She is Keely, twin sister to Corin, and daughter to Niall, the ruler of Homana, and she alone has the power to shapechange into any form—a power akin to that of the Firstborn. Like her brothers, Keely has been chosen to play a crucial part in the Firstborn's prophecy.
Yet Keely is no weak pawn to be used in men's games of power and diplomacy. Trained alongside her brothers in the art of war, gifted with more of the old magic than most of her close kin, she will not easily give way even to Niall's commands, nor be forced against her will into an arranged marriage.
But others besides Keely's father have plans for her future. Stahan, the most powerful Ihlini sorcerer, is preparing a trap from which even one as magically-gifted as Keely may find no escape. And in the deepwood, another waits to challenge Keely—an outlaw fully as dangerous to her future freedom as Strahan is to her life....
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
OF THE CHEYSULI:
Don’t miss JENNIFER ROBERSON’S monumental fantasies:
CHRONICLES OF THE CHEYSULI:
THE SONG OF HOMANA
LEGACY OF THE SWORD
TRACK OF THE WHITE WOLF
A PRIDE OF PRINCES
DAUGHTER OF THE LION
FLIGHT OF THE RAVEN
A TAPESTRY OF LIONS
THE NOVELS OF TIGER AND DEL:
THE WILD ROAD
Table of Contents
The Chronicles of the Cheysuli:
THE PROPHECY OF THE FIRSTBORN:
“One day a man of all blood shall unite,
in peace, four warring realms
and two magical races.”
Originally a race of shapechangers known as the Cheysuli, descendants of the Firstborn, Homana’s original race, held the Lion Throne, but increasing unrest on the part of the Homanans, who lacked magical powers and therefore feared the Cheysuli, threatened to tear the realm apart. The Cheysuli royal dynasty voluntarily gave up the Lion Throne so that Homanans could rule Homana, thereby avoiding fullblown internecine war.
The clans withdrew altogether from Homanan society save for one remaining and binding tradition: each Homanan king, called a Mujhar, must have a Cheysuli liege man as bodyguard, councillor, companion, dedicated to serving the throne and protecting the Mujhar, until such a time as the prophecy is fulfilled and the Firstborn rule again.
This tradition was adhered to without incident for nearly four centuries, until Lindir, the only daughter of Shaine the Mujhar, jilted her prospective bridegroom to elope with Hale, her father’s Cheysuli liege man. Because the jilted bridegroom was the heir of a neighboring king, Bellam of Solinde, and because their marriage was meant to seal an alliance after years of bloody war, the elopement resulted in tragic consequences. Shaine concocted a web of lies to salve his obsessive pride, and in so doing laid the groundwork for the annihilation of a race. Declared sorcerers and demons dedicated to the downfall of the Homanan throne, the Cheysuli were summarily outlawed and sentenced to immediate execution if found within Homanan borders.
Shapechangers begins the “Chronicles of the Cheysuli,” telling the tale of Alix, daughter of Lindir, once Princess of Homana, and Hale, once Cheysuli liege man to Shaine. Alix is an unknown catalyst bearing the Old Blood of the Firstborn, which gives her the ability to link with all lir and assume any animal shape at will. But Alix is raised by a Homanan and has no knowledge of her abilities, until she is kidnapped by Finn, a Cheysuli warrior who is Hale’s son by his Cheysuli wife, and therefore Alix’s half-brother. Kidnapped with her is Carillon, Prince of Homana. Alix learns the true power in her gifts, the nature of the prophecy which rules all Cheysuli, and eventually marries a warrior, Duncan, to whom she bears a son, Donal, and, much later, a daughter, Bronwyn. But Homana’s internal strife weakens her defenses. Bellam of Solinde, with his sorcerous aide, Tynstar the Ihlini, conquers Homana and assumes the Lion Throne.
In The Song of Homana, Carillon returns from a five-year exile, faced with the difficult task of gathering an army capable of overcoming Bellam. He is accompanied by Finn, who has assumed the traditional role of liege man. Aided by Cheysuli magic and his own brand of personal power, Carillon is able to win back his realm and restore the Cheysuli to their homeland by ending the purge begun by his uncle, Shaine, Alix’s grandfather. He marries Bellam’s daughter to seal peace between the lands, but Electra has already cast her lot with Tynstar the Ihlini, and works against her Homanan husband. Carillon’s failure to father a son forces him to betroth his only daughter, Aislinn, to Donal, Alix’s son, whom he names Prince of Homana. This public approbation of a Cheysuli warrior is the first step in restoring the Lion Throne to the sovereignty of the Cheysuli, required by the prophecy, and sows the seeds of civil unrest.
Legacy of the Sword focuses on Donal’s slow assumption of power within Homana, and his personal assumption of his role in the prophecy. Because by clan custom a warrior is free to take both wife and mistress, Donal has started a Cheysuli family even though he will one day have to marry Carillon’s daughter to cement his right to the Lion Throne. By his Cheysuli mistress he has two children, Ian and Isolde; by Aislinn, Carillon’s daughter, he eventually sires a son who will become his heir. But the marriage is rocky immediately; in addition to the problems caused by a second family, Donal’s Homanan wife is also under the magical influence of her mother, Electra, who is mistress to Tynstar. Problems are compounded by the son of Tynstar and Electra, Strahan, who has his father’s powers in full measure. On Carillon’s death Donal inherits the Lion, naming his legitimate son, Niall, to succeed him. But to further the prophecy he marries his sister, Bronwyn, to Alaric of Atvia, lord of an island kingdom. Bronwyn is later killed by Alaric accidentally while in lir-shape, but lives long enough to give birth to a daughter, Gisella, who is mad.
In Track of the White Wolf, Donal’s son Niall is a young man caught between two worlds. To the Homanans, fearful of Cheysuli power and intentions, he is worthy only of distrust, the focus of their discontent. To the Cheysuli he is an “unblessed” man, because even though far past the age for it, Niall has not linked with his animal. He is therefore a lirless man, a warrior with no power, and such a man has no place within the clans. His Cheysuli half-brother is his liege man, fully “blessed,” and Ian’s abilities serve to add to Niall’s feelings of inferiority.
Niall is meant to marry his half-Atvian cousin, Gisella, but falls in love with the princess of a neighboring kingdom, Deirdre of Erinn. Lirless, and with Gisella under the influence of Tynstar’s Ihlini daughter, Lillith, Niall falls prey to sorcery. Eventually he links with his lir and assumes the full range of Cheysuli powers, but he pays for it with an eye. His marriage to Gisella is disastrous, but two sets of twins are born—Brennan and Hart, Corin and Keely—which gives Niall the opportunity to extend his range of influence via betrothal alliances. He banishes Gisella to Atvia after he foils an Ihlini plot involving her, and then settles into life with his mistress, Deirdre of Erinn, who has already borne Maeve, his illegitimate daughter.
A Pride of Princes tells the story of each of Niall’s three sons. Brennan, the eldest, will inherit Homana and has been betrothed to Aileen, Deirdre’s niece, to add a heretofore unknown bloodline to the prophecy. Brennan’s twin, Hart, is Prince of Solinde, a compulsive gambler whose addiction results in a tragic accident involving all three of Niall’s sons. Hart is banished to Solinde for a year, and the rebellious youngest son, Corin, to Atvia. Brennan is tricked into siring a child on an Ihlini-Cheysuli woman; Hart loses a hand and nearly his life in a Solindish plot; in Erinn, Corin falls in love with Brennan’s bride, Aileen, before going to Atvia. One by one each is captured by Strahan, Tynstar’s son, who intends to turn Niall’s sons into puppet-kings so he can rule through them. All three manage to escape, but not after each has been made to recognize particular strengths and weaknesses.
I was aware of eyes, watching me. Marking every step, every feint, my every riposte with the sword. Thinking, no doubt, I was mad; or did she wish she were in my place?
She had come before to watch me practice against the arms-master. Saying nothing, sitting quietly on a bench with heavy skirts spilling over her legs.
Before, it had not touched me, because I can be deaf and blind when I choose, so focused on the weapons. But this time it did. It reached out and touched me, and held me, with a new intensity.
In the eyes I saw desperation.
It was enough to pierce my concentration. Enough to get me killed, had it been anything but practice. As it was, Griffon’s blade tip slid easily by my guard and lodged itself, but gently, in the buckle of my belt.
“Dead,” he said calmly. “On your feet, but dead. And all your royal blood spilling out of those proud Cheysuli veins.”
Ordinarily I might have cursed him cheerfully, or retorted in kind, or made him try me again. But I did not, this time, because of the eyes that watched in such mute, distinct despair.
“Dead,” I agreed, and left him to gape in surprise as I walked past him to the woman.
She watched me come in silence, saying nothing with her mouth but screaming with her eyes. Green Erinnish eyes, born of an island kingdom very far from my own. But born into similar circumstances; bound by similar rules.
Though foreigners, we were kin. She had married my brother. I would marry hers.
Aileen of Erinn, now Princess of Homana, looked up at me as I stopped. Standing, we are similar in height; Cheysuli are taller than other races, but she comes of the House of Eagles, where men are often giants. But she is red-haired to my tawny, green-eyed to my blue. Equally outspoken, but without knowing the frustration I so often faced, because we wanted different things.
But now, she did not stand. She sat solidly on the bench, as if weighted by stone, with both hands clasped over her belly. Looking at her, I knew.
“By all the gods,” I said, “he has you breeding again!”
I had not meant it to come out so baldly, not to Aileen, whom I liked, and whom I preferred not to harm with hasty words. But I am not a person who thinks much before speaking, being ruled by temper and tongue; inwardly I cursed myself as I saw the flinch in her eyes.
And then her chin came up. I saw the line of her jaw harden, that strong Erinnish jaw, and knew for all she was wife to the Prince of Homana, he did not precisely rule her.
But then, being Brennan, I knew he would not try.
Aileen smiled a little, though one corner curved down crookedly. “In Erinn, bairns often follow the bedding. ’Tis the same in Homana, I think.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Griffon, due more honor than I gave him, but I was thinking of Aileen, and of things better kept private. “You may go,” I told him. “But come again tomorrow, at the same hour.”
Briefly, so briefly, there was a glint of something in brown eyes, but hidden instantly. I regretted my tone, but did not know what I might say to lessen the insult, since it was already given. He was far more than servant, being my father’s personal arms-master, and therefore in service to a king. And he owed no service to me, since only men are trained in the arts of war. He had agreed to train the Mujhar’s daughter only because he had lost a wager. In winning it, I had won him, and all that he could teach.
He cleaned his sword, sheathed it, bowed to Aileen and left. Giving her the courtesy he might have given me, had I been deserving of it. But for now, Aileen’s welfare was more important than Griffon’s feelings.
“He might have waited,” I said curtly. “He has a son already, and you nearly dead of that.” Grimly I caught up a soft cloth, cleaned the blade, drove it home into its sheath. “You have been wed but eighteen months, and a child of it already. Now there will be another?” I shook my head, speaking through my teeth. It was their business, not mine, but I could not help myself; Brennan and I are not, always, friends. “Aileen, he gives you no time—”
“’Twas not entirely up to him,” she told me sharply, giving me back my tone but in her Erinnish lilt. “D’ye think I had no say in the matter? D’ye think I’d let him take me against my will, or that he would try?” Aileen rose, absently shaking the rucked up folds out of her skirts. “Are ye forgetting, then, that women can want the bedding, too?”
It silenced me, as she meant it to. Aileen and I are close, nearly kinspirits, and she knows how strongly I feel about women being made to do certain things merely because they are women. She knows also I have little interest in bedding, being more concerned with freedom. In body as well as in mind.
“He might have waited,” I said again. “And you might have let him.”
She smiled. Aileen’s smile lights up a hall; it lighted the chamber now. “He might have,” she agreed, “and I might have, as well. But we were neither of us thinking of anything more than the moment’s pleasure…’twill come to you, one day, no matter what you think.”
I turned away from her and strode across to a sword rack, put away the sheathed blade. I felt the rigidity in my back; tried to loosen it even as I tried to force my tone into neutrality. “When will it be born?”
“Six months’ time,” she said. “And ‘it’ will be a ‘they.’”
I jerked around and stared at her. “Two?”
“Aye, so the physicians say.” Aileen smiled again, speaking easily. “A family trait, I’m told. First Brennan and Hart, then you and Corin. And now—?” She shrugged. “We’ll be seeing what we see.”
She did it well, I thought. Only her eyes betrayed her. “Two,” I repeated. “You nearly died of Aidan, and he was only one.”
Aileen shrugged again. “I’m larger, now, from Aidan. It should be easier this time, and the physicians are telling me twins are always smaller.”
I could barely stifle a shout. “By the gods, Aileen, you nearly bled to death! What do the physicians say to that?”
It wiped the forced gaiety from her face. “D’ye think I don’t know?” she cried. “D’ye think I rejoiced when they told me?” Such white, white flesh set in the frame of brilliant red hair; such green, frightened eyes, now dilated black. “’Twas all I could do not to vomit from the fear…not to disgrace myself before them, even as I saw the looks in their eyes. They are afraid, too…but heirs are worth the risk, and Aidan is oversmall and sickly. There’s a need for other sons.” Fingers clutched the folds of her skirts. “Gods, Keely, what am I to do?”
“Lose it,” I said succinctly. Then, more clearly, “Lose them.”
Aileen nearly gaped. Then closed her mouth and wet her lips with a tongue that shook a little. “Lose them,” she echoed.
“There are herbs,” I said impatiently. “Herbs to make you miscarry.”
Aileen’s voice sounded drugged. “You want me to kill my bairns?”
“Better them than you.” Sweat was drying on my face, against my scalp, beneath the leathers I wore: leggings baggy at the knees; sleeveless Cheysuli jerkin, belted snug; quilted, longsleeved undertunic, cuffs knotted at my wrists. I needed a bath badly, but this was more important. “Brennan has an heir. He needs a queen as well.”
“Oh, Keely.” With effort, she shook her head. “Oh—Keely—no. No. Kill my bairns? How could I? How could you even suggest it?”
“Easily,” I told her. “If it is a choice between losing you or keeping you, I would sooner lose the babies.”
“If you were a mother—”
I turned my hands palm-up. “But I am not. And, given the choice, I never will be.”
Aileen sat down again, hastily. “Why not?” she asked in shock. “How can ye not want bairns?”
I peeled sticky hair away from my face and smoothed it back, tucking it into my loosened braid. Not wanting to offend her with my odor—and unable to sit close while discussing something so personal—I eased myself down on the stone floor and leaned against the wall. The room was plain, unadorned, nothing more than what it was intended to be: a practice chamber for war.
“Babies require things,” I said. “Things such as constant responsibility…they steal time and freedom, robbing you of choice. They are parasites of the soul.”
I sighed, knowing how callous it sounded; knowing also I meant it. “All my life I have fought for my freedom. I fight for it every day. And I will lose what I have won the moment I conceive.”
“’Tisn’t true!” she cried. “Have I lost my freedom?”
“Have you?” I countered. “Before you left Erinn and came here to Homana—before you fell in love with Corin—before you married Brennan…what was your life like?”
Aileen said nothing at all, because to speak was to lose the battle.
“On the day you lay down with Brennan, Aidan was conceived,” I said. “And from that day you became more than a woman, more than you: you became the vessel that housed Homana, because one day that child would be Mujhar. Your value was based solely on that, not on you, not on Aileen…but on that child—that bairn, as you would say—because babies born into royal houses are more than merely babies.” I shrugged. “They are coin to barter with, just as you and I were before we were even born.” I pulled my braid over one shoulder and played absently with the ends below the thong. It needed washing, like the rest of me. “I have no affection for babies; I would sooner do without.”
“You’ll not be saying that once you’re wed to Sean.”
She sounded so certain. So certain, in fact, it fanned unacknowledged resentment into too-hasty speech. “And how does it feel, Aileen, to lie in one man’s bed—to bear that man his children—while loving yet another?”
Aileen jumped to her feet. “Ye skilfin!” she cried. “Will ye throw that in my face? Will ye speak to me of things ye cannot understand, being but half a woman—” And abruptly, on a strangled cry of shock, she clamped her hands over her mouth. “Oh, Keely…oh, Keely, I swear…I swear—”
“—you did not mean it?” Emptily, I shrugged. “I have heard it said before. To me and about me.” I pressed myself up from the floor, brushing off the seat of my training leathers. “If I am considered half a woman simply because I prefer to be myself, not an appendage of a man—nor a mother to his children—then so be it. I am Keely…and that is all that counts.”
Some of the color had died out of her face. She was pale again, too pale. “Will you be saying all this to Sean?”
“As I have said it to you, I will say it to your brother.” I crossed the chamber to the door, which Griffon had pointedly closed. “I am not a liar, Aileen, nor one who admires deception. I was never asked if I wanted to marry, but was betrothed before my birth…I was never asked if, being a woman, I wanted to bear children. It was simply assumed…and that, my lady princess, is what I hate most of all.” I paused, my hand on the latch, and turned to face her fully. “But you would know.” I spoke more quietly now; it was not Aileen with whom I was angry. “You should know, being made to wed the oldest of Niall’s sons when you would sooner have the youngest. You would know how it feels to have things arranged for you, simply because of your gender.”
Straight red brows were lowered over an equally straight nose. She is not a beauty, Aileen, but anyone with half a mind sees past that to her fire. “I am not a slave,” she said darkly, “and neither am I a fool. There are things in life we’re made to do through no fault of our own, but because of necessity, regardless of gender…and that you should know, being a Cheysuli.” She paused, assessing me; I wondered, as I so often did, if the brother was anything like the sister. “Or are you Homanan today? Ah, no—perhaps Atvian, instead.” Aileen stood straight and tall before me, her pride a tangible thing. “It strikes me, my lady princess, that you are whatever you want to be whenever it takes your fancy. Whenever ’tis convenient.”
She meant it, I think, to sting. Instead, it made me laugh. “Aye,” I agreed, “whatever I want to be. Woman, warrior, animal…and I thank the gods for that magic.”
“Magic,” Aileen repeated. “Aye, I was forgetting that—but so, I’m thinking, are you. Because with the magic that makes you a shapechanger comes the price you’ll be having to pay. And someday, you’ll be paying it. Your tahlmorra will see to that.”
I frowned. “What price?”
“Marriage,” she said succinctly. “Marriage and motherhood; how else to forge the link the prophecy requires?”
I grinned at her. “Ah, but you have done that; you and my oldest rujholli. Aidan is the one. Aidan is the link. Aidan will be Mujhar.”
Evenly, she said, “Aidan may die by nightfall.”
It stopped me cold, as she meant it to. “Aileen—”
Her tone lacked expression. Like me, she masks herself rather than show her concern for things of great importance. “He is not well, Keely. Aidan has never been well, ever since the birth. He may die tonight. He may die next year.” She clasped her hands over her belly, swelling gently beneath her skirts. “And so you see, it becomes imperative that I bear Brennan another son.” She paused, holding me quite still with the power of her eyes and the knowledge of her duty, of her value, by which men too often judge women, especially those they marry. “Two would be even better, I’m thinking, in case they are sickly also.”
I thought of Aileen in potentially deadly labor, bringing forth two babies at once, for the sake of her husband’s throne. I recalled it from before, with Aidan’s birth; how she had bled and bled and nearly died, recovering so very slowly. And now she faced it again, but this time the threat was compounded.
Fear lurched out of my belly and found its way to my mouth. “Aileen, you could die.”
Her fingers tightened rigidly, clasping the unborn souls. “Men go to war. Women bear the bairns.”
I unlatched the door and shoved it open. But I did not leave at once. “Do you know,” I told her, “if I could, I would trade.”
“Would you?” Aileen asked. “Could you, do you think?”
I paused on the threshold, one shoulder against the wood. “If you are asking me if I could kill a man, then I say aye.”
Her face spasmed briefly. “So glib,” she said. “I’m thinking too glib; that you’re not knowing what you can—or cannot—do, and it irritates you. It frightens you—”
I overrode her crisply. “I will do what I must do.”
Slowly, Aileen smiled. And then she began to laugh as tears welled into her eyes. “So fierce,” she said, “so proud…and so very, very helpless. No less so than I.”
Denial, I thought, was futile; I closed the door on her noise.
I itched. I wanted nothing more, at that moment, than to climb into a polished half-cask of steaming water, to soak away dried sweat, stretched muscles, irritation. But even as I gave the order for the bath and went into my chambers, untying the knots of my sweat-soiled undertunic, I was prevented. Because my father came in behind me, silently and without warning, and shut the heavy door.
“So,” he said, “you have been learning the sword from Griffon.”
For a moment, only a moment, I seriously considered stripping out of my boots and clothing anyway, just to see his reaction. I decided against it because, by the look in his eye, he would not be put off by anything, not even his daughter’s nudity, until he had his say.
My hands went to my hips. “Aye,” I agreed, saying nothing of Griffon’s defection; he was, after all, my father’s man, not mine. “I have made no secret of it.”
“But neither did you tell me.”
I thought it obvious, but said it anyway. “I knew you would tell me to stop.”
“And so you should.” He folded arms across his chest. “And so I do: stop.”
I pressed fingers against my breastbone, tapping for emphasis. “I am not a fragile, useless female…I know how to fight. All my rujholli have taught me knife and bow…why should I not learn the sword?”
He leaned against the door, assuming an attitude of relaxed, quiet authority; he could order me, I knew, and probably would, but if I could give him a logical argument beyond refute, I might yet win. Sometimes I could. Not often. Not nearly often enough.
I looked at my father’s face, seeing what others saw: lines of care and concern bracketing eyes and mouth; the silvering of his hair, mingled still with tawny brown; the leather patch stretched over the emptiness that once had been his right eye.
But I saw more than that. I saw kindness and compassion. Strength of spirit and will. Loyalty and love, honesty and pride, and a tremendous dedication to his personal convictions.
Still, I could not give in so easily. He had taught me that.
He countered my question with one of his own. “Why do you want to learn the sword?”
I shrugged. “I do. I want to know them all, all the weapons men use in war…not because I desire to go to war, but because I have an interest in weapons.” Balancing storklike on one leg, I twisted my knee up and tugged on the toe and heel of my left boot to work if off. “Why do you ask me such things, jehan? You never ask Deirdre why she weaves that tapestry of lions…nor Brennan why he enjoys training and racing his horses. You only ask me, because I care for things you and other men think unseemly to a woman.” The boot came off; I dropped it and traded feet, feeling the chill of stone on my now-bare sole. “You are such a stalwart champion of fairness and justice, jehan—and yet you are blind to unfairness and injustice under your own roof.”
“I hardly think it is unfair to ask my daughter to cease learning the sword,” he said flatly. “By the gods, Keely, you have known more freedom than any woman born in the last fifty or sixty years…you have the gift of lir-shape, and you speak freely to all the lir. All that, and yet you also insist on tricking my arms-master into teaching you the sword.”
I dropped the other boot to the floor, hearing the heel smack sharply against rose-red stone. “It was no trick,” I retorted, stung. “Hart taught me how to wager…I won Griffon’s service from him fairly.”
He sighed and rubbed wearily at his brow, automatically resettling the leather strap that held the eyepatch in place. “Hart taught you how to wager, Corin how to rebel…it would be too much to assume Brennan taught you civility and respect—”
I cut him off even as I moved to stand on a rug. “Do you want to know what Brennan has taught me, jehan? He has taught me that a man has no regard for his cheysula, thinking only of himself…by the gods, jehan, Aidan’s birth nearly killed Aileen! And now she must go through it again, with two?” I shook my head. “Teach Brennan restraint, jehan, and then perhaps I will allow him to teach me civility and respect.”
Weary good humor dissolved. “That is between Brennan and Aileen, Keely. Your feelings are well known on the subject; I think we will get no objectivity from you.”
I yanked the knotted thong out of my braid and began unthreading plaited hair violently. “Oh, and I suppose you think making me put down the sword will transform me into an obedient, compliant woman. One like your beloved Maeve, perhaps, giving in to Teirnan when she knows better…or perhaps even Deirdre, born to be a queen and yet forced to be light woman to a king who will not set aside the cheysula who tried to abduct his children.” In my anger I felt sweat-crisped hair tearing. “Do you know what they call her, jehan? Not light woman. Not even meijha, which holds more honor…no, jehan. They call her whore. Deirdre of Erinn, whore.”
His face was very white. I had succeeded too well in turning his mind from me to another matter. Part of me regretted it—I had not meant to go so far—but part of me was too angry to think clearly. Always, always, someone comes to tell me what I should and should not be…gods, but it makes me angry!
I faced him squarely, waiting. Knowing he was hurt and shocked and angry, at least as angry as I, if for different reasons. But he said nothing of that, having better control. Having learned to shut his mouth. It was something I had not, and probably never would. Though sometimes I wished I could.
Just now, I wished I had. I hated to see him hurt. Gisella was far beyond the ken or control of either of us; that some Homanans spoke of her as the Queen of Homana and claimed she should be by the Mujhar’s side instead of banished to Atvia meant nothing to us other than ignorance. They did not understand. They could not. For even though she was labeled Mad Gisella, she was also the Mujhar’s wife in Homanan law, cheysula in Cheysuli, and she had borne three sons for the succession, as well as the prophecy. One and the same, these days; to many, it was all that counted.
And so Deirdre, whom my father loved more than life itself, was made to suffer the insults better ladled onto my mother, who had tried to give her children into Strahan’s perverted power.
Her sons, that is. Her daughter, a mere girl, had counted for next to nothing. It was boys the Ihlini wanted.
He drew in a very deep breath. And smiled, though there was nothing of humor in it. “Meanwhile, my daughter has learned the sword, when I would prefer her not to.”
“Too late,” I told him crisply. “Would you have me but half-taught? Dangerous, jehan…Griffon would do better, now, to finish what was begun.”
“And if I order him otherwise?”
I met him, stare for stare. “Does it matter? You will do it anyway.” I unhooked the belt snugged around my waist, complete with sheathed knife, and slung it to land on my bed. “And I will find someone else to teach me.” I was moving away as I said the last, intending to go into the antechamber where my bath was waiting, but he reached out and caught my arm, with nothing of gentleness in his grasp, and snapped me back around.
I nearly gasped, so startled was I by his demeanor. He was coldly, deadly serious, no more the father half-amused, half-tired of his rebellious daughter’s antics. He was now more than father entirely, being Mujhar as well.
Being also Cheysuli warrior, with lir-gold on his arms and glittering in his hair. Tawny-silver instead of black, blue-eyed in place of yellow, but still he was Cheysuli. Like others, I often forgot it; he seems more Homanan in habits, until he takes care to remind us that in his veins flows gods-blessed blood as hot as it flows in mine.
“Though it suits you to ignore it—” He spoke very quietly; too quietly, for my peace of mind, “—when I tell you a thing I generally have a good reason for it.”
My wrist was still in his grasp. “What good—”
“Be silent,” he said, “and listen…if that is possible for you.”
I did not answer the rebuke, having decided finally it was better, for now, to do as he asked, if only to get the confrontation done with. My bath was growing cold, my temper hotter by the moment.
His voice was very quiet. “I will not argue for the Homanans, who expect little more of their women than the obedience and compliance you mentioned, but I will argue for the Cheysuli, who give women more honor and respect.” His grasp tightened on my wrist. “Has it never crossed your mind that women do not learn the sword because they lack the strength to use it?”
I waited only a moment, to lull him, and then I snapped my wrist free of his big hand with ease. Standing tall, balanced, braced, I cocked both arms up before me for inspection. The untied cuffs fell back, baring sinewy forearms. I could not help it; my hands were fists. “Do I look weak to you?”
He knew better. I am tall, even for a Cheysuli woman, and have not spent my years in idle pursuits. Tough and hard and strong, like a warrior, though without a warrior’s bulk. “Lean and lethal,” Corin had often called me. He had not, lately, because now he lived in Atvia, hundreds of leagues away. Closer now to Erinn than to Homana; farther from Aileen, whom he loved, or had; I no longer knew how he felt. He said nothing of her in his letters. I said little in mine to him.
“Weak, no,” he conceded, “but strong enough? Perhaps. Perhaps not; you have never been in battle.” He reached out again, this time with both hands, and took my wrists in a much gentler grasp. “I know, Keely. I have seen men shorter and slighter than you in battle, and they do well enough …usually. But matched with a larger, stronger opponent, they die. And even you must admit that most women are considerably smaller and weaker than men, particularly hardened soldiers.”
“If they were allowed to do things other than mend clothing, make soap, bear babies…” I let it trail off, shrugging. “Who could say, jehan? And our history tells us Cheysuli women once fought beside their warriors.”
“Aye, in lir-shape,” he agreed dryly. “There is some difference, I think, between that sort of battle and the ones the unblessed Homanans fight.”
I sighed, drawing my arms free again. “I have no wish to go to war, jehan, that I promise you…but I do wish to learn how to use a sword. All my rujholli did. Should I be denied simply because of my sex?”
“Are you so unhappy being a woman?” He had never asked it before, though my brothers had. Even Maeve once, my very feminine older sister, who allows body to rule head. “Do you wish that much to be a man?”
I smiled with infinite patience. “No,” I told him gently. “I want only to be me.”
Clearly, he did not understand. No one had, yet, not even twin-born Corin, who knew me better than any.
He sighed. “I will strike a bargain with you, then. Meet Griffon as he should be met: as an opponent in battle, but with wrapped blades. And when you are done with the match, decide then if learning the sword is worth the trouble and pain.”
He meant well. But all I could do was shake my head. “Anything worth doing is worth the trouble and pain. I am new to neither.” I grinned at him lopsidedly. “And now, I think, it is time I took my bath. You have been too polite to mention it, but I am rank as a week-old carcass.”
The Mujhar of Homana shut his eye. “I cannot begin to predict what Sean will say when he meets you.”
I laughed. “If the gods are on my side, he will say he does not want me.”
“And he would be a fool.” He turned to open the door. “We have given you time, Keely, much time, and so has Sean…but it will come to an end. One day, perhaps tomorrow, the letter from Erinn will come asking the marriage be made.”
Lightly, I answered, “Then let us pray for a storm at sea.” And I went into the antechamber, calling for more hot water, as my father muttered something about gods and rebellious children.
* * *
I did not get my bath. Because even as servants came to pour in more hot water while I waited impatiently to strip, there came a commotion outside the door, in the corridor. My father had only just left; likely it was something that concerned the Mujhar.
And then I heard Deirdre’s voice raised, and realized it concerned more than merely my father.
Still barefoot, I crossed to the antechamber door and pulled it open, letting the voices spill in more clearly. Aye, it was Deirdre, and speaking urgently. There was fear in her tone.
“—with her history, it may be serious,” she was saying. “Bleeding she is, and in pain. The physicians are doing what they can, but it may not be enough. Can you and Ian link to heal her?”
Gods, it was Aileen. And bleeding…gods, she would lose the bairns she wanted, and probably her life as well.
They knew I was there, if barely, too caught up in their conversation to pay me mind. Deirdre looked badly distracted, as was to be expected. Aileen was kin, close kin, being daughter to Deirdre’s brother.
My father shook his head but twice. “Not Ian; Tasha has the cubs. Until she is free of them, he is bound by human standards. No lir-shape, no healing…I will have to do it alone.” He frowned. “Brennan should be told. He will want to know—to be with her—”
“Not here,” I said succinctly. “He went to Clankeep early this morning, blowing out one of his colts.”
Now I had their full attention. Deirdre’s face went whiter yet. My father cursed, briefly and powerfully. “Too far for Serri to reach Sleeta through the lir-link, to pass the message to Brennan…it will have to be done without him.”
“I will go.” It seemed obvious to me, and not worth the conversation. I left the doorway, scooped up my boots and tugged them on again, also buckling on my belt, knife sheathed. It took but a moment longer to grab a leather hunting cap from a chest, and I was with them once again. “I will send him home at once. Tell Aileen he is on his way already; it may calm her.” Briefly I shook my head, putting on my cap and stuffing loose, braid-rippled hair beneath the crimson-tasseled peak rising above the crown of my head. Then tugged pointed earflaps into place, joggling red tassels. “Although why it should calm her to know the man who caused such pain is on his way—”
“Just go.” I have never seen my father’s eye so fierce. “Just go, Keely, without another word. You waste time and try our patience, and Aileen is worth far better than your scorn.”
Aye, so she was. But it was not Aileen for whom I had meant it. “Tell her,” I said only, and started down the corridor at a run.
I did not stop running until I was outside, on the massive marble steps of Homana-Mujhar, and there I reached deep into the marrow of my bones, where the magic lies, and changed them. Trading human flesh for raptor’s, woman’s arms for falcon’s wings.
I reached out, stretched, caught air—
Screeching aloud in exultation; in sheer, unbridled ecstasy, born of body and of brain.
—gods, oh gods, what glory—
—what glory it is to fly—
He is nothing like our father, being black of hair, dark of skin, yellow of eyes. All Cheysuli, is Brennan, unable to hide behind the fair hair and skin of our Homanan ancestors. But he would never try; nor would any Cheysuli, for the gods have made us what we are, blessing us with the lir and all the magic that comes with the bond.
I myself do not share that bond precisely. I have no lir, but I do not require it. I am blessed instead with the Old Blood in abundance, the strain of the first clans who, settling in Homana from the Crystal Isle, did not mix with others, and so fixed the gifts. It was only after other clans outmarried that the blood weakened, making the true gifts random, that women lost the magic and only warriors bonded with lir. And yet now we are told to marry out of the clans, to merge our blood with others, so that the gifts may be regained. I have little understanding of such things, and little interest; I know only that all of this specified marriage, as required by the prophecy, is supposed to give birth to the Firstborn again, the race that sired the Cheysuli. And, some say, the Ihlini.
Brennan, I knew, had his doubts. Honor-bound and dutiful, as are most Cheysuli, he served the prophecy unselfishly and kept his thoughts to himself, unless he shared them with Hart in frequent letters to Solinde. But there were times, looking into his supremely Cheysuli face, I wondered if indeed there might be Ihlini in it as well. Or ever would be, in a different, but similar, face.
He sat inside his pavilion, awash in the meager sunlight I let in through the opened doorflap, and stared at me in shock as I told him of Aileen. Unsympathetic, I watched as the color drained out of his face. On a Homanan, it is bad; on a Cheysuli, worse.
His hands shook. I watched as they shook, holding the cup; watched as they spilled liquor over the rim to splash against his leggings. Brennan did not notice, being too engaged in staring at me. Beyond him lay Sleeta, his mountain cat lir, sleek black Sleeta, velvet in coat, sharp as glass in opinion. Though we could converse as easily as she and Brennan, we did not; this was between rujholla and rujholli.
And then Brennan was up, tossing aside the cup, brushing by me without a single word, nearly knocking me aside, ripping the flap from my hands and calling for his horse. Irritably, I followed him; Sleeta followed me.
It was only after the horse was brought that he turned to me, and I saw something other than shock in his eyes. I saw desperation. “Too far,” he said. “I will kill him if I run him all the way to Homana-Mujhar, and reach Aileen too late.”
It was a supremely ridiculous statement, in view of his heritage. Dryly, I asked, “Why ride at all?”
Fixedly, he looked at Sleeta, as if rediscovering his lir and what she represented. “Aye,” he said in surprise, then nodded vaguely. “Oh, aye…of course…”
“Brennan.” I frowned, reaching for the reins he held in slack fingers, before he dropped the leather and lost the horse entirely; he is a mettlesome colt. “The way you are behaving—the way you look…are you saying you did not know? Aileen had not told you?”
“Aileen is often—private.”
It was, I thought, an interesting way of summing it up. Married eighteen months, yet only because it was required, not freely desired; an arranged marriage, just as mine was. Aileen loved my twin-born rujholli, Corin, not the man she had wed. And Brennan? He is proud, my eldest rujholli, and stringently honorable. Though Aileen’s virtue had been intact, her heart was clearly not. And he had not presumed to mend it. He had merely wedded her, bedded her, got a son upon her; a child for the Lion, and also the prophecy.
And now two more who might not live to be born.
“So,” I said, “she is private. Well-matched, I would say; you have offered her nothing since the day you married her. But she offers you her life.” I jerked my head in the direction of Mujhara. “Go, rujho. See to your cheysula. I will bring your cherished colt.”
There were things he wanted to say, but he said none of them. Another time, perhaps; Brennan and I do not often agree, and our discord is sometimes of the spectacular kind. For now, all he did was turn on his heel and walk purposefully away, ignoring me quite easily, with Sleeta at his side.
But I had seen his face. I had seen his eyes. And realized, in astonishment, my brother loved his wife.
* * *
I did not leave at once for Mujhara. Perhaps I should have, but Aileen’s travail frightened me. If the gods wanted her, they would take her whether or not I was present; I did not think I could face watching her die, nor have the patience to wait quietly in another chamber for someone to come and tell me she was dead. I would go mad with the waiting, saying things I did not mean, hurting people, probably Brennan; having seen his face, I thought he was deserving, at this moment, of more compassion than I was prepared to give him.
So I did not go. Knowing no matter what happened, no matter what I did, I would hate myself.
And then Maeve gave me the opportunity to focus my mood on someone other than myself; to contradict, as always, a woman who considers her world empty if a man is not present in it.
We are sisters, rujholla, separated by three brothers—for Maeve was born first of us all—and equally by convictions. Also by blood; though Niall’s daughter, there is nothing of the Old Blood in Maeve, nor even of the newer, thinner blood that limits warriors to a single lir and women to no lir at all, and nothing at all of the gifts. Deirdre’s only child reflects mostly the Erinnish portion of her heritage, blanketing the Cheysuli under brass-blonde hair, green eyes, fair skin…and none of the Cheysuli woman’s tendency toward independence.
Yet of late she had shown a tendency toward living in Clankeep, which baffled all of us. Maeve, much more than myself, fit well into palace life, complementing Deirdre’s unofficial reign as chatelaine in Homana-Mujhar with ease. She was the Mujhar’s dutiful eldest daughter and, of all his children—it was well-known—his favorite, yet of late she had forsaken his companionship for the company of the clans.
We sat outside a slate-blue pavilion on a thick black bear pelt and tossed the prophecy bones. Not to wager—Maeve is not much for it; it is Hart’s vice—but to pass the time, and to ease ourselves into conversation, since ordinarily we have so little in common that there is as little to discuss.
Maeve sighed, scooped bones, let them dribble out of her hand after a half-hearted throw. “Perhaps I should go. Mother will be so distracted…I could lend her aid—”
“Doing what?” I asked bluntly. “Deirdre will indeed be distracted, with no time for you; you would do better to stay out of the way, as I am.”
Her mouth tightened. “You are not staying out of the way, Keely—at least, not in order to help. You are staying here because you are afraid.” She smacked her hand flat down on the bones as I moved to scoop them up. “No, listen to me—you are afraid, Keely…afraid to see what it is a woman goes through to bear a child, knowing you will have to do the same.” Maeve laughed, a little, shaking her head. “You are so contradictory, Keely…on one hand you are willing to take on any man in a fight, with knife or bow or sword; on the other, you are deathly afraid to lie with a man…to give over yourself to the bedding, to the loss of self-control, to the chance to love someone other than yourself—”
I raised my voice over hers. “You know nothing about it, Maeve—all you know is that Teirnan had only to clap his hands and you spread your legs for him—”
Maeve’s face was corpse-white. “Do you think I have not spent the last year of my life regretting the vow I made to be his meijha?” Tears sprang into her eyes; born half of anger, I thought, and half of humiliation. “Do you know what it is like to lie down alone each night knowing the man I love is a traitor to his race? A threat to the Lion itself?”
Guilt cut me deeply; gods, why do we always argue? Why does she force me to walk the edge of the blade and then push me off with such talk? “Maeve—”
She scooped up the translucent, rune-scribed bones and hurled them violently away from us both. “Do you have any idea what it is like knowing you have been used, without regard for your own needs and desires, or your loyalties?” She stared at me angrily, tears spilling over. “No. Not you. Never. Never Keely. Well, I do know what it is like…and I have to live with it. Each day, each night…and for the rest of my life.”
I was humbled into silence by her passion, by her humiliation, which she did not trouble to hide, being as proud as any of us. It is easy for me to dismiss Maeve because we are so at odds with loyalties and convictions, so mutually certain of ourselves. But for all there is little to bind us, what does exist takes precedence over threats from outside.
“It will pass,” I told her finally. “One day you will look at yourself and realize that Teir won nothing at all. He lost, Maeve. He lost you, the clans, the afterworld. Kin-wrecked, he has nothing, save his lir and the knowledge that he is a traitor to his heritage.”
“What of his child?” she asked bitterly. “What of the halfling got on the Mujhar’s daughter?”
“But there is no—” I stopped. “Oh, Maeve—no—”
“Aye,” she answered curtly. “Why do you think I am here instead of Homana-Mujhar?” Maeve shredded bear pelt. Her head was bowed; loose blonde hair hid most of her face. “Why do you think I cannot bear to see my father—” And abruptly she pressed both hands against her face, shutting it away from me as she fought to hold back the tears. “Oh, gods, Keely…what will he say? What will he say?” Her words were muffled by her hands. “I broke the vow, I did—and yet Teirnan came later, after he had freely renounced kin, clan, prophecy…he came, and I went with him…I lay down with him again, and now there will be a child!”
In the silence after her outburst, I heard the echo of Aileen’s words: “In Erinn, bairns often follow the bedding. ’Tis the same in Homana, I think.”
I wanted to be patient. I wanted to be compassionate. But other emotions took precedence: frustration, disbelief; an odd, abrupt hostility, that she could be so malleable as to give herself to Teirnan after renouncing him before Clan Council; that she could so readily dishonor our customs. “You knew what he was—a’saii, proscribed by the clan, kin-wrecked—and yet you went with him? Bedded with him? Knowing—”
“—that I loved him.” Her tone was dead. She had taken her hands from her face. “Call me whore, if you like—others will, I am certain—but I was not lying with him for coin. It was for love, for pleasure…and for the pain, knowing it would be the last time for us ever; knowing also that the risk was worth it, if only for the moment, for the doing…” She shook her head. “Maybe I am not so different from Hart after all, chancing risk for the lure of the risk itself…all I know is that nothing is left of what we had, nothing at all, now—he said so himself, and laughed—except the seed he planted.”
I bit my lip on recriminations, finally gaining control. Instead, implying nothing, I asked if Teirnan knew.
Maeve shook her head. “That much, at least, is mine. He does not know, and will not. It was to humble me, I think; to prove he could put a leading rein on the Mujhar’s daughter and make her do his bidding.” Self-loathing pinched her tone. “There was no love in it for him—he is too Cheysuli for it, too much a’saii—only power. Only acknowledgment of my weakness, proof that the House of Homana is not immune to manipulation.” Bitterness shaped her expression. “And so there will be a child.”
I kept my voice neutral. “So there will,” I agreed, “unless you take measures to rid yourself of it.”
Maeve stared at me, much as Aileen had. “Rid myself—?”
Carefully, I said, “Surely you know the means.”
It was a new thought to her. “I have told no one,” she said blankly. “No one at all, save you…the last one I would tell, since you have no compassion, no empathy for anyone save Corin…” Maeve shook her head. “But now I have told you, and your answer is to say I should rid myself of the child.”
Scowling, I got up and went a few paces away, retrieving, one by one, the scattered prophecy bones. “It is one solution,” I told her. “Did I say you had to do it?”
“A child is a child,” she said. “The seed is planted, but the harvest not yet begun…who can say what manner of son or daughter it will be?” Maeve’s tone, now, was steady. Plainly, I had shocked her, as much as I had Aileen. “Should I measure it by the father? Should I make it proxy for Teirnan’s sins, accepting his punishment?”
I wanted to throw the bones back at her. “Putting words in my mouth, Maeve? Trying to make me feel guilty? Well, you will not…I am not foolish enough to say it is the only answer, nor even the best. I know our history well, Maeve…it was not that many years ago that Cheysuli warriors stole Homanan women in order to get children on them, because the clans were being destroyed by Shaine’s qu’mahlin.” I sighed, finished picking up the bones, spoke quietly; fool or not, she was my sister, and under the circumstances deserving of more than my derision. “Children are valued within the clans, rujholla…no matter who the jehan, your baby will be welcomed.”
“He will hate me,” she said hollowly.
“Teir?” I stared. “Do you really care—?” But I broke it off, realizing she did not refer to our cousin. “Oh, Maeve—no, no…of course he will not hate you. How could he? You are his favorite. You are Deirdre’s daughter.”
“The bastard gotten on his whore,” she said tonelessly. “Who will herself now bear a bastard, begotten by a Cheysuli who has renounced everything of his race but the magic in his veins.”
“Oh, no,” I said dryly, “not everything. It is for his race he does it, Maeve. That is what they all say, the a’saii, as they renounce kin and clan and king.” I sighed, kneeling again on the pelt, pouring rattling bones from one hand to the other. “Teir has been jealous of us all since birth, because of his jehan, who raised him on bitterness and greed, and lust…lust for power, lust for domination; even, I think, for the Lion. In the name of the Cheysuli, Teir and the a’saii fight to turn back the decades, the centuries, to the time Cheysuli held dominance, without outside interference.”
Maeve’s eyes were anxious. “Do you think it is true, Keely? He says fulfillment of the prophecy will give Homana to the Ihlini, destroying everything the Cheysuli have lived for since the gods put them here. He says the only way the Cheysuli can survive is to destroy the prophecy, and then turn to destroying the Ihlini.”
“They” and “them.” Only rarely does Maeve refer to Cheysuli as we or us. I wondered if she felt so apart from the rest of Niall’s children that she perceived herself entirely Erinnish and Homanan, not Cheysuli at all, regardless of paternity. If so, it was no surprise Teirnan had held such a powerful sway over her.
“The only way we can survive,” I said clearly, “is to make certain the prophecy survives, and to serve it. It is what the gods intended when they made it.”
“Ah,” Maeve said sweetly, “then we can expect an announcement of your marriage to Sean of Erinn any day.”
The thrust went home cleanly, as she intended it to. In answer I dumped the bones into her skirt-swathed lap—Maeve would never wear leggings!—and stood. “As to that, it remains my decision, my say-so. Nothing so trivial resides in the prophecy of the Firstborn; I will do as I please in the matter of my marriage.”
Maeve’s brows arched up. “Nothing so trivial? An odd thing to say…’tis common knowledge the best way of merging bloodlines is through children, and the prophecy is quite specific about merging those bloodlines. All that’s left now is Erinn, Keely…and the only way Homana will get Erinn is through marriage—yours to Sean. I hardly think Liam or Sean would give Erinn to Homana merely to serve a Cheysuli prophecy; that will be for your son to do, when he is born.” She paused. “The son who bears every necessary bloodline save that of the Ihlini.”
From my belt I took my hunter’s cap and tugged it on, stuffing hair into it. “If I bear that son—if I bear that son, ever—it will be of my own choice, not a directive from the prophecy.”
Maeve shook her head. “You can’t be having it two ways, Keely…either you serve the prophecy, or you don’t. Either you are of the faithful, as is our father, our uncle, and our brothers, or you are of the a’saii.” She did not so much as blink. “Just like Teirnan.”
I glanced at Brennan’s restless colt, tied to a nearby tree. I wanted to fly, not ride, but I had promised to return the horse to Homana-Mujhar. “So,” I said finally, “am I to believe it was the prophecy that led you on a leading rein into Teirnan’s bed? Into the arms of an a’saii?” I shook my head before she could answer, tugging my cap on more securely. “No, rujholla, of course not. It was your decision, your desire…and so now the decision falls to me, as does my desire to be free to make my own choices.”
Maeve’s expression was bleak. “We are none of us free,” she told me. “No matter who we are.”
“But I am Keely,” I said lightly. “A free Cheysuli woman, with magic in her bones.”
Maeve sighed and shook her head. “You are as bad as Teir.”
“Well, we are cousins.” I untied Brennan’s colt, briefly judged his temper, mounted carefully. “Maeve, if you want to come home, come home.” The horse danced a little, ducking head and swishing tail; I cursed him beneath my breath, tightened reins, twisted my head to look back at Maeve. She stared after me blindly, tears swimming in her eyes. “Come home,” I told her gently. “Jehan could never hate you. That I promise you.”
Slowly, my sister nodded. “Tomorrow,” she said. “Tomorrow.”
Brennan’s colt was a fine animal indeed, a leggy chestnut with deep chest, long shoulders, powerful hindquarters. I could feel the speed living in him, and a bright, burning spirit, but it was raw, so raw, as yet uncut and unpolished. He was young, just shy of three—Brennan refused to race at two, saying it broke down leg bones not fully formed—and very green, wary of my touch. He did not know me at all, which left him confused and also clumsy, watching too much of me on his back and not enough of the track that stretched westward in front of his nose.
My task was to get him back to Homana-Mujhar without blemish, but he was making it difficult. He wanted to lunge, he wanted to spin, he wanted to bolt and run: all and yet none of those things. He was too distracted for any, merely teasing me with his nerves. It made my own stretch thin, along with my meager patience.
“Gods,” I muttered aloud. “It will be nightfall before we are back.”
It was, at best, late afternoon, judging by the low-hanging sun. If I let him run we would undoubtedly be home before it set, but I dared not let him go, even though he was begging to be set loose. I knew better. I also knew what Brennan would say—and precisely how he would say it—if I ruined his colt’s conditioning.
I considered briefly turning back to Clankeep, to stay the night and go home in the morning, but I was nearly halfway to Mujhara already. All it wanted was a little time, a greater store of patience—
“Hold,” someone said.
Startled, the colt shied violently sideways, then attempted to run away. He did not, but only because I jerked his head around to the left, dragging nose up to my knee. Twisted so, he could not free his head to bolt; it gave me time to regain control.
I said all manner of soothing, silly things to the frightened colt, most of them nonsense but effective because of my tone. When at last his trembling stilled I loosed his head again, but carefully, slowly, letting him know I was alert to any tricks.
I glanced at either side of the track, hugged by a tunnel of trees and close-grown foliage, but saw no one, only shadows. Still, it did not prevent me from speaking. With forced lightness—keeping in mind the colt’s touchy temper—I spoke to no one in particular, knowing he would, nevertheless, hear. “Whoever you are, you ku’reshtin, have a care for my horse…if you have a care for your life.”
I heard soft laughter, the hiss and rustle of leaves, the subtle sibilance of boot against deadfall. A man stepped out of the trees, out of the shadows, into waning sunlight gilding birch and beech and elm.
The colt saw him, snorted noisily, pinned ears and rolled eyes. I soothed him with soft words and gentle hands, thinking it odd contrast to the quickening of hostility in my heart. For the stranger was more than merely a man, he also was Cheysuli. More, even, than that: my kin-wrecked cousin, Teirnan.
I looked at his face but saw Maeve’s instead, twisted by anguish and self-derision, washed by tears of humiliation.
I looked at his face and saw a consummate Cheysuli: proud, unyielding, determined; as fierce in defense of loyalties asked, given and secured as any king could require, for he was bound by sacred oaths. So like all of us, my cousin, and yet like so very few. His oaths were to himself and to the a’saii, demanding a service in direct opposition to the sort freely offered, as Maeve had said, by my father, uncle, brothers.
And, as for my own?
I stared down at Teir from atop Brennan’s mettlesome colt, thinking of my sister and the child yet unborn. Then leaned pointedly to one side and spat onto the ground.
“So tactful, as always…” He grinned mockingly, twisting his mobile mouth. “Niall should make you an envoy.”
“Ku’reshtin,” I said again. “What are you doing here? What do you want with me?” I looked past him for other warriors. “Where are the rest of your malcontents, Teir?—or have they grown weary of your preaching and pettiness and gone home at last to their clans?”