They were the Cheysuli, a race of magical warriors gifted with the ability to assume animal shape at will. For centuries, they had been allies to the King of Homana, treasured champions of the realm. Until a king's daughter ran away with a Cheysuli liege man and caused a war of annihilation against the Cheysuli race.
Twenty-five years later the Cheysuli were hunted exiles in their own land, feared for their sorcery, their shapeshifting.
This is the story of Alix, the daughter of that ill-fated union between Homanan princess and Cheysuli warrior, and her struggle to master the call of magic in her blood, and accept her place in an ancient prophecy she cannot deny,
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Jennifer Roberson writes:
“The Chronicles of the Cheysuli is a dynastic fantasy, the story of a proud, honorable race brought down by the avarice, evil and sorcery of others—and its own special brand of magic. It’s the story of an ancient race blessed by the old gods of their homeland, and cursed by the sorcerers who desire domination over all men. It’s a dynasty of good and evil; love and hatred; pride and strength. Most of all it deals with the destiny in every man and his struggle to shape it, follow it, deny it.”
DAW titles by Jennifer Roberson
THE SWORD-DANCER SAGA
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 GOLDEN KEY
(with Melanie Rawn and Kate Elliott)
RETURN TO AVALON
HIGHWAYMEN: ROBBERS AND ROGUES
Chronicles of the Cheysuli: Book One
Copyright ©, 1984, by Jennifer Roberson.
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Julek Heller.
First Printing, February 1984
PRINTED IN U.S.A.
The scanning, uploading and distribution via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
Table of Contents
She sat by the creek, half-hidden in lush grasses. Carefully she twined purple summer flowers into her single dark brown braid, and dabbled bare feet in the rushing water. Stems and crushed blooms littered the coarse yellow gown she wore and damp earth stained the garment, but she paid it no mind. She was purposefully intent on her work, for if she allowed her thoughts to range freely she would be overtaken by the knowledge—and the hope—that he still might come.
A songbird called from the forest behind and she glanced up, smiling at the delicate melody. Then her attention was caught by an approaching rider, and she let fall the flowered braid from limp fingers.
Sunlight glittered off the gold of his mount’s trappings and painted the chestnut warhorse bright red. She heard the jingle of bit and bridle and the heavy snort of the big stallion. His rider, who had yet to see her, rode unconcernedly through the meadowlands.
She drew her knees up and clasped her arms around them, resting her chin on their tops. She felt the familiar leap of excitement, anticipation and wonder within her breast, and quickly tried to dismiss it. If she allowed him to see it she would be no different from anyone else to him, and therefore of no account.
And I want to be of account to him, she thought intently.
His tawny-dark head was bent as he rode, blue eyes on the shedding of his gloves. He wore black hunting leathers, she saw, and had thrown a thin green woolen mantle back from broad shoulders. A flash of green and gold glittering at his left shoulder caught her eye: the emerald cloak-brooch he favored. At his heavy belt was hung a massive two-handed broadsword.
The warhorse splashed into the creek, splattering her liberally. She grinned in devious anticipation and straightened in the deep grass, wiping water from her sun-browned skin.
“I did not think you would come,” she said, pitching her voice to carry over the noisy horse.
The animal reacted to her unexpected appearance with alacrity. He plunged sideways, halfway out of the creek, then unceremoniously slid down the muddy bank into the water again. His rider, equally startled, reined the animal in with a curse and shot a glare over his shoulder. When he saw her his face cleared.
“Alix! Do you seek to unseat me?”
She grinned at him and shook her head as he tried to settle the horse. The creek bottom offered treacherous footing to any beast, and the warhorse had yet to find a comfortable spot. Finally his rider cursed again in exasperation and spurred him through the water onto the bank, where he stared down at her from the chestnut’s great height.
“So, you wish to see Homana’s prince take an unexpected bath,” he said menacingly, but she saw the amusement in his eyes.
“No, my lord,” she responded promptly, very solemn and proper. Then she grinned again.
He sighed and dismissed the topic with an idle wave of his hand. A ruby signet ring flashed on the forefinger of his right hand, reminding her of his rank and the enormity of his presence before her.
By the gods, she whispered within her mind, he is prince of this land and comes to see me!
The prince stared down at her quizzically, one tawny eyebrow raised. “What have you been doing—harvesting all the flowers? You are fair covered with them.”
Hurriedly she brushed her skirts free of clinging stems and blossoms and began to pick them from her braid. Before she could strip them away entirely he swung down from the horse and caught her hands, kneeling.
“I did not say you presented an unattractive sight, Alix.” He grinned. “More like a wood nymph, I would say.”
She tried to draw her hands from his large weapon-callused ones. “My lord …”
“Carillon,” he said firmly. “There are no titles between us. Before you I am as any other man.”
But you are not…she thought dimly, forcing a smile even as she let her hands stay trapped. After a moment he released one and lifted her to her feet. He led her along the creek, purposely matching his steps to hers. She was tall for a woman, but he was taller still than most men and twice as broad, for all his eighteen years. Carillon of Homana, even did he ever put on the garments of a common crofter, was a prince to the bone.
“Why did you think I would not come?” he asked. “I have ever done it before, when I said I would.”
Alix watched her bare toes as she walked, not wishing to meet his steady blue eyes. But she was honest before all else, and gave him a blunt answer.
“I am only a crofter’s daughter, and you heir to Shaine the Mujhar. Why should you come?”
“I said I would. I do not lie.”
She shrugged a shoulder. “Men say many things they do not mean. It does not have to be a lie. I am, after all, not the sort of woman a prince converses with ordinarily.”
“You put me at ease, Alix. There is a way about you I find comforting.”
She slanted him a bright, amused glance. “Men are not always seeking comfort, my lord. At least, not in conversation.”
Carillon laughed at her, clasping her hand more tightly. “You do not mouth idle words with me, do you? Well, I would not have it another way. That is part of the reason I seek you out.”
Alix stopped, which forced him to. Her chin lifted and she met his eyes squarely. “And what is the other part, my lord prince of Homana?”
She saw the brief conflict in his face, following each emotion as it passed across his boyish features. Carillon, even at eighteen, was an open sort, but she was more perceptive than most.
Yet Carillon did not react as she expected, and inwardly dreaded. Instead of embarrassment or condescension or arrogant male pride, there was only laughter in his face. His hands rested on her shoulders.
“Alix, if I wanted to take you as my light woman and give you chambers within Homana-Mujhar, I would seek a better way of telling you. For all that, first I would ask you.” He smiled into her widening eyes. “Do not think I am indifferent to you; you are woman enough for me. But I come to you because I can speak with you freely, and not worry that I have said the wrong thing to the wrong ears; hearing it later from the wrong mouth. You are different, Alix.”
She swallowed heavily, suddenly hurt. “Aye,” she agreed hollowly. “I am an unschooled crofter’s daughter with no fine conversation. I am very unlike the sleek court ladies you are accustomed to.”
“The gods have made a place for every man and woman on this earth, Alix. Do not chafe at yours.”
She scowled at him. “It is easy for a man of your rank to say such a thing, my lord. But what of the poor who live in Mujhara’s streets, and the tenant crofters who must live on the questionable bounty of their lords? For all that, what sort of place has Shaine left to the Cheysuli?”
His hands tightened on her shoulders. “Do not speak to me of shapechangers. They are demons. My uncle’s purge will rid Homana of their dark sorcery.”
“How do you know they are demons?” she demanded, arguing out of fairness rather than conviction. “How can you say when you have never met one?”
Carillon’s face went hard and cold before her; aloof. Suddenly she longed for the even-tempered young man she had known and loved but a few weeks.
“Carillon—” she began.
“No,” he said flatly, removing his hands to stand stiffly before her. “I have no need to see demons to know they exist. The breed is accursed, Alix; outlawed in this land.”
“By your uncle’s doing!”
“Aye!” he snapped. “Punishment for a transgression which required harsh measures. By the gods, girl, it was a Cheysuli who stole a king’s daughter—my own cousin—and brought civil war to this land!”
“Hale did not steal Lindir!” Alix cried. “She went willingly!”
He recoiled from her, though he did not move. Suddenly before her was an angry young man who was more prince than anything else, and therefore entitled to a short temper.
“You freely admit you are an unschooled crofter’s daughter,” he began coldly, “yet you seek to lesson me in my House’s history. What right do you have? Who has said such things to you?”
Her hands curled into fists. “My father was arms-master to Shaine the Mujhar for thirty years, my lord, before he became a crofter. He lived within the walls of Homana-Mujhar and spoke often with the Mujhar. He was there when Lindir went away with the Cheysuli she loved, and he was there when Shaine called curses on the race and outlawed them. He was there when the Mujhar started this war!”
Muscles moved beneath the flesh of his jaw. “He speaks treason.”
“He speaks the truth!” Alix whirled from him and stalked through the grass, stopping only to remove a thorn from her bare foot. Her slippers, she recalled glumly, were back where they had begun this discussion.
“Alix—” he said.
“By the gods, Carillon, it was the Cheysuli who settled this land!” she said crossly. “Do you think they seek this—purge? It is Shaine’s doing, not theirs.”
“With just cause.”
Alix sighed and set down her foot. They stared at one another silently a long moment, both recognizing they jeopardized the tenuous friendship they had built. She waited for his curt dismissal.
Carillon’s hand idly smoothed the hilt of the sword at his belt, caressing the glowing cabochon ruby set in gold. He was silent, thoughtful, not the blustering or coldly arrogant prince she anticipated.
Finally he sighed. “Girl, for all your father had my uncle’s ear, he was not privy to all things. He could not know everything about the beginnings of the war. Nor, for that matter, can I. I am but newly made heir, and Shaine treats me as little more than a child. If you will listen, I will tell you what I know of the matter.”
She opened her mouth to reply, but a third voice broke into their conversation.
“No, princeling. Let someone who has experienced Shaine’s purge tell her what he knows of the matter.”
Alix jerked around and saw the man at the edges of the forest; leather-clad in jerkin and leggings, black-haired and dark-skinned. For a moment she stared speechlessly at him, astonished, then her eyes widened as she saw the heavy gold bands on his bare arms and the gray wolf at his side.
“Carillon!” she cried, backing away from the man. She heard the hissing of Carillon’s sword as he drew it from its sheath, but saw only the streaking gray form of the wolf as it hurtled silently across the space between them. The animal’s jaws closed on Carillon’s wrist.
Alix turned to run but the stranger caught her easily. Hands grasped her shoulders and spun her; she stared wide-eyed into a laughing face with yellow eyes.
Beast-eyes! she cried silently.
“Come now, meijha, do not struggle so,” her captor said, grinning. A gold ornament gleamed in his left ear, flashing against black hair and bronzed skin. Alix was conscious of his soft sleeveless leather jerkin and bare arms as he held her against him. “You championed my race but a moment ago, meijha. Surely you do not lose your principles so quickly.”
She froze in his hands, staring into his angular, high-planed face. “You are Cheysuli!”
“Aye,” he agreed. “Finn. When I heard you defending my race to the heir of the man who nearly destroyed us, I could not bear to let the princeling force your beliefs against us. Too many will not hear the truth.” He grinned at her. “I will tell you what truly happened, meijha, and why Shaine has called us accursed and outlawed.”
“Shapechanger! Demon!” Carillon called furiously.
Alix twisted so she could see him, afraid he had been badly injured, but she saw only an angry young man on the ground, hitched up on one elbow as he cradled his wrist against his chest. The wolf, a big silver male, sat at his side. There was no question in Alix’s mind the animal stood guard.
The Cheysuli’s hands tightened on Alix and she winced. “I am no demon, princeling. Only a man, like yourself, though admittedly the gods like us better. If you would have us called demon-spawn and consign us to the netherworld, you had best look to the Mujhar first. He cried qu’mahlin on us, not the other way.” The contempt in his voice sent a shiver through Alix. “And you make me think you wish to be his heir, princeling, in all things.”
Color raced through Carillon’s face and he moved as if to rise. The wolf tautened silently, amber eyes slitting, and after a moment the prince remained where he was. Alix saw pain and frustration in his face.
“Let me go to him,” she said.
“To the princeling?” The Cheysuli laughed. “Are you his meijha, then? Well, and I had thought to make you mine.”
She stiffened. “I am no man’s light woman, if that is what your barbaric word means.”
“It is the Old Tongue, meijha; a gift of the old gods. Once it was the only tongue in this land.” His breath warmed her ear. “I will teach it to you.”
“Let me go!”
“I have only just got you, I do not intend to let you go so quickly.”
“Release her,” Carillon ordered flatly.
Finn laughed joyously. “The princeling orders me! But now the Cheysuli no longer recognize the Mujhar’s laws, my young lord, or his wishes. Shaine effectively severed our hereditary obedience to the Mujhar and his blood when he declared qu’mahlin on our race.” The laughter died. “Perhaps we can return the favor, now we have his heir at hand.”
“You have me, then,” Carillon growled. “Release Alix.”
The Cheysuli laughed again. “But it was the woman I came for, princeling. I have only got you in the bargain. And I do not intend to lose either of you.” His hand slid across Alix’s breast idly. “You both will be guests in a Cheysuli raiding camp this night.”
“My father…” Alix whispered.
“Your father will come looking for you, meijha, and when he does not find you he will assume the beasts of the forest got you.”
“And he will have the right of it!” she snapped.
His hand cupped her jaw and lifted it. “Already you join your princeling in cursing us.”
“Aye!” she agreed. “When you behave like a beast there is little else I can do!”
The hand tightened until it nearly crushed her jaw. “Who is to blame for that, meijha?” He turned her head until she was forced to look at Carillon. “You see before you the heir to the man who drove us from our homeland, making outlaws of warriors, denying us our rights. Is not Shaine the Mujhar a maker of beasts, then, if you would call us that?”
“He is your liege lord!” Carillon hissed through gritted teeth.
“No,” Finn said coldly. “He is not. Shaine of Homana is my persecutor, not my liege lord.”
“He persecutes with reason!”
Carillon’s eyes narrowed. “A Cheysuli warrior—liege man to my uncle the Mujhar—stole away a king’s daughter.” He smiled coldly, as angry as the Cheysuli. “That practice, it seems, is still alive among your race. Even now you steal another.”
Finn matched Carillon’s smile. “Perhaps, princeling, but she is not a king’s daughter. Only her father will miss her, and her mother, and that will pass in time.”
“My mother is dead,” Alix said, then regretted speaking at all. She took a careful breath. “If I go with you, willingly, will you free Carillon?”
Finn laughed softly. “No, meijha, I will not. He is the weapon the Cheysuli have needed these twenty-five years of the qu’mahlin, for all he was born after it began. We will use him.”
Alix’s eyes met Carillon’s, and they realized the futility of their arguments. Neither spoke.
“Come,” said Finn. “I have men and horses waiting in the forest. It is time we left this place.”
Carillon got carefully to his feet, cradling the injured wrist. He stood stiffly, taller than the black-haired warrior, but somehow diminished before the fierce pride of the man.
“Your sword, princeling,” Finn said quietly. “Take up your sword and return it to its sheath.”
“I would sooner sheathe it in your flesh.”
“Aye,” Finn agreed. “If you did not, you would not be much of a man.” Alix felt an odd tension in his body. “Take up the sword, Carillon of Homana. It is yours, for all that.”
Carillon, warily eyeing the wolf, bent and retrieved the blade. The ruby glinted as he slid the sword home awkwardly with his left hand.
Finn stared at the weapon and smiled oddly. “Hale’s blade.”
Carillon scowled at him. “My uncle gifted me with this sword last year. It was his before that. What do you say?”
When the Cheysuli did not answer immediately Alix looked sharply at him. She was startled to find bleakness in his yellow beast-eyes.
“Long before it was a Mujhar’s blade it was a Cheysuli’s. Hale made that sword, princeling, and gifted it to his liege lord, the man he had sworn a blood-oath of service to.” He sighed. “And the prophecy of the Firstborn says it will one day be back in the hands of a Cheysuli Mujhar.”
Finn grinned mockingly. “I may lie, on occasion, but the prophecy does not. Come, my lord, allow my lir to escort you to your horse. Come.”
Carillon, aware of the wolf’s silent menace, went. Alix had no choice but to follow.
Three other Cheysuli, Alix saw apprehensively, waited silently in the forest. Carillon’s warhorse was with them. She cast a quick glance at the prince, judging his reaction, and saw his face was pale, jaw set so tightly she feared it might break. He seemed singularly dedicated to keeping himself apart from the Cheysuli even though he was in their midst.
Finn said something in a lyrical tongue she did not recognize and one of the warriors came forward with a strange horse for Carillon. He was being refused his own, and quick color rising in his face confirmed the insult.
“We know the reputation of Homanan warhorses,” Finn said briefly. “You will not be given a chance to flee us so easily. Take this one, for now.”
Silently Carillon accepted the reins and with careful effort was able to mount. Finn stared up at him from the ground, then moved to the prince and without a word tore a long strip of wool from Carillon’s green cloak. He tossed it at him.
“Bind your wound, princeling. I will not lose you to death so easily.”
Carillon took up the strip and did as told. He smiled grimly down at the yellow-eyed warrior. “When I am given the time, shapechanger, I will see the color of your blood.”
Finn laughed and turned away. He grinned at Alix. “Well, meijha, we lack a horse for you. But mine will serve. I will enjoy the feel of you against me.”
Alix, both furious and frightened, only glared at him. His dark face twisted in an ironic smile and he took the reins of his own horse from another warrior. He gestured toward the odd gear on the animal’s back. It did not quite resemble a Homanan saddle, with its large saddletree and cantle designed to hold in a fighting man, but served an identical purpose. Alix hesitated, then placed her bare foot in the leather stirrup and hoisted herself into the saddle. Before she could say anything to prevent him, Finn vaulted onto the horse’s rump behind her. She felt his arms come around her waist to take up the reins.
“You see, meijha? You can hardly avoid me.”
She did her best. The ride was long and she was wearied from riding stiffly upright before him when at last Finn halted the horse. She stared in surprise at the encampment before her, for it was well hidden in the thick, shadowed forests.
Woven tents of greens, browns, grays and slates huddled in the twilight, nearly indistinguishable from the trees and underbrush of the forest and the tumbled piles of mountain boulders. Small fires glowed flickeringly across the narrow clearing.
Alix straightened as Finn reined in the horse. She turned quickly to search for Carillon, lost among the black-haired, yellow-eyed Cheysuli warriors, but Finn prevented her. His left arm came around her waist snugly, possessive as he leaned forward, pressing against her rigid back.
“Your princeling will recover, meijha. He is in some pain now, but it will pass.” His voice dropped to a provocative whisper. “Or I will make it.”
She ignored him, sensing a slow, defiant—and somehow frightening—rage building within her. “Why did you set your wolf on him?”
“He drew Hale’s sword, meijha. Doubtless he knows how to use it, even against a Cheysuli.” He laughed softly. “Perhaps especially against a Cheysuli. But we are too few as it is. My death would not serve.”
“You set a beast on him!”
“Storr is no beast. He is my lir. And he only did it to keep Carillon from getting himself slain, for I would have taken his life to keep my own.”
She glanced at the wolf waiting so silently and patiently by the horse. “Your—lir? What do you say?”
“That wolf is my lir. It is a Cheysuli thing, which you could not possibly understand. There is no Homanan word for our bond.” He shrugged against her. “Storr is a part of me, and I him.”
“Shapechanger…” she whispered involuntarily.
“Cheysuli,” he whispered back.
“Is any wolf this—lir?”
“No. I am bonded with Storr only, and he was chosen by the old gods to be my lir. They are born knowing it. Each warrior has only one, but it can be any creature.” He picked a leaf from Alix’s hair, even as she stiffened. “It is too new for you to understand, meijha. Do not try.”
She felt him slide from behind and a moment later he pulled her from the horse. Alix stifled a blurt of surprise and felt each sinew tighten as his hand crept around her neck.
“You may release me,” she said quickly. “I can hardly run from a wolf.”
His hand slid from her. She felt her braid lifted from her neck and his lips upon her nape. “Then you are learning already, meijha.”
Before she could protest he turned her face to his and bent her head back as his mouth came down on hers. Alix struggled against him with no effect except to feel herself held more securely. He was far too strong for her, stronger than she had ever imagined a man could be.
You should not, lir, said a quiet voice in Alix’s mind.
She stiffened in fear, wondering how Finn spoke without saying anything. Then she was pushed from him unexpectedly as he moved back a single step. She saw he had not spoken, silently or aloud, but whatever had formed the words had greatly upset him. His eyes, watching her warily, were slitted. Slowly he looked at the wolf.
“Storr…” he said softly, in amazement.
You should not, said the tone again.
Finn swung back to her, suddenly angry. “Who are you?”
His hand clasped her braid and tugged sharply, jerking at her scalp. “What manner of woman are you, to draw Storr’s concern?”
The wolf? she wondered blankly.
Finn peered closely at her, fingers painfully closing on her jaw until she had no choice but to look directly into his shadowed face. The wolf-shaped gold earring gleamed.
“You are dark enough for one of us, but you have not the eyes,” he muttered. “Brown, like half of Homana. Yet why else would Storr protest my pleasure? It is not for the lir to do.”
“I am none of yours!” she hissed, profoundly shaken. “I am daughter to Torrin of Homana. Do not curse me by naming me Cheysuli, shapechanger!”
His hand tightened and she cried out. Faintly she heard Carillon’s worried tone carry across the way. “Alix!”
Finn released her so curtly she stumbled, back. “Go to your princeling, meijha. Tend his wound like a proper light woman.”
She opened her mouth to protest his unseemly words, then bit them back and whirled, hastening to Carillon. He stood by his Cheysuli mount, unsteady, cradling his bound wrist against his chest. His face, even in the shadows, was drawn with pain.
“Did he harm you?” he asked harshly.
Alix shook her head, recalling the anger in Finn’s hand upon her chin. “No, I am well enough. But what of you?”
He half-shrugged. “It is my sword arm. Without it I am not much of a prince, nor even a man. Otherwise I would not speak of it.”
She smiled and touched his uninjured arm gently. “We have nowhere else to go, my lord. Let us move into the firelight where I can see to your wrist.”
Finn came to them silently and gestured toward a green tent not far from where they stood. Mutely Alix followed the Cheysuli leader, keeping one hand on Carillon’s arm. That he had said anything at all about his wound worried her, for it indicated the wolf bite was worse than she suspected.
Finn watched them kneel down on a blue woven rug before his tent and then disappeared within, ignoring them. Alix cast a quick glance around the small encampment, seeking a way out, but there were too many warriors. And Carillon’s face was already fever-flushed and warm when she set her hand against it.
“We go nowhere, yet,” she said softly.
“We must,” he answered, carefully unwrapping his injured wrist. The flesh was scored with teeth marks. The bleeding had stopped, but the wound was open and seeping.
“We have no choice,” Alix whispered. “Perhaps in the morning, when you are better.”
Light from the small fire cairn, built before the tent, flickered over his jaw. She saw the stubborn set to the prominent bones. “Alix, I will not remain in a shapechanger camp. They are demons.”
“They are also our captors,” she agreed wryly. “Do you think to escape them so easily? You could hardly get half a league with this wolf-wound.”
“You could. You could reach your father’s croft. He could ride to Mujhara for help.”
“Alone…” she whispered. “And so far…”
He rubbed his unwounded forearm across his brow. “I do not wish to send you into the darkness alone, no matter how far the distance is. But I have no choice, Alix. I would go myself, willingly, as I think you know.” He lifted his bloody arm. “I do recognize my own limitations.” His smile came swiftly, and left as quickly. “I have faith in you, my girl, more so than in any man who might be with me in this.”
Pain squeezed her heart so that it nearly burst. In the brief weeks she had known him he had become everything to her, a hero she could worship from the depths of her romantic soul and a man she could dream of in the long nights. To have him look at her so warmly and with such trust nearly undid her convictions about not allowing him to see her vulnerability.
“You must,” he said gently. “We cannot remain here. My uncle, when he learns of this, will send mounted troops immediately to destroy this nest of demons. Alix, you must go.”
“Go where?” demanded Finn from the tent’s doorflap.
Alix twitched in surprise at his stealth, but Carillon glared at the Cheysuli. Somehow Finn seemed more substantial, a thing of the darkness, illuminated by the firelight dancing off the gold on his arms and in his ear. Alix forced herself to look away from his yellow eyes and stared instead at the earring half-hidden in thick black hair. It, like the armbands he wore above the elbows, bore a skillful figure of a wolf.
For his lir…she realized blankly, and wondered anew at the strangeness of his race.
The Cheysuli smiled mockingly and moved to stand over them. His steps were perfectly silent and hardly left a mark in the dirt.
He is like the shadows themselves…
“My prince,” he said vibrantly, “you must doubtless believe this insubstantial girl could make her way through a hostile forest without aid of any sort. Were she Cheysuli, she could, for we are creatures of the forests instead of cities, but she is not. And I have gone to far too much trouble to lose either of you so quickly.”
“You have no right to keep us, shapechanger,” Carillon said.
“We have every right, princeling! Your uncle has done what he could to slay every Cheysuli in Homana—a land we made! He has come closer than even he knows, for it is true our numbers are sadly reduced. From thousands we are hundreds. But it has been fortunate, lately, that Shaine is more concerned with the war Bellam of Solinde wishes to levy against Homana. He needs must steep himself in battle plans again, and forget us for a time.”
“So,” Carillon said on a sighing breath, “you will ransom me back to the Mujhar?”
Finn stroked his smooth jaw, considering, grinning at them both. “That is not for me to say. It is a Cheysuli Clan Council decision. But I will let you know how we view your disposition.”
Alix straightened. “And what of me?”
He stared sightlessly at her a long moment. Then he dropped to one knee and lifted her braid against his lips in a seductive manner. “You, meijha, will remain with us. The Cheysuli place much value on a woman, for we have need of them to breed more of us.” He ignored her gasp of shock and outrage. “Unlike the Homanans, who may keep a woman for only a night, we keep her forever.”
Alix recoiled from him, jerking her braid free of his hand. Fear drove into her chest so quickly she could hardly breathe, and she felt a trembling begin in her bones.
He could do this, she realized. He could. He is a demon…
“Let me go,” she pleaded. “Do not keep me with you.”
His black brows lifted. “Do you sicken of my company so soon, meijha? You will injure me with such words.”
“Alix is none of yours,” Carillon said coldly. “If you seek to ransom me, you will do the same for her. And if her father cannot meet your price, the Mujhar will pay it from his own coffers.”
Finn did not bother to look at Carillon. He stared penetratingly at Alix. “She is a prize of war, princeling. My own personal war against the Mujhar. And I would never take gold from a man who could order his men to slay an entire race.”
“I am no prize!” Alix cried. “I am a woman! Not a broodmare to be judged by her ability to bear young or bring gold. You will not treat me so!”
Finn caught one of her hands and held it, browned fingers encircling her wrist gently. She tried to pull away, but he exerted just enough force to keep her hand imprisoned.
“I treat you how I choose,” he told her. “But I would have you know meijhas are honored among the Cheysuli. That a woman has no cheysul—husband—and yet takes a man as mate does not make her a whore. Tell me, is that not a better life than the light women of Mujhara receive?”
Her hand jerked in his grasp. “Let me go!”
“You are not the first woman won in such a fashion,” he said solemnly, “and doubtless you will not be the last. But for now, you are mine to do with as I will.”
Carillon reached out to grab Finn’s arm, cursing him angrily, but the pain of his wrist prevented him. His face went horribly white and he stopped moving instantly, cradling the wounded arm. His breath hissed between his teeth.
Finn released Alix. “If you will allow it, I will heal the wound.”
“Aye,” the Cheysuli said quietly. “It is a gift of the old gods. We have healing arts at our beck.”
Alix rubbed at the place he had held on her arm. “What do you say, shapechanger?”
“Cheysuli,” he corrected. “I can summon the earth magic.”
“Sorcery!” Carillon exclaimed.
Finn shrugged. “Aye, but it is a gift, for all that. And used only for good.”
“I will not suffer your touch.”
Finn moved and caught Carillon’s wounded arm in a firm grasp. The prince winced away, prepared to make a furious protest, but said nothing as astonishment crept across his face.
“Carillon?” Alix whispered.
“The pain…” he said dazedly.
“The earth magic eases pain,” Finn said matter-of-factly, kneeling before the pale prince. “But it can also do much more.”
Alix stared open-mouthed as the Cheysuli held the lacerated arm. His yellow eyes had gone oddly piercing, yet detached, and she realized her escape lay open before her. He had somehow gone beyond them both.
She moved as if to go, coiling her legs to push herself upright, but the expression on Carillon’s face prevented her. She saw amazement, confusion and revulsion, and the beginnings of a protest. But she also saw acknowledgment of the truth in Finn’s words, and before she could voice a question, afraid of the sorcery the shapechanger used, Finn released Carillon’s wrist.
“It is done, princeling. It will heal cleanly, painlessly, though you will have scars to show for your foolishness.”
“Foolishness!” Carillon exclaimed.
Finn smiled grimly “It is ever foolishness for a man to threaten a Cheysuli before his lir.” Finn nodded his head at the silver wolf who lay silently by the tent. “Storr will let no man harm me, even at the cost of his own life.” He frowned suddenly, eyes somber. “Though that has its price.”
“Then one day I will slay you both,” Carillon said clearly.
Alix felt the sudden flare of tension between the two, though she could not put name to it. And when Finn smiled ironically she felt chilled, recoiling from his twisted mouth.
“You may try, princeling, but I do not think you will accomplish it. We are meant for something other than death at one another’s hands, we two.”
“What do you say?” Alix demanded.
He glanced at her. “You do not know the prophecy of the Firstborn, meijha. When you have learned it, you will have your answers.” He rose in a fluid motion that put her in mind of a supple mountain cat. “And it will give you more questions.”
“What prophecy?” she asked.
“The one which gives the Cheysuli purpose.” He stretched out his right hand in a palm-up, spread-fingered gesture. “You will understand what this is another time. For now, I must see my rujholli. You may sleep here or within my tent; it is all one to me. Storr will keep himself by you while I am gone.”
He turned and walked away silently, fading into the shadows, lost to sight instantly. Alix shivered as the wolf rose and came to the blue blanket. He lay down near them, watching them with an odd equanimity in his amber eyes.
Alix recalled Finn’s odd words earlier; his strange reaction to the gentle tone she had heard in her mind. Carefully, apprehensively, she formed her own.
Wolf? she asked. Do you speak?
Nothing echoed in her head. The wolf, called lir, did not seem so fierce now as he rested his jaws on his paws, pink tongue lolling idly. But the intelligence in his feral eyes, so unlike a man’s, could not be ignored.
Lir? she questioned.
I am called Storr, he said briefly.
Alix jerked and recoiled on the blanket, fighting down nausea. She stared at the animal, horrified, but he had not moved. Something like a smile gleamed in his eyes.
Do not be afraid of me. There is no need. Not for you.
“By the gods…” she whispered.
Carillon looked at her. “Alix?”
She could not take her eyes from the wolf to look at Carillon. A shiver of fear ran through her as she considered the madness of her discovery. It was not possible.
“Alix,” he said again.
Finally she looked at him. His face was pale, puzzled; fatigue dulled his blue eyes. But even were he alert and well, she could not tell him she heard the wolf speak. He would never believe her, and she was not certain she did.
“I am only confused,” she said softly, mostly to herself. “Confused.”
He shifted the arm into a more comfortable position, running a tentative finger over the puffy teeth marks left by the wolf. But even she could see it had the look of healing to it.
“You must leave,” he said.
She stared at him. “You still wish me to go, even after what the shapechanger said?”
Carillon smiled. “He sought only to frighten you.”
“The shapechanger will not leave him with us forever. When you have the chance, you must go.”
She watched Carillon ease himself down on the blue blanket, stretching out long legs booted to the thighs and wrapping the green cloak over his arm.
“Aye, Alix?” he asked on a weary sigh.
She bit at her lip, ashamed of her hesitation. “I will go. When I have the chance.”
He smiled faintly and fell into an exhausted slumber. Alix looked at him sadly.
What is it about an ill or injured man that turns a woman into an acquiescent fool? she wondered. Why is it I am suddenly willing to do anything for him? She sighed and picked at the wrinkles in her gown. But he would go himself, were he well enough, so I will do as he asks.
She looked curiously at the wolf, wondering if he could hear her thoughts. But the animal only watched her idly, as if he had nothing better to do.
Perhaps he does not, she decided and drew up her knees to stare sightlessly into the flames.
The fire had died to glowing coals when she felt an odd touch in her mind, almost like a probing. It was feather-light and very gentle, but terrifying. Alix jerked her head off her knees and stared around wide-eyed, afraid it was some form of Cheysuli torture.
Nothing was there. The camp was oddly empty, for, like Finn, each warrior had gone to a single slate-colored tent at the far end of the small encampment.
Alix looked at the wolf and found his amber eyes fastened on her. “No,” she whispered.
The faint touch faded from her mind. Alix put a trembling hand to her ear. “You cannot speak to me. I cannot hear you.”
You hear, said the warm tone.
“What do you do to me?” she demanded violently, struggling to keep her voice down so as not to waken Carillon.
I seek, he answered.
She closed her eyes but was still intensely aware of his gaze. “I am gone mad,” she whispered.
No, said the tone. You are only weary, and frightened, and very much alone. But there is no need.
“You said you sought something, wolf.” Alix took a trembling breath, giving in to her madness for the moment. “What do you seek in me?”
Storr lifted his head from his paws. I cannot say.
His clear gaze made her uneasy. Carillon slept soundly, lines of pain washed from his face, and she wished he could give her the words she needed to banish this strangeness from her mind. She wished also she could lose herself in such soothing sleep, but every fiber in her body was stretched taut with apprehension and a longing to run away.
Wolf? she asked silently.
He said nothing. After a moment he rose and shook himself, rippling his silver coat. He sent her an oddly intent glance, then padded away into the darkness, as deliberate as any dog among his people.
Alix stared after him. A quick glance told her no one was near; she saw no other animals. She looked longingly at Carillon’s unmoving form a moment, wanting to smooth the hair from his hot brow, but she kept herself from it. Such intimacy, if it ever occurred, would have to begin with him. She was too far from his rank to initiate anything.
She released a rushing breath, trying to control the raggedness of it, and got to her feet. She shook her skirts free of folds, curling her bare toes away from the cool ground. Her feet were cold, bruised, but she could waste no time regretting her lost slippers.
Silently Alix slipped into the darkness of the encampment. She was no shadow-wraith like the Cheysuli, but she was forest-raised and could move with little noise. Carefully she eased past the last tent and entered the clustered trees.
Needles and twigs snapped beneath her feet, digging painfully into her flesh. Alix bit her lip against the sharp, nagging pain and went on, ignoring the fear in her soul. A shiver coursed down her body as she moved through the silent forest. She longed for the warmth and safety of her father’s croft and the hot spiced cider he brewed.
It is for Carillon, she whispered silently. For him. Because a prince has asked me. Irrationally she nearly laughed aloud. But he does not have to be a prince to bid me serve him. I would do it willingly.
She grasped a tree and felt the rough bark bite into her palms as she dug fingernails into it. Her forehead rested against the tree as she smiled, inwardly laughing at her conflicting emotions. Fear was still the primary element in her soul, but so was her wish to do as Carillon asked. She was fair caught in the trap that bound so many women.
A twig snapped. Alix jerked her head up and stared into the trees, suddenly so badly frightened she lost all track of other emotions. Her fingers clutched spasmodically at the bark and she sucked in a ragged breath.
The wolf stood in the shadows, little more than a faint outline against the darkness beyond. For a moment she felt fear slip away, for somehow Storr did not threaten her; then she realized it was not Storr. This one was larger, ruddy instead of silver. Its yellow eyes held a gleam of invitation.
The fear came back. Alix pressed her body against the tree, seeking its protection. A broken bough jabbed into her thigh but she ignored it, wishing only she could somehow scale the tree into branches far above the ground.
The wolf moved slowly forward into a small clearing. Moonlight set its rich red pelt to glowing, pinpointing yellow eyes into an eerie intelligence. Teeth gleamed, and Alix saw its taunting smile.
The wolf began to change.
Cold, primitive fear crawled through her mind. The form before her eyes altered, subtly blurring outline and color into a shapeless void. And then Finn stood before her.
“I said you would not win free of us,” he told her calmly. “Meijha, you must stay.”
Alix shivered. Finn was whole again, a man, with yellow eyes glinting in high good humor and heavy gold bands gleaming faintly against folded bare arms.
She gripped the tree. “You…”
He spread his hands slowly, unaggressively. “Do you question what you have seen, meijha?” His smile was mocking. “Do not. Your eyes have not deceived you.”
Alix felt nausea roil her stomach and send bile into her throat. She choked it back down. “You were a wolf.”
“Aye,” he agreed, unoffended by her horror. “The old gods gifted us with the ability to take lir-shape, once properly bonded with an animal. We can assume a like shape at will.” He sounded very-serious, incongruous in him. “It is something we honor the gods for.”
Finn’s mouth twisted wryly. “Aye, that is the Homanan name for us, when they do not call us demons. But we are not sorcerers, meijha; we are not servants of the dark gods. We leave that to the Ihlini.” He shrugged. “We are merely men…with a god-gift in the blood.”
Alix could not deal with it; with him. She stared fixedly at him a moment, still stunned by the enormity of what she had seen. Then she scraped herself around the tree and ran.
Underbrush tore at her gown and welted skin already prickling with fright as she raced through the trees. A limb slashed across her face. Alix ignored it all in her panicked flight, seeking only to escape the man, the demon, who was everything Carillon had said.
She could hear no pursuit over the noise of her own flight, but it served only to increase her fear. A shapechanger would hardly make noise as he stalked his prey.
Alix stumbled over a log and fell across it, stomach driven against her spine. Breath left her in a whooping rush but she tried to lift herself frantically pinpricks of light flashed before her eyes as she struggled to her feet, lungs sucking at air she could not find.
She was driven down again by a hard body from behind.
Alix lay half-stunned, still out of breath. Her face burned from a bleeding welt on her cheek. She lay pressed against the cool ground, helpless in his arms, sobbing as she tried to regain her breath.
Her body was lifted from the forest floor and turned over. She lay very still as he set her on her back, unable to close her eyes as he knelt over her. Faint light filtered through the trees. His earring winked coldly.
“Have I not already said escape is impossible?” he asked. “I am Cheysuli.”
Her chest hurt, but air was beginning to creep into it again. Alix swallowed painfully. “Please…let me go.”
“I have said before how much trouble I have gone to get you, and to keep you. At least let me have some repayment for it.” His fingers touched the cut on her face and she winced. “You did not need to run from me, meijha.”
She shivered. This man becomes a wolf at will. She looked at his hands for signs of the wolf-mark. Finn grinned at her with a man’s teeth in a wolfish leer.