Aidan, only child of Brennan and Aileen, and the grandson of Niall, is heir to the Lion Throne of Homana and inheritor, too, of a prophecy carried down through the generations and finally on the verge of fulfillment. But will Aidan, driven as he is by strange visions and portents, prove the weak link in the ages-old prophecy—the Cheysuli who fails to achieve his foretold destiny? For as Aidan prepares to set out for Erinn to claim his betrothed, he will become the focus of forces out of legend, visited by the ghosts of long-dead kinsmen, and by the Hunter, a mysterious being who may be a Cheysuli god incarnate.
Commanded by the Hunter to undertake a quest to claim a series of "god-given" golden links, Aidan will find himself challenged by the Cheysuli's most deadly foe—Lochiel, the son of Strahan—who will use every trick of Ihlini sorcery to stop Aidan and destroy the promise of the prophecy once and for all....
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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
This one is for S.J. Hardy, who, loving to read, married a woman exactly the same.
Eventually they begat four children who, in their turn, had the great good sense to pass along the reading gene to yet a third generation.
When my turn comes, I’ll try my best to do the same.
Table of Contents
The Chronicles of the Cheysuli: An Overview
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 the 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.
For Keely, sister to Niall’s sons, things are different. In Daughter of the Lion, Keely herself is caught up in the machinations of politics, evil sorcery, and her own volatile emotions. Trained from childhood in masculine pursuits such as weaponry, Keely prefers the freedom of choice and lifestyle, and as both are threatened by the imminent arrival of her betrothed, Sean of Erinn, she fights to maintain her sense of self in a world ruled by men. She is therefore ripe for rebellion when a strong-minded, powerful Erinnish brigand—and possible murderer—enters her life.
But Keely’s battles are increased tenfold when Strahan chooses her as his next target. Betrayed, trapped, and imprisoned on the Crystal Isle, Keely is forced through sorcery into a liaison with the Ihlini that results in pregnancy. But before the child can be born, Keely escapes with the aid of the Ihlini bard, Taliesin. On her way home she meets the man believed to be her betrothed, and realizes not only must she somehow rid herself of the unwanted child, but must also decide which man she will have—thief or prince—in order to be a true Cheysuli in service to the prophecy.
He was small, so very small, but desperation lent him strength. The need lent him strength, even though fright and tension threatened to undermine it. He placed small hands on the hammered silver door and pushed as hard as he could, grunting with the effort; pushing with all his might.
The door opened slightly. Then fell back again, scraping, as his meager strength failed.
“No,” he muttered aloud between clenched teeth. “No, I will not let you.”
He shoved very hard again. This time he squeezed into the opening before the door could shut. When it shut, it shut on him; gasping shock and fright, Aidan thrust himself through. His sleeping robe tore, but he did not care. It did not matter. He was in at last.
Once in, he froze. The Great Hall was cavernous. Darker than night—a thick, heavy blackness trying to squash him flat. Darkness and something calling to him.
He would not be squashed. He would not—and yet his belly knotted. Who was he to do this? Who was he to come to his grandsire’s Great Hall, to confront the Lion Throne?
Small hands tugged at hair, twisting a lock through fingers. Black hair by night; by day a dark russet, red in the light of the sun. He peered the length of the hall, feeling cold stone beneath his feet. His mother would have told him to put on his slippers. But the need had been so great that nothing else mattered but that he confront the Lion, and the thing in the Lion’s lap.
He shivered. Not from cold: from fear.
Compulsion drove him. Aidan moaned a little. He wanted to leave the hall. He wanted to turn his back on the Lion, the big black beast who waited to devour him. But the need, so overwhelming, would not let him.
No candles had been left lighted. The firepit coals glowed only vaguely. What little moon there was shone fitfully through the casements, its latticed light distorted by stained glass panes.
If only he could see.
No. He knew better. If he could see the Lion, he would fear it more.
Or would he? The light of day was no better. The Lion still glared, still bared wooden teeth. Now he could barely see it, acrouch on the marble dais. Could it see him?
Aidan bit a finger. Bowels turned to water; he wanted the chamber pot. But he was prince and also Cheysuli. If he retreated now, he would dishonor the blood in his veins.
But, oh, how he wanted to leave!
Aidan rocked a little. “Jehana…” he whispered, not knowing that he spoke.
In the darkness, the Lion waited.
So did something else.
Aidan drew in a strangled breath in three gulping inhalations very noisy in the silence. Pressure in his bladder increased. He bit into his finger, then slowly took a step.
One. Then two. Then three. He lost count of them all. But eventually all the steps merged and took him the length of the hall, where he stood before the Lion. He looked at eyes, teeth, nostrils. All of it wood, all of it. He was made of flesh. He would rule the Lion.
With effort, Aidan looked into the lap. In dim light, something glowed.
It was a chain, made of gold. Heavy, hammered gold, alive with promises. More than wealth, or power: the chain was heritage. His past, and his future: legacy of the gods. He reached for it, transfixed, wanting it, needing it, knowing it was for him; but when his trembling hand closed over a link the size of a large man’s wrist, the chain shapechanged to dust.
He cried out. Urine stained his nightrobe. Shame flooded him, but so did desperation. It had been right there; now there was nothing. Nothing at all remained. The dust—and the chain—was gone.
He did not want to cry. He did not intend to cry, but the tears came anyway. Which made him cry all the harder, ashamed of his emotion. Ashamed of his loss of control. Of his too-Homanan reaction; Cheysuli warriors did not cry. Grief was not expressed.
But he was more than merely Cheysuli. And no one let him forget.
Only one more bloodline needed. One more outcross required, and the prophecy was complete. But even he, at six, knew how impossible it was. He had heard it often enough in the halls of Homana-Mujhar.
No Cheysuli warrior will ever lie down with an Ihlini and sire a child upon her.
But even he, a boy, knew better. A Cheysuli warrior had; in fact, two had: his grandsire’s brother, Ian, and his own father, the Prince of Homana, who one day would be Mujhar.
Even at six, he knew. And knew what he was meant for; what blood ran in his veins. But it was all very confusing, and he chose to leave it so.
Grief renewed itself. I want my chain.
But the chain—his chain—had vanished.
A small ferocity was born: I want my CHAIN—
One of the doors scraped open. Aidan twitched and swung around unsteadily, clutching the sodden nightrobe in both hands. It was his mother, he knew. Who else would come looking for a boy not in his bed? And she would see, she would know—
“Aidan? Aidan—what are ye doing here? ’Tis far past your bedtime!”
Shame made him hot. He fought tears and trembling.
She was white-faced, distraught, though trying to hide it. He knew what she felt; could feel it, as if her skin was his. But she tried so hard to hide it.
The familiar lilt of Erinn echoed in the Great Hall. “What are ye doing, my lad? Paying homage to the Lion?” Aileen’s laugh was forced. “’Twill be your beastie, one day—there’s no need for you to come in the night to see it!”
She meant well, he knew. She always meant well. But he sensed her fear, her anguish, beneath forced cheerfulness.
She hurried the length of the hall, gathering folds of a heavy robe. By the doors stood a servant holding a lamp. Light glowed in the hall. The Lion leaped out of the shadows.
Aidan fell back, thrusting up a warding arm, then realized it was no more than it ever was: a piece of wood shaped by man. And then his mother was beside him, asking him things fear distorted, until she gathered the reins of her worry and knotted them away.
She saw his hands doubled up in a soaked nightrobe. She saw the urine stain. Anguish flared anew—he felt it most distinctly, like a burning band thrust into his spirit—but she said nothing of it. She merely knelt down at his side, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Aidan—why are you here? Your nurse came, speaking of a nightmare…but when I came, you were gone. What are you doing here?”
He looked up into her face as she knelt down next to him. Into eyes green as glass; green as Erinnish turf. “’Tis gone,” he told her plainly, unconsciously adopting her accent.
She wore blue velvet chamber robe over white linen night-shift. Her hair was braided for sleeping: a single thick red plait, hanging down her back. “What’s gone, my lad?”
“The chain,” he explained, though he knew she would not understand. No one understood; no one could understand.
Sudden anguish was overwhelming. He craved reassurance as much as understanding. The former he could get. As the hated tears renewed themselves, he went willingly into her arms.
She pressed her cheek against his head, twining arms around small shoulders to still the wracking sobs. “Oh, Aidan, Aidan…’twas only a dream, my lad…a wee bit of a dream come to trouble your sleep. There’s no harm in it, I promise, but you mustn’t be thinking ’tis real.”
“’Twas real,” he insisted, crying hard into her shoulder. “’Twas real—I swear…and the Lion—the Lion meant to eat me—”
“Aidan, no. Oh, my sweet bairn, no. There’s naught to the Lion’s teeth but bits of rotting wood.”
“’Twas real—’twas there—”
“It woke me up, calling…” He drew his head away so he could see her face, to judge what she thought. “It wanted me to come—”
Fiercely, he shook his head. “Not the Lion—the chain—”
She did not believe him. He hurled himself against her, trembling from a complex welter of fear, anguish, insistence: he needed her to believe him. She was his rock, his anchor—if she did not believe him—
In Erinnish, she tried to soothe him. He needed her warmth, her compassion, her love, but he was aware, if distantly, he also required something more. Something very real, no matter what she said: the solidity of the chain in his small-fingered child’s hands, because it was his tahlmorra. Because he knew, without knowing why, the golden links in his dreams bound him as fully as his blood.
A sound: the whisper of leather on stone, announcing someone’s presence. Pressed against his mother, Aidan peered one-eyed over a velveted shoulder and saw his father in the hall. His tall, black-haired father with eyes undeniably yellow, feral as Aidan’s own; a creature of the shadows as much as flesh and bone. Brennan’s dress was haphazard and the black hair mussed. Alarm and concern stiffened the flesh of his face.
“The nursemaid came—what is wrong?”
Aidan felt his mother turn on her knees even as her arms tightened slightly. “Oh, naught but a bad dream. Something to do with the Lion.” Forced lightness. Forced calm. But Aidan read the nuances. For him, a simple task.
The alarm faded as Brennan walked to the dais. The tension in his features relaxed. “Ah, well, there was a time it frightened me.”
Aidan did not wait. “I wanted the chain, jehan. It called me. It wanted me…and I needed it.”
Brennan frowned. “The chain?”
“In the Lion. The chain.” Aidan twisted in Aileen’s arms and pointed. “’Twas there,” he insisted. “I came to fetch it because it wanted me to. But the Lion swallowed it.”
Brennan’s smile was tired. Aidan knew his father sat up late often to discuss politics with the Mujhar. “No one ever said the Lion does not hunger. But it does not eat little boys. Not even little princes.”
Vision blurred oddly. “It will eat me…”
“Aidan, hush. ’Tis fanciful foolishness,” Aileen admonished, rising to stand. “We’ll be having no more of it.”
A dark-skinned, callused hand was extended for Aidan to grasp. Brennan smiled kindly. “Come, little prince. Time you were safe in bed.”
It was shock, complete and absolute. They do not believe me, either of them—
His mother and his father, so wise and trustworthy, did not believe him. Did not believe their son.
He gazed blindly at the hand still extended from above. Then he looked into the face. A strong, angular face, full of planes and hollows; of heritage and power.
His father knew everything. But if his father did not believe him.
Aidan felt cold. And hollow. And old. Something inside flared painfully, then crumbled into ash.
They will think I am LYING.
It hurt very badly.
“Aidan.” Brennan wiggled fingers. “Are you coming with me?”
A new resolve was born. If I tell them nothing, they cannot think I am lying.
“Aidan,” Aileen said, “go with your father. ’Tis time you were back in bed.”
Where I might dream again.
He shivered. He gazed up at the hand.
“Aidan,” Aileen murmured. Then, in a flare of stifled impatience, “Take him to bed, Brennan. If he cannot be taking himself.”
That hurt, too.
Neither of them believe me.
The emptiness increased.
Will anyone believe me?
“Aidan,” Brennan said. “Would you have me carry you?”
For a moment, he wanted it. But the new knowledge was too painful. Betrayal was not a word he knew, but was beginning to comprehend.
Slowly he reached out and took the hand. It was callused, large, warm. For a moment he forgot about the betrayal: the hand of his father was a talisman of power; it would chase away the dreams.
Aidan went with his father, followed by his mother. Behind them, in the darkness, crouched the Lion Throne of Homana, showing impotent teeth.
He clutched his father’s hand. Inside his head, rebelling, he said it silently: I want my chain.
Gentle fingers touched his hair, feathering it from his brow. “’Twas only a dream,” she promised.
Foreboding knotted his belly. But he did not tell her she lied. He wanted his mother to sleep, even if he could not.
Deirdre’s solar had become a place of comfort to all of them. Of renewal. A place where rank did not matter, nor titles, nor the accent with which one spoke: Erinnish, Cheysuli, Homanan. It was, Aileen felt, a place where all of them could gather, regardless of differing bloodlines, to share the heavy, unspoken bonds of heritage. It had nothing to do with magic, breeding, or homeland. Only with the overriding knowledge of what it was to rule.
She knew what Keely would say, had said, often enough, phrased in many different—and explicit—ways. That women had no place in the male-dominated succession lining up for the Lion Throne. But Aileen knew better. Keely would not agree—she seldom agreed with anything concerning the disposition of women—but it was true. Women did have a place in the line of succession. As long as kings needed queens to bear sons for the Lion, women would have a place.
Not the place Keely—or others—might want, but it was something nonetheless. It made women important, if for womb instead of brain.
Aileen’s womb had given Homana one son. Twin boys, enough to shore up Aidan’s tenuous place in the succession, were miscarried; the ordeal had left her barren. She was, therefore, a princess of precarious renown, and potentially threatened future. Brennan would not, she knew, set her aside willingly—he had made that clear—but there were others to be reckoned with besides the Prince of Homana. He was only a prince; kings bore precedence. And while the Mujhar showed no signs of concern regarding her son’s odd habits, she knew very well even Niall was not the sole arbiter. There was also the Homanan Council. She was the daughter of a king, albeit the island was small; nonetheless, she understood the demands of a kingship. The demands of a council.
Only one son for Homana. One son who was—different.
She shivered. The solar was comfortable, but her peace of mind nonexistent. It was why she had gone to Deirdre.
Aileen stood rigidly before the casement in the solar with sunlight in her hair, setting it ablaze. A wisp drifted near her eyes; distracted, she stripped it back. The gesture was abrupt, impatient, lacking the grace she had mastered after twenty-four years as Princess of Homana; twenty-four years as her aunt’s protégée, in blood as well as deportment.
She folded arms beneath her breasts and hugged herself, hard. “I’ve tried,” she said in despair. “I’ve tried to understand, to believe ’twould all pass…but there’s no hiding from it now. It started in childhood…he thinks we’re not knowing…he believes he’s fooled us all, but servants know the truth. They always know the truth—d’ye think they’d keep it secret?” Her tone now echoed the rumors. “The heir to Homana rarely spends a whole night in sleep—and he goes to talk to the Lion, to rail against a chair…” She let it trail off, then hugged herself harder. “What are we to do? I think he’ll never be—right.” Her voice broke on the last word. With it her hard-won composure; tears welled into green eyes. “What are we to do? How can he hold the throne if everyone thinks him mad?”
Deirdre of Erinn, seated near the window with lap full of yarn and linen, regarded Aileen with compassion and sympathy. At more than sixty years of age she was no longer young—brass-blonde hair was silver, green eyes couched in creases, the flesh less taut on her bones—but her empathy was undiminished even if beauty was. She knew what it was like to fear for a child; she had borne the Mujhar a daughter. But Maeve, for all her troubles, had never been like Aidan. Her niece’s fears were legitimate. They all realized Aidan was—different.
Deirdre knew better than to attempt to placate Aileen with useless platitudes, no matter how well-meant. So she gave her niece the truth: “’Twill be years before Aidan comes close to inheriting. There is Brennan to get through first, and Niall is nowhere near dying. Don’t be borrowing trouble, or wishing it on others.”
Aileen made a jerky gesture meant to dispel the bad-wishing, a thing Erinnish abhorred. “No, no…gods willing—” she grimaced “—or their eternal tahlmorras—Aidan will be old…but am I wrong to worry? ’Twas one thing to dream as a child—he’s a grown man now, and the dreams are worse than ever!”
Deirdre’s mouth tightened. “Has he said nothing of it? You used to be close, you and Aidan—and he as close to Brennan. What has he said to you?”
Aileen’s expulsion of breath was underscored with bitterness. “Aidan? Aidan says nothing. Aye, once we were close—when he was so little…but now he says nothing. Not to either of us. ’Tis as if he cannot trust us—” She pressed the palms of her hands against temples, trying to massage away the ache. “If I say aught to him—if I ask him what troubles him, he tells me nothing. He lies to me, Deirdre! And he knows I know it. But does it change his answer? No, not his…he is, if nothing else, stubborn as a blind mule.”
“Aye, well, he’s getting that from both sides of his heritage,” Deirdre’s smile was kind. “He is but twenty-three. Young men are often secretive.”
“No—not like Aidan.” Aileen, pacing before the window, lifted a hand, then let it drop to slap against her skirts. “The whole palace knows it…the whole city knows it—likely all of Homana.” She stopped, swung to face Deirdre, half-sitting against the casement sill. “Some of them go so far as to say he’s mad, mad as Gisella.”
“Enough!” Deirdre said sharply. “Do you want to give fuel to such talk? You’re knowing as well as I there’s nothing in that rumor. He could no more inherit insanity than I did, or you.” She sat straighter in her chair, unconscious of creased linen. “He’s Erinnish, too, as well as Cheysuli…how d’ye know he’s not showing a bit of our magic? There’s more than a little in the House of Eagles—”
Aileen cut her off. “Oh, aye, I know…but the Cheysuli is so dominant I doubt our magic can show itself.”
Deirdre lifted an eyebrow. “That’s not so certain, I’m thinking, with your hair on his head.”
Aileen grimaced, one hand drifting to brilliant locks. Aidan’s was darker, but still red; only the eyes were Cheysuli. “There’s nothing about my son that bespeaks Erinnish roots—he’s as bad as any of them.”
Deirdre’s smile was faint. “By ‘them,’ you’re meaning Cheysuli?”
“Cheysuli,” Aileen echoed, forehead creased in absent concern. “One moment they’re all so human…the next, they’re alien.”
“Aye, well, they could say the same of us.” Deirdre took up the forgotten embroidery in her lap, examining it critically. Her skills faded year by year, but not her desire. The worst thing about aging, she thought, was the inability physically to do what her mind wanted. “I think women have made that complaint many times before, whether the man in their bed is a shapechanger, or nothing more than a man.”
For the first time Aileen smiled. She had never been beautiful, but beauty was not what made her Aileen. The beauty of Erinn’s eagles lay in vividness of spirit, and a crude physical splendor. “You wouldn’t be saying that of the Mujhar.”
“I would,” Deirdre retorted. “No doubt he’s said it of me; no man understands a woman.”
Aileen’s brief smile faded. “Does a mother understand her son?”
Deirdre’s hands slowed. “I’ll not say you’ve naught to think about, with Aidan, but there’s no madness in him. And there are worse things to a man than dreams; worse things to a throne than a dreamer.”
“I wonder,” Aileen murmured.
Deirdre schooled her tone into idle inquiry. “What does Brennan say?”
“Nothing.” Aileen shifted on the sill, cocking one knee against the glazing so that her weight was on the stone. “He feels it as much as I, but d’ye think he’ll admit it? Admit he doubts his son?” The line of her mouth flattened. “When Aidan was little, and so sick, Brennan and I shared everything. But Aidan withdrew, and then so did Brennan. There was nothing left between us. Now, when he speaks of it at all, he says merely ’tis Aidan’s tahlmorra to hold the Lion Throne.”
Deirdre sighed. “So says his birthright. But there are times, to my way of thinking, they put too much weight on what they believe instead of on what they feel.”
“They believe in the prophecy, each and every one of them.” Then Aileen laughed. Bitterness was manifest. “Except, of course, for Teirnan and his a’saii, lost in the woods of Homana.”
Deirdre’s mouth tightened. “Teirnan was a fool.”
“You only say that because he seduced your daughter…you’re not caring a whit what Teirnan thinks about anything else, after what he did to Maeve.” Aileen shifted restlessly, adjusting heavy skirts. “Maeve is happy now, in Erinn, and perfectly safe—my son is neither, I’m thinking.”
“Your son will do well enough.” Deirdre bit through a thread. “As you said, Maeve is happy—and who would have thought that possible after what Teirnan did to her?” Deirdre sighed, untangling colors. “I thank the oldfolk of Erinn for hearing a mother’s pleas…Rory Redbeard’s a good man, and has made her a good husband.”
“Since he couldn’t be having Keely.” Aileen smiled briefly. “He wanted her, you know. For all she was meant for Sean, and the Redbeard came here knowing…” She let it trail off. “Maeve is nothing like Keely. If that was what Rory wanted, he got something other than expected.”
Deirdre raised a brow. “By the time Keely and Sean sailed for Erinn, only a fool would have thought he yet had a chance. After Teirnan’s bastard was born, Rory took Maeve for Maeve’s own sake, not as a replacement for Keely.”
Aileen laughed aloud. “There is no replacement for Keely.”
“And no replacement for Aidan…the boy will be whatever it is he’s meant to be.”
Brief amusement fled. Aileen stared at her aunt. Deirdre’s composure occasionally irked, because she claimed so little herself. Just now, it made her want to shatter it, even as she longed for Deirdre’s serenity. It was a thing unknown to her, with a son such as Aidan.
“There is something wrong with him. There is something not right.” Aileen stared at her aunt, daring her to disagree. “Next time you see him,” she said intensely, “look into his eyes. Then ask yourself these questions: Is my grandson happy? Is my grandson sane?”
Deirdre stared, aghast. “I’d never do such a thing!”
“Ask,” Aileen suggested. “Better yet, ask him. But don’t listen to what he says—look in his eyes, instead. ’Tis where you’ll find the truth. Cheysuli eyes or no, ’tis where you’ll find the truth.”
He was up and out of his bed before he knew who or where he was; before he knew what he wanted. The need drove him to it. The compulsion preempted everything: thought, logic, comprehension, much as lir-sickness had. It overtook his body and carried him to the door, where he pressed himself against it in mute appeal for passage.
Inside his head tolled a certainty tainted with a plea: This time I can touch it…this time it will be real—THIS time, I know—
But the declaration faded, along with certainty, as he came sluggishly to himself from the depths of unsettling dreams. He realized, in despair, it had happened yet again.
Sweat filmed him. He slept nude, as always, disliking the bindings of sleepclothes, the excess warmth of covers. So now, damp with dreams and fear, he shivered in the chill of a cool summer night and cursed himself for a fool.
With great effort he stilled his breathing, pressing his brow against the heavy door as if the pressure of flesh on wood might drive out the dream he dreamed. But it never did, never, no matter how hard he tried, and at last he turned, giving up, scraping shoulder blades against wood, and stared blindly into darkness.
“Why?” he whispered raggedly, through the headache only beginning. “Why does this happen to me?”
In the darkness, something stirred. But no answer was offered him; after too many years of the asking, he no longer expected one.
The pounding of his heart slowed. He swallowed heavily twice, disliking the bitter aftertaste of the dream, and scratched irritably at a scalp itchy from dream-fear and reaction. He shivered once, controlled it, then stood up at last from the door.
He lingered only a moment, considering what might happen if he simply went back to bed; he knew better. He knew very well, having tasted futility more often than dreamless slumber. So he gave up the sweet contemplation of what it might be like if he could simply sleep, as other people slept, and stumbled to the nearest clothing chest to pull out age-softened leather leggings.
No more: only leggings, enough for now, he thought; more would be too much. More would be too hot; the summer night was cool, but dreams banished comfort and basted him with warmth.
It would not be so bad, he thought wryly, if at least I dreamed of women. They are worth the discomfort of a night become too hot.
He had been a man, as manhood is reckoned, for nearly eight years. He had dreamed, and spilled his seed, into women and into his bed. But it was not of women he dreamed when the dreams were sent by gods.
A servant always left him a lighted candle; he always blew it out. Warrior training—and common sense—taught him safety lay in eyes well-accustomed to heavy darkness instead of blinded by too much light. But his room was an outer one, narrow casements slit the walls, and torchlight from the baileys crept through to bathe his chamber. Pale light burnished his arms: faceted lir-bands gleamed.
Bare of chest and feet, he swung back toward the door. He paused there, eyes shut, cursing himself for a fool.
“Leave it alone—ignore it—” Aidan bit into his lip. “Who is in control: a piece of wood, or you?”
Inside his head, the Lion roared. Aidan’s belly knotted.
“Leave it alone,” he repeated. “Gods—leave me alone—”
Time to go, someone said. How can you turn back now? It has become ritual…and you are not the kind who changes anything regardless of the need.
Stung, Aidan turned to glare through darkness at the rustling in the corner. “What am I to change? Would you have it be my tahlmorra?”
Now the tone was scornful. You do not even have an inkling what your tahlmorra IS.
Through the link, he lashed out. I know very well what it is—
I have known all along. What do you think I am? Are YOU not proof that my tahlmorra is undertaken?
Because I exist? No. The tone, now, was cool. I exist because I am. Because the gods created me.
To be my lir.
The tone spilled into smugness. Or you to be mine.
Aidan swore beneath his breath. Mockingly, he asked, “Has any warrior ever revoked the lir-link?”
No living warrior.
It reminded Aidan of something, as it was meant to do: the precariousness of his race. “Has any warrior petitioned the gods for a new lir?”
Undoubtedly others have asked. But it is not my duty to tell you how the gods deal with ungrateful children.
“Ungrateful,” Aidan muttered. “How could any man be so foolish as to consider how peaceful life might be if his lir was other than you?”
How can any warrior contemplate peace when he stands ready to fight a chair made of wood?
“Agh, gods…” Aidan put his hand on the latch. “You do not need to come, Teel. Stay in the corner and sulk; I can find my own way.”
He jerked open the heavy door and stepped through, leaving it ajar. He thought for the merest moment he would be unaccompanied, but the rustling grew louder. And then the raven left the darkness and flew to perch on his shoulder.
Aidan extended an arm. “Try my hand,” he suggested. “Like this, you scratch my shoulder.”
Too soft, his lir chided, but exchanged shoulder for hand.
Aidan briefly considered taking a lamp with him, but decided against it. No corridor in the massive palace was left completely without light so guards or servants, if needed, could see to serve or protect, but unnecessary torches and lamps were extinguished. And he was, after all, Cheysuli, with yellow Cheysuli eyes; he saw what there was to see whether light existed or not.
“A fool,” Aidan muttered, but set off anyway. Ignoring the stubborn compulsion gained him nothing but sleepless nights.
He had known, for as long as he could remember, he was different. The dreams of childhood had faded during adolescence, dissipated by the intense need for and the bonding with his lir, but once adulthood was reached the dreams returned in force. Now, at twenty-three, he was accounted a warrior in the clans and a full-grown man by the Homanans who called him a prince, but he was still plagued by dreams. By the vision of the chain. By the substance of the chain—until he put out a hand to touch it, and the links dispersed into dust.
As a child, it had frightened him. Growing older, he believed it merely a manifestation of a want and desire he could not fully understand. But of late the dreams had worsened. The desire had become a demand. And Aidan fully believed, with a dreadful certainty, he was somehow, someway, tainted.
“Tainted,” he murmured aloud, aware of familiar tension.
Perhaps, the raven agreed. But why would gods choose a tool that is tainted? Teel paused significantly. Unless they merely forgot—
It was not precisely the sort of reassurance he craved. It was true the lir were a gift of the gods, but he preferred to think of himself as a man, not a tool. Not even a divine one; he asked no favors of the gods, for fear they might give him one.
Enough, he said dismissively, sending it through the link.
Well? Well? Why would they?
Firmly, Aidan said: We are not discussing gods.
Perhaps we should discuss them. You discuss everything else, yet very little of substance.
He gritted teeth, but did not answer. He merely walked, saying nothing, passing out of shadows into torchlight, into darkness again. Through countless corridors and passageways, knowing them all by heart, until he reached the Great Hall.
There are times, the raven commented, even Cheysuli are fools.
Aidan, searching for release from the tension, settled on irony. It is because of the other blood.
Teel considered it. I think not, he replied. I think it is merely you.
Muttering under his breath, Aidan shoved open the doors.
Go back to bed, Teel suggested. You know how you feel in the morning when you spend the night chasing dreams. You know how you look.
Irritated, Aidan shifted back into human speech as he shouldered into the hall. Against his flesh he felt the texture of the silver, the whorls and angles and patterns set by craftsmen into the metal. “You know very well when I try to ignore the dream, it only gets worse.”
Because you allow it to.
He let the door fall closed behind him, hearing its distant grate. Irritation spilled away. Fear trickled back. He recalled all the nights very clearly. Especially the first, when he had come at the age of six to find the chain of gold in the lap of the Lion Throne. And how he had shamed himself, frightened by something of wood; and by things he could not fathom.
All came rushing back. Humiliation caused him to squirm; why could he not forget?
Tension made him curt. “Is it there?”
Probably, Teel observed dryly. Is it not always there?
Aidan sighed and moved away from the heavy silver doors. The flames of the firepit had died to coals, lending dim illumination to the cavernous hall. Shadows cloaked the walls: tapestries and banners; history set in cloth. Wheels of swords and daggers painstakingly bracketed in a perfect and deadly symmetry. Spears and pikes sprouted from display blocks set in corners; flagsticks dangled silk. In the folds crouched Homana. Beyond the pit, on the dais, crouched the Lion Throne.
Teel rode Aidan’s hand easily, considerably lighter than the hawks, falcons and eagles other warriors claimed. It was, Aidan felt, a facet of his very differentness that his lir was a raven. The bird was hardly unknown in the history of the clans, but neither was it common. Aidan considered it a jest played on him by capricious gods. In addition to sending him dreams, they gave him an irascible lir.
Teel pecked his thumb. I have ridden faster rocks.
“Then get off my hand and go sit on one.”
Obligingly, the raven lifted and flew the length of the hall. But he did not sit on a rock. He sat on the head of the Lion.
Aidan, ruddy brows lifted, stopped at the foot of the dais. “Surely sacrilegious—you profane the Mujhar’s throne.”
Teel fluffed a wing. Considering the Mujhar is only the Mujhar because of lir like myself, I think it is allowed.
Steadfastly, Aidan stared at the raven. Then, drawing a breath, he made himself look down at the cushion on which his grandsire sat when he inhabited the throne.
So, Teel observed, the dream remains constant.
Aidan shut his eyes. The painfully familiar sense of loss and oppression rushed in from out of the shadows.
Stiffly, he knelt. He waited. Felt the coldness of glossy marble through the leather of his leggings. Smelled ash, old wood, oil; the scent of ancient history, intangible yet oddly vivid.
Let me touch it, he begged. Let me know the chain is real.
But when he put out a hesitant hand, the links dissolved to dust.
Breath spilled raggedly. “Oh, gods…oh, gods—why do this to me? What have I done to deserve it? What do you want from me?”
But even as he asked, futility overwhelmed him, much as it had the very first time. And, like that time, what he wanted was to cry. But he was twenty-three: a man fully grown. An acknowledged Cheysuli warrior with a lir to call his own…if Teel condescended to let him.
Aidan did not cry. He was no longer six years old.
Though there are times I wish I were, so I could begin again.
Teel’s tone was cool. What use in that? he asked. The gods made the child. Now the rest is up to the man.
“Stop,” Aidan declared.
When you do.
“I swear, you will drive me mad, hag-riding me to death.”
Teel’s irony slipped, replaced with an odd kindness. I will keep you sane when you hag-ride yourself to death.
Aidan let it go. He was too weary, too worn. There was something he had come for. The ritual to perform.
He sighed, cursing himself out of habit. He knew what he would find, but Aidan put hand to cushion. Touched the worn nap of the velvet. Felt nothing but the fabric. Not even the grit of dust.
Futility was overpowering. “Why?” The shout filled the hall. “Why do I always come back when I know what will happen?”
“Because the gods, when they are playful, are sometimes cruel instead of kind.”
Aidan lurched to his feet and spun around, catching himself against the Lion. He had heard nothing, nothing at all; no scrape of silver on marble, no steps the length of the hall. He stared hard like a wolf at bay, thinking of how he looked; of what appearance he presented—hair in disarray, half dressed, haranguing a wooden beast. Heat flooded him. Humiliation stung his armpits. He wanted to shout aloud, to send the man from the hall, away from his royal—but embarrassed—presence; he did not. Because he looked at the man who faced him and recognition shamed him.
His grandfather smiled. “I know what you are thinking; it is written on your face. But it is unworthy of you, Aidan…you have as much right to be here, no matter what the hour, as I do myself.”
On the headpiece of the Lion, the bright-eyed raven preened. I have told you that, myself.
Aidan ignored his lir. Embarrassment had not receded; if anything, he felt worse. What he wanted most was to apologize and flee—this man is the Mujhar!—but he managed to stand his ground.
After a moment’s hesitation, he wet his lips and spoke quietly. “I may have the right to be here, but not to disturb your rest.”
“The rest of an old man?” Niall’s tone was amused. “Ah, well…when you are as old as I you will understand that sleep does not always come when you want it to.”
He began to feel a little better; the Mujhar was now his grandsire. Wryly, Aidan smiled. “I know that already.”
“So.” Niall advanced, holding a fat candle in its cup of gleaming gold. “Why have you said nothing to me of these dreams? Do you think I have no time for my grandson?”
Aidan stared at the man who, by right of gods and men, held the Lion Throne of Homana. He, like Deirdre, was past sixty, yet as undiminished by age. Still tall, still fit, still unmistakably regal, though no longer youthful. Tawny hair had silvered, fading like tarnished gilt; Homanan-fair skin had creased, displaying a delicately drawn fretwork born of years of responsibility; of the eyes, one was blue and bright as ever, the other, an empty socket couched in talon scars, was hidden behind a patch.
Aidan drew in a breath, answering his grandfather’s question with one of Iris own. “How can you have the time? You are the Mujhar.”
“I am also a man who sired five children, and who now reaps the benefits of my children’s fertility.” Briefly, Niall eyed the raven perched upon his throne. “You I know better than the others, since you live here in Homana, but there are times I fully believe I know you least of all.”
Aidan smiled. “It is nothing, grandsire.”
Niall arched a brow.
“Nothing,” Aidan repeated.
“Ah.” Niall smiled faintly. “Then it pains me to know my grandson feels he cannot confide in me.”
Guilt flickered deep inside. “No grandsire—’tisn’t that. ’Tis only…’” Aidan shrugged. “There is nothing to speak about.”
Niall’s gaze was steady. “I am neither a fool, nor blind—though I have but one eye I still see.”
Heat coursed through Aidan’s flesh. The sweat of shame dotted a thin line above his lips. He made a futile gesture. “They are just—dreams. Nothing more.”
“Then I must assume the servants are embroidering the truth.” The tone was very quiet, but compelling nonetheless. “I think it is time you spoke. If not to Aileen or to Brennan, then to me. I have some stake in this.”
Aidan clenched his teeth briefly. “Dreams, nothing more—as anyone dreams. Fragments of sleep. Thoughts all twisted up, born of many things.”
The Mujhar of Homana forbore to sit in his throne, usurped by a black-eyed raven who, as a lir, had more claim than any human, Cheysuli-bred or not. Or so Teel told them. Instead, Niall sat down upon the dais, setting down the candle cup with its wax and smoking flame. “Tell me about them.”
Aidan rubbed damp fingertips against soft leather. Tell him. Tell him? Just like that?
Niall’s tone was kind. “Locking things away only adds to the problem. Believe me, I know; I spent far too many years denying myself peace because I believed myself unworthy of this creature looming behind me.”
Aidan glanced only briefly at the Lion. Then sat down on the dais next to Niall, putting his back to the beast. He felt a vast impatience—how could he share what no one would believe?—but attempted to honor his grandsire by fulfilling part of the request. “This has nothing at all to do with unworthiness. I promise, grandsire, I know who I am and the task I am meant for: to rule as Mujhar of Homana.” Easily, he made the palm-up Cheysuli gesture denoting tahlmorra, and his acceptance of it. “I think I will do as well as the next man when my time comes—you and my jehan have taught me very well; how could I not be worthy?” He flicked fingers dismissively, thinking it enough.
Niall waited in silence.
Discomfited, Aidan stirred. “No one can understand. Why should I speak of it? When I was a child, I tried to tell them about it. But neither of them believed me.”
“Who did not?”
“Jehan and jehana. They both said I was a child, and that what I dreamed was not real. That I would outgrow it…” Bitterness underscored the tone; Aidan pushed it away with effort. “Would you speak of a thing people would ridicule you for?”
“Aileen and Brennan would never ridicule you.”
Aidan grimaced. “Not them, perhaps…not so obviously. But what is a child to feel when his parents call him a liar?”
Niall’s brows knit. “I have never known you to be that. I doubt they have, either; nor would ever say such a thing.”
“There is such a thing as implying—”
“They would not even do that.”
It was definitive. Aidan shifted his buttocks and stared gloomily into the hall. “I wish there were a way I could explain what I feel. What I fear.”
“Try,” Niall suggested. “Tell me the truth, as you know it. Tell me what disturbs your sleep.”
Aidan rubbed gritty eyes. What he needed most was sleep.
No. What he needed most was the chain.
He sighed and let it go. “What I fear is the meaning behind my dream. The same one over and over.” Now it was begun. Tension began to ease. With it went strength. Slumping, he braced elbows on his knees and leaned his chin into cupped hands. “For as long as I can recall, the same dream over and over. I think it will drive me mad.”
Niall said nothing. His patience was manifest.
Aidan sighed heavily and sat upright, scraping hair back from his face; In the poor light his thick auburn hair was an odd reddish black, falling across bare shoulders too fair for a Cheysuli. A man, looking at him, would name him all Homanan, or call him Erinnish-born. Until he saw the eyes.
“There is a chain,” Aidan began. “A chain made of gold. It is in the lap of the Lion.”
The Mujhar did not give in to the urge to turn and look. Mutely, Niall waited.
Aidan, abruptly restless, thrust himself upright and paced away from dais, Lion, Mujhar. Away from his lir, uncharacteristically silent. He stared in disgust at the firepit, letting the coals dazzle his eyes, then swung back to face his grandsire.
“I know—I know how it sounds…but it is what I feel, what I dream—”
“Aidan,” Niall said quietly, “stop trying to look through my eyes.”
Brought up short, Aidan shut his mouth and waited. He had been carefully tutored.
Niall’s gaze was kind. “You are wasting too much time trying to imagine what I will think. Simply say it. Tell it; you may find me less ignorant than you believe.”
Aidan clenched his teeth; how could anyone, kin or not, fully understand?
But in the end, it was very easy. “I have to have it,” he said plainly. “If I do not, the world ends.”
Niall’s expression was startled. “The world—ends?”
Aidan gestured acknowledgment; it sounded as odd to him. “The entire world,” he agreed dryly. “At least—for me.” And then he gestured again. “I know, I know—now I am being selfish, to think of the entire world, and its fate, being determined by what I do…but that is what I dream. Over and over again.”
He waited. Before him the old man sat hunched on the dais, silvered brows knit with thought. Niall frowned pensively, but his expression gave nothing away.
The thought was fleeting and unwelcome. There is madness in my kinfolk—
But Aidan knew better than to say it. Niall would only deny it; or, rather, deny its cause as anything other than accident. He had said, time and time again, the madness of Aidan’s Atvian granddame, Gisella, was induced by an early, traumatic birth—but Aidan sometimes wondered. He was capable of intense thoughts and impulses, sometimes as disturbing as his dreams, though he always suppressed them. He had heard the same said of Gisella. And he knew from repeated stories his su’fala, Keely, had never been fully convinced the madness was not hereditary.
“Well,” Niall said finally, “everyone dreams. My dreams are odd enough—”
For the first time in his life, Aidan cut him off. “I have to have it, grandsire. Do you understand? It is a need as strong as the need of a man for a woman…as the need of warrior for lir. There is no difference, grandsire…it makes me come here. Every time I dream it.”
Niall stared at him, clearly startled by the passion. “If it disturbs you this much—”
Aidan laughed aloud. “Disturbs me? Aye, that is one way of saying it…” He banished the desperation with effort, striving for equanimity. “Grandsire, perhaps it is better put like so: what if, as you reached to take her into your arms, Deirdre was turned to dust? To nothingness in your hands, even as you touched her, wanting her so badly you think you might burst with it.”
Niall’s expression was arrested. Aidan knew, as he always knew, the emotions his grandsire felt. Shock. Disbelief. The merest trace of anger, that Aidan could compare a chain to the Mujhar’s beloved meijha…and then the comprehension of what the failure meant.
After a moment, Niall got up with a muffled grunt of effort and mounted the dais steps. He paused before the Lion, placed a hand upon it, then turned awkwardly and sat down. It was not, Aidan knew, an attempt to use his rank, but the desire of an old man wishing for softness under his buttocks while he contemplated his grandson.
The Mujhar rubbed at deep scar-creases mostly hidden beneath the patch, as if the empty socket ached. “What happens, then, when you come looking for this chain?”
Aidan shrugged, trying to diminish the desperation he always felt. “I put out my hand to take it, and the chain is changed to dust.”
“Dust,” Niall echoed thoughtfully.
Aidan extended his right hand. It shook; he tried to suppress it. “I have to have it, grandsire…I have to have the chain—and yet when I touch it, only dust is left.” He shut his hand tightly. “But even the dust goes before I can really touch it.”
Niall’s single eye was steady. “Have you seen the priests?”
Aidan grinned derisively, slapping his hand down. “They are Homanans.”
A silver brow arched. Mildly, the Mujhar said, “They are also men of the gods.”
Aidan made an impatient gesture. “They would laugh.”
Niall rubbed meditatively at his bottom lip. “No priest of Homana-Mujhar would ever deign to laugh at the man who will one day rule.”
Aidan sighed. “No, perhaps not…but they would tell those stories. Already people tell stories.” He tapped his bare chest. “The servants are full of gossip about the Prince of Homana’s fey son—the man who walks by night because he requires no sleep.”
Niall’s smile was faint. “Oh, you require it. And they should know it, too—they have only to look at your face.”
“So it shows…” He had known it did, to him; he had hoped others were blind to it. “I have done so many things, trying to banish the dreams. Petitions to the gods. Even turning to women.” His mouth twisted in self-contempt. “I have lost count of how many women…each one I hoped could do it, could banish all the feelings by substituting others. It is a sweet release, grandsire, but it gave me no freedom.” He sighed heavily. “None of them was ungrateful—it was the heir to the Prince of Homana, grandson to the Mujhar!—and I like women too much to cast them off indiscreetly…but after a while, it palled. Physical satisfaction was no longer enough…all the dreams came back.”
Niall said nothing.
“Gods—now I am started…” Aidan laughed a little. “And liquor! I have drunk myself into a stupor more times than I can count, hoping to banish the dream. And for a night, it may work—but in the morning, when all a man in his cups desires is for the sun to set again so it does not blind his eyes, the dream slips through the cracks.” Aidan smiled wryly. “I’ll be telling you plain, grandsire, the dream is bad enough when I’ve been having no liquor—’tis worse when I’m in my cups.”
Niall’s smile widened. “Did you know that when you are upset, you sound very like your jehana?”
Aidan’s mouth twitched. “Or is it I sound like Deirdre?”
“No, no—Deirdre has been in Homana too long…most of Erinn is banished, in her…” Niall flicked dismissive fingers and straightened in the throne. “But we are not here to speak of accents. Aidan, if you will not go to Homanan priests, what of the shar tahls?”
Aidan stilled. “Clankeep?”
“There may be an answer for you.”
“Or no answer at all.”
“I thought of it,” he admitted. “Many, many times, and each time I did I convinced myself not to go.”
Niall frowned. “Why? Clankeep is your home as much as Homana-Mujhar.”
“Is it?” Aidan shook his head. “Homana-Mujhar is my home—Clankeep is merely a place.”
For a moment his grandsire’s expression was frozen. And then the fretwork of Niall’s face seemed to collapse inwardly. His eye, oddly, was empty of all expression, until realization crept into it. Followed by blatant grief and regret.
His tone was ragged. “So, it comes to pass…Teirnan was right after all.” He slumped back in the throne, digging at the leather strap bisecting his brow. “All those times he said we would be swallowed up by Homanans; are you the first, I wonder? Is this the Homanan revenge; if Cheysuli must hold the Lion, we make the Cheysuli Homanan?”
Aidan stared in startled dismay. “Grandsire—”
Niall waved a hand. “No, no, I am not mad…nor am I grown suddenly too old for sense.” He pulled himself upright in the massive throne. Now the tone was bitter. “I am speaking of Teirnan, your kinsman—cousin to your jehan, son to my dead rujholla. The one who renounced the prophecy and founded his own clan.”
Aidan frowned faintly. “I know who he is. We all know who Teirnan is—or was.” He shrugged. “How many years has it been since anyone has seen him? Fifteen? Twenty? He may well be dead.”
Niall’s expression was pensive. “He took his clan into the deepwood somewhere in Homana…he is still out there, Aidan—he still plots to take the Lion.”
Aidan did not really believe his grandsire was too old to rule, or growing feeble in his wits, but he did think perhaps too much weight was given to a man no one had seen for too many years. The Ihlini were past masters at waiting year after year to strike at their enemies, but from what he knew of his kinsman, Teirnan was not that kind.
Niall did not listen. He heaved himself out of the Lion and bent to retrieve the candle in its cup. He straightened and looked his grandson dead in the eyes. “Go to Clankeep, Aidan. Discover your true heritage before it is too late.”
Dumbfounded, Aidan automatically gave way to his grandfather’s passage and watched him go, saying nothing. Then turned to look at his lir once the silver doors had closed. “What does that mean?”
Teel observed him thoughtfully. I did not know you were deaf.
Aidan scowled. “No, I am not deaf…but what good will Clankeep do?”
Give you ears to hear with. Give you eyes with which to see. Teel rustled feathers. Go back to bed, deaf lir. No more dreams tonight.
Aidan thought about retorting. Then thought instead about his bed and the sweetness of dreamless sleep. “Coming?” he asked acerbically, turning away from the dais.
Teel flew ahead. I could ask the same of you.
The stallion was old, growing older, but retained enough of his spirit to make handling him occasionally difficult. The horseboys and grooms of Homana-Mujhar had long ago learned the tending of the black—appropriately named Bane—was best left to his owner, who had a true gift. They dealt with him as they could, then gave him gladly into Brennan’s keeping whenever the prince came down to the stableyard.
He came now, dismissing the horseboys flocking to offer attendance, and went into the wood-and-brick stable to see the stallion. But a true horseman never merely looks; he can but tie his hands to keep from touching the flesh, from the strong-lipped, velveted muzzle, blowing warmly against his palms.
Bane, by right of rank, had the largest stall in the stable block; a second block housed the Mujhar’s favorite mounts. Brennan slipped the latch and entered the straw-bedded stall. The stallion laid back ears, cocked a hoof, then shifted stance to adjust his weight. One black hip briefly pressed Brennan into the stall; automatically slapped, the hip duly shifted itself, ritual completed. Raven ears came up. One dark eye slewed around to look as Brennan moved in close. Bane blew noisily, then bestowed his chin upon Brennan’s shoulder, waiting for the fingers that knew just where to scratch.
The murmured words were familiar. Bane spoke neither Homanan nor the Old Tongue of the Cheysuli; Bane spoke motion and voice and touch and smell, the language of horse and rider. He listened but vaguely to the words Brennan crooned, hearing instead the tones and nuances, knowing nothing of meaning. Only the promise of affection. The attendance upon a king by a royal-born man himself.
Bane did not mark the underlying anguish in Brennan’s tone, the soft subtleties of despair. He was horse, not human; he did not answer to anything unless it concerned his few wants and needs. But even if he were human, even a Homanan, the emotions would escape him. Cheysuli-born were different. The unblessed, regardless of bloodlines, of humanness, were deaf to things unsaid. Blind to things suppressed.
But Ian was not unblessed. Ian was Cheysuli. His own share of anguish and despair, though mostly vanquished by time, made him party to them in his nephew.
He moved close to the stall, pausing at the door. Briefly he watched Brennan with his stallion, noting tension in the movements, marking worry in the expression. Seeing such indications was what he had learned to do as liege man to the Mujhar, and as kin to volatile fledglings not always cognizant of caution.
“I have,” Ian began quietly, “spent much of my life offering succor—or merely an attentive ear—to those of my kin in need. You have always held yourself apart, depending in great measure on a natural reserve and full understanding of your place. But I have never known a Lion’s cub to be beyond the need of comfort.”
Brennan, startled, stiffened into unaccustomed awkwardness, then turned. One arm rested on Bane’s spine, as if maintaining contact might lend him strength. The other fell to his side. The gold on his arms gleamed in a latticework of sunlight, vented through laddered slats in the outside stable walls. “Did jehan send you?”
Ian, hooking elbows on the top of the stall door, smiled with serene good humor. His arms, like Brennan’s, were bare of sleeves, displaying Cheysuli gold. “I am not always in his keeping, any more than you. Give me credit for seeing your pain independent of the Mujhar.”
Brennan grimaced, looking away from his uncle’s discerning eyes to the black silk of Bane’s heavy rump. Idly he smoothed it, slicking fingers against the thin cloak of summer coat. Thinking private things. “It was always jehan you went to, or Hart—then Keely, when Hart was gone. There were times I wanted to come, but with so many others to tend, I thought your compassion might be all used up.”
Ian’s eyes were on Bane. He was, like the stallion, past his prime, with hair more gray than black, and white creeping in. By casual reckoning, he was perhaps fifty; in truth, nearly seventy. It was the good fortune of the Cheysuli that age came on them slowly, except for prematurely graying hair. The bones and muscles stiffened, the skin loosened, the hair bleached to white, But nothing about Ian’s manner divulged a weakening of spirit any more than in the stallion.
He shifted slightly, rustling boots in straw and hay and bits of grain dropped by Bane over the door. “Niall’s children cannot escape the often too-heavy weight of tahlmorra, except perhaps for Maeve.” Still-black brows rose in brief consideration. “But even then, I wonder—who are we to say there is no magic in her? Niall’s blood runs true…even in Aidan.”
Brennan winced. And Ian, who had baited the hook with quiet deliberation, saw it swallowed whole.
“Oh, aye,” Brennan sighed wearily. “The blood runs true in Aidan…including Gisella’s, I wonder? It is what everyone else wonders, regardless of the truth.” Brennan turned again to the stallion. A lock of raven hair, showing the first threading of early silver, fell across a dark brow deeply furrowed with concern. “You know and I know my jehana’s madness is not hereditary, but the Homanans overlook it. All they see is his difference, then they mutter about Gisella.”
“You cannot ask a man to hide his true self,” Ian said gently, “and yet Aidan does so.”
Brennan’s mouth tightened. “You refer to what jehan told me. About Aidan’s dreams.”
“There was a time he would have told you himself.”
Brennan’s expression was bleak. “Not for many years. He changed, su’fali…somehow, somewhen, he changed.”
“Perhaps he believed he had to.”
The tone now was anguished. “I did not want him to! Why would I? After so many years of sickness…after so much worry and fear…” Brennan sighed, shutting his eyes. “We thought he would die, su’fali. In fever, he often babbled. We learned not to listen.”
“Because what you heard made no sense.”
Mutely, Brennan nodded.
“And so now he does not speak.” Ian shook his head. “Aidan is perhaps not what you expected…but trying to reforge a sword will only make the steel brittle.”
Brennan swung abruptly from the horse. “Have I tried?” he cried. “He is as much a man and warrior as you or I. There is nothing in him I would curse, wishing for alteration…he came through a sickly childhood in better fashion than we hoped for, and now there are no doubts he will live to inherit the Lion. But I cannot say what he thinks—” Brennan broke it off. The stallion shifted restlessly, disturbed by the raw tone. “Su’fali, have you never seen him look through you? Not at you, but through. As if you were not present. As if he were not, but in another place.”
Ian felt serenity slipping. He was one of those men others spoke to freely, finding him easy to confide in. It was a trait not well known among the Cheysuli, who had, in the old days, forbidden the showing of private emotions before others for fear of divulging a weakness to enemies. But those days were past. Things changed within the clans—some said too many things—and he saw no oddity in listening to the sometimes illogical initial commentary of a man—or a woman—trying to find the proper way. It had been so with Niall, and with Hart, arid Keely. Brennan had needed no one; Corin had wanted no one, unless she be twin-born Keely. But even that had changed.
As everything changed. Now Brennan needed someone to explain a son to his father. And Ian could not do it.
“So you have,” Brennan said dully. “You have seen it as well.”
Ian sighed. “How can I give you an answer? How can anyone? Aidan is like none of us in many ways, while very like us in others. I see Aileen in him. I see you in him, But perhaps all of us look too hard for unimportant things, such as who he resembles or sounds like. Perhaps Aidan is merely Aidan—”
“That bird.” Brennan’s tone was intent. “That raven—”
Ian smiled. “Teel is a lir.”
Brennan shook his head. “More. I swear, he is more. Have you seen the look in Aidan’s eyes when he goes into the link?”
Ian’s smile broadened. “If Keely were here, no doubt she could tell us what it is they converse about, but I would imagine what they say to one another—or what Teel says to him—is little different from what we say to our own lir. You should see your expression when Sleeta links with you.”
“Aye, well, she is sometimes difficult to deal with.” Brennan’s brow smoothed as a faint smile pulled his mouth crooked. “Aidan himself has said Teel hag-rides him unmercifully.”
Ian stepped aside as Brennan left Bane and unlatched the door to exit the stall. “For too many years he was sick, too many times close to death. It marks a man, Brennan. It marked your jehan. It marked you. It marked Hart and Corin and Keely. Did you think your son would escape it?”
Brennan swung shut the door and slammed the latch into place. “The Lion requires a man who can rule with intellect, not with dreams and fancies.”
“Ah,” Ian murmured. “Is that why you allowed yourself none?”
Brennan’s face hardened. “You understand what responsibility is, su’fali. Do you blame me? When it comes to levying war, dare a king think of dreams?”
“There is no war in Homana. Nor in Solinde. Nor in Erinn or Atvia. What war are you fighting, harani?”
Brennan shook his head. “No one understands what it is to look at Aidan and wonder what he will be. To wonder what he is.”
Ian refrained from answering at once. There was wildness in the Cheysuli, for all they practiced control; he knew from personal experience how difficult it was to maintain balance under trying circumstances. Some said it was the beast in the blood. Ian knew better. There was a price to pay for control: the occasional loss of it.
His royal nephew, for all Brennan’s renowned maturity, was as capable of anger as his volatile brother, Corin, or Keely, his prickly sister. He simply did not show it as much, yet Ian thought it best now to avoid provocation. It was next to impossible to make a man see reason if his mouth was busy shouting.
He watched Brennan a moment, marking redoubled tension. “Do you wonder, then, why he says nothing to you? Why he goes so often to the Lion? If you have, in any fashion, caused him to wonder if he is—askew—in any way, should he trust himself with a throne shaped like a mythical beast? Or believe it an enemy?”
“By the gods, Ian, he is a grown man, a warrior.”
“This began when he was a child. Children view things differently.”
“Children are often too fanciful. They frighten themselves.” Brennan’s eyes, oddly, were black. “Do you think I know nothing of that? Even within Bane’s stall, knowing the door is there, I still feel the fear of being closed in.”
“Do you blame yourself for that?”
Brennan’s expression was ravaged. “I was locked in the Womb for a very short time…and yet I believed it days.” He raked a hand through his hair. “Gods—how I frightened myself. I made all those lir into beasts…carved marble shapes, I remade into living beasts. And now I reap the reward…shut me up in darkness, and I lose myself utterly.”
Ian nodded slightly. “And so the jehan, seeing a child’s fear fed by fancies, told him it was not real. Over and over again, until the child thought it best to keep everything to himself.”
Desperation threaded Brennan’s tone. “They are dreams, Ian. What else was I to do? Allow him to frighten himself?”
Ian shrugged a single shoulder. “I have no answer for you. But Aidan still dreams…fear or no fear, something is real to him.”
“And I gave it no credence, ever.” Brennan collapsed against the wall, mouth pulled awry. “I am not and have never been the most discerning of men.”
Ian watched him closely. Quietly, he suggested, “I think Aileen might understand what you feel. She has as much stake in Aidan’s future as you.”
Brennan’s expression was bleak. “She says nothing of it to me.”
Ian did not smile. “Have you ever thought to ask her?”
Brennan shrugged. “She is too quick to defend him. She hears nothing of my concern, gives no weight to what I say.” He grimaced. “He is her only child; she will hear no wrong of him.”
Ian shook his head. “Aileen is neither blind nor deaf. She defends him to others; is there need to do that with you?”
The stallion, now turned, thrust his head over the door, blocking their view of one another. Brennan cupped a hand over the bone of the nose and pulled the black head down so he could see his uncle. “I have the right to worry.”
Ian stroked the silken neck. “No one will take that from you. But Aileen might help you bear it.”
Brennan’s expression was odd. “He needs to sire a son.”
Ian’s motion was arrested. “Why? Do you think it might be best if you replaced your son with a grandson? Just in case—”
“No!” The response came too quickly. “But he is twenty-three, su’fali…I had a son by then. My jehan had three of his own, as well as two daughters.”
Ian said nothing a moment. Then, in precise, staccato, tones, “Have you never thought that, given more time, you and Aileen might have made a true match? One much like Niall’s and Deirdre’s?”
“There was Corin—”
“That was very nearly twenty-five years ago!”
Muscles clenched in Brennan’s jaw. “You are saying I should give Aidan time.”
“There is enough of it yet; aye. You know the price you and Aileen have paid…why ask him to pay it?”
Brennan’s tone was as clipped. “Kings must beget sons.”
Ian lost his patience. “The present king is living. His own heir is perfectly healthy, and he has an heir. I think the Lion, just this moment, requires no more than that.”
Brennan shut his eyes. When he opened them, Ian saw bleak despair. “And if my son is mad? How do I get another? Aileen can give me no more…and I will not set her aside. I need a son from Aidan.”
Ian shook his head. “Aidan is not mad. Aidan is only—different.”
Brennan cupped Bane’s black muzzle. “Kings cannot be different. It makes the Homanans afraid.”
His uncle’s expression was compassionate. “No more afraid than you.”
* * *
The day was gray, growing grayer. Aidan, who had ridden out of Mujhara not long after a mid-morning meal, scowled irritably at the pewter-hued sky. Teel was in it somewhere, riding out the wind; Aidan looked, found him, sent his feelings through the link.
As if to spite the wind, Teel’s tone was undiminished. Some things are worth discomfort.
“But it is summer,” Aiden protested. “Summer rain I understand—this feels more like winter!”
Only yesterday you complained of the heat…I think you are merely perverse.
He could be, Aidan admitted. But now was not one of those times. Yesterday, it had been hot; now it was much too cold. Not so cold as to make him shiver, but enough to make him wish he had brought at least a fall cloak. Arms left bare by Cheysuli jerkin protested the chill. Lir-bands felt icy.
Wind changed direction and blew ruddy hair into pale eyes. Aidan stripped it back, peeling strands free of lashes, then forgot about hair altogether as his horse shied violently sideways to make his own discomfort known. The dun gelding did not bolt, but only because Aidan was ready for him.
“No,” he said calmly, speaking also through the reins. “I think it would be best for both of us if you let me do the choosing of whether we walk or run.”
Lir, Teel’s voice, The storm is growing worse.
Aidan, who could feel the blast of the wind as well as the raven, offered no comment. He was too busy with the horse, who threatened to run again. Aidan did not really blame him. If he himself were a horse, he might run as well. The wind was full of urging, wailing down hilly croftlands. Its song was one of winter; of hearthfires and steaming wine. Or, if he were a horse, of windtight stable and warm bedding straw, with grain for the asking.
“Summer,” Aidan muttered. “What will winter be like, I wonder?”
There was nothing for it but to ride on, to reach the fringes of the wood that would provide some protection. The track, warded by trees and foliage, would be free of much of the wind, and he could go on to Clankeep screened from the worst of the weather.