making the land stark and sterile once more. But plague and blight and rot were merely tools, and they did not slay all. The green life was reborn, and with it came red life: beasts of earth and air and water. Red life took on a thousand shapes and filled the land, until there was no corner of it that did not hold red life and green.

And once more He Who Is woke from the contemplation of His perfection and rose up out of the deep darkness. He kindled the forests to flame, slaughtered the schools and flocks and herds, set red life to feed upon itself just as it fed upon green life, set green life to poison red. Hunger fed upon hunger until green ocean and green earth were red, and all the work of the Light was undone.

But in the destruction of the red life, the Light realized He Who Is meant to take the world from them, the beautiful world of shape and form and time and boundary they had created. Light could not destroy the Darkness without destroying itself, but it could bring life to flourish again where destruction had walked.

And to this life, it would give weapons.

Once again, life was reborn from death. The new life was neither green nor red. It was as silver as the Light itself. Rot did not extinguish it nor did death destroy it. It was as changeable as He Who Is was changeless. It grew and changed and spread to all the places red life and green life had been, and then it spread farther still. Light itself coursed through the veins of silver life, and Light fell in love with silver life. Light left the high vault of heaven and scattered itself across the land, and silver life traveled to the places of the Light to rejoice in it.

But He Who Is vowed He would win in the end. This time, He did not strike at once. This time He bound His war into time, to let His tools learn from the enemy He would ultimately destroy. To all the things of the Light, He Who Is held up a dark mirror. For the Bright World, a World Without Sun. For life and love, death and pain. For trust, treachery. For kindness, power.

For skill … magic.

He Who Is created thirteen instruments as eternal and changeless as He Himself, instruments whose sole purpose was the destruction of the Light and all the Light had made. And when His Endarkened had completed their task, the world would once more be what it had been before the Light had come. Changeless. Eternal.


* * *

Virulan was First among the Thirteen, king of the Endarkened. He had always been king. He always would be—how not? His subjects were loyal to him, and to He Who Is, who had planted the Tree of Night, who had set the Shadow Throne in the Heart of Darkness, who had placed the Crown of Pain upon Virulan’s brow.

Who had set him his task.

At first, it had seemed that to accomplish the task they had been set would be a simple matter, for they could not die, and the Brightworlders could. And so Virulan and the Twelve took to the sky each night, slaughtering without cease until the terrible bright light by which the Brightworlders marked time came again.

And time passed, and Virulan soon saw that this was not enough. The Brightworlders were too many. Slay a hundred, and a thousand sprung up in their place. Again and again, the Endarkened had scoured a place of life, only to return and find it fecund once more. No spells that Virulan and his Twelve could cast were terrible enough to do the bidding of He Who Is.

If he had been capable of it, Virulan would have despaired.

But he was not, and so he sought counsel.

He Who Is had granted them the boon of eternity, but all gifts must be paid for. The Endarkened did not sleep, just as they did not age, but an Endarkened who did not regularly seek a period of silence and contemplation would enter eternity in truth—not death, for they could not die, but the inability to perceive Time.

Such an Endarkened would be useless to He Who Is and it would be his fate to be forever sealed away in a chamber in the Deep Earth. Virulan had no desire to lose the favor of He Who Is. Virulan carefully marked the passage of time by the shifts and changes in the Deep Earth and retired to his secret chamber regularly.

This time, he had a greater goal than his own survival.

“Dread and beloved Lord of Darkness and Endings, hear Your loyal and devoted acolyte…”

The realm of time and matter was no fit habitation for the Lord of All Things, and so Virulan sought Him in His own place. Virulan knew himself to be a created thing, a tool, and like any tool, fitted for the needs of his task. To destroy the realm of time and matter, Virulan himself was a thing of time and matter. But not entirely. That part of Virulan that sought audience with his dread master was neither.

It was a realm beautiful beyond description: lightless and empty and sterile. Virulan’s spirit rose to that place, and waited.


Each syllable thrilled through Virulan’s entire being, bringing such ecstasy that he nearly forgot his purpose. To speak words in answer would be to profane this holy emptiness. Virulan opened his thoughts to He Who Is, knowing He saw all.


Before Virulan could shape a question, he had been thrust back into the world of time and form. But he was not in his bedchamber. He was in a place in the World Without Sun whose existence he had never suspected.

The Black Chamber.

It lay at the center of a vein of black glass a thousand miles thick. Virulan could feel the vastness of stone above him, and his heart swelled with pride: the Brightworlders boasted of their vast lands, but the World Without Sun was a thousand times greater.

To any senses but his own, the chamber would have been unremittingly black. Virulan saw a thousand shades of darkness, hues that no other race had words for. The darkness showed him a chamber carved of the living rock. Every inch of the walls and ceiling was covered with deeply incised symbols.

Master their meaning and Virulan would take within himself the faintest echo of the power of He Who Is. Virulan’s birthright was to command sorcery—and here was the grimoire from which he must learn

But that knowledge came at a price.

In the center of the chamber there was a long hollow spike of obsidian that stood heart-high. This was the Obsidian Blade, the instrument of sacrifice that made its victim one with the symbols upon the walls. For any other, what Virulan now contemplated would be nothing more than a gateway to the most agonizing death of all—but Virulan was first among the Endarkened, first shaped by the hand of He Who Is. He spread his great scarlet wings and thrust himself into the air. For an instant, his golden horns brushed the vaulting ceiling of the chamber.

Then he fell.

The Obsidian Blade pierced his body.

The chamber rang like a crystal bell with his agonized screams; the glyphs upon the walls bloomed into dark fire, searing their meaning into his skin. He hung there, writhing, impaled, until his screams dwindled to sobs of agony, until his consciousness fled into a nothingness deeper than anything he had ever known.

But when he rose up an eternity later, the sorcery that was his birthright thrilled through his veins with every beat of his heart. Virulan went from the Black Chamber to the foot of the Tree of Night and summoned his Endarkened to him. There he opened their heritage to them, a sorcery fueled by death, a sorcery great enough to give them the victory they craved.

And once again, the Endarkened swept forth from Obsidian Mountain.

The slaughter they wreaked now was a thousandfold greater than before. They glutted themselves upon blood and pain and gorged upon the flesh of their victims. The land around Obsidian Mountain became a wasteland where nothing lived, and each night they ranged farther.

And it was still not enough.

* * *

“What must I do?” Virulan cried. His scream echoed back from the stony vault that was the roof of the world and brought no answer.

Save one.

“You must use the tools He Who Is has given us, my king.”

Uralesse was first among the Twelve, as Virulan was first among them all. Only he would dare to approach Virulan when Virulan walked in the Garden of Night. When he saw his king’s gaze upon him, Uralesse groveled low to the ground, his great ribbed wings wound tightly about his body in submission, his horned brow pressed against the stone.

“Do you say I do not?” Virulan growled. His fangs ached to rend Uralesse’s flesh, even though the words he had spoken were words Virulan had long held in his own mind. He had taught his knowledge of sorcery to his people—but only a fool would give up every advantage, and so Virulan had not taught them all he had learned.

“I say only that the first among us is surely greater than any of us,” Uralesse said, unmoving.

“You are wise, my brother. Rise, and walk with me.”

Uralesse rose gracefully to his feet and allowed his wings to open fractionally. For a time they walked together in silence.

“The Bright World continues to live,” Virulan said at last.

“Yes,” Uralesse agreed, his wings drooping in sorrow. “Each pure thing we make becomes tainted once more. It is as if life replenishes itself as water inexhaustibly fills a spring.”

“I shall learn the Bright World’s secret,” Virulan said. “And I will make of it talons for their throats.”

“Let it be so, my king,” Uralesse said.

* * *

Now Virulan worked the greatest sorcery he had ever imagined. He returned to the Black Chamber and there he studied the runes and the glyphs until he was certain his spell would succeed. Then he sent his Endarkened into the Bright World once more, but this time not to slay. This time, he ordered them to bring its creatures to him alive.

It was a reaping that would long endure in the stories the Brightworlders told one another. The chambers of the World Without Sun became filled with life: weeping and lamenting, profaning the beauty of the Endarkened realm by its very existence. Night after night, the Endarkened flew, and harvested, until the World Without Sun could hold no more.

In a space above the Black Chamber, Virulan had made a place. Its only entrance was through an opening in its ceiling, and it contained only one object: a gigantic mirror of black obsidian. As his subjects had hunted, so had Virulan prepared the mirror. And when it was ready, he ordered all the captives slaughtered at once.

The Endarkened had learned to love the pain of their victims, learned to cherish each scream and tear. Torture was their highest art, but today, Virulan did not call for art, but for blood. And he received it. The halls of the World Without Sun were awash in blood, a red and stinking tide that flowed through halls and down staircases, rushing ever deeper into the Deep Earth until it came to the place where the Obsidian Mirror waited. Hot fresh blood poured through the opening in the ceiling and filled the room to the brink.

And the Mirror drank in the life, the power, the blood, until all the blood was gone, and only the Mirror itself remained.

Then Virulan and his brothers feasted. And when the feast was done, Virulan went to stand before the Mirror.

“Show me what I wish to see,” he commanded, and the Mirror did. It showed him the Bright World as the Brightworlders saw it. It showed him their lives and their fates. For a very long time, Virulan watched, and learned. He left the Mirror only to seek the silence and stillness that preserved his existence; at each Rising he returned to the visions of the Mirror once more. A thousand Risings came and went before he had learned what he must know.

And then he left the Obsidian Mirror, and went to the Heart of Darkness, and seated himself upon the Shadow Throne, and summoned Uralesse.

“I have learned what I wished to know,” he said without preamble when Uralesse groveled before him. “And I would hear your counsel.”

“Tell me how I may serve you, my king,” Uralesse answered.

“The Brightworlders cannot be slain,” Virulan said flatly.

Uralesse raised his head in shock, his pupilless yellow eyes going wide. “He Who Is has said it must be,” he protested.

“And so I have summoned you, for you will hear the Brightworlders’ secret and understand. He Who Is made us to destroy all the Light has made. He has not set us to destroy the Light itself, for that is a task He reserves for His own, once ours is done. But ours will never be done, my brother. He Who Is has given us great sorcery—but the Light has given life the ability to multiply itself, increasing faster than thought. Once you spoke of an ever-filling spring and I thought it merely clever poetry. But it is not. And we are few!”

His last words were a howl of anguish.

“Then we must be more than we are,” Uralesse said strongly. He dared to sit back on his heels at the foot of the Shadow Throne, but did not rise. “You who are the wellspring of all sorcery, who have dared to gaze upon the naked ugliness of our foe—you know their secret! We will take it and use it against them!”

For a long time, Virulan gazed at his counselor in silence. “Let it be so,” he said at last. “Summon our brothers.”

* * *

When all the Endarkened were gathered together, it was a communion of such beauty that Virulan nearly wept to behold it. Rugashag—Shurzul—Khambaug—Bashahk—Dhasgah—Gholak—Lashagan—Marbuglor—Arzhugdu—Nagreloth—Orbushnu—Uralesse—each was more glorious than the next. And each one of them was dedicated to only two things.

The destruction of all life.

And becoming the supreme power in the World Without Sun.

Virulan did not condemn such ambition: he shared it. Soft emotions of trust, love, and loyalty were suitable only to soft things, like the Brightworlders. But that hardly meant he intended to give up his supremacy—or have it taken from him. He had made his preparations for this moment carefully and in secret, weaving a skein of spells as delicate as the ones to create the Obsidian Mirror had been forceful. He was the last to enter the Heart of Darkness, and when he did, his brethren knelt to him in a great rustle of wings. Virulan seated himself upon the Shadow Throne and gazed upon them for a long time in silence before he spoke.

This is the last time I shall look upon you in the way you were made. The thought did not bring regret, but excitement. It was the first step upon the road that would end in the triumph of the Endarkened.

He Who Is has given me many good things, and I have shared them all with you,” King Virulan said. “He has asked only one thing of us in exchange for all the pleasures He has allowed us. And now, at last, I shall make it possible for us to serve Him fully.”

He did not wait for the questioning rustle of wings to subside, but struck at once. Spellfire leaped from the walls, the ceiling, the very floor of the chamber, wrapping the bodies before him in a scarlet cocoon. His brethren—his comrades—fought magnificently, but they were powerless against a sorcery that fed upon the very magic in their bones. And when the sorcery had run its course, his brethren were changed.

All but one.

“I would not have you lack a true companion, my king,” Uralesse said, entering the chamber again. “And so, I took care to place myself outside the compass of your spell—though only in anticipation of your own foresight.” He bowed deeply. “If you were to be lost, my king, who would father the great race of Endarkened you will send into battle? And so, for the sake of peace in our realm, I thought the matter best settled at once.”

All about him, his once-brothers ran their hands over transformed flesh: deep bosoms and graceful hips, new beauty cloaking the ancient power of their birthright. Female, as the Brightworlders were female. From their bodies he would call a horde, a legion, a race of Endarkened. Thousand upon thousand, enough to darken the sky with their wings.

Enough to destroy all who walked beneath the sun and the moon.

It had been no part of Virulan’s plan to spare any of them the transformation. Just as he was first among the Endarkened, greatest in power, so it was only right that his seed should sow the death of all life.

Uralesse had tricked him, first anticipating his intention, then escaping his spell. It indicated a cleverness that Virulan did not trust … but which might prove useful in the war to come.

And if it did not, there were other spells, and sealed chambers within the Deep Earth.

“Foolish Uralesse,” Virulan said grandly. “You have exerted yourself for no reason. My spell was never intended to fall upon you. It is as you said: my intention was always to spare you, for the very reasons you suggest.”

Uralesse bowed low, but his golden eyes held a mocking light. “And now, my king? What shall we—your loyal and most submissive subjects—do now?”

Uralesse rose to his feet and spread his wings. Still on … her … knees before his throne, Rugashag gazed up at him, her savage beauty a display of fury and confusion. He stretched out one taloned hand and raised her to her feet.

“We shall wait, Uralesse my brother,” King Virulan said. “We shall wait.”



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:


—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.


“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.


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.



Listen, child, and I will tell you a tale that is both true and real. Long ago, in the morning of the world, when there was nothing but Jer-a-kalaliel itself, nine stars looked down from the sky and saw the beautiful land we live in. And they were so enchanted by its beauty that they fell from the heavens. And

each place

one fell to the ground was



than the next, and because each

was so beautiful, great Flower Forests grew up where each of the nine stars fell down. And the Flower Forests contained every tree and plant that grows, and some that remain only in Tilinaparanwira the Lost, which grows behind the East Wind.

—Ancient Nursery Tale

The Sanctuary of the Star was not just one building, though only one building was the Sanctuary itself. That building was like a great keep in miniature—three stories of grey Mage-forged stone with a doorway that led directly to the Outer Sanctuary. Within that building, all were bound by the Peace of the Sanctuary, which obliged even those who had declared blood feud to pass one another by without raising a hand in violence.

The Caerthalien party was met on the road by Othring Lightbrother, saying Caerthalien’s was the first caravan to come this season. He greeted all four Candidates individually, but Thurion thought his gaze lingered longest upon Varuthir. Thurion thought they might stop to wash off the dirt of the road before entering the Sanctuary, but as soon as they’d dismounted, Prince Runacarendalur unbuckled his swordbelt and handed his weapon to Komen Helecanth.

“Come,” he said. “The sooner I have delivered you to the care of the Mistress of Servants, the sooner you may settle into your new lives.”

At his words, Varuthir started, then stared at Prince Runacarendalur with hot eyes before turning away.

The four Candidates followed Prince Runacarendalur and Othring Lightbrother through the main doors of the Sanctuary. Thurion had heard many storysongs of this place, yet somehow it was unlike every one of them. It was not as grand as the telling in The Rade of Bringaer, for the stone was not as white as new milk, nor was it vaster than all the Great Keeps in Jer-a-kalaliel together. But to see the great bronze doors, with this piece and that bright-shining from the touch of uncounted hands, and to know that beyond it one might see stone struck by the Silver Hooves of the Starry Hunt’s own destriers … that made Thurion’s heart beat fast and the breath catch in his throat. It was a long moment before he had eyes for the woman who awaited them.

She did not wear the green robe, but she wore the Sanctuary’s badge upon her tabard. She was not young, for her braids were streaked with grey, and yet there was such dignity and power about her that for a moment Thurion was certain he gazed upon the Astromancer herself.

“I am Mistress Maeredhiel,” she said crisply. “Candidates, I greet you in the name of the Sanctuary of the Star. Until the day you are Called to the Light—if you are—you are my responsibility. In your Service Year you will take your orders from me. Now, who is it the Sanctuary of the Star has the honor to welcome this day?”

It was a wonder in a day of wonders that Mistress Maeredhiel had, until her last sentence, ignored Prince Runacarendalur as if he were any servant boy. Now he spoke, his speech as deferential as if he spoke to Lord Bolecthindial himself. “Caerthalien entrusts to the Sanctuary of the Star Candidates Berthon, Athrothir, Thurion, and—”

“I am Vieliessar Farcarinon, War Prince of Farcarinon!” Varuthir said, stepping forward. “I come as a prisoner, not a Candidate! Though Caerthalien slew my parents, Farcarinon yet lives!”

* * *

There was a moment of electric silence, and Runacarendalur cursed himself for eleven kinds of fool—and then cursed his mother for good measure, as he was certain this was of Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s weaving. Who else could have—or would have—told the girl her true name?

“That’s as may be, girl,” Mistress Maeredhiel said briskly, “but here we care nothing for the quarrels of the Hundred Houses—nor will you, if you have wit.”

Vieliessar opened her mouth as if to protest, then closed it again, glowering wordlessly. Berthon and Athrothir were backing away from her, their expressions as shocked as if she had named herself Beastling. Thurion alone clearly had no idea what her declaration meant, for he simply gazed at her, his expression puzzled.

“Prince Runacarendalur, the Sanctuary of the Star thanks you for your service,” Mistress Maeredhiel said, as if there had been no interruption. “Will you visit the Shrine while you are here?”

Runacarendalur took a hasty step backward, and cursed inwardly at the gleam of amusement he saw in Maeredhiel’s eyes. He knew the day would come when he must stand within the Shrine and be judged by the Silver Hooves, as his father had been before him—but Pelashia grant that day still lay far in the future!

After a moment, he recovered himself enough to bow. “Alas that my duties do not permit it,” he said ironically. “But I will commend your great diligence to my father, when next I see him.”

“Caerthalien has always done us every courtesy,” Maeredhiel answered blandly. “Come along, you four. If you are waiting to be presented to Hamphuliadiel Astromancer, you will stand here forever. He is far too busy to waste his time on children.”

* * *

The outer doors of the sanctuary closed behind Runacarendalur, and Mistress Maeredhiel began walking away. “Farcarinon?” Athrothir said, staring at Vieliessar in stunned amazement. “But—Serenthon—”

“Your interest in the history of the Hundred Houses does you credit, young Athrothir,” Mistress Maeredhiel said repressively, stopping and looking back at them. “And I say again—for what I am certain is not the last time—until the day you leave us, neither rank nor House concerns you. Now come.”

Thurion walked forward at once; after a moment Berthon and Athrothir followed. With nowhere else to go, Vieliessar trailed after them. She wasn’t sure whether to be pleased to see Athrothir put in his place so sharply, or irritated that her announcement had not carried more weight. The only thing she was certain of was that it had come as no surprise to Prince Runacarendalur. May the Silver Hooves spurn you at your death, faithless betrayer!

“You will be called to serve during your first year in all the ways you—or some of you—have been served in the past,” Maeredhiel said as she led them along the corridor. “Those who have been in service before you will assist you in learning your tasks. The Sanctuary has few ordinary servants, not enough to do all that is required. Your labor will be needed.”

“What will we have to do?” Berthon asked, a little timidly.

Maeredhiel fixed him with a skeptical eye. “What can you do, young Berthon?” she asked. “No matter. You will learn. We have hosted all manner of Candidates in our time, from Landbonds to heirs to the Line.” She glanced toward Vieliessar.

Two corridors led away from the Antechamber of the Shrine; they had turned along the tuathal one. As they walked, Mistress Maeredhiel named each chamber they passed and gave its function. The chambers on the ground floor tuathal side were used only during the day, for study, practice, or meditation.

“This side passage leads to the stairs down to the Library,” Maeredhiel said, gesturing. “Perhaps someday you will see what lies within it.” She led them up the great stone staircase to the second floor.

There was a long hallway at the top of the stair, and Maeredhiel again turned left. The walls were lined with small plain doors, set so closely together that Vieliessar knew the rooms behind them must be nearly as small as the winter blanket closets at Caerthalien. Every door was closed. “These rooms are for those who have begun their training in the mysteries of the Sanctuary, as well as for those Lightborn who return to us for a time, as many do.”

At the end of the hallway was another staircase leading to the top floor of the Sanctuary. As Maeredhiel began to ascend, she continued her lecture. “Because you come so early, there are none here to place you with, so to save myself work, you lads will share a room. Do not expect such consideration for long. You will later share rooms with those of every House and fighting will be punished severely.”

Athrothir opened his mouth and closed it, Berthon looked as if he’d only just realized where he was, and Thurion looked as if he was hearing only what he’d expected to.

“It matters not what clothing or jewels you have brought with you. It will all be sent back with your escort. While you are here, you will wear the livery of the Sanctuary, as I do. Should you be Twice-Called to the Light, you will wear the green tabard of a Postulant. While you are here, you will wear no jewelry, no scent, no ornaments in your hair—nor may you dress your hair high upon your head or wear more than four braids. You will rise at the candlemark appointed to rising and you will seek your bed upon the candlemark appointed to sleeping. You may not walk outside the Sanctuary without permission, nor may you enter the Sanctuary garden without permission, nor may you cross the bounds of the Sanctuary lands at any time. If you do not wish to eat what is served to you, you may hunger. If you do not wish to perform the tasks set for you, you will be sent from the Sanctuary and your House will be notified of your disgrace when the next Candidates arrive.”

As Maeredhiel spoke, Vieliessar saw Berthon and Athrothir exchange looks of horror, for even Farmholders might expect—on feast days—to go in fine clothing and perfume, with colored cords and combs for their hair.

She’d had few enough of those things at Caerthalien. What disturbed her more was that now she would never have them—because she would never leave the Sanctuary of the Star.

The rooms on the top floor were each meant to hold six Candidates. All the doors were open, so as they passed they could see that the beds were stacked in pairs, with the upper bed held off the floor by elongated legs. Each room was barely large enough for three beds and a warming brazier. The mattresses were bare, and thin, and at the sight of them, Athrothir and Berthon once again exchanged looks of dismay.

At the end of the hallway, Mistress Maeredhiel stopped in front of a room that looked much like any other, save for the piles of cloth—blankets and bedlinens, along with tunics and trews in the grey of a Sanctuary servant—that lay upon the lower bed closest to the door.

“Change your clothing and stand before your door when you are done. Bring what you now wear with you. Vieliessar, come with me.”

She thought to rebel, but again the question stopped her: if she ran, where would she go? And so, silently, she followed Maeredhiel back along the hall to a room with only one pile of cloth upon the bed. She walked inside and Maeredhiel followed, closing the door behind them.

“I don’t belong here,” Vieliessar said as she unlaced her stormcloak. Catching Maeredhiel’s faintly scornful look, she added: “I mean, I don’t belong here. Aren’t there rooms where the— Where those who will remain here forever stay?” she finished reluctantly.

Maeredhiel studied her for a long moment in silence. “It would please me immensely to know why you think you belong in one.”

“A moonturn past, Mistress Nindorogond said I was to go to the Sanctuary and bide there forever. Upon the day of my going, Glorthiachiel of Caerthalien gave me my true name.”

“Scratch Caerthalien and touch pitch,” Mistress Maeredhiel said in disgust. “I had wished to choose my own time to tell you of your heritage. All you will be thinking of now is vengeance upon the destroyers of your line—and if I know that blood-maddened shrew my brother’s greatson married, she’ll have been sure to tell to tell you it was House Caerthalien that crushed House Farcarinon beneath its bootheel.”

“You are Caerthalien!” Vieliessar spat. “Why—”

“I am Mistress Maeredhiel of the Sanctuary of the Star!” Maeredhiel answered hotly. “Caerthalien is nothing to me—nor can it be to you. Look you, girl. You were sent as a Candidate, and so a Candidate you shall be. If the Light comes to you, you will become Lightborn, and that is a problem for another day. Think long and hard, Vieliessar Farcarinon, before showing the Light even if you possess it, for a Mage may be called from the Sanctuary where a servant cannot be, and you must never leave here. Do you understand why?”

“Because I am Farcarinon,” Vieliessar said bitterly.

“Indeed you are,” Maeredhiel said. “Vieliessar Farcarinon, the last of the Line, and do you set one foot beyond the bounds of the Sanctuary, your life is forfeit. I was here the night Lady Nataranweiya came to us. Lord Serenthon was dead, and the lady his Bondmate was dying, yet she won through to Sanctuary so that she might give you life. If you possess one-tenth her bravery, there is greatness in you.”

Vieliessar stared in shock, for Maeredhiel spoke of her unknown mother—and her House—with something almost akin to approval. “Do you—? Are you—?” she stammered, her anger forgotten.

“It was I who saw you named, and Celelioniel Astromancer—she who left us these four years past—who set the Peacebond upon you as you drew your first breaths. And know now if you did not before—the Peacebond is why you lived, but it ran only until you should return to us.”

“Then I need never have come here at all,” Vieliessar said bitterly. “I might have had my freedom, knowing no prince could strike me down and risk the Peacebond’s vengeance.”

“That is not so. Did Celelioniel Astromancer try to set the Peacebond on you without some term to it, the Hundred would have forced her to lift it,” Maeredhiel answered. “Failing that, they might have imprisoned you—or forced you into some marriage to lay claim to all that Farcarinon once held—or worse.”

Vieliessar turned away, dropping her cloak and her gloves to the bed.

“You will hear me,” Maeredhiel said, and her voice rang with such iron authority that Vieliessar looked up in surprise.

“None knows better than I how Caerthalien breaks hearts and lives, child. Six hundred years gone, my brother slew Aradrothiach of Cirandeiron, who would have been my Bondmate. War Prince Palierlaniel Caerthalien did not like the thought of a Caerthalien daughter going to Cirandeiron—and so she summoned Aradrothiach to the betrothal feast, and my brother slew him.”

“But you aren’t dead!” Vieliessar blurted, and Maeredhiel smiled sardonically.

“I knew Aradrothiach for my destined Bondmate, but our Bond was not yet made. Haramarthien could slay my beloved without risk to me—and so he did. But that night I fled to the Sanctuary of the Star, and here I have remained. And I say to you, Vieliessar Farcarinon: patience is the true sword of vengeance. If you can keep Caerthalien uneasy in its bed for century upon century, knowing you are alive and well, it will be a vengeance well crafted.”

“That is not vengeance enough for me!” Vieliessar protested hotly.

“Ah, well, Celelioniel swore you were the Child of the Prophecy,” Maeredhiel said mildly. “Undoubtedly you will think of something better. Now, dress yourself, for we have spent too long in idle chatter.”

Before Vieliessar could ask the dozen questions Maeredhiel had put into her mind, the Mistress of Servants swept from the room and closed the door behind her.

Child of the Prophecy, Vieliessar thought dazedly. What Prophecy? Why should Celelioniel Astromancer have set a Peacebond upon me if the Hundred Houses chose to erase Farcarinon?

Sighing, she leaned over to pull off her boots. She did not know what she should do now—but the one thing she had gained from Maeredhiel’s words was the knowledge the Sanctuary meant time.

She would wait.

And plan.

The dormitory wing echoed emptily at first, for the day before the first caravan train arrived, the Candidates now finishing their Service Year had been sent to sleep in a vast windowless chamber in the other wing of the third floor. The new Candidates saw them only in passing, for it was the Sanctuary servants themselves who oversaw the training of those entering their Service Year.

Spring meant not only the arrival of the Candidates, but of great lords coming to make luck-sacrifices at the Shrine for fortune in the coming War Season, and Lightborn returning to the Sanctuary for counsel. Rare was the day when no tribute caravan arrived—and then two, three, five each day. Each, when it departed, carried away with it those who had ended their Service Year without being called to the Light as well as those newly come to the Green Robe.

In the first days, Vieliessar found herself too weary each night to even think of escape, for each day began before sunrise with the sound of Mage-conjured bells. Those who were to serve at table or in the kitchens hurried through their washing and dressing and hastened off to begin their tasks while their fellows savored a few moments of leisure before being summoned to the first meal by more bells. When the meal was done, the Postulants went to their lessons, the Lightborn to their still-mysterious tasks, and the Candidates to their work. Few of the Candidates were accustomed to their labors, for few of them had been Called from families in service to a Great Keep or manor house. Mistress Hamonglachele, in whose keeping lay the Sanctuary guesthouse and the duty of hospitality to visitors, had claimed many of them for her work, while Pandorgrad Mastergardener, who managed the gardens, claimed more.

Waking and sleeping, the days of the Candidates were governed by the sound of magical bells that chimed sourcelessly in empty air: bells to wake them, bells to send them to their meals, bells to send them to their scant candlemarks of leisure and from there to their beds. Each third fortnight their sleeping rooms were changed, and that was all to the good: if you misliked your bedchamber companions, six sennights would see you with different ones. The prohibition against naming their Houses was heeded by almost no one, but at least Vieliessar was not the only one to refuse to name her House. She felt daring enough in claiming her name.

Spring became high summer, then dwindled away into autumn. Vieliessar’s body hardened to her new work and her mind grew quick to find the best and easiest way to accomplish each task she was set. Though she began to find leisure in the evening, she kept from the Common Room, where Candidates and Postulants alike gathered for games of xaique and gan and narshir. She wanted no friends among those who had slain her family—for the destruction of Farcarinon had not been Caerthalien’s alone, but the work of many Houses—nor did she wish to befriend those she would some day be called upon to serve. No, she would use her free time to plan her future—her true future, not the one Caerthalien meant her to have.

But somehow her plans of escape and vengeance grew no further.

Winter stalked the bounds of the Sanctuary like a great white wolf. Each day was much like the next—no feast day celebrating a House’s triumph nor Festival to mark the turn of the year was celebrated here. And then, it was spring and the first new Candidates were soon to arrive to begin their Service Year.

Now it was Vieliessar and her fellow-Candidates who were sent to the Long Chamber. They would sleep there until their final fates were revealed, as the caravans of their Houses arrived, and the new Candidates would occupy the familiar dormitory rooms. There was excitement and confusion when they arrived, as for the first time in a full Wheel of the Seasons they were free to choose where they might sleep, and among whom. And each contemplated the future to be so soon revealed with both excitement and dread. None of them knew—even now—who would stay and who would go, and while the shared year of toil had forged many strong friendships, the next time many of them met might be when the battle lines of their House’s armies clashed.

This is why we were told not to name our Houses, so those of us who go on to become komentai’a might be spared the knowledge they had slain those who once were friends, Vieliessar thought, surprising herself. None of them had understood that until it was too late.

And each night the Long Chamber held fewer tenants than the night before. Some departed with the caravans. Some donned the green tabard of a Postulant. There seemed to be no metric for knowing who would go or who would stay.

Baramrin and Eradrin and Feinel had shown no hint of the Light in all the moonturns they’d been Candidates—or nothing more than any other had, since all save Vieliessar had been sent here by the word of the Lightborn—yet now they were Called.

But they never tested us! They never asked! Vieliessar thought, half indignant, half disturbed. They never even taught us anything.…

But in looking back on the matter-of-fact spellcraft she’d seen in the last fourteen moonturns—Silverlight and Silversight, Healing, Calling Fire with a snap of the fingers, speaking with beasts and awakening the soil with a touch, Vieliessar realized that wasn’t true. They’d all learned without realizing they were being taught: When and how the Magery was used. The cost of using it. The things it could do.

Perhaps the teaching itself is the test.

Vieliessar knew that true understanding of what it meant to be one of the Lightborn could only come if one were Called. The Postulants had all been willing—even eager—to talk with the Candidates about what they learned, but much of it was like one who was blind attempting to understand what sight was.

It’s like flying, some said. Like running before the wind and knowing every current in the ocean beneath you, said others. Like dancing. Like riding a fast horse.

Like a hundred other things that only one of the Lightborn could understand.

It was a full moonturn before the last of the Candidate caravans came and went. This year Hallorad was the last: a Less House so far to the east that beyond its eastern border lay nothing but leagues of windswept grassland and Graythunder Glairyrill itself. Hallorad left no new Candidates, but bore away Inadan, Thadaniach, Gaen, and Dirthir—the last four who’d shared the now-echoing Long Chamber with Vieliessar.

Her Service Year was over, and she had not been Called.

In the refectory everyone ate together, the servants at one end of the chamber and Hamphuliadiel Astromancer at the other. The meals were plain, simple, and unvarying: tea and boiled grain for breakfast; tea and vegetable soup at midday; tea, bread and cheese, and soup at eventide. Though there might be as many as a hundred of them in the Sanctuary at one time, the Candidates were not the largest group at any meal. The Postulants outnumbered them by half again, for one might be a Postulant for ten years, or twenty, before taking the Green Robe. Each year ten or fifteen—rarely more—increased their numbers. Each year a handful of the Postulants dared the Shrine and departed the Sanctuary.

Caerthalien had arrived on the same day as Oronviel and Aramenthiali, so she did not know which of the dozen Candidates that had arrived that day were Caerthalien’s. Berthon and Athrothir had left with the party, but that evening, when she had come to the refectory, she saw Thurion wearing the green tabard of a Postulant, seated among those others who had been Twice-Called. He’d smiled when he’d seen her, and Vieliessar had been surprised at the happiness she felt at the sight of him in Postulant’s garb. It was not that they were friends, since she had kept herself apart during the past year. But in an odd way she could not put a name to, Thurion’s Postulancy was a triumph in which she could share.

This night, for the first time since she’d come to the Sanctuary, she had no true place: not servant, not Candidate, not Postulant. Having been given no other direction, she seated herself once more among the Candidates. At least she was neither the oldest nor the youngest among them: she’d turned thirteen last Rade Moon, and the youngest this year were barely ten; twin girls who had come on the same day Berthon and Athrothir had left. The eldest of the new Candidates was Iardalaith. He was sixteen, and though Vieliessar did not know quite when he’d arrived, she had heard that he had already been in training to become a knight when he was sent here.

What shall become of me now? she thought forlornly. With the departure of the last of the failed Candidates, she was certain that she would at last be sent to the Sanctuary’s servants’ quarters to begin her imprisonment in truth. Weeping over spilled tea does not bring fresh, she thought. It was one of Maeredhiel’s favorite sayings, deployed whenever she thought one of them was spending too much time in self-recrimination and not enough in fixing the problem.

When the meal was over, Vieliessar stood uncertainly beside the table. Those Candidates—this year’s Candidates, she mentally amended—who didn’t have evening tasks were already shuffling out of the refectory, drooping with a weariness she well remembered. She’d nearly made up her mind to return to the Long Chamber—perhaps she was to have it all to herself for the Wheel to come—when Maeredhiel strode over to her.

“If you like the refectory so well you linger here, I’m sure a task may be found for you in the kitchens. If not, then come,” the Mistress of Servants said briskly, before turning away.

Vieliessar followed, confused, as Maeredhiel led her toward the Postulants’ sleeping rooms. Was Maeredhiel taking her back to the Candidates’ dormitory?

But as they passed along the corridor, Maeredhiel stopped and slid a door into the wall, revealing the spare—but private—sleeping cell of a Postulant: bed, chest, standing brazier, and low wooden stool. The shutters across the window were closed and barred, but the room was still chill. The basket of possessions that Vieliessar had carried to the Long Chamber sennights earlier was set upon the bed.

Vieliessar stood in the doorway, not knowing what was expected of her, as Maeredhiel crossed the room to stand in front of the brazier. The Mistress of Servants stared at it fixedly—and suddenly Vieliessar heard the crackle of kindling charcoal and smelled burning.

“You said you were no Mage!” she hissed accusingly.

“I said I had not enough Light in me to become one, but Fire is the first and easiest spell,” Maeredhiel answered calmly. “Come in and close the door. I do not wish to heat the entire Sanctuary, and there is not enough charcoal here to do so, in any event.”

More lost than before, Vieliessar did as she was told.

“You wonder why you have been given the quarters of a Postulant, when you have not been Twice-Called. True enough, you have not. But when Hertherilian was Astromancer here—do not cudgel your brain, girl, that was five hundred years gone, and no one ever remembers the names anyway—it was a thing not unknown for a Candidate to do two and three and four years of service as we awaited their kindling. I cannot bring to mind just now whose demands caused us to shorten the time, but what one House has, all must have; they are like quarreling weanlings with vast armies. It matters not. What matters is that there is precedent for delaying the decision about you. Yet I should prefer you away from the new Candidates, lest you give up all our secrets before they have a chance to discover them.” The faint smile upon Maeredhiel’s lips mocked her own words.

“You mean I…?” Vieliessar wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or horrified. A year ago she’d been certain she did not wish to become Lightborn. Now she realized she wasn’t certain of anything at all.

“Impossible though it seems, you may yet be Called to the Light,” Maeredhiel said dryly. “So you will sleep here rather than among the servants. Fear not that you will have candlemarks of idleness to bore you, for you will work harder now than you have before. There are many tasks of delicacy that we servants do not entrust to the Candidates, for I will tell you this plainly: each one of you made more work than you accomplished.”

“We worked hard!” Vieliessar protested, stung by Maeredhiel’s unfairness. Most of us.

“And so you did, child. But one in a hundred Candidates comes to us with servant’s training. Some are the offspring of craftworkers or Farmholders, but most of you are Landbond, who barely know what it is to live within walls. It takes decade upon decade to train up a skilled servant.”

“The Candidates were older once,” Vieliessar said suddenly. She didn’t know where the thought sprang from, but even the unflappable Maeredhiel looked surprised.

“Indeed they were, though that was much before my time,” Maeredhiel answered grudgingly. “The Archives say that once the Lightborn did not Call the Light, just watched and waited until the Light appeared of its own. But it is of no matter. The world is always changing, and has been since Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor fell.” She stepped away from the brazier and took a step toward the door. “In the morning I shall see to it that you are properly dressed and then we will begin.”

“Wait!” Vieliessar said, for Maeredhiel was obviously about to leave. “You said upon the day I arrived that I was the Child of the Prophecy. What prophecy? Why—”

“Now you see what ignorance pride breeds, for you might have had your answers long ago, had you been willing to listen,” Maeredhiel said. “I am no Lightborn nor patient teacher, so do not seek them from me. I will tell you this: your answers are here, but you will not like them overmuch.”

* * *

The Mistress of Servants had spoken nothing other than the truth when she said Vieliessar would have much to learn, and though Vieliessar tried many times to get Maeredhiel to speak further of the Prophecy, she always received the same answer: if she had been willing to listen, she could have had answers moonturns ago. Before Flower had become Sword, she had stopped asking: Mistress Maeredhiel had spoken no less than the truth that night, for she had much to teach and was determined Vieliessar should learn.

To her surprise, she did not find the servant’s garb she now wore to be a shameful burden, simply because no one seemed to care whether she went garbed in servant’s grey or Lightborn green or Farcarinon vert and argent. The new Postulants—even Thurion—were far too busy to notice her. The Lightborn cared for little and saw less beyond their own work. The new Candidates barely saw anything beyond the ends of their noses, as she knew from experience.

Vieliessar saw more of Maeredhiel’s truth as she came to understand that the tasks the Candidates performed were not even a tenth of the labor needed to keep the Sanctuary running smoothly. Worse, it seemed that each task bred a thousand more, all of which must be performed to exacting standards. Maeredhiel had said it took decades to train up a skilled Sanctuary servant. Vieliessar soon decided the Mistress of Servants had been optimistic: two decades, or six, or a dozen would not be time enough to learn all she must know to be a servant of the Sanctuary of the Star.

In her Service Year, the Candidates’ work was confined to the kitchens, the laundry, the stables, and the guesthouse. Now Vieliessar’s duties lay in all the places she had once been forbidden to enter. She began to learn the mysteries of the work rooms where medicines and spices and perfumes were compounded, to clean the delicate equipment after use, to restore each object to its proper place, to note which supplies were running low and must be restocked. She learned what materials each of the meditation rooms required and how to tell if they were running low. She learned which rooms she might enter when they were vacant, and which she must never enter at all. She learned to assist Hervilafimir Lightsister and Nithrithuin Lightsister in the hospital, to pack a travel-bag that contained all one of the Lightborn might need to set a spell or to increase a spell’s effectiveness. She learned to serve tea with self-effacing silence and the beginnings of effortless grace when the princes and great ladies of the Fortunate Lands came to the Sanctuary on business.

She learned to navigate the maze of secret halls and stairs that were the Sanctuary’s hidden face. By their means, a Sanctuary servant might vanish from sight on the ground floor of one wing and reappear on the top floor of the opposite wing without having been seen anywhere between.

And she learned that no matter what Hamphuliadiel Astromancer might eat in the refectory, in his private rooms he gorged on rich delicacies and often required a cordial afterward in order to settle his stomach.

Nor did her days become her own with the second bell rung at the end of the evening meal, for Maeredhiel ordered that the time between dinner and bed must be spent in the Servants’ Hall. The servants welcomed her as one of their own and Vieliessar discovered, to her surprise, that they were as proud of their service as any Warlord Prince of their domain. At first she sat stiff and silent until Maeredhiel released her to her sleeping chamber, but as spring and summer slipped away, she began to find among the servants the friends she had not made among the Candidates of her Service Year.

It had taken her a long time to learn to sleep comfortably in the small austere room that was now hers—not because it lacked the luxuries she’d once taken for granted, perfumes and soft blankets and softer mattress—but because it was hers alone. In all her life, up until the moment Maeredhiel had walked out of the chamber, Vieliessar had never had a room entirely to herself. She grew to treasure those candlemarks when she didn’t have to be what someone expected to see, and could simply be.

And though it wounded her pride sharply, Vieliessar admitted—if only within her heart—that her plans for revenge were better enacted by a woman than by a child. She would remain here for another year, or two, while Caerthalien forgot the very fact that she had ever existed.

* * *

“—and now it is Frost Moon, and it is one, two, three, four, five, six sennights to the middle of Snow Moon, and there will be dancing, and sweetcakes, and riddles—” Melwen singsonged, moving her round counter along the narshir board. She was one of the youngest of the Sanctuary servants—so Maeredhiel said—but Melwen could not number her years even if asked; she did not seek anything greater of her life than that each year should be like the last.

Vieliessar stifled a sigh. In six sennights it would be Midwinter, and she knew no one at the Sanctuary celebrated the festival days that marked the turns of the Great Wheel. Last year she had been too angry to care, but this year all she could think of was what she would miss. At Caerthalien, Midwinter meant a whole sennight of feasts, each more elaborate than the last, and the Lightborn seeking the Light in those old enough. As was Harvest Court, Midwinter was a sennight in which no feuds could be started or vengeance taken, and everyone in the castel mingled freely, as if they were equals, for it was the custom for the highborn to put off their finery and wear the simple clothes of servants, and for the servants to put off the livery badges which indicated to which household they belonged.

“—and fortunes, and farings, and songs,” Maeredhiel said, finishing the sentence without looking up from the tablet upon which she was figuring accounts, for what was in their stores must last through the winter, and Hamphuliadiel Astromancer must know what tithe-goods to ask of the Hundred Houses in the spring. “But you must remember, Melwen—Vieliessar has not yet been with us for a full turn of the year.”

“You’ve never seen Midwinter, Vielle?” Melwen asked, sounding horrified. “We celebrate it every year, because we give thanks for the Light that kindles and will bring us new Candidates in Storm and Rain and Flower!”

“And we give thanks for the chance to bring something out of the kitchens that is not the everlasting soup and porridge,” Mistress Morgaenel commented dryly. “If I did not get the chance to bake pies and roast venison once a year, I think I would go mad!”

Vieliessar had been surprised to discover that many of the Sanctuary servants were wed. Mistress Morgaenel and Master Duirilthel were responsible for the kitchens, for overseeing the kitchen servants (a domestic meisne second in size only to Mastergardener Pandorgrad’s own, but augmented by many of the Candidates) and for feeding the hundreds of souls who resided at the Sanctuary of the Star. The two of them bickered constantly over which was Master (or Mistress) Cook and which one was Master (or Mistress) of the whole of the Kitchens, and Vieliessar had listened to them for an entire season before realizing the argument had been going on for centuries before her birth and would never be resolved until the two went before Queen Pelashia in the Vale of Celenthodiel to demand a judgment.

It had never occurred to her that Morgaenel Mistress Cook (or Mistress Kitchen, depending on who told the tale) would grow as tired of creating their bland fare as they did of eating it.

“And each Midwinter we pretend we do not see the Postulants sneak away to Rosemoss Farm, though some of them have done it for years,” Hamonglachele added merrily. It was Mistress ’Chele’s business to see that the guesthouse was kept in proper order, and she laughingly decried the shortcomings of all those who occupied it.

“As you know full well, for you encourage them to sneak into my storehouses for sweets and gifts—and allow them to hide them beneath your roof once they have,” Duirilthel pointed out.

“Whose storehouses, dearest heart?” Morgaenel asked with mock sweetness. “I am the Mistress of Kitchens, so they are my stores, I say.”

“And again I am heartbroken to tell you, sweetest love, that skilled as you are in your craft, you are Mistress Cook, merely,” Duirilthel responded.

The familiar bickering began again, and Vieliessar reached for the dice cup and turned back to her game. But now she thought of the coming Midwinter with curiosity and wonder instead of despair.

* * *

Soon enough Pandorgrad covered the spell-lantern, just as he did every night to signal the end of the evening. The Servants’ Hall was lit with Silverlight, but unless one were Lightborn, one could not simply kindle and snuff it at one’s convenience, so rather than living day and night amid the spell’s ghostly blue radiance, it was best to have it in a form one could shroud.

At that wordless signal, Vieliessar got to her feet. The others would seek their beds here in the servants’ quarters, save for Radanding and his two ostlers, who slept at the stables. Only she must traverse the passages and staircases to her Postulant’s cell on the second floor, the thing that marked her as belonging neither to one place or the other.

As she did nearly every night, Maeredhiel accompanied Vieliessar as she left the Servants’ Hall. Vieliessar had long since learned that Maeredhiel slept little, and spent most candlemarks after lantern-darkening checking to see that all in her domain was as she would wish it. Usually they parted at the foot of the first staircase, but tonight, when they reached the antechamber to the Shrine, Maeredhiel stopped.

“A word with you, girl.”

Vieliessar turned back, searching Maeredhiel’s face for some sign of the other’s wishes.

“The Candidates—as you have cause to know—are kept close. But in six sennights, we shall all pretend that those we serve—Postulants and Lightborn both—do not slip away after dark to revel at Rosemoss Farm, just as they have done each Midwinter since the Sanctuary stones were laid. It would be a simple thing for you to join them. I say to you: you are Lady Nataranweiya’s child and War Prince Serenthon’s heir. Do not think it is a thing unknown.”

Maeredhiel spoke of them as if they still lived, as if Farcarinon was more than a name and a wilderness. “I am heir to nothing,” Vieliessar answered, surprised by the grief she felt.

“Think that if you must. Do you think Athrothir and Berthon kept what they knew to themselves? Outside these walls, your life is anyone’s to take.”

“What loss could that be to anyone but me?” Vieliessar demanded.

Maeredhiel smiled tightly. “Why, if Celelioniel did not hold it precious, she would never have saved it. Sleep well, Child of the Prophecy.”

Maeredhiel turned and walked away. Vieliessar could have followed her, clutched at her sleeve, demanded answers. Why do you call me that again and again? What does it mean? What do you mean?

But she knew she would lose her dignity, not her ignorance. Maeredhiel would not give answers unless she chose.

And she does not choose! She merely seeks to torment me with hints and riddles!

* * *

At the Sanctuary, they did not celebrate Midwinter for an entire sennight, but Fourth Night was when the Light was Called, and on that night, there was a feast laid out in the Servants’ Hall of delicacies that never had—and never would—grace the tables in the refectory. Roast pork, venison, and chicken; meat pies of mutton and dove; glazed fruits, spiced fruits, fruit pies and honey-cakes; cordials and a dozen kinds of cider and spiced creamy xocalatl (part of Domain Amrolion’s tribute) hot enough in every sense to scorch the mouth.

Even those who spent little time in the Servants’ Hall in the ordinary way of things were here tonight: all of Pandorgrad Mastergardener’s people, all the kitchen staff, and every one of the ostlers and farriers and horse-tenders who inhabited Radanding Stablemaster’s domain. The tables and chairs had been removed to make room for a long trestle table filled with food and drink and the Servants’ Hall was noisy and crowded, filled with talk and laughter and the honest yellow light of candles and oil lanterns. Vieliessar ate until she was full to bursting, only to discover there was more to come.

A cheer went up as Morgaenel and Duirilthel entered with a tray so large it took both of them to carry it. Upon that tray was something large and round and white.

“The luck! The luck of the year!” Several of those present raised their cups in a toast.

“What is it?” Vieliessar asked in confusion, for the sweet-course had been upon the table for half the night.

“Ah, I had forgotten you would not know the custom,” Maeredhiel said. “It is not kept in the castels, for it would not serve for any but the War Prince to receive the luck.”

“What luck?” Vieliessar demanded, but Maeredhiel was already leading her to where a space had been cleared upon one of the tables for the cake.

“Who is the youngest here?” Duirilthel asked, waving a cutting knife. “Is it Celeth? Lelras? Nidos? No! I think it must be Vielle!” He swept her a flourishing bow and presented her with the knife.

“You must cut the cake now, and be sure everyone gets a piece,” Maeredhiel said. “And save yourself one as well.”

The cake was heavy, filled with fruits and honey and cased in a thick sugar icing, but at last everyone had been served and all that remained upon the tray was crumbs.

“I told you to save yourself some,” Maeredhiel said, holding out a napkin-wrapped piece. Vieliessar could smell the spices as she lifted it to her lips. The morsel was only a bite or two, for the cake, though large, had needed to serve many—and Vielle popped it into her mouth unthinkingly. A moment later her teeth closed upon something hard. She made a noise of dismay and spat whatever it was into her hand.

On her palm rested a tiny silver disk with a rearing Unicorn stamped upon it.

“I told you the one who received the silver luck-charm in their portion would gain fortune in the coming year,” Maeredhiel said. “And see? It is you.”

Much fortune Farcarinon has gotten from the Unicorn thus far, Vieliessar thought sourly. For it was the Unicorn Throne that destroyed us.

But it was a pretty thing nonetheless, so she tucked it into the pocket of her skirt. Perhaps later she could find a way to braid it into her hair.

The rich food made her sleepy, and it was not very long before she took her leave, for tomorrow would again be a day of labor. But despite everything, the secret Festival seemed to promise that her strange new life need not be one of everlasting penance. As she walked to her sleeping chamber, she wondered how many of the doors around her concealed empty beds whose inhabitants kept revel at Rosemoss Farm.

Less than a mile from where I stand, and it might be at the far side of the Arzhana … But tonight, even thoughts of her demi-imprisonment failed to dampen her optimistic mood.

She opened the door to her sleeping chamber. It was winter-cold, especially in contrast to the warm hall she’d just left, and she shivered as she crossed to the brazier. She kept a small bowl of embers on her windowsill, for true fire was something not much used in the Sanctuary and she had little patience with flint and steel. But tonight, the embers husbanded from the previous night’s coals had gone out.

The brazier full of unkindled charcoals seemed to mock her, and she unconsciously stretched her fingers out toward it in the gesture she had seen so many times from one of the Lightborn. Fire, Maeredhiel had often said, was the first and simplest spell …

What am I doing? Vieliessar withdrew her hand as quickly as if she’d been burned and turned to collect flint and steel. After a frustrating series of attempts, she managed to strike sparks to the bed of tinder beneath the coals, and the flames licked upward. Once warmth began to radiate through the room, she changed for bed.

As she sat brushing out and rebraiding her hair, she realized that it was nearly two years since she had come to the Sanctuary of the Star. She could no longer remember the last time she had seriously plotted to escape. She had learned more than she’d thought in her time here, and everything she learned told her that escape, while not impossible, was futile. Caerthalien warred with Aramethali, Aramethali with Cirandeiron, Cirandeiron with Telthorelandor … and all with Farcarinon. Fall into the hands of any of the Hundred Houses and she would become a pawn-prisoner at best, a corpse at worst.

It was a bitter knowing. She had not yet given up hope of revenge upon Caerthalien, but the day she might achieve it was farther away than ever.

* * *

Snow Moon gave way to Cold Moon and the Sanctuary returned to its normal rhythm. Cold became Ice, and everyone—even the Postulants—became unsettled with the anticipation of Rain Moon. The Candidates because the end of their Service Year would bring with it the knowledge of who was to stay and who was to go. The Postulants, for much the same reason, for soon those who were to leave the Sanctuary this year would be sent to keep Vigil in the Shrine. It was the time of year, Melwen said, when common sense was as rare as Unicorns, and anything might happen.

Soon enough, Vieliessar discovered Melwen had spoken no more than the truth, for she spent an entire morning cleaning up a disaster in one of the stillrooms. She had not been told what had happened, but every jar and beaker had shattered, and the resulting slurry of salts and oils and herbs stank vilely. She brought sand to soak up the mess on the floor, and swept it up. She was careful not to let any of it touch her, but by the time Godrahir Lightsister, Mistress Stillroom, came by to check on her progress, the stench had given Vieliessar such a headache that the Lightsister took one look at her and told her to stop working and go into the garden for air. She went without thinking, even though she had not set foot outside the Sanctuary itself in nearly two full turns of the Wheel.

The gate to the Sanctuary garden was a homely wooden thing. Beside its door, a peg-board held cloaks that any might use—for none of those living here owned such an item. A tray below was piled with wooden clogs, to be placed over the Sanctuary’s usual footgear: heavy wool socks soled with leather. Vieliessar took a cloak, slipped on a pair of clogs, and opened the door. As soon as she stepped away from the shelter of the wall, the wind began pulling at the cloak, forcing her to hold on to it. The air held the raw smells of earth and stone and Vieliessar shivered with the cold, though the sharp clear air eased her sick headache.

It was strange to be in the open air after so long a time indoors. She walked the path into the garden as cautiously as if she crossed a bridge made of swordblades. Maeredhiel had been careful to explain that the gardens were not truly protected by the Peace of the Sanctuary, and so if someone wished to ride all the way to the Sanctuary of the Star to slay the last of Farcarinon, they might do so in the garden without incurring more than the annoyance of the Lightborn. Vieliessar thought it unlikely that the Night Brotherhood—if that secret guild of assassins were anything more than a nursery tale used to frighten willful children—would seek her out, and if trouble came, she was no more than a few hundred steps from one of the many doors leading to refuge.

Once I dreamed of becoming a great warrior and riding all across the land with sword and bow. I promised myself Flower Forests to explore, stags to course, great hawks to fly at my leisure. Now my world is no wider than these garden walls.

The garden itself covered five hectares of land and was surrounded by a low stone wall. Within it stood trees usually found only in a Flower Forest, husbanded here by Magery: the namarii that gave its wood to Sanctuary spells, the uluskukad whose ghostly radiance lit the gardens at night, and in the center of the garden, an ancient Vilya, in full flower despite the season. The Vilya’s fruiting governed the reigns of the Astromancers, for the ever-flowering Vilya fruited only once a century, and across the land, foresters kept watch over the Vilya in their care and vyed to be first to bring word of its fruiting to their lord

At the center of the garden Vieliessar stopped and turned in a slow circle, filling her eyes with all she saw. Beyond the wall lay the fields of Rosemoss Farm. In a fortnight or so, spring plowing would begin there, but for now, all there was to see was the greyed stubble of last year’s harvesting. Beyond the fields stood Arevethmonion Flower Forest. All the way to the edge of the Flower Forest everything was grey and dun-gold. Only the forest itself was green, as Flower Forests always were.

To the left of the Sanctuary’s main gate was the guesthouse and stables. They might as well be in the Vale of Celenthodiel for all that Vieliessar would ever go there. The low stone wall was the boundary of her world. And so it would be until the end of her days, unless she fled into a life where death was her constant companion.

A year ago she’d raged against her confinement. This year she’d thought herself growing content with something that would—somehow, someday—end. Now she knew that contentment for a false calm—for to be locked away galled her spirit as much as if she wore a red-hot crown of barbed iron. The Silver Hooves punished cowardice. Queen Pelashia turned her face from those forsworn. Vieliessar had sworn to avenge Farcarinon, and she could not yet say if she was a coward or an oathbreaker, but she feared she was. How could she do what she had sworn? And how could she face the long centuries ahead of her if she let the name of Farcarinon vanish into the shadows?

“I thought I’d be the only one out here on a day like this.”

She repressed a cry of alarm at the sound of the voice behind her, for she knew it. She turned as Thurion emerged from the stand of namarii. Like her, he wore a borrowed cloak and clogs. His hair—uncut for two turnings of the Wheel—curled against his neck and around his ears. It would not be cut again until he dared the Shrine.

“Godrahir Lightsister sent me to walk in the garden,” she said briefly.

“Then I shall be glad of the company,” Thurion said easily, coming toward her. “Rondithiel Lightbrother told me he could as easily teach a pig the mysteries of the Light as me, and sent me to take exercise.

“You are solemn,” Thurion added, as if he heard what she did not say.

“For what cause should I be joyful?” Vieliessar snapped, anger suddenly winning out over prudence. “I whose birth holds me prisoner within these walls!”

Thurion gazed at her as if he was seeing her for the first time, and she wished she could call back her rash words. “Do you find it such a hardship?” he asked softly.

“You will leave here someday and go back to your home,” she said. “I—”

To her surprise, Thurion laughed bitterly. “My home! Do you not know what I am?”

“A Postulant,” she answered, puzzled. “Someday to be Lightborn.”

“I am Landbond, son of Landbonds,” he said. “When I return to Caerthalien, I will not go home. It is not the will of Bolecthindial Caerthalien that the Light should shine upon the Landbond. I will go wherever he says I must go, to serve who he says I must serve. Rondithiel Lightbrother tells me my person is sovereign and my life is my own. And he lies. The family I dare not claim and may never again see is held hostage for my obedience.”

“I … I had not thought,” she said slowly. She knew there was always resentment of the Landbonds among the Candidates, for they must be taught to read and write when they came to the Sanctuary, and so their service was less than that of those who already possessed those skills.

“Prisoner, hostage, I care not if you are Farcarinon, or Caerthalien, or the Child of the Prophecy. My family does not even own the roof above our heads. A third of what we harvest each year goes to pay Menenel Farmholder for our shelter and our seed grain. All we have ever asked is that the great lords do not ride across our fields and spoil our work—and if they do, or even fight across them, there is nothing we can say without punishment. Do you think the quarrels of the Hundred Houses matter to me? How has your life been harder than mine?” Thurion demanded.

Vieliessar gazed at Thurion as if he was something she had never seen before. Landbonds served the Farmfolk and the Farmfolk served the Lords Komen: all knew that. She’d known Thurion was Landbond, but she had never thought about what that meant.

“Don’t you wish to be Lightborn?” she asked at last. Thurion smiled.

“I could never be happy as anything else,” he answered with quiet sincerity. “It is … It is as if I had lived all my life in a small dark room, hearing voices beyond the locked door. And then one day the door was opened, and I walked out into … this,” he said, gesturing at the garden around them. “You must think I am very foolish,” he finished, smiling gently.

“No,” she answered. “You talk about things I don’t understand, but that’s different. Last year—when the Postulants would talk to us about the Light, do you remember?—none of us could understand what they wished to tell us of. And now you can.”

Thurion smiled at her again and this time his smile was radiant. She realized, with an unsettled pang of discovery, that Thurion saw … Not Varuthir, whose name and existence had been a lie. Not Farcarinon’s powerless heir, despised for merely existing. But Vieliessar. Just … Vieliessar.

“I cannot change your birth, or mine,” he said quietly. “Nor can I set aside the fate placed upon you when you first drew breath. But you are wrong if you think this—” He swept a hand outward, indicating the garden, and the wind blew his cloak back off his shoulders with a snap. “—is the only world. Come with me, Vielle, and I’ll show you.”

It was the first time he’d called her by the eke-name that Melwen and the other Sanctuary servants sometimes used. It was the way a given name might be shortened by a lover, a child, a parent. Would Nataranweiya have used it, if she and Serenthon had lived and Farcarinon yet stood? Even to wonder was a painful thing.

“Come,” Thurion said again. “I will show you a world wider than all the Fortunate Lands.”

She followed him back inside the Sanctuary, grateful to pass out of the chill. Thurion led her to a passageway as narrow as any of the hidden ways within the walls, and suddenly Vieliessar could hear Maeredhiel’s voice, clear in the ears of memory: “This side passage leads down to the stairs to the Library. Perhaps someday you will see what lies within it.”

The staircase was as narrow as the passage, and it went down a long way—two floors, or perhaps three. Niches in the stone walls held lanterns that glowed with Silverlight.

“Anyone—anyone who is not in their Service Year—may come here,” Thurion said. He paused, as if he were listening to his words. “I mean … anyone of the Sanctuary. Even the servants. Lightborn from Graythunder Glairyrill to Great Ocean return here to study.”

Vieliessar let his remark pass without comment. She knew Thurion hadn’t meant to remind her that she was nothing more than one of the Sanctuary servants. To be a servant at the Sanctuary of the Star was to be placed above warlords and princes—so Morgaenel Mistress Kitchen-Cook always said.

At the bottom of the staircase was a latticework door, gleaming golden in the dimness. It was ornate enough, Vieliessar decided, but hardly very grand. In Bolecthindial’s castel the outer doors to the Great Hall were as high as three tall men, their opening wide enough that three komen in full war panoply could ride through them side by side. The images on their Mage-forged door panels told the story of Caerthalien’s great triumphs, and though they were cast of solid bronze, they were so perfectly balanced that the youngest servant could open and close them with a touch. This was merely an ancient door of cracked, painted wood, no larger than the door to her sleeping cell.

“This is the Library of Arevethmonion,” Thurion said. His voice was hushed, but his tone was as proud as if he were its master and ruler.

“It is named for the Flower Forest?” Vieliessar asked.

“Or she is named for this,” Thurion said, and tugged open the door to the Library.

When Vieliessar followed Thurion through the doorway, her nose was suddenly filled with the sweet scents of vellum and leather. Silverlight filled the chamber with a moon-pale radiance brighter than any full moon. The door was small, but the space beyond was as high as the stair had been long, and larger from back to front and side to side than Bolecthindial’s Great Hall—larger, perhaps, than the Sanctuary itself. Every wall she could see was filled with square storage niches, and each niche was filled with scrolls. A gallery halfway up the wall seemed to go all the way around the room, to give access to the niches higher on the walls.

Nor was this place unoccupied.

I had wondered where the Lightborn and the Postulants vanished to all the day, and now I know.…

The center of the chamber was filled with long tables—and because she had spent candlemark upon candlemark tending to the Sanctuary’s furnishings, she wondered who cared for all of this, for no one in the Servants’ Hall had mentioned the library as part of their duties. Several of the tables were covered with stacked scrolls, opened scrolls, and even maps, over which green-robed Lightborn and grey-robed Postulants bent in study.

“I … didn’t know…” she whispered.

“This is only the main room,” Thurion said, turning back and coming to her side. “The others—”

“So many scrolls,” Vieliessar interrupted. “It would be a life’s work to read them all!”

“Praise to Sword and to Star we Postulants do not have to,” Thurion answered, his voice low and amused. “It is a great enough task merely to learn the catalogue which tells us where they are.”

He stepped away from the doorway again, and this time Vieliessar followed him.

* * *

“Any text brought to the Sanctuary and deemed by Cirthoriach Lightsister to be of worth or interest is shelved here. There are poems, storysongs, travelers’ accounts … even histories that the Hundred Houses would not wish preserved, for the tales they hold are not, I am told, the tales sung at feast days,” Thurion said dryly, as the two of them walked along the right-hand wall.

Vieliessar’s eyes were stretched wide at all she saw—and even more at what she imagined. A hundred of these scroll niches would have held every scroll in Caerthalien’s library. And there were hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds more. All filled.

“There is a workroom beyond this to repair damaged scrolls,” Thurion said. “The spell of Keeping ensures nothing decays or fades, but it won’t prevent damage, or staining—or keep the Lightborn from making notes on the edges of the text,” Thurion said, the laughter in his eyes inviting Vieliessar to share the joke. “There is a chamber beyond the workroom which holds texts on spellcraft, locked away lest we be tempted to take a short road to our understanding of the Light. It would not work, in any case—and would certainly do great harm.”

“I don’t understand,” Vieliessar said. “If they are but scrolls … How can one be hurt reading a scroll?”

Thurion came to a stop, frowning with the effort of trying to explain. “It is … as if you or I were given all the articles of knighthood—sword and spear, armor and shield, spurs and destrier—and sent into battle against one who had earned them all through years of honest training. We would die.”

“I would not go into battle unless I were sure I could win,” Vieliessar said firmly.

“But you would think you could,” Thurion said. “Because of the—”

“I would not,” she retorted. “You make it sound as if the Postulants are fools. If a thing is a task beyond one’s strength, one should not attempt it.”

Thurion made a helpless gesture. “To…” He shook his head. “It is a temptation.”

“Those who are so easily tempted are better off without Magery,” Vieliessar said decisively. “But—are you not here to learn spells?” she added.

“There are no spells when one becomes one with the Light,” Thurion said.

Vieliessar nearly stamped her foot in exasperation. Not a handful of moments before, Thurion had spoke of a spell set to preserve the scrolls. “There are either spells or there are not,” she said tartly. “You said—”

“There are. There aren’t. It’s … one must learn to listen first.”

“To what?” Vieliessar demanded, and Thurion simply looked frustrated.

“To the world,” he said.

His words made no sense, though she’d become used to the idea that nothing the Postulants said when they talked about the Light ever did. “How long does it take to learn this … listening?” she asked instead.

“All your life,” Thurion answered. His face softened, and it was as if he gazed upon something beautiful she knew she would never see.

She did not know how long they spent wandering through this other Arevethmonion, as Thurion showed her its treasures with the joy and pride of a War Prince showing his Great Keep to his bride. He plucked scrolls from their niches, saying she must read this one or that. For the first time since she had come to the Sanctuary, her duties and obligations—even the injuries done to her Line—were forgotten. There was a set of scrolls containing a history of the Hundred Houses, one which was a copy of only the major songs of The Song of Amrethion, a scroll on games (xaique and gan and narshir), and the three scrolls of Halbaureth’s Journey, which Thurion said was about Halbaureth of Alilianne—as House Ullilion was once called—who had traveled farther east from the shores of Great Ocean than anyone had ventured since, crossing Graythunder Glairyrill itself. “If you never leave these walls, still, you will travel farther in Halbaureth’s company than anyone of the Hundred Houses can ever boast of,” Thurion said.

She was only recalled to herself when her arms were so filled with leather-cased scrolls that she had to devote most of her attention to keeping them from spilling out of her grasp and onto the floor. When shall I have time to read all these? she thought in bemusement.

* * *

That evening Vieliessar went to her chamber immediately after evening meal and read long into the night. She’d chosen the History of the Hundred Houses, and knew already it would be more than the work of a sennight or even a moonturn to understand it all. It was true that each history was simple enough: founding and lands and alliances made, the names of the heads of the Line Direct, summaries of battles fought and children born. But each account contradicted the next, and the one she knew best—the History of Caerthalien—held both more and less than she’d expected it to. It was only the knowledge that morning would come and be filled with tasks that caused her to hood her spell-lantern and prepare herself reluctantly for sleep.

But sleep was long in coming. It is like a child’s wooden puzzle, she thought. Only with tales of past times. Which is true? Any of them? She wondered if there was enough time in all the world to list the contradictions between the stories and to seek a pattern.

In the middle of the night she awoke sharply, as if summoned to battle. Words she had set aside in her shock at Thurion’s anger—then forgot entirely at the wonders he showed her—echoed through her mind.

“Prisoner, hostage, I care not if you are Farcarinon, or Caerthalien, or the Child of the Prophecy.”

Thurion had the answers Maeredhiel had said were here.



When stars and clouds together point the way

And of a hundred deer one doe can no longer counted be

When peace is bought with maiden mother’s blood

And those so long denied assert their ancient claim

When scholar turns to sword, and warrior to peace

And two ford rivers swelled with mortal gore

When two are one, then one may speak for all

And in that candlemark claim what never has been lost.

—The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel

Vieliessar had avoided the Common Room in her Service Year out of anger and false pride, and in the year that followed both out of uncertainty as to her place and by Maeredhiel’s design. Tonight she dared it, for there was no other way to find Thurion to question him.

She hesitated long in the refectory after the evening meal was done, for to enter the Common Room, filled as it would be by Postulants and Candidates, would be to expose herself to … what?

She wasn’t sure. She was half a servant and half a Candidate, and the War Prince of no House, and that was a thing that unsettled her thoughts every time she considered it, for in all the Fortunate Lands, to be born was to know one’s entire future. Only the Light could change that, though not entirely. For all their power, the Green Robes still served.

But whatever you are, you are no coward, she told herself fiercely. Ignoring the questioning looks of the Candidates clearing the tables, she shook out her skirts and walked to the Common Room.

Hearing laughter and talk as she approached the doorway, she nearly turned aside to seek the silence and solitude of her rooms. But then she heard Thurion’s voice, and pride and stubbornness drove her across the threshold. She spied Thurion at a table with many whom she recognized: some of them had shared her Service Year, but most had not.

Namritila and Borinuel were of her Service Year; Borinuel had come from Calwas with Anginach and both had become Postulants. Borinuel had once said Anginach’s strategy for success was to make sure everyone else failed; all Vieliessar knew of Anginach was that he’d spent his Service Year seeing how much he could shirk his duties before he drew Maeredhiel’s wrath. Mathingaland had been a Candidate in the year before hers; he liked to talk a great deal, making long speeches as if he instructed children, but his careful marshaling of facts and details others skipped over enabled Vieliessar to follow the conversation, no matter the topic. Arahir came from so far to the east that her House spent its time battling the Beastlings instead of the rest of the Hundred Houses. She wore a gryphon feather around her neck, for she had killed one years before she had come to the Sanctuary, and had been allowed to keep that trophy despite jewels and ornaments being banished. Brithuniel fretted constantly about the coming day when she must cut her long braids to take the Green Robe. Monrhedel was one of the few whose House she knew—he was more interested in history than in magic, but returning to Jirvaleg as one of the Lightborn would allow him to ask War Prince Edheluin to free his parents from their forced oaths of fealty so they could return to House Onegring’s lands and the children they had left behind there.

“Vielle!” Thurion’s face and voice held nothing but honest pleasure in seeing her. “Come! Sit! We are arguing—as usual—but it is no great matter.”

Hesitantly she crossed the room and took the seat she provided for her.

“Oh, who counts deer anyway?” Namritila said crossly, clearly continuing the previous conversation.

“Amrethion Aradruiniel, clearly,” Borinuel answered. “Or he wishes us to.”

“That is a thing not yet established,” Mathingaland said, clearly as unwilling as the others to set aside the argument. “‘When stars and clouds together point the way, And of a hundred deer one doe can no longer counted be’—”

“Clear as a murky river,” Arahir interrupted in disgust. She seemed to notice Vieliessar for the first time. “But this must bore you,” she said.

“Perhaps it would—had I the least notion of what you were discussing,” Vieliessar said dryly.

She would not ask Thurion about the Child of the Prophecy in front of the others, and to take him aside would only draw more attention to her presence. But as it developed, she had no need to.

“You are fortunate not to be a Postulant,” Thurion said, a faint note of self-mockery in his protest. “They keep us reading from morning to night, and we must memorize it all. It is from The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel. You must know it.”

She nodded slowly. Parts of it had been performed at the great feasts held in Caerthalien. “It’s long,” she said.

“Longer than you know,” Thurion said ruefully. “Some say Amrethion Aradruiniel wrote the Song himself, having foreknowledge of his doom, others say it was written by members of his court in the first days of their exile. Still others say it’s not one Song, but many, all stitched together into an uneasy patchwork. Everyone knows The Song of Amrethion’s Rade and The Song of Pelashia’s Gift, but there are scrolls and scrolls of it here, and the last part, after The Song of the Doom of Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor, is just a long jumble of meaningless poetry. It’s supposed to be a prophecy that someday there will be a new High King upon the Unicorn Throne, and there’s a Child of the Prophecy whose birth will herald the fall of the High Houses.”

So Maeredhiel named me. Vieliessar was torn between relief and disappointment: naming her “Child of the Prophecy” seemed to be nothing more than an obscure joke of Maeredhiel’s, especially if the Child of the Prophecy was supposed to destroy all the High Houses. (Her own ambition was no more grand than the slaughter of all the Caerthalien Line Direct.) But surely Celelioniel Astromancer had believed it. She had set Peacebond upon Vieliessar at the moment of her birth because of that belief. But Vieliessar had been at the Sanctuary long enough to hear somewhat of its previous Astromancer. Celelioniel had drifted into madness in the last decades of her reign.

“It seems unlikely,” she said.

“I know,” Thurion said quietly. “Most of my teachers think the last part of Amrethion’s Song is nonsense, or some code we have lost the key to. But we have to memorize it anyway. I never thought I would be tired of scrolls and of reading—but that was before I spent so many candlemarks in the Library.”

“But come! Share our pain,” Namritila said. “You are High House raised, you will have heard parts of The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel all your life! Yet what are we to make of—oh, go on, Thurion, your voice is better than mine. Give her the verse about the Throne!”

Thurion smiled and nodded. “Here’s one I warrant you haven’t heard, Vielle:

“For twice upon five hundred lives, the Throne of Shame shall sleep unknown

And Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor a haunt of shadows lie

The Happy Lands shall ring to blood and battle through the wheel of years

While all who husband hidden secrets die…”

“But Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor is a nursery song!” Vieliessar said in protest. “You know it, I’m sure: ‘The city of Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor was as bright as jewels. White were its walls and sun-gold-gleaming were its roofs, and its ruler was Amrethion Aradruiniel, and his meisne was a hundred knights. The first was Prince Cirandeiron, who rode a white horse and had armor of gleaming silver. His destrier’s armor was silver, too, and there were diamonds set in his shoes. The second was Queen Telthorelandor, who rode a golden horse and had armor of brightest gold. Her destrier’s armor was golden, too, and he was shod in cairngorms and purest gold. The third’—”

“Yes, yes, yes—it goes on forever!” Arahir protested laughingly. “A hundred knights for the Hundred Houses, each more beautiful than the last. I wish we studied that instead of Amrethion’s Song—I’m sure it makes as much sense!”

* * *

But alone in her rooms at the end of the evening, Vieliessar was unable to dismiss the hradan Maeredhiel had laid upon her so easily. There must be more to her words—to Celelioniel’s belief—than an esoteric joke, and Vieliessar became determined to discover what it was. But it was far more difficult than she hoped. To find a copy of the text was easy enough. But The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel filled twenty close-written scrolls, and there were tenfold more written about it. After that night, the nine of them would often gather in the Common Room at the end of the day. Vieliessar had been doubtful of her welcome at first—she was no Postulant, to understand their talk of magic—but Thurion’s friends seemed as interested in her tales of keeping the stillroom ready for use as she was in their tales of using it, and she was never made to feel less than they by the things they found to talk of.

Not all the Postulants were so welcoming. Many, seeing her in the Common Room in the grey tunic and skirts of a servant, spoke ostentatiously of their studies in magic. Vieliessar quickly realized Thurion’s circle was made up of those who did not care.

“‘Stars and clouds point the way…’” Thurion mused one evening, turning his teacup around between his palms and frowning down at it as if the fragrant amber liquid were a scrying pool. “I am not sure what that phrase can mean. That the stars show the time, and the season, and even hold Foretellings for those skilled to read them is something everyone knows. And of course omens may be taken from the sky and the weather—providing the weather has not been caused by a Mage bringing rain or warmth out of season!” he added, smiling.

“I still say it is a copyist’s error, and that it should read: ‘when stars or clouds point the way,’” Mathingaland said determinedly.

“But then they wouldn’t be pointing together,” Thurion argued. “And without those syllables, the stanza doesn’t scan,” he added.

“It’s madness to look for sense in Amrethion’s Curse,” Namritila said. “I do not think it is a part of the Song in the first place. It must be a satire, like Manurion’s Ride, or, or, or The Wedding of Inglodoth!” she finished triumphantly.

“If it were a satire, ’Tila, we would surely know that much, even if we had lost the meaning. It takes the same form as all the prophecies set into The Book of Celenthodiel. It just doesn’t make any sense! Consider: ‘When scholar turns to sword, and warrior to peace,’” Arahir said. “Everyone knows that komentai become scholars, not the other way around. And does a warrior turning to peace speak of the komentai’a or of something else? Even scholars will fight when they or their House are in danger, anyway, so how can one say they ever turn to peace?”

“Of course, the opening section should be: ‘When scholar turns from sword, and warrior to peace,’” Mathingaland announced firmly. “The rest of the line is a riddle for philosophers, not for Mages. If any of us could answer those questions, then we could solve Aradruiniel’s Prophecy, lift the Curse, and restore the Unicorn Throne.”

Arguing about the meaning of songs or poems was a time-honored way to pass an evening, and the young Postulants were entirely willing to make The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel their text, even without the excuse of explaining it to Vieliessar. Unfortunately, none of their arguments had yet produced any answers. They had argued the opening lines since Midwinter, and would probably still be arguing them come Midsummer.

* * *

But soon it was Storm Moon, and Vieliessar was no longer able to spend pleasant evenings with Thurion’s friends, for this was the servants’ busiest time. The Sanctuary did not run on the same calendar as a Great Keep did: there, the inventories of blankets and linens were taken twice a year, when winter things were changed for summer. Here, the inventory was done once a year, just before the Candidate Caravans arrived. And so she set the matter of Amrethion’s Song aside, for she doubted Thurion and his friends could spin truth from riddles where generations before them had not. To them it was a pleasant pastime, a game of scholarship. And almost—almost!—she agreed, and yet …

Celelioniel had believed—so deeply she had set her will against the War Princes of the Hundred Houses to preserve Vieliessar’s life.

And Vieliessar did not know why.


* * *

The first Candidates did not arrive until Flower, then made up for their delay with a vengeance. This meant long days for everyone—and overcrowding, chaos, and tents pitched across the fields of Rosemoss Farm as if the Sanctuary were under siege. It would have been child’s play for Vieliessar to vanish into the crowds of people coming and going, and for the first time in many moonturns she revisited her dreams of escape. But she had been fourteen last Rade: old enough to know no Free Company would follow one still a child. In Arevethmonion she had seen texts on battle, on strategy, on arms. She could not train herself in the skills of a knight, but she could learn about them against the day she could order knights against Caerthalien.

I shall go next spring. Next spring.

She did not have many free moments to consider her plight, for in addition to an influx of new Candidates, this was the season when those princes from beyond the Mystrals made their luck-sacrifices to petition for good fortune in the coming War Season. Only the High Houses in the West might dally and make their visitations in Sword itself—and so from Storm to Sword, the stones of the Shrine ran red with blood.

For those sennights, Vieliessar’s dreams were so unsettled that it was as if she did not sleep at all. So whether she tossed and turned, or simply read the candlemarks of night away from her store of Arevethmonion’s scrolls, the result was the same.

And her work suffered for it.

* * *

“I said namanar incense, not berroles!” Priagor Lightsister snapped. With a furious gesture, she struck the shin’zuruf box from Vieliessar’s hands. The translucent bone-clay—more delicate and beautiful than the finest glass—shattered into a thousand shards as it struck the floor, and the meditation chamber was filled with the musky scent of powdered berroles resin.

“I am sorry, Lightsister, I thought—”

“Witless drudge!” Priagor snapped. “Do not think! Bring namanar to Kalyes-chamber at once!” With an angry toss of her head, the Lightsister swept from the room.

She asked for berroles, not namanar, Vieliessar thought mutinously. Berroles was the usual incense for meditation: namanar was powerful, its fumes bringing visions of distant times and places. Or did I just assume? she wondered, as she hurried in the direction of Maeredhiel’s workroom, for the namanar was kept under lock and key. It hardly mattered. The truth was what a Lightborn said it was.

Here in the Sanctuary only, she consoled herself. In the Great Hall, truth is beneath the tongues of the princes.

“I must have namanar incense,” Vieliessar said, breathless with haste. “Priagor Lightsister commands.”

The wall behind Maeredhiel’s worktable contained hundreds of keys hanging on hooks: some, long untouched and black with age, hanging near the ceiling; others, bright with frequent handling, within easier reach. Vieliessar had never seen a key before she had come to the Sanctuary—in Caerthalien’s Great Keep, doors were barred, or spell-sealed by Mages—but (as Maeredhiel had noted tartly) one could neither expect the many poisons used in the stillroom to lock themselves in, nor would the Lightborn wish to be dragged from their studies a hundred times a day to lock or unlock a door or cabinet.

“T’t,” Maeredhiel said. “That one holds herself as if Ullilion were one of the High Houses, instead of Cirandeiron’s hound. Where is the box—or am I simply to give her the whole jar?”

“I—” Vieliessar said, and stopped, overcome by humiliation. She should have gone first to the store room to get an incense-box before coming to collect the namanar.

“You are not usually so careless,” Maeredhiel observed. “Must I send you to Mistress Healer?”

Vieliessar shook her head, unwilling to admit to sennights of wakefulness and broken sleep.

“T’t,” Maeredhiel said again, and took a small silver incense box from a drawer before reaching unerringly to the wall behind her to pluck down a silver key. Only Maeredhiel knew what key fit which lock—if she went to walk in Celenthodiel tomorrow, someone would need to spend days casting Knowing to recover her lost knowledge. She got to her feet and opened a cabinet that contained rows of featureless stone jars. Grunting a little with the effort, she carried one to her worktable and removed the lid. The acrid scent of powdered namanar-wood filled the room, and despite herself, Vieliessar wrinkled her nose. With a swift efficient gesture, Maeredhiel dipped the silver box into the jar, tapped it once against the lip to shake free the excess, then closed the box and set it on the table.

As she was about to hand it to Vieliessar, she stopped. “You have been asking the Postulants to unriddle the Prophecy for you,” she said. Vieliessar couldn’t tell from her tone whether it was an accusation or not. “Come back when you have finished doing Ullilion’s bidding,” she said, and Vieliessar nodded.

* * *

Vieliessar hurried back the way she’d come. There was nothing—not even a painted symbol—to distinguish Kalyes-chamber from Lovine-chamber, but learning the name of every room within the Sanctuary of the Star had been a task of her Service Year. She tapped lightly, then opened the door. Priagor Lightsister was already seated upon one of the floor cushions, and Vieliessar could see the heat-shimmer from the coals in the firebowl upon the low table before her. She regarded Vieliessar with narrow-eyed irritation as she set the silver box on the table.

“And see you clean up the mess you made,” Priagor said.

Vieliessar said nothing. The Sanctuary’s servants were supposed to be invisible, merely an extension of the will of the Lightborn. Priagor Lightsister turned away, and Vieliessar slipped noiselessly from the room. She allowed herself a moment of wry amusement as she sought the service cupboard where the cleaning supplies were kept. At least she had been raised in a Great Keep and seen many Lightborn before her Service Year: the Landbonds knew of the Lightborn mainly from storysongs, and were shocked to find they could be petty, or cruel, or greedy, or unreasonable. But in many ways, the Lightborn were no different than anyone else.

She quickly repaired the damage in Lovine-chamber, sweeping up the broken box and the spilled incense, then carefully wiping the floor with a wet cloth to make sure she’d removed every crumb and shard. She left the door open when she exited, to signify the chamber was not ready for use, and hurried back to Maeredhiel’s workroom.

Maeredhediel was just closing the locked case again when Vieliessar entered the workroom. She opened her mouth to speak but Maeredhiel held up a hand for silence. Vieliessar waited, caught between impatience and apprehension, as Maeredhiel organized the scrolls on her worktable to her satisfaction. Then she looked up and said, “It is not a good thing for you to link yourself in the mind of any with Amrethion’s Prophecy, lest you remind some of that which has never been well hidden.”

“Surely what Celelioniel Astromancer did is no secret?” Vieliessar demanded.

“Perhaps not. Perhaps her madness excuses all, and the Hundred account the Peacebond as an ailing woman’s fancy. Yet I do not think she was mad. And I knew her better than some.”

“But—” Vieliessar stopped, and chose her next words with care. “It is said no one can unriddle Amrethion’s Prophecy. Yet Celelioniel believed it was I whom Amrethion named.”

“You have been somewhat in the company of the Postulants, and seen that learning becomes, for many among the Lightborn, as the Way of the Sword to the komentai’a.

Vieliessar nodded slowly.

“Celelioniel wished to know of the beginning of things, and sought her answers in the most ancient songs. Though her House is in the Grand Windsward, and the journey to the Shrine of the Star a thing not quickly compassed, she came many times to consult this scroll or that. It was small wonder that when the Vilya fruited at last, and her peers said she should rule the Sanctuary, she was filled with joy, for it meant a century of study, far from the demands of Moruilaith Enerchelimier.”

Maeredhiel paused, looking as if she was not certain she wished to say what she meant to say next.

“In the first year of Celelioniel’s reign, Serenthon Farcarinon came to the Shrine. Woods Moon was late in the year for such a journey, but he was new-Bonded, and any alfaljodthi might seek a Foretelling then. I know not what happened within the Shrine, but after he went away again, Celelioniel’s interest fixed upon The Song of Amrethion, and that interest soon became obsession. I think she may even have petitioned the Silver Hooves for understanding of it, but for many turns of the Wheel only those much in her company knew of her studies, and who is that save the servants of the Sanctuary? But a score of years gone, she began to speak of Amrethion’s Curse as if it were something of which she had full knowing, and of the Child of the Prophecy as a hradan to come in her lifetime.”

Vieliessar stood transfixed, hardly daring to breathe, for Maeredhiel had never spoken so openly.

“From the moment Farcarinon’s allies turned upon Lord Serenthon, Celelioniel was like a soul demented. She swore that Serenthon’s allies meant to make Farcarinon the ‘doe’ of Amrethion’s Prophecy—and when Nataranweiya came to us that night, she would have done anything to avert your birth.”

“And yet I live,” Vieliessar said, when Maeredhiel fell silent.

“I know not why,” Maeredhiel said bluntly. “Perhaps she feared to go against the will of Amrethion Aradruiniel. Perhaps she thought to keep you safe beneath her hand, and avert the evil day.”

“Perhaps she realized she had been wrong all along,” Vieliessar said boldly.

“Perhaps,” Maeredhiel said heavily. “I know not. But I know this: Amrethion named the Child of the Prophecy the Doom of the Hundred Houses. It would be an ill thing for the War Princes to see you as that doom.”

* * *

For days Vieliessar brooded over Maeredhiel’s words, and found no sense in them. For a while she avoided the Common Room entirely, until Thurion sought her out and said her friends missed her company. She did not wish to admit she missed them as well, but she allowed Thurion to coax her into returning. But when she did, she took care to feign disinterest in The Song of Amrethion Aradruinel.

She was not sure why.

From Sword to Frost life at the Sanctuary of the Star returned to its accustomed pace. Still caught between, Vieliessar spent her days in service and her nights in study, reading through the holdings of Arevethmonion. This year, word came of battles fought between the War Princes, and injured came to the Sanctuary.

The Long Peace was over at last.

* * *

Vieliessar twirled and swayed as she made her way to her sleeping cell, clutching the small silver Unicorn token in her hand—once again, she had taken the luck-token in the Midwinter cake. Around her ankles, her grey skirts furled and unfurled as she moved. She remembered the Midwinter dances at Caerthalien, intricate and elaborate. This year she had stayed at the feast until the very end, drinking all the pledges to health and luck that concluded it. Her head reeled with hot spiced ale, and she thought she would have danced—were there anyone here to dance with.

The doors to the Postulants’ cells were tightly closed—they were either soundly sleeping or still drinking in the year at Rosemoss Farm—and it was with relief that Vieliessar reached her own room without meeting anyone. Now to bed, and pray that she did not wake in the morning with ale-sickness.

When she opened her door, her euphoric mood vanished, and she groaned in dismay. The inner shutters were open—the latch was unreliable, and often slipped—and she hadn’t closed the storm shutters. Her sleeping chamber had been open to the winter air for candlemarks and was ice-cold.

Shivering, she went to the window and closed both inner and outer shutters. The dish of live coals had been blown from the windowsill and lay dead on the stone floor. It hardly mattered; coals took candlemarks to burn down to greatest heat; even if she lit them with her flint and steel, she would spend a long, cold night.

Ah, if only … She reached out toward the copper brazier, shivering, imagining welcome heat against the palm of her hand. In the next moment, the tinder kindled into flame with a bright flare and blue flames danced over the surface of the coals themselves. A wave of heat rose from the bowl, making the air shimmer. Vieliessar sprang backward as if she’d been burned. She stared at the thing which could not be.

The coals still glowed.

Fire is the first spell and the easiest. All the Postulants say so. Anginach Called it while he was still a Candidate.…

Though the room was warming quickly, Vieliessar felt an inward chill. She was Lightborn.

And all she could think of was Maeredhiel’s warning. “Think long and hard, Vieliessar of Farcarinon, before showing the Light even if you possess it, for a Mage may be called from the Sanctuary where a servant cannot be.”

She knew, Vieliessar thought. She knew even then this day would come. Maeredhiel said Celelioniel wished to keep the “Child of the Prophecy” under her hand—the Sanctuary’s hand. Because I am such a danger to the Hundred Houses. If only that were true!

If she became Vieliessar Lightsister, she would have a greater power at her command than the dragons of the earth … and never be able to use it to claim her vengeance. Had Farcarinon yet stood, Vieliessar Lightsister could not have ruled over it. But Farcarinon had been erased, and her life would be forfeit should she leave the Sanctuary. “A Mage may be called from the Sanctuary…”

If Maeredhiel had known this day would come, she had given Vieliessar counsel on how she must meet it as well.

Tell no one.

Snow Moon became Cold Moon, then Ice, and Vieliessar began to dimly comprehend the world through which the Lightborn moved. Suddenly the currents of magic were as visible—or at least as perceptible—as the ripples on the surface of a lake. There were a thousand things she could compare it to, and none of them was the Light’s true likeness. Vieliessar had listened uncomprehendingly to Thurion describe the process of spellsetting many times, but now it made sense: as a fish moved through water, the alfaljodthi moved through power. The Lightborn could see what others could not: the webs and currents of that power. And seeing it, could draw upon it, shape it, transform it.

For almost a full turn of the Wheel she fought to step back into the skin of one Lightless. It was a battle she was doomed to lose, for the Light Within demanded to be used, just as limbs and senses did.

And yet, if she wished to keep her secret, she could ask for neither help nor training.

But that did not mean she could not practice. Knowing what to do was simple: the Postulants all spoke freely of the training exercises. She must learn to trust the Light above her physical senses. And Calling Fire was simple enough.

But once a Postulant mastered Fire and Inward Sight, Silverlight was the next spell. It was a thing she dared not attempt within her sleeping chamber.

The meditation and practice chambers were heavily Warded against the mishaps of Candidates learning to wield the Light. One of her tasks was to clean and prepare the chambers for use. No one would notice if she spent a few more minutes on the task than it actually took. All she needed to do was wait until that duty fell to her once more in the natural way of things.

And a few days later, it did.

She hurried through her midday meal, for Cindil-chamber would be needed in the first candlemark after midday. Vieliessar had once thought the chambers unpleasantly stark. Now she could see the colors of the Wards which made the stone walls a tapestry of shifting opal and turned the polished wooden floor into a mosaic of amber and gold. Her servant’s tasks occupied only a few minutes—to bring fresh incense of the proper kind, to fill the water jug, to make certain the chamber was clean and orderly—and then she was free to work undisturbed.

“You breathe the power in, then you imagine how you wish it to go. But it isn’t really like that, because in a way you’re actually remembering something you never saw. Oh, I can’t explain it, Vielle—I can just do it!” Thurion’s frustrated words echoed through her memory.

All that was required for Fire was to scoop up a scrap of the power that surrounded everyone and concentrate it for the instant needed to kindle something into flame. It was not so with the thousand other spells the Lightborn could command. Each one had a name, a shape, a presence, as if it were something one might hold in one’s hand, like a xaique piece—and for each Lightborn, there was one spell that was theirs above all others to command: their Keystone Gift. That Gift shaped their training and their studies: a Keystone Gift was the strongest talent a Lightborn possessed, from which they might weave a new spell to add to the Sanctuary’s store of Light. Spells could not be written down, nor could the knowing of them be spoken into the ear. The shapes of the Greater Spells could only be passed mind to mind, so that any Lightborn who wove and crafted a new spell must come to the Sanctuary to pass it to as many other Lightborn as possible. It was against Mosirinde’s Covenant to keep a knowing restricted to the Lightborn of one’s own House. Spellcraft must pass among the Lightborn as freely as wind across the land.

Lesser spells were bound into the stones of the practice chambers, so that the Postulants might See them and take them for their own. Vieliessar knew as well as any Postulant the order in which the spells must be learned, for there was a Teaching Song about it: Fire and Sight and Silverlight, Find and Fetch and Send and Shield, Weather and Ward, Keep and Heal …

She’d seen Silverlight cast all her life. She closed her eyes and held out her hands …

And Silverlight rushed into her mind as if she had opened a floodgate. Suddenly there was brightness behind her closed eyes, as if she held the moon between her open hands. With a startled cry, Vieliessar flung it away, only to see the spell-symbol in her mind become another equally familiar shape as the power did her bidding. She opened her eyes, and saw—in horror—that the bowl of the brazier was now shining with an all-too-familiar light.

No! Don’t!

In vain, she tried to douse the glow. All she managed to do was make the metal glow even more brightly. Sadimerial Lightsister would soon arrive; Vieliessar’s breath came hot and hard with fear. The Lightsister would see Silverlight cast on the brazier.…

Darkness! I want it to be dark! Vieliessar thought in blind panic. Unmade! Untouched! As if I never—

She felt something shift inside her mind, but before she could turn her inward eye to see it, a wave of cold sickness washed over her. She staggered backward, her hands covered with a sticky dust.

The brazier had gone dark.

But it had also turned to grey stone and was crumbling away.

If she had not been so terrified of discovery, horror and disbelief would have held Vieliessar frozen. What had been, moments before, a bright copper bowl on a bronze tripod was now … rock. Ore.


She was on her hands and knees, trying to scoop the pieces into her skirt, when she felt the now-familiar tingle of the presence of one of the Lightborn. She looked behind her apprehensively. For a long moment she held Sadimerial Lightsister’s gaze.

“The work will go faster if you use a broom, girl,” Sadimerial said at last. “And have a new brazier brought from storage. I had not known Filgoroth wished to challenge me again so soon.”

Vieliessar fled, holding a skirt full of dust.

* * *

Who Filgoroth was, and why he would challenge Sadimerial, and how, Vieliessar never found out. All she knew was that no one accused her of being Lightborn. She swore she would never again do anything so unsafe, but a few sennights later she was in Oiloisse-chamber. Oiloisse was utterly empty, for some practice had gone awry and its furniture had not yet been replaced. This time the Silverlight came easily—a moon-pale globe she could hold in her hands. She could feel the spellshape in her mind try to twist from simple conjuration to bespelling an object, but there was nothing within the bounds of the Wards for it to fix on.

She still did not know how to unmake what she had made, but forcing it against the Wards worked well enough.

And time passed.

* * *

Each year, the hot breathless days of Thunder Moon brought a pause in the Sanctuary’s unceasing labor, for the days were hot, and many in the Sanctuary—save those Candidates who had incurred Maeredhiel’s special displeasure—came to the gardens take a candlemark or more of ease when the sun had passed its fiercest. Behind her, Vieliessar could hear the shouts and laughter of a group of Postulants playing a counting game, the soft distant sounds of someone practicing upon the harp. The song of a flute wound through its soft sweet notes—hesitant, unpracticed, but holding the promise of mastery to come.

The chirring of insects, the soft hot breeze, the smooth warmth of the Vilya’s bark beneath her hands, all lulled her. Was I ever so young as these new Postulants? she wondered in bemusement. They had all thought themselves on the verge of adulthood when they came to the Sanctuary, but it had been a very long time since she had been a Postulant. To number those years Vieliessar must think hard, and count Midwinters upon her fingers.

She ducked back against the trunk of the great Vilya that dominated the garden as two of the Postulants ran past her, shrieking excitedly in their play. They reached the low wall and scrambled over it, racing along one of the narrow paths between the fields of standing grain in the field beyond. Landbonds, she thought to herself, seeing cropped hair and faces narrow with a lifetime of starvation. At least they return to a better life than that, Twice-Called or not. One trained at the Sanctuary could be sure of a place in a Great House, for the Lightborn preferred Sanctuary-trained servants. One thought blended inevitably into the next: Soon Thurion will go. It is already past time.

It was not that after a dozen short years of study Thurion could know all the Light held …

… but that the knowing came from the Light itself, not from Lightborn teachings.

I could be happy here blended, in a seamless instant, with: I am happy here. Vieliessar no longer wondered at her good fortune in remaining hidden from discovery. She had wished for nothing else, desperately, for moonturns. A wish, a desire, need, was the beginning of a spell. She could spend the rest of her life learning all the Light had to teach.

She got to her feet, shook her long skirts free of grass, and walked slowly across the garden. The low stone wall at its edge marked the boundary between the Sanctuary gardens and Rosemoss Farm, and its smooth grey stone was hot against her hands. Beyond the farm and its fields lay Arevethmonion. She could feel the radiant beat of its life against her skin like a second kind of sunlight. She would never walk beneath the Flower Forest’s canopy save as a fugitive or a prisoner. The thought had brought her reflexive rage and sorrow since the first day she had come here, but she could not remember the last time she had looked upon Arevethmonion and thought of herself as a captive: the wall beneath her hands marked the outermost possible bounds of her world, but at last the thought gave her no pain. Nothing endured forever, and what must be, must be.

Suddenly she heard a thin wail of distress from the direction of the young Postulants. One was standing. The other was huddled at his feet. As she watched, he tried to pull himself upright.

The front of his grey tunic was dark with blood.

She did not stop to think. She vaulted the wall and went running toward them. When she reached the pair, she knelt down beside the wounded Postulant.

“Go—Rian?—and fetch Mistress Healer Hervilafimir from the healing chambers—or any you find there! Go!

Rian fled toward the Sanctuary as if the Starry Hunt Itself pursued him.

“Here, let me see,” Vieliessar said, trying to pull the child’s hands away from the wound. To truly Heal required Light, but for small wounds and sickness there were many things one could do to ease suffering, even without the Light, and Nithrithuin Lightsister had begun to teach Vieliessar these minor mysteries.

Bright blood welled from between the Postulant’s fingers and he whimpered in fear.

“What is your name, child?” Vieliessar asked.

“Garwen,” he said. “Of—” He gasped, and the blood ran more strongly. “It hurts!”

As if that cry were a summons, Vieliessar felt the power rise up in her, forming its spellshape in her mind. She could see the dark flaw in the brightness Garwen showed to her inward eyes. A sharp stone. A careless fall. Before she could stop herself—before she could think—the Healing broke free. Blue fire leaped from her hands, and she could See it pour into the dark wrongness. Garwen’s breathing eased.

Behind her, Vieliessar heard running footsteps.

“What has happened?” Hervilafimir Lightsister cried.

“She Healed me,” Garwen said, his voice giddy with relief. “The Lightsister Healed me!”

* * *

Hamphuliadiel Astromancer possessed an Audience Chamber where he could receive the petitioners and supplicants who came to the Sanctuary. Though it was said to be so opulent as to stun any of the War Princes to wordlessness, no one who had actually seen inside had ever spoken of what they saw, and its vestibule was as stark and unadorned as any other chamber in the Sanctuary, save for the elaborately carved wooden door that led into the chamber itself.

Vieliessar had been waiting here for a long time.

She had fled—from the field, from the garden, to the only place she could think of to go: Mistress Maeredhiel’s workroom. Only then had she realized she was covered in Garwen’s blood. Maeredhiel had taken one look at her stricken expression and sharply ordered her to wash and change. Vieliessar tried to explain what had happened, but Maeredhiel refused to listen.

She had barely finished scrubbing the blood from her hands when a wide-eyed Postulant appeared, sliding back her door without tapping to announce that Hamphuliadiel Astromancer wished Vieliessar to attend him at once. She’d assumed she would be brought before him immediately, but her wait stretched. The delay gave her time to reflect, and her thoughts weren’t happy ones. Just as no Candidate had ever returned to the Sanctuary after the end of their Service Year bearing newly awakened Light, no Postulant had ever refused training—much less hidden what they were. What was the penalty? Would she be sent from the Sanctuary?

He cannot do that. He knows it will mean my death.

A year ago, or two years, or five, she would have bargained with the world, tossing out hopes as one might toss dice from a cup: dreams of allies found, of victory achieved, of safety, fortune, safe concealment as she worked toward her vengeance. She knew now these were no more than the fantasies of a heartsick child.

It was two candlemarks past the time for the end of the evening meal when the door to the Audience Chamber finally opened.

“You may present yourself to the Astromancer now,” Galathornthadan Lightbrother said.

Vieliessar followed Galathornthadan through the door, telling herself she must not gawk lest she rouse Hamphuliadiel’s anger further, but she could not stop herself. The chamber was the size of the Refectory, and more opulent than any she had seen within Caerthalien’s Great Keep. Its floors and walls shimmered with Warding, and her feet passed over carpets that would ransom a Lord Komen, laid over flooring that was an intricate pattern of inlaid woods and precious stones. Nor were the walls any plainer: beneath the opal coruscations of the Wards she could see that they were painted, hung with tapestries, and lined with treasures the Hundred Houses had brought to the Sanctuary to curry favor with the Lightborn down through the centuries.

At the far end of the chamber, Hamphuliadiel sat. Vieliessar stopped abruptly, so quickly that Galathornthadan walked six paces on before noticing.

He enthrones himself as if he would be High King!

She stared at the Astromancer, struggling to conceal her shock. Hamphuliadiel’s chair was wide enough for any two men to sit upon, and its back extended several handspans above his head. Perhaps it was wood, or perhaps ivory, but it was hard to say, so thickly was it encrusted with gems and gold. Such a seat might have been cold and unpleasant, but Hamphuliadiel had surrounded himself with green silk cushions filling the empty spaces. The green of his robes merged into the green of the cushions.

Galathornthadan stopped, frowning at her, and Vieliessar started walking again. But she was no longer afraid.

She was angry.

* * *

Hamphuliadiel regarded the child standing before him, her aura flaring and flickering with anger and half-shielded power, and hated Celelioniel for her foolish superstitions even more than he had before. Her mad belief in ancient fables had led her to see prophecies in nonsense-rhymes, and that delusion had kept Farcarinon’s get alive.

And now it meant Hamphuliadel was faced with a choice no Astromancer before him had ever needed to make.

Even the lowliest Landbond knew that power must be paid for in power. The small and simple spells that so impressed the common herd could be cast with no more power than that which lived within one’s own skin. The Greater Spells required more. There was power in blood, in pain, in death—but to tap those sources brought madness and an eternal soul-hunger. There was power in soil and water and plant and tree—but to take from these was to render them lifeless and sterile. Only the Flower Forests held power enough to fuel the spells of the Light. And so, a thousand generations past, Mosirinde had founded the Sanctuary of the Star and forged her Covenant: to take only from the Flower Forests.

But the Lightborn were as corruptible as the great lords themselves, and so one secret was held by each Astromancer and passed only to the next: it was neither power and ability, nor Light Within, that made Candidate into Postulant. It was the choosing of the Astromancer, who gazed upon the spirits and futures of all who entered the Sanctuary and passed a covert judgment which could not be appealed. This was why the Light was so rarely discovered among the great nobles; their arrogance made them difficult to control. It was a simple matter to lay the most gossamer of geasa upon each departing Lightborn, so that they would simply … not see Light where it was … inconvenient.

And so he had done, as Celelioniel had done before him, as every Astromancer had done for reign upon reign.

And now the child who was War Prince of Farcarinon by blood and birth stood before him. He had never thought to gaze so upon the future of the last scion of Farcarinon … until today, when news had come of her Healing. And then he had discovered he could not. There was no clear line through the years to come that said: this shall be and that will not.

He wished to blame mad Celelioniel, or even the vexed mooncalf herself—but he sensed no spellcraft. Whatever clouded the girl’s future owed nothing to Magery.

Amrethion’s Prophecy exists only in a madwoman’s ravings! he told himself angrily. Who is to say there are not many whose future is cloaked? Perhaps all War Princes are born so.

And perhaps the stars did not care that Vieliessar was not truly a War Prince.

None of this would matter if she had lived out her days as a Lightless drudge!

But she had not.

Kill her? Train her? There was no third road—he might call Lightborn to Burn the Light from her mind, but that was only a slower death.

“What have you to say for yourself?” he demanded.

He saw her chin come up and her eyes flash.

“I say that I did not ask this. Nor would you now know of it save by mischance.” She spoke with the pride of one who knew herself to be War Prince even now, and her words and her voice were a pledge of defiance.

I can kill her where she stands! How dare she take such a tone with me? In the years of his reign, Hamphuliadiel had received War Princes and Warlords, bearers of the noblest blood in the Fortunate Lands. They had, they thought, flattered him and bribed him into doing their will, never knowing that none of them had caused him to do anything he had not decided upon in advance.

For a moment his rage was so great that the opulent chamber seemed small and far away. It would not be an act of war. Farcarinon does not exist. He closed his hands on the arms of his chair so hard that his fingernails turned white from the pressure. He could see Galathornthadan standing behind her, and saw Galathornthadan’s eyes go wide with fear at the sight of his anger.

“I only wished to save my own life, Astromancer,” Vieliessar added. Her voice was softer now, and her eyes penitently downcast.

“You do not serve the Light by hiding from it, Vieliessar,” he said, and felt satisfaction. He sounded as a true Astromancer should sound: paternal, just, fair. They would never whisper in dark corners of his madness or mock him in their Great Halls for his faith in moldering prophecies. The Light was Magery, not mystery. His name would be remembered forever as the Astromancer who lifted the shroud of capriciousness and inscrutability from the Sanctuary of the Star.

“I do not understand how I am to serve it,” Vieliessar answered, and now, to Hamphuliadiel’s approval, she sounded like a sulky child, not a War Prince. “I serve no House—and my life is forfeit if I leave the Sanctuary.”

“Perhaps that will change—should it be your wish and that of the Light,” Hamphuliadiel answered. Yes. That is the answer. I was a fool not to see it at once. Let her become Vieliessar Lightsister. And should she become a danger, I will send her to Caerthalien, or Vondaimieriel, or Sarmiorion, or Aramenthiali. And she will not return. And I shall be blameless.

“For now, there is much for you to learn.”

* * *

Once again Vieliessar’s life changed. No longer were her days spent in the meticulous pursuit of invisible perfection. She exchanged the skirt and tunic of a servant for the grey robe and green tabard of a Postulant, and it quickly became clear that she fit into this new life far worse than she had fit into the old. She had already read, for her own pleasure, most of the scrolls the new Postulants were set to learn, and as for Magery …

She had long since mastered the score of lesser spells whose practice occupied the days of the youngest Postulants, yet she was lost when she was placed among the eldest ones—those who might dare the Shrine this year or next—for she understood none of the theory upon which the practice of the Light was based.

“It is hopeless!” she burst out. “What does it matter to me whether Mosirinde or Arilcarion or even Timirmar crafted the Covenant? I shall live out my life bounded by Arevethmonion!”

“And yet you will still find the Covenant of great value,” Rondithiel Lightbrother said placidly. “For it holds the reason for all we do.”

Vieliessar shook her head stubbornly. “In the Healing Tents of a battlefield,” she said. “But when shall I ever see such?”

“You think with the short sight of the Lightless,” Rondithiel admonished her.

He lifted the teapot from its cradle and poured both their cups full again. Its ingredients were gathered in Arevethmonion and compounded by the Postulants themselves, for the blending of teas was an art closely allied to the blending of potions—and it was best to practice those skills first on compounds that could do no harm. Tea in all its infinite possibility was the only delicacy permitted to those residing at the Sanctuary, but the Candidates and the Postulants were too young to appreciate it, and the servants far too busy to treat tea as an art. The tea which fueled the Sanctuary as much as the Light itself—the tea that Rondithiel poured—was the homely Forest Hearth mixture.

The two of them were seated in Oiloisse-chamber, and Vieliessar thought longingly of the days when her only interest in it had been to sweep the floor. She had spent from Thunder to Rade—her birth moonturn—being told first that she had too much skill and then too little; that her scholarship outpaced that of her new peers and that she knew nothing of any use. At last, Rondithiel had bidden her attend upon him here, and she could do nothing but obey.

Rondithiel Lightbrother had trained many generations of Lightborn, for long ago his War Prince had granted him a boon, and he had chosen to spend the rest of his life at the Sanctuary of the Star, for his great love was teaching. But it was not Magery he taught. Rondithiel taught the understanding of Mosirinde’s Covenant.

It was said that Mosirinde Peacemaker had founded the Sanctuary of the Star and served as its first Astromancer. It was she who decreed that an Astromancer might reign from Vilya fruit to Vilya fruit, no longer. It was she who had set down the rules that governed the lives of the Lightborn: that the power to wield spells could not be drawn from blood or from earth, but only from the wellsprings of power a Flower Forest commanded.

“There is more to the Light than you yet know, Vieliessar. The spells that are all the Lightless see are but a fraction of what being Lightborn means. There is the knowing.”

“I have spent years in meditation, Lightbrother,” Vieliessar said, trying to conceal her exasperation.

“And yet you have never worked any of the Greater Spells of the Light,” he observed.

She looked at him with puzzlement now. “Such would be dangerous without a guide,” she said carefully.

“And I am ready to stand your guide,” he said. He set a sphere of bronze on the table. “Transmutation is one of the Greater Spells, but this chamber is well Warded. At worst we will destroy a few pieces of furniture.”

Vieliessar stared at the bronze ball as if it might explode. She thought back to her first experiments, of her panic at being unable to Banish the Silverlight, of how the brazier had crumbled away to rock …

“I do not know the spell,” she said hopefully.

“Come, give me your hand. I will show it to you,” Rondithiel Lightbrother said. He held out his own.

She had the terrifying sense of being trapped and fought down her instinctive panic. She did not know what would happen to someone who refused to learn Magery—but she was certain Hamphuliadiel’s wrath would fall heavily upon that one.

She had no choice.

She reached out and set her hand in his.

It was as if she had touched one of the Teaching Stones in the beginners’ workrooms: suddenly, bright to her inward sight, there appeared a construct of shape and color and sound and texture and taste. It was all of these things, and none of them. It was the spellshape of Transmutation.

“Now,” he said, releasing her hand and gesturing at the sphere.

Every instinct screamed to her that this was a trick, a trap, but no matter how she tried, she couldn’t figure out what shape it must take. Everyone knew she had the Light. Rondithiel had taught generations of Lightborn. So she called the spellshape to the front of her mind, and reached out to touch the metal, letting the Magery unfold itself in her mind. Metal to wood …

“What are you doing?”

Rondithiel’s shout jarred her out of the weaving. She gasped, opening her eyes. He was staring at her with a look of horror on his face. On the table between them, the metal sphere was distorted and discolored—but not transformed.

“I—” Suddenly a great wave of sick dizziness swept over her. She tried to raise her hand to brush her hair from her face, and discovered she could not. A moment later she was sprawled ungracefully across the floor cushions, struggling to breathe.

Rondithiel hurried around the table. He lifted her into his lap and held her teacup to her lips. The liquid was nearly cold, but nothing had ever tasted so sweet.

“Transmutation is a Greater Spell!” he shouted. “You cannot work it without drawing upon Arevethmonion!”

* * *

The Light exacted a price for the weaving of spells. Magery must be paid for; power drove spellcraft. For the little spells, power of the body. For the Greater Spells, the power of the Flower Forests. While she had been hiding her Light, practicing only in secret, Vieliessar had never attempted the Greater Spells for just that reason. To draw upon Arevethmonion was a thing that would surely be noticed—but she had thought its power would come to her at need, just as the power for the lesser spells had.

“After the first time, yes,” Rondithiel said, when he had brought her to health again and discovered her error. “But the first time … one must be shown the way.”

“I wonder that any spells are ever worked in all the Fortunate Lands,” she had answered irritably. “For to name all the Flower Forests in the land is the work of days.”

“So the Lightless believe,” Rondithiel said with grave amusement. “The Lightborn know there is only one. Once you are known to Lady Arevethmonion, you are known to all the Flower Forests that may ever be.”

There was more to the matter than that. The spellstones that marked the boundaries of the domains of the Hundred Houses kept the Lightborn’s spells from ranging across the whole of the land in search of power. Nor did the power of one Flower Forest within a domain spill into the next at need. There was more for her to learn than she had thought. It was two moonturns of careful instruction before she attempted a Greater Spell again.

But with Rondithiel’s aid, she made a beginning.

* * *

I can do this.

Vieliessar stood before the great bronze doors that separated the Sanctuary from the Shrine. She was naked, her only ornament a long knotted cord looped about her wrist.

The first act of each Postulant was to accept a handful of flax seeds. It was their task to plant the seeds, and harvest them, spin flax into thread, and weave thread into cord, and at last, when that was done, to bind the knowing of their spells into that cord.

The last act of each Postulant was to enter the Shrine of the Star, there to keep vigil, and emerge Lightborn. Those who survived departed the Sanctuary at once, speaking to no one.

Those left behind might know that this one or that one of their fellow Postulants had gone to the Shrine, but nothing more.

Some entered the Shrine and never emerged again.

She remembered a Rain Moon, years ago, when Thurion had come to her sleeping chamber to whisper last messages to those he loved, before coming to stand where Vieliessar stood now. He had charged her with duty to his family if he did not come forth again, for by his duty to Caerthalien he meant to secure the freedom of his family, and if he failed, he would not have them think he had forgotten them.

She had not wished to accept that duty, but she had. And when he had gone to the Shrine, she had knelt upon the cold stone beside her bed and pledged her own life to the Silver Hooves, if they must have one that night.

She had risen before dawn to hide in the shadows of the Antechamber. And had seen Thurion walk free.

Will I be as fortunate?

She reached out to touch the bronze of the doors, to trace the shapes of spirit-horses and the powers that rode them among the stars. In my end is my beginning. Generations of Postulants had touched them so, and the doors gleamed bright-burnished where they had.

Strange to think that here I was born and here my mother died.

In Rade Moon, Farcarinon had fallen, Nataranweiya had died. If Vieliessar chose, a simple conjuration would show her that night, but such a folding back of years could not show her what she most desired to see: the thoughts that had lain in Celelioniel’s heart when she had shaped Vieliessar’s fate.

Survive this night, and the Lightborn taught that her person would be inviolable—not even a War Prince dared raise his hand to one of the Lightborn, lest the Sanctuary punish both House and Line. But there was no House waiting to welcome her, and Farcarinon’s enemies might yet look upon Vieliessar Lightsister and see Vieliessar Farcarinon. Should someone let her out of life, without clan and kin and Line she would vanish as if she had never been.

Go now, before you lose your nerve.

The doors ghosted open beneath her touch, and Vieliessar stepped over the threshold and into the Shrine of the Star.

The first things to reach her senses were the touch of cold earth beneath her feet and the iron scent of old blood. The next was the beating of raw power against her senses and Wards, as if she basked in some sunlight that did not warm her. Though the Shrine was open to the sky above, it was as dark as a deep cave this night, but Silversight showed her three tall stones beneath an open sky. A fourth flat stone was set into the ground between them; the Shrine itself was nothing more than stone and earth.

Nine Shrines are given to the Trueborn, nine places where the breath of first creation still can be felt upon the skin. Nine where the powers hear us when we call.

She knew what she must do now. It was not teaching, but knowing, here in that place where it was eternally the morning of the world. Vieliessar stepped to the center of the triangle of great stones and stretched out her hand. The veils of power resolved themselves to a single star-bright blade, cold as moonlight. She closed her fingers around it, feeling hot blood well up from her palm and dissolving the conjured blade as if it were ice in fire.

Blood pooled in her palm as her gaze was drawn to the stones of the Shrine. On their surfaces she could see the patterns of uncountable handprints; some the faintest blue shadow against the stones, some shining as brightly as the moon. She stepped into the center of the triad and pressed her hand against the stone. For an instant she felt its cold grittiness against her palm, then the surface she touched seemed to become as hot and supple as flesh.

Brightness flared up between her fingers.

She heard the sound of a bridle clink.

That homely sound in this uncanny place made her startle in shock. She turned, and only her utter disbelief in what she saw kept her from going to her knees.

“You have come to end us.”

Power blazed from the armored rider like heat from a hearth. His armor was of no kind she had ever seen, yet as she tried to fix its details within her mind, she found she could not. Nor could she name its color, nor the color of the horse he sat. To see him was as if she heard the words of a storysinger and her own mind made of them an image crafted to her own desire. The longer she stared, the more visible the host behind him became, so many hundreds of riders that she knew the Shrine could never have contained them all, nor would it have been possible to see each one so clearly if they’d been here in truth. Yet their leader’s destrier switched its tail and pawed at the ground as she had seen many horses do. The Starry Hunt stands before me, Vieliessar thought, and felt not joy, not terror, not grief—merely a fathomless wonder that They should be and she should see Them.

Then the words the Rider had spoken came sharp in her mind. “I could not,” she said, half protest, half judgment.

“Yet you shall. For you are Farcarinon.”

Each syllable the Rider spoke resounded through her as if it were the beat of a great war drum. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest as hard as if she’d been running, as slow as if she were in deep meditation. It was three heartbeats before she answered, and she only understood the sense of her words as she heard them, for it seemed as if she merely recited a speech someone else had crafted.

“Farcarinon is gone. There is only I.” Farcarinon will endure until the end of my life—but I am only one—but how shall I end You—but why would I wish to?

The Rider inclined His head as if He had heard both the words she spoke and the words she had not. It was the grave salute that prince might give to prince, and for the first time, Vieliessar felt fear. No, not fear—terror. The weight of the Rider’s pronouncement, the Rider’s grief, was a palpable thing, making her body tremble with a burden too great for mortal flesh to bear. Who am I that the power which shapes our lives and our destiny should regard me thus?

“You are Farcarinon,” the Rider said. “Death in life. Life in death.” In the Rider’s words Vieliessar heard more than simple recognition. There was judgment—and sorrow. “You will be known when We are forgotten,” He added, and raised His hand. Salute, benediction, warning … she did not know.

In the next moment her sight became uncertain, as if she gazed not into shadow, but into the brightness of the sun itself. Her eyes were filled with light and her ears with a sound as if a whole army roared out its battle cry, and she could not say in that moment if she stood upon the ground or rode through the heavens on a destrier made of moonlight and shod with stars. Someone shouted in a language she did not know and for an instant it seemed she gazed down from a great height at a landscape of darkness, of ice and shadow. Before her hung a balefire, burning star-pale with magic. A komen knelt beside it, and with him stood a creature neither Trueborn nor Beastling, with blood welling in the palm of her hand.

“The Land calls you. The People call you. I call you. He Who Is would return to the world, and so we summon you.”

“And will you spill your own blood to save the land?”

The creature—woman, but nub-eared and red-skinned as no Trueborn could ever be—held out her wounded palm to the Rider, as if her blood held a compulsion even He must obey. Even her blood was strange, for it was red as flowers.…

* * *

Vieliessar came to herself with the stiff and aching limbs of one who has spent too long motionless in too cold a place. As she raised her head, she could see the sky above was grey with dawn. She clambered to her feet, clutching at one of the standing stones to steady herself before she remembered what she touched.

Dream? Vision? In this moment she could not say whether what she had seen was truth or the expression of her own buried desires. Does the Hunt always come? Do the Silver Hooves bow down to each of the Lightborn? Is this how all who come to this place are tested and tried? Had she given the proper answers? Or was she dead even now, a homeless ghost, doomed to vanish like morning frost the moment she stepped from the Shrine?

Vieliessar looked toward the doors of the Shrine and spied a bundle of green cloth, placed there by some Lightborn candlemarks before the beginning of her vigil. She turned back to the Shrine and saw the print of a hand deep-sunk into the ancient altar stone. Slowly she reached out and set her hand into its shape. It fit as if the eternal stone had been as malleable as bread dough and shifted at her touch. She felt the weight of an unimaginable fate bearing her down. For an instant a thousand evasions crowded her mind: to leave the Sanctuary of the Star this very candlemark, to keep moving until she left the bounds of the Fortunate Lands completely; to offer up her name, her House, her life, as a sacrifice to unmake this destiny.

She could. But …

Serenthon knew his fate. Celelioniel foretold it when he came here.

In that moment of realization it seemed to her she could see him: Serenthon Farcarinon, War Prince, First among the Hundred Houses, bold and beautiful and arrogant. He had known before he began he would fail. He had known his Bondmate would die, that Farcarinon would be unmade, that all who had trusted him would die …

That someday his daughter would stand here, to be Sealed to the Light.

If Serenthon-my-father could embrace such a fate for himself and all he loved, then I shall not disgrace him.

She lifted her hand from the imprint in the stone and walked steadily to the doors of the Shrine, tying the knotted flaxen cord about her waist as she went. Custom said she must now return to the domain of her birth and there present herself to the Chief Lightborn of the War Prince’s court. But she was Farcarinon, and the officers of her father’s court were slain or fled. So she picked up the green robes that lay upon the stone and carried them, still naked, back to her sleeping cell. She took up a knife and cropped her long black hair close to her head, then donned the Green Robe, tightening the silver cord about her waist. Then she sat upon her bed and waited for someone to come and tell her who she must become now.



Then spoke Berendriel, Notariel’s Heir: I do not set my foot upon Your stirrup, I do not set my hand upon Your horse. I shall not ride the night wind, nor leave my House, my


or my kin.

And the Star-Crowned, Hunt-Lord, Master of the Silver-Shod answered: As you say, so it will be. Your name shall be no longer Berendriel but Mazhnune. You shall battle forever, a hungry ghost, and never will you die and never will you live.

—Berendriel’s Song

“Fall back! Fall back!”


Thurion Lightbrother waited at the edge of the battlefield. His mare’s thoughts were a background hum in his mind. Sariar was wise in the ways of battle, and knew there was no danger here for her, even though the din of battle made Thurion wish to cover both his ears and hers. It wouldn’t help. True Speech brought him the thoughts of the komen bell-clear above the screams of the wounded, the battle cries, the thunder of drums, and the clash of metal upon metal.

The wind was sharp with the first stirrings of autumn. On Menenel Farmholder’s land the sky would have been bright and clear, for the Lightborn worked their weather magic over the Farmholds to provide fair weather for the last sennights before harvest, keeping the rain from the fields until the year’s crop was safely housed in barn and mill. They worked no such Magery over the battlefields. The sky was grey with low clouds, the wind harsh with the promise of rain before sunset. If it did rain, the fighting would not stop. Injuries would increase as warriors attacked blindly and destriers slipped on the uncertain ground.

Would it be any different if I and my brethren were not here? If the komentai’a—if the War Princes—knew injury could bring a lingering death or a lifetime of agony? In the Sanctuary they say we are the essence of the peace of the Fortunate Lands. I sometimes think we bring war, not peace.

He remembered his first battle, so many years ago now. His teachers at the Sanctuary had told him over and over of the necessity to shield himself, to refuse to hear the minds around him. He hadn’t truly understood why until the moment when Caerthalien and Oronviel took the field against Aramenthiali and Ivrithir, he had thought he would go mad—from the noise of sword against shield, from the clamor of mind-voices, from the agony of the wounded and the dying.

He had heard it all, on that first of many battlefields.

He had never learned to deafen himself to the sounds.

Today Caerthalien fought against Ullilion. The combat would have been uneven save for the fact that Ullilion—somehow—had gained wealth enough to summon the best of the Free Companies to its banner: between them, Foxhaven and Glasswall had brought four thousand swords to the field, and Blue Deer had come with another twelve hundred. Now Prince Domcariel of Caerthalien was calling for the Caerthalien komentai’a to retreat, while Prince Runacarendalur was demanding they stand. With each engagement they fought, the rift between the brothers widened: Runacarendalur, brilliant and imaginative, leading his komentai’a to battle as if to a festival dance; his brother Domcariel, cautious and traditional, slow to adapt to an enemy’s change in tactics. Days of fighting the enemy on the battlefield became nights of fighting each other in pavilion and castel. Thurion had seen too much of it. The Lightborn were invisible, like the servants.

He’d imagined his life would be different when the Light was Called in him. Everyone knew the Lightborn were the equals of princes, their spells vital to the wealth and security of their House. All the storysongs said the Green Robe erased kinship and caste, allowing the lowliest Landbond to drink from the same cup as his War Prince at the high table.

Like so many tales, it was both true and not true. The great lords venerated their Lightborn and gave them pride of place in their halls. The Lightborn negotiated treaties and terms of surrender, and moved freely between House and House, carrying messages. Some might counsel their lords and their alakomentai’a. But no Lightborn bore weapons in battle, and skill at arms was the measure of worth in the Hundred Houses, so none of them—even Ivrulion Light-Prince—had true power.

Thurion watched as Prince Runacarendalur’s meisne surged forward, piercing the Ullilion line and striking for its standard-bearer, for War Prince Dendinirchiel Ullilion had taken the field in person, with Athagor, her consort-prince, beside her as her shieldbearer. To cause Dendinirchiel to yield—or to slay her outright—would bring a swift Caerthalien victory. But in a moment Runacarendalur would be surrounded, for Blue Deer’s warriors were riding out from Ullilion’s tuathal flank, and Prince Domcariel still hesitated. A moment more and Runacarendalur would be lost.

But at the last possible moment, Domcariel spurred his mount in the direction of his brother’s battle standard and the knights of his taille followed. True Speech gave Thurion his words, but he would have known what they were even without it: Caerthalien and the star! Caerthalien!

Suddenly Thurion saw a familiar flicker of light upon the field—the cast-aside sword of a Caerthalien knight, the signal its owner was leaving the field. He turned to Sariar and swung gracefully into her saddle—the komen would need escort to the Healing Tents—but just as he prepared to urge the mare onto the field, another Lightborn galloped past and sent her mount dancing quickly through the battle itself.

Narcheliel. It must be her.

Narcheliel Lightsister took dangerous chances. It was true that any komen would not knowingly strike one of the Lightborn. It was also true that it was nearly impossible to separate friend from foe in the heat of battle. He saw her gain the side of the yielding knight, laughing as she did so. It was Celethor, one of Domcariel’s taille.

He’d taken his eyes from the larger battle for only a few moments, but that had been time enough for Caerthalien—and Runacarendalur—to gain the victory. There was a great roaring as everyone on the field shouted at once—in joy or in sorrow—and Thurion saw Ullilion’s banner fall in surrender. The Caerthalien warhorns sounded: Victory, victory, victory. After their call had died away, the Ullilion horns sounded, calling their komen back to their lines. The two armies disengaged, then both sides sounded the last call of the day: Search for the wounded.

Sighing, Thurion swung down from Sariar’s back and led her toward the place in the horselines where the palfreys were kept. To clear the field of those who could not seek Healing under their own power was the task of servants, not Lightborn. There would be work enough for his hands and the Light as soon as the Caerthalien forces returned to camp.

There always was.

The nobles threw themselves into celebration as soon as they returned to camp. The Lightborn did not. Even Ivrulion Light-Prince toiled in the Healing Tents while his father and brothers celebrated. The Lightborn worked as they always did, measuring their labor against the power they drew from the Flower Forests, and ending their night’s toil when to continue would be to take too much. But even those who could not be Healed immediately must be tended, lest their injuries grow worse.

Many Lightborn chose to leave such tasks to servants, but Thurion liked to know what Healings he would be called upon to do later, so even after no more Healing could be done that day, he worked beside the servants as they washed limbs, bandaged wounds, and dosed the injured with cordials that would take away pain, reduce fever, or give dreamless sleep. Caerthalien had gained the victory near noonday, but it was long past sunset when Thurion left the Healing Tents.

The night was windless but the air was chill, and he shivered. Let this be the last battle Caerthalien will fight until spring. Thurion could not hope it would be the last battle Caerthalien would ever fight, for the Hundred circled around one another like dogs around a piece of meat. Perhaps someday I shall not have to watch it as it happens, he thought tiredly. But that day was centuries distant: only those Lightborn far advanced in years—or so favored they need not contend with the rigors of a battlefield encampment—did not ride with the army in War Season.

Thurion shivered again. The warm cloak he’d worn to watch the battle had been taken by his bodyservant when he gone to the Healing Tents, and Denerarth had undoubtedly returned the cloak to Thurion’s tent, as he always did. Thurion might have stepped back into the warmth of the Healing Tent he’d just left and sent one of the other camp servants for it, but he could never bring himself to order others around as if by right. He took a moment to gain his bearings, then began to walk toward the Lightborn tents. The pavilions of the camp were pitched in the same places every time—had been, Thurion suspected, since the days of High King Amrethion Aradruiniel.

But no. In the days of High King Amrethion there was no battle or strife. How I wish I had lived in those days. It would be pleasant never to have to hear the cries of the injured, see the damage hooves and weapons could do. At least Vielle is spared this. His path led him past the great pavilion where the victory feast was going on. Within it, he could hear, as he’d expected, Runacarendalur’s voice raised in anger, Domcariel trying to shout him down, and Ivrulion saying just the wrong thing at the wrong moment—by intent, Thurion knew for a fact. Beneath their voices, like the deep resonant counterpoint of a complex work of music, he could hear Lord Bolecthindial rebuking his warrior sons. Thurion determinedly focused on his own thoughts, refusing to hear the words, both said and unsaid. It would do him little good to know his masters that intimately.

He would think of Vielle instead. She had power such as Thurion could barely imagine. Power to have every spell she learned burn as strong in her as if it were her Keystone Gift. He wondered if she had kept the knowledge of how far she could surpass them from her teachers until the day she dared the Shrine.

He’d left the Sanctuary while she was still a Postulant, but time had once again made them friends. He had needed that time to recover from the shock and disappointment of discovering she’d wanted to hide herself from embracing the greatest joy he could imagine. In the end, he had understood—she’d been content as a Sanctuary servant, and to become Lightborn made her life uncertain and potentially dangerous.

So she had complained of her teachers in her letters, and the Lightborn had gossiped in his hearing, and from those things Thurion had pieced together the truth. As powerful as Pelashia Celenthodiel, mother of all magic. And none of those in the Sanctuary knew. I’m not sure Vielle truly knows, even now. Light grant she has no cause to find out, for if she does, it will be because disaster has befallen her.

The extent of her power would only be tested if she were to leave the Sanctuary of the Star, for outside its shelter she would need to call upon all her Lightborn arts to preserve her life.

“Master Thurion! You should have sent for me!”

Thurion blinked, realizing he’d reached his own pavilion.

“I’ve told you how many times not to call me that?” he asked, with no hope his wish would be heeded any more on this occassion than it’d been the last thousand times.

“As many times as I’ve ignored you, Master Thurion,” Denerarth answered. “As you would know full well had the cold not addled your wits. But I suppose if you are too cloudwitted to send a servant for me—and for your cloak—you cannot be expected to remember such things. Come! Inside before you freeze quite to death! And I suppose you have not eaten since this morning?”

Thurion’s tent was a pavilion only by courtesy, for it was so small that there was only room for him and Denerarth, but compared to the hut Thurion had grown up in, it was both spacious and private. Silverlight made the interior as bright as day, and a brazier lent it welcome heat. He sniffed, catching the scents of both Summerbark tea and pear cider on the warm air.

“You know I have not,” he answered, sitting down on a stool to pull off his boots. “I was working. But I hope you have.”

“Oh indeed. Fine feeding from the prince’s own victory table,” Denerarth said. “Where you should have been.”

“I told you, I was busy,” Thurion answered mildly. Denerarth made an exasperated noise and paused to drape Thurion’s warmed cloak about his shoulders before pouring a mug of steaming cider and placing it in his hand.

“And will be just as busy come the morrow,” Denerarth said.

“If the Flower Forest is restored. If we are not to move the camp. If—”

“As you know full well, we’ll be here another fortnight, while Ullilion ransoms its knights and settles the surrender provisions. And as you know that, why try to Heal everyone now? There’s plenty of time before we break camp.”

“Yes, yes, yes—plenty of time. But why should they suffer longer than they must?” It was an argument they had each time—and would probably have until one or the other of them died. Thurion supposed he was lucky to have a servant who was neither overawed by him nor who refused to serve a Landbond’s son.

“If they’re suffering, Master Thurion, then Night’s Daughter is not the anodyne she is rumored to be. Now drink. I’ve warmed your bed for you, and there’s cheese and meat pie if you’ve any appetite.”

Thurion smiled faintly. He never had any appetite after a day in the Healing Tents. At least she is spared this, he thought vaguely.

Perhaps—in another year or two—he might petition Lord Bolecthindial to allow him to return to the Sanctuary for a time.

If Caerthalien did not receive any great challenges.

If its eternal wars and intrigues went well enough to grant House Caerthalien a season or two of quiet.


* * *

As Vieliessar settled once more into the life of the Sanctuary, she found it had become yet again a different place, for now she joined a company that had no match anywhere in all the Fortunate Lands: those Lightborn who made the Sanctuary of the Star their home.

At first, her mind was filled with what she had seen within the Shrine. She spent candlemarks in the Great Library scouring the books of prophecy and legend for some explanation. The Jade Mirror spoke of the interpretation of dreams or visions. The Book of Veils recounted those methods that could be used to evoke a foretelling or even a prophecy. The Fire Alphabet listed fulfilled prophecies that were the fruit of more than one fortelling. None of them held any hint of what the Huntsman had spoken of, so she turned again to The Song of Amrethion, only to find it as cryptic as before.

Slowly the urgency of her vision faded. It began to seen like a storysong she had once heard, a matter which had little to do with the life she lived. She had wondered, before she dared the Shrine, if taking the Green Robe would mean a life of idleness, but no. There were tasks to perform such as she might have found beneath the roof of any noble house: spells must be set, woven into clothing or horse harness or any of a dozen homely objects; cordials must be compounded and en-Lightened, food preserved.

When all who had known her as a fellow Postulant were gone, there would be teaching and guiding for her to do, but for now, her hands were deft in Healing, her mind quick and clever at Warding; she could conjure impenetrable invisibility about herself, Call forth storms and lightning, tame the fiercest creatures of forest and plain and Summon them to her hand, and those things were enough for her.

There were times the acceptance of her fate troubled her: to die forsworn was a terrible thing, unless one could pass the unkept vow on to another, but who could she lay such an impossible task upon? Who would take it up? Was it right to compass the weaving of Caerthalien’s utter destruction at all?

She no longer knew. The vengeance her child-self had yearned for had been in her power for many years. Even before she had taken the Green Robe she could have stepped from Arevethmonion to Rimroheth and gone to Caerthalien Great Keep. There she could have Unmade Caerthalien’s stones into mist and shadow, struck Bolecthindial and all his Line dead with Mage-conjured lightning.…

And she had not, for even then, each year she had passed taught her more of the Light. She had learned at last to see it in the way Thurion had spoken of so long ago—and to see the world as a vast machine, a flour mill or cistern pump made up of lives and years, meant for no other purpose than to hold and reveal the Light. Set against that, the death of Caerthalien seemed a small and useless thing. It would not raise Farcarinon from the dust, nor check a single prince’s greed and ambition.

Perhaps, she thought, Maeredhiel was right, when she told me my greatest vengeance would be simply to live.

And so the years spun onward, first at a stately measured pace, then faster—so it seemed—as Vieliessar gained greater years of her own. Each springtide was a new surprise, each summer a wonder, each autumn a glory and a sadness, each gem-bright winter a new mystery.

She was content.

* * *

“Come! Vieliessar, you must come! Now! A Healing is needed!”

For a moment Vieliessar was dazed with sleep. She had only reached her bed a few candlemarks ago, for someone had been needed to bespell Rosemoss Farm to ensure good harvest, and no one else knew the delicate spells as well as she. Hearing Hervilafimir’s voice did nothing to ease her confusion, for Hervilafimir had been called back to Nantirworiel years before, leaving the healing rooms in charge of Lightbrother Thelifent. But none of the Lightborn left the Sanctuary forever, and Hervilafimir had recently returned, for Healing was her great love.

And in this time, it was needed more than ever before, for the Hundred Houses fought one another from Sword to Harvest, and the Beastlings pressed hard upon their borders, searching for any sign of weakness.

“I am awake, ’Fimir,” Vieliessar sighed, sitting up in her bed and running her hands through her short-clipped hair. She snapped her fingers and the room blinked into brightness. It was still at least a candlemark till dawn. Hervilafimir’s grey tabard, worn to protect her green robes from the blood and dirt of the healing chambers, was spattered with blood and muck. She looked tired and frightened.

“Please, Vielle. I know you are weary, but if you do not come, Amlunan will die, and I know not what Lord Manderechiel will do!”

“I am coming now,” Vieliessar protested, getting to her feet and reaching for her robe. “How is it that Ladyholder Dormorothon could not aid him?” she asked, her voice only slightly muffled by the robe she was pulling over her head. Ladyholder Dormorothon of Aramenthiali was also Dormorothon Lightsister, and Vieliessar could not believe that Aramenthiali’s Lady would not Heal Aramenthiali’s Warlord.

“She has tried!” Hervilafimir said. “He took his wound in Sword, and she labored over him sennight upon sennight before bringing him to us!”

“Then why is he not yet dead?” Vieliessar grumbled, slipping her feet into her leather-soled stockings. It was Fire Moon now, which meant eight sennights at least since Amlunan had taken his injury. She Called a basin of water to her and splashed her face, then Sent it away again and took a deep breath. “No, tell me as we go. He is in the healing chambers, is he not?”

“These four candlemarks,” Hervilafimir answered, as they walked from the sleeping room. “I would not have called upon you, but I cannot break the spell.”

“Spell?” Vieliessar said sharply. To bespell the Warlord of a House for baneful purposes was treason if done by that House’s Lightborn, and warcraft if done by another House. Either was impossible to imagine.

“Dormorothon has said it was no Lightborn, but one of the Beastlings who did this.”

“She is here?” Vieliessar demanded, her mind racing. Aramenthiali lay east of Caerthalien; half a dozen domains and the Sanctuary itself lay between them and the Western Shore. Where had Amlunan taken such hurt?

“She is,” Hervilfimir said grimly. “Nor will she leave his side—she and all her entourage.”

Their conversation had taken them down the staircase and along the corridor that led to the healing chambers. Vieliessar’s steps slowed. She could see the echoes of the Banespell clinging to the walls and the floor like filth.

Fimir knew it was a Banespell—she would have Warded the treatment chamber …

But it was as if there were no Shields at all. Vieliessar’s spellsight showed foulness like liquid shadow pooling upon the floor, bedewing the walls, wafting through the air like an evil fog. Banespells drew power from their victims and could even claim the lives of those around the afflicted.

It is the great mercy of Sword and Star that there are few patients here today, Vieliessar thought, for the whole of the healing chambers would need cleansing once Amlunan had been Healed.

Or had died.

The Banespell eddied around those standing sentry in the hall.

Ladyholder Dormorothon’s hair was as short as any other Lightborn’s, but she wore a veil of glittering silver gauze that masked its length. She wore the green-and-silver of the Sanctuary, but the cut and fabric of her garments was as elaborate as any Lady of a High House might wear, and her ears, neck, wrists, and fingers were heavy with jewels. Behind her stood two komen with surcoats of Aramenthiali blue and gold over their armor, and beside them, two youngsters who had not yet reached their second decade. One wore the heavy padded leather that proclaimed her an arming page, the other the soft and fashionable silks that marked him as Dormorothon’s personal page.

“You may not loiter here,” Vieliessar said sharply. “Lightsister, you know this well. If you will not go to the guesthouse yourself, then send your people there at once.”

For a moment it seemed as if Dormorothon would argue, but then she raised her hand. “Geleborn, take the others to Mistress Hamonglachele. I will remain to attend Amlunan,” she added, staring challengingly at Vieliessar.

“You will go with them, for if your power was great enough to aid Amlunan you would not be here at all,” Vieliessar said sharply. She did not wait to see if Dormorothon obeyed.

Vieliessar strengthened her Shields, then sent Power to the door of the chamber in which Amlunan waited. Energy crackled over and through the Banespell, but did not dispel it. She had not thought it would. She slid the door aside.

The healing chamber was large, for it was as much a place of teaching as it was a place of healing. Disease and injury could befall both Lightborn and Lightless alike, and in cases where Healing need not be done, the proper spells could still lift pain from the sufferer. To the Lightless, it seemed all that was needed was a touch or a gesture—and so Vieliessar had believed herself until the day she had first come under Hervilafimir’s tutelage. In truth, the Lightborn must first see the patient whole and unmarred, and next, eliminate the discord between their self as it was, and as it had been and would be. If only the flesh required aid, that was a simple enough matter. If spirit or mind had been harmed—or if the sufferer were bespelled—the task was more complex.

The Lightless believed that sometimes a Healing failed. The truth, as all Lightborn knew, was that if the Healer survived, the Healing had not failed. But there were times a Healer must choose—their own life, or the life of their patient.

I shall not choose, Vieliessar told herself grimly.

Amlunan should have been in the vigor of his middle years, his body filled with the strength and grace of a life spent upon the battlefield. The warrior who lay upon the bed was gaunt with illness, his body prematurely withered and frail. His long black hair was dull and lifeless, his cheeks sunken with pain. The stench of bane and wound-fever assaulted Vieliessar’s senses. The new, white bandages that Hervilafimir must have placed upon his wound were already stained with wound-poison and his ivory skin had a grey undertone. Yet his dark eyes were bright and aware. Were he not strong, he would have died sennights ago.

“Lightsister,” he said, his voice a croaking whisper. “Have you come to summon the Silver Hooves to bear me away?”

“I come to cast out the hurt you have taken,” Vieliessar said crisply. “Naught else.” Walking the few steps to his bedside made her skin crawl even through her shields. It was as if she was immersed in a chill river of slime.

“My Lady has tried. Your own Healing Mistress as well. Who are you to set your power above theirs?”

“One whom Hervilafimir thinks shall prevail,” she answered. She knelt beside his bed and reached for his hand.

“I would know your name,” Amlunan insisted, struggling to raise himself to a sitting position and failing in his weakness.

“And I would know how you came to take this hurt,” Vieliessar answered. Amlunan had been Warlord of Aramenthiali in Serenthon’s day; she would not conjure old enmities to complicate her task. Her fingers closed around his hand. It was cold and clammy, and she could feel the tremors of pain that passed through him.

“As any might,” Amlunan whispered, closing his eyes. “Aramenthiali sent aid to Cirandeiron. They suspected Daroldan of betrayal, though Daroldan was bound to peace by treaty. In the forest of Avribalzar did Aramenthiali absolve Daroldan.” He paused, struggling for breath. “A she-beast did this. She struck me with a spear. Slain by Guiomar Lightbrother, she slew him in turn. At first, I knew not of her deceitfulness.” Even that short speech had exhausted him. He turned his head away, gasping for breath.

Vieliessar had questioned Amlunan to summon to the surface of his mind his memories of that day. His words were of less import than his thoughts. As if she had been there, Vieliessar saw the dimness of the forest, the furred form of the Beastling shamaness as she reared up out of concealment to strike. The Beastlings were clever, and their sorcerers doubly so—she could see, now, how the Banespell had defeated both Hervilafimir and Dormorothon. Amlunan’s wound was in his thigh, but the spear had not needed to pierce his flesh to do him harm. It had been crafted to transform the energy of Healing to feed shields that would make Healing impossible, while continuing to work its evil behind them.

My power is greater than theirs.

Once she had dreamed of becoming a Knight. She had already survived more and fiercer battles than any save the greatest of komentai’a could boast of. It was not for her skill at Healing that Hervilafimir had called her, but for her power.

It was time now to ride to battle once more.

She closed her eyes.

Merely to break through the Banespell’s defenses to read Amlunan’s true self was a terrible fight. She was forced to drop her own shields to See him clearly, and from that moment, the Banespell fed upon them both.

She had expected that. It was how she would win.

She felt the Banespell’s coldness slide into the marrow of her bones and knew her life to be measured now in heartbeats. Felt the malevolent shield its mistress had crafted for it wrap itself about her, sealing her away from all aid her brethren might render.

Sealing her within its compass with the one she sought to Heal.

Sometimes these spell-battles returned to her in dreams, clothing themselves in words and homely form. Sometimes she knew herself clad in armor of green and silver, wielding a sword that burned like starlight, mounted upon a destrier as white as the moon, fighting alone against a vast and ever-hungry horde of Beastlings until sword, armor, destrier—all—were stained with monstrous ichor.

Now she held the image of Amlunan strong within her mind, demanding of the Light that what she saw must become the world’s truth. Because she desired it. Because she willed it. Because the world itself must bow to the will of the Lightborn.

If the Lightborn was strong enough.

She felt Arevethmonion’s life beat brightly against her skin. Hers to command. Hers to wield. If she chose, she could drain it to dust, until nothing remained of it but sterile sand. She could drain the life from every leaf and stalk and tree and flower, then reach out and take the lives which filled the Sanctuary of the Star. Take the beasts of the fields, the birds of the air, the fishes of river, lake, and the vast ocean itself.

All could be hers, if she chose.

But not today. Even the vile sorcery of the Beastling shamaness was not great enough to outmatch Arevethmonion’s might, wielded by one who did not count the cost. Brightness beyond sun, beyond fire, beyond the matchless blaze of Silverlight filled her senses.

In that moment, it seemed the Light had voice, a living consciousness like her own. This is what I give, if you are strong enough to take it …

And her Healing was done.

She blinked dazedly at the walls of the Healing chamber. She felt suddenly alone, as if a dearly loved one had left her, for spellcraft was not without cost. Like a magnificent destrier, its power was the Lightborn’s to call and command, but to control its power was wearying as riding a high-couraged stallion and bending the beast to one’s will. Every Healer was taught to keep back enough power from the green life upon which it fed to heal one’s own hurts. This time, she had not been able to.

For long moments Vieliessar stared, exhausted, at nothing. Amlunan’s breathing had evened into true and restful sleep. She knew she should rouse herself and bring the news to Hervilafimir, but she could not find the strength. She came to herself at last as gentle hands lifted her to her feet.

“The jewel of Aramenthiali lives,” she heard Maeredhiel say. “As does nine-blessed Arevethmonion, despite your efforts. Now sleep.”

* * *

By the time Vieliessar could rise from her bed once more, Aramenthiali had departed the Sanctuary, but it had left behind it unexpected treasure.

“All I know is what I have said,” Hamonglachele said. “Komen and great lords may speak before us as if we are nothing more than chests and tapestries, but they would surely notice if a tapestry were to question them!”

Vieliessar laughed, and shoved her counter across the gan board with one fingertip. Even as a Postulant, she had never entirely abandoned the Servants’ Hall, for it seemed uncivil to her to abandon old companions merely because of a change in fortune. Though she now wore Lightborn green, the servants still welcomed her as one of their own—and in truth, who else might she call friend? Candidates stayed for a scant wheel of seasons; Postulants for a decade or two. She could number upon her fingers the Lightborn who tenanted the Sanctuary for even half an Astromancer’s reign—and she did not call Hamphuliadiel or his court of sycophants ‘friend’.

“Did a tapestry hear that the Child of the Prophecy had risen in Haldil, I think even it would cry out,” Vieliessar said dryly.

‘Aramenthiali helps to hold the West without thought for its own advantage because in the East, the Four Score behave as unruly children,’” Hamonglachele quoted mockingly. “Think you such a marvel can be true?”

“If Malbeth of Haldil is Child of the Prophecy, anything is possible,” Vieliessar said. “And I have you surrounded, Mistress ’Chele.”

Hamonglachele looked down at the board and laughed. “The student surpasses the master!” she cried. “I have nothing left to teach you.”

Vieliessar smiled, then scooped her counters off the board, for it was nearly time to dim the lamps. She tidied away the gan set and thanked Hamonglachele for the game, then walked from the Servants’ Wing back to her chamber.

It was a place less stark than her Postulant chamber had been. Her clothing belonged to her now, rather than being from a common store, and she possessed a fine carved chest that held winter and summer robes and underrobes. A shelf hung upon her wall, deep enough to hold scrolls borrowed from the library plus cherrybark canisters of her special tea blendings and a flat book where she recorded her experiments and recipes. Beneath it was a table at which she might sit to read or write, and a cushion on which to kneel. Though her bed was no softer than her Candidate’s bed had been, its frame was carved and polished and her blankets were of new wool.

She did not set the walls alight as she entered, but went to the window and folded back the shutters. Fire Moon was waning. Soon it would be Harvest—and what of Haldil then?

She was certain ’Chele knew as well as any here that Celelioniel had named her—and not Malbeth of Haldil—Child of the Prophecy. But to the Sanctuary servants, the title was empty words, a riddle meant only for scholars.

Or, as Haldil clearly had decided … a pretext.

There were a Hundred Houses divided into Great and Less, but any child of a great court knew there were more divisions than two. There were the Great Houses whose position was unquestioned—Caerthalien, Aramenthiali, Cirandeiron—which had held their places since Amrethion High King ruled. There were Less Houses which would never aspire to greater rank—Hallorad, Penenjil, Kerethant. And there were Less Houses which swore themselves High—but when one spoke of the “Four Score,” one spoke of the Less Houses of whose status there was no dispute. Those were the Houses held in clientage by this High House or that. In exchange for its protection, a High House demanded a yearly tithe, the right to call upon its client’s levy knights in time of war …

… and the renunciation of the Less House War Prince’s claim to the Unicorn Throne.

But Haldil did not look so high as to make itself High King’s House. Haldil was a House of the Grand Windsward; in claiming Malbeth as the fulfillment of Amrethion’s Prophecy, War Prince Gonceivis had declared “The time of High House and Low” was ended.

Which meant Haldil—and those who followed Haldil—renounced their clientage to their overlords in the West.

The tale had been played out a thousand thousand times in the histories she had read. The Hundred Houses fought among themselves. They would fight until the end of the world over who was to be High King. They had fought for thousands of years.

Haldith knows it does not hold the Child of the Prophecy. Enerchelimier has only to ask Celelioniel Lightsister to bear witness to that—should Enerchelimier wish to avow itself loyal. That she named me is—I think—no secret.

Haldil’s gambit was a clever pretext, nothing more.

And the Twelve will fling themselves upon the pretext like a hawk upon a lure, and never ask the question they should ask.

Why do the Four Score rebel against their accustomed masters? Why now?

Such speculation was only another game for her—like xaique, like gan, like narshir. She was Lightborn, of no House. The strivings of the Hundred could not affect her.

So she thought.

* * *

“Beru, I cannot find the Jade Mirror scroll,” Vieliessar complained.

Beruthiel Lightsister, Arevethmonion’s Mistress, laughed quietly. She had succeeded Cirthoriach Lightsister as mistress of Arevethmonion in the usual way: beginning in her Postulant days with a taste for scholarship and a fascination with the Great Library’s mysteries, she had returned many times through the centuries to assist the then-mistress of Arevethmonion in her tasks, before gaining a boon of her War Prince that permitted her a longer stay. The Astromancer served from fruiting to fruiting: the Mistress—or Master—of Scrolls served until age or disinterest made them lay aside their duty.

“How sad it is to see one once so promising in scholarship set that promise aside!” Beruthiel teased. “The Jade Mirror has been archived. No one thought it of any significance, and there is little enough space for scrolls as it is.”

“But … I cannot find The Book of Days, either. And I was certain there was more than one copy. Or The Fire Alphabet. Or The Book of Veils. And I was looking at them, well … not so long ago.”

“What do you wish to know?” Beruthiel asked, her smile fading. “I have but little skill in walking the Veiled Path—but if something troubles you, there is no reason you should not go to the Shrine and bespeak the Silver Hooves yourself, you know.”

“It isn’t the future I wish to see, but the past,” Vieliessar said. “I suppose I must go into the storage archives, then.”

“It is … you must seek the Astromancer’s permission,” Beruthiel said, sounding embarrassed. “Those books are in the Locked Cases, and … I know you are no Postulant, but the Astromancer has given orders that all the books of spells and prophecy are not to be released except upon his word.”

A word Vieliessar knew she was not likely to receive, now or ever.

“It was a few moonturns after you took the Green Robe, I think,” Beruthiel added.

“So long as that?” Vieliessar forced herself to smile, as if her heart was untroubled. “It was but a fancy, Beru. Do not distress yourself.”

The news of Haldil’s rebellion had sparked her curiosity—for The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel seemed an odd and esoteric pretext for rebellion. She would have set the notion aside, save for a chance remark Rondithiel Lightbrother had made.

Hamphuliadiel Astromancer’s house was Haldil.

There was no proscription against knowing the Houses of the Lightborn. In fact it was often a matter of vital importance, for the swiftest messages went forth by spellbird or Farspeaking, and such communication lay solely within the hands of the Lightborn, who would render no aid to a House not their own. If Gonceivis Haldil had taken his cause for war from some meddling of Hamphuliadiel, perhaps the reasons lay within the scrolls that spoke of the Prophecy.

But what she found was more troubling to her than any news of distant rebellion, or thinking the Astromancer of the Sanctuary of the Star chose to make the Hundred into counters on a xaique board.

There was no longer a full copy of The Song of Amrethion anywhere on the shelves—the last scroll in every available copy, the scroll containing the Prophecy-or-Curse, had been altered so it no longer contained it. The commentaries on the Song were either missing entirely, or the vellum had been cut and re-glued so the chapters analyzing the Song were gone. And as she’d just discovered, it was not just the Song. The Jade Mirror was an important text, how could Beruthiel, could anyone, say it was of no importance? The Book of Days, The Book of Veils, The Fire Alphabet … every book recording prophecies was either missing entirely or locked away as if it contained dangerous spellcraft.

All those texts should be here, so the Postulants could learn from them.

Those lacunae led her to investigate the Histories, but there were disturbing gaps there too. The scrolls detailing the lives of the Astromancers were gone. She could find their names, from Mosirinde Peacemaker down to Hamphuliadiel—but no texts of their lives more recent than Timirmar Astromancer’s, and there had been thirty Astromancers since Timirmar’s reign. Where were the lists of decisions made, of Postulants who became Lightborn in each reign, the lists of spells cast, Healings performed, Foretellings and interpretations made?

A library of magic without magic is a poor library indeed, Vieliessar thought sourly. If I make known those things Hamphuliadiel has done, I will have no allies to help me make all as it was. Nor will his fears of me be allayed. Yet he fears me already …

And Hamphuliadiel had always found fault with her even when both law and custom were on her side.

He has often mocked Celelioniel’s obsession with Amrethion’s Prophecy. But I think he must believe in it, or why would he take such pains to render it impossible to prove? It cannot merely be for Haldil’s benefit. No War Prince truly seeks his causes in ancient lore. He has done this to us—to the Lightborn.

To me.

Celelioniel had named Vieliessar Child of the Prophecy, the one whose birth would—so Amrethion had written—herald the coming of the Darkness and bring an end to the Hundred Houses. Celelioniel had chosen Hamphuliadiel to carry on her work. It was why she had supported his bid to become Astromancer. But once he had, Hamphuliadiel had betrayed her. Clearly he meant to dismiss all thought in anyone’s mind that the Prophecy might be true. He’d already removed every scroll that would help the Lightborn decide for themselves.

If the question arose.

When it arose.

Foretelling was not Vieliessar’s spell to call. She did not know what the future held, and in truth, she had never wanted to, for what she had learned in her vigil within the Shrine had frightened her more than she had ever wished to admit. Now she wished she had tried harder to master it. At least then she would know when the Darkness her birth had foretold would come.

Perhaps it is I who am the Darkness. Why else would Hamphuliadiel hate me so?

* * *

Those words came back to Vieliessar many times the following winter. It was the hardest winter she had ever spent.

She spent it outside the Sanctuary.

They had learned of the Windsward Rebellion in Fire, and it had taken her through Rade to discover what Hamphiliadiel had done to the Great Library. Through all that winter she had stayed quiet and meek, but then Flower came, and a new year of Postulants were chosen.

There were only six Lightborn residents at the Sanctuary these days, a fraction of the number there’d once been, and Hervilafimir’s and Beruthiel’s duties occupied so much of their time that they could not be spared to shepherd new Postulants into the knowledge of the Light. Vieliessar’s practice of spellcraft had never been either elegant or conventional enough to satisfy her fellow Lightborn—Rondithiel thought it must be because of all the time she had practiced in secret; Pamaneith Lightbrother thought it was because she had come to the Light so late. But even if no one wished her to teach the Light itself, Vieliessar knew as much about its theory and history as any here.

And more than some.

She began innocently enough. But moonturn followed moonturn, and she turned from teaching the Candidates what they could still find upon the shelves of Arevethmonion to teaching them of those scrolls which now existed nowhere but in her memories. She could not bear for these Postulants to go forth into the world crippled and half educated.

She hadn’t thought what she did would be discovered at all; Hamphuliadiel paid little attention to the Postulants and no one else would think what she was teaching was at all unusual. But one morning, a sennight after she’d begun, she’d barely settled herself in her seat in the Refectory, thinking of little more than the Postulants she would see today, when Momioniarch Lightsister came to stand behind her chair.

“Hamphuliadiel Astromancer summons you to attend him at the Shrine, Lightsister,” she said.

Puzzled, Vieliessar nodded. “I come,” she answered. She got to her feet and waved away the young Candidate who was serving breakfast.

When she reached the antechamber of the Shrine, Hamphuliadiel stood in its center. Everyone was at the morning meal, even the servants; there was no one to see. Behind him, as if he were a great prince and they his komentai’a, stood Galathornthadan and Sunalanthaid. Two more from Haldil, she noted automatically, for of the four Lightborn who seemed to attend upon Hamphuliadiel as if it were their only task, only Orchalianiel was not from Haldil—and Orchalianiel was from Bethros, to which Hamphuliadiel also had ties.

“Lord Astromancer,” Vieliessar said, still confused. She shivered. The outer doors of the vestibule were open, as they were each day, and the air here was cold.

“I have done all I could to save you, Vieliessar, for it is in my mind that to lose one of the Lightborn for any cause would be a terrible loss. My patience is infinite, but my wisdom is not. All I can do is present you for judgment to an authority greater than my own.”

“Who judges me?” Vieliessar demanded. “For what crime? I have not trans—” I have not transgressed against the Covenant.

“I will not debate with you,” Hamphuliadiel said sharply, raising his hand.

Suddenly Vieliessar felt the touch of a spell settle over her skin—and with that touch she was once more a child standing before Ladyholder Glorthiachiel in Caerthalien’s Great Hall. This spell stopped her words, but not her volition. She took a step toward Hamphuliadiel, barely forcing herself to stop before she struck him.

“Your spirit is too cunning,” Hamphuliadiel continued, as if she had fallen silent of her own accord. “It leads you into folly. And so I say this—as Arevethmonion has revealed your corruption, let Arevethmonion judge if you are worthy to dwell among us. I lay upon you this charge: go from the Sanctuary of the Star to dwell in Arevethmonion. If she will shelter you, return to us in Rain, healed and welcome.”

Her horror and rage were enough to sweep away the spell of Silence as if it were never cast. “Rain is four moonturns from now,” she said hoarsely. Who had told Hamphuliadiel—what had they told him? Why was it so important to him to banish the study of prophecy from the Sanctuary of the Star?

“I will fetch my cloak and boots and go,” she said quickly, before he could bespell her to silence again. Once she was out of his sight, she could Cloak herself and reach the Servants’ Hall by the secret passageways. She could leave a message for Rondithiel or Pamaneith—Maeredhiel would see it was delivered …

“You will go as you are,” Hamphuliadiel answered.

Momioniarch Lightsister stepped into the vestibule and opened the inner door. The freezing wind of Snow Moon swept into the antechamber: Winter High Queen with her komentai of snow and sleet and ice. Suddenly the floor seemed colder and Vieliessar’s Green Robe thinner than they had moments before.

She’d miscalculated badly. Underestimated her opponent, underestimated the need for caution. And now there was nothing she could do but obey the “judgment” that was in truth a coward’s method of execution. Stay and kill him—she could—and she did not know what would happen next, only that she would have shattered the holiest custom of the Sanctuary.

Maeredhiel will see I am gone. No matter what tale Hamphuliadiel tells, she will see through it. I pray the Silver Hooves she does. Of all who were present on the night of my birth, she is the only one I dare trust.

“I will see you in Rain Moon, Lord Astromancer,” Vieliessar answered, her voice hard.

She turned her back and strode from the Sanctuary.

* * *

It had been cold inside the Sanctuary. Outside, it was freezing. The trees and hedges of Rosemoss Farm were bare and leafless in winter’s cold. Her breath was a white cloud, and her skin burned. Before she’d gone a dozen steps toward the outer gateposts, her leather-soled socks were wet through, for it had snowed last night and no one had yet swept the path this morning. Still, she did not stop or hesitate, for she was certain Hamphuliadiel or one of his lackeys watched to see what she would do.

As she passed through the outer gates of the Sanctuary of the Star, she could not keep from shuddering. Outside the Sanctuary. Outside its bounds. Prey for any hunter willing to defy ancient custom.

A Lightsister is no man’s prey. The Covenant did not say she could not defend herself—merely that she could not use the Light for the benefit of her House—or any other—in war. And I am Vieliessar of Lost Farcarinon—I have no House!

One step. Another. She called up her shields. They formed a barrier against the implacable wind, just as they would deflect arrow or swordblade, but they gave no heat. Arevethmonion was green, lush with eternal springtide … and more than half a mile away.

By the time she gained its shelter, her body ached with cold, though as she stepped beneath the trees, her skin tingled with the power all around her. It was not magic. Not precisely. It was that stuff of which Magery was woven, as thread was turned to cloth upon a loom. Light within called to Light without, and so the Flower Forests heeded the call of the Lightborn, feeding their spells, making them possible. She stepped from the road into the shelter of the trees. Only then, concealed from any who might watch, did she permit herself to slow, to stop, to hug herself against the cold and the fear. It was warmer here in the Flower Forest … but not as warm as it was in the Sanctuary.

Witless girl! You have sent Postulants to Arevethmonion year upon year to gather the ingredients for cordials, for incense, to gain vision and prophecy! You taught them that the Flower Forest holds food, shelter, and medicine, just as Hervilafimir taught you. Well, now you may see this storehouse and citadel and larder for yourself.

Warmth and shelter were her first needs. To Call an object from wherever it was to one’s hand was a simple skill, providing that one knew precisely what one wished to call and where it lay. But when she tried to Call one of the heavy winter cloaks from its hanging-peg beside the garden door, then her wooden sandals from her sleeping cell, she could summon neither.

The Wards around the Sanctuary were strong—but they had always been set to keep the untutored spells of the Postulants from getting out, not to keep one of the Lightborn from reaching in. Undoubtedly Hamphuliadiel had changed that. To break them was not beyond the power she might call if she wished—but to shatter the Wards might be to shatter the walls as well. And it would be an act of violence against the one place in all the Fortunate Lands where violence was forbidden. She would find another way.

She walked for candlemarks, moving deeper into the heart of the forest, warming herself with movement. Arevethmonion was hushed and watchful around her—she had gone deeper into the Flower Forest than anyone had in her knowledge or memory. Craftworkers might enter a Flower Forest to bring away felltimber, hunters might pursue game beneath its branches, but only Lightborn had ventured into Arevethmonion since the Sanctuary of the Star had been founded, and they stayed mostly at the forest’s edge.

At last she reached a clearing, a space opened up by the death of trees so ancient that the width of their fallen trunks towered above her head. Here, she thought. She must have shelter, a place to sleep. She would make them here. She could cause the forest earth to flow and re-form as a potter shaped clay. She formed the shape of her intention in her mind and raised a hand to begin.

And stopped.

She could feel Arevethmonion’s heartbeat, the Flower Forest’s soft breath. Unfair—wrong—to impose her will upon Lady Arevethmonion simply because she could. She waited, holding the shape of her intention, her need, bright upon the surface of her mind, reaching out with Lightborn senses for Arevethmonion’s response. Her years of training had taught her that the Light required patience: she was prepared to wait as long as she must before beginning. She closed her eyes.

Her mind wandered from this fancy to that, as it would when she spent too long in meditation. Vieliessar thought of the hare eluding the fox with speed and disguise, the vixen hiding from the hawk and the wolf in deep, warm burrows. She thought of mice and bears sleeping the winter away, of all the inhabitants of any forest who preserved their lives by guile and who survived the winter in safe shelter.

When she opened her eyes again, the clearing looked very different. She stepped away from the place she had meant to put her sleeping place. Not there. Here. She touched the trunk of the fallen tree. Time and animals had stripped away its bark; insects burrowed into its wood, seeking food, shelter, sanctuary. In a century or two it would be gone—rot and weather would have returned it to the forest, to feed its successors. Meanwhile it would give her not only heat and shelter but concealment.

When the earth had transformed beneath her Magecraft, there was a deep burrow beneath the trunk of one of the fallen trees, one that could barely be seen from outside. She had made a chimney within the tree itself—a small matter to visualize a channel through the dead heartwood, with its opening near the tree’s distant crown—and there was felltimber in plenty.

Almost she conjured a spring to appear where none had been, before she remembered to listen for Lady Arevethmonion’s voice. When she had, she walked a short distance to where a tiny stream flowed among the trees, its current brisk with winter snow. She drank her fill and returned to her burrow. She set a spellshield before the door before she kindled her fire, and soon smoke was drawing sweetly through her chimney.

She curled up against the back wall to think. Survival was her first need. The plan she must implement when she returned to the Sanctuary was the second.

The shelter she had built was vital to both, she realized. No matter his fine words, Hamphuliadiel meant her to die here. In a sennight, a fortnight, a moonturn he would send someone to Arevethmonion to find her body. It did not matter whether he sent friend or foe; he would undoubtedly look into the mind of whomever he sent to see what they had seen. Or—if he possessed more resources than she imagined—he would send a warrior who would slay her if she was found alive.

It might be nothing more than her panic and imagination which painted this future, but she must behave as if it were real. She had studied enough history of the Hundred Houses to know their tangled tales of alliance, betrayal, murder, and assassination. Even one of the Lightborn could be slain if someone wished it ardently enough. And anything that had happened once could happen again.

If anyone sought her, she must not be found.

* * *

Learning Lady Arevethmonion’s rhythms occupied her through Snow Moon and into Ice. The Flower Forests were timeless places, and it would be a simple matter to tarry here for a year, a decade, a century, without awareness of the passage of time. The eternal springtide of the Flower Forest gave her fruit, mushrooms, tender roots, even honey … a far more lavish table than in the Sanctuary’s Refectory. She wove blankets of grass, shaped sandals of felltimber, dug river clay to line her fire pit and conjured Fire to bake it hard.

She listened—always—to the voice of the Flower Forest.

It was as if she spent her days in a waking dream, her mind growing closer to the vast green mind of the Flower Forest—of all Flower Forests, for whether a league or a thousand leagues apart they were all one. Magery had taught her how fragile the world was, how only her own conscience could protect it—now Arevethmonion showed her she did not have to find that strength alone.

Listen, and I will tell you a story, a true story …

It was the phrase with which the talesingers and songsmiths began their performances, giving the promise of truth. Lady Arevethmonion made the same appeal, the same promise.


Ice became Storm. Vieliessar stood in the shadow of one of the great trees, barely a step from the road to the Sanctuary, watching unseen as hounds and hunters sought her. Six were mounted, and of that number, two wore the armor of knights. Their cloaks and surcoats were featureless white—as were the saddlecloths and trappings of their mounts—just as if they were arming pages, unannointed by battle. But they were far too old for that, and her inward sight showed her that their armor, shields, and weapons all glowed with the deep blue fire of spellcraft.

With the knights rode four huntsmen armed with bows and spears, and beside them, afoot among the animals of the pack, walked the Master of Hounds and his apprentice. The hounds were as diverse as the hunters: tall swift hikuliasa, noble sight hounds as swift as an arrow’s flight; merry and tireless teckle hounds, able to track prey over stone and water candlemark after candlemark; fierce thick-muscled boarhounds able to course the most savage prey—even several of the earth-dogs legendary for their willingness to suffer any injury in pursuit of their chosen prey.

Knowing that she had been right in her most mistrustful fantasy did not make Vieliessar happy. It only showed her how much Hamphuliadiel—or someone—feared her.

But if she was feared, she was also loved. The Light ensured there was no scent for the teckles to follow, and the Light gave her the power to render herself unseen, but it was the skill she had learned from Lady Arevethmonion that allowed Vieliessar to follow the hunters on noiseless feet, leaving no track upon the forest floor.

They spent three days searching Arevethmonion for her, and did not even find the places she slept.

Thoughts of war, declared and secret, had occupied Vieliessar’s mind even before the arrival of the hunters. Her thoughts—and her dreams—were troubled, and she apologized often to Lady Arevethmonion, for her tangled emotions were mirrored in the slow mind of the Flower Forest, troubling its serenity. But she could not—dared not—leave the riddle unexamined.

Serenthon Farcarinon had declared war, fought, and died. Celelioniel had proclaimed Vieliessar Child of the Prophecy, and Vieliessar believed Celelioniel had pledged her to war with that naming before she had drawn ten breaths.

But against whom?

She reviewed all she’d ever learned of the Curse. Once—in the reign of Amrethion and Pelashia, millennia ago—the Fortunate Lands had been at peace. All Trueborn had done fealty to High King Amrethion and Great Queen Pelashia, and of that time little record remained, for what tales were there to tell of a happy, peaceful land? Then the queen had died, and the king had gone mad, and no one had been crowned High King after him, for his children and hers were all gone.

There were a thousand tales of how Pelashia had died, of Amrethion’s fate, of their children. It didn’t matter which one was true. From that day to this, the Hundred Houses had been at war with one another, each vying to make its prince High King, while Amrethion’s Song moldered in scholars’ libraries. Somewhere, sometime, the destined Child would be born, and that Child would destroy the Hundred Houses. (“You have come to end us,” whispered the voice of the Starry Huntsman in her memory.) The Child of the Prophecy would claim that which had been lost; innocuous enough, but the Prophecy also spoke of a Darkness which prepared itself for war in unknown lands.


She considered a hundred enemies and dismissed them all. “Darkness” couldn’t be the Beastlings, since the lands they infested were hardly unknown. “What was lost”—and waiting to be reclaimed—was obviously the Unicorn Throne and the High Kingship. And each of the War Princes had been trying to do exactly that since the fall of Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor.

But who would bring the end of the Hundred Houses, and who would sit upon the Unicorn Throne? The same person? And how was the Child of the Prophecy to accomplish this? Even if she broke the Covenant, she could only turn the Fortunate Lands into a lifeless desert. If Vieliessar pledged herself to their destruction, the Hundred would defend themselves in every way they could. Even if she only struck down the Houses of the Great Alliance that had ended Farcarinon—Caerthalien, Aramenthiali, Cirandeiron, Telthorelandor—the Lightborn would band together to destroy her.

Either the Prophecy is true in every detail or it is not true at all, Vieliessar thought in exasperation. Celelioniel had believed in the Prophecy and preserved Vieliessar’s life. Whether Hamphuliadiel believed in the Prophecy or thought it meaningless nonsense, he should not be trying to kill her.

It made no sense.

And Hamphuliadiel had put the explanations far beyond her reach.



Under King Virulan’s rule, the World Without Sun … flourished.

Time had mantled Obsidian Mountain in a sheath of lifeless ice. In the frozen land over which it brooded, day and night were of equal length, each occupying half a Brightworld year. Here the Endarkened, their bodies obedient to King Virulan’s sorcery, produced offspring, and their numbers grew.

And with it, their curiosity.

That which lived could be shaped. The Endarkened could not truly share their magic—and had no wish to, in any event—but they could share much of their essential nature.

The first creatures of their making were the Lesser Endarkened.

They were less than half the height of the Endarkened, though few of them could stand fully erect. Wingless, tailless—or with short stubby tails—hooved instead of footed, their brows and spines barbed and ridged, their skin as black as the Shadow Throne, rough and scaled.

Nor were they nearly as clever as their tall and beautiful cousins.

The Endarkened delighted in these new creations. They were lazy and sly and treacherous, but they were incapable of posing a threat to their creators. The Lesser Endarkened performed that toil for which the Endarkened had little taste: enlarging the caverns and passages of the World Without Sun; tending the vast farms of strange pale fungus, the soft writhing worms and tunneling insects for whom the kiss of the sun was fatal, the lakes of glowing blind fish. The numbers of the Endarkened had increased to the point where the power of the Deep Earth alone was not enough to sustain them. Eating had become, not an occasional amusement, but a necessity.

As much of a necessity as pain.

The children of He Who Is were bound by the laws of time and matter, and even His vast power could not create—in that realm—a sorcery that did not require payment. Their power came from the pain and fear of their victims and from the anguish and despair of their victims’ deaths. Each spell they cast was paid for in the blood and suffering of others.

The Endarkened wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Endarkened never left witnesses to any of their hunts, nor any sign a hunt had occurred, by King Virulan’s decree. He did not intend his people’s prey to suspect the existence of their hunters until the day his preparations were complete, and his legions rose up out of the earth to begin their slaughter.

But his people must have slaves, and food, and entertainment, and so they ranged across the world.


To the ranks of their shambling, bestial courtiers, they added slaves from every realm in the Bright World: Centaurs, Minotaurs, Gryphons, Bearwards, Hippogriffs, Aesalions, Elves, and more. Each provided special delights to the Endarkened. It was their greatest delight to capture any of the Winged Ones, to drag them beneath the earth, to rip the wings from their bodies. The Winged Ones never lasted, but their suffering was beautiful to their enslavers.

Those creatures of deep forest were nearly as fragile. Bearwards pined for the cool green life that was taken from them. Fauns died quickly of grief. Pixies and fairies, trapped away from their fields of flowers, starved slowly, their bodies glowing beautifully in their death agonies.

Centaurs and Minotaurs lasted much longer, prized by the Endarkened as much for their strength as for the torture they could withstand.

But the greatest prize in any Endarkened slave hunt was the Elves.

The Elvenkind were hard to take without suspicion. The creatures called themselves alfaljodthi—Children of Stars—and their shape was a mockery of Endarkened beauty. Their skin was grub-pale. Their long pointed ears only made more obvious the lack of beautiful golden horns. Their mouths were filled with stubby pointed teeth, their toes and fingers were blunt and soft. They had neither wings nor tails.

But they were durable—as much as any Brightworlder was—and they suffered beautifully.

The first Elves the Endarkened took as slaves cried out to Aradhwain the Mare, and wept for their herds, and the vast openness of the Goldengrass. Time passed in the Bright World, and the new Elven captives lamented for their beautiful palaces among The Teeth of the Moon, and cried out to Manafaeren Law Lord to deliver them. Time passed, and they cried out to Amrethion and Pelashia, to the Sword-Giver and the Bride of Battles, to the Starry Hunt.

None of their Brightworld powers saved them.

And Virulan had been confident none of them ever would.

* * *

“What is your name, little Elfling?” Rugashag purred. The Royal Consort’s eyes glowed gold with anticipation; her scarlet skin was flushed brilliant with lust. All around her, King Virulan’s favored courtiers murmured in anticipation of the treat about to be presented.

The captive’s face was contorted with terror—for Rugashag had been careful to bring him to the Heart of Darkness by a way that made him fully aware of the horrors of his fate—but there was no other mark on him. Rugashag had found him in the western reaches of the Goldengrass, and followed him carefully for a long time to be certain he could be taken in secret. The Elfling had been so concerned with hiding from his race’s many enemies that he had not noticed one more hunter.

Fool, Virulan thought.

Rugashag had brought him directly to the Heart of Darkness, knowing King Virulan took special pleasure in watching new captives’ realization of their fate. He knew that she hoped by these shows of submission to lull him to the point she could destroy him. He cherished each spark of her futile rebellion, just as he had from the beginning. One day—if he grew bored enough—he would end it.

“What are you?” the Elfling whispered, his voice shaking with beautiful terror.

“We are death and pain and darkness. We are your masters,” Virulan said, smiling hideously. “Kneel.”

Virulan rose to his feet, his nostrils flaring as he inhaled sharply. He had grown used to the stink of soil and sun upon the flesh of new slaves over the centuries. But this was … different.


“No!” the Elfling shouted. He flung himself away from Rugashag, the tatters of his green robes swirling about his limbs. “I will never serve you! Never!

Rugashag laughed mockingly, spreading her wings and baring her fangs.

The stink Virulan had sensed grew stronger. He took a step forward.

“The simplest spell…” the Elfling whispered. Tears glittered in his eyes.

And then his body erupted in flame.

The Endarkened sprang back in surprise, though mere flame had no power to harm them. The captive began to scream in agony, and the sweetness of the sound held Virulan transfixed for a fatal moment. By the time he doused the flame with a spell, the captive was dead.

“I swear to you, my king, I would never—” Rugashag babbled, throwing herself to the floor in terror. No one else in the chamber dared to move so much as a wing.

Magic,” Uralesse hissed. “The maggot-things have magic.”

“Yessss…” King Virulan said broodingly. “It is weak, compared to ours. But you did not know that when you brought me this Elven Mage, did you, my dear Rugashag?”

“I swear to you— My king— I swear—” she babbled, scrabbling backward, her mouth hanging open in horror.

“Indeed you do,” Virulan said. “Let us see what else you will swear—with the proper inducement.”

He gestured languidly, and two of the Lesser Endarkened came to bear his consort away.

His former consort.



A commander is often faced with two bad choices and no good ones. One gains the victory by concealing that truth from the enemy.

—Arilcarion War-Maker,

Of the Sword Road

For days Vieliessar’s dreams had been troubled, filled with the clash of swords, the screams of the dying, images of a vast battlefield upon which thousands fought. When she drifted from sleep to waking, it took her long moments to realize that the sounds had followed her into wakefulness.

No battle should come here! she thought, scrambling through the narrow tunnel of her sleeping-place into the clearing. But that was custom, not law. Only the Sanctuary itself was sacrosanct. She kilted up the skirts of her green robe and ran toward the sound. She must see.

When she reached the edge of the Forest and looked out over the winter-bare fields of Rosemoss Farm, she saw that the fields were as yet unplowed and the snow that lay on them was patchy and thin. Empty. The sky was clouded, the air was heavy and wet, and she could smell woodsmoke. Somewhere a dog barked.

There is no battle, she told herself in exasperation. I have mistaken dreams for Farseeing, nothing more.

She was about to turn back into the trees when she saw a bright flash in the distance: pale sunlight on armor. She heard shouting and the mellow, demanding call of warhorns. A moment later she felt the faint trembling of the ground as it resounded to the beat of hooves. Destriers. Many of them.

The first of the riders thundered into view. She saw the white-and-silver of Penenjil—the grey stallions marking their riders as the feared Silver Swords of Penenjil, never defeated in battle—the tawny and gold of Enerchelimier, the tawny and marron of Calwas.

But the Silver Swords of Penenjil never ride to battle outside Penenjil’s lands—and Calwas has never made alliance with Enerchelimier in all the history of the Hundred Houses!

She barely had time to form her thought before their pursuers became visible. Purple and gold: Haldil, its House colors almost indistinguishable from the tawny and marron of Calwas. Deep blue and green: Bethros, barely distinguishable at this distance from Hallorad’s green on green. She knew the colors and blazons of all the Hundred—and she knew Haldil and Bethros to be enemies as often as allies.

There were perhaps a dozen who fled, and twice that number pursuing. When they reached the open field, the fleeing komen wheeled their destriers and stood to battle.

Vieliessar had read hundreds of songs of great battles but had never seen one. As if she were a songsmith, she marked how the bright blood slicked the silver blades, how droplets seemed to trail in the air after a blow. She heard the hard dull sound, like an axe upon wood, as a sword struck through armor into flesh, the high, ringing bell sound when it struck shield or blade instead. She saw destriers, mortally wounded, unhorse enemy knights and batter them to death upon the frozen ground, then fall, screaming in rage and pain as they disemboweled themselves in their frantic attempts to stand. Steam curled skyward from open wounds, as if the battlefield was afire. Blood pooled upon the earth and the thick metal scent of it filled the air.

Against all expectation, more wearing the colors of Bethros and Haldil fell than those they sought to slay, for the knights of Penenjil, Enerchelimier, and Calwas fought as if they were demented, drunk on the very blood they spilled. Vieliessar saw a knight of Calwas fling himself from his destrier’s saddle as it fell, grab the tack of a riderless mount caparisoned in Penenjil colors, and drag himself to its back.

This is what you were born for, she thought, even as she flinched at the screams of the wounded. This implacable conviction was a terrible, aching weight in her chest, the sight before her both horrible and exciting. Once she had dreamed of fighting upon such a battlefield. Then she had been trained to care for its survivors. There will be no survivors today, she thought. This was no formal combat, where the injured could throw down their swords and ride back to their own lines if they could not fight on. The knights upon the field before her would fight until they died.

And this—even this—might be some trick to lure me out of hiding, she thought furiously, for the time I have left with Lady Arevethmonion grows short, and Hamphuliadiel must be more subtle when I am in the sight of all.

As if her thoughts had the power to command reality, the Calwas knight she had marked turned his Penenjil mount from the field. The blood-maddened destrier reared and fought, desperate to rejoin the battle though it was bleeding from a dozen wounds. At last its rider prevailed, and the grey warhorse flung itself from the field.

Directly toward Vieliessar’s hiding place.

She stood her ground. Half in disbelief, half with the desperate need to Heal at least one of the injured. The grey’s rider had dropped his sword as he fought for control of his mount, and his armor was so slicked with blood that the bright metal looked as if it had been enameled.

Arevethmonion would be safety. Arevethmonion would hide him.

But when he was no more than a bowshot’s distance from where she stood, she heard a sound like the crack of an ice-laden tree limb. The destrier went down as if it had struck a tripwire, crashing to the earth so hard that it lay stunned for a moment, and Vieliessar could see the ruin of its shattered foreleg. Once more the knight managed to jump clear as the animal floundered desperately, trying to rise. He staggered to his feet, hesitated, then turned back to the destrier. He flung himself upon its neck, pinning it to the earth as he slashed its windpipe, and the great beast at last lay still.

But that stroke of mercy seemed to have taken all the knight’s strength. He tried to get to his feet, staggered, fell full-length against the frozen earth, and began to crawl.

Vieliessar was running toward him before she thought. “Down,” she gasped, falling to her knees beside him. “Be still. I will Heal you and they will not see us.” Concealment was a simple spell. She cast it without thought.

Every Healer in the Sanctuary knew how to remove the complex armor of the komen, for an injury could not be Healed if it was still transfixed by the metal that had caused it. Beneath the blood-sodden surcoat she could sense the spearhead that had slipped beneath the armored chestplate. Her hands slipped in blood as she worked the intricate fastenings to allow her to lift his helmet free.

His hair was shorn close to his head.

She knew him. Anginach. Anginach Lightbrother of Calwas had been a Candidate in her Service Year. He’d Called Fire one night in the Common Room—terrifying all of them, including himself. He’d become a Postulant, taken the Green Robe, and returned home years before.

How had he come to be here, in armor, bearing a sword?

“Vielle—Vieliessar. P—praise the Silver Hooves…” He reached toward her, wincing as fresh blood forced itself between the plates of his armor, but he was too weak to complete the gesture.

“Be still,” she repeated. She could not take the time to feel her shock at seeing him in armor—she could already sense him dying.

“Healer … too,” he gasped. He coughed, spattering her with his blood. “Lost— The proof— Ah, Farcarinon, forgive— Forgive—”

“You have never harmed me,” she said. “Please. You must try!” With all her skill, she willed her energy to him, willing Anginach the seconds she needed to save him. But the deeper she knew his body, the more she realized it was hopeless. She could not Heal him.

No one could.

He had poisoned himself.

His body told her a tale of days and nights of no food and little sleep, of riding madly across a frozen landscape to reach the Sanctuary of the Star. There were cordials one could take to force the flesh to burn its store of future years in a sennight or a moonturn, to give impossible strength and endurance. They were dangerous at one dose, fatal at two or more. All Lightborn knew the recipes. Anginach had used it.

“Lost,” he repeated. He fought to say more, to tell her what urgency had sent him to the Sanctuary in disguise when he might have come openly in safety, what had caused Calwas and Penenjil to ally themselves …

Why he had begged her forgiveness, for he had never stood her enemy.

It was too late. Anginach drew a deep breath. And did not draw another.

He called me Farcarinon. The words she had left unheard in her desperate fight against time sounded in her mind like the mortal beat of the war drum. Why? Why? Why? Her hands at last freed the catches of his armor. She pulled it from his body with reckless haste, throwing each piece as far as she could. Collet, besages, rerebrace, vambraces, breastplate, greaves, pollyns, cuisses … I shall not let them see my Lightbrother in this falsehood! When he wore nothing more than chain shirt and aketon, he was light enough for her to move.

The battlefield was quiet. She dared to glance back at it. Haldil and Bethros had won, though they had paid a high price. Two knights in purple and blood-spattered gold stood over a kneeling Penenjil Silver Sword with drawn blades. The other two victors were searching among the dead.

The Silver Sword removed her helmet. The Haldil sword swept down. The blow did not sever her head from her neck, but it killed her.

Vieliessar dragged Anginach’s body into the trees. Hide me, Lady Arevethmonion! she begged. Hide us!

The veils of misdirection and invisibility that had shielded her before—half of her making, half the will of Arevethmonion—held fast.

Would the knights mark the absence of one of their foes? Would they search the Flower Forest? What she had seen had been no proper war. Early spring was not War Season. And even if it were, Haldil and Bethros, like Penenjil and Calwas and Enerchelimier, were Houses of the Grand Windsward. Why travel so far from home to do battle?

She dragged Anginach through the forest until she was out of breath. She knew she was leaving a track behind her that a blind hikuliasa could follow, but she would not leave him in his shame.

There were no sounds of pursuit.

In a deep clearing beside another pool, she pulled chain and aketon from his body, drew the point of the broken spear from between his ribs. His flesh was inscribed with the tale of his desperate flight: raw flesh and open sores, bruising and broken bones, a gauntness clearly due to starvation. Beneath the aketon, a length of filthy, blood-sodden parchment was pressed to his chest. She carefully lifted the parchment free and set it aside, then used handfuls of water to wash his flesh clean. As she did, she realized that the knotted flaxen cord he should be wearing—that all the Lightborn wore beneath their robes—was missing.

I will not send you to Tildorangelor unknown.

It was the work of a moment to untie her own cord and knot it about his waist. But what now? Those who went to ride upon the night wind—princes, nobles, komen, and Lightborn—gave their bodies up to unchanging Fire. Only the Landbond and the cursed went into the earth. She would not summon Fire within Arevethmonion’s sacred precincts, nor bury Anginach as if he were Landbond.

In the end, she left him in Arevethmonion’s keeping and simply walked away. She did not look back. She never returned to the place where she had left him to his journey.

She took the parchment with her.

She stopped beside the stream near her sleeping place to wash the blood from her hands and clothing. The parchment she had taken from Anginach’s body was a length such as might have been used for a scroll. It was torn at one end and glued closed with drying blood. Carefully, she immersed it in the stream, rinsing it clean, then unfolded it gently. The interior surface was covered in tiny, precise writing. Vieliessar’s eyes widened. She recognized the hand.

Celelioniel of Enerchelimier.

Celelioniel Astromancer.

* * *

I never meant to turn my hand to The Song of Amrethion. My interest was in Mosirinde’s Covenant. Many have said that it was her enchantments which caused the Flower Forests to be. Today we draw upon them to work our Magery, as the Covenant commands us. But Mosirinde taught more of what we must not do than what we must: of the dangers of necromancy and blood magic, of taking so much energy from Life that we leave Death in our wake. How came she, I wondered, to know so intimately the perils that might befall us?”

As Vieliessar read, it was as if she heard Celelioniel’s living voice. Not the ravings of the mad Astromancer whom all now mocked, but the careful researches of the scholar, for like so many of the Lightborn, Celelioniel was first a researcher and historian. Vieliessar decided that she held the preface Celelioniel had written for her annotated copy of The Song of Amrethion and assumed that the rest of the scroll was now the spoil of those who had harried Anginach and his escort to their deaths.

Celelioniel must have taken it away with her when she returned to Enerchelimier, Vieliessar realized. Did she realize Hamphuliadiel meant to betray her when it was too late for her to stop him? Or could she not bear to give it up?

There was no way to know.

Celelioniel’s preface broke off in the middle of a sentence—Anginach must have torn it loose and hidden it when he’d realized they were pursued—but Vieliessar had enough to draw conclusions about the whole. Celelioniel had begun by attempting to fix one moment in time: the birth of the Flower Forests and the inception of the Covenant the Lightborn swore to husband the land. Celelioniel wanted to know how this knowledge had been gained, for no child fears the fire who hasn’t been burned. And so she had learned of a Darkness—hungry, implacable, biding its time and gathering its armies until it rode forth from its obsidian halls to slake its unslakable hunger on all that was. An enemy as real and malign as any Beastling army—but an army whose first attack upon the Hundred Houses lay not in the primordial past, but in the future.

Vieliessar would never know what steps had led Celelioniel to The Song of Amrethion, and what hints gleaned from ancient histories had made her realize Amrethion’s Curse was not gibberish. But by the time Celelioniel Astromancer traced the ancient history of the Darkness back to the beginning of Lightborn Magery, Serenthon’s feet were already set upon the road of the High Kingship.

How came this to Anginach’s hand? How came he to seek me?

She realized then that it had not been Vieliessar Lightsister whom Anginach sought, nor even Vieliessar Farcarinon.

Anginach had sought the Child of the Prophecy.


To warn her.

Darkness comes! Vieliessar thought in horror, as Celioniel’s words fell into place in her mind. As Amrethion foretold!

Farcarinon’s fall was the last of Amrethion’s forewarnings.

It comes in my lifetime. This is why Celelioniel placed Peacebond upon me so long ago. She feared to hasten its coming by so much as a sennight.

The Hundred Houses must be warned.

But even as that thought came to her, despair thrust it aside. What could she say? Who could she tell? Proofs might be found in the Library of Arevethmonion—if Hamphuliadiel had not locked them all away, perhaps even destroyed the priceless scrolls.

Hamphuliadiel had sought to kill her. He would not do that if he thought the Prophecy was false. He believed, just as Celelioniel had.

He believes, and conceals the books of prophecy so no one can duplicate Celelioniel’s work. He seeks to keep the events Amrethion foretold from coming true by killing me. He cannot seek my life openly, lest in doing so he gives others proof that I am indeed what Celelioniel named me: Child of the Prophecy, the Curse and Doom of the Hundred Houses.

She did not wish to claim that destiny. She didn’t even know what it was.

What am I to do? What?

She could find no answer.

* * *

I have no right to ask your forgiveness.”

In the heart of Arevethmonion, Vieliessar dreamed.

The chamber was filled with light. It was airy and inviting, the white stone of its walls little more than punctuation for the enormous panes of leaded glass that took the summer sunlight and turned it into a thousand many-hued sparks of fire. The one who sat at the delicate table in the center of the pool of sunlight was both familiar and unknown. His long black hair was caught back by a thin band of moonsilver about his brow. Its intricate braids were similar to those worn by the komen, but instead of being woven into a knot at the base of his neck, the long braids hung free.

He was writing. The rhythmic measured movement of the pen across the surface of the vellum made the rings he wore cast a changing pattern of bright sparks on the vellum and the surface of the table.

“And it would be unseemly of me to do so. I suppose it would. But I can hope for your understanding. Hatred and fear are heavy chains. I know this. Or I will know it.”

The place was one Vieliessar had never seen, yet somehow she knew it. Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor, the Lost City. The royal city, from which Amrethion Aradruiniel had reigned.

He stopped writing and looked up, meeting her gaze. She was startled to see that his eyes were not the black of the eyes of every person she’d ever seen. This one’s eyes were the darkest shade of gold.

“Believe this: I would not have set so heavy a task upon you if there had been any other way. I can only hope … But that is foolishness. I may tell myself you will prevail. I will never know.”

“What…?” Her voice emerged in a rusty croak, as if long unused, and the fact that she had spoken at all held her suddenly paralyzed. She had studied the ways of prophecy and Foretelling for many years. No one who had left any record had ever been anything more than an invisible watcher, swept along by the logic of the vision.

“I … I do not yet know if I shall,” she said. She could speak, she could move, and to do those things filled her with an awe not far removed from dread.

“Nor do I,” he answered, meeting her gaze as if she stood before him in flesh. “I do not know, spirit of future days, if you are male or female, great prince or humble servant. I know only that the land needs your strength.”

“Can you— Will you— What enemy? What—”

He raised a slender hand, and Vieliessar fell silent.

“I cannot answer you, spirit. I do not have the answers you seek. Today my beloved, my queen, my Pelashia, presented me with our firstborn. A son. To secure his safety and that of my kingdom, she has set upon me a great spell, that I may prophesy of things yet to come.”

His queen. Pelashia Celenthodiel, who had given Light to the Lightborn.

She was gazing upon Amrethion Aradruiniel. The last High King.

“She will die. You will die,” Vieliessar blurted. “Your lords will rise up against your children. There has been war from your day to mine.”

She saw Amrethion’s golden eyes darken with grief. “It is well I shall remember nothing of this when I wake,” he said softly. “I could not bear it.”

“You must remember!” Vieliessar said urgently. “If it has not yet happened, you can change it. You can save your Queen and your realm—write plainly of the danger so your children will know, and fear, and prepare—”

“It cannot be,” he said sadly. “When my beloved came from Tildorangelor to become my bride, she knew even then the doom that lay over our race. To name it plainly would be to summon it before we could defend ourselves against it.”

“How can you say that?” Vieliessar demanded. She forgot she dreamed, she forgot she argued with one millennia dead. All that mattered to her in this moment was making him understand. “We aren’t ready! You name me Child of the Prophecy, and I have never held a sword! There is no High King, just a hundred jealous princes quarreling among themselves! If the danger is as terrible as you say, we will not prevail. We will die. If you love us—your people, your children—please! Tell me what comes!”

“Darkness,” Amrethion said. “Darkness. I have done—I will do—all I can. My queen’s power binds the coming ages in chains of prophecy. These words will be a beacon of Magery that gains power with the passing of centuries, spirit, until at last you are summoned forth.”

“You’re afraid of it,” Vieliessar said, in a voice that trembled with fury. “Whatever it is—whatever you say I must face—you’re so afraid of it you want to hide behind cryptic poetry and hope—hope!—that I can do what you cannot.”

“I do hope,” Amrethion answered. “I—we—hope we have made the right choices.” He gazed into her eyes, and there was no hint of apology in his expression. “If Pelashia named Darkness to me—if I remembered this moment out of time and acted upon my knowledge—the alfaljodthi would be destroyed. And so she remains silent. And you have long years in which to grow strong. You will understand when you confront Darkness.”

She took a step forward—unwilling to listen to his arguments, unwilling to think they might hold truth—but as she did so, the beautiful room with its strange delicate furniture, its king who had never worn armor nor held a sword, seemed to dwindle in every direction at once. As she fell from dreaming into true sleep, she had the strange sourceless insight that often accompanied dreams. She saw herself for an instant as Amrethion would have seen her: a barbarian coarsened by generations of war, born out of violence and murder and carrying them with her into whatever future she could create.

She thrashed herself into wakefulness, gasping for breath. For a moment she could not remember why grief was a cold and terrible weight in her throat.

Then she remembered her vision of Amrethion, and wept.

What am I to do? What am I to do?

* * *

A fortnight later, the weather turned soft, and spring plowing began at Rosemoss Farm. The first caravan of the season passed through the Flower Forest on the way to the Sanctuary of the Star.

It was time to return.

Her steps were slow with reluctance. She would be returning to live beneath the roof of her enemy, just as she had in childhood—but she had not known Caerthalien was her enemy until the moment she left it. She meant to go before Hamphuliadiel in the rags and dirt of her banishment, for they would give her the semblance of humility and penitence he required. It would be a hard thing to endure, but she had done harder. Perhaps—with enough time—she might win his approval. His help. She could not imagine herself as the agent of the Prophecy, destroying the Fortunate Lands and all who lived within its bounds. She would die first.

As she stepped onto the path that led through Arevethmonion, she heard the jingle of harness in the distance and the earth beneath her feet vibrated to the slow thud of draft oxen’s feet. She stopped and waited.

“I greet you in the name of the Sanctuary of the Star, Prince Anarolodh,” she said.

It had been a simple matter to cast True Speech to Hear the lead rider’s name, and she had not needed it to know his house or rank, for he wore the scarlet and sable of Gerchiliael, with the wheat-sheaf of lesser cadency below the crossed swords of its device.

Anarolodh inclined his head. “Lightsister,” he said. “In the name of Dondialoch Gerchiliael, I thank you for the Sanctuary’s care of us. Will you ride?” he asked.

“I will walk,” she answered, and took her place at his side. He touched his spurs to his palfrey’s flanks, and the procession moved slowly forward once again. If Prince Anarolodh found her disheveled condition odd, the thought of it did not trouble the surface of his mind.

Dilvalos Lightsister joined them half a candlemark later. She had not been at the Sanctuary when Vieliessar had been banished, so the Caerthalien Candidates must have been the first along this road this season. She gave Vieliessar a startled look—clearly she knew of the banishment—but said merely: “There is a great disarray before you, for everyone seems to have set forth the moment the roads were dry. Caerthalien arrived at yesterday’s dawn, and before its wagons were half unloaded, Cirandeiron and Telthorelandor came as well. We shall have all the Seven here together, for Mangiralas and Rolumienion are expected today, and Inglethendragir and Ullilion tomorrow.”

And Hamphuliadiel will be much occupied with their envoys, for all but Ullilion are High Houses, Vieliessar thought. “It will be much work for Mistress Hamonglachele to care for them all,” she answered, keeping her voice low so that Anarolodh did not hear two Lightborn speaking of such homely things.

Dilvalos frowned. “That is—” she began, and stopped, as if she had been lured into speaking of things she must not.

* * *

Pavilions were spread out all across the fields surrounding the Sanctuary. Vieliessar let Dilvalos lead Prince Anarolodh and the new Candidates into the Sanctuary antechamber, while she went with the wagons into the courtyard as if this were her assigned task. The stableyard was chaotic, for Radanding Stablemaster’s staff had been sharply winnowed as Candidates rejoined their Houses or passed on to the Postulancy, and there was another wagon train already here, bearing a banner in the violet and silver of Inglethendragir.

Inglethendragir had risen from Low to High upon Farcarinon’s bones.

“Mistress Morgaenel greets—” A boy in the grey livery of the Sanctuary servants came rushing up to the wagons and stopped, his eyes going wide with consternation at his inability to identify the device before him.

“Greets Gerchiliael and bids them welcome,” Vieliessar prompted gently. She kept her face smooth, but she was puzzled. Mistress Morgaenel’s place was the kitchens, not the guesthouse.

“—and says I am to show you where you may set your pavilions, for the guesthouse is full.”

“Are we to wallow in mud as if we were Windsward rabble?” Komen Thalien demanded. She was the leader of Prince Anarolodh’s Twelve. “Make room—or shall I do it for you?”

Komen Thalien, it is our great sorrow that we have so little space for guests,” Vieliessar said quickly. “But Inglethendragir will bear you company.” She gestured toward the field, hidden now by the buildings of the outer courtyard. Her Green Robe might be stained and tattered, but it still marked her as Lightborn: at last Komen Thalien nodded.

“Very well, brat. I will look at your mudhole.”

The boy hurried off and Komen Thalien followed. Now Radanding Stablemaster approached, with two of his assistants in tow. He was as shocked to see Vieliessar as Dilvalos Lightsister had been—but his gaze held something more than mere surprise.


And warning.

“You are needed in the guesthouse, Lightsister,” he said brusquely, before turning to walk quickly down the line of wagons to see what must be unloaded.

If Hamphuliadiel did not know already that she was here, he would within a quartermark, and to tarry would only give him new fuel for his discontent.

But only a fool disregarded a warning given by a friend.

* * *

The guesthouse was an odd building—a manor house wing with no manor attached. It was long and narrow, set behind the stables and across a broad courtyard paved with smooth river stones. Its ground floor held a bathhouse, a refectory, the workroom of Mistress Guesthouse, and a storage room for those things used in the guesthouse alone—blankets and linens, perfumes for the bath, and wines and strong cordials. On its second floor lay the sleeping chambers. Depending upon the demands of its guests, it could accommodate up to sixteen visitors, but the interior walls were designed to fold back to create larger rooms, and if Caerthalien and Cirandeiron were both in occupancy, their princes would both insist on great state. Battle might be forbidden upon the Sanctuary grounds, but there were other ways of challenging a rival than with a swordblade.

In all her years at the Sanctuary, Vieliessar had never crossed the courtyard to the guesthouse, for it lay beyond the bounds where her life was sacrosanct. Now she hurried past the refectory, where loud talk and laughter proclaimed the guests at their morning meal, and closeted herself quickly in Hamonglachele’s workroom, sliding the door closed behind her.

It had much the look of Maeredhiel’s workroom in the Sanctuary—the same litter of scrolls and wax tablets upon the broad table, the same low stool. On the wall behind the worktable, instead of a collection of keys, stood a slateboard upon which was painted the plan of the sleeping chambers. Within each square was a cryptic notation in chalk, saying who occupied each one. Above the worktable itself hung a suspended grid of sixteen silver bells, each engraved with the design of the flower for which each guesthouse chamber was named.

Vieliessar seated herself upon the stool, wondering how long she would have to wait and more conscious than ever of her unkempt appearance. Her feet were bare, and they and her hands were callused with moonturns of hard work. Her hair was longer than it should be, and her robe, though clean, was ragged and stained.

She had barely finished her catalogue of the chamber and her person when the door slid back. Vieliessar tensed, but it was Morgaenel who entered. She slid the door quickly shut behind her, and latched it.

“Praise Pelashia! You’re alive!” Morgaenel gasped. “The winter was so hard!”

“I came as Radanding meant I should, but I know not why. ’Ilthel, why are you here? Where is ’Chele?”

“She is now Mistress of Servants,” Morgaenel said softly. “Maeredhiel has gone to the Vale of Celenthodiel. It was the lung-fever. She took ill just after Midwinter. Hamphuliadiel even sent Momioniarch Lightsister to attend her. No one thought it was serious—even Momioniarch said it might be repaired better by rest than by a Healing. When ’Chele went to look in on her one morning … it was too late for Healing.”

“May she find happiness in the Vale of Celenthodiel,” Vieliessar said quietly. If the spirit truly survived as more than a hungry ghost, Vieliessar prayed Maeredhiel and Aradrothiach would find each other and at last complete their Bond.

This was Hamphuliadiel’s work. Vieliessar knew it beyond doubt. He’d worked to erase all trace of Celelioniel’s scholarship from the land … but there had been one who had been Celelioniel’s confidante. Who had been present upon the night of Vieliessar’s birth.


If she had thought— If she had known what Hamphuliadiel would do—

“I suppose she did not think it was more than a cough that could be banished with time and rest,” Vieliessar answered steadily.

“I am sure you are right,” Morgaenel answered. “What else could it have been?”

* * *

Go. Go now before you lose your courage.

It was deep night on the day she had returned to the Shrine.

She had not gone before Hamphuliadiel.

She had thought his enmity was a thing that fell upon her alone, a thing that might be reasoned with. Now she knew it was not. Maeredhiel had died of it. Anyone might be next.

Of a surety, Hamphuliadiel’s next attempt upon her would be something more certain than a winter’s banishment. She’d already placed her friends in danger enough by giving them the secret of her return to hold. I shall never again offer up hostages to a madman’s will, she vowed grimly.

She wore a heavy cloak, boots, and the grey tunic and trousers of a Candidate. Over her shoulder was slung a leather bag holding knife, waterskin, bread, and cheese, gifts of Morgaenel. It had been a risk to involve her even that much, but Vieliessar had little choice. She could Shield herself in the guesthouse workroom and so escape discovery, but to move about the Sanctuary would guarantee exposure. Even if Hamphuliadiel discovered she had returned and departed again, it would probably not occur to him to question the Sanctuary servants.

And even if he did …

Vieliessar was Lightborn. Servants did not question orders the Lightborn gave. Indeed, Morgaenel had asked no questions.

Go now, Vieliessar told herself.

She eased open the door of the workroom. The guesthouse was dark and silent. She crossed the floor on silent feet and eased open the outer door. Across the courtyard, the Sanctuary of the Star was dark and quiet. The only light came from the lanterns hung upon its gate.

She closed the door behind her and walked into Arevethmonion.

She did not look back.

* * *

He had not expected to end his days in a forest cottage on Caerthalien land. If—by the grace of the Silver Hooves—he had lived into old age, Gunedwaen had expected a place of honor at his lord’s table, quiet days spent imparting the lore of his long life to the children who would grow to become komen—the strong defense of his noble house.

Of Farcarinon.

The shutter rattled. It was autumn, and old bones and old injuries ached in the cold. Striker raised her head, gazing about the room for a moment before returning to sleep. The hikuliasa was good company, though Gunedwaen had never decided what purpose had lain in Bolecthindial’s mind when he had presented the animal as a gift. Perhaps to mock Gunedwaen’s own state, for the beast had been lamed and half wild.

Each winter Gunedwaen thought of letting his fire die, of walking out into the snow and laying his bones down for the last time. Freezing was said to be a gentle death, far more so than the deaths he had dealt. And each year he told himself: Next year. Not this year. Next year. Perhaps it was curiosity that kept him living. Perhaps it was the wish to fight one last battle. The Silver Hooves would not take him if he died peacefully, and he had no taste for wandering as a homeless ghost till the stars grew dark.

The shutter rattled again,

“You should show yourself,” Gunedwaen said calmly. “If you have come to kill me, I must say you are some years too late.”

“You cannot have known I was here,” a voice said.

“Had I not learned the skill to see the unseen, I would have perished long since,” Gunedwaen answered. He had not been truly certain of her presence until she spoke. Striker raised her head from her paws again, gazing curiously in the direction of the voice. She seemed puzzled. “I would have you show yourself, stranger.”

“Are you truly so eager to die?” the voice asked.

“Are you truly so dangerous?” Gunedwaen answered.

There was a moment of silence, then: “Once I would have said I wished no harm to any. I would know who your fealty is pledged to, old man.”

“What Landbond pledges to any lord but the next harvest?” Gunedwaen answered mockingly.

There was a snort of contempt from behind him. Striker made a soft sound in her throat.

“I have known Landbonds in plenty, old man. You are not one.”

“You are well traveled for one of the Night Brotherhood. If not well informed,” Gunedwaen observed.

“Well informed enough to know I have never seen one of the Children of Night, nor have you. I come to ask your House and your fealty. I already know your name.”

“If you know my name, you know all there is to know,” Gunedwaen answered. With laborious care, he shifted in his seat enough so he could turn his head to see the doorway.

He saw no one there.

Suddenly there was a ripple in the air, and where there had been nothingness stood a figure in a grey cloak, its deep hood doing as much to conceal her face as her spell had done. Striker got to her feet, uttering a low bark of warning. The woman pushed back the hood of her cloak and Gunedwaen saw what he’d expected to see: the shorn hair of one of the Lightborn.

“I do not know who you claim as your lord, for all that you live as Caerthalien’s supplicant,” the Lightborn said stubbornly.

“A dead house and a failed cause,” Gunedwaen said, sighing. “Come, Lightsister, tell me your purpose here.” He turned back to gaze into the fire. Her footsteps were soft as she crossed the room to the woodpile, chose a length of wood, and added it to the coals.

“I seek one named Gunedwaen, once Swordmaster to War Prince Serenthon Farcarinon. I have need of him.”

The rekindled fire cast its amber light on her face. He had never seen her before. But he knew her.

“Lady Nataranweiya’s child lived,” he said slowly.

“Yes,” the woman answered. “Nataranweiya fled to the Sanctuary of the Star. There I was born. There I returned.”

“Then return there again and live still,” Gunedwaen said. “Farcarinon is gone, its children scattered to the seven winds. You cannot claim your father’s house from its ashes.”

“It took me long to find you,” she said, deflecting his words. “I have come to learn all you can teach me of knighthood and war.”

Deep in the embers of what he once was, Gunedwaen felt a stirring of old instincts. He remembered the terrible day when Serenthon had received word of Caerthalien’s betrayal. Gunedwaen had begged him to sue for terms, knowing Farcarinon could not stand alone against a High House alliance, and for a moment he had seen Serenthon hesitate, about to agree. Then he had looked upon his lady, already great with child, and his face had grown cold and resolute. He shook his head, and spoke the words that sealed their fates.

“I shall not surrender all that I love to Darkness.”

Gunedwaen had followed his liege-lord to the battlefield, and saw him fall, and was struck down in his turn. He would have—should have—died there beside him, but his apprentices had carried him from the field and into hiding. Gunedwaen remembered standing in Caerthalien’s great hall, weak from fever, his garments torn and stained with the sennights of illness, injuries, hiding. He remembered the moment Ivrulion Light-Prince had bespelled him so he could never be whole again, how the fever for revenge had burned hotter than the wound-sickness that had cost him his arm and the use of his leg, how in that moment all his hopes of vengeance were shattered.

And he laughed. “My lord, are you disordered in your mind? And even if you are mad, what teaching do you think you can gain from a lame, one-armed man? Abandon your thoughts of revenge, I beg you.”

He saw her eyes flash with a prince’s temper, saw her set her jaw. “I have not come for revenge,” she said, and her voice was hard. “I have come to be made Knight by your hand.”

Gunedwaen stared at her in sudden doubt, too taken aback to speak. The komen began their training in childhood—Serenthon’s daughter was decades past her childhood. Even if he wished to try, he did not possess the resources of a War Prince’s castel with which to school her. “Go back to the Sanctuary,” he said at last. “Go anywhere. My lord, I cannot aid you.”

“You must!” she answered fiercely. “Do you think I wish for this, Gunedwaen Swordmaster? I wish nothing more than to live out my life as a child of the Light. But I may not. And to say to you more than this will bring about your death as surely as if I stabbed you through the heart myself.”

“My life is not so glorious that I would regret leaving it,” Gunedwaen said. “But I would be nine times a fool to give you that which you ask only because you ask it.”

“Then swear to me you are Farcarinon’s still,” she whispered, and even in the dim firelight he could see tears glitter in her eyes.

“I am Farcarinon’s until the stars grow cold,” he answered steadily. “I beg your forgiveness, my prince. I was borne from the field against my will. I gave no parole to Caerthalien.”

None had been needed, after Ivrulion Light-Prince’s working.

Farcarinon—what name she bore he did not know—took a step toward him, so swift that Striker got to her feet. But she merely knelt beside his chair and took his hand in hers. Her fingers were soft, her hands those of one who had never held a sword. “There is no need to ask, Master Gunedwaen. You preserved your life until I came for you. And I beg your forgiveness in turn, for I must have your knowledge and skill. Teach me as you taught my father.”

“My lady,” he said helplessly, “Farcarinon is gone.”

She smiled at him, and her smile was brilliant with grief. “So I believed for long years. But I do not seek to raise Farcarinon from its ashes.”

“Then … what?” he asked. “My lord, if any of Prince Serenthon’s komentai’a survived, they have pledged fealty elsewhere. Or they are useless, as I am.”

“Not useless to me, Master Gunedwaen,” she answered. “I call you back to service now.”

“And I come,” Gunedwaen answered steadily. “But you must tell me what brings you here, for I cannot aid you without that knowledge.”

“I will be the death of you,” Farcarinon answered softly. “Nor shall I tell you all, and you must content yourself with that. But I shall tell you this: I was born Vieliessar Farcarinon, War Prince of Farcarinon, in the Sanctuary of the Star. Celelioniel Astromancer named me Child of the Prophecy, but I would not hear. I beg you: hear all I would not, for our time grows short. High King Amrethion Aradruiniel spoke a Foretelling on the day he fell from the Unicorn Throne, giving warning of the day the Hundred would face an enemy who did not wish to take their lands and wealth, but their lives—all life, to the least blade of grass in the humblest field. It is foretold that this Darkness will strip the flesh from the bones of the world, and none of the War Princes knows—or cares!”

“How came you to know these things?” Gunedwaen asked. How came you to know Aramenthiali’s plan? Is this count you bring us of Caerthalien’s knights accurate? You say Oronviel will not fight this day—who has said this where you might hear? The ghost of what he once was rose up in his question.

The words his liege-lord and prince had spoken already were near to madness, but that madness was compounded by the words she spoke next. She told of Celelioniel Astromancer’s quest, of Celelioniel’s discovery of the truth and meaning of the ancient Prophecy, of her own place within its web.

Vieliessar stroked Striker’s head absently as she knelt beside Gunedwaen’s chair. “I might say to you Serenthon-my-father received a Foretelling of Celelioniel of the failure of his ambition, of his death, my mother’s death, my birth—but who can know what happened that day save those who were there, and they are all gone to the night winds,” she said, her voice quiet. “I could say to you all my words are proven in scrolls hidden away by Hamphuliadiel, in Foretellings given by generations of Astromancers, in histories too dry for any but scholars—but such words will not sway princes and knights.” She laughed bitterly. “They don’t even persuade scholars, for Hamphuliadiel thinks the evil day can be averted by destroying the warning of it. I know one thing only: the Darkness comes, and it comes soon, and if the Hundred Houses are not united against it, then we shall all perish as if we never were. I must do what my father could not do—and if you will not help me, I shall fail.”

Years of patient alliances, gifts and promises, and secret treaties had brought Serenthon close to making himself High King—so close the Hundred Houses had not been content with merely humbling Farcarinon, but had destroyed its castels and keeps, slaughtered its komen, and carried its vassals off to live out their lives on alien ground. And now Serenthon’s daughter sought him out, saying she must succeed at the task that had broken Farcarinon.

“You might fail even with my aid,” Gunedwaen said gently. “I cannot give you all the skills you seek. I cannot give you victory.”

“The Hundred will not follow a Green Robe,” Vieliessar said flatly. “Give me your swordcraft, Master Gunedwaen, and I will put off that robe for a knight’s armor. I can see no other way. But if you will not aid me,” Vieliessar said quietly, “I will go.”

“‘Haste gives a thousand knights to the enemy,’” Gunedwaen answered absently. Whether it was madness or a sanity that transcended sense, he would follow Farcarinon’s last prince. “Come, my lord. Build up the fire. It is late and the room grows cold. And we have much to speak of before we begin.”

* * *

The message had been sent from the Sanctuary of the Star in Flower Moon, but hadn’t reached Thurion until the end of Harvest, for he had been in the field with the army. The seneschal at Caerthalien Keep had sent the scroll onward, of course, but scrollcase had been left behind to save weight and space in the dispatch rider’s bags.

Thurion had thought nothing of it at the time—messages came from the Sanctuary to its former students now and then. In the scroll Momioniarch Lightsister had asked if Caerthalien would permit him to return to the Sanctuary to teach for a year. Thurion had not needed to consult Lord Bolecthindial to know the answer to that: he had sent his regrets by spellbird and forgotten the matter completely until the day he returned, at long last, to his rooms in Caerthalien Keep to find the Sanctuary’s green-and-silver scrollcase sitting atop a chest.

He’d picked it up absently, thinking that he could not return it to the Sanctuary until the Candidates went in the spring. When he touched the scrollcase, the Sanctuary’s true message was revealed, unrolling in his mind in Hamphuliadiel’s voice.

“To Thurion Lightbrother, greetings. I send you this message in secret not to set you at odds with Caerthalien, but in warning—” Thurion dropped the scrollcase in surprise. He could not imagine why the Astromancer would send him a message at all, much less by secret means. The case hit the floor and rolled under his bed, and it took him several minutes to retrieve it. Then he knelt on the floor, clutching the silver-stamped leather case tightly as the voice echoed through his mind.

Vieliessar had left—fled—the Sanctuary of the Star sometime in the spring. “I believe she means to break the Covenant in order to take revenge in Farcarinon’s name against Caerthalien and the other houses of the Grand Alliance…” Warning was being sent to the senior Lightborn of those Houses—Caerthalien, Aramenthiali, Cirandeiron, and Telthorelandor—which had been crucial to Farcarinon’s fall. “I do not charge any of you with silence. You may tell whom you choose what I have conveyed to you, yet know that I believe it would not be well to make the matter of a disobedient Lightborn too public a matter, lest it seem to involve the Sanctuary of the Star in matters from which it has always stood apart. That Vieliessar is Farcarinon is unfortunate, for reasons you well understand…”

The information was stunning, but not so stunning that Thurion’s mind did not race on ahead of it. “Senior” Lightborn. That can mean oldest, or of highest rank. Perhaps Carangil Lightbrother, as Ladyholder Glorthiachiel uses him to spy on everyone here. Ivrulion Light-Prince must have received this news, whether from Carangil or from the Sanctuary—and some time ago, for I know he has returned here several times since Flower. Thurion did his best to still his questions, for the message was still unspooling in his mind, and once it had run its course, he suspected the spell would unravel and vanish.

“I am a humble servant of the Light which shines for all whether of High House or Low, and I uphold the justice of the great lords of the Fortunate Lands. I have hunted the rebel Vieliessar from the moment I discovered her gone. My search has been fruitless, and so I send to you, Thurion of Caerthalien, as once—perhaps unwisely—you held yourself her friend. If she comes to you, I charge you by the Light we both serve to take her prisoner by any means you can, and be aware that any tale she tells you is merely trickery and lies that serve her insane desire. Be a strong defender of your noble house, Thurion of Caerthalien, and repay the love and care your Prince has always had for you…”

The voice stopped, and Thurion felt a tingle beneath his fingertips as the message-spell unmade itself.

Hamphuliadiel, you are indeed a fool, he thought in annoyance. It will be a great day for the Lightborn when your reign as Astromancer is over. Words Thurion had never thought to think, but how could Hamphuliadiel—how could anyone who had been at the Sanctuary during Thurion’s training—believe lies could deceive him? He did not need to set a spell of Heart-Seeing on someone to know the truth: all he had to do was listen to their thoughts.…

The Astromancer’s message was a lie. How could Hamphuliadiel know what Vielle meant to do? Unless she’d told him—and Thurion could not believe that. He could believe that she had vanished from the Sanctuary and that they had not found her, but anything beyond those two facts could be nothing other than conjecture. He rose slowly to his feet, still clutching the now-inert scrollcase, and tried to decide what to do next. Go to Ivrulion and tell him he’d received a spell-message from the Sanctuary? Wait for Ivrulion to speak first? He felt a clutch of angry fear at being forced to decide how deep his loyalty to Caerthalien ran, and suddenly words he’d once said to Vielle crowded into memory, the words as sharp and clear as if they, too, were a spell-message.

“Prisoner, hostage, I care not if you are Farcarinon, or Caerthalien, or the Child of the Prophecy. My family does not even own the roof above our heads. A third of what we harvest each year goes to pay Menenel Farmholder for our shelter and our seed grain. All we have ever asked is that the great lords do not ride across our fields and spoil our work—and if they do, or even fight across them, there is nothing we can say without punishment. Do you think the quarrels of the Hundred Houses matter to me? How has your life been harder than mine?”

He heard the hall door creak as it swung inward and turned toward the sound. He was so convinced it would be Denerarth—returned from the tasks attendant upon settling the two of them back into their usual quarters—that he stared at the figure in the doorway for a long moment in utter silence.

Ivrulion Light-Prince tapped the scrollcase he held gently on the doorframe. “It seems that we have both been favored by a message from the Astromancer,” he said, nodding toward the scrollcase in Thurion’s hand.

“It only just reached me, Lord Ivrulion,” Thurion said. “I suppose they both said much the same thing.”

“Why not tell me what yours says, and we shall see?” Ivrulion replied pleasantly. The pleasantry was a fraud: Thurion had long known Ivrulion to be as coldly ambitious as his father.

“Vieliessar of— Of nowhere, I suppose, Lord Ivrulion,” he answered, stumbling slightly over the words, for to name someone without being able to name their House was nearly unthinkable. “Vieliessar Lightsister left the Sanctuary of the Star in the spring. Hamphuliadiel does not know where she is. At least, he didn’t when he sent to me.”

“Did you not find it curious he would send to you? Oh, but I forget—you and she were friends at the Sanctuary.”

“We were in the same Service Year.” Thurion chose his words carefully; he knew Ivrulion had forgotten nothing. “I suppose we were friends as much as anyone is there.” He shrugged. “She was not Chosen when I was, as you know. Later, of course, the Light kindled in her. She took the Green Robe, but I had left long before. Hamphuliadiel thinks she may come here—and charges me to take her prisoner if she does.”

When she does?” Ivrulion said, his tone making it clear it was a question.

“My lord, I do not know.” Thurion’s gaze was clear and untroubled as he met Ivrulion’s eyes. His True Speech was far stronger than anyone else’s in the castel; the stronger the Gift, the less that same Gift could be used against one. Ivrulion could not hear his thoughts. “The Astromancer believes she left the Sanctuary in order to exact revenge. I suppose he is correct. He has known her far longer than I.” He’d told Vieliessar once that each House was like any other. He would not betray Caerthalien to an enemy, but he would not take its causes as his own.

After a moment Ivrulion stepped away from the doorframe and smiled faintly. “I think if she meant to come for vengeance, she would have done it moonturns ago, don’t you? Perhaps she became disordered in her wits and simply fled the Sanctuary, but it will do no harm to search for her, and it might even be amusing. I am sure you will wish to accompany me.”

“Of course,” Thurion answered automatically, and Ivrulion’s smile widened slightly.

“Then I will leave you to become reacquainted with a dry roof and your own bed. I shall see you on the morrow.”

* * *

That following day was the first of many Thurion spent in Ivrulion’s company. It was uncomfortable, for Thurion knew the War Prince’s son still held him in suspicion. Better that, Thurion thought, than that he seek me as an ally. Thurion had never boasted of the strength of his Keystone Gift, though he knew full well that Ivrulion was aware of it. It was why Thurion ate at the High Table, why Lord Bolecthindial called upon him more often than any others to stand beside him at Court and set a spell of Heart-Seeing upon those whom Lord Bolecthindial deemed to be less than forthcoming.

Alone together, Thurion and Ivrulion visited all the Flower Forests within a day’s ride—Rimroheth, Angoratorei, Alqualanya, Valmenandlae, Rolliondale—for the Flower Forests resonated to the Light, and if Vieliessar had entered Caerthalien and used Magery here, some trace should be left. Ivrulion’s conversation always seemed idle, but it returned, again and again, to Vieliessar. Thurion had the sense that much of what he said in answer Ivrulion already knew, and while Thurion was careful to tell all of what he knew, he was equally carefull to tell little of what he guessed. Ivrulion spoke of Vieliessar’s childhood in the Great Keep and of his hope that she would come to Caerthalien so he could extend to her his personal assurance of protection.

“—of course there must never be any children, but that is a simple Binding to craft, and were she wed to my Huthiel, her position would be assured. And she would be most welcome here, for I have heard that her Healing skill is great. Indeed, Warlord Amlunan boasted of it when we met Aramenthiali upon the field this summer—he would not have lived without her art.”

“The Light has indeed blessed her,” Thurion answered, taking care to speak as if he believed Ivrulion’s words to be true.

At first they rode out every day, but soon days and even sennights passed before Ivrulion proposed another expedition, for they found neither presence nor trace of Vieliessar, no matter now closely they searched the Flower Forests. No further message came from Hamphuliadiel, and at last Ivrulion, bored, pronounced himself satisfied that Vieliessar had never come to Caerthalien. Thurion did not know whether he was satisfied of Vielle’s absence or Thurion’s loyalty: all he knew for certain was that when he begged permission from Lord Bolecthindial to visit Sweethallow Farm and his family, it was granted as easily as it had always been.

Wherever you have gone, Vielle, I hope you are safe and happy there. And free.

* * *

Her footsteps crunched through the crust of new-fallen snow as she ran. The winter air was a sharp knife in her throat; her breath smoked on the chill air. This is the domain that should have been mine. And if it were—oh, Silver Hooves defend!—for how long should I have been able to hold it against the Darkness?

She ran on. One league out. One league back. She ran this course every day, at Gunedwaen’s command.

The journey to Farcarinon had taken them from Rade to Woods. She could have brought Gunedwaen and Striker through a Mage Door and stepped from Rimroheth to Eldanwarasse in a heartbeat—and the power she would have woven to make her door would have been as palpable to every Green Robe as if she stood beside each one and shouted aloud. Instead she had Called a horse to carry Gunedwaen and Striker. They’d all been surprised when the animal who answered was a lively young mare. Gunedwaen had promptly named her Trouble, but under Vieliessar’s spells of control she’d been biddable enough. And—like Vieliessar—Trouble had gone where Gunedwaen commanded her.

First to the place where Farcarinon’s Keep had once stood, a wasteland of scattered stone, and then to Eldanwarasse Flower Forest. Farcarninon’s domain had become Wild Lands, Gunedwaen said, and were occupied by outlaws and sellswords, but those would avoid the Flower Forests. To feed them and keep them, Vieliessar had scavenged among the ruins of burnt-out steadings for things abandoned or overlooked when their people had been stolen, and the home she made for them was comfortable enough.

During the day she toiled at Gunedwaen’s direction: chopping wood, setting snares, and toughening a body which had been accustomed to the soft living of the Sanctuary of the Star. Each night, Vieliessar would sit with Gunedwaen over gan or xaique, absorbing his lessons on strategy, on the disposition of troops, of acceptable losses, and of tactics. She had read of wars and battles in Arevethmonion’s scrolls—now she heard tales of war from one who had fought them.

Gunedwaen did not speak of treaty or alliance or of the thousand matters War Prince and Warlord and Lightborn emissary might settle among them before a House’s meisne rode out beneath its banners. He spoke of the sights, sounds, and smells of war—of failing to hear an enemy’s approach for the frenzied screaming of disemboweled horses, of fighting for candlemarks when hunger and thirst were two more enemies, of the heavy heat of armor, of battlefields turned to mud by the blood spilled upon them. He spoke of komen crushed beneath the bodies of their mounts or trampled by careless hooves as they lay helpless on the field, of slow death when Healers could not reach them, of drowning in a shallow stream, imprisoned by their armor and exhaustion. He spoke of battles fought beneath the terrible sun of high summer and through the bitter cold of late autumn, of being captured, powerless to ransom one’s freedom—and being offered a choice between lifelong immurement in some dungeon or ending one’s own life with a swift dagger.

He spoke of the ugliness and futility of war, for by war the Houses of the Hundred might rise or fall in power for a season or a hundred seasons, but in the end, they gained nothing but the chance to go on fighting. He spoke of war as the sport of princes and lords, xaique played with living counters.

Each night she fell exhausted to her sleeping mat, but Vieliessar’s nights were as full as her days, for Gunedwaen was not her only teacher.

* * *

Lady Indinathiel! Githonel and Kamirbanath have returned from Tildorangelor!”

She raised a hand to her hair. Her head felt strangely bare without its dressing of veil and jewels, but she had no time for such fripperies these days. “What have they found?” she asked sharply.

“Nothing.” Zenderian’s face was a study in anger. The emotion sat strangely upon his gilded and begemmed face, the backdrop of elaborate costume and mannered gesture. Zenderian, of all the Court, kept himself as if Amrethion Aradruiniel had not betrayed them all. “Arwath and Calebre still elude us.”

“Once Pelashia Celenthodiel’s spawn are dead, we will be safe.” She spoke with confidence, but she did not hold such faith and belief within her heart. Once the queen had died, it had been moonturns before Indinathiel had realized the king was no longer fit to rule; moonturns more before she had been able to convince the other courtiers he was not tainted but mad. By then it was too late to call the Council together to choose a legitimate successor and force Amrethion to abdicate, to gain the warrants necessary to purge the kingdom of the defiled.

Indinathiel did not know whose hand had finally struck Amrethion down in secrecy and darkness, only that it was not hers. It did not matter. The rot ran deep. Pelashia’s children had fled the moment their true heritage was known, but their sons and daughters had formed an alliance and sworn that one of them would be Amrethion’s successor.

Not while I breathe, Indinathiel thought grimly. She had loved her mad, foolish liege—she would not see the kingdom he had made given over to rabble and monsters.…

Vieliessar’s dreams were not of the future. Since the day she had walked from the Sanctuary of the Star for the last time, she had dreamed of the death of Amrethion Aradruiniel …

And of the of war that had followed.

Amrethion had prophesied her birth and sealed her fate. But any Lightborn knew a prophecy wasn’t a spell. Prophecy did not compel. Prophecy predicted, telling a true tale of things that had not yet happened. But Amrethion’s Prophecy had not contained a place for her, as she had once thought. It had contained a shape into which she must be fitted by a force as monstrous and uncaring as winter’s cold or forge’s heat. From the moment she had claimed the mantle of Child of the Prophecy, she’d felt the terrible appetite of fate devouring all that had been Vieliessar and leaving behind the tool that would serve its need.

And so the lost and forgotten nobles of Amrethion’s Court quarreled beneath her skin, showing her a thousand ways to fall short of the goal she must reach. Success or failure on the battlefield was the least of them. In her dreams, Vieliessar learned a thousand ways to fail. A thousand things she must not do. The consequence of every action, based on a dozen—a hundred—possible deeds of her allies, her enemies, and those who did not wish to choose a side.

Zenderian had lost the whole of his army crossing the Mystrals when the weather had turned and he had not. Githonel had burned the standing crops to force the enemy to capitulate, and when the tide of battle had turned, his own forces had faced starvation. Kamirbanath had believed the enemy general would honor a truce. Melicano had taken useless hostages. Indinathiel lost a third of her forces when an amnesty extended by an alliance of Western lords caused them to desert. Nelpanar had refused to bring her cavalry to Tengolin’s aid because of an ancient feud between them, and so the day was lost.

The vast and terrible wisdom that spilled through Vieliessar’s dreams and into her waking candlemarks was a yoke for her neck, a weight upon her shoulders. Ignorance of the enemy. Ignorance of events. Failure to make alliances. Failure to keep them. Plague, assassination, blockade, privation—each was a weapon that had broken in those long-dead courtiers’ hands. Knowing so many things she would otherwise have learned at the cost of defeats and deaths should have brought comfort. It only showed her that knowledge could not give security or victory. She could face a score of possibilities, knowing she must choose one, and see nothing but defeat at the end of every road.

Parmanaya had been tricked into leading her army through forests unclaimed by either side. Parmanaya and her army vanished without a trace.

Merrindale had two choices once his supply train was burned—stand and fight against a force four times the size of his own, or retreat across the High Hills without food or equipment.

Noremallin’s army mutinied. He could execute the ringleaders—and never trust their successors. He could meet their demands—and see his army in the hands of the enemy. He could slip away in the night with a handful of trusted advisors—and leave his army leaderless and vulnerable. He could flee to the enemy’s battle lines with information that would destroy his army—and be branded a traitor by all he loved.

Great Queen Pelashia Celenthodiel had died, slain in the forest of Tildorangelor, and High King Amrethion—her beloved, her Bondmate—had died of heartbreak. This was the history that everyone knew, the history Vieliessar had been taught all her life. But in her dreams there was no Bond, no quick and romantic death: Amrethion had survived, had gone mad and cruel: his own nobles had slain him before turning to fight among themselves.

The war begun with the death of Amrethion’s queen continued to this day.

Vieliessar did not want to believe it. She could fight to steel her sleeping mind against them, but the moment she dropped her defenses, the dreams returned. And so her nights were filled with the clash of sword upon sword, of the thunder of cavalry at the charge. With the screams of the dying, the shouts of the victors, and a mystery she could not comprehend. Why had the children of Amrethion and Pelashia been forced to flee? Why did those whose lives she spied upon in her sleep believe Pelashia’s children were tainted, unclean?

She did not need to ask who they were. That much she knew. The dishonorable, the tainted, the unworthy lords whom Indinathiel and so many others fought through her dreams …

… were her ancestors.

* * *

Her time was running out.

It was past time for Gunedwaen to begin her knightly training, but that would not be possible without a Healing. She’d long known Farcarinon’s Swordmaster followed her only out of old loyalty, not because he believed she could unite the Hundred Houses. That didn’t trouble her, since she could see no way to do it herself. But Gunedwaen did not even believe she could break Ivrulion Light-Prince’s binding. He would not let her try because he thought she would fail—just as he thought she would fail to bring the Hundred Houses to heel.

But I will not fail.

She knew this as she knew her own name, yet the knowledge gave her no comfort. Her spells had never worked as she’d been told they should—or worse, worked when they should not have. She had learned to dissemble, to pretend she saw the Light as her teachers did, to pretend she grew slowly into the power to Heal those for whom all hope had been lost. Most of all, she had learned to pretend that Healing was her sole strong Gift, for the Sanctuary prized its Healers and there was always work for them within its walls.

But since she had fled the Sanctuary, she had become truly aware of the power she wielded. Healing, True Speech, Overshadow … each Gift she tested was as strong as the next, stronger than anything she’d read of in the records.

They said that Thurion would become one of the great ones. My power is greater still.

She wanted to believe all this was because the Light had not been Called in her, but instead had come in its own time. Even before the dreams had come to challenge what she knew of history, she had wanted to believe any of the Lightborn could do all that she could, if they only had the years she’d been given in which to listen for the Light Within.

For one moment, sharp and painful, Vieliessar wished she was back in the Sanctuary, sitting in the Common Room surrounded by her friends and fellow scholars. She could have taken her questions to them. Only she’d never told any of them the truth when she had the chance. And if she had a second chance, she still would not. Maeredhiel had laid upon her the weight of a destiny she could neither embrace nor escape, making her a creature from a storysong: Child of the Prophecy, a hero for whom her House had died, and who must somehow save the whole world. She’d hidden from it for as long as she could, hoping to find allies, hoping to be proven wrong, hoping the weight of war and death she carried by simply being Serenthon’s heir could be set aside …

Her thoughts so occupied her that her attention was only summoned back to the here-and-now as her boots crunched through a crust of half-rotted snow. She blinked, looking around herself. She had reached the edge of Eldanwarasse without noticing. The young trees of its outermost edge lay several yards behind her, and even so, the air around her was soft with promise, warm enough to melt the drifts of winter.

It was spring outside Eldanwarasse as well as in.

There was no more time.

* * *

“You’ve become amazingly fleet of foot if you are back so soon,” Gunedwaen said without turning away from the hearth.

“You have always told me a warrior must have two strong arms and two sound legs to wield a blade—or teach the wielding of it,” Vieliessar answered.

“So I have,” Gunedwaen answered evenly. He spoke to the flames, not to her.

“And so it is time for you to become my teacher in all things,” she said.

“My lord prince—”

The words were humble. The tone was not. Gunedwaen reached out toward the stick that helped him walk and Vieliessar knocked it away. She was done with arguing.

She closed her eyes. To her inward sight, Gunedwaen’s body was caged within a web of Magery: kin to the spells that preserved fruit and grain and meat in timeless suspension until they were needed. If she had not spent so many years as a Sanctuary Healer, she would not have known where to begin, but every spell, every enchantment, had a beginning, no matter how well hidden.

“Stop! Damn you, foolish child, I said—” Gunedwaen roared in pain as she began to attack the Binding; Vieliessar had always known that to lift it would cause as much pain as setting it had.

Striker lifted her head at Gunedwaen’s shout, then pushed herself to her feet, growling in fear before starting to bark. Gunedwaen struggled to his feet, only to fall in the next moment, cursing Vieliessar between ragged breaths. Striker backed away until the corner of the hut stopped her, whining as Gunedwaen scrabbled upon the floor, flailing helplessly. His hand found the walking-stick and he tried to use it to stand. When he could not, he struck at her with it. The blow was weak, with no strength behind it. His speech became a breathless gabble of argument and entreaty: what she meant to do could not be done; he would be useless to her even if she could break the Binding; his life was hers to take but he begged she would be swift and merciful.

And then there were no words, only screams.

Once, long ago, she would have ceased working out of belief that such a spell could not be broken. Out of pity. Out of mercy. She had wrapped herself in the lie that she could feel these things from the moment Glorthiachiel had spoken her true name, had clutched it to her through all her years at the Sanctuary. She’d wished to be like the others—like Celelioniel, like Maeredhiel, like Thurion—for to admit the truth would be to accept a freedom that was terrifying.

This was the truth she had spent so long running from: there was no pity in her, no mercy.

And no fear.

Distantly she was aware that the screaming had stopped, but it was of little importance. She had worked her way into the heart of the spell. She could trace each elaborate web of power, its interlacing, its intention, until it was as if she had set the spell herself. Thus far she had done no more than a Healing Mage of skill and power could do, though in all the Fortunate Lands there were less than a hundred who could do as she had done, and none of them would have been willing to try. What she did next was a thing none of those others could have done: she Unbound the weaving, thread by thread, line by line, layer by layer, until it was gone.

And then she did a thing no Lightborn had ever thought of doing.

She reached into Gunedwaen’s body with her magic. Once it had been whole, and deep within it, the body remembered its true shape, as a seed knew the shape of the plant it would someday become. From that seedling-self she drew the pattern she must follow; from Eldanwarasse she drew the power to knit up withered muscle, to summon bone and skin and flesh from nothingness, as if she forced a tree from seed to wide-branched tree in candlemarks instead of years. The power she Called to her need roared through her limbs and her senses like the storm whose winds the Starry Hunt rode, until its intoxication filled her body and mind. She knew she could not merely Heal Gunedwaen, but roll back the centuries he carried, until all the skill of his long life was held within the body of a warrior in his prime. She could build herself an army of such knights, bind their wills to her as if they were extensions of her own limbs. With such an army at her command, she could be unstoppable.

But at what cost?

Gasping with the effort, she released Eldanwarasse’s power. The loss of it made her cry out in protest, and almost—almost—she reached for it again, to hold it close, to grant herself such ascendancy that she would need to do nothing more than stretch out her hand and say: my will be done, and all the Hundred Houses would bow, would kneel.…

No! I will not!

But without it, she felt small and cold.

Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. The fire on the hearth had burned down to ash and ember, and the only illumination was the glow of Silverlight from the spell-lanterns, for morning had become evening as she had worked. Her body was stiff with long stillness and her muscles protested as she moved.

She walked to the woodpile, laid sticks and logs on the hearth-grid, then kindled them with a thought. Gunedwaen was unconscious, gripped by the exhaustion that followed any Healing. There was blood on his face, though she had Healed the injuries he’d done to himself in his agony.

When Vieliessar had first left the Sanctuary of the Star she would not have been able to lift him to his feet, but the moonturns of training had served her well. On their journey to Eldanwarasse she had aided him to mount his horse many times, but now his body felt oddly unbalanced, the new presence of the once-missing limb making him seem like a stranger. When she laid him on his bed, she undressed him, as much from a need to see her handiwork as for his comfort.

His arm had been cut away a handspan below the shoulder by the farmers who had sheltered him after the downfall of Farcarinon. The stump had been seared—such Lightless mock-Healings were commonplace among those who only saw one of the Green Robes at their lord’s whim—but there was no mark anywhere now to show that had ever happened. Joint and tendon, muscle and sinew, all reborn. She traced her fingers lightly over the skin. The ugly knotted scar in his thigh was gone as well. The limb, withered from years of disuse, was whole again.

She felt nothing. Not triumph, not fear. It was merely a thing which must be done so that she could become what she must be.



In Bethros, they sing songs of Princess Ringwil’s stainless honor, who said: “Where you exile Einartha, so send me, for my love is as great as my loyalty.”

But the song they sing in Haldil is

The Song of Ringwil

, for it was Ringwil who betrayed Bethros, and by this pretense sought sanctuary in Haldil thereafter. There is no Song of Einartha, who called Ringwil to the Challenge Circle when she discovered the truth, and whom Ringwil spared to toil as a kitchen-servant until the end of her days.

—A History of the Hundred Houses


Gunedwaen waited implacably, the elaborate braid only the Lords Komen had the right to wear a cool weight against his neck. He watched Vieliessar wipe the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand and attempt to stifle a sigh as she turned to retrieve her mock weapon from the grass—some distance away—where it had landed.

He held his wooden practice sword as if it were the deadly weapon he had once proudly borne. The strangeness of having two good hands to grasp its hilt, two good legs to carry him forward in this deadly dance, was nearly forgotten. He was once more who he had once been: Swordmaster to House Farcarinon.

“A duel can be decided in moments. A battle lasts from dawn to dusk. If you tire after a candlemark, or two, or four, you will die.”

“I am not tired.” She lifted the wooden weapon and turned to face him, though still standing outside the practice circle he’d marked in the soft earth.

“Losing your weapon is another way to die,” he said, raising his own. He saw her mouth thin—not anger, but determination—and she paced quickly toward him, weapon at the ready as she stepped across the boundary of the circle. When the two blades clashed, it was a almost a surprise not to hear the ring of steel on steel.

Mornings were for drill, the same drills every komen-to-be practiced from their tenth, twelfth, fourteenth year. Endurance, speed, awareness of the sword’s position, its range, the guards and counters and strikes.

Afternoons were for turning those drills into practice against a living opponent.

Vieliessar circled him, searching for an opening. Gunedwaen gave her none. Each time he felt her settle into a pattern he would attack, striking at her sword, her body. Some of the attacks got through. Fewer than yesterday. Fewer than a sennight ago.

Pride had carried him through the long cold years of being a pensioner of Caerthalien, and pride demanded—on the day she placed the wooden sword in the hand she had given him—he be all he had once been.

He had hoped—still—to teach her that determination was not enough. Desire could not replace the years of training she should have had. And so, that first day, he had attacked with all his skill. The practice swords were strong enough to break bones—she had crafted them from ahata—and he did not pull his strikes. Each time their swords clashed he’d disarmed her. The practice had gone on until her hands were too bruised and weary to clasp her sword’s hilt, until exhausted muscles would not obey her command.

She’d offered no word of complaint.

On the second day, she managed to retain her sword during one engagement in ten.

By the fifth day, Gunedwaen searched his heart: was he giving her false confidence in her skills? Was he allowing her success she did not deserve? He redoubled his efforts to overwhelm her.

It worked—for a time.

She was better than she ought to be. Better than she could be. She wasn’t his equal, but the skill she now possessed should have taken her years, not sennights, to achieve.

But wars are not fought afoot by knights with wooden swords.

He knew her hope of uniting the Hundred Houses was madness. It did not matter. What mattered was that she had come to him to be made a knight. And he could not do it. The training of a knight began afoot, it was true, but it continued on the back of a palfrey, translating the patterns already graven in muscle and nerve to fighting from the saddle. Last of all, with a destrier, learning to ride a weapon as well as wield one.

He could not give her the armor that would fit her like a second skin, the destrier who would be her companion and salvation on the field. But it was good to hold a sword again, even if it was merely a wooden one.

Just as it was good to teach his prince that she was not—yet—his equal.

He did not manage to disarm her again. But he could tire her, forcing her to attack while he merely defended, attacking in return only when she let her attention lapse. They fought on until she was staggering with exhaustion. But he was equally weary, and if he struck her unconscious, she might die before she woke. So he stepped back, across the edge of the circle, raising his sword in salute to signal the end of the bout. For a moment he thought she might follow and press the attack, for her gaze was fixed and distant and she swayed on her feet. But a moment later he saw her chest heave, a stuttering interruption to her ragged panting, and she stepped back as well, lowering the tip of her sword to the earth to keep her steady.

“A good day’s work. I am looking forward to a good hot bath,” Gunedwaen said mildly.

* * *

There had been one thing Gunedwaen had insisted on before he’d begun to teach Vieliessar swordcraft, and it was not for self-indulgence’s sake. A body bruised from a long day of practice must be given a chance to relax instead of stiffening. Stiff muscles tore and sprains and bruises then led to further injuries. He’d thought of nothing more esoteric than a deep tub, for Lightborn magic could easily heat water.

Instead, she had made a hot spring within the Flower Forest.

The surface steamed pleasantly, for even within Eldanwarasse the evening air was cool. He sighed in content as he stepped into the water and settled himself. Vieliessar sat opposite him, sighing as she raked splayed fingers through her hair. It was nearly chin-length by now, still much too short, but far longer than he’d ever seen a Lightborn wear it.

“You will weary of teaching me long before I have gained the skill I must have,” she said with a sigh.

“You are a promising pupil,” he answered neutrally. He hesitated over what he must say next, but she was not only his student, but his liege: he owed her truth. “And I have said before: I cannot give you all that you must have.”

“How not?” she asked, as if his answer might have changed in the past sennights.

“Lord Vieliessar, with my time and your patience, I can make you the equal of any knight afoot. But a knight does not fight afoot. And I cannot give you—”

“Sword, or armor, or warhorse.” She sighed deeply. “So you have said. And I have listened.”

“Surely there is … some other who might aid you in your hope?” Gunedwaen asked cautiously. It was the first time he had. Before he’d begun to train her, he’d thought her purpose to be unattainable. Now he thought her success merely doubtful.

“Some other of my father’s meisne—who yet live?” she asked, her voice wavering between scorn and weariness. “Think you that I do not know where each of them bides? All have sworn fealty to new lords, Master Gunedwaen. To Farcarinon’s honor and theirs, there were not many who survived to do so. No quarter was offered on Farcarinon’s last battlefield, and those komen who survived the day were slain if they would not swear. Filioniel was Farcarinon’s Horsemaster—he toils now for Caerthalien. Farcarinon’s Warlord has taken service with Oronviel, for Caerthalien was ever generous with its leavings. Gwaenabros Lightsister cannot aid me—in truth, she may stand now my enemy, by Hamphuliadiel’s grace. To which of these should I present myself, saying I mean to cast down the lord to whom they have pledged?”

Gunedwaen said nothing. He’d known Farcarinon’s last day had gone badly, but never—even in legend—had one of the Hundred Houses been erased. If he had not been sick and crippled when he was brought to Caerthalien’s Great Hall, he, too, would have been given the choice between pledging fealty to Caerthalien and swift execution. But it had amused Bolecthindial to have a Binding set upon him and to force him to live as his supplicant, and so Gunedwaen had not been sworn.

Vieliessar shook her head wearily, and poured water from her cupped hands over her face and neck. “They will not follow a Green Robe,” she repeated stubbornly.

Nor will the Hundred follow a lone knight, no matter how brilliant her armor and sharp her sword. He did not speak the words. She knew that truth as well as he did.

* * *

Rain became Flower became Sword.

The tasks Gunedwaen set Vieliessar became more demanding, her training nearly brutal, and nothing she did seemed to please him. Where they had once shared the simple chores of their little homestead equally, now every one of them fell to her: wood gathering and water fetching, hunting game and cleaning and cooking what she caught. She rose even earlier than before. Her morning runs stretched for many leagues and she ran now with a pack of stones upon her back. Nor did she run alone, for as often as not Gunedwaen paced her on horseback—forcing her to a faster pace, chivvying her onto uneven ground, even striking at her with his practice sword as she ran. In the practice circle his attacks had become unremittingly savage, targeting elbow, knee, shoulder, every vulnerable point. Their bouts began when she was tired and ended when she was staggering with exhaustion. The only task he had not assigned to her was the crafting of the shields he now wore in their practice—a komen’s shields for forearm and shoulder. He had burned them from ahata-wood and bound them to his arm with strips of buckskin, and no matter how hard Vieliessar tried, it was a rare day when she could land a blow anywhere but upon the ahata’s unyielding surface.

She wore no shields.

On any occasion Gunedwaen did not have a weapon in his hand—and many when he did—he would badger her with questions.

She commanded the center of the army. She had ridden to the attack. The enemy’s center line collapsed instead of engaging, and reserve forces her scouts had not seen swept in from both sides. What did she do?

She commanded a reserve force. She could see the main force was outmatched, but she had not received the command to engage. What did she do?

She commanded the deosil wing of the army. The enemy charged, attacking the tuathal wing instead of the center. She gave the order to support the tuathal commander, and just as she did, a force twice the size of her own attacked her from behind. What did she do?

“I order my force to take to the air and fly out of danger, of course, which is as likely as my being attacked from behind!” she snapped. “Gunedwaen, this cannot happen! I would have seen them—they could not get behind our lines, or—”

“It is all these texts you have read which convince you of this,” Gunedwaen said crossly. “Very well. Undoubtedly it is as you say.” He set down his bowl and got to his feet, walking from the hut. Striker heaved herself to her feet with a long-suffering sigh and followed him.

Vieliessar set down her nearly untouched supper and pushed the heels of her hands wearily against her eyes. Everything ached, and she was no closer to unifying the Hundred than she’d been half a year ago.

And no closer, so it seemed, to becoming a knight.

The minutes passed, and Gunedwaen did not return.

She got to her feet.

When she stepped outside into the night, Gunedwaen was saddling Trouble.

“Where are you going?” she asked. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“It is barely two candlemarks past sunset,” Gunedwaen corrected. He tightened the girth, and swung into the saddle. “And I am going nowhere. We are going somewhere.”

“Where?” Vieliessar asked doubtfully.

“Come along and see,” Gunedwaen answered. He clicked his tongue at Trouble and the mare moved off.

* * *

The broken stones of Farcarinon Keep were ghostly in the moonlight. It was the full moon of Sword, its light so bright there was no need to conjure a globe of Silverlight to show them their way. Gunedwaen had said nothing about their destination, and Vieliessar had not asked. The only time they had spoken was when she stopped him so he could take Striker up on Trouble, for the old hikuliasa had begun to lag behind.

She’d only been here once before in body. In mind, she’d been here a thousand times since the day she’d learned her true name. Promising vengeance. Demanding answers. Mourning the life she could have lived.

She had renounced her vengeance and received her answers, and her mourning time was done.

The watchtowers and the outer wall were nothing more than shattered stones scattered across what had been the meadows and orchards of the keep, and the keep itself, from ramparts to deepest cellars, had been forced to collapse in upon itself, until all that remained was a low hill of stone that time and the seasons had covered with grass and flowers. A small portion of the inner curtain wall remained standing, the only thing to say that once a proud fortress had stood upon this spot.

The road that led to the castel gates was bright in the moonlight; the earth, hard-hammered over the centuries, giving way only grudgingly to the encroachment of the meadow. Trouble’s hooves, noiseless on the soft summer earth, clopped faintly as Gunedwaen guided her onto the road. The ditches that had once lined it had fallen inward years before, leaving only shallow depressions in the grass.

As they crossed the boundary where the outer wall had once stood, Striker raised her head from where she lay across Gunedwaen’s knees and gave a soft, interrogative bark. An instant later, Vieliessar heard the clink of a bridle and realized there was someone here. She forced herself to pretend she’d heard nothing. Gunedwaen must know someone awaited him—awaited them.

She steeled herself against betrayal. Just as well to see it come now, if that is what comes, for if I cannot bind my House’s last vassal to me, what hope do I have of binding princes?

A moment later, a stranger rode out of the shadow.

His grey gelding’s coat had been rubbed with powdered charcoal to make it dull and dark, but there was no disguising the quality of the animal, the kind which only a great lord—or a great lord’s favorite—might ride. Neither horse nor rider displayed the badge of any House; the rider wore a dark hooded cloak, but Vieliessar could see the unmistakable angled shape of a scabbarded sword beneath the cloak, and her ears brought her the faint sweet jingling of chain mail.

Gunedwaen reined in and waited. Vieliessar stood, silent and watchful, at his knee.

The stranger stopped, pushed back the hood of his cloak. The silver of his mail-shirt gleamed at his throat, and now she could see that the cloak’s clasp was enameled. A red otter on a white field. Oronviel.

Farcarinon’s Warlord has taken service with Oronviel, for Caerthalien was ever generous with its leavings …

“Rithdeliel is a friend,” Gunedwaen said quietly. He shifted Striker in his arms, and Vieliessar took her and set her on the ground. The hikuliasa wandered over to the grey gelding, who lowered his head to sniff at her, unimpressed.

“An ally—perhaps,” Rithdeliel corrected.

“Ally, then,” Gunedwaen conceded. “It has been far too long.”

“Not as long as I expected, since I thought you dead,” Rithdeliel said. “Your message was a surprise.”

“As was your answer. I had not thought you saved any of Gwaenabros’s Finding charms.”

“You will admit it came in useful. I assume this is the girl? Have you proof she is who she claims to be?”

She stepped into the space between the two horses.

“I am Vieliessar Farcarinon, daughter of Serenthon War Prince and Nataranweiya, his Bondmate and Lady,” she said. “Declare yourself, knight of Oronviel.”

She saw him smile. “Rithdeliel, Warlord of Oronviel, begs leave to declare himself to you, Vieliessar Lightsister.”

She turned her back on him without answering. A bright flash of memory showed her Ladyholder Glorthiachiel doing just this to show her displeasure to one of Caerthalien’s court. She had not thought of her childhood in longer than she could remember, and for a moment the memory actually made her want to smile.

“Why should I trust him?” she asked Gunedwaen, her tone just short of a demand. “Who has broken his pledged word once will break it twice.”

“Rithdeliel was once Warlord to House Farcarinon,” Gunedwaen answered.

She gestured impatiently, brushing away his words. “So much I knew even before I came to you,” she answered pitilessly. “And I knew him forsworn of his allegiance to Farcarinon. If he is indeed forsworn by pledging to Oronviel.”

“‘He’ is here,” Rithdeliel said. “And were you a true knight I would challenge you for such accusations. Do you think I forswore Farcarinon lightly?”

“I think it is a marvel and a wonder you survived to do so,” she answered, turning back to face him.

“Caerthalien did not wish to see too many of its own executed, no matter where their lawful oaths had since been given,” Rithdeliel answered. “Or do you not know the whole of this tale? I shall tell it to you. I was chief among the knights in Lord Ethradan’s house—unfortunately for us both, for Serenthon Farcarinon had already set himself to walk the road that would slay him, and for this cause he played suitor to Caerthalien. There he met my Lady, and knew her for his Bondmate. And so Lord Ethradan of Caerthalien, Nataranweiya’s father, gave her as her dowry as many of his household as he could spare, myself among them, trusting our loyalty and care would keep her alive.”

“It did not,” Vieliessar observed.

She saw sharp-cut lines appear around Rithdeliel’s mouth as he clenched his jaw tight upon his anger. When he spoke again, his words were as cold and stinging as spitting snow.

“I was taken from the battlefield in chains that last day,” he said, his words soft and precise. “You live because of what I and my army did upon that field. We held the Alliance there until Lady Nataranweiya could flee Farcarinon Keep, though we were outmatched a hundred to one. To this battle War Prince Serenthon had summoned everyone who had ever borne a blade, or who might do so soon, and they were slain in their hundreds: aged greatmothers and children who had not yet leaped the fire or flown their kites. They are no more than names written on the wind, for no kin survived to place their names upon the Tablet of Memory. We in our hundreds stood against the Alliance in its thousands. Of the flower of Farcarinon, not one in a thousand survived the day. Those of us who did paid dearly, for we languished in chains until the day you returned to the Sanctuary of the Star, and many who had walked from the field did not live to walk beneath the sun again. When I was brought forth from the darkness at last, it was to hear Oronviel would ransom me from Caerthalien, if I would pledge fealty to War Prince Thoromarth. I had seen Serenthon fall, and I knew all of Farcarinon dead with him, for if the House had survived, Bolecthindial would not have sold my name as if I were a Landbond in the field. Farcarinon was dead,” he repeated heavily. “And so I pledged to War Prince Thoromarth, and I have served him faithfully since that day. I came here for Gunedwaen’s asking, and for my love for Serenthon, but I do not know that I wish to give up either freedom or life to the impatient tantrums of a child.”

“I have learned patience from the cradle,” Vieliessar answered, her words following his, beat upon beat, as if they clashed with naked blades. “And I am no child—you of all should know this, who so auspiciously marked the day of my birth. Know this as well: I would gladly have ended my days within the Sanctuary of the Star, save that the Hundred Houses face an enemy they are too blind and selfish to see. To prepare them against the day of its coming I must become a knight. And I shall, Rithdeliel of Oronviel. Do not doubt me.”

“You speak of the Prophecy. The Song of Amrethion,” Rithdeliel said accusingly, and Vieliessar could only stare at him in astonishment. “Oh, come, Lightsister,” he added, his tone turning sharper. “Serenthon Farcarinon knew of it. He too said it spoke of an enemy to come, and that his kingship would unite the Hundred Houses against it. And so the Hundred killed him.”

Again her answer was swift. “They killed him for fear of a collar about their throats, and for the promises he made to gain and keep his allies. I will not bribe as if I am weak; I will not flatter as if I must beg victory to favor me. I will triumph or I will die—and on the day I am crowned, there will be no High House or Low, nor will there be noble and Landbond. There will be one land and one people, and they will be mine.”

For a long moment they stared at each other in silence.

“It has been too long since I have risked my life for something worth the risk,” Rithdeliel said at last. He nodded slowly, as if sealing an unspoken bargain. “Very well. Say what you would have of me.”

* * *

The ring and hiss of steel was loud in the practice ring, where two knights mounted on destriers backed and circled for advantage. The rich smell of ripening hay filled the still air and motes of dust pounded from the straw underfoot turned the air to gold. The sun beat down on the combatants, turning the layers of metal and padding they wore into instruments of torture. Fire Moon was the hottest moonturn of the year, as if summer expended all her heat in one last profligacy before the cool of autumn and the long slow slide into winter.

One combatant rode a muscular roan, the shields of his pearl-enameled armor enameled in the red-and-white of Oronviel. The other, mounted on a bay mare, wore the bare-metal armor and bare shields of a maiden knight. Neither spared a hand to the reins, for destriers were trained from foalhood to answer to the weight and pressure of an armored rider, to move as an extension of the knight on their back, to kill if asked.

Both destriers knew that today was not a day for killing. Neither animal had taken the field in years, too old to bear up under the rigors of a full campaign and long days of war. They spent their peaceful retirement training future knights in the deadly equestrian dance of horse and rider.

Rithdeliel gave his mount the signal to back out of range. Were this a battle—and were he mounted on Varagil—he would signal Varagil to spin and kick. Such a blow from a hoof could shatter bone, even through armor. Since this was not true battle, he brought his mount instead around to his opponent’s off side, so that she would have to strike across herself to defend or attack. If she turned in the saddle to strike a better blow—a common beginner’s mistake—she would be off-balance, unable to properly signal her mount and vulnerable to being either dragged or shoved from the saddle. He was looking forward to a swift conclusion to the mock-combat—this was his opponent’s first fight from the back of a destrier—but as he urged his stallion forward again, his opponent’s mare spun, slamming her rump against his stallion’s neck. Reflexively, the animal beneath him sprang sideways—only a moment of distraction, but time enough for his opponent to go on the attack once more.

Rithdeliel backed the stallion quickly out of range and raised his sword, indicating the match was over. To continue would be to risk injury, even with peacebonded blades, for a fall or unintended kick could be as fatal here as on the field.

For a moment his adversary sat frozen, as if she wished to continue the attack. Then she saluted in turn.

“A good beginning,” Rithdeliel said. He patted the stallion’s shoulder and the roan stretched his neck and shook his head, as if shaking off the glamour of battle.

“What more is there?” Vieliessar’s voice was sharp.

“Come. Let us return the horses to the stable and get ourselves out of this armor,” Rithdeliel said, not answering.

* * *

He swung down from the stallion’s back in the stableyard, moving lithely in the many-jointed flexible armor, and tossed the reins to one of the ostlers. When he turned to help Vieliessar down, he saw that she had vaulted from the saddle as lightly as he, and for a moment, Rithdeliel felt the same unease he’d felt the first time he’d watched her spar on foot against Gunedwaen. Three moonturns is not time enough to make a knight, or even three years. And Gunedwaen swears she had not even held a practice sword until last Hearth Moon. She is unnatural.…

Her back was to him; she had drawn off one heavy gauntlet to scratch her mare behind the hinge of her jaw. “I am who I need to be,” she answered as if he’d spoken.

He was uneasy enough that he might have questioned her further, but Varagil had sensed his presence, and a loud, demanding neigh now came from within the stable. “I am summoned,” he said briefly, walking quickly away.

A few moments later, Vieliessar joined Rithdeliel at Varagil’s loose-box. She’d removed her helmet; her sweat-sodden hair, still too short to braid properly, was plastered flat against her skull.

“Raemeros is a gallant steed, and she has taught me well,” Vieliessar said, watching him with Varagil. “But she cannot serve me in battle.”

“She’ll do well enough to get you killed,” Rithdeliel said brusquely. “Even if you believe that by some fortune you can declare against the High Houses and gain anything but your death.”

“Ah, but I will not do it alone,” she said, grave laughter in her voice. “There is Gunedwaen.”

* * *

“You cannot just ask for the Unicorn Throne,” Rithdeliel said.

The three of them were in Rithdeliel’s own rooms rather than Candlebrook Manor’s Great Hall. A half-played game of xaique was set out on a nearby board; a tea service waited on the sideboard, the pot already filled with its infusion and awaiting hot water. He lived in the clutter of one who lived surrounded by servants but who had no wife and family to nag him to tidiness: half-read scrolls, half-mended bits of tack, and delicate, broken pieces of armor littered every surface except the dining table.

“So you and Gunedwaen have said before,” Vieliessar pointed out. “And I shall not merely ask. One army takes another, just as in xaique. If I defeat the War Prince of a House and gain his domain, I gain his army as well. With each War Prince I defeat, my cause grows stronger.”

“This plan only works if you have an army to begin with, and I do not see one,” Gunedwaen said.

“You might once have persuaded the Free Companies to back your cause—if you promised them lands and estates and the settlement of old grievances,” Rithdeliel added. “But now…”

Vieliessar’s flight from the Sanctuary over a year earlier had borne bitter fruit. Goaded by Hamphuliadiel Astromancer’s claim that she sought vengeance on the Old Alliance, and fearing that she would seek to bring the Free Companies under her banner, Caerthalien and Aramenthiali—of all unlikely allies—had joined Ullilion and Cirandeiron to scour Farcarinon of those who made it their refuge. The Harrowing of Farcarinon had begun at the end of Sword—a few bare sennights after she and Gunedwaen had come to Oronviel—and stretched through Thunder into Fire.

The power of the Free Companies had been broken decisively. Of the hundreds of mercenary companies that had once sold their services to the highest payer, only Foxhallow and Glasshaven remained—surviving because these two, the largest Free Companies, possessed granted lands far to the east of Farcarinon.

“Their combined force would not have been sufficient to take even Oronviel,” Vieliessar pointed out reasonably. “The Free Companies do not have Lightborn to Heal their warriors; Oronviel could put every knight they’d wounded back into the field the following day, and so stand against them forever—and if they acted outside the Code in order to win, Oronviel could declare them Outlaw. We have seen this War Season how outlaws are dealt with.”

Those who had escaped the Harrowing were now outlaws in truth. No War Prince would offer them a place. The shattered remnants of the Free Companies had turned to banditry to survive.

Rithdeliel glanced toward Gunedwaen. The old Swordmaster’s eyes held an expression that was half exasperation, half resignation. He knew as well as Rithdeliel did that a lone knight had no hope of conquering the Hundred Houses and making them crown her king. And both of them knew it was impossible to persuade Vieliessar of that. All she would say was that she must unite the Hundred Houses, therefore she would unite the Hundred Houses.

“Mercenaries, or the army of a single House—both approaches are too conservative,” Vieliessar added, twisting the stem of her winecup between her hands. She glanced from Gunedwaen to Rithdeliel. “Would you trust any of the War Princes to honor their pledged word?”

Gunedwaen’s answer was a bark of derisive laughter. “Your life is the answer to that, my prince!”

Vieliessar nodded. “Just so. No matter what they say—what guarantees, what pledges, what hostages they give—any of the War Princes will break their sworn oath. Do you not see what that implies?”

There was a moment of silence. “To me, it implies I would sign no treaty with them if my life depended on their keeping of it. But I am sure this is not what you mean us to understand,” Rithdeliel said with ponderous sarcasm.

There was a brief flash of laughter in Vieliessar’s eyes, though her face remained composed. “But you are right, good master Rithdeliel. No treaty with any of the Hundred has worth. So from declaration to victory, my campaign can run only one War Season.”

Gunedwaen threw up his hands in exasperation. “It is not enough for you to say you will make the Hundred declare you High King—now you will defeat them all in one summer!” At his feet, Striker raised her head inquisitively, then lowered it again, seeing nothing interesting was happening.

“As you say,” Vieliessar said mildly, raising her cup to drink. She refused to speak further of her plans that evening, and the talk turned to gossip of the coming Harvest Court.

Four great feasts turned the wheel of the year: the Kite Festival of Flower Moon, the Fire Festival of Fire Moon, the Midwinter Feast of Snow Moon, and Harvest Court.

Unlike the other festivals, its time was not fixed: Harvest Court fell upon the first full moon after the Fire Festival, whether that lay in the moonturn of Harvest or not. Loremasters said it was the oldest of the festivals; storysingers spoke of a time before the building of Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor by the first High King, when the folk had not lived beneath roofs of stone, but roamed the land following the great horse herds, a time when the harvest the name spoke of was not grain, but souls—for it was their claim that Harvest Court had once marked the half of the year in which the Starry Hunt had ridden over the land, taking whom it would as its prey.

At Harvest Court, by ancient custom, any might approach the War Prince to receive justice, no matter how humble their degree.

* * *

The gates of Oronviel Keep stood open. Across the outer courtyard—a space designed to box in attackers so they could be slain from above—the massive doors of the Great Hall stood open as well. Trestle tables were set out beneath the fruit-heavy trees of the castel orchard as well as in the Great Hall, for at Harvest Court, War Prince Thoromarth held a great feast for all who wished to attend. There would be horse races and foot races; prizes given for the most elaborately decorated loaf of bread, the most enticing new tea blend, the most beautiful weaving, the best new song and poem and tale—even for the most elaborate illusion cast by Oronviel’s Lightborn. The feasting and games would begin at dawn the morning after the full moon and continue until sunset on the seventh day afterward, and in between the contests and the celebrations, War Prince Thoromarth would hear the petitions of any who came before him. Even an outlaw or a traitor knight could come to Harvest Court and be heard, for all the Houses of the Fortunate Lands declared peace and truce for the whole of the festival.

The day was summer-warm, and the high windows in the Great Hall had been flung open to let the last of summer into the keep. From the makeshift race course laid out between the orchard and the craftworkers’ village—a space more often used to muster Oronviel’s troops for battle—came the sound of cheering and hornsong. Horses raced in the morning when it was cooler; in the afternoon, once the prizes for the winning horses had been given, there would be footraces.

Within the Great Hall, Oronviel’s great lords, and any others who wished to see, were gathered to hear their master give justice. Rithdeliel watched impassively as yet another petitioner stepped forward. He’d considered and discarded the idea of bringing Vieliessar and Gunedwaen to Harvest Court to beg sanctuary. It was true that Harvest Court was the time when banishings and outlawing could be set aside and pardoned, but Gunedwaen had been Caerthalien’s prisoner and Vieliessar fell under the Sanctuary’s dominion. And Thoromarth of Oronviel was no fool.

The clatter of sabatons against the stone of the outer courtyard roused him to instant alertness.

The figure who appeared in the doorway wore armor enameled in silver, as if to mock the unadorned plate of the unfledged knight. Her tabard and cloak were pure white, as if she came to Harvest Court to seek knighthood, but silver spurs gleamed on her feet and she wore swordbelt and scabbard. The empty scabbard was the only concession she made to the fact that she was entering the presence of a War Prince, for her helm was locked into place, rendering her anonymous.

“Rithdeliel—who comes?” Thoromarth asked.

“I do not know, Lord Thoromarth,” Rithdeliel answered, forcing his voice to show none of the anger he felt. He was not forsworn—in truth, he did not know.

All around the hall, watchers flurried like a cote of doves and whispered urgently to each other. But no one tried to impede the silver knight’s progress as she walked slowly and deliberately the full length of the hall.

“I give you good greeting, stranger knight,” Thoromarth said, as she stopped before him. “Remove your helm so I may look upon your face, and say what justice you would have of Oronviel.”

“I would have Oronviel’s lands, her knights, and all who lie in your hand. By the most ancient law of the princes who rule, I challenge you to single combat without quarter, and when I win your nobles will yield Oronviel to me and your heir will swear fealty.”

“You are mad!” Thoromarth hissed.

“Your pardon, my lord prince,” Eiron Lightbrother, Chief of Oronviel’s Lightborn, said quietly, leaning over to speak softly in Thoromarth’s ear. “This is law, made in the time of Mosirinde Peacemaker, and all the princes bound themselves to obey. At Harvest Court, such a challenge can be made. It must be accepted.”

Rithdeliel knew that what Eiron said was far from impossible: the Hundred Houses had bound themselves to many rulings in Mosirinde’s time. None could be set aside without the agreement of all the Houses together, something unlikely to be forthcoming.

“Withdraw your petition, stranger knight, and you may leave my hall unharmed,” Thoromarth said when Eiron stepped back.

“I do not withdraw it,” the silver knight said. “I demand of you combat for all you hold. This is the second time of asking.”

There was a long moment of charged silence, then Thoromarth laughed. “You shall have your battle—” he said.

“Father!” Princess Mialvialla had half risen from her seat.

“Silence!” Thoromarth snapped. “I say, you may have your battle, stranger knight. But I know the old law as well as you. My champion will meet you, not I. By the law you so imprudently invoke, mine is the right to choose the time and place. On the last day of the Festival, on the assembly field at midday. Present yourself then or hold yourself foresworn, and a coward.”

The silver knight bowed. “I shall be there, Thoromarth Oronviel.”

She turned and strode from the hall. Neirenmeirith Lightsister separated herself from the onlookers and followed.

“An amusing end to a tedious morning,” Thoromarth said brusquely, getting to his feet. “Come. We may be in time for the last of the racing.”

* * *

On the day appointed, five days after Thoromarth’s morning court had been so rudely interrupted, the nobles of Oronviel gathered on the assembly field.

The craftworkers had enclosed the space Eiron Lightbrother had indicated with strong wooden panels painted in the red-and-white of Oronviel, leaving two gaps in the panels wide enough to ride a horse through. The barrier would keep onlookers away from the two combatants. A raised platform had also been constructed; a framework above it hung with pavilion-weight silk to shelter those below from the midday sun. Lord Thoromarth and his favorites would have an excellent view of the battle.

How could she do such a thing as this? The question repeated endlessly in Rithdeliel’s mind as he waited just outside the arena. It was a betrayal that hurt more keenly than being sold to Oronviel so many years ago. He had trusted her. He had loved her for Nataranweiya’s sake. She held Gunedwaen’s life in her hands. And this is what she does with it!

His edginess communicated itself to his mount; Varagil sidled and tossed his head nervously.

“Be easy, old friend. It will be over soon,” Rithdeliel said, patting the burly grey’s neck. He was Thoromarth’s champion, as the Warlord always was. If he had been free to do so, he would have ridden to Candlebrook and laid her in chains, Lightborn or no, but even if Thoromarth were willing to excuse him from his Harvest Court duties, he would certainly have Rithdeliel followed, and then all would come out regardless.

Perhaps she will not come, he thought, glancing toward the sky. If she has told Gunedwaen of her plans— If he found them out by some other means—

Then he heard the roar of the onlookers and knew he was not to be spared. He spurred Varagil forward.

She walked into the arena as calmly as she had walked into Harvest Court. The only change was that she now carried weapons: broadsword and dagger. The dagger was not to fight with; it was carried by the komen to cut themselves free of harness or even their own armor on the field. Rithdeliel was grateful she had not come mounted, for Thoromarth would instantly recognize any animal she rode. He supposed it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference once her identity was discovered.

Rithdeliel was sworn to Oronviel. He would not foreswear himself. For oath and for honor, he would have to kill her.

She stood facing the dais on which Thoromarth sat. “I have come at the day and candlemark appointed, Thoromarth of Oronviel, to fulfill my promise to you. Here, in the third time of asking, I challenge you in the person of your champion, for all you hold within your hands!”

Rithdeliel saw Thoromarth smile. “Speak to me of that again, stranger knight, when my champion lies dead by your hand,” Oronviel’s War Prince called. “Begin!”

Any reply she might have made was drowned in the cheering of the crowd.

Rithdeliel spurred Varagil forward. There was not enough room for him to reach a full gallop, but there was certainly enough room to maneuver. Rithdeliel’s blade was poised. He had every advantage: height, speed, and a trained destrier. His first blow should shear through her armor between cullet and helm. Varagil would do the rest.

I will make this quick, for your lady mother’s sake.

At the last moment, just before he reached striking range, Varagil shied.

There was laughter from the dais as Varagil crabbed sideways and back. Rithdeliel dug his spurs into the stallion’s flanks, forcing him to settle. He trotted the destrier around the circumference of the ring to settle him further: this was a strange situation, and Varagil had always been high-strung. As Varagil moved in a wide circle around Vieliessar, she turned so she was always facing her enemy. Rithdeliel pressed his heels into the stallion’s sides and shifted his weight forward. Varagil answered the command easily, cantering forward. Once again Rithdeliel raised his sword to deliver the fatal blow.

Once again Varagil plunged sideways, carrying Rithdeliel out of reach.

Exasperated, he snatched at the reins and hauled back savagely. Varagil reared, shaking his head, kicking out harmlessly with his fore hooves as he staggered a few steps backward.

This cannot be Magery! Eiron stands beside Lord Thoromarth—he would sense it! This time Rithdeliel kept a tight hand on the rein, hauling the destrier’s head down as he spurred him forward.

The outcome was the same.

“Are we to sit here all day watching you show off, Lord Rithdeliel?” Princess Mialvialla called down.

Without answering, Rithdeliel turned Varagil back toward the opening in the barrier. He swung down from the saddle, leaving the reins hanging: Varagil would be quiet enough if no stranger approached him.

When he walked back into the arena, Vieliessar waited for him in silence: the Lightsister who wished to become a knight, who had struck the spark to kindle the tinder of his resentment of Farcarinon’s destruction. Rithdeliel had believed in Amrethion’s Prophecy because Nataranweiya had, and had always believed that when the day and the enemy came—if they did—the Hundred Houses would band together to face it.

And now it did not matter. When the day came, if it came, he would not see it.

War was the art, the duty, and the recreation of every child of the Hundred Houses. Their artificers forged unbreakable swords, crafted armor as pliant as heavy silk. A knight who wore it could run in it—as long as his strength held out—could even dance in it.

Today’s dance would be brief.

He expected to strike the first blow. Not to wait for the enemy to strike was the hardest lesson to teach to the young trainees. Whatever advantage you gained from learning how the enemy fought was negated by the fact that you’d taken the first hit.

Vieliessar did not wait. As he was still walking toward her, she sprang forward. She did not bring her blade down from above as if she were chopping wood—an attack which would have given Rithdeliel precious seconds of warning—but swept it up from below as he was still registering the movement.

He caught the blow on his shield. The force of the impact jarred down his spine. He turned the parry into an attack, aiming a midline strike at her ribs, where dozens of narrow plates gave the armor flexibility at the cost of strength. Anywhere your body flexes is where you should attack your opponent. The lecture he had delivered to thousands of children of Caerthalien, Farcarinon, and Oronviel played through his mind as his blade rang and slid over hers—parry, disengage—and each of them sprang back. Fighting mounted, the blade’s length was an advantage. On foot, it meant they could not close with one another.

The next exchanges came punishingly fast, blade meeting blade, meeting armor, the blows ringing out like the hammer of the smith at the forge. A part of his mind registered the noise of the crowd ebbing away to silence. They had expected a swift butchery. He was Rithdeliel of Oronviel, Warlord to Thoromarth Oronviel. Bruised vanity made him redouble the speed and fury of his attacks.

He would not think of what he had learned in these scant minutes in the arena. He was a master of war, his skills honed for centuries, honed by a thousand battles.

She was his match.

There are things I have not taught you yet!

He turned to catch her blade, not on the face of his lower shield, but behind it, trapping it between the lip of the shield and his metal gauntlet. Such a maneuver was risky: the sword would shear through the bolts holding the shield in place if they took the full force of the blow. This move was nothing one would use in battle, but a duelist’s maneuver. A trick for entertaining one’s comrades. I remember Serenthon, bright as a new blade, conceding his defeat at Nataranweiya’s hands.…

Rithdeliel had spent his life assembling miracles. Only one time had he failed. Now he caught Vieliessar’s blade, let it slip behind his shield to catch and hold, let it slide past him as he swept forward. He flung his sword into the air, and the moment it left his free hand, he struck her on the side of her helm with all the power in his clenched fist, then seized his weapon as it fell.

She staggered backward, stunned, and her fouled blade grated free. He moved forward to press his advantage as she lowered her guard—

Her sword whipped up. If she’d tried any conventional attack, Rithdeliel’s strike would have slammed home, but she set the point of her blade against his chestplate and shoved. There was a moment’s ear-hurting squeal as the sword’s point skated harmlessly over the surface of his armor as he staggered back. Then she was on the attack once more, her blade moving so fast—a dozen attacks, a dozen feints, a dozen counters—that it was impossible to see and assess each one. Instinct—the bone-bred knowledge of every strike that could be delivered by an armored warrior—let Rithdeliel meet each attack. But his advantage was gone now—if it had ever truly existed. She was forcing him inexorably backward across the soft loose earth of the arena. He tried to shift her, to turn her, without success. She directed her attacks to his sword-hand, so he must meet them with his blade rather than prepare a counter.

She was magnificent. He wanted to shout to the watching crowd that this, this was how Farcarinon offered battle.

He wanted to tell her to disengage, to flee while she could save herself, for Thoromarth had sworn no binding oath to spare her life.

Rithdeliel must kill her. He no longer thought it would be easy.

He dropped his blade and grabbed her sword between his metal-banded palms, keeping his hands flat, for to clasp the blade as one clasped a swordhilt was to lose fingers. He twisted the weapon as he pulled her toward him; she released her grip abruptly and Rithdeliel staggered back a half-step as she dived for his abandoned blade. It took him only a heartbeat to get his hands around the hilt of the sword he held. By then Vieliessar was on the attack again.

In just these few moments the engagement had changed from an execution to a battle. Now it became a contest of endurance and strength. The time for flamboyant attacks and risky counters was over. She struck with the flat of her blade, not from any desire to spare him, but because the flat would deliver more force without bouncing away. Even now she did not attempt any of the conventional strikes—she struck at hip, at thigh, at shin until his body ached and his legs became treacherous. Each time he attacked, she moved inside his guard, robbing his blows of their power.

But her success could not last forever. With his last strength, Rithdeliel sprang backward and aimed a lethal, two-handed swing at her shoulder. She could not get her blade up to counter in time—she spun, turning her back to him for a vital moment in order to catch the blow on her shoulder-shield. Off balance when the blow landed, she was knocked from her feet and fell to the earth.

He stepped forward as she rolled to her back. She would not be able to rise before he delivered the killing blow.

She didn’t try to escape. Instead, she swept her blade sideways and struck him between greave and sabaton with all the force she could. It was a blow that could not be struck on the field, for in war, knights did not fight afoot. And so the join between leg and foot was but lightly armored, meant to be defended by the sheltering metal of the stirrup.

Here, on the field below Oronviel Great Keep, it was a crippling blow. White-hot pain in his shattered ankle made him check his strike. Vieliessar drew her knees up to her chest and kicked out powerfully, knocking him away. The damaged ankle would not bear his weight and Rithdeliel went sprawling.

Up, you fool—get up!

On her feet by then, Vieliessar stamped on his wrist with all her weight, then kicked his sword away. She dropped to her knees beside him.

“Yield!” she demanded, her voice low and urgent.

He shook his head mutely. He was Oronviel’s champion. He could not yield.

She dragged him to his knees, kneeling on his calves in a grinding squeal of metal against metal and wrenching his helm from his head. The sun was bright. It did not seem to have moved at all in the time their battle had taken. Her fingers clenched in his hair as she pulled his head back. He felt the whisper of her dagger at his throat.

“I have defeated your champion, Thoromarth of Oronviel! Yield to me your lands!” she shouted.

There was a moment of frozen silence; then Thoromarth laughed.

“Go ahead and slit his throat if you like! You have not won until I say you have!” he called back.

Rithdeliel braced himself to die, his only regret being he would not see how this ended. Then he felt the edge of the dagger leave his throat. A moment later he saw it glitter in mid-air. She had thrown the weapon at Thoromarth.

There was a flare of bright violet light as Eiron Lightbrother swept up his hand to Shield his lord. Rithdeliel had seen Mage Shield cast many times in skirmishes with the Beastlings; it was permitted when the enemy was not komen.

When it struck the Shield, the dagger should have dropped away as if it had been flung against stone.

It did not.

The blade hung in the air as if it were caught in a spider’s web. Around it, Eiron’s spell flared as bright as flame, but though the dagger was caught in his spell, it was not held. Dazzling amethyst fire spread outward from the dagger until the whole shape of the shield could be seen, surrounding Lord Thoromarth and trapping him in his seat. The dagger slowly slid forward.

“I have won,” Vieliessar repeated implacably.

“Kill her!” Thoromarth shouted.

Rithdeliel could see the faces of all who sat within the viewing box. They could not decide whether to flee—and have to face Thoromarth’s anger when this was over—or stay where they were lest they become the next target. Princess Mialvialla rose to her feet and flung her own dagger. It veered sharply, turning in the air like a bird in flight, and buried itself in the soft earth. Magery. She uses Magery in battle … Rithdeliel thought numbly. Princess Mialvialla gave a harsh cry of fury, looking around for other weapons.

The dagger inched closer.

“Who are you?” Thoromarth demanded, seeing no one would—could—carry out his order. If Thoromarth’s voice held fear, Eiron Lightbrother looked as if he gazed upon his own death.

The silver helm hit the ground a few feet away from where Rithdeliel knelt.

“I am Vieliessar Farcarinon, and I have come to claim your lands, your armies, and your fealty—or this day I will take your life and the lives of all who will not pledge to me!”

Thoromarth was invisible now behind the wall of violet flame, and the dagger embedded in the spell could no longer be seen.

Suddenly the world went dim and wine-colored as a second Mage Shield surrounded Rithdeliel and Vieliessar. It flared and dazzled brightly—he did not know why, for he could see no missile, no weapon, yet it was obvious that the Lightborn standing in the crowd must have attempted to obey their lord. The metal taste of terror filled his mouth at the thought of two Lightborn battling. What spells, what horrors, would they unleash?

“Abomination!” Eiron shouted. “You betray the Covenant!”

“I do not do battle by the Light, Eiron Lightbrother!” Vieliessar cried out. “But I will have what I have won! Your life or your pledge, Thoromarth Oronviel!”

She will have to kill him, Rithdeliel thought in sudden cold fear. He could not imagine what would happen then. How many would she have to kill today? Mialvialla will not give up her inheritance—

The Mage Shield that protected the two of them crackled and flared again. And held fast.

“I yield! I yield!” Thoromarth shouted suddenly. “I yield! You have won my domain in fair challenge!”

The unnatural, spell-driven light vanished.

“Come, then, and swear to me before the sight of all,” Vieliessar demanded.

As Eiron helped the once-lord of Oronviel to his feet, Rithdeliel could see the blood that welled from the wound in Lord Thoromarth’s throat.

* * *

It is a good beginning. It is not the whole.

It was nearly midnight before Vieliessar was able to dismiss Thoromarth’s servants—hers now—from her bedchamber, and with them, the last of the Court who wished to know the answer to just one question, or two, or three.

One remained behind.

“I would have honesty of you,” Vieliessar said to Thoromarth. True Speech could tell her the tenor of his mind, but only if he thought of what she wished to know, and Lord Thoromarth was not an introspective man.

“I have given you honesty since I gave you my oath,” Thoromarth answered.

“I slew your lady wife, your heir, and three more of your children,” Vieliessar said bluntly. “Your own Chief Lightborn would not accept me as Prince. Yet you seem content to follow where once you led.”

“Am I a lackwit?” Thoromarth demanded sharply. He sighed deeply, recognizing this was not a true answer. “And my loyalty is a chain about your throat, for Eiron will not be alone in thinking I am bespelled to surrender my domain. Yet I have pledged to serve Oronviel above all things until Amrethion Aradruiniel returns, and to this oath I am faithful.”

“Today you might have taken your death, and known Princess Mialvialla would have demanded I prove my challenge against her in turn.”

“I have always believed that the Silver Hooves shape our fates,” Thoromarth said heavily. “Warriors die in battle gladly, knowing we will ride the night wind forever. I should have trusted Them, and taken the challenge you made. But I did not. In my heart I thought I could sacrifice Rithdeliel, who served me as faithfully as he served Farcarinon. If he died, I would then have you slain. If he lived, you would be dead, and I would still rule. And Oronviel would have peace.”

“An odd desire for a War Prince,” Vieliessar said.

“What do I gain from war? You will know as well as I that Caerthalien and Aramenthiali have nibbled at my borders for centuries, allying themselves with any who would aid them. As did I. As will you. And why? Because it is all we know. Let Caerthalien’s lands—or Aramenthiali’s—stretch from the shore of Great Ocean to the Grand Windsward, and what changes? Nothing. We fight for glory and for sport, and any who does not wish to do so must buy peace in the blood of his own children. My Nanduil, who should have been heir after me, lies hostage in Caerthalien. Aramenthiali sent me Daustifalal to wed, and by that marriage I secured the east for a season. Perhaps it was my hope that, in pledging to serve you, I could make your rule an easier thing. And there would still be peace.”

She reached out and covered his hand with her own. “I swear this to you, Thoromarth of Oronviel. Though I pledge Oronviel to war, I do not go to war for glory or for sport. When I have gained victory, I promise you peace from Great Sea Ocean to Graythunder Glairyrill.”

“How can anyone make such a vow?” Thoromarth said slowly.

Vieliessar smiled faintly. “Follow me and see.”

Three days later, Vieliessar left Lord Gunedwaen to hold Oronviel Keep and rode out at the head of fifty of her new-sworn knights. She wore neither the red otter of Oronviel, crowned and garlanded as befit its War Prince, nor Farcarinon’s silver wolf. Except for the quality of the destrier she rode—an animal truly fit for a prince—she was as anonymous as any of her knights. Sorodiarn pranced playfully as Vieliessar led her knights down the road that led from the keep. She sat the mare’s back as easily as if she had been born it. So many of the things she did now came to her with ease, as if she remembered something she’d once known well, rather than as new skills she had to learn.

She would never permit anyone to know how much it frightened her.

* * *

“We cannot permit this!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel spoke as if her wish could make a thing reality.

“My lady, I am certain that—” Carangil Lightbrother stopped, as if even he could not say what he was certain of.

“Well, don’t just stare at me, you cloudwit!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel turned away in frustration, seeking fresh prey. “We must invade Oronviel!”

“Now?” Runacarendalur strode into the chamber, his hair still disheveled from his interrupted morning’s ride. “May I remind you, my lady mother, that it is Rade Moon, not Sword? And if you mean my lord father to invade one of our treaty vassals out of season, I think you might have summoned me to your council.”

Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s dressing chamber was crowded: not only was Carangil Lightbrother, her personal Mage, present, but several of Runacarendalur’s brothers and sisters. Only War Prince Bolecthindial Caerthalien—of those who might reasonably be thought to have an interest in any war of Caerthalien’s—was absent.

Runacarendalur tossed his rain-spattered cloak over the nearest chair and leaned back against the wall. Ivrulion was wearing his blandest expression—one Runacarendalur had mistrusted from infancy—and Gimragiel was (as usual) falling over himself to match or even exceed their mother’s fury.

“How can you treat this as if it is some jest?” the Ladyholder demanded. “This treacherous viper— This outlaw, oathbreaker, this— Who knows what she will do? One of the Lightborn setting herself up as War Prince!”

“It’s impossible.” Princess Angiothiel spoke with as much conviction as her mother had.

“Yet it seems to have happened,” Runacarendalur pointed out. “And apparently old Thoromarth is still alive. I’m sure he’ll convince her to honor his treaties.”

“We should crush them,” Prince Gimragiel announced.

Runacarendalur sighed. “Yes, Ragi, of course we should,” he said patiently. “As soon as they do something. Our treaty with Oronviel does not require her to consult with us over changes to her ruling house.”

“She is Farcarinon,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel hissed.

Farcarinon is gone. Runacarendalur didn’t bother to say so, nor did he say it was likely that Vieliessar, having been raised at Caerthalien until her twelfth year, might be more trustworthy than Thoromarth. It would only prolong the argument.

The news of the change in Oronviel’s fortunes had reached Caerthalien two days before. War Prince Atholfol Ivrithir had sent an envoy. Lord Bolecthindial had received her privately, then summoned Runacarendalur so she could repeat her message. Runacar shouldn’t be surprised that Ladyholder Glorthiachiel knew the messenger’s news: half the Court probably did by now. The tale was like something crafted by a storysinger: at Harvest Court, an unknown knight had challenged Thoromarth for his lands. She had defeated Thoromarth’s Warlord and champion and revealed herself to be Vieliessar Lightsister.

And that, Runacarendalur thought, is where matters become complicated. For Vieliessar Lightsister’s life was forfeit outside the bounds of the Sanctuary of the Star. More, after she had fled the Sanctuary, the Astromancer had ordered all the Lightborn of the land to seek her. Well and good, and no problem for any but the Lightborn.

But when Vieliessar Lightsister became War Prince Vieliessar Oronviel …

What then?

For a Green Robe to set aside Magery was as much a storysinger’s tale as War Princes being challenged for their lands. “’Rulion,” Runcarendalur said suddenly, cutting into the conversations going on around him, “has anyone ever stopped being a Green Robe?”

Ivrulion regarded him with faint suspicion. “It is not something you stop,” he said pedantically. “Yet—yes, there have been Lightborn who set aside their Magery. You will recall the story of Ternas of Celebros.”

“No,” Runacarendalur said simply, and Ivrulion grimaced.

“Ternas Lightbrother was one of the sons of War Prince Farathir Celebros. All others in the Line Direct were killed, save the greatson of Farathir’s heir, Prince Methestel. Ternas became Methestel’s guardian; when Methestel Heir-Prince was slain on his wedding day, Ternas renounced his Light to became War Prince. It was a very long time ago.”

“What has that to do with anything?” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel demanded.

“It is precedent,” Runacarendalur said. “If Vieliessar wishes to cease to be Lightborn, there is no proscription.”

“Words, words, words!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel snapped impatiently. “I suppose you will say next that there is no proscription against her conquering Caerthalien!”

“None—save the same reason Thoromarth never has. Oronviel cannot muster an army of sufficient size. I suppose they might have done it before this spring, if Thoromarth had been willing to empty his treasury, but we have made that impossible.”

“At the cost of raids and banditry,” Gimragiel said sullenly.

“I shall be certain to tell Father he must consult you before planning his next campaign,” Runacarendalur purred. “I am certain your strategies are equal to your generalship.”

Gimragiel shouted in fury and clutched his belt knife. Ciliphirilir jumped to her feet and shrieked as if she were the one being threatened. Angiothiel’s hikuliasa bounced toward her, barking happily. Ivrulion stepped between Runacarendalur and Gimragiel. “This solves nothing, brothers,” he said reprovingly.

“It brings us back to the question at hand,” Runacarendalur said, walking over to retrieve his cloak. “If Vieliessar chooses to become War Prince—as she might have done if her father had not been a fool—what must Caerthalien do? And not only is that a matter for Lord Bolecthindial to decide, but I remind you all: no one goes to war in winter. Especially in a winter where we shall be much harried by outlaws.”

The Harrowing of Farcarinon had already begun to bear its bitter fruit, and Runacarendalur could only hope the outlaws would soon retreat to their winter camps to give Caerthalien time to prepare its defense.

“So we are to wait for the spring, to give Serenthon’s whelp time to craft her revenge!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said.

“If she sought vengeance, Mother, she would have taken it the moment she took the Green Robe,” Runacarendalur pointed out.

“You sound as if you are her defender!” Princess Angiothiel said with an angry giggle.

“Never that.” Runacarendalur turned toward his sister and gave her a mocking bow. “I am merely realistic. And if we are to fight Oronviel come War Season, be sure I shall win our victory.” He turned, bowing this time to Ladyholder Glorthiachiel. “But that decision has not yet been reached.”

* * *

“Do you think she merely wishes to rule Oronviel?”

Ivrulion caught up to him before he reached the staircase. Runacarendalur had suspected he would. It was unkind to say Ivrulion spied on his brothers and sisters—and their mother—but it was probably no more than the truth. He and his children were outside the succession unless all the other possible heirs to Caerthalien died first—and that was some two hundred of the Lords Komen. And yet … Ivrulion had been raised as heir-prince until the day he had been sent to the Sanctuary. There were times Runacarendalur wondered if Ivrulion thought it a fair trade.

“Possibly,” Runacarendalur said. Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s voice could still be heard, faintly, in the distance. “Think, brother. Vieliessar did not go to the Sanctuary because the Light had been Called in her. She went to break the Peacebond Celelioniel Astromancer had laid upon her at birth. Because she was Farcarinon. Father had no choice in that. If he wed her to Huthiel—or any other of the Line—we would have had everyone from Aramenthiali to Daroldan at our throats.”

“Yet the Light came to her,” Ivrulion said.

“Something no one could have predicted—did you? Did Carangil? Did Seragindill? But even the Green Robe could not win freedom for her. I think her captivity weighed heavy enough that she chose the only path to freedom there was.”

“A domain on our border,” Ivrulion pointed out.

“A domain holding as many from Farcarinon as ours, or Aramenthiali, or Cirandeiron, or Telthorelandor. No doubt some of Serenthon’s vassals remembered old loyalties and helped her to possess Oronviel.” Runacarendalur shrugged. “Oronviel shares no border with Farcarinon, at least. Tell Father to send some envoy to her, to see if she means to abide by Thoromarth’s treaty with us. If not—” He shrugged again. “War.”

“War indeed,” Ivrulion said, with a thin, cold smile. “Enjoy the day, brother.” He bowed slightly, then turned and strode away.

I believe I shall, brother. I believe I shall pay a call on Domcariel, and ask him why he was not invited to Mother’s improvised council of war. Of course, I wasn’t invited either—but I believe the knowledge that she held one will come as a great surprise to Dom. And he can be reliably predicted to run to Father with the news.…

To win in the Challenge Circle was a skill entirely different from commanding an army, and if War Prince Vieliessar did not lead her own army—at least for a campaign or two—she would not hold Oronviel by next Harvest. The idea of going to war against such an innocent was appealing. Far less appealing was the specter of war within Caerthalien. Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had led armies, and her hatred of Serenthon Farcarinon had not diminished with his death. Such hatred had been known to ripen into warfare, and her first opponent must be Bolecthindial. A House, so weakened, would be easy prey for its enemies. Better Lord Bolecthindial know at once how his lady’s temper lay, and if he chose to do what best pleased her, then they would be at one, and Caerthalien the stronger for it.

Cheered by the pleasant prospect of the coming War Season, Runacarendalur went in search of Prince Domcariel.



The queen came riding and sang the song of freedom,

The queen came riding and truth was on her tongue.

The High cried out against it, but truth was on her tongue.

Truth forever. Landbond free.

—Tunonil Landbond,

The Song of Freedom

Before she had left on her strange autumnal Progress, Vieliessar had spoken to all those Lightborn who remained at Oronviel, telling them they were free to go or to stay, and that she would place no restriction upon their use of the Light so long as they remained faithful to Mosirinde’s Covenant.

Many had gone—if not out of Oronviel, then at least back to their families—and some of the castel nobles had complained bitterly, for there were so few Lightborn remaining that their spells were occupied on necessary tasks, not in finding a lost glove or keeping bathwater hot. Finding no ally in their new War Prince, some had summoned their own Lightborn from their estates, only to discover that the War Prince’s decree had gone before them, and those Lightborn who had not left their lands could not be spared.

Others had accepted the new rules with good humor, for if Vieliessar lightened the yoke of custom that weighted the necks of the commons, she lightened it for her nobles as well. No longer did her lords need to fear their horses, jewels, servants, or estates would be seized because their prince or one of her favorites desired it. No longer did they fear to be punished—or banished—for rumor or lies.

And most unbelievable of all, any who wished were free to depart Oronviel, taking with them all their possessions and any of their people who went with them freely. Generations of war, ransoms, and treaty marriages had left many of the noble families scattered across two or three domains, or five, and among such families, blood ties warred with fealty oaths.

It was slow work to spread her new truths across the land, but all who left Oronviel, noble or servile, spoke of them. The Lightborn spoke to their fellows in other domains, and the crofters who lived along the borders had closer ties with the next steading, whether it lay in Caerthalien, Aramenthiali, or Ivrithir, than they did with their distant lieges. The word of all they would gain when Vieliessar Oronviel became High King passed through Oronviel and then across her borders.

Prince Vieliessar means to be High King. She will be a friend to all who fight for her, and when she is High King, she will hold no grudge against those who did not.

When Vieliessar is High King there will be a Code of Peace. One justice for all, be they highborn or low, not rewards for some and punishments for others.

When Vieliessar is High King, domain will not war with domain, for all domains will be one.

When Vieliessar is High King, the Lightborn will not be taken from their families and hoarded as a glutton hoards grain. They will go where they will and do as they wish. Nor will any children be forced to the Sanctuary against their will.

When Vieliessar is High King, lords will not steal from vassals, from craftworkers, from Landbonds—

When Vieliessar is High King, any with skill may become a knight, or a weaver, or a smith—

When Vieliessar is High King, any may own a horse, or a hound, or a sword—

When Vieliessar is High King …

The other War Princes counted the taille of Oronviel’s knights and thought it the whole of her army.

Her army was the whole of the people of Oronviel.

* * *

“Here is where we begin.” Vieliessar rubbed the drawing-chalk between her fingers. Rithdeliel’s workroom in Oronviel Great Keep was a vast space. One wall was covered with tallyboards listing manor-knights and the number of knights-at-arms they could muster. The center of the room held three enormous tables. One could be covered in sand so that the deployment of forces could be tried before orders were passed to the Lords Komen. The other two held maps. She glanced at the men and women around the map table. Rithdeliel, Gunedwaen, Thoromarth. Princess Nothrediel, Thoromarth’s daughter, who was the new Cadet Warlord; Aradreleg Lightsister, who was the new Chief Lightborn; Hanniach, knight-captain of the castel knights.

Gazing down at the map before her, Vieliessar thought of the first time she had entered the Great Library of Arevethmonion. The path she had begun that day had led here. She traced her finger along Oronviel’s marked border. “How much of the border is disputed?”

Rithdeliel laughed. “All of it, Lord Vieliessar. It is the nature of borders.”

“And how far can we go across this … disputed border before we are noticed?”

Gunedwaen cleared his throat. “That depends on why we go.”

“To secure the land. Here is what is in my mind. My knights will ride through Oronviel as if on progress, each troop under its accustomed captain, and Lightborn will ride with them. They will come, if I do not ask them to prison themselves in the Great Keep once more, if I tell them I send them to Farmhold, croft, and steading to do what seems good to them. My knights will seek out every smallholding, and there the Lightborn will hear of taxes and tithes. They will go also to the Landbonds and hear their words, and such spellcraft as is needed, they will perform. They will discover the habitations of bandits and outlaws. My komen will take such creatures prisoner and bring them to me for judgment.”

She paused. Gunedwaen looked worried. Hanniach looked doubtful. Rithdeliel looked as if he was storing up objections. “In addition to these tasks, they will find for me every youth or maiden who seeks knightly arms, no matter their degree. These, too, they will bring to me here, so they may be instructed. These tasks they will perform throughout Oronviel.” She set the chalk to the map, redrawing Oronviel’s borders with a few swift strokes, and in moments she had doubled its size. “These are the borders of our domain. All within it shall know they may look to Oronviel for safety.”

“That is an … audacious … undertaking, my prince,” Hanniach said, dubiously.

“It can’t be done,” Princess Nothrediel said flatly.

“It can,” Vieliessar answered.

“To take territory without warfare … it is an interesting idea,” Rithdeliel said, measuring his words carefully. “And yet, it is in my mind that such small forces as you propose to dispatch on this ‘progress’ will be easy prey for a larger force. If you must ransom every knight in your domain not once, but a dozen times during War Season, Oronviel will be impoverished by Harvest.”

“But I do not mean them to ride during summer,” Vieliessar said reasonably. “I mean them to begin now.”

“Ride to war in winter?” Rithdeliel said, aghast.

Gunedwaen laughed. “You are not thinking to win a war with the loyalty of Landbond and smallholder, are you?” he scoffed.

Vieliessar did not answer directly. “Aradreleg, where were you born?” she asked.

“On Willowleaf Farm,” she answered, sounding puzzled. “My father is overseer there.”

“Who rides to war without Lightborn, Gunedwaen?” Vieliessar asked next.

“Idiots,” Gunedwaen said. “But—”

“We win wars now with the loyalty of Landbond and smallholder,” Vieliessar said. “We send their children to the Sanctuary, and then we take them to war. High House or Low, we gather the Lightborn of our domains to us and hold them close.”

“But—” Rithdeliel said, and stopped.

“We do it because it is our right,” Vieliessar finished for him. “And because we can win no battle without Lightborn to Heal our wounds, light our pavilions, gentle our horses, keep our food from spoiling, and a hundred other tasks. You say that Farmholder and Landbond care not who holds the land they work. I say: give them cause to care, and they will. Return their children to them, provide them with the safety and comfort that Magery affords, and they will give us a land at peace.”

“Until someone comes over the border to put an end to it,” Thoromarth said.

“Until then,” Vieliessar agreed, nodding. “But no army fights in winter, as you say. Let us use this winter to secure Oronviel.”

“By raiding beyond our borders,” Rithdeliel said, touching his finger to the chalk marks on the map.

“All borders are disputed,” Vieliessar reminded him. “Come Sword Moon, our neighbors will find their lands less than they once thought.”

* * *

“What has this mad plan of yours to do with…?” Gunedwaen asked after Vieliessar had dismissed the others to begin turning her ideas into reality.

“Everything,” she said. “I will build an army. I will push Oronviel’s borders as far as I may before anyone objects or even notices. If I hold the farms and make them safe, I hold the loyalty of the Lightborn who come from them. Next I shall take Ivrithir and Araphant: both are clients of Caerthalien, as Oronviel is. Ivrithir is small, and Araphant has a dotard for a War Prince.”

“Caerthalien and Aramenthiali will ally,” Gunedwaen said, speaking slowly and carefully, as if presenting information she lacked. “Oronviel cannot defeat such an alliance on the field.”

“Are you certain?” Vieliessar asked. “Wait and see.”

* * *

When she had been a Candidate, a Servant, a Postulant, and even Lightborn at the Sanctuary of the Star, Vieliessar had read voraciously—for pleasure, for knowledge, for an escape from the grey stone walls which were all she had ever expected to know. Her studies served her in good stead now, for Arevethmonion’s holdings were unmatched—and, for most of her time, uncensored. She had eagerly devoured accounts written by the Lightborn who had stood near for every princely council—tales not edited to flatter or excuse, for no lord would ever read them.

When Vieliessar had come upon mention of Farcarinon in such accounts, she had read them closely, for none of Farcarinon had survived to write their own versions. It did not matter that Farcarinon’s Lightborn had survived her fall: they had taken oaths to other Houses. But from Arevethmonion’s scrolls, she had pieced together the tale no one was alive to tell.

Serenthon Farcarinon’s ambitious weaving had begun even as War Prince Hiathuint, his father, lay upon his deathbed. Nearly a full score of decades had passed before its true shape could be discerned, a gossamer net of alliance, promise, and dream that tangled all the Houses of the West, great and less, in its strands.

Farcarinon’s first and staunchest ally had been Caerthalien. Aramenthiali and Telthorelandor stood apart, Cirandeiron bent this way and that like a young tree in a storm, first yielding to Serenthon’s wooing, next recollecting her ancient dignity.

When Caerthalien betrayed Farcarinon and allied with Aramenthiali and Telthorelandor—and Cirandeiron rushed to join them—many of Farcarinon’s allies fled. Others held fast until battle was inevitable, then sued for terms of surrender. Still others had stood fast until the day of the battle itself. Ivrithir had stood with Farcarinon until the morning of the battle, and no one could now say whether that was because Atholfol Ivrithir had been loyal until the last hope was gone, or merely wished to time his betrayal to the moment it would do Farcarinon the greatest harm. Nor did Vieliessar care. She had learned the lesson her father had not lived to learn. By the time her army took the field, she would have rendered it impossible for them to betray her.

* * *

The forest grew, thick and old, all across the border. It would have been impossible to tell where one domain ended and the next began save for the marker stone in the clearing, bespelled with Silverlight so that it glowed softly in the twilight gloom beneath the trees. As Vieliessar approached it, she saw a lone rider moving through the trees to meet her.

So far all goes in accordance with my desire.…

Atholfol Ivrithir was more than two-thirds through his allotted span of years, and he had held Ivrithir for most of that time, for a War Prince’s heir often came to rule early in life. His youngest child, Heir-Princess Caragond, could expect to burn her father’s bones and take his sword no more than three centuries hence—and far less, were Atholfol unlucky.

“Well met, Oronviel,” he said, swinging down from the back of his destrier. “I confess, I did not think you would come.”

“Neither did my household,” she answered, vaulting from Sorodiarn’s back. “Or, rather, they wished I would not.”

Atholfol smiled thinly. “Yet here we both are. You wish me to void the treaty I have sworn with Caerthalien in order to ally with Oronviel as I once did with Farcarinon. I ask you this: where is Ivrithir’s advantage in doing so?”

“If you wish an end to pointless war, your advantage is great. I shall be High King whether you aid me or no, yet I ask your help.”

“What help can I give?” Atholfol answered mockingly, spreading his hands wide in a gesture of harmlessness. “Ivrithir is small and poor—the indemnities I have paid to Caerthalien since the day Farcarinon fell have seen to that.”

“I do not have the patience for this,” Vieliessar answered, her voice edged. “You are inclined to this alliance, or you would not be here. What I want from Ivrithir is your army—all of it. Supplies, mounts, your Lightborn, your pledge to support Oronviel in all things, passage across your borders for my people, and all those brigands taken in your lands to be turned over to Oronviel for my justice.”

There was a moment of silence. “Perhaps I should name you my heir and vow my lands to you at once?” Atholfol asked. “I still see no advantage to Ivrithir in any of this.”

“You will no longer have to tithe Caerthalien a tenth-part of your harvests and your cattle,” Vieliessar said in a voice of mock-innocence, and Atholfol laughed.

“Hardly sufficient! When your father came wooing me, he promised me greater lands, a share of the wealth of those Houses we cast down, and a place upon his council.”

“And I will not,” Vieliessar answered. “For it was such bargains that destroyed him. I promise you three things, Atholfol Ivrithir: an end to the ceaseless warfare between House and House, a justice that runs the same for all, whether of High House or Low—and that you will not have to face my army in battle.”

“Every child looks to the future with such jeweled hopes, Lord Vieliessar. My Caragond is just the same. She swears that when she is War Prince, she will not be taken in clientage by Caerthalien, that she will take back the lands we have been forced to cede, that she will not give up her children as hostages. I said much the same, when I was her age. Such pretty dreams wither at the first touch of a swordblade.”

“And the time I dreamt the dreams of a child is long past, Lord Atholfol. We have lived a score of generations in exile, at war among ourselves, for the inability to agree on who should have the Unicorn Throne after Amrethion and Pelashia. In the west, the Beastlings seek to drive us into the sea. The south is bordered by impassable desert, the north, by mountains so high and cold that nothing can live there. The eastern lands are more embattled than the west, settled only because the alternative was extinction.” She stopped, studying him in silence for a long moment. “They speak of you as one who rejoices in war for the sport it offers. I ask you: where is the sport in the slaughter of helpless innocents? You took no new wife after Ninianael’s death. Will you see Caragond also face the day when she must sue Caerthalien, or Aramenthiali, or Cirandeiron, to receive her consort’s bones for burning?”

“When that day comes—if it does—I shall be dead long since,” Atholfol said harshly. “This is a strange wooing, Lord Vieliessar, accompanied as it is by neither gifts nor threats.”

“I do offer you a gift. I offer truth,” Vieliessar answered.

This time Atholfol roared with laughter, until he had to clutch at the cantle of his destrier’s saddle to steady himself. The animal craned its head around to regard him, ears flicking with curiosity.

“By the Hunt!” he said, when he had gained control of his mirth. “I had forgotten you were raised a Green Robe! I cannot eat truth or ride it—what use is it to me?”

Vieliessar had watched the display in silence, knowing it was at least partly an act for her benefit. “Truth is a weapon, Lord Atholfol. I offer you more truth—as a gift. The Free Companies were hunted out of Farcarinon. Such scraps as remain have turned to brigandage. Those outlaws who would once have joined Free Companies and been kept to discipline now have no place to offer their services save to bandits. Nor can Ivrithir, or Oronviel, or any other Less House hire the services of that which does not exist. But that is not the truth I offer—it is a poor thing, and you must know it yourself. What I offer is this: consider the alliance that made it possible.

“A century and more ago Farcarinon was erased and no retribution followed. My present ambitions are known. The Twelve will move to erase Oronviel next. Suppose they succeeded—though I say to you they will not. You know as well as I that no dog’s appetite is slaked by one meal. The High Houses would learn that they might expand their lands at the expense of those who cannot stand against them. Not this year. Not even while you yet live. But the day would come when Ivrithir, too, was erased, or forced to flee eastward to the Grand Windsward in hopes of establishing a domain there with what scraps it had retained in its flight.”

“You will not terrify me with fearful nursery tales, Lord Vieliessar,” Atholfol scoffed.

“How should I, when I have said you will not live to see the day? But once there were a Hundred Houses, and each War Prince possessed an equal claim to the Unicorn Throne. That is why we fight, you know,” she added kindly. “Then the Grand Alliance did the unthinkable and now there are only Ninety-and-Nine. With Oronviel’s erasure there would be Ninety-and-Eight. Do you think it would not occur to the High Houses that by eliminating the Less Houses they can claim wealth, armies, and land—and eliminate rivals for the High Kingship?”

Plainly Atholfol did not like what he heard, but he was too stubborn to admit it. “Less Houses have risen up before—what care I if fifty Lines are erased, if Ivrithir is not? You ask for an alliance and offer nothing but dreams and promises. Think you I do not know Oronviel’s muster to the last maiden knight? You do not have sufficient forces to take Ivrithir in the field, let alone a Great House.”

Vieliessar smiled. “Do you think you know the full force I can summon to my call? I tell you this as a further gift, since you must be wooed as if you are a blushing child. I will take all who will swear fealty to me—the raiders who harry your borders, the craftworkers who flee your harsh justice, the Landbonds you tithe into starvation. I shall forge them into a weapon. And I shall take up that weapon, and win.”

“Oronviel cannot stand against the Twelve,” Atholfol said flatly.

“You speak of the Twelve in alliance and call me a dreamer of storysinger’s dreams?” Vieliessar mocked. “Caerthalien will come to slay me and all who swore to me. They will bring with them Princess Nanduil of Oronviel, who has been hostage at their court since before she cut her first teeth, and her they will make War Prince. That is their plan, at least. It will not work.”

“Why not?” Atholfol asked. He seemed torn between curiosity and disbelief.

“You have not agreed to an alliance,” Vieliessar answered.

“You offer a storysinger’s tale of peace and justice, but conjure Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor as you will, what you truly offer is death.”

“Is it?” Vieliessar asked. “Perhaps it seems so to you. Tell me, Lord Atholfol, what does an army need in order to fight?”

“Knights, horses, supply trains, Lightborn—” Atholfol began.

Vieliessar silenced him with a gesture. “No. They need to believe they can win. And to want the victory.

“When you ride to battle, your Landbonds pray you will not fight across their fields. Your craftworkers pray you will not demand the impossible and punish them when they cannot achieve it. Your komentai’a pray they will find favor in your eyes when the time comes for their ransom to be paid. Your Lightborn pray their shields will hold, and their strength will be great enough to Heal the bodies you ruin for a season’s entertainment.” She gazed at him for a long moment; the only sound was the wind rustling through the branches above them. “When I ride to battle, it will not be for sport. And no soul I hold within my hand shall be left to the mercy of my enemies.”

“You mean to arm your Landbonds,” Atholfol said slowly. “They will not fight for you. And even if they would, the Code of Battle—”

“—is a toy. I set my toys aside long ago. I will arm my Landbonds, and my Landholders, and my craftworkers. They will fight for me. All in the Fortunate Lands whom you in your wastrel lives have cast aside will fight for me, for I will offer them justice.”

“An army of rabble and outlaws,” Atholfol said, but he sounded uncertain for the first time. “They will never prevail against trained knights.”

“Come against us and see. Though if you join us, you will probably get a better view,” she added, as if the thought had just occurred to her.

“I … believe I shall,” Atholfol said slowly. “If only to see that haughty pup Runacarendalur’s face when he realizes he is to take the field against hayforks and blacksmith’s hammers.” He let out a deep breath, as if he had been holding it for much longer than they’d stood here. “Very well. Alliance. Safe passage across my borders; my army to call. I am not certain I can promise the brigands, though. My komentai’a are used to executing them as they find them.”

“No matter,” Vieliessar answered lightly. “Send your knights to me and I will instruct them properly. And so that your lands do not lie undefended, I shall send my army to you, to keep your borders and bring me your outlaws.”

“You truly mean to do this,” Atholfol said, as if only now realizing it.

“I do,” Vieliessar answered.

“Very well. We have no Lightborn here, but once they were not needed for the swearing of oaths.” He drew the dagger from his belt and pulled off his heavy leather hunting gloves. Holding the blade steady, he scored a long even gash across the palm of his hand, then held the blade out to her.

The kiss of the steel against her skin was first cold, then burning. She held out her hand, and he clasped it.

“Vieliessar Oronviel, I renounce my claim upon the Unicorn Throne and swear that while I yet draw breath I shall do all that lies within my power to deliver it into your hand,” Atholfol said.

“Atholfol Ivrithir, I take your oath, and for this pledge of loyalty I swear I will not allow you to lie unransomed in the halls of my enemies, nor languish a prisoner in their dungeons, nor permit your body to be dishonored in death.”

They stood a moment longer, hands clasped, then Atholfol let go and stepped back. “I suppose I should go and tell Bedreithir Warlord she will not be spending the winter beneath the comfort of her own roof. You may expect the first of my levies within the sennight.”

“I shall leave them escort at Torchwood,” she answered. “You are welcome to come yourself, of course,” she added, knowing the offer would not be accepted.

“I think it will be more entertaining to keep Bolecthindial in suspense some while longer. I believe he wishes to try Lady Dendinirchiel’s patience next summer, and does not wish Lord Manderechiel to take overmuch notice when he moves his army across Farcarinon to reach Ullilion, for he bid me raid against Aramenthiali when War Season comes. But I am certain there will be many reasons I cannot.”

“Or it may be that you will do more than raid against Aramenthiali once a few more moonturns have passed,” Vieliessar answered, gravely pleased. “I give you good fortune, Ivrithir.”

“And to you the same, Oronviel. And may the Starry Hunt watch over us both,” Atholfol answered. He turned away then, leading his destrier back into Ivrithir. Vieliessar watched after him for a few moments before mounting Sorodiarn and riding back to where she had left Aradreleg.

* * *

Before Rade Moon was ended, Sunalanthaid Lightbrother came from the Sanctuary of the Star to demand that Oronviel surrender Vieliessar Lightsister to its justice. He was already out of temper when he reached the castel, for he had been met—before he was many miles past the border—by a troop of Oronviel knights. Despite Rithdeliel’s pessimism—and Lady Nothrediel’s declarations that the thing could not be done—the majority of Oronviel’s knights were happy to have an easing of winter’s long sennights of boredom. Hunting was their main pastime in winter, and they quickly found there was good sport to be had in hunting outlaws.

With Lightborn traveling with every troop of knights—just as Vieliessar had promised—Vieliessar could be certain of immediate information from every corner of Oronviel. She was aware of Sunalanthaid’s coming a full sennight before he arrived, and used that time to prepare to receive him. For the first time in her life she wore the elaborate finery of a noble lady: the layers of underskirts of stiffened silk, the gilded slippers, the heavy jeweled belt riding low upon her hips, the rings—including the signet of Oronviel—and the heavy bracelets. Her hair, once shorn and worn unadorned to show her status as a Mage, was still too short to braid properly, so she wore it swept back from her temples. A pair of heavy carven combs held it in place; the combs were sewn to a long length of soft, heavy silk that flowed over her shoulders and coiled about her throat.

Not one thread of any of her garments was green.

She chose to receive Sunalanthaid in her private rooms instead of the Great Hall. To do so would emphasize her status as War Prince: Hamphuliadiel had sent Sunalanthaid because he wished to display his authority over her. She had refused requests from Thoromarth, Gunedwaen, and Rithdeliel to be present: she would not receive Sunalanthaid as if he were an emissary from another House. Only Aradreleg Lightsister was present—more proof that Vieliessar feared nothing from the Sanctuary.

She had dressed her private chamber as carefully as she had dressed her body: it held her chair of rank and no other place to sit. The sideboard held wine instead of a tea brazier, and the tapestries upon the walls depicted great feats of Oronviel’s past. Beside her chair stood a table littered with scrolls and parchments—nothing Sunalanthaid could not be allowed to see, and all underscoring the truth she wished him to bear witness to: she was not Vieliessar Lightsister, but War Prince Vieliessar Oronviel.

“Lightbrother,” she said, as one of her castel guard opened the door to usher in her guest, “I trust you had a safe journey?” She stroked Striker’s long head; it was a tiny clemency from a future grown tangled and dark that the companion of Gunedwaen’s long exile had survived to enjoy a pampered old age. She watched as confusion played across Sunalanthaid’s face: he wished to argue with her—with the very fact of her—but could not decide how to begin.

It is a pity Hamphuliadiel did not send a messenger with more cleverness. Perhaps he could not find someone who was both clever and loyal.

“I am here to command your return to the Sanctuary of the Star,” Sunalanthaid said at last.

“No,” Vieliessar answered. “May I offer you a night’s rest beneath my roof before you begin your return journey? Or will you wish to leave at once?”

Sunalanthaid gaped at her for a moment. Those with power—even the reflected power of the Astromancer’s lackey—became accustomed to agreement and obedience where they had earned neither. “You can’t say that!” he finally managed to sputter.

“Within the walls of my own keep, I can say what I wish,” she answered. “I am War Prince of Oronviel by right of challenge.”

“You are not,” Sunalanthaid said, sounding plaintive. He turned toward Aradreleg. “She is a fugitive from the Sanctuary. Hamphuliadiel demands her return. At once!”

“Then let the Astromancer send his vast armies to take her,” Aradreleg said, glancing toward Vieliessar for consent before she spoke. “But first, let him say why he seeks to claim a prince of the Hundred Houses.”

“She has broken the Covenant. Her Light is forfeit,” Sunalanthaid said at last.

“Bring your witnesses to that charge, Sunalanthaid of Haldil, as I will answer them,” Vieliessar replied. Naming his House instead of using his title was rudeness, but she meant it to serve as a reminder she was no longer the Sanctuary’s servant—in any fashion. “Farcarinon was taken from me before my birth, and everyone thought I would be content to be so disparaged. But Oronviel is now mine, and I will rule over it as did Ternas Lightbrother over House Celebros in the days of Timirmar Astromancer.”

For a moment, she thought Sunalanthaid might ask her if she was telling the truth. Then his mouth firmed into a hard line. “You face serious accusations, Lightborn,” he repeated.

Vieliessar leaned forward in her chair. “Say this to Hamphuliadiel: I know both law and custom better than he. Say also that if I had taken Oronviel by unnatural means, my Lightborn would have voided my domain, and they have not.”

“Eiron—” Sunalanthaid began.

“Would not pledge fealty to me,” Vieliessar interrupted. “For that cause I banished him and a handful of others. You have come here in error, Sunalanthaid Lightbrother. I am Vieliessar Lightsister no longer. Take that word to Hamphuliadiel Astromancer when you go—and while you are my guest, do not give me cause to seek recompense from Haldil for your actions. Now leave me. I grow tired of explaining to you what you should have learned in your Postulancy.”

Watching Sunalanthaid’s openmouthed confusion, she knew for truth what she had only suspected: he had come to Oronviel believing Hamphuliadiel’s demands would be met with ready capitulation from the nobles and Lightborn of Oronviel. Perhaps he had thought to find Thoromarth ruling on her behalf, or to find her a prisoner, or to find Oronviel in open rebellion against her rule.

He had not.

“I will— I will—”

“You are tired from your journey. I would not have you set forth in such a state. Aradreleg Lightsister will conduct you to the rooms I have prepared for you.”

Aradreleg stepped toward him, and Sunalanthaid hesitantly turned to accompany her. Vieliessar could feel his confusion clearly—she would not seek to know more, not while Sunalanthaid hoped to discover her using spells to rule—and she might have pitied him, were he not so blatantly her enemy.

“Yet there is one thing I must require of you first.” Both Lightborn stopped at the sound of Vieliessar’s voice. “I am War Prince of Oronviel. You will give me the courtesy of my rank, or your stay here will be exceedingly brief.”

For a moment she thought he would refuse. But the Sanctuary was far away, and Vieliessar looked nothing like the self-effacing Lightsister who had endured Hamphuliadiel’s rebukes and punishments for so very long.

“My lord— My lady— Lord Vieliessar—” Sunalanthaid stammered. “I— Yes.”

Vieliessar raised a hand in dismissal. She took up a scroll from the table beside her, pretending to study it until she heard the door close behind them.

* * *

Rallying the people to her with the truth—a kind of truth, anyway, for she did not expect peace immediately upon her accession to the Unicorn Throne—was only one part of her strategy. Another was to rule over the land as if it were already hers.

The Great Keeps of the War Princes stood in the center of the lands they claimed. It was only sensible: such a placement would put their greatest stronghold far from their disputed borders. Even if the changing fortunes of a House had moved its borders so its keep lay nearer to one border or another, the farther one went from the Great Keep, the less settled was the land and the smaller the farms. More of the land lay under great Flower Forests or simple woodlands, until on the borders of the domain one reached the watchtowers and border keeps. These were large and heavily fortified, held by great lords who were nearly princes themselves. They kept vast meisnes of komen, and when the enemy rode across a domain’s border, it was the lords of the border keeps who first rode out against them.

But the border lords did not ride out against anything but a troop of enemy knights. It was considered dishonorable to ride to battle in disguise, and so they would go in bright silks and gleaming armor. Their passage could be seen for a great distance.

The raiders who preyed upon the outlying farms had neither bright silks nor gleaming armor, and well knew the value of concealment.

From Rade to Frost, Vieliessar met with the lords of all of her border keeps. To all of them she gave new orders: to ride to the aid of the border farmsteads when they were attacked. Many of her border lords were indignant at these commands, for they considered the border steadings to be there for little reason other than to provide sport for raiding parties from either side of the border. Vieliessar had removed some lords from their appointments and made it clear to all who remained that there would be no raiding, no brigandage, no “sport” in Oronviel.

When the border lords saw that her army patrolled as well—and saw what diversion there was in hunting brigands—Oronviel became a place of peace, not of raids and night terrors, until the pennion of Oronviel, with its red otter on a white field, brought the Farmfolk of Araphant, Ivrithir, and Laeldor—and Caerthalien and Aramenthiali as well—running to their dooryards to greet the patrols; to offer cider, bread, or honeycomb; to ask for aid.

Rithdeliel had sworn her plan would never work. Vieliessar had known it would. The komen might be proud and arrogant, but they were not immune to the experience of being greeted by the countryfolk with unfeigned pleasure and honest warmth, rather than with cold suspicion and grudging cooperation.

By Frost Moon, the land Oronviel controlled was twice again what it had been in Harvest, for once her treaty was made with Ivrithir, Vieliessar’s knights rode its bounds just as they had ridden hers. Ivrithir’s knights were no more immune to the astonishing experience of being welcomed by the Farmfolk than their brothers and sisters of Oronviel had been, and word of the alliance had run ahead of them, so the people of the borders greeted the pennion bearing Ivrithir’s tawny bear with as much enthusiasm as they’d greeted the red otter.

* * *

Hearth Moon became Frost Moon, and each day that did not bring word of armies marching toward Oronviel’s borders seemed to Vieliessar like a reprieve. There was much to do to in order to turn the impossible to the improbable. Candlemark by candlemark she lived with the temptation to change her course to one that wouldn’t seem so much like madness. There was still time to compose a document explaining how she had discovered the meaning behind The Song of Amrethion—she still had the scrap of the scroll Celelioniel had written—to ask openly for the help of the Hundred Houses against the Darkness.

No one would believe her. No matter what she did, her fellow War Princes would seek for the hidden motive, the trap, the betrayal. And even if they did not, they would still squabble over who should be War King over the combined army of the Hundred Houses just as they now battled over who was to be High King.

There is no time for that. They will not listen to argument. Only to armies.

I must have Mangiralas. Not for its destriers, but for its palfreys. If I can build an infantry, I must still get it to the battlefield. And Daroldan—not their neutrality this time, but War Prince Damulothir’s promise to support Oronviel. I will need him to demand aid of Caerthalien so she does not take the field against me before I am ready.

Mangiralas, Daroldan, Caerthalien, Ivrithir, Oronviel … a thousand threads from which she must weave her future.

Everyone’s future.

And so, with a thousand bad choices and no good ones before her, Vieliessar sent messengers to those Houses which had once supported her father’s bid to make himself High King, offering their War Princes safe passage and a Midwinter Truce if they would send representatives to Oronviel. Oronviel’s Midwinter Feast would be—must be—extraordinary, for Vieliessar must both display her power and take the next step toward what would inevitably seem as a revival of Serenthon’s royal ambitions. Worst of all, she could not count on any of the alliances she made this Snow Moon—if any—to stand one moment past the time Hamphuliadiel Astromancer made it known that she believed herself to be the Child of the Prophecy. If the War Princes hated the thought of a High King, they hated the thought of a mystical madwoman even more.

Celelioniel Astromancer had done Vieliessar no favors by her obsession with Amrethion’s Curse.

* * *

Though Midwinter was still sennights away, preparations for it were already under way. A feasting-hall crafted entirely of ice was taking form upon the meadow beyond Oronviel Castel. The kitchens were busy day and night. As each dish was finished, the last touches applied by Oronviel’s Master of Kitchens, it was cloaked in a Preservation Spell by a waiting Lightborn so that a sennight or a fortnight hence it could be brought to the feasting table as fresh and savory as if it had just been cooked. Unused chambers within the castel were aired and refurbished, temporary stables and paddocks erected, provision made for a full sennight of lavish spectacle.

It was a bit like going to war, Vieliessar thought. And in truth, this was the opening movement of her campaign, for Oronviel would keep Midwinter as if Vieliessar were already High King. In counterpoint to the lavish feasting of the nobles, she would feast the commons as well—and not upon the leavings of the great feasts, but upon bread and mutton and beer, given without stint.

Nor would her Lightborn Call the Light only upon the Fourth Night of the Festival, but upon all seven, turning away none who sought them out and taking none who refused them.

These things were new and strange enough that her ears had grown weary of hearing Gunedwaen, or Rithdeliel, or Thoromarth tell her why they must not be, and now she added one thing more: for the whole of the Festival, all within Oronviel, no matter their degree, had full right of woodland and lesser forest. They might gather what they chose, cut standing trees, and take game.

And take no hurt of it.

When I am High King, none shall starve and shiver in fear through the winter moonturns to enrich those who have no care for them.

But she was not High King yet.

* * *

Today she faced Komen Bethaerian in the circle. As with all the Great Keeps, a Challenge Circle had been set into the stone of the Great Hall when it was built: a ring of white granite set into the smooth, dark, Mage-forged slate. Here the knights of the War Prince’s household demonstrated their skill and settled quarrels. Here, too, a disgraced knight might regain lost honor and earn a place with the Starry Hunt by facing all challengers until death’s blood rinsed reputation clean once more.

Her own reputation among her knights was neither bad or good, but Vieliessar had not led them into battle for season after season. She must convince any who watched that she had set aside her Magery along with her Green Robe. And so Vieliessar met all who wished to do battle within the Great Hall’s circle, calling it sport to liven the dull days of winter.

Bethaerian was the commander of Vieliessar’s personal guard. It had taken Bethaerian sennights to challenge her, though she had watched the bouts from the beginning. She had put that time to good use, studying Vieliessar’s skills. Though Oronviel’s War Prince had disarmed Bethaerian quickly, when she slammed her shoulder against Bethaerian’s chestpiece to thrust her from the circle and end the bout, Bethaerian stepped into the blow, pulling Vieliessar against her, front to back. Neither of them could launch a further attack in that position, but Bethaerian had not lost.

“I yield,” Vieliessar said, laughter bubbling up beneath her words.

Bethaerian released her, stepping across the boundary of the Challenge Circle. Only when Vieliessar was pulling off her helm did she see Aradreleg awaiting her.

“My prince,” the Lightsister said, “a Lightborn envoy comes from Caerthalien.”

“Is he escorted?” she asked. Her people were smart and loyal, but no one in the Fortunate Lands—save, perhaps, the War Princes themselves—would go against the wishes of a Green Robe. If Ivrulion Light-Prince had refused escort …

“Indeed,” Aradreleg said, putting Vieliessar’s worry to rest. “Peryn Lightsister sends to say Komen Berlaindist brings the Lightbrother with all haste.”

It wasn’t customary for a Lightborn traveling as envoy of a War Prince to give his name, only his House, so neither Peryn nor Berlaindist would know it. “‘All haste’ is…?” Vieliessar prompted.

“A sennight, Komen Berlaindist promises, no more.”

“Then there is barely sufficient time to prepare to receive him,” Vieliessar answered. She had invited Caerthalien to attend her Winter Court, of course, but an envoy arriving a fortnight before the start of the Festival could mean only one thing: Caerthalien meant her to pledge fealty. Word of her ambition would already have reached Bolecthindial. The emissary from Caerthalien must be its attempt to overturn her plans.

They will send Ivrulion, of course. Who else? And Lightborn or no, he will speak among my guests with princely authority.…

But when Caerthalien’s Lightborn envoy walked into Oronviel’s Great Hall at last, it wasn’t Ivrulion.

“Thurion!” Vieliessar exclaimed, struggling to keep all the welcome she felt out of her voice.

“War Prince Vieliessar,” he answered, his voice steady. “War Prince Bolecthindial sends me to you, for Caerthalien has always stood friend to Oronviel.”

“Oronviel thanks Caerthalien for her gentle care of her neighbor. We rejoice in your visit to us and hope you will find all you seek.”

“I am certain I shall,” Thurion answered, bowing.

“I pray your visit will allow you to partake of our hospitality this Midwinter, as well.” She did not ask if he was Caerthalien’s envoy to her Midwinter Court, for that would reveal too much. This meeting was a formality, a show enacted for those watching. Later they would have the chance to speak privately.

* * *

“Caerthalien sends me to discover if you mean to keep to your own borders and honor the treaties Lord Bolecthindial held of War Prince Thoromarth,” Thurion said, the words bursting from his lips in a rush almost before the door had closed behind him. “Of course I’ll tell him whatever you like, but—that was Lord Gunedwaen of Farcarinon at table tonight, wasn’t it?”

The evening meal had been a long and lavish one, but it would be only prudent for any new lord of a small and embattled domain to wish to impress the emissaries of her large and powerful neighbors. Thurion had been seated upon her left hand, in the place of honor.

That he would see what he had seen was inevitable. But only one who still counted himself her friend would have broached the subject so openly.

Vieliessar waved him to a seat as she finished skimming the scroll she held—Gunedwaen’s sennightly analysis of the information he’d gleaned from her knights as well as from a number of Oronviel folk who had gone secretly where they would not have been welcomed openly.

Thurion flung himself into a low chair, kicking the hem of his robes out of the way with the negligent ease of long practice. “It was, wasn’t it? The Gunedwaen?”

“Does it matter?” Vieliessar asked, setting the report aside. There was nothing new there. The War Princes were obviously waiting for Midwinter before declaring for or against Oronviel. At least openly.

Thurion sat upright so abruptly that Striker raised her elegant head. “Of course it matters! Vielle! He lost his arm years—decades ago! No Healer has ever—” He stopped abruptly, gazing at her with disbelief. “You knew. You knew what you’d done when you Healed him.”

She met his gaze squarely. This, her instincts said. This is more important than anything else we will say to one another about my plans and the lies he will tell his Caerthalien masters. “I knew I could do it before I began,” she answered simply. “It was hard, and painful, but it was not impossible.”

“It should have been,” Thurion answered quietly. His words were not a rebuke. They were uttered in tones of one who looked upon the impossible. “I know of no Healer who could have done it.”

“You know what hradan Celelioniel laid upon me at my birth,” Vieliessar answered.

“‘Death against Darkness, blood expunge blood, burn the stars and save a brand from the burning,’” Thurion quoted. It was the beginning of the passage about the destruction of the Hundred Houses. “Is that what you mean to do?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “All I know is that I am the Child of the Prophecy, the Doom of the Hundred Houses. It took me so long to admit it that I do not know if there is enough time left.”

Thurion drew a deep, shaking breath, summoning calm, summoning reason. “You think you have deciphered Amrethion’s Prophecy,” he said, but once again Vieliessar shook her head.

“Celelioniel Astromancer deciphered it. It was why I was allowed to live. ‘When stars and clouds together point the way / And of a hundred deer one doe can no longer counted be’—Farcarinon’s destruction. Thurion, it does not matter whether I am the only one it could be, or simply the one Celelioniel chose. What matters is the rest of the Prophecy.”

Thurion studied her face. “The Prophecy foretells a time when the Hundred Houses are ended by the prophesied child who becomes High King. It says a Darkness is gathering armies against that day and talks of a false promise coming true and two becoming one. If Celelioniel Astromancer decided you were the Child of the Prophecy, she must have believed that the false promise that becomes true means you will become High King, as Serenthon War Prince tried to. But … Vielle … How can you?”

“You are Green Robe and scholar, and once you were friend to me, when I had none. I would tell you a story that is no story. Will you hear?”

“Yes,” he answered heavily. “I will hear.”

* * *

Almost he could imagine himself back at the Sanctuary of the Star on some lazy afternoon when there was nothing better to do than to try to unravel the mysteries of their long and unfathomable history. Vieliessar spoke not of herself, but of Celelioniel’s quest to discover the beginnings of the Lightborn, of how they had learned to wield their power.

“In the Sanctuary we are taught that each thing implies its opposite,” Vieliessar said. “It is the foundation of our spellcraft. Heal or harm. Make fertile or blight. And not only in our Magery: we see in the world around us that each thing possesses its opposite. Creatures who fly and creatures who burrow, grass eaters and flesh eaters, and for this cause we have always been taught that the Beastlings are the shadow of all we are—but Celelioniel did not believe that could be so. If the Beastlings possessed a Darkness as great as our Light, surely they would have used it to make a desert of all the Fortunate Lands.”

“Not if they want to live here,” Thurion commented dryly, and Vieliessar made a rude snort of amusement.

“Perhaps. But surely they would make some desert. And they would feed their spellcraft upon blood. And we would have learned that those things are wrong from their example. We have learned those things are wrong, but not from the Beastlings. From who, then?”

“Everyone knows the Lightborn—some Lightborn—break the Covenant,” Thurion said hesitantly.

“And why is there a Covenant?” she asked implacably.

For a moment Thurion was a Postulant still. “Because—it must have been a long time ago—some Lightborn did those things, and…” He stopped, because Vieliessar was shaking her head.

“Each thing there is implies—creates—its opposite,” she reminded him.

“Theory is no validation of prophecy,” Thurion answered, almost sputtering.

“No,” Vieliessar agreed. “And Celelioniel did not begin with the Prophecy, but with an attempt to discover how we learned to do as we do. It was Mosirinde Peacemaker who first taught the Covenant—and she also who founded the Sanctuary of the Star.”

“But—” Thurion said.

“But no one knows why, or how the Light came to us before the founding of the Sanctuary,” Vieliessar agreed. “I will ask you to simply take as true that Celelioniel searched for that answer for years, that The Song of Amrethion was the end of her quest and not the beginning, that she discovered that what seems like nonsense to our eyes is instead a simple list of events that will come to pass before…” She stopped, and when she went on, her voice held sudden urgency. “Thurion, do you believe that evil can be done in the service of good?”

“Of course not,” he answered promptly. “By its very nature, evil destroys and taints all it touches, so anything it touches cannot be good.”

Vieliessar bowed her head, and Thurion didn’t think he’d given her the answer she hoped to hear. But it was what they had both been taught in the Sanctuary.

“Imagine all the good things in the world. Everything you can. Everything that has given you joy, or a moment’s pleasure, or made you happy,” she said.

“The Light,” Thurion answered softly. The look on Vieliessar’s face frightened him, though he could not say why.

“Now imagine that all these good things have an opposite. Not the petty cruelty of the Hundred Houses—for the War Princes may be as kind and generous as they are cruel and petty—but an opposite. A being. A race that can only be named Darkness.”

“You cannot know this!” Thurion exclaimed.

“High King Amrethion warned of them—every Astromancer, every great Seer from Mosirinde Peacemaker to Celelioniel has Seen them. Hamphuliadiel has swept all the books of prophecy from Arevethmonion—did you know?—so no other can discover that Celelioniel spoke true.”

“It is only a theory, Vielle,” Thurion said desperately.

“Yes,” she answered. “A theory. But suppose it is not. The Prophecy says this Darkness comes, not to conquer us, but to destroy us. If I am the Child of the Prophecy, it will come in my lifetime. If the Hundred Houses do not act as one when that day comes, our defeat is certain. So tell me, my oldest friend, what would you have me do?”

There was only one true answer he could give: If the Prophecy is true, you must do everything you can, no matter what it is, to make the Fortunate Lands ready for the day we must fight as one.

He could not bear to give her those words.

“All right,” he said into the silence. “Let us suppose the Prophecy is as you say.”

“You do not believe,” she said harshly.

“I want to,” he answered helplessly, knowing only as he spoke that the words were true. “But I cannot imagine … How can you hope to unite the Hundred and make the War Princes swear fealty to you? Serenthon—”

“Serenthon of Farcarinon intrigued to make himself High King with vows and promises, yet his strongest ally turned against him. Caerthalien was able to turn his allies against him and unify his enemies—because they feared what their lives would hold were he to rule,” she answered unyieldingly. “I know his errors. I would not repeat them. But I ask again, Thurion: what must I do?”

His life had trained him to love the Light. His years in the Sanctuary of the Star had trained him to think. “You must fight,” he answered, hanging his head. “If we die in battle, the Hunt will claim us for its own, so … Vielle, you are the most powerful Mage I have ever seen. Could you—if you were to break the Covenant—”

“—call down lightning from the sky to slay all their armies in an instant?” She gnawed at her lower lip, as if choosing her next words with care. “That thought was in my mind. But I might render the Fortunate Lands a desert without destroying the Darkness. Or the Lightborn might slay me as I fought. Or I might succeed—” She broke off. “One chance in three of victory is not such a match as I would wager upon. If we are to face a great army, we will face it with a great army.”

“But you have no proof!” Thurion cried. “You cannot make the Hundred bend the knee without giving them proof!

“No,” Vieliessar agreed. Her voice was hard. “Nor would I offer it if I had—they would only fight among themselves over who was to lead the army, just as they have fought all these centuries over which of them is to be Amrethion’s successor. And so I will not ask anyone to believe in anything but me. The War Princes will swear to me, and to each other, and we shall face the Darkness an army of princes. All of us, Thurion. All.

“Did you…?” Thurion said. His voice trembled, and he could not finish the sentence. Did you use Magery to defeat Rithdeliel and gain Oronviel?

“I will do what I must, Thurion.” There was no triumph in her voice.

Tears glittered in Thurion’s eyes. He wiped them away before they fell, not caring if she saw. “Vielle … Is it worth … surviving … if we cast aside everything that makes us what we are?”

“Once Amrethion and Pelashia reigned over a land without death, without war—without Landbond and craftworker sold as if they were cattle when the luck of battle did not favor their masters. We have already cast aside what we were. I would see us live to regain it,” she answered softly.

“I … I must…” With great effort, Thurion collected himself. “I suppose I have always known. Who you were. What you were. What you would become. I have thought, you know, since the news came to us of Oronviel. About you. The Sanctuary never finds Light in the Lines Direct, you know. I think something must have happened that forced Caerthalien to send Prince Ivrulion to the Sanctuary. Perhaps all of you—”

“I am no different than you, Thurion,” she said, but he went on as if she hadn’t spoken.

“—perhaps all of you have great power. Perhaps the Sanctuary fears the return of Lightborn like Mosirinde Peacemaker. They should. Have you ever thought about how miraculous Lady Nataranweiya’s escape from Farcarinon was? She could have died a thousand times on the journey. She did not. She could have miscarried of you, lost you to cold, a fall from her horse, a dozen things. She did not. She gained the Sanctuary. You were born alive. Celelioniel knew all you say you know, yet she feared your birth as if it were the summoning of the Darkness, not our defense against it. And still she set her Master Spell upon you so you could grow up safely beneath the rooftree of your House’s greatest enemy.

“You might have died there. Babies do. Children do. A kick from a horse, a fall from a wall, and all Ladyholder Glorthiachiel would have needed to do was not summon a Lightborn to Heal you. But she never got the chance. So you went to the Sanctuary, and there you were no one. Nothing. Powerless. Hamphuliadiel could have slain you and gained favor with any of a dozen Houses. He never did—and then it was too late, for not even the Astromancer may raise his hand against one of the Lightborn without cause. You have walked barefoot among adders every day of your life and never been harmed. Your destiny was always waiting for you. A task set upon your shoulders by Amrethion Aradruiniel himself, ten thousand years ago.”

He had not meant to say any of this. It was admission that he believed. But he could not hold back the words.

“I think it has made you … more,” he said in a whisper. “I do not know why others do not see it. Perhaps you keep them from seeing it, as you kept Hamphuliadiel from seeing you. But they will see it. And they will fear you as you fear the Darkness to come.

“I cannot stand against what you have become, Vielle. The time when I might have is long past.”

“Do you fear me?” she asked, and in her eyes Thurion saw sorrow, not triumph.

“Yes,” he said simply. “And I grieve, for I had a friend whom I loved, and she was but an illusion, a shadow cast by a Great Power.”

“I am no Great Power!” Vieliessar protested. “You said yourself—Nataranweiya was my mother—Serenthon was my father—”

“And now you are Child of the Prophecy, not of Farcarinon,” Thurion said with gentle finality.

“Will you serve me still?” she asked.

Thurion closed his eyes as if the sound of her voice hurt. “Yes,” he answered, opening them again.

She smiled painfully, and in that moment she was so beautiful his heart broke for her. “You will curse my name before we are done,” she told him.

“I don’t care,” he answered steadily. “I will do all that you ask of me.” He took another deep breath. “So let us now consider what I am to tell Bolecthindial, and how I am to keep Ivrulion from discovering the truth.”

* * *

Vieliessar’s Midwinter Court was a dazzling affair. Through her Lightborn, by spellbird, she had extended invitations to the princes of all the Hundred Houses. Only those of the forty Houses of the West could possibly attend, for the eastward passes were closed by winter, and the journey from the Western Shore was long and arduous. It did not matter. Every word spoken within Oronviel’s walls on the first night of the Festival would reach the farthest castels of the Grand Windsward before the seventh.

“I still say you’re mad.”

“Say I am imaginative, Prince Thoromarth, it sounds better,” Vieliessar answered.

“I’ll say you’re the Mother of Dragons if that’s what you want,” Thoromarth growled in reply.

First Night. The feast had gone on from sunset to midnight. Two dozen Lightborn envoys were guests of Oronviel, and if they weren’t spies in truth, their so-called servants certainly were. No one from the High Houses had attended, but what Ulillion knew, Cirandeiron knew in the same breath. The Twelve were present, even if they were not here.

“Say I shall be High King, for I mean to be,” she said. She walked through the outer room to the inner as Thoromarth followed. “Wine?” she asked, gesturing to the sideboard as she seated herself in a chair beneath the window. A spellshield cast a faint shimmer over the opening.

He raised a cup toward her in silent question, nodding at her demur before filling it for himself. “Giving amnesty to losels and wolfsheads is one thing—a prince may do as she pleases with her people and I won’t gainsay you. But … not sending Candidates to the Shrine? What will the Astromancer think?” Thoromarth asked.

“I have not made up my mind to it.” But soon Oronviel would be set against the rest of the Hundred Houses, and she had promised her people she would not take their children from them to be held as hostages. “Forester Lonthorn has been to the Flower Forest. She says the Vilya looks likely to fruit this spring, so we shall have a new Astromancer.” She gazed down at the surface of the inlaid table beside her. The silver wires crossing the wood gleamed faintly violet in the spellshield’s light. “Thoromarth, why doesn’t the Light ever appear in the Lines Direct?”

Thoromarth frowned and glanced back toward the outer room. He was obviously displeased by this change of topic—he had little patience for discussions which seemed to him to be idle speculation—but knew he had no choice but to follow Vieliessar’s whims. “It does,” he protested. There’s you, and … Ivrulion Light-Prince of Caerthalien, and…” He stopped.

“Let us not forget Ternas of Celebros,” Vieliessar said dryly. “But … two, from all the Hundred Houses in all the years of the reigns of the last three Astromancers? And I was not expected to have the Light, and Ivrulion’s Light was not supposed to be discovered. What we do at the Sanctuary is flawed, Thoromarth.”

Thoromarth reached to touch the silver shoeing-nail he wore about his neck. “Hunt defend us, is there nothing you do not mean to overturn?” he asked.

“Perhaps I shall like the new Astromancer better than I like Hamphuliadiel,” Vieliessar answered obliquely. “We shall see.”

“Perhaps you will not live to see him—or her—chosen,” Thoromarth grumbled. “Ah well. It is time I sought my bed, to receive the overtures of all those who wish to cast you down and set me once more in your place.”

“And I to give these same answers to Gunedwaen and Rithdeliel,” Vieliessar answered lightly. “I wish you good rest, such as it will be.”

* * *

On the Fourth Night of Midwinter, Lightbrother Thurion of Caerthalien Called the Light in the children of Oronviel Great Keep. It was a graceful nod to Oronviel’s clientage to Caerthalien, and if everyone at the Festival already knew that Vieliessar meant to break those ties, the fact that she still played a double game was obscurely reassuring.

It brought back odd memories of her childhood, when she was Varuthir, not Vieliessar. Of watching the castel children walk up to the High Table in Caerthalien’s Great Hall where Ivrulion and other senior Lightborn waited to Call the Light. The storysinger sang The Song of Pelashia’s Gift and each child received a honeycake and a ribbon when the Lightbrother was done. Silver for those who would make the journey to the Sanctuary of the Star, gold for those who would not.

Now it was a lifetime later, and she sat in the War Prince’s great chair in another Great Hall, and presided over the selection of Candidates who might never see the Sanctuary.

Oddly, with all she said, privately and publicly, and despite the very fact of her existence, the thing that caused the most talk that Midwinter was Vieliessar’s treatment of the commons. Night after night, her vassal lords and the Lightborn envoys stood upon the battlements of the keep and looked out over the tables she had erected for the commons’ feast.

A waste of good food, they said.

They’ll come to expect such tender treatment, and grow lazy.

She cossets them out of weakness.

Sanctuary softness has no place in a War Prince.

But beneath the mockery and disbelief, she sensed … fear.

Fear of change.

Fear of ways they did not understand.

Fear of her.

And on the morning of the eighth day, those who had kept Festival within Oronviel’s walls rode forth, while Vieliessar stood upon the battlements and watched them go. It was hard to watch Thurion ride away, knowing that his pledge to her made all of Caerthalien a danger to him.

But spring was coming.

And War Season.



For twice upon five hundred lives, the Throne of Shame shall sleep

And Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor a haunt of shadows lie

The Happy Lands shall ring to blood and battle through the years

While all who husband hidden secrets die.

Though many seek to gain the crown, no hand shall gain its light

And brother vie with brother for a prize no House can claim

While Darkness breeds in lands unknown, its armies bought with blood

Against the day false promise is made true.

—The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel

The remains of the Free Companies ravaged the countryside as bandits. As she had vowed, Vieliessar hunted them relentlessly. As she had also vowed, she gave each of her prisoners a choice: pledge fealty to her or die in battle.

“I wish to offer you and your people a full pardon.”

There was a long moment of disbelieving silence.

“Why?” Nadalforo asked suspiciously.

“So you will swear fealty to me and fight for me,” Vieliessar said patiently. “It is better to be my vassal than my enemy. If you or any of your followers have committed offenses in another domain, I do not care. If any offense was committed in mine, I will pardon it. But you must swear to me.” She meant to become High King over a realm that held neither High House nor Low, and that was not a thing she could plan to do later, for she did not know how much of “later” there might be. It was a harder path, but she would begin her destruction of the Hundred Houses with the army that would fight to make her High King.

“But I—I ran off a steading. And Belgund—he broke parole when his lord wouldn’t ransom him. And Findron—”

“I don’t care,” Vieliessar said. “Keep my law. Keep my peace. Fight for me. You’ll be fed, clothed, and housed as well as any in my army and treated no differently than any other of my people.”

Nadalforo blinked several times, trying to make sense of what obviously sounded to her like madness. “We’re mercenaries—or we were. You could—”

“No,” Vieliessar said quickly. “I hire no mercenaries. Swear to me. Or leave my lands—and know that the next time we meet I will kill you all.”

“But … how do you know you can trust me—or any of us?” Nadalforo asked desperately.

“Break your oath to me and see,” Vieliessar said. “I do not think you will. Shall we see?”

“I—I—I guess we will,” Nadalforo answered.

* * *

Nadalforo—once First Sword of Stonehorse Free Company—was neither the first nor the last to pledge to Vieliessar. Taille by taille, Vieliessar built her army through the sennights of winter. Snow Moon became Cold Moon, Ice Moon, Storm Moon. By Storm, nine moonturns had passed since she had claimed Oronviel and the other War Princes had done little to indicate they feared her. Now the Ninety-and-Nine were preparing for War Season once more—and not with Oronviel. They would discuss her plans with one another beneath truce-flags all summer, and then plot at Midwinter Court to perhaps attack her the following year.

“You’ve told every prince in the land you mean to take the Unicorn Throne. Do you think Caerthalien will hear and do nothing?” Rithdeliel’s voice in her memory, crackling with frustration.

Yes, she answered mentally. I think they will delay and delay until it is too late.

In another wheel of the seasons, she would be High King, or she would be dead.

* * *

The scent of fresh-cut timber filled her nostrils as Vieliessar rode along the road which led to the keep. The village she had designed to hold—and train—her patchwork army was rising as quickly as grain stalks in summer. The village now occupied both sides of the road—vulnerable and indefensible if an enemy army or even raiders came; a liability in the defense of the keep itself, for it sprawled across the open land that had once surrounded Oronviel Keep, providing concealment for enemies and a hazard to defenders. But if the winter moonturns had brought a trickle of exiles flocking to Oronviel’s standard, then Storm brought a flood. Not merely outlaws and Landbonds, now, but craftworkers and Farmholders and Lightborn. Even lesser knights, coming with wives, husbands, children, and all they could bring away from their own domains. They came—every one of them—to fight not for Oronviel, but for Vieliessar.

Vieliessar High King, who promised them justice and an end to war.

She had spent the morning riding the bounds of the Battle City. The whole of it extended through the manor houses and farmsteads nearest the keep; a large area, and one where it was important that she show herself frequently. Those who occupied the city—former mercenaries, former outlaws, the children of Farmholders—would not approach her stewards or komen with their grievances, but would bring them straight to her.

The weight of their trust was sometimes the most oppressive thing of all. She longed for a day or two of quiet that she knew she would not get. Her court understood the business of treaties and alliances and pacts, but Serenthon had never asked Farcarinon to host the armies of his allies as if they were his own, nor sent his own knights to serve at the courts of his sometime-enemies. If that had been all she asked of them, it would have been difficult enough—but she also wished them to welcome, and even fight beside, those whom they would have gladly whipped from their halls for the presumption of speaking. As a child and even as a Green Robe, she had thought the War Princes lived lives of leisure and freedom. Now she knew that was only an illusion, a shadow cast by the power each domain lord held in his or her hands. Power could gain one a great many things, but it must be carefully and consciously nurtured.

It is a sharp sword and a heavy fetter, and I have taken up the blade and set the shackles on my own wrists.

She swung down from Sorodiarn’s back in the castel stables, fleetingly grateful for the privilege of rank that permitted her to keep her horses close to hand. There was little room within a Great Keep’s walls for beasts. Leaving the destrier in the hands of Fierdind Horsemaster, she proceeded to her rooms, cloaking herself in Shadow as she strode from the stable. It was a dangerous indulgence, but she had no desire to be stopped to answer a hundred questions today. She reached her rooms—there were no Guardsmen at her door when she was believed to be elsewhere—and stepped inside.

As the door closed behind her, she felt a sudden surge of the Light. She dropped her hand to her swordhilt, preparing every defense she could. She still dared do nothing that would mark her as Lightborn, even if it meant injury or worse. But the figure who appeared as the Cloakspell vanished was …

“Thurion!” she exclaimed.

He was muddy and bedraggled, and—more alarming than that—dressed not in the Green Robes of Magery, but clothes such as any upper servant might wear.

“I cry Sanctuary of Oronviel,” he said, in a voice that shook with exhaustion. “Will Prince Vieliessar grant this boon?”

“Of course,” she said instantly. “But— What is it? What has happened?”

“Hamphuliadiel…” Thurion said. He fell gracelessly into the nearest chair.

“What has Hamphuliadiel done?” she demanded.

“He has said he will not step aside as Astromancer,” Thurion said numbly. “He says he will surrender his place only when the Vilya in the Sanctuary’s own garden bears fruit—and he would not even have said so much so soon if Ivrulion Light-Prince had not been there to compel him! He swears this is no new ruling, but a return to the earliest practice by which the reigns of the Astromancers were calculated.”

“Mosirinde Peacemaker would be surprised to hear it,” Vieliessar answered dryly.

She sent for food, made tea, and learned the whole of what Thurion had to tell. Forester Lonthorn was not the only one in the Fortunate Lands who could predict the fruiting of the Vilya. Caerthalien, seeing a new Astromancer was imminent, had sent Ivrulion Light-Prince to the Sanctuary as soon as the roads could be traveled. He had obtained Hamphuliadiel’s answer in secret, but he’d Farspoken it to Carangil Lightbrother, and the news had spread from there to most of the castel Lightborn.

And Thurion had risked everything to bring it to her.

“He’s lying! There was never such a practice! And I don’t think the Vilya in the Sanctuary garden will ever fruit!” Thurion announced, pacing in agitation.

“I’d be very surprised if it did,” Vieliessar replied, raising her eyebrows. “What I wonder is why he wants to remain Astromancer. It isn’t a position that holds a great deal of power, and if he wants riches and luxury, he can get that at any court.”

“No,” Thurion said, his voice troubled. “You’re wrong, Vielle. There is power in the office of Astromancer—if the one who holds it is dishonorable enough to grasp it. You have seen it yourself.” He paused expectantly.

“When he charged the Lightborn of all the land to deliver me to his hand?” she asked, for that was what was foremost in Thurion’s thoughts. “What I have seen is Hamphuliadiel showing himself a fool.”

“No,” Thurion said patiently. “It did not work, that is true, for we swear fealty to our lords, not to the Astromancer. But if Hamphuliadiel has century after century to convince all who are trained at the Sanctuary that their first loyalty must be to the Light Itself, and that he knows better than they how they may best serve it—”

Then the Sanctuary of the Star will become the new Hundredth House.…

“I would be more troubled by Hamphuliadiel of Haldil’s ambitions if I thought he had a chance of achieving them,” Vieliessar answered bluntly. “Thurion,” she said gently, “if I am High King, I will deal with Hamphuliadiel. If I am not, the Darkness surely will. His ambitions do not matter, save in how we can make use of them.”

“And if he moves more quickly than you think?” Thurion demanded. “It is true that those who are sent to the Sanctuary each spring are unimportant in the eyes of the War Princes—save for whom we might become if the Light favors us—but if Hamphuliadiel holds the Candidates hostage, the War Princes must attack or they will seem timid and weak. They cannot attack the Sanctuary, so they will seek another target against which to display their power. And if refusing to give up the Candidates is not enough, Hamphuliadiel can deny access to the Shrine of the Star.”

“Arevethmonion is not the only Shrine,” Vieliessar said.

“I suppose you think the Hundred Houses will go to Tilinaparanwira the Lost to make their offerings?” Thurion said in exasperation. “Most of them don’t even know there are Nine Shrines—and don’t imagine their Lightborn know any more! Delfierarathadan is too dangerous to seek; Tilinaparanwira is lost; Oiolairwe, Teriqualanweore, and Mirinandwe are beyond the Feinolons—”

“Nomiatemil is in the Mystrals, and I suppose you will go on to say that because there is no guesthouse at Manostar nor pleasant gardens at Earime’kalareinya they will not do either?”

Thurion flung himself into a chair and regarded her with irritation. “I say that since the time of Mosirinde Peacemaker, the sacrifices have been offered at Arevethmonion and the Lightborn have gone there to be trained. If Hamphuliadiel denies access to the Shrine of the Star, the princes will not think that there are seven other places they can go. They will think Hamphuliadiel plots to punish them for not delivering you back into his hands.”

“Doesn’t he?” Vieliessar said. She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, trying to think. In the Sanctuary’s library she’d studied war, and in all the centuries the Hundred Houses had fought, Magery had never been a consideration in their plotting. But Thurion was right. Hamphuliadiel had taken the first step toward becoming a prince of the land in his own right. She must assume he would take the next, and the next. And the moment he did, the War Princes would panic.

And she would be their target.

“If I can make it seem that Hamphuliadiel’s actions—whatever they are—are taken in secret alliance with Oronviel, the War Princes should delay any attack they contemplate,” she said slowly. “I know Hamphuliadiel. Even if he means to hold hostages, he cannot let that be known until the last caravan has brought its Candidates and departed. By then, this season’s new Lightborn will have left as well. Then he may do as he wishes, and it will be a moonturn or two before anyone notices.”

“Yes,” Thurion said, nodding. “The War Princes send to make the victory sacrifices when they send the Candidates, and then they go to war. It will not be until Fire or Harvest that they will wish access to the Shrine of the Star again. Now: how will you convince the other Houses that Hamphuliadiel plots with Oronviel?”

“Simple enough,” Vieliessar answered. “I shall send Thoromarth immediately to bring away everyone from Oronviel—it will not seem impossible to Hamphuliadiel that I am so unused to ruling that I cannot gather Oronviel’s Candidates in a timely fashion. I shall send Ambrant Lightbrother with him to take my word to those of Oronviel who are already in training. The Postulants know a thousand ways to sneak out of the Sanctuary when they are supposed to be in their beds—as you well know—and Hamphuliadiel has no precedent for holding them against their will. Ambrant’s Keystone Gift is True Speech; his shields will defeat Hamphuliadiel’s attempts to hear his mind, and Thoromarth will swear to any who ask that the Oronviel Candidates come soon, for that is what I will tell him, and beg his pardon for the lie when he returns. And so it will be seen that this year, two Houses of all the Ninety-and-Nine have not sent their Candidates to the Sanctuary: Oronviel and Ivrithir.”

“But how will you— Ivrithir?” Thurion said, startled.

“War Prince Atholfol has pledged himself to support Farcarinon’s claim to the High Kingship,” Vieliessar answered. “On my word, he will withhold this year’s Candidates. I must see which of his Lightborn I may send to the Sanctuary with Ambrant, for the Ivrithir Candidates will not come away at Oronviel’s word.”

Thurion sat brooding over her words for a long stretch of silence. “If you do this, it will seem that—whatever Hamphuliadiel does—you knew of it beforehand,” he said at last. “But you will lose what new Lightborn you might have gained—” He gestured helplessly. “If the Postulants must come away without daring the Shrine—”

“There are other Shrines,” Vieliessar said once again. “For the rest, we shall simply return to the actual earliest practices of the Lightborn, when there was no Sanctuary and no single place of learning. Until there is a new Astromancer, Oronviel’s Lightborn will train her Lightborn-to-be.”

The High King’s Lightborn will train her Lightborn-to-be.

* * *

It took her most of a day to persuade Ambrant Lightbrother not merely to do what she wished him to, but to do it with utmost guile. If Thurion had not been there to swear that Hamphuliadiel would refuse to step down as Astromancer, she would undoubtedly still be arguing with him. She wished she could send Aradreleg Lightsister or Peryn Lightsister, or most of all, Harwing Lightbrother, who had found a joyous heart-twin in Gunedwaen, and now served as one of the Swordmaster’s most effective spies. But none of them had True Speech as their Keystone Gift: any shields they set about their minds and thoughts, Hamphuliadiel would be able to force.

She spoke with Atholfol in cautious elliptical messages sent by spellbird. Both Rithdeliel and Gunedwaen believed Farcarinon’s old war codes unbroken, and Serenthon had used a different cipher for each of his allies. Atholfol had agreed to withhold this year’s Candidates if Oronviel would swear to undertake their training—and to send his sealed writ by messenger to Thoromarth so those of Ivrithir who were to leave the Sanctuary this season would know it was safe to journey with Oronviel’s party.

But he would not give her an Ivrithir Lightborn to call his Postulants away.

And perhaps I, too, would be skeptical, had I not such long and intimate knowledge of Hamphuliadiel’s mind. Very well. I have warned him, at least.

* * *

She had known since before she left the Sanctuary of the Star that the time she would have to work in would be short, for she had squandered too many precious years seeking to avoid her destiny. Once Thurion fled Caerthalien, she knew she would have to work more quickly still, for the moment his presence in Oronviel was known, Caerthalien had the pretext it needed to attack her out of season. Very soon—in a moonturn, perhaps two—her war would begin, and she would not ride into such a desperately important battle without making a sacrifice to the Starry Hunt and petitioning Them for victory.

She could not go to the Sanctuary of the Star.

But as she had told Thurion, the Sanctuary did not hold the only Shrine.

In the candlemark before dawn, Vieliessar walked from the keep and down the path which led to the oldest part of the craftworkers’ village. No dog barked to warn of her passage, no goose bugled a warning. She had a long way to go before the sun rose and she would not take Sorodiarn to this appointment. Her destination was the paddocks beyond the stables. Spring was the season to begin a young horse’s training, so it could be exposed to the sounds and smells of battle long before it must stand steady before them. From among the drowsing animals she selected two: a young bay mare, already under saddle, and a pure white colt. She knew Fierdind Horsemaster meant to train Phadullu for her use in case Sorodiarn was killed, but she needed him now. She mounted the mare bareback and rode away in the darkness; the colt followed tamely.

Mornenamei was the nearest Flower Forest to the castel, and she would need Lord Mornenamei’s aid for the morning’s work. She reached Mornenamei and vaulted down from the mare’s back. The mare could be left here to graze: she would not go far, and if anyone happened upon her, the silver token braided into her mane would mark her as belonging to the castel stables. Vieliessar patted Phadullu on the shoulder and he followed her docilely as she walked into Mornenamei.

A combination of homesickness and longing assaulted her as she felt the Flower Forest’s magic enfold her. Her happiness at the Sanctuary of the Star had been dearly bought, but it had been real. She could not imagine there would ever be such happiness for her again.

Ruthlessly she banished those thoughts from her mind. Time enough to mourn her life when she had fulfilled the role Amrethion High King had set forth for her to play. Ten steps, then twenty, then twenty more, then she swung herself up onto Phadullu’s back. She nudged him forward at a gentle walk, and before he had gone a dozen paces, the Flower Forest through which he walked was far away from Oronviel.

She could Sense the Shrine the moment she filled her lungs with the air of Earime’kalareinya. She’d chosen it because Manostar was merely a notation in the histories, its location given as “somewhere in Tunimbronor.” There were accounts of visits to Earime’kalareinya, for many of the Land-Shrines had continued to receive visitors for some centuries after Mosirinde Peacemaker established the Sanctuary of the Star.

She dismounted again and walked onward. The day was brighter here than in Mornenamei, for she had gone toward the sun. She followed the currents of power until she reached the heart of Earime’kalareinya.

The three stones that marked the Place of Power looked somehow more stark and wild surrounded by the lushness of the Flower Forest than they did in the careful concealment of the Shrine of the Star. The stones are as weathered as if they stand upon a desolate plain, she realized a moment later, though this deep within Earime’kalareinya, wind and rain could barely reach them. A flat stone lay on the ground between them, and someone was still making offerings here, for the stone was smeared with blood that rain and time had not yet erased.

She stroked Phadullu’s silken neck, willing herself to feel the calm and serenity she had learned to summon before setting a great work of Magery, but could not manage it. Her fingers touched the knife on her belt and she hesitated. This was not the simple vigil with which every Lightborn ended training. To call upon Them was to Summon Them—and they might take the summoner as the victory-sacrifice. It was a fearful thing to make petition for victory and risk being taken to ride the star-roads forever.

You made up your mind to do this before you came! she told herself fiercely. She patted Phadullu on the shoulder once more. Obedient to her Magery, the young stallion knelt and she drew her knife.

“Heed me, You Who ride the night winds, who grant triumph in battle and victory in war. I, Vieliessar Farcarinon, Knight and Mage, daughter of Serenthon War Prince and Nataranweiya Ladyholder, come before You here, where the breath of first creation still warms my skin, where You must hear and heed when I call. Take my gift, and give me victory!”

She drew her blade across Phadullu’s throat. Hot blood spattered the standing stones, pooled on the rock between them, and soaked into the earth beyond, but the bespelled animal did not move until his body went lax with death. All around her, Vieliessar could Sense the roar of power roused, assaulting her senses as savagely as an autumn storm might batter her body. It seemed to her she must slit her eyes tightly against a raging wind, but she forced them to open and focus. She felt someone watching her. For one terrible moment she thought the Hunt Lord had come after all, and all her sacrifices had been for nothing.

But it was not He.

At the far edge of the clearing, a little way inside the trees, stood a pale shape that seemed to glow with its own inward radiance. Sending, she thought first, then, deer, since the shape was too small to be a horse and it was undeniably alive.

Then it took a slow step forward and a ray of morning light fell directly on its horn.

A single, sword-straight spike jutting from the center of its forehead, it shone as brightly as if some Lightborn had cast Silverlight upon it—if Silverlight could be whitely radiant and iridescent as a dove’s throat at the same time. It was neither horse nor deer. It had a long, slender neck like a deer’s, but also a mane—not long and flowing like a destrier’s, but roached and bristling like a plowhorse’s. Its white coat did not gleam with the glossy slickness of horse or hound, but seemed as if it must be as thick and soft as a cat’s.

Komen blazoned their shields with them, noble ladies wove tapestries depicting them, craftworkers adorned a thousand different objects with them, from infants’ cradles to shin’zuruf cups to the luck-charms braided into the manes of destriers. The luck-token baked into Midwinter cakes held their image—she had won five of them at the Sanctuary before she had realized it would always come to her and refused to participate any longer. She had sworn to reclaim the throne Amrethion had named for them.

But they are only a legend … Vieliessar thought, stunned.

The Unicorn was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

She did not know how long she stood motionless, held in place by no spell other than the creature’s beauty, but suddenly the Unicorn turned its head, wheeled, and sprang back into the forest.

“No!” Vieliessar shouted. “Wait!

She did not know why she called out as if it would come to her summons. She only knew she could not bear to lose sight of it. And so she ran. As she entered the trees, she saw it vanish in the distance. She ran faster, dodging recklessly between tree trunks, no thought in her mind but to draw near to that shining shape, to reach it, to touch it …

Even when she could no longer see it among the trees, she ran on in the direction it had fled. When she knew it had gone beyond her reach, she sent out a spell of Summoning—to no avail. It was nearly a candlemark before she could bear to give up the hunt. The thought she had seen it and would never see it again made her want to weep.

It was real, she insisted to herself. I saw the sunlight on its horn, its coat—I heard it crash through the brush as it fled. It was a thing alive, and no Seeming sent by the powers nor an evil illusion of Beastling shamans.

But no matter how hard she tried, she could not fit the sight of it into the world she lived in, the world whose rules she thought she knew.

“The Unicorn is the symbol of the High Kingship.”

This was no lesson from her days at the Sanctuary. Scrolls that spoke of the High Kingship had probably been destroyed, since none of the contenders for the throne would wish to provide arguments their enemies could use to disparage a rival claim and elevate their own.

No, this was a memory of a time so ancient Vieliessar did not know how to number the years.

Lady Indinathiel gazed out the window at the forests of Tildorangelor, beyond the walls of the city that bore both its own name and that of the forest: Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor. “We take the Unicorn as the symbol of the High Kingship,” she said idly, “for the single horn upon its brow symbolizes the High King. There are hundreds of great lords and thousands of knights, but only one to rule over them all. As the horn of the Unicorn is its greatest ornament, so the High King is the greatest jewel of the land.…”

The memory-of-a-dream faded. Lady Indinathiel had spoken of the Unicorn as if she were familiar with it as more than a symbol.…

I don’t understand. Surely the storysingers would have handed down the truth, just as they teach us about all the kinds of Beastling there are in the world, even though—if we are lucky—we will not see most of them.

It was the sort of puzzle she would once have delighted in, following its twists and turns through half-sentences scattered across a thousand different scrolls, questioning other scholars, other students, other lovers of history and truth and knowledge. Now—heartsore at the loss of the beauty she had glimpsed so briefly—Vieliessar told herself it did not matter. The creature was not a danger, nor could a beast of the forest be either enemy or ally. She would take its appearance as an omen from the Silver Hooves that her petition had been heard.

Victory for her cause. Survival for her people.

* * *

“Lord Thoromarth’s anger was great,” Ambrant murmured, his gaze fixed upon the carpet. “He swore you were a most treacherous prince, and that he would cause you to feel the shame you ought to feel for using him in such a deceitful way.”

It was Rain Moon before the party Vieliessar had sent to the Sanctuary returned, and within the candlemark of its arrival, Ambrant Lightbrother had come to give her his report. They’d returned six days earlier than expected—unencumbered by Candidates on the outward journey, Thoromarth had simply pushed his company of knights as hard as if they were riding to war. Since the baggage carts that accompanied them were drawn by sturdy draft horses, not the slower and more massive oxen, the entire group had moved at a breakneck speed.

“Indeed?” Vieliessar answered meaninglessly. While she was certain Thoromarth had been furious, he was … considerably more direct in his speech than this.

“But Thoromarth of Oronviel is your loyal servant, Lord Vieliessar,” Ambrant said grudgingly. “Even before his temper had run its course, he made provision for those whom I placed in his care, and we hastened to return here.”

Thoromarth had left the Sanctuary with eighteen from Ivrithir and Oronviel who had finished their Service Year without being Called to the Light, and twelve more who had just taken the Green Robe. When Ambrant rejoined him, he brought forty-three who belonged to Oronviel, from children who had just completed their first year as Postulants to those who were nearly ready to dare the Shrine.

If the company had not been almost entirely Lightborn, the journey would have been far harsher than it was, for Thoromarth had brought provisions for the thirty returning Candidates and new Lightborn he had expected. Instead, he found he must make provision for seventy-three, many of them children. But even the newest Green Robe could Call game to the slaughter, and most had some facility with spells of misdirection and concealment.

“I thank you for your care of your brethren and the care you have taken to discharge my commands,” Vieliessar said, indicating the interview was at an end.

But: “My lord?” Ambrant said, and now he seemed—for the first time—troubled and uncertain. She waited politely.

“The Astromancer swears that since the days of Mosirinde Peacemaker it has only been the Vilya in the Sanctuary gardens whose fruiting must be taken into account to calculate a reign. And it may be that the Vilya there is of such great age that it fruited in those ancient days, for we speak of them as “ever-living” for good reason. But as I waited to discharge my duty to you, I chanced to walk in the gardens, for I was curious to understand why this tree, of all the Vilya in the Fortunate Lands, should be barren of fruit.” Ambrant looked away, gazing out the window of Vieliessar’s chamber, looking as though he wished he’d never said anything. “It was bespelled,” he blurted out at last, turning back to gaze at her. “I think. I don’t— A subtle spell, my lord—had it been a spell of preservation it would have been easily noted. I did not mean to speak of it, for I know that you and the Astromancer are enemies. But I am troubled.”

“Ambrant,” Vieliessar said, oddly moved by his stammering confession, “I believe you have sensed what is indeed there. I shall tell you why I believe it to be so, and it is a thing I have told few of my people. Yet you have earned my trust.”

“I hope I shall always deserve it, Lord Vieliessar,” Ambrant said, and what might have been pomposity on any other day came out raw and honest.

“You were at the Sanctuary under Celelioniel Astromancer, were you not?” she asked, and when he nodded, she continued. “Celelioniel left her great work unfinished when the Vilya called her home. She entrusted its completion to Hamphuliadiel, who had been her student for many years. But Hamphuliadiel told Celelioniel what she wished to hear, not what he meant to do. He broke every vow he made to her once he had what he desired.”

What she had said was truth, but she would not tell Ambrant the whole. Not yet. It was a heavy weight, and she would place it upon as few as she could. Hamphuliadiel believes in the Prophecy and for that reason he acts out of fear and arrogance.

“That— It is an ill thing to hear of the Guardian of the Shrine, but it comforts me,” Ambrant answered. “Only let his madness be overthrown.”

“It will be,” Vieliessar said with grim honesty.

* * *

The road to peace would be long and edged with swords, and led as readily to death and failure as it did to the glorious end Oronviel’s new War Prince dreamed of. Half her plans were utter madness; the other half, so cunning they chilled the marrow. Thoromarth had known since the day she spared his life that the game she played was deep and secret. He had not known how deep until he rode to the Sanctuary of the Star.

But once he was alone in his own rooms in Oronviel Keep, fed and bathed and wrapped in a chamber robe, his armor taken away to be cleaned, Thoromarth was too restless to sleep. He summoned a servant to bear away the debris of the meal and bring wine, and sat, cup in hand, gazing into the flames dancing upon the coals of the stove.

What did he want? Not now, nor even a moonturn from now, but before he went to ride the night winds? He did not want power—at least, not in the way Bolecthindial or Manderechiel did. His new rooms were spacious enough, he could throw his boots at his servants and be certain his wishes would be followed, and he could go from his morning meal to the stables unhindered to spend a day with his beloved horses. What more could a lord of the Fortunate Lands desire? It had been his duty to rule Oronviel, and so he had, just as it had been his duty to marry Daustifalal.

Thoromarth set down his cup, got to his feet, and began to pace. You’ve taken an illness from all that time wallowing in the mud. Send for a Lightborn to clear your head. You are going to war, and you will die in battle, and you will ride with the Hunt until the stars grow cold.

When he turned about at the end of the room, Vieliessar was standing in the doorway.

The overtunic and undertunic and underskirts she wore—each layer slashed and parted to show the contrasting fabric beneath—were as decorous and correct as anything his wife or mother might have worn. She was decked with the jewels of her rank and those of a War Prince, heavy rings, bracelets, and linked collar. The veil upon her hair, held in place by a thin band of gold, hung to her waist; the heavy silk swaying with her movements. But somehow no amount of finery could erase his clearest image of her: muddy and bruised and dangerous as a drawn sword, standing before him and demanding he yield everything he was to her.

“My lord,” he said, “your message must have gone astray—” He could only imagine he’d been bidden to attend her, and when he had not appeared, she’d come looking for him.

“I sent no message,” she answered. “May I enter? I wished to see you before you slept. You must be weary. Ambrant looked as if he might collapse at any moment.”

“It was a hard journey,” Thoromarth said curtly, gesturing for her to enter.

“And you do not know—still—what prompted me to such foolishness. Did Ambrant tell you of the Astromancer’s decision?”

“That he will not step down and that I must ask you for the rest. My lord, the plots of the Hundred Houses are enough—I do not wish to know the intrigues the Green Robes may have.”

“And yet you must,” Lord Vieliessar answered, seating herself, “for it concerns Oronviel most of all. Sit.”

He would have been happier, Thoromarth decided when she had finished the tale, never to know these things at all, though in the end it was as simple a matter as a border war between Ullilion and Caerthalien. The Chief Astromancer intrigued to make himself a power in the land. Lord Vieliessar feared Oronviel would become culpable for his deeds in the eyes of the Hundred Houses. She had taken steps to make it seem she and the Astromancer plotted together, and so avert attack upon Oronviel before she was ready to move.

“I thank you for this word to me,” Thoromarth said.

Unexpectedly, she laughed. It was neither bitter nor mocking, but full, and bright, and joyous.

“No you do not, Lord Thoromarth! You wish I had never come to trouble you and fill your head with a thousand unthinkable things you must think about! Now you wonder what I will do next, and hope you do not know. But I have troubled your rest enough. And so I leave you in peace.”

She got to her feet in a swish of silk, and before he could rise in deference, was out the door and gone. And suddenly Thoromarth hoped the Silver Hooves would grant him years enough to see Lord Vieliessar upon the Unicorn Throne, for he yearned to hear the squalls and protests of his fellow princes as she made a Code of Peace like the Code of Battle and held every soul in the land to its observance, whether they were of high birth or low

Peace! Your reign brings a thousand gifts, Lord Vieliessar, but peace is not among them.

* * *

Lord Bolecthindial unrolled the map Lengiathion Warlord had prepared and spread it flat against the surface of his table. The drawing was so careful and detailed it might almost have been the thing itself, seen as a hawk upon the wing would see it. The map showed Caerthalien and the western lands as far as the Sanctuary. Ullilion’s defenses were painted in purple and saffron, Caerthalien’s in gold and green, Cirandeiron’s in blue and silver. The ruins of Farcarinon’s border keeps were sketched in a dull grey.

In War Season, Caerthalien rode to war. Other Houses might refrain from sending challenges with their Midwinter envoys, might spend the summer moonturns battling the Beastlings—as did Daroldan or the domains of the East—or in hunting outlaws or putting down rebellion among their own lords, seeking to grow wealthy and strong by avoiding battle.

Not Caerthalien. Caerthalien rode to war. Even last year, when Runacarendalur had led Caerthalien’s meisne against the Free Companies, Bolecthindial and his other sons had taken the field against their enemies. Each successful campaign brought wealth, and sometimes land, and often surrender-pledges from its defeated enemies. Among the twelve High Houses, only three had ever rivaled Caerthalien in wealth and power: Aramenthiali, Cirandeiron, and Farcarinon.

Farcarinon was gone, and this season Lord Bolecthindial meant to take Ullilion from Cirandeiron. War Prince Dendinirchiel Ullilion held the southern border of Farcarinon, and Dendinirchiel looked to Cirandeiron. But between Ullilion and Cirandeiron lay the vast wilderness of Farcarinon. To come to Ullilion’s aid, Lord Girelrian would have to cross the whole of Farcarinon. It would give Caerthalien the advantage.

And why should it not give us more than that? Farcarinon has lain fallow for a century. It is time for the true spoils of victory to be apportioned.

If Caerthalien could force Ullilion to cede enough territory, Ullilion’s only recourse would be to expand her borders west and claim Farcarinon land. Censure for the act of claiming a part of Lost Farcarinon would fall on Dendinirchiel’s head, not Bolecthindial’s—and each season he could force Ullilion farther west, claiming always that he seized Ullilion lands, and not Farcarinon’s.

And if the sight of Ullilion’s example made High Houses agree it was a ruinous danger to leave so great an area of land unclaimed, Caerthalien would benefit twice over, for by the agreement the Grand Alliance had made in Serenthon’s time, Caerthalien could claim the third part of Farcarinon if it were claimed at all.

He turned to the report Elrinonion Swordmaster had prepared for him. Bolecthindial had little patience with sneaking about in the kitchens of his enemies, hoping someone would drop a word of their plans, but as Glorthiachiel was overfond of reminding him, if the enemy came to the field armored and weaponed, one did not bear away the victory by meeting them unarmed.

He prepared to unroll Elrinonion’s scroll, then reached for his wine instead. Inevitably it would be more of what he had heard at the beginning of Storm, and at the middle of Storm, and at the beginning of Rain. It was further inevitable that Glorthiachiel knew it already.

The powers that shape our fates mock us. We scoured Farcarinon because it had become a haven of bandits and arrogant mercenaries, thinking we plucked a weapon from the hands of Serenthon’s mad daughter. Instead she claims Oronviel—and makes of it a haven for every broken spur and gallowglass in the Fortunate Lands!

Bolecthindial had known since Midwinter that Vieliessar did not intend to simply lie quiet in Oronviel Keep and enjoy the freedom and luxury denied her at the Sanctuary of the Star. In the beginning he’d dismissed her ambitions. He’d laughed when he heard she sent her komen galloping to the eight corners of Oronviel in the dead of winter, certain it was a desperate attempt to keep them from rising against her. He’d assumed she would take decades to consolidate her rule, make a marriage alliance, and build up her armies before challenging any of the Hundred.

He’d found matters less amusing when he learned Oronviel and Ivrithir had settled their ancient quarrels. Elrinonion had sent spies into Oronviel and Ivrithir to learn more. From Ivrithir he learned Atholfol meant to support Oronviel’s claim to the Unicorn Throne. From Oronviel he learned nothing, because the agents he sent across her borders never reported back.

Bolecthindial drained his cup and reached for the pitcher to refill it. Peacebond or no, he wished they’d drowned Serenthon’s brat in her infancy. Farcarinon never does as it is ordered, and she is Farcarinon to the bone.

The silence from within Oronviel did not mean Bolecthindial or Elrinonion were in ignorance of her plans. From Great Sea Ocean to the Grand Windsward, the entire realm knew what Vieliessar was doing. The news from Oronviel was nearly enough to make the strange events at the Sanctuary dwindle into irrelevance. After all, it mattered only to the Lightborn who was Astromancer and for how long.…

But Ivrulion had sent news this morning through Mardioruin Lightbrother. At least Mardioruin is discreet, Bolecthindial thought blackly. Ivrulion knows better than to send me a message save by a Lightborn personally loyal to him—Carangil Lightbrother runs first to Glorthiachiel with everything, whether it is a scraped knee or the news that we are being invaded. And yet … there are things my son will wish no one to know until I have heard them, and so I know I have not yet heard the worst.

There was a preemptory rap upon his door, and it opened before the servant sitting beside it could ask who was there.

“It is as we thought.” Runacarendalur strode into the room, stripping off his gloves. He had come straight from the stables; his spurs and chain mail jingled as he crossed the floor. “The farmsteads upon our eastern border are deserted. Stripped.”

“How many?” Bolecthindial asked.

Runacarendalur laughed. “All of them! My troop and I rode the bounds for a sennight and saw no one, save in the border towers. And they saw nothing.”

He stopped before the desk and glanced at his father for permission before filling a second cup from the pitcher of wine. “They watch, of course. Do not think they shirk their duty to Caerthalien and to you. But they saw no smoke nor fire—nor have I ever hunted border raiders who strip a farm of every blanket and mattress. The Landbonds and their Farmholders are gone into Oronviel. Or should we call it Farcarinon now?”

Bolecthindial glared at him and did not reply.

“What news from the Sanctuary?” Runacarendalur asked with a sigh.

“Ivrulion says he has not been able to persuade Hamphuliadiel to end his term as Astromancer. He returns home at the end of the sennight.”

“That much is good to hear, at least,” Runacarendalur said.

“Is it?” his father snapped. “Then you will rejoice to learn all of Oronviel’s Postulants have vanished from the Sanctuary.”

“What?” Runacarendalur said, pausing in the act of drinking. “How? When?”

“Stop hovering.” Bolecthindial waved toward a chair, and Runacarendalur threw himself into it. “The message came through Mardioruin Lightbrother. Ivrulion could not say much. But his last letter—” Bolecthindial tapped the rolled scroll that lay on the corner of the table, its seal broken. “—said Hamphuliadiel keeps the Lightborn who have come to ask his mind all very close, offering them feasts and entertainment as if they guested in some great lord’s house. Ivrulion said he would make it his purpose to speak with our Postulants there, should he manage to contrive it so the meeting would look like mere chance.”

“’Rulion is a Prince of the Line,” Runacarendalur pointed out. “Why doesn’t he just order Hamphuliadiel to do what he wants?”

“And do what when the Astromancer refuses?” Bolecthindial asked, with heavy irony. “We cannot go to war against the Sanctuary of the Star!”

“I know.” Runacarendalur pulled his braid over his shoulder and tugged at it. “Mother wishes to see you. Before you ask, she’s seen Elrinonion’s latest report.”

Bolecthindial glanced toward the still-unopened scroll.

“I know not what Elrinonion says, but Mother says Oronviel is building up a peasant army to slaughter us all in our beds,” Runacarendalur added helpfully. “And after what I saw on the border … she might be right.”

* * *

On certain occasions, Lord Bolecthindial took his noon meal in his private rooms attended only by those whom he invited to share it. Today he dined with his wife and children, plus his Warlord and Swordmaster, as was only reasonable on the eve of War Season.

“When you sent your heir to scour Farcarinon clean of outlaws and landless mercenaries, my lord husband, I was certain that would be an end to our problems—not a beginning,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said with poisonous politeness. “How is it that any traitor knight and hedge bandit can enter Oronviel at will, and we must rely for information on the rumors that unnatural creature chooses to spread? She holds her throne by witchery, you know,” Glorthiachiel finished idly.

“Mother!” Thorogalas protested halfheartedly.

“Oh, I don’t mean Magery,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said, waving Thorogalas’s protests aside. “But there is bad blood in that Line. They are all sly and untrustworthy. Look at what her father did, after all.”

“It is nothing more than any of us would have done,” Domcariel said, and Runacarendalur glanced at his brother in surprise, for Dom was slow and deliberate off the battlefield as well as on it. “You would be the first to agree, Rune,” he added.

“I should be happy to become High King,” Runacarendalur said. “I think I would choose a different method, though.”

“It cannot possibly work,” Gimragiel said. As always, he took their mother’s part so thoroughly that he might as well have said nothing and left her to do all the talking. “But think of the disaster to the rest of us when she has lost. If Farcarinon was a refuge of outlaws, Oronviel will be a thousand times worse.”

“If I knew precisely what was happening in Oronviel, perhaps I would agree,” Lord Bolecthindial said, glaring meaningfully at his Swordmaster.

“You cannot know precisely, that is true, Lord Bolecthindial,” Elrinonion said reprovingly. “But it is widely known that no matter what the crime, to go before Oronviel’s War Prince and pledge fealty is to be pardoned. As my lord is aware, some insignificant fraction of the Free Companies escaped last year’s Harrowing of Farcarinon. They might—perhaps—be assets to an army. But the majority of outlaws are simple thieves who have no training in arms.”

“You didn’t get Foxhaven and Glasswall, Father,” Princess Angiothiel said, biting into a roast dove. “Doesn’t Glasswall winter on Sarmiorion land?”

“It doesn’t matter if they do,” Bolecthindial announced.

“And Foxhaven upon Nantirworiel, though that is even beyond Sarmiorion and the Uradabhur, so it hardly matters.” Angiothiel said, stretching out her arm to pluck a candied apricot from the tray in the center of the table. “All I know is if I commanded a Free Company and if I had seen the rest of the Free Companies slaughtered, I’d consider offering my services to the only War Prince who hadn’t been involved.”

“Don’t be foolish, ’Thia,” Thorogalas said. “They will fight for whoever pays them. They’re a Free Company.”

“And Oronviel’s coffers are fat,” Runacarendalur pointed out. He glanced at Elrinonion. “Surely Oronviel cannot keep everyone from entering and leaving, Lord Elrinonion?”

“Entering is one matter, Prince Runacarendalur. Leaving is another. And Ivrithir is a third. There I have been able to gain some information, but—as Lord Bolecthindial knows—it does not encourage.”

“I cannot believe Atholfol has made common cause with Oronviel!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said. “How could he repay our care and kindness with such treachery?”

“Perhaps he thinks his taxes are too high,” Angiothiel suggested, and Runacarendalur kicked her under the table.

“There is still time for you to be married into Haldil or Bethros,” he told his sister. “I’m sure you would enjoy life in the Grand Windsward.”

Angiothiel tossed her head and did not reply.

“I did not summon you here to squabble, nor did I summon you to discuss matters,” Lord Bolecthindial said. “In two moonturns we ride against Ullilion. The challenges have been sent. The battlefields have been agreed on. To forfeit will mean paying penalties to Ullilion.” He paused, regarding Warlord Lengiathion balefully. “Your strategy requires Ivrithir and Oronviel to raid against Cirandeiron so Cirandeiron neither rides to Ullilion’s aid nor attacks us while our army is engaged elsewhere. When I sent that Lightborn to Oronviel last autumn to gauge the girl’s temper, you told me you were satisfied.”

“My lord, Thurion Lightbrother assured me Oronviel would abide by its traditional agreements,” Lengiathion said.

“And yet—oddly enough—Thurion Lightbrother is now nowhere to be found. And Sweethallow—your gift to him upon his return to us—stands empty,” Runacarendalur pointed out. He wished ’Rulion were back from the Sanctuary. The news would be fresh, and ’Rulion had always been clever enough to fit together a hundred scattered pieces of information to make a round tale of them.

As the others bickered around the table—save for Lengiathion and Elrinonion, who were being vilified for not doing the impossible—Runacarendalur sat lost in his own thoughts. He wished he’d paid more attention to the girl when she’d lived beneath their roof. He ticked off what he knew of her, hoping the facts would make a story. Took the Green Robe. Fled the Sanctuary and vanished beyond the Astromancer’s ability to find her. Defeated Oronviel’s Warlord—formerly Farcarinon’s Warlord—in single combat. Became War Prince, sparing the former War Prince. Declared she would become High King. Began seeking alliances, while at the same time making Oronviel a haven for outlaws. Convinced one of Caerthalien’s Lightborn to betray them and aid her cause. Talked Atholfol into sending his armies into Oronviel and allowing Oronviel’s armies to hold Ivrithir’s borders.

There is something more. Something I am missing. I know that, but I do not know what it may be.

“It is obvious to anyone that this plot is Thoromarth’s, not Vieliessar’s,” Gimragiel said sharply, summoning Runacarendalur’s attention back to the table. “This foolishness about her defeating Rithdeliel Warlord in combat—we all know that’s impossible! She’d been at the Sanctuary all her life—when would she have learned swordplay? It was done so we would spare our treaty hostages. I say we should send their bodies to Oronviel so Thoromarth knows his deception has been uncovered!”

“And what will that gain us?” Runacarendalur asked. “It will not put an end to any of the things Oronviel is doing.”

“Does no one find it odd that Thoromarth executed his dear lady Daustifalal the moment that ungrateful Farcarinon brat entered his domain?” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel demanded, her voice high with anger. “And now the Astromancer acts outside of custom—and the Oronviel Lightborn in training at the Sanctuary have vanished! She has beguiled both of them. Anyone may see it.”

Everyone knew Lady Daustifalal was of Aramenthiali, Caerthalien’s ancient enemy, yet today she was “dear lady Daustifalal” to Mother. Yet we were quick enough to make common cause with Aramenthiali against Farcarinon, Runacarendalur reminded himself. Not for the first time, he wondered why his mother hated Vieliessar so much—and if she did, why had she agreed to foster her? There’d been no advantage in it.

“This solves nothing,” he said abruptly, setting down his eating knife. “Whether Thoromarth rules in Oronviel or not—whether Vieliessar plots with Hamphuliadiel Astromancer or not—Oronviel cannot go on giving sanctuary to everyone who wishes to flee their rightful overlord. Betroth me to Princess Nanduil and I will take an army to Oronviel in her name.”

“So quick to surrender Caerthalien, brother?” Princess Ciliphirilir gibed. She had let her twin carry most of the conversation at the meal, but there was not one thought Princess Angiothiel had that Princess Ciliphirilir didn’t share.

“The betrothal can be broken as soon as Thoromarth and Vieliessar are dead and their army of rabble scattered,” Runacarendalur snapped. “Or would you rather I broke the Code of Battle instead?”

“Perhaps I may be allowed to rule my own domain for a while longer?” Lord Bolecthindial said acidly. “We all agree Oronviel must be dealt with. But let us not see the threat as greater than it is. Next season is soon enough. It has been the work of years to maneuver Ullilion onto the field without Lady Dendinirchiel squalling to Daroldan before time. I will not waste this chance.”

Runacarendalur did his best to curb his irritation. This was how warfare was conducted. It always had been. Ullilion was held in clientage by Cirandeiron, and so could ask her aid, but Cirandeiron’s aid came at the price of closer entanglement. Daroldan was another Less House: far enough distant it would not seek to take Ullilion from Cirandeiron, close enough it could ask Ullilion’s aid and give aid in return. But for the first time, the ponderous ritual dance that preceded War Season struck him as dangerous. Each War Season since the end of the Long Peace had brought another tiny change in their ancient customs. The Beastlings grew bolder, the Less Houses grew more impatient, the High Houses ruthlessly tightened their grip on their weaker neighbors. The Windsward Rebellion had been the first spark laid to tinder that smoldered still. Another such spark, and the Hundred would kindle into war—and such a war as would not respect treaties or the Code of Battle.

“You need not set aside your plans, Father,” Runacarendalur said. “A campaign against Oronviel would be brief, over before you are to meet Ullilion’s army. I would not even require the levy tailles—such meisnes as the knights of our own lands hold would be sufficient.”

“Three thousand horse against Oronviel?” Domcariel said dubiously. “Oronviel can put twice that into the field.”

“With time to call them up, yes,” Runacarendalur said. “But Lord Elrinonion says they are with Ivrithir. If we attack swiftly, Oronviel will have to take the field with Ivrithir’s horse—if they will follow Thoromarth at all—and perhaps a taille or two of mercenaries who will desert once they learn no quarter is to be offered. The thing can be done—if it is done swiftly.”

“Yes. Perhaps,” Lord Bolecthindial said slowly, in tones that Runacarendalur knew from bitter experience meant he intended to give the impression of fairness and consideration while not changing his views in the least. “But I think you are making the mistake of measuring your adversaries by your own abilities. The girl is a Green Robe who has not lived outside the Sanctuary since she was a child. Thoromarth is timid and unwilling to take the audacious risks that gain the greatest reward. I need no Swordmaster to gather gossip to tell me these things. The plan they have woven between them tells me all. They will dress up servants and farmers in bright armor and arm them with swords, thinking to mislead us. And when the time comes for battle—as it will—those mist-knights will vanish like mist in the sun, just as ‘Lord’ Vieliessar’s dreams of the Unicorn Throne will vanish. And Caerthalien will remain.”

“Caerthalien will remain a jest on the tongues of the Hundred Houses!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel cried. “Husband! Speak all you wish of mist and sun and farmers! Oronviel has become a den of wolves!”

“And if it is, Mother, then any den can be easily cleared in springtide, when the wolves are blind pups,” Runacarendalur answered. He turned back to his father. “A moonturn—no more—and I shall bring you Thoromarth’s and Vieliessar’s heads. I will even drive their rabble-army across the border to prey upon Aramenthiali, if that would please you.”

“If you do not do this thing,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said in a steel-hard voice, “Aramenthiali, Cirandeiron, and Telthorelandor will surely wonder if you have made a secret treaty with Oronviel’s so-called War Prince. Holding Oronviel, why should she not assert her claim to Farcarinon as well?”

Because she will be dead!” Bolecthindial roared.

There was a moment of silence.

“You—” he said, glaring balefully at Runacarendalur, “you ride one sennight from today. Tomorrow you are betrothed to Princess Nanduil. She will accompany you to Oronviel. And you, my lady wife,” Bolecthindial said, turning to Glorthiachiel, “you will accompany the princess—and the army—so you can have the pleasure of seeing Nataranweiya’s brat slain.” Bolecthindial returned his attention to Runacarendalur. “I expect you to return with every knight you ride with. I expect my army back a moonturn after it rides, whether you have yet engaged Oronviel or no. And I say this: if this campaign you so ardently desire costs me my victory over Ullilion, you will heartily wish you had died in Oronviel.”

Bolecthindial didn’t wait for an answer, but pushed himself to his feet. The others—all save Glorthiachiel—rose hastily, standing in silence as the War Prince strode from the room.

The door slammed.

“Dining with Father is always so interesting,” Princess Angiothiel said happily.



To discover how the Elfling had managed to escape into death in the heart of the World Without Sun became King Virulan’s obsession. He gave Uralesse command of the Dark Guard and sent it forth to hunt—this time not for sport nor for food, but for knowledge.

First Uralesse scoured the Goldengrass, and found it empty from the Winnowing Sea in the east to the shores of Graythunder Glairyrill. West of the Glairyrill, he found those creatures he was accustomed to find: Centaur and Minotaur, Bearward and Faun, Hippogriff and Aesalion and Gryphon. All of these were of the Silver, and to each of them had been given some spark of Light. Many of them had fanned that spark into magic, though no sorcery they possessed was so much as a guttering ember by comparison to that with which He Who Is had blessed His most glorious creation. The merest touch of the Endarkened had always been enough to drain their power to nothing.

Uralesse went next to the cities and great castels of the Teeth of the Moon, and found them deserted, crumbling away to dust.

There were no answers there. And so he sought his answers in the only place that remained.

* * *

The Elfling died in silence. Every scream, every whimper, every tear had been taken from him during the moonturns of his agony. Uralesse gazed into the sightless eyes, already clouding in death.

He was no closer to an answer.

He had discovered the silver cord that linked the Elven spellcrafters to the source of their power. He had traced that cord back to its wellspring, summoned Lesser Endarkened to the World Above and drove them with whips and threats into each one. Sometimes the Lesser Endarkened died. Sometimes the Flower Forest died. Uralesse was no closer to the answer King Virulan had demanded of him. That the Elflings wielded any magic at all was nothing more than a mockery of the Endarkened. Once the Elflings had possessed no magic. Then they did.

Some unknown enemy challenged the inevitable victory of the Endarkened.

* * *

“We must attack now, my liege,” Uralesse said. “We are many and powerful. Surely victory will be ours.”

“Do you say so, dear Uralesse?” King Virulan answered. “Then tell me this: who gave to the Elflings the sorcery that courses through their veins?”

“It is but weak…” Uralesse said, daring to protest.

“You do not answer me, my dear brother,” Virulan said. He cupped Uralesse’s face in his taloned hand caressingly—then clamped his hand tight, his talons shearing through scarlet flesh. Golden ichor welled over his fingers, his claws grated over bone and fang. Uralesse did not dare even to whimper in pain.

Virulan released his grip with a shove that sent Uralesse sprawling to the blood-sanctified floor of the Heart of Darkness.

“Find my answers,” Virulan said softly, beginning to lick his fingers clean.

* * *

Uralesse came no more to the Audience Chamber, nor was he to be found anywhere within the World Without Sun, and Virulan came to believe he had chosen exile over confession of failure. Virulan sought him in the Obsidian Mirror and discovered there were now places he could not see. It had been a long time—hundreds of centuries, as the Brightworlders reckoned time—since he had gazed into the Mirror, and now there were places of … blankness.

A Brightworlder would have said they were dark, but there was no darkness to those who lived in the World Without Sun. The blankness spread, he discovered, from those places where the Elfling Mages drew their power. Some, Virulan’s sorcery permitted him to penetrate, allowing the Obsidian Mirror to show him vague and misty shadows. Others remained blank no matter his efforts.

If Uralesse seeks to hide in such a place, that is nearly punishment enough, Virulan thought. But he cannot conceal himself in such stinking precincts forever. And when he emerges …

Then Virulan would teach Uralesse the true cost of disappointing his king.

But that was a pleasure he was willing to defer for a time, for there were other matters to concern him. The Endarkened continued to hunt the Elflings for sport, but now, the hunting parties began to report failure where they had once only boasted of success. They had become used to tracking their quarry by the stink of Brightworld sorcery flowing through its veins, for the stench was unmistakable and penetrating. But now, fewer and fewer of the Elvenkind reeked of magic. It was another change in creatures that already changed far too fast for Virulan’s taste. He distrusted it.

And at last, Uralesse returned to Shadow Mountain.

Virulan had him dragged to the foot of the Shadow Throne in iron chains heated red-hot by magic. The stink of Uralesse’s eternally burning eternally regenerating flesh was sweet incense in his nostrils.

“You left me, my brother,” Virulan said, pouting. “You left me for a long time.”

“I … sought to fulfill your command, my liege, my master, my king,” Uralesse answered, gasping with pain. “I have discovered what you seek. I have found that power which granted magic to the Elflings.”

Virulan raised his lambent gaze from the sweet spectacle of Uralesse’s suffering, frowning in thought. There was no power in the universe as great as the power He Who Is had given to the Endarkened … but it was not any part of Virulan’s plans to provide his subjects with every sharp stick and large stone of the Brightworlders’ armory. He inspected the avidly curious expressions of his courtiers’ faces for a long moment before coming to a decision.

“Leave us,” he commanded.

His court obeyed him reluctantly. Uralesse was not the first of the Endarkened to be erased from existence by their king’s wrath, nor even the first of the Thirteen to suffer his fury. But Uralesse was surely the greatest of them to be brought low, and all the Endarkened wished to relish his pain and his punishment.

“Now,” Virulan said, when they were alone. “Speak.”

“I cannot—” Uralesse began, his words strangled by agony as a gesture from Virulan caused the chains to tighten around him, their heat kindling from red to orange. His skin split from the heat and the pressure; drops of golden ichor welled up to be charred to ash instantly. “I must— The Mirror! The Mirror!

Virulan permitted the chains to loosen, to cool. “What of the Mirror, my beloved?” he purred.

“I must—I must show you,” Uralesse gasped. “In the Mirror! Then you will see—I have never betrayed you, my liege! My heart beats as yours, my only desire the scouring of the Bright World!”

“Truly?” Virulan said, as if he had been suddenly convinced. He rose to his feet, and as he did, the chains loosened further and fell from Uralesse’s body. “Then let us go at once.”

And if Uralesse’s information disappointed him, there was another chamber, beneath that of the Obsidian Mirror, that would be Uralesse’s last sight in the world of Time and Matter.

* * *

The Mirror Chamber was just as it had been in the long ago time when Virulan first forged it. Walls, ceiling, and floor were all of mirror-bright obsidian, so that even within its lightless compass, Virulan and Uralesse seemed to walk through an infinite realm, in which they, too, became infinite.

Both brighter and darker than that which contained it was the Obsidian Mirror itself. It seemed to draw into its polished surface even the memory and possibility of light, radiating the breath of the Void as a forge might radiate heat.

“It is … beautiful,” Uralesse said softly. He, like the rest of the Endarkened, had known of the Mirror—for Virulan made no secret of his greatest weapon—but until this moment, none save their king had been privileged to gaze upon it.

“You have but to think of what you wish to see, and it will appear,” Virulan said proudly.

“And so I shall, my master,” Uralesse vowed. He knew that to disappoint his liege here would mean his death; there would be no second chance to prove his loyalty. “But first I must tell you why I hid. It was not from you, my king. Never that. But from that which I knew to be my quarry. It took me a year of Bright World time to weave about me such spells as would utterly disguise my true nature.”

He saw King Virulan frown. A sorcery such as he had just described was unheard-of among the Endarkened. More to the point, it was unnecessary, for the Endarkened were the greatest sorcerers Above or Below.

“It was needed,” he said quickly. “We had never suspected the existence of that which I came to hunt, for it always fled before we sensed it. Had we done so … we would have seen the source of Elfling Magery at once.”

“Enough of your babble,” Virulan growled. “Show me—and then tell me why you did not slay it and bring me its body to prove your claim.”

Uralesse bowed his head in quick submission. He turned to the Mirror and concentrated.

The Bright World appeared. The whole sweep of it was held in the curve of the Obsidian Mirror, bounded by high crags to the north, burning desert to the south, trackless water on either side. Patches of numinous blankness dotted the image.

“Some are Wardings,” Uralesse said. “Some are strongholds of the Light.”

“Do not show me what I have already seen and tell me it is my answer,” Virulan said dangerously.

“I do not, my king!” Uralesse protested. “Only, see—here—”

The image changed, the patches of blankness vanishing as Uralesse focused on what he meant to show: a high meadow, where a waterfall spilled from the height into a crystal pool. The meadow was edged by dense forest, whose misty seeming showed it was a wellspring of the Light.

From the edge of the forest, a Unicorn stepped.

The Obsidian Mirror began to whine, as faintly as crystal, at what it was forced to display. A Brightworlder would have called it glorious, beauty incarnate. The two Endarkened did not. Virulan hissed, spreading his wings. Uralesse shuddered. In that instant, he knew his king had seen what he himself had seen: the Unicorn was not merely a creature of the Light. It was Light Incarnate.

With every fiber of his being, Uralesse yearned to debase it.

The Unicorn seemed to realize it was being watched. It threw up its head, and for an instant, gazed directly into the Obsidian Mirror.

And in that moment, the Obsidian Mirror exploded.



The Starry Hunt and the Starry Huntsman do not favor one cause, one army, over another. Make sacrifices and petitions for victory in their season, as is right, but know that the Hunt care only for honor and skill. The Hunt reward the valor of the Lords


with immortality and endless battle—but They do not choose the victor.

—Arilcarion War-Maker,

Of the Sword Road

Rain became Flower. In a few sennights Sword Moon would mark the beginning of War Season, when the formal battles arranged among the War Princes moonturns and even decades before would be fought. Border raids began as soon as the weather could be trusted: trials of strength, sport for younger knights, the settling of old grudges and the foundation for new ones.

The army of Ivrithir rode Oronviel’s borders, if not tirelessly, than at least dutifully and without complaint. By now the whispers Vieliessar had loosed by Nadalforo and her mercenary comrades had reached every intended ear: Come to Oronviel and swear to fight for her War Prince, and receive amnesty and sanctuary.

The first who came sought fresh prey and easy victims, thinking they could slip across the border unnoticed and say to any who asked that they were Oronviel’s sworn knights. They did not reckon with troops of komen who rode the borders as diligently as foresters might walk their lords’ estates, nor did they expect to be greeted with sword and spear and bow at every farmstead.

For that was another new thing Vieliessar had done in Oronviel. Nowhere in the Fortunate Lands were Farmholders or their tenants permitted possession of the sword and spear and bow. The sword was for a knight to carry to war. The spear and horseman’s bow were for knights and lords and princes to hunt with; the walking bow was for their foresters to clear their lands of beasts that would spoil their hunts. Farmholders might use the sling to take hares or birds and to frighten wolves, and use the cudgel and the stave for defense. To own or to wield a spear or a bow had brought harsh penalties. To possess a sword had meant death. And so those farmsteads which could not call upon a nearby manor and its knights for protection had been easy prey for raiders.

No longer.

She had set forth her proclamation in Woods Moon, knowing a knife could become a spear easily enough. Skill in bow and sword could not be granted by decree; it would be enough, she thought, that the weapons would no longer be forbidden. Gunedwaen had laughed, hearing her speak her thoughts, and told her she was wrong. Foresters, he said, who could slay a boar with one arrow loosed from the formidable walking bow, did not come from thin air, but from Farmhold families. Not only skill, but bows, were sown wider than she imagined, and as for swords … well, it was well known that any battlefield on which the fallen lay for more than a night or two would be found mysteriously bare of blades when the dead were gathered up.

And so all who entered Oronviel seeking to prey upon its folk were slain or captured, and the prisoners were brought to the Great Keep, and those who could not swear truly under a Spell of Heart-Seeing that they meant to pledge fealty to Oronviel were slain, for Vieliessar would loose no more wolfsheads to plague her people.

Those who swore truly swelled the numbers of those who inhabited her Battle City. Some had been komen in other domains and would fight for their new liege as they had fought for the old. Those who had not been, Vieliessar sought to train in a new way: as foot knights.

As infantry.

Their weapons would be the walking bow and a heavy pike-spear such as castel guardsmen carried. They would wear chain instead of plate, for foot knights could not be asked to bear the weight of a mounted knight’s armor through a long day of fighting. Such swords as they carried would be shorter than a mounted knight’s sword, to be used when pike and bow failed.

Some called the presence of such lowborn warrior-candidates in Oronviel a burden and a curse. Vieliessar called it a blessing. She could not have taught her knights to become infantry. They would have needed to unlearn too much, and they would have thought fighting on foot to be a foolish and menial task. But she had offered arms to any who asked them—Farmholder, craftworker, or Landbond—and many of the mercenaries who flocked to Oronviel’s standard had learned their battle skills not as children, but as men and women grown. Her ex-mercenaries saw the advantage of a dismounted force, and her Commonfolk had nothing to unlearn.

But even if she had wished to, Vieliessar could not spend all her time teaching her army new ways to fight. If her war for the High Kingship was to be won, it would not be won on the battlefield. It would be won because the people of Jer-a-kalaliel joined her freely. She had never planned to win by defeating or allying with the Ninety-and-Nine. She meant to win by drawing everyone else to her standard.

When Vieliessar is High King there will be a Code of Peace. One justice for all, be they highborn or low, and all voices heard.

When Vieliessar is High King, domain will not war with domain, for all domains will be one.

When Vieliessar is High King, the Lightborn will not be taken from their families and hoarded as a glutton hoards grain. They will go where they will and do as they wish. Nor will any children be forced to the Sanctuary against their will.

When Vieliessar is High King, lords will not steal from vassals, from craftworkers, from Landbonds—

When Vieliessar is High King, any with skill may become a knight, or a weaver, or a smith—

When Vieliessar is High King, any may own a horse, or a hound, or a sword—

When Vieliessar is High King …

The folk of Oronviel believed her—believed in her—because what she did as War Prince of Oronviel was exactly what she promised she would do as High King of the land entire. Her Lightborn were her greatest weapon in that secret war, for at least half of them came from Farmhold or Landbond families:

And if her knights and lords were disappointed by the fact that they could no longer hang poachers as they wished—or beat their tenants for their amusement—they were reconciled by the knowledge that Oronviel would soon be going to war.

* * *

I wonder when my good cousins and fellow princes will notice I have stolen half their lands? Vieliessar mused. It was a whimsical thought, but a serious one as well. She’d cleared her domain and much of the domains it bordered of bandits. Half by patrols, half by recruiting those bandits to serve in her army. She’d sent her Lightborn to tend the people of the border steadings on both sides of her borders. And in truth, even if Harvest were to see the paying out of tithes, many of the folk of the border steadings would not be there to pay: a vast army needed wagons and animals to pull them, servants to cook food and pitch tents and saddle and unsaddle horses. Landbonds had many of the skills her army needed, so she encouraged them to leave their holdings and come to her.

But if her strength and her victory lay in the commons, it did not mean she could neglect either her lords or her knights, for if she won through to peace when she sat upon the Unicorn Throne, she would fulfill the last of Amrethion’s promises to his future: the end of High House and Low. Equal justice for all meant not merely that there would no longer be great lords and lesser lords. It meant that none could be set above another: she changed little if she simply set those who were now low above those who were now high.

Vieliessar thought idly of how different Oronviel now was from the other domains of the West. In the springtide the War Princes usually went on a progress, traveling with an escort large enough to protect them from treachery or attack. Bolecthindial Caerthalien had taken no less than five hundred of his Household knights when he rode out, but Vieliessar could ride from corner to corner of her own land alone, certain not she would not be attacked. She thought of the story she had so often been told in her childhood: And the knights of the High King’s meisne were all great kings, and each was as sweet-tempered as a sleeping babe, as loyal as a hunting hound, as beautiful as the Vilya in fruit and flower, as strong as the storms of winter, and pledged to care for all they met as ardently as the Silver Eagle tends her hatchling.

In Oronviel, that nursery tale had come true.

Today, in the company of a mixed troop of Oronviel and Ivrithir knights—her own guard, plus a meisne of Ivrithir komen commanded by Lord Farathon of Ivrithir—she rode toward the place where Araphant’s borders touched hers. Aramenthiali and Caerthalien used it as a way to enter one another’s domains unnoticed. Through the winter, Vieliessar and her knights had used it as a hunting park, clearing it of outlaws.

Oronviel did not share much border with Araphant—a score of leagues, no more—and Vieliessar’s border lords had little to do, for Araphant’s manors and farms lay in that domain’s southern quadrant. Its northern reaches had been left to the stag and the wolf, for Araphant had long been a limp rag chewed by Caerthalien and Aramenthiali, helplessly ceding territory to each. When War Prince Luthilion died, his House might simply vanish, for Luthilion had lived far beyond his allotted years; fate and chance had taken brothers, sisters, children, and greatchildren all before him.

“My lord, someone comes,” Komen Bethaerian said.

“They ride one of our horses, whether they are ours or not,” Vieliessar said, peering at the mounted figure in the distance. “Peace, Betharian,” she added, “we are nearly two score.”

“If this is no scout for one of your enemies,” Farathon of Ivrithir said.

“If an enemy comes in force from Araphant, I will hold myself surprised,” Vieliessar said dryly. “But even if Luthilion rides at Bolecthindial’s order, he would head west and come at us over Caerthalien’s border rather than try to bring an army through this forest.” On their own side of the border the trees had been kept thinned by landbond families driven from their homes and forced to labor. On Araphant’s side, they had grown unchecked for centuries.

“That is so, Lord Vieliessar,” Farathon said with a smile, for his meisne had been riding this stretch of border for the past fortnight and had spent much of that time in Araphant’s forest. “Yet no good word ever came swiftly.”

The horseman had closed the distance to them as they spoke. Neither horse nor rider was encumbered by a single ounce they did not need to bear: the animal’s saddle was a thin pad of leather, the stirrups mere flattened rings. And the rider, who was little more than a child, wore no armor. He barely checked the horse’s mad gallop before he flung himself from its saddle and ran forward. His mount, freed of direction, cantered in a wide circle around Vieliessar and her knights, so filled with the excitement of the run that it hardly noticed its exhaustion.

“The War Prince—komentai’a, I must speak with her—my lord of Greenstone Tower said I would find her near—it is urgent—” the boy gasped.

“I am here,” Vieliessar said, nudging Sorodiarn forward. “Let him pass,” she said, for when she spoke, the boy had started toward her and Farathon had moved automatically to block him.

“Lord Vieliessar—” the boy began. He was as winded as his mount, but determined to deliver his message at once. “A meisne—from Araphant—my lord Peramarth did not know their intent until today—through the wood—”

“How many?” Bethaerian demanded, but the boy only shook his head.

“Why did your lord not use the sun-signal to warn us?” Farathon demanded, for each of the border towers were equipped with sheets of silvered glass that could be used to flash simple messages to watchers many miles distant. At least during bright, clear days.

“Said—not to warn them,” the boy gasped.

“You have done well,” Vieliessar said, putting warmth into her voice. “Come. You will ride with me. Sorodiarn is a gentle beast and your own steed deserves a rest. We will go to Greenstone Tower and see what there is to see. But first, someone must catch your horse. We are lucky he is tired.”

“My lord, you cannot mean to ride toward this peril, after Lord Peramarth has sent to warn you against it?” Bethaerian said. “We must retreat to a place of safety.”

“Better to ride to than from,” Vieliessar answered. “If knights come through the woods of Araphant, I do not think their number can be a force much larger than our own. Peramarth will be glad of extra swords if it is an attack.”

And I shall be glad to be there if it is not, Vieliessar thought. A party of knights crossing from Araphant to Oronviel was so unusual she did not wish to gain information of it second hand, and asking her people to discover whether something unusual was a threat before attacking it was a thing most of them thought was sheer moonstruck madness. Attack and be safe, Vieliessar thought. They do as their greatsires did, and so grudge is heaped upon injury until they breed war. She knew that asking her people to stop, to talk, to think would someday generate a tragedy. And I can only say that if I meant to rule as all the War Princes have ruled before me, it would be better if I had never ruled at all.

“Now come,” she said to the messenger. “Give me your name and your hand.”

* * *

The distance young Randir had covered in less than a candlemark took the troop of heavy warhorses three to retrace, and when they were near to Greenstone Tower, they were met by a troop of its defenders led by Lord Peramarth himself.

“My lord prince,” Peramarth said. When he pushed back the visor of his helm, his entire face was exposed, for the Border Lords might have to fight in any weather. “I did not expect you.”

Here so soon or here at all? Vieliessar wondered, for Peramarth’s thoughts were a flurry that could not be quickly untangled by True Speech.

“I had thought—” Peramarth began, then broke off. “No matter. Greenstone has stood since the days Araphant was a power in the land, and her walls have never been forced. Permit me to offer you my hospitality until we have repulsed our invaders.”

“It seems a strange way to invade anything,” Vieliessar commented a few minutes later, from atop Greenstone Tower. It was no taller than the watchtowers in her own keep, but it seemed as if it were, as there was nothing else for miles around and even the tops of the great trees were below them. Standing in this place, she could imagine she stood among the clouds themselves, and by spreading her arms, could join the hawks in the sky.

“I still cannot make the count,” Angeleb said, sounding unhappy. He was one of Peramarth’s sentries, chosen for his keen vision.

“We saw movement in the forest two days since,” Peramarth said, pointing out and down. The area near the border was thick with greenneedle trees; Vieliessar had been watching since they’d climbed out onto the roof of the watchtower and had yet to see more than an occasional bright flash. “At first I thought Old Luthilion might have come hunting, though he has not been since before the Long Peace. But see—there?” Peramarth pointed to a gap in the forest cover. “Blight and storm has killed the old trees, and the new ones are not yet grown. They rode across that place just this morning. Two tailles of knights, a Green Robe—and someone with the right to ride beneath the princely standard of Araphant.”

Peramarth—she knew—had delayed sending his warning until he was certain the party beneath the trees rode bowshot-straight, and not in the erratic circles of a hunting party. To the Border Lords, giving false warning was as shameful as giving no warning at all.

“Why does he come?” she wondered aloud. “He cannot expect to conquer Oronviel with twenty-four knights and one Lightborn.” Gunedwaen had not wasted his efforts spying on Araphant—he had too few people and too many places they needed to be—so she knew nothing more of it than she had learned at the Sanctuary, and that was little indeed.

“Perhaps he comes to offer you a marriage alliance,” Bethaerian said dryly. “It would be a brief marriage, at least. Old Luthilion has seen a dozen Astromancers tend the Shrine.”

“There is some luck in surviving so long,” Vieliessar said, still thinking aloud. “And perhaps wisdom, too. You say he will cross our border, Peramarth?”

“By midday, if they do not stop.”

“Then we will greet him and see why he has come.”

* * *

Peramarth disliked her plan—a mark of his loyalty, inconvenient though it was—and he liked it even less when Vieliessar said she meant to meet Araphant herself. In the end she prevailed, and sat her destrier before a taille of sixty knights: her own meisne and three tailles from Greenstone.

As the approaching party became visible, Vieliessar could see that tied to Araphant’s pennion was a bough of the greenneedle tree, the traditional symbol that the party riding beneath it requested a parley-truce. Beside the knight carrying the princely standard—a leaping green stag upon a sable field—rode another in armor the iridescent green-black of a beetle’s wing, and upon his left rode a Lightborn, his hair silvered with great age. When they reached the border stones, they stopped, and the standard-bearer and the Lightborn rode on alone.

The wind blew through Vieliessar’s hair, blowing its strands ticklingly over her cheek. She did not wear her helmet; the envoy must be able to know he spoke with the War Prince of Oronviel, not some faceless messenger.

Lord Peramarth’s knights were explicitly under her command, and she had given them unambiguous orders. Nonetheless, Vieliessar was proud of their discipline and that of the Ivrithir knights, for she had bidden them all stand still and silent, and not one armored figure moved, even when she rode forward, Bethaerian at her side, to meet the Araphant messengers.

“Oronviel gives you good greeting,” she said when she and the two from Araphant had stopped facing one another. “I would know how it is you come to us beneath the branch of truce, for there is no war between us.”

“Araphant greets Oronviel,” the aged Lightborn answered. His voice was thin, but in it Vieliessar could still hear the echo of the resonance and power it must have held in his youth. “I am Celeharth Lightbrother, Chief Lightborn to War Prince Luthilion Araphant. We ride beneath the branch of truce out of desire to speak with you, Lord Vieliessar Oronviel, honestly and in peace.”

“Your lord might have done so many moonturns since,” Vieliessar said, nodding in the direction of the green-armored figure who still waited on the far side of the border. She could skim the surface of Celeharth’s thoughts easily: he knew Luthilion had come to make an alliance with Oronviel, but what terms he would offer or accept, Celeharth did not know.

He smiled faintly at her mild gibe. “When one reaches my master’s years, one does not hasten. Yet he would speak now.”

“Events do not always wait upon the desire for reflection. Yet I am eager to hear Araphant’s word to me. Say to your lord that I and all with me here accept Araphant’s truce, and I offer my own body as surety for his life.” She unbuckled her swordbelt and held it out to Bethaerian. Slowly, her thoughts a roil of worry for her liege’s safety, Bethaerian took the weapon.

Celeharth inclined his head. “I bring him to your side.” He turned and rode back to the Araphant knights. The lone knight-herald holding the pennion of truce sat as motionless as if he were carved from stone.

Vieliessar could feel the tension of the komen behind her as if it were a wind she must set herself against. It seemed an eternity before Celeharth Lightborn reached his master’s side. His voice did not carry, but his thoughts did.

It is as we hoped, old friend. Oronviel’s new War Prince, Vieliessar once-Lightborn, offers us the truce of the body.

Then come, Celeharth. Let us see what we may do to dismay the dogs that bark at our heels.

Slowly the knights of Araphant rode toward their standard-bearer. When they were still a little distance away, Luthilion raised his hand and the knights behind him stopped. Araphant’s War Prince removed his helm and unbelted his swordbelt, handing both helm and sword to one of his knights before continuing forward, accompanied only by Celeharth.

If Luthilion’s Chief Lightborn was full of years, the War Prince himself was truly ancient. His hair, though still proudly worn in the elaborate braids of a knight, was colorless with age. His face was printed with the lines of all the joys and sorrows he had known in the long centuries of his life, but if his body beneath the bright armor was frail with age, his will was as unyielding as star-forged adamantine.

“I give you good greeting, Oronviel,” he said, when his destrier stopped beside his standard-bearer.

“And I you, Araphant,” Vieliessar answered.

“I would speak with you regarding matters of interest to us both, yet I would do so in more comfort. It is not seemly for two princes to shout at each other from their destriers as if they were maiden knights hot to win their spurs.”

“I listen,” Vieliessar answered. Lord Luthilion’s speech was slow and measured, couched in the courtly and careful phrasing of centuries past.

“Celeharth tells me you were a great scholar in your time at the Sanctuary. Granting this truth, you will know how many days’ travel it is from Araphant’s Great Keep to where you find me now. And I am far too old to delight in sleeping on the ground rolled in my cloak. I ask your leave to summon my servants to erect my pavilion, so we may be comfortable together.”

“I shall be most grateful for your care,” Vieliessar said, doing her best to match the mode in which the War Prince of Araphant spoke. “I ask only to send Komen Bethaerian with whom you will, so your meisne and mine know we may be easy together.”

“This thought is both wise and cordial,” Luthilion answered. He raised a hand and beckoned, and one of his knights urged his destrier forward. Vieliessar heard Farathon draw breath with a hiss, and saw Luthilion’s eyes flicker with amusement—The child prays none of her hot-blooded young swords seeks to protect her, and that is a good sign. The knight reached for the pennion.

“I commend to you and your komen’tai’a Komen Diorthiel, who serves me far more faithfully than I deserve. Diorthiel, here is Komen Bethaerian, who will accompany you as you give your word to my servants to bring my pavilion here to me.”

Diorthiel looked very much as if he wished to argue. Instead, he simply bowed to Lord Luthilion and rode away with Bethaerian at his side.

Where others might have filled the wait with inconsequential observations on the weather or the hunting, or even with some talk of horses, Luthilion simply sat, as silent and composed as a Lightborn in meditation. So Vieliessar sat quietly as well, wondering with faint curiosity how Luthilion had managed to bring baggage wagons through the dense northern forest. The waiting was broken once by a messenger riding out from Greenstone Tower to ask what was happening—for of course Lord Peramarth was watching all that went on—and being sent back with a curt reply: War Prince Luthilion and I discuss a treaty under truce-bough.

When the pavilion arrived, Vieliessar discovered Luthilion had not, after all, found some new way of getting large and unwieldy sumpter wagons through a dense forest. Instead, Luthilion’s pavilion was bound to the back of mules. Each mule wore a sturdy saddle with wooden legs atop it—much as if someone had taken a common chair and turned it upside down—and this odd device held heavy packs easily and securely. Vieliessar filed away the information for later use: mules could go where heavy wagons could not, and they moved faster.

The servants worked with quick efficiency. They did not care whether they worked in Araphant, Oronviel, or the Vale of Celenthodiel: servants were invisible, and even in battle were rarely an enemy’s target.

“All is ready, Lord Luthilion,” Celeharth said at last. Diorthiel stepped to Luthilion’s side, managing to give the impression he attended his lord out of courtesy, and not because Lord Luthilion required aid to dismount. Vieliessar allowed Bethaerian to do the same for her, then beckoned to Farathon to join them.

“Come,” she said quietly. “If you attend, you may say to Lord Atholfol you know all that took place here today.”

Farathon’s face went blank with surprise at being so trusted—and perhaps also because she spoke so frankly of mistrust. “Ivrithir is loyal,” he answered.

“I trust Lord Atholfol,” Vieliessar answered simply. “And was there ever a War Prince who did not wish half his great lords would conveniently die in battle?”

Farathon gave a muffled cough of laughter, and Vieliessar turned away, following Lord Luthilion into the pavilion, seeing that it was much like her own: two rooms, the outer one dominated by a sizable table. There were scrolls in a wooden rack at one side of the table and a tea brazier on the other side; a shin’zuruf pot and cups waited beside the steaming kettle. There were two chairs, precisely equal in ornamentation, set so that neither of the lords would sit with their back to the door. Nearby was another seat: a padded stool without a back. Vieliessar could feel that the pavilion had been bespelled to keep sound from passing its walls.

“My Healer tells me wine is not good for me any longer,” Lord Luthilion said, lowering himself heavily into a chair and gesturing toward the brazier. Now that he was afoot, the frailties of age seemed more pronounced.

“Three things the Light cannot Heal: age, death, and fate,” Celeharth answered. It had the air of a well-loved and long-familiar argument.

“As you know, Lord Luthilion, I was many years in the Sanctuary,” Vieliessar replied. “We did not drink wine there.” She took the second chair and Celeharth settled himself upon the padded stool. Once they were seated, one of the servants came forward to pour the boiling water into the pot.

“And then you left,” Luthilion said, surprising her with his directness. “And next we heard of a challenge in Oronviel, unwisely accepted, and now you say you will be High King.”

“Yes,” Vieliessar said simply.

“We also hear that you do not promise favors to those who aid you. Nor wealth. That you open Oronviel to outlaws and offer to raise up any Landbonds who come to you to the estate of nobles and great knights.”

“I do not promise favors to those who fight for me. Neither do I promise vengeance on those who do not. I offer sanctuary to any who will pledge true fealty to me.”

“And the Landbond? Who will till your fields if you fill their heads with dreams of knighthood?” Luthilion demanded, his black eyes sharp. Before she could answer, he raised a hand. “Celeharth, oblige me if you would.”

The Lightbrother rose to his feet, and poured tea into three delicate cups. “In my youth,” Luthilion said, “a heart for war was measured by the graces of peace. It was not enough to ride well and fight well—one had to dance gracefully, play harp or flute or cithern, compose poetry and copy it out in a fair hand, or craft tea. That art is lost, I fear. Today they rip some weeds from the kitchen garden, boil them into an undrinkable mess, and call it the heritage of Mosirinde Peacemaker.”

“They still teach the art at the Sanctuary,” Vieliessar said, holding the cup so she could inhale its fragrant steam. “Vilya,” she said in surprise, smelling the unmistakable perfume.

Luthilion radiated pleasure, though his face remained impassive. “Had we met some time ago, and in a different way, I believe I might have made a proper knight of you, Oronviel. Yes, there is Vilya in this blend. The fruit, not the flower. I thought it somehow appropriate for our meeting.”

“It is a fruiting year everywhere but the Sanctuary gardens,” Vieliessar commented dryly.

“Hamphuliadiel cannot expect whatever trick he has used to endure for long,” Celeharth said. His eyes flicked to where Vieliessar’s knights stood. “Some say he wishes to make the Sanctuary into the Hundredth House, to replace Lost Farcarinon, thinking by that means to avert the Curse of Amrethion Aradruiniel.”

“If it were so easy to avert our hradan, High King Amrethion would not have needed to prophecy at all,” Vieliessar answered. “But I would answer Araphant concerning my Landbonds.”

Luthilion waved that away with faint irritation. “I know already you arm them. But what next?”

“I take the High Kingship,” Vieliessar answered simply. She did not believe her arguments would sway Lord Luthilion. He was less interested in knowing what she meant to do than in knowing her, for she could see in his mind he meant to pledge Araphant to her alliance simply to leave Aramenthiali and Caerthalien a greater thorn in both their paws than Araphant could be otherwise.

She did not have time to hear him say so.

“My lord! A messenger!” Against all proper protocol and courtesy, Komen Janondiel burst through the doorway. “We are attacked! Caerthalien attacks!”

* * *

The battle standards carried by the Caerthalien force each flew a narrow red pennion as well the Caerthalien banner, signifying that the army would accept neither surrender nor truce from the enemy. The best thing about going to war in this fashion, Runacarendalur decided, though it was not so much true war as it was the chance to lead a raiding party of truly stunning size, was that he did not have to wait. War itself was a thing of temporary truces, of parleys, of days spent doing nothing more exciting than moving the army and the camp to the next battlefield and waiting for the enemy to arrive. There was no need for any of that in this expedition against Oronviel. The only thing he’d had to wait on were the travel wagons of Ladyholder Glorthiachiel and his recent betrothed. It had been a very long time since Mother rode on campaign, and as for Princess Nanduil … treaty hostages were not encouraged to develop any useful skills.

Runacarendalur had chosen as his entrance point a place along Oronviel’s border where there was no clear sight-line for the watch towers and where the terrain had forced the ancient builders of the border keeps to set the strongholds far apart. Three thousand horse weren’t inconspicuous, and Runacarendalur knew his army would be seen, but his strategy relied on the two nearest watchtowers—Hawkwind and Highstone—sending incomplete and useless information to Vieliessar. It also relied on the Border Lords being unwilling to engage a force so much larger than theirs: between them Hawkwind and Highstone could put perhaps three hundred knights into the field, and that only if they had been lately fortified.

As they crossed Caerthalien’s eastern border, his advance scouts encountered a taille in Ivrithir colors. Runacar’s scouts turned and galloped back toward the army and the Ivrithir knights followed. When Ivrithir saw the main force, the taille turned and fled, but Runacarendalur had organized a vanguard that would be ready to chase down Vieliessar’s bands of roving komen the moment any were spotted. Fifty against twelve offered little sport, and Runacarendalur did not even get to fight, but there were other compensations. He spread his army into a long line of skirmish—madness against an equal force of enemy horse, efficient when you meant to destroy as much that lay in your path as possible.

The border steadings will entertain my troops and the terrified refugees will spread panic.

But the people of the border steadings weren’t terrified. They fought back with bow and spear and sling. It should have been a futile, unequal battle. Unequal it was, but the border farmers had the advantage of surprise and while most of their weapons could not pierce armor, the walking bow could. Runacarendalur lost four knights and a dozen horses in the first clashes.

There were no terrified refugees to spread panic, because there were no survivors.

And worse, the smoke of the burned steadings alerted the Border Towers.

He’d expected no trouble: they were greatly outnumbered, and should have stayed in their keeps and passed warning messages. Instead, the Border Knights sallied forth to ride along his line of march, close enough to tempt the vanguard into giving chase, distant enough they consistently managed to escape without being caught. At night, they harassed his camp—riding through it, pulling down pavilions, setting fire to anything that would burn—so half his army needed to be awake all night to keep watch and guard their horses.

By the fourth day of their advance into Oronviel, the Border Knights had been joined by several of the knight-patrols.

On the fifth day, Oronviel’s army arrived.

* * *

It is not possible, Runacarendalur thought. He saw the red-and-white of Oronviel, the tawny-and-black of Ivrithir—and, unwelcome shock, a small cluster of knights in the sable-and-green of Araphant. He estimated the enemy to be three thousand horse. Half of Oronviel’s full array. They should not have been able to muster so many on a few days’ notice. He’d expected to be a full sennight or more into Oronviel before any part of Oronviel’s army could take the field. He’d counted on it, because he’d counted on provisioning his army along the march.

If he’d faced a force of the size he’d originally anticipated, he would have considered simply going around them, forcing them to follow and do battle nearer to the center of the domain. That would allow him the opportunity both to provision his army and to do more damage to Oronviel. But it would not be possible to flank three thousand horse.

At least it’s too late to fight today. He glanced at the sky. Nearly midday, so they’d have most of a day to prepare to meet the enemy and scout the terrain over which they would fight. Though this was not a field he would have chosen—it sloped slightly upward, and was littered with debris to trip or lame a destrier whose rider was unwary—it would do well enough. He wheeled his palfrey about and went to give the order to make camp.

* * *

“Why do we stop so early in the day?”

The servants had barely finished setting his pavilion before Ladyholder Glorthiachiel strode into it, glaring at her son. “Is it not enough that we move at such speed one would assume we carried vital messages? Now you propose to sit and do nothing!”

“And how is my betrothed? Sick with joy at this return to her homeland?” Runacarendalur asked.

“Were there anyone else in the Line Direct I could trust upon Oronviel’s throne, I would slit her throat rather than listen to another moment of her complaints,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said. “At least Nataranweiya’s brat never whined. Now. Why do we stop?”

“Why, so I may engage Oronviel at dawn,” Runacarendalur said, waving vaguely in the direction of the enemy. “Thoromarth has brought, if not Vieliessar’s army, then an army. You will be pleased to know Oronviel has made alliance with Araphant as well.”

“Impossible!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel snapped.

“Possible,” Runacarendalur replied, “and fact. Unless you believe Thoromarth has somehow stolen the War Prince’s banner from Old Luthilion and garbed a dozen Oronviel knights in his colors.”

Ladyholder Glorthiachiel regarded him through narrowed eyes for a long moment, then gestured peremptorily to a servant to bring her a chair. “Wine,” she said, seating herself and shaking out the folds of her voluminous riding skirts. Runacarendalur served her himself; the pavilion was set, but nothing was unpacked yet. He located the chest he sought, took possession of a bottle and two goblets, filled both cups, handed one to Ladyholder Glorthiachiel, and seated himself on a chest.

“How many ride against us?” she asked after she’d tasted her cup and silently let him know the drink was not to her liking.

Runacarendalur hesitated, but any knight in the camp could estimate the size of Oronviel’s force as easily as he had, and Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s personal guard would tell her if he did not. “Our forces seem equally matched,” he said reluctantly.

“And yet, when you proposed this expedition, you said Oronviel could only bring two thousand—at most—to the field,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said.

“Obviously Elrinonion Swordmaster should have tried harder to get scouts across Oronviel’s border who’d report back,” Runacarendalur retorted. “The army is there. We can fight, or we can run away.”

“Do not say to me I have given birth to a coward,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel answered haughtily. “Thoromarth is beguiled by that Sanctuary-bred monster. Atholfol’s forces will flee the field rather than fight for Oronviel. And Araphant we will deal with in due time.”

Runacarendalur inclined his head. “It will of course be just as you say, Mother.”

* * *

One candlemark passed, then two, as Oronviel’s army continued to advance. It moved—as did any army on the march—at a slow and measured pace in order to spare the destriers’ strength.

But it did not stop.

Runacarendalur sat his riding palfrey, watching the enemy advance. Only a couple of miles now separated the front of their column from his camp. Two of the banners the knights-pennion carried signified War Princes on the field: Araphant’s and Oronviel’s. Runacarendalur had never faced Lord Luthilion—Luthilion had last taken the field in Runacarendalur’s greatfather’s time—but the gleam of his white hair was unmistakable as he rode beside Araphant’s standard. Runacarendalur glanced at Ivrithir’s banner, but Lord Atholfol was not on the field. Why do his knights ride here if he does not lead them? Runacarendalur wondered. He frowned, puzzled, then set the thought aside for now. And here is Oronviel. Thoromarth was a familiar sight in pearl-white armor, mounted on his grey stallion. Runacarendalur frowned again. Thoromarth was riding his destrier, not a palfrey. Everyone in the front rank was.

Between Thoromarth and Luthilion, on a bay so pale its coat was nearly golden, rode …

Her. That must be Vieliessar.

At first he’d thought the woman might be Thoromarth’s standard-bearer, until she leaned sideways in her saddle to touch his shoulder with the easy familiarity of a ruling prince to a favored knight. Thoromarth said something in return and she laughed, gesturing at the army that rode behind them.

I did not expect her to come armored as a knight to this battlefield.

His mother had been sure Vieliessar was merely a mask for Thoromarth’s ambition, and even if she were not, it was inconceivable she would ride to war. Yet here she was. She wore silver-enameled armor and the white surcoat with the red otter that marked her as a knight of Oronviel. The bay destrier she rode danced and fretted beneath her hand, yet she controlled him effortlessly.

When the advancing column finally stopped, Runacarendalur was relieved. He watched as it split, then split again, spreading and reforming behind the first line as gracefully as if the whole of the army danced. They do not wish to be caught unawares while they make camp, he decided.

Then Thoromarth spoke again and Vieliessar took up her helm and slid it over her head. Runacarendalur could not say why watching her give her helm the small back-and-forth twist to lock it into place made him feel so uneasy. It was something he’d done himself a thousand times. More.

And so has she. Runacarendalur frowned. Why does she helm if they are to make camp?

Then—impossibly—he heard the mellow dangerous song of warhorns.

Right flank: wheel. Left flank: hold. Center: advance.

Against all sense and custom, Oronviel was attacking.


He spurred his palfrey and galloped back to the camp, shouting for the alarm to be sounded, for his knights to arm themselves. Some had heard the enemy warhorns. Most had not. And only a handful were in armor. This is madness! Runacarendalur thought in outrage. The Code of Battle demands challenge be made and answered before the engagement begins! Not a random attack the moment you catch sight of your enemy! This is none of Thoromarth’s doing! Vieliessar fights as if she is a hedgerow bandit!

He reached his tent and flung himself from his saddle. Helecanth’s pavilion was pitched beside his own, and she’d come running at the sound of his horse. Runacarendalur noted with despair that his guard captain was as unready to fight as his entire army.

“My lord?” she said.

Runacarendalur opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again as the first of the Caerthalien horns sounded: To horse, to horse, arm yourself, to battle …

“I shall bring Gwaenor,” she said, and took off for the horselines at a run.

“My armor!” Runacarendalur shouted as he entered his tent. If they had reached us before the camp was set it would have been a disaster, he thought numbly. Only the flanks and the vanguard had been riding in armor, and no one had been riding destriers. But they meant to attack the moment they saw us.

Nithiach, his chamber page, came rushing out of the pavilion’s inner chamber, a polishing cloth in his hands. Runacarendalur shouted again for his armor and began stripping off his clothes. He struggled with his boots for a moment before sitting down on a chest to yank them off.

His arming page was nowhere to be found. Nithiach would have to serve; there was not time to find Arnarth. As Nithiach returned with Runacarendalur’s aketon and padded leather trews, the booming of the war drums overlaid the discordant and clashing sound of the horns.

Lengiathion Warlord always said battles could be won or lost by the speed a knight could arm, and I never believed him.…

He struggled into the complex elements of his armor, swearing at Nithiach in his desperate need to be armed, to be away. He nearly shouted at Helecanth to leave when she entered, followed by her arming page.

“They advance.” She had to shout to be heard over the uproar: horns and drums and knights shouting and the clatter of metal and the screams of overexcited horses. “I have ordered Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s guard to move her wagon back and to keep her and Princess Nanduil inside, even if they must tie them hand and foot and nail the doors of the wagon shut.”

“They’d probably rather face Oronviel,” Runacarendalur muttered. “Good. How many—?” How many can we send against them at once?

“Five hundred,” Helecanth said grimly. “Enough to hold them until the rest arm. They will stand—if you are there.”

Runacarendalur settled his helm on his head. As he gave it the small twist to lock it into place, the vivid image of Vieliessar doing just the same filled his mind.

* * *

War was a thing of beauty. Runacarendalur had always believed this. The clash of two lines of knights meeting at full gallop, the moments of bravery and skill that were the fruit of a lifetime of training, the joyful dance of death when two knights fought each other as if no one else existed—He was a prince of Caerthalien, a knight, a warrior: he carried the honor of his House upon his shoulders each time he rode into battle.

But today was different. He’d been given no time to scout the battlefield, to meet with his commanders, to tell each where they must stand and where they must go, to settle the signals that would allow him to deploy hundreds of knights as easily as he flexed the fingers of his hand. Instead, he galloped from camp with barely a sixth of his army and only one thought in his mind: push Oronviel back and buy his komen time to take the field. He shouted orders to Helecanth as Gwaenor and Rochonan galloped side by side, and Helecanth put her warhorn to her lips and relayed them to the knights that followed: Break for the tuathal flank. Force it back into the center.

It was a proven strategy, especially when the enemy could not call up reserves to replace his losses. Since Thoromarth had not been able to position his reserves off the field, effectively he had no reserves—all his force was committed at the same time. The flanking positions were traditionally a fast moving force, meant to sweep an enemy’s fighters into the center where they could be hammered by heavy cavalry. If Runacarendalur could force Thoromarth’s tuathal flank into the body of his main force, he could not only destroy the flanking force but attack the center at a weak point. The main body of the column would have no place to go: if it retreated, the deosil wing would be behind it.

It should have worked.

Instead, as soon as Runacarendalur’s advance force was fully committed to an attack on the tuathal side, the whole of Thoromarth’s force spun as if it were a millstone turning on its axis. The tuathal flank was not forced against the center: the center swung right as the tuathal flank retreated in good order and the deosil flank elongated and galloped across what had—seconds before—been the center. In another few moments Runacarendalur’s advance force would be trapped between the two flanking forces while the former center line—now an enormously over-full deosil flank—continued its inexorable advance on his camp.

It was a stunning innovation in tactics.

Thoromarth could not have done this, Runacarendalur realized, even as his troop spun and struck the wing of Oronviel’s army that was coming up behind them. He could no longer see the whole of the battlefield. In moments, it had become a dizzying blur of knights and flashing swords.

And it is but four candlemarks to sunset, and how are you to shape the course of the battle if you are in it?

From the moment he’d proposed this expedition against Oronviel, Runacarendalur had held in his mind the image of how it would go: a raiding party cutting a swathe of destruction across the land from the border towers to the walls of Oronviel’s Great Keep. There he would face the force Oronviel placed in the field against him; at the sight of the red pennions flying from Caerthalien’s standards, the knights of Ivrithir would flee to their own domain.…

That was the dream, and he had not been willing to let go of it. And so he had led his knights into battle as if this were a raiding party. It did not matter that there was no plan of battle to oversee, no order of battle for him to shape and direct, nor that his knights would have been thrown into even greater disorder if he had not led them himself. He had made a disastrous miscalculation—and Caerthalien would pay the price of it.

Father wished me to bring back the army intact.…

That was already impossible. But if he could slay Vieliessar, the act would redeem at least a part of his folly. He risked a glance at the larger force surrounding him. Yes. There. The standard of Oronviel. She would be beneath it.

He began to fight his way toward it.

* * *

It had taken Vieliessar two days to reach her army, and two days more for her army to reach Caerthalien’s force. Lord Luthilion had announced his desire to fight at her side—audacious, for it would show Caerthalien Araphant’s disloyalty—and rather than subject the aged War Prince to the long and grueling ride to her western border, she’d told Celeharth to Send to her Lightborn and bring Lord Luthilion west by Mage Door. Then Vieliessar rode west as fast as she could. It was frustrating, for there was a Flower Forest half a day’s ride from Greenstone Tower, and she might have walked into it and out into Mornenamei in the same candlemark. But accompanied by her komen, she could not—she could not raise the matter of changing what the Lightborn were permitted to do at the same moment Caerthalien was invading in force.

She left Sorodiarn behind at the first change of horses. The journey was not a matter of pleasant rides and soft beds, but of galloping from manor house to manor house, bringing word of the attack and leaving with fresh mounts. Messengers from Thoromarth, from Rithdeliel, from Gunedwaen met her on the road, and so she learned her army already marched to meet Caerthalien. Lord Thoromarth had put them underway the moment word had come to Oronviel Keep.

Gunedwaen led her infantry in Thoromarth’s wake, but not to the battlefield. Gunedwaen’s place would be a day’s ride from Oronviel Keep, for Hawkwind’s sentries had not seen a supply train traveling with Caerthalien’s army, and if Caerthalien defeated Vieliessar’s army—or simply broke through it—the farmsteads of the Manorial Lands would be their target.

Since the moment she became War Prince, Vieliessar had been accustoming her army to the idea that it was more important to win a battle than to adhere to the ceremonial Code of Battle designed to turn war into an eternal game. Once she reached her army, she reinforced that lesson one more time: The purpose of war is to win so no more battles need to be fought. To win a battle, you must hurt your enemy. Not in some agreed-upon way Healers can put right so his knights can attack you again—but hurt him so he will never want to face you again.

In this battle, all her teaching, all her hopes, were to be tested. If they lost here, her army would go back to fighting in the ways it knew, and carry with it the seeds of their defeat. But when the enemy was in sight, her komen did everything in the way she had taught them. At her order, they attacked at once rather than allowing Caerthalien a night of rest and planning. When Caerthalien took the field with only a fraction of their own numbers, they did not attempt to break off the battle and offer the chance of a negotiated surrender.

And when the enemy’s camp was within reach, Vieliessar’s komen didn’t pretend it wasn’t because it would be discourteous to spoil the enemy’s comfort.

* * *

Gwaenor reared, striking out at the enemy knight with steel-shod forehooves. The enemy knight’s destrier tried to escape, but there was nowhere to go in the press of warriors and horses. The armored figure toppled from the saddle. If he made any sound as he died, it was lost in the clangor of battle.

Runacarendalur no longer knew how long he’d been fighting, nor if Caerthalien was winning. He only knew Oronviel’s standard was near, that the maddening figure in the blood-spattered silver armor was beneath it, and that he must see her slain if he was ever to know peace again. He roweled Gwaenor’s flanks mercilessly, asking the impossible from the great black stallion. Gwaenor snapped and kicked, forcing his way ever closer to Runacarendalur’s goal. Runacarendalur tightened the fingers of his free hand around his dagger, his eyes fixed upon Vieliessar. He could not stab her, but he could stab her mount. In the heat of battle destriers rarely noticed injuries, but a fatal blow—something that would bring the golden stallion to his knees—would fling Vieliessar to the ground to be trampled to death.…

As if his thoughts were a shout she could hear, Vieliessar turned and stared directly at him. Even with her visor in place, Runacarendalur imagined he could see her eyes.


Some thought of Bonding as a gift, the greatest gift Queen Pelashia had given the children of the Fortunate Lands. Some thought of it as a curse, for it linked two souls together—no matter what heart and mind might wish—so tightly that if one half of a Bonding died, the other would soon follow. Still others, more cynical, thought of it as a myth, either lie or delusion or something crafted of both.

Runacarendalur of Caerthalien looked into the eyes of Vieliessar, born of Farcarinon, now War Prince of Oronviel, and knew the Soulbond of Pelashia Celenthodiel for a curse and no delusion. He felt as if he’d been struck over the heart with a hammer and he knew with a certainty that transcended thought that Vieliessar was as furious, as horrified, as he was.

It cannot be set aside, it cannot be undone—one may delay it, knowing what is to come—refuse it—and live all one’s years as a hungry ghost—but that is all.

He could not even tell, in this single blinding moment of oneness, which of them was thinking.

He’d been warned, seeing her in the distance as she led her army to battle. He hadn’t recognized the warning.



Bonded forever.

If he’d managed to kill Vieliessar before that horrifying flash of understanding, could he have kept this from happening?

The moment was so terrible and all-consuming that Runacarendalur did something he’d hadn’t done since long before he won his spurs: he forgot he was in the middle of a battle surrounded by armed and armored knights who were using all of their considerable skill to try to kill him. He wasn’t sure how long his inattention lasted. All he knew was that someone was hitting him on the rerebrace that covered his upper arm—not to injure him, but to gain his attention. He started in surprise, turning in his seat, clutching his sword. He’d dropped his dagger.

Helecanth pointed back toward the camp. She didn’t bother to speak; it would have been impossible to hear her. Hurry, she signaled, and Runacarendalur signed assent.

Haste was a thing easier asked than provided, however. They moved away from the standards of Oronviel, Ivrithir, and Araphant in whatever direction offered them space to maneuver. But the farther they got from the tight cluster of knights, the more they drew the attention of the enemy, and the more often they had to stop to fight their way free. It was only when Runacarendalur realized he could barely tell Caerthalien’s green and gold from Ivrithir’s black and tawny that he realized they’d fought on past sunset. The false day of twilight would vanish swiftly and without warning, but Runacarendalur was no longer certain that darkness would bring an end to Oronviel’s attack.

He was no longer certain about anything.

His life was in the keeping of one whom everyone from the Astromancer to his mother wanted dead. More than anything, he wanted to ride back to her side. But what he’d do when he got there, Runacarendalur didn’t know.

“You have to call the retreat!” Helecanth shouted when they had a moment’s breathing space.

“They’ll call the night halt soon, and—” Even as he spoke, Runacarendalur realized his words were ridiculous. Was he actually suggesting that an army that attacked in mid-afternoon without stopping to announce the terms of battle would call off the fighting with nightfall simply because it was civilized and customary?

“There’s no camp for us to go back to!” Helecanth shouted.

The unbelievable statement shocked Runacarendalur’s mind from the last of its daze, and in a few brief sentences, Helecanth explained.

When they’d struck the tuathal flank of Oronviel’s army, the army had pivoted in place to encircle Runacarendalur’s force. By that time, the rest of his knights were aware they were under attack and they took the field even though they had no clear plan of battle to guide them. In its absence, they’d done what seemed to be the most sensible thing: avoiding the center and the heavily reinforced right flank, they rode to attack the left.

“—and Oronviel’s tuathal wing continued to retreat, pulling our army in after it, until eventually the whole of our force was engaged, and what had been elements of Oronviel’s rear guard were facing our camp.” Helecanth shrugged. “So they rode down into it.”

They cleared the edge of the battle and rode wide to avoid its outliers. In the dusk, neither destrier wished to gallop, and Runacarendalur thought dismally of what would happen if they went lame or broke a leg. But it wasn’t until they reached the place where Caerthalien had made camp only a few scant candlemarks before that Runacarendalur realized the full scope of his failure.

No horses. No pavilions. No servants. Nothing, in fact, that he recognized as being the neatly organized camp with its pavilions of bright silk. Even the Lightborn were gone, and—

“Ladyholder Glorthiachiel!” Runacarendalur said in horror. For just one instant, he forgot about being Soulbonded. “They’ve taken her prisoner!”

“I don’t know,” Helecanth said, troubled. “I do know we need to retreat—if we can. I don’t think you were near any of them during the fighting, but— Did you see any knights on the field wearing Oronviel colors, but in brown armor?”

“Mercenaries,” Runacarendalur said realizing what she meant. Few sellswords began their lives as komen of the Hundred Houses, and those who did were often fortunate to escape their former masters with their lives, let alone with armor, sword, and destrier. Mercenaries did not wear armor in the bright colors of the komen. They greased their armor lavishly and then roasted it carefully; the burned-on grease created a weatherproof coating that made them nearly invisible at night. “We knew she was taking them into her army.”

“And adopting their tactics,” Helecanth said grimly. “Oh, they abide by the Code of Battle if they’re paid to. And if they’re paid to ignore it, they do that too.”

“Sound the retreat,” Runacarendalur said. He’d never imagined a simple sentence could hurt so much to say. “We need to find our Lightborn. They’ll be able to find Mother.”

Now that he stood looking down into the chasm of this disaster, Runacarendalur could see so very clearly all the steps that had led him here. Dismissing the lack of information from within Oronviel as unimportant. Dismissing the alliance between Oronviel and Ivrithir as meaningless. Believing Thoromarth still ruled Oronviel when every action Oronviel took was one Thoromarth would never have considered taking even if he’d managed to think of it. Riding heedlessly to the attack when Oronviel moved to engage, even though that was the final warning of how changed things were in Oronviel since Harvest.

In the distance, Runacarendalur heard another warhorn take up the call to retreat. For a moment it was drowned out by a mocking volley from the enemy: No quarter—No quarter—No quarter—echoed across the battlefield like the sound of a scolding jackdaw. He’d thought riding under the red pennion would be a useful convention that would allow him to execute any prisoners he took without breaking with the Code of Battle. But once he’d displayed the red pennion, his enemy was not bound to show mercy any more than he was.

His army would be slaughtered where it fell.

“I must—” Runacarendalur began, about to urge Gwaenor forward.

“You must not,” Helecanth said urgently, reaching out and placing her hand on his destrier’s rein. “We do not know how many we have lost. But if you are lost, Prince Runacarendalur, the army will have no leader. And all will be lost.”

Wise as it was, Helecanth’s counsel was bitter to hear.

And now there was nothing to do but wait.

* * *

Every Lightborn studied the Soulbond, for it was a riddle and a mystery: a thing of the Light—of Magery—that appeared among the Lightless. Without warning, without explanation. It behaved as if it were a spell, but unlike a spell, it could not be broken.

She’d known what was happening. Trapped in the midst of the melee, there’d been nothing she could do. She was already Warded against the thoughts of the injured and dying. There were no more powerful Wards she could summon.

It might have been delayed, even averted entirely, for all those who wrote of Soulbonding agreed that for the Bond to form, the two halves of the Bonding must be near each other. The scholars also spoke of desire, but the only desire she’d possessed was to win the battle.

Perhaps that had been all that was needed.

But those were things she thought of much later, when it was not necessary to spend every beat of her heart on surviving—and not merely surviving, but winning in the best way to further her need. The land’s need.

She’d prepared her commanders carefully on the journey here, from those who commanded a twelve to those who commanded twelve times twelve, so each would know what must be done before they engaged the enemy. She was grateful she’d done so much, for once the battle began it was impossible to know what was going on more than a few feet away. Rithdeliel and Gunedwaen and even Thoromarth had spoken of battles into which a commander could send a messenger to order a meisne to withdraw and could direct the battle as the huntsman directed the hunting pack. But those were not the sort of battles she was fighting.

The orders she had given to Nadalforo as she set her company to ride in the army’s fantail had surprised the former mercenary commander but had not shocked her.

“Loot the camp and take their horses?” she said, looking pleased. “Ah, Lord Vieliessar, you’re wasted as a War Prince!”

“There will be Lightborn and servants in the camp,” Vieliessar said. “Harm none of them. Offer them sanctuary. Drive those who will not accept it far from the camp.”

She did not know, in the press of the fighting, whether Nadalforo had been successful or not. Just as it became too dark to see, she heard the Caerthalien warhorns signaling retreat, and the flurry of mockery from her own knights-herald in reply.

If Caerthalien retreats, it means I have won.

“Disengage!” she shouted into Bethaerian’s ear. Bethaerian shoved back her visor and raised her warhorn to her lips. The signal echoed around the field: as it was received, her knights stopped pursuing the enemy.

* * *

There should have been bright, cheerful torches, servants offering cups of mulled wine or tall tankards of ale, cloudy globes of Silverlight shedding their eldritch radiance over the camp and the battlefield. Instead, there was cold and darkness and the screaming of wounded horses. At least the Oronviel forces were signaling to disengage. He could be grateful for that much.

As more of Caerthalien’s knights rode to where the camp should have been—and wasn’t—Helecanth switched from sounding the retreat to sounding the call to muster. At last there came the welcome glow of Silverlight through the trees. Runacarendalur let out a long breath of relief. He had not thought his Lightborn would be harmed, but when he had seen what had happened to the camp …

The tale the returning servants and Lightborn told was as grim as the battle itself. Knights in Oronviel colors rode down on the camp as soon as the last of the Caerthalien knights had entered the battle. They struck down the guards on the horselines, and as some gathered the livestock together, others ordered all who wished to live to run for their lives. Then they drove the horses and oxen through the camp. The pavilions and their contents were wrecked. The few wagons of supplies—mostly grain for the destriers—were carried off.

“And Ladyholder Glorthiachiel?” Runacarendalur asked, his mouth dry with fear.


Her voice was brittle with rage, but Runacarendalur had never heard any sound so welcome. She was riding the destrier of some slain knight, with Carangil Lightbrother leading it.

“I think we can safely consider your betrothal to Oronviel at an end,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said waspishly. “Your betrothed is gone.”

“She ran away?” He’d seen Princess Nanduil only a handful of times—including his betrothal ceremony—and could not imagine …

“Had your witless komentai’a not ordered my guard to hold us both prisoner,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel spat, “I might yet have preserved her for your wedding. But first we retreated—” the word was a vile curse in her mouth “—and then they died.”

“They let you go,” he said, light-headed with relief. Oronviel would have taken no prisoners to ransom.

“Yes!” she said. “If you can call it that when I was dragged from my own wagon and set afoot. They carried off the wagon and your annoying bride-to-be. And rather than await the next party of knights, Carangil and I made our way to the wood to await your victory and the return of my wagon. You do not seem to have brought me either.”

“Be grateful they spared your life,” Runacarendalur answered, relief transmuted to cold fury by fear of what-might-have-been. “Do you see among us here any swordless knights who left the field under parole? We fought without quarter. I do not yet know how many dead there will be.”

As the servants returned, he set them to picking through the wreckage of the camp to salvage what they could. There wasn’t much. Bedding had been trampled into muck, carpets and furniture were smashed and befouled, provisions were gone. He ordered Carangil Lightbrother to Call back their stolen livestock, only to be told such a use of the Light was not permitted, as it would constitute tactical aid to an army in battle. At least Carangil and the other Lightborn were willing to Call water, since the horses and their riders were thirsty, and fire, since there was no shortage of things to burn.

“Do you think they will attack again tonight?” Helecanth asked, as if she were speaking of a tribe of Beastlings and not the army of one of the Hundred Houses.

“I don’t know,” Runacarendalur said wearily.

It was full dark now. The battlefield was lit by globes of Silverlight: he could see Oronviel’s Lightborn on it, seeing if any survived. It was a small break with custom—the Lightborn did not enter a battlefield even when the day’s fighting was over—but it was a break. Another break. He did not have fingers and toes enough to enumerate all the ways Oronviel had outraged the Code of Battle today.

His own camp looked as much like a battlefield as the ground over which they’d fought. Exhausted knights clustered around a hundred small fires, sharing the contents of their wineskins and waterskins. Four days to our border. No remounts. No shelter. Nothing along our line of march, because we burned it all on our approach.

And worst of all, he’d lost two-thirds of the army.

There might be a few more survivors found by dawn. Half the servants hadn’t come back yet, after all. But as soon as there’d been Silverlight to see by, he and Helecanth had done a rough tally. Eleven hundred of Caerthalien’s komen had survived.

Far in the distance, Runacarendalur imagined he could make out the constellation of colored lights that was Oronviel’s—and Araphant’s and Ivrithir’s—camp. For a moment he was filled with the wild desire to fling himself upon Gwaenor’s back and ride madly toward those bright pavilions. To seek out hers, to put an end to her victory celebration, to put an end to this day.

To put an end to her.

* * *

“Stop pacing,” Thoromarth said. “Anyone would think we hadn’t won today.”

“A battle—not the war!” Vieliessar answered.

“And at Midwinter I would have said we could not do even that much,” Thoromarth answered. “Yet Caerthalien’s force lies broken and ours does not. More than that, I have my Nanduil with me again, little though she values that.”

Vieliessar had expected Nadalforo to bring her the livestock from the Caerthalien camp. She had not expected to be presented with a weeping and furious princess as well. “I suppose I should be grateful that Nadalforo didn’t slay Glorthiachiel of Caerthalien,” she said reluctantly, and Rithdeliel laughed, raising his cup in salute.

“Since you wish to avoid open war with Caerthalien for the present, yes,” he said. “Though frankly, were I Bolecthindial of Caerthalien, I should not regret her loss overmuch,” he added.

Vieliessar looked around her pavilion at her allies and those of her senior commanders who had remained following her victory celebration. Oronviel had won today, and even though they would fight again tomorrow—for she meant to harass Caerthalien across every foot of Oronviel’s land—they were entitled to a moment of rejoicing.

“Araphant fought with distinction today,” she said. “I thank you for the alliance, Lord Luthilion.”

Luthilion waved the compliment aside. “Your tactics were an astonishment to me,” he said mildly. “It is true, then, what Celeharth has always told me. There are always new things to be seen in the world. Araphant has little to offer you. But you shall have all that she holds.” He bowed without rising; the battle would have exhausted a knight far younger than he, and since Celeharth Lightborn had come from the Healing Tents, he had been attempting to get his Lord to seek his rest.

“You’ve taken enough blooded livestock to mount these ‘foot knights’ of yours, at least,” Rithdeliel said. “We’ll need to wait for dawn to get a true count, but the Healers say Caerthalien’s losses were heavy.”

“They were.” Thurion stood in the doorway, his eyes distant. “Lord Vieliessar, your wounded are tended. Our casualties were light. Many injured, few deaths.”

“I would have given odds against that when I saw the red pennion,” Thoromarth said.

“I knew when Caerthalien came against us they would seek to slay all they could,” Vieliessar said, gesturing to Thurion to enter. “Caerthalien will not rest until the last of Farcarinon is dead.” For an instant the years dropped away and she was a child once more, hearing her true name and her fate from Ladyholder Glorthiachiel in Caerthalien’s Great Hall.

“If you die, my prince, it is not today,” Thoromarth said.

“No, but—” She hesitated, on the verge of blurting out the thing that had happened. She shook her head. “No, I did not die today.”



“Should” and “would” and “ought” are three great armies who always fight on the enemy side.

—Toncienor of Caerthalien,

The Swordmaster’s Book

“We must go. Now,” Helecanth said.

“You’re right,” Runacarendalur said heavily.

When the first of the Lightborn had returned, he’d ordered word sent to Caerthalien Keep, for little as he wished Lord Bolecthindial to know of his defeat and disgrace, the information was urgent. Once again, he glanced toward the Oronviel camp. Desire warred with desire: if he’d had the least hope he could mount a successful attack, he would have done so. But the destruction of the camp had finished the task the disastrous fight had begun. The knights of Caerthalien had no more heart for battle. We cannot be all that remain, Runacarendalur thought, and each time the idea occurred to him, it was as if it were a fresh wound.

“Come, my lord,” Helecanth said gently. “We will do this quietly.”

Runacarendalur nodded. He led Gwaenor through the shattered camp, pausing at each cluster of knights to pass the order. Gathering them to march could have been done in an instant with the signal horns, but Helecanth was right: the sound would only alert their enemy. And who knew what they would do?

Beyond the far edge of the destruction, Runacarendalur found Ladyholder Glorthiachiel and Carangil Lightbrother. Glorthiachiel was seated on a battered storage chest, a cup in her hand, and someone’s fur-lined stormcloak about her shoulders.

Trust Mother to make herself as comfortable as possible.

“Come,” Runacarendalur said. “We’re leaving.”

“So I see,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said acidly. “Slinking away like curs whipped to kennel.”

“If you wish,” he answered. “It is not as if Caerthalien has not suffered defeat before. If you wish to stay and explain to Oronviel how that is impossible, of course, I will not compel you to accompany us.”

“Would that you’d showed a fraction of such spirit in battle today,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said. She rose to her feet, handing her cup to Carangil. “My horse,” she said.

Carangil led the destrier over and assisted Ladyholder Glorthiachiel to mount. It was undoubtedly just as well, Runacarendalur thought, that Carangil Lightbrother was able to bespell the animal to docility. He didn’t doubt his mother’s ability to browbeat any living thing into submission, but the need to do so wouldn’t sweeten her temper.

Not that anything would at this point.

“You said you would bring back her head,” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said, in an undertone sharp enough to etch steel. “You said the Household knights would be sufficient to rout Oronviel’s meisne and a pack of lowborn mercenaries.”

I did not know I would be facing the daughter of Serenthon Farcarinon, Runacarendalur thought. He walked beside Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s mount, leading Gwaenor. All around them, the remains of Caerthalien’s Household knights moved westward, more a disordered throng of refugees rather than an army. Some knights led exhausted destriers. Others rode. There were no horses or wagons for the servants, the Lightborn, or the arming pages. Some of the servants walked beside their masters. Some simply stood and wept as the column slowly formed and began to move—unable to believe any of this was happening, unable to believe they must retrace the distance they had come

At first he thought they would be pursued, for the movement of so many people and horses was not quiet. But to his faint astonishment, no one came. After a while, the column began to move with something resembling organization, for the knights were used to riding to war and their servants were used to following orders. To make sure no one was falling behind—though there was little he could do if they were—Runacarendalur mounted Gwaenor and forced the destrier to trot up and down the slow-moving column of servants and knights.

Gwaenor was irritable and short-tempered, snapping at anyone who was near and lashing out with his heels. It was no more than the other destriers were doing—in their experience, a battle was followed by food and rest—but it made them difficult to control and impossible to ride or lead as a close-packed group. The Lightborn could bespell them—just as Carangil had bespelled Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s mount—but that could be disastrous if they needed to give battle quickly. For now, it was enough that the Lightborn led the column and lit the way, that the remains of the army had formed up into their usual meisnes, that everyone was moving.

He would not think about what must happen when they had to stop: the Lightborn could Call water at need, but the army had no food at all.

“Prince Runacarendalur.” A voice at his side jarred Runacarendalur out of his uncomfortable thoughts.


The commander of the Caerthalien Household komentai’a smiled effortfully. “We have had better days, have we not, my prince?”

The wry understatement was almost enough to make Runacarendalur laugh. “Far better, old friend.”

“Yet this day is not lost, unless you and Ladyholder Glorthiachiel are lost,” Nimrosian continued. “Four days to the border—if not more. Yet if you and the lady were to ride on ahead…”

“And leave you?” Runacarendalur said, horrified. To abandon one’s command on the field was worse than foolishness. It was cowardice.

“We are of little value to Oronviel,” Nimrosian said. “Lord Bolecthindial will ransom us, should we surrender. Or avenge us, if our surrender is not accepted. But you and Ladyholder Glorthiachiel would be great prizes. The ransom Oronviel might ask would be ruinous indeed.”

“He’s right,” Helecanth said. “A small party can move fast. And a troop of horse could meet us at the border crossing and even cross the border to bring Ladyholder Glorthiachiel to safety.”

“Then you must—” Runacarendalur began.

“You are the only one of sufficient rank to curb the lady’s … courage,” Nimrosian said tactfully. “I beg you, Prince Runacarendalur. For her safety, if not for yours. Go, now. If you are well away by dawn we may be able to convince them you yet ride with us.”

He knew they were right, but it was agony to admit it. “I must have another horse. She will not permit Carangil to be left behind.”

“I will see to it,” Nimrosian said. “Will you inform the lady?”

“Yes,” Runacarendalur said, sighing.

“I will remain here,” Helecanth said, before Runacarendalur could order her to accompany him. “My armor is known to Thoromarth, and I must bear your standard. Elerosha will ride with you. I will send him to you.”

“You must—” For a moment, he could not summon words. “You must send to me, if you are captured. Not to my father.”

Even though he could not see it, he heard the smile in her voice as she replied. “I shall expect you to beggar yourself to pay my ransom. Now go.”

It seemed only the work of moments for Runacarendalur to reach the front of the column and explain Nimrosian’s plan. Ladyholder Glorthiachiel received his speech in an icy silence, giving him the barest nod of assent. Then Elerosha arrived, leading a second destrier. Carangil laid his hands upon its neck and its wild-eyed trembling subsided.

The four riders trotted into the darkness. Soon they had left the slow-moving column behind.

* * *

It was still grey dawn when her chamber-page roused Vieliessar, bringing the word of Oronviel’s sentries that Caerthalien’s army had stolen away in the night, just as she’d suspected it would. She decided to take five hundred horse to follow the remains of Caerthalien’s army and leave two hundred more to guard her supply train. The rest of her people could return to their duties, for no matter how crushing a defeat she had given Caerthalien, this attack might still be a feint to cloak another.

As they rode across the battlefield, flocks of carrion birds startled up from the tangled bodies; in the grey mist of morning she saw the low, slinking shapes of other predators ghost away until they could feed undisturbed once more. Her people would not return to the Great Keep until Oronviel’s dead had been removed from the field, but those belonging to Caerthalien would lie here until they rotted.

It was almost impossible to say where the battlefield ended and Caerthalien’s camp began. The only difference between the two was that in the camp, the wreckage of bodies was replaced by the wreckage of things: everything a princely army carried to war, shattered and spoiled.

By the time they’d passed both battlefield and camp, the day was bright and the ground was even. Vieliessar’s company moved to the trot. They had only gone a few miles when they encountered the first of the Caerthaliens. Their plain dull clothing marked them as lesser servants, those who performed menial work: setting the tents, fetching and carrying. They leaped to their feet at the sound of horses and clustered so closely around Vieliessar’s force that the knights were forced to rein their destriers to a halt.

“Vieliessar High King! Vieliessar High King!” First one, then another, spoke the words, until all of them cried her name together as they crowded forward, reaching out to touch her. “Vieliessar High King!”

The destriers began to fret and dance, unhappy at being crowded. Moved—and more than a little frightened by the power of what she had unleashed—she reached out to touch the hands of those who reached out for her. They look to me for protection now, she realized. Not because I am their War Prince but because I will be their King.

“Let us pass,” Bethaerian demanded, her voice tight with tension. “Our supply wagons follow us—you will be fed!”

“Let me pass,” Vieliessar said to those nearest to her. “I am not yet High King.”

Slowly the crowd moved away, opening a pathway through which the company could ride.

“There is a stream only a little way to the south,” Bethaerian said as they rode on. “Do they not hear it?”

“Castel servants,” another komen answered dismissively. “They have no more wits than sheep.”

“Say rather that they are in a strange place, and those lords they looked to for protection have left them,” Vieliessar corrected sharply. Gaellas ducked his head, acknowledging the rebuke, but it would take far more than a few small corrections to change the way the komentai’a thought.

This was the first group of stragglers they encountered, but not the last. Some sat unmoving at the side of the road, some fled at their approach, some continued walking, but many, seeing her banner, hailed Vieliessar as High King. Whether they wore leather and rough homespun or the silken livery of household servants, the expression on every face was the same.


Seeing them and realizing that her promise had been heard and taken to heart even in the stronghold of her enemy, Vieliessar suddenly knew victory was possible. To all who begged for aid, Bethaerian made the same reply as before: their supplies followed.

“They will only steal all they can lay hands on and flee,” Bethaerian grumbled as they rode on.

“Back to masters who have abandoned them?” Vieliessar asked. “No. They are my people now.”

At midmorning, a cloud of dust hanging above the road before them signaled the passage of Caerthalien’s army. “Sound the call to battle.”

The enemy forces seemed to scatter in all directions at the first notes of the warhorn, but Vieliessar knew that was merely those afoot moving out of the way of the knights. When they were yet a mile distant, Vieliessar ordered Bethaerian to sound the charge, and they moved from trot, to canter, to gallop. The Caerthalien knights turned in column to face them, and Vieliessar could see Prince Runacarendalur’s standard in the first rank.

But he is not here. I can tell it. She could not say how she knew, for it was not possible to see anything clearly in the moment the point of her formation struck their ranks. But she was as certain of it as she was of the count of her own fingers and toes. There was an instant for relief that she did not need to fear for her hated enemy’s safety—and anger, for he had abandoned his army and fled, perhaps beyond her reach—and then she was embattled.

She had not let herself think about what had happened on yesterday’s battlefield. The storysingers made of Soulbonding a thing that overshadowed both will and common sense, and in the instant she had seen him, she had known both were true, for from the moment the Bond had been formed, she had thought of nothing but killing him. Death would be kinder than a lifetime linked to one who embodied everything she had come to despise—princely arrogance and royal ambition. She remembered Prince Runacarendalur from her childhood: a shining, distant figure who was the embodiment of all she wished to become.

I will not be his consort. I cannot take him as mine—I cannot say to Rithdeliel and Gunedwaen and Thoromarth and all who may come to fight for me: spare Runacarendalur of Caerthalien, for if he should die, I die as well.…

She led her company to the left of Caerthalien’s center. Gunedwaen had often said a Swordmaster took the greatest hurts from his most unskilled students, simply because they did that which no training could predict. Exhaustion and desperation in the Caerthalien knights lent their attacks the same unpredictability: the blow against which one defended might go high, or low, or strike the knight beside one instead. Worse yet was the moment the back of the Caerthalien column—inspired by some masterful leader—began to swing to deosil, for if the column could turn, it might manage to bring forward a large enough force to block her line of retreat and encircle her force.

But the battleground was hemmed in by those who were not lawful targets under the Code of Battle, and knights and destriers collided disastrously with servants and pages who had thought themselves safely on the sidelines of the field. The obvious thing for Caerthalien to do was retreat up the road—the knights might not care about the lives of their servants, but the confusion left them vulnerable to enemy attack. But Vieliessar heard no Caerthalien signal to retreat and regroup, and suddenly she realized that Caerthalien could not withdraw. She’d seen no Green Robes in the crowds at the edges of the column and that meant that if any Lightborn had been part of the retreat, they had been leading it, and were now behind the army. Even Lightborn could not outrun blood-maddened warhorses. If the Caerthalien knights broke and fled—if the rearward ranks retreated—the Lightborn would be trampled to death.

She could not afford to care. Could not retreat, hoping Caerthalien would follow, and thus ensure the safety of those who might have been her friends, her comrades, her students. The purpose of war is to win, she told herself bleakly, and banished thoughts of the Lightborn from her mind.

Then, as if Caerthalien was a river and a dam had burst, the knights facing Oronviel’s swords simply fell away. Vieliessar struck the foe before her hard enough to topple him from the saddle. His destrier reared up, menacing her with its forehooves, but her mount sprang backward with ease, for there was suddenly space through which to maneuver.

She raised her bloodied sword, brandishing it in the direction of the enemy, and spurred Grillet in pursuit. The bay stallion danced along the road, springing into the air to vault fallen bodies, dodging around injured horses. Behind her, Vieliessar heard the call for the chase: follow, follow, follow. It was not a battle call, but a hunting call: there was never any need to chase a force of enemy knights on the field. She could hear the thunder of hooves; slowly the front rank of her knights drew level with her. Before them, Caerthalien fled as if it ran with the Starry Hunt Itself. They could not keep to such a bruising pace for long, but it would not matter. Vieliessar galloped her company after them until she judged they had covered several miles, then began to rein Grillet in. It was difficult to do, for he wanted to run, but she managed it at last, sending him onward at a slow trot until the company had reformed behind her.

“We could have run them until their horses were blown!” one of her komen objected when they were moving at a slow walk.

“Yes,” Vieliessar agreed. “But—did you see? They held their place during the battle for fear of overrunning those behind them: their Lightborn, it must be. And then they ran. So let us go back and find those Lightborn. Once they are in my care, we may harass Caerthalien as we wish.”

“That is a good thought, Lord Vieliessar,” Bethaerian said, plainly relieved at her reason for abandoning the chase. “Let us seek them out.”

When they retraced their steps, they reached a place where the dead had been moved aside, servant and knight piled together, and the road had been filled with the injured. The Lightborn moved among the wounded, offering Healing. Vieliessar counted no more than a dozen of them. A force the size of Caerthalien’s would have traveled with fifty Lightborn, perhaps more.

“Who is senior among you?” Vieliessar called, reining in.

By their reaction, the Lightborn had expected her to pass without stopping. There was a quick murmured colloquy between three of them, then one walked forward. “I am Pantaradet Lightsister,” she said.

“You are not all the Lightborn that traveled with Runacarendalur’s army,” Vieliessar said.

Pantaradet shook her head. “We are all who returned to aid the injured,” she said simply. “Lord Vieliessar, you were once one of us. Please. We must have food, shelter, a place where these injured may rest. They have done you no harm.”

“Summon to you all the Lightborn who rode with Caerthalien,” Vieliessar answered. “Give yourselves into my care, and I will care for those you have Healed as well. All may come to me who were in Caerthalien’s service.”

A look almost of awe broke over Pantaradet’s features. “It is true,” she said, as if the words were torn from her all unwilling. “I had heard— I did not believe—”

“I shall be High King, Pantaradet Lightsister,” Vieliessar said. “And you will be my people. I would have you safe while I make war on those who would make war upon me.”

Pantaradet nodded, and for a moment it seemed she might speak further. Whatever she thought of saying, she decided against it. She nodded again instead. “I will summon them, Lord Vieliessar. We are sixty in number.”

It was a reasonable count of Lightborn Healers to accompany three thousand knights—especially if one did not intend to have any enemy wounded to Heal. Vieliessar sent Orannet and Janondiel back to her supply wagons to bring supplies for the Healers, then sent two hundred of her komen to follow the Caerthalien knights and keep them moving. She waited until the wagons had arrived and the wounded were loaded. Then, at last, she pursued Caerthalien once more.

If only she had been able to take Runacarendalur of Caerthalien prisoner this morning, the day would have held nothing but joy.

* * *

After eight interminable days spent fleeing Oronviel, Runacarendalur was filthy and tired, and he ached. The four of them had been met at the border by a demi-taille of komen—Father’s personal guard—and a dozen Lightborn. With fresh mounts, they reached Alqualanya Flower Forest a few candlemarks later, and then Carangil and those Lightborn with Door to Call moved them between Alqualanya and Rimroheth in a heartbeat. It had all been accomplished with such speed that no messenger could have sent word before them, but as Runacarendalur and Ladyholder Glorthiachiel walked from the center of Rimroheth, they found a familiar figure waiting for them.

“’Rulion,” Runacarendalur said in surprise. “Am I to be laid in irons? Or do you come to rejoice at our dear mother’s return? And mine, of course.”

“You look like a Landbond,” his brother said flatly. “But I came to warn you, because Light knows your servants won’t.”

“Warn us?” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel demanded. “Of what?”

“Father … entertains,” Ivrulion said with heavy irony. “What news Runacarendalur sent of the battle disturbed him. And so we host Cirandeiron, and Aramenthiali, and Telthorelandor.”

“What?” Runacarendalur and Ladyholder Glorthiachiel spoke almost in chorus. Runacarendalur could not have been more stunned if his brother had told him Vieliessar had conquered Caerthalien and was awaiting him here.

“Their armies, or…?”

Ladyholder Glorthiachiel glared at him murderously, and Runacarendalur fell silent.

“Their War Princes,” Ivrulion said. “And you should be grateful for that, Rune, for the army—what you left of it—is still a fortnight from the border. It is the absence of their provisions, their servants, and our Lightborn that slows them, I suppose, though really, when you consider the matter, a smaller—”

It took a moment for the sense of his brother’s words to penetrate. “But the servants— Our Lightborn—” Runacarendalur said, in shock.

“Some of the servants—a few hundred—accompany them. None of our Lightborn.”

“Oh, never mind that now! If Cirandeiron, Telthorelandor, and Aramenthiali are within our walls, why are we standing here talking?” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel demanded. “And we will enter by the siege gate, Ivrulion, for I will not permit our adventure in Oronviel to seem as if it were a disaster.”

* * *

For one War Prince to come to another’s domain meant either absolute trust between them—which was impossible—or a common goal so important that a temporary amnesty existed until that goal was met. Runacarendalur did not have to ask why Cirandeiron, Aramenthiali, and Telthorelandor had been sent for: the timing was too exact.

Any thought he’d had—admittedly negligible—of telling anyone that he had discovered himself to be the destined Bondmate of Vieliessar of whatever-domain-she-claimed vanished. He suspected that revealing this would dramatically shorten his life, but loyalty to Caerthalien had made him at least consider it. But that had been when it would be a thing known only to Caerthalien. If Father was conspiring with other War Princes once more …

Runacarendalur picked up the winecup on the tray a servant had brought to his room but set it down again. He’d been summoned to attend Father’s gathering as soon as he was washed and dressed. He’d need a clear head for that—he’d rather walk naked into an ice tiger’s den at Midwinter than deal with any of the Old Alliance. Or their consorts.

He regarded himself in the mirror and thought he looked presentable enough. No one would think that for more than a sennight he’d been sleeping under bushes and eating food he wouldn’t throw to his hounds. I wonder how many Houses will remain of the ancient Hundred once the dust of battle has settled this time? he thought.

He gave a last tug to his tunic and walked from his chambers.

* * *

The old records called the chamber directly above the Great Hall the Audience Chamber, but generations of War Princes had conducted all their duties in the Great Hall, before the sight of all, or in their private chambers, before the sight of none. Runacarendalur couldn’t remember the last time the Audience Chamber had actually been used. Just now it had been dressed as a rather luxurious receiving chamber.

“—stromancer could have picked a more convenient time to enact this foolishness,” Runacarendalur heard as the servant opened the door. It was Lord Girelrian—War Prince Girelrian of Cirandeiron—who spoke. She was old enough to be her husband’s greatmother, for she had taken the throne early and ruled alone until the need to secure the Line caused her to make Irindandirion of Cirandeiron her Consort-Prince. Irindandirion was deadly upon the battlefield and fanatical about his clothes and jewels. He kept a dozen catamites and knew better than to involve himself in any matters of rule.

“Oronviel’s timing in removing its Postulants from the Sanctuary is interesting,” War Prince Ivaloriel Telthorelandor said. “Either Hamphuliadiel plots with Oronviel, or Oronviel wishes us to think he does. Either way, we have sufficient cause to encourage the Astromancer to resign—whether the Vilya has … ah … fruited, or not.”

It was said no one had ever seen Lord Ivaloriel angry, even when the tide of battle turned against him. His detachment on the field was matched only by his even-handedness in ruling his domain; the War Prince of Telthorelandor ruled without favorites or intimates—except Ladyholder Edheleorn, his Bondmate. Runacarendalur barely flinched at the thought of Bonding; the fact that three War Princes were being hosted by a fourth was too shocking.