For five long years, the land of Homana had been strangling in the grasp of a usurper king—its people ravaged by strife, poverty, and despair; its magical race, the Cheysuli, forced to flee or face extermination at the hands of their evil counterparts, the sorcerous Ilhini.
The time had come for Prince Carillon, Homana's rightful ruler, to return from exile with his Cheysuli liege man, free his land from the evil dominantion of the tyrant Bellam and his villainous magicians, restore the Cheysuli to their rightful position of grace, and claim his birthright.
To do this, he would not only have to raise an army, but overcome the fear and prejudice of an ignorant population and answer the call of a prophecy he never chose to serve!
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
THE SONG OF HOMANA
Chronicles of the Cheysuli: Book Two
Copyright ©, 1985, by Jennifer Roberson O’Green
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Julek Heller.
DAW Collectors’ Book No. 635
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.
First Printing, July 1985
PRINTED IN THE USA
To Marion Zimmer Bradley,
for daydreams and realities
for making mine better
Table of Contents
I peered through the storm, trying to see Finn. He rode ahead on a small Steppes pony much like my own, though brown instead of dun, little more than an indistinct lump of darkness in the blowing snow. The wind beat against my face; Finn would not hear me unless I shouted against it. I pulled the muffling wraps of wool away from my face, grimacing as the bitter wind blew ice crystals into my beard, and shouted my question to him.
“Do you see anything?”
The indistinct lump became more distinct as Finn turned back in the saddle. Like me, he wore leather and wool and furs, hooded and wrapped, hardly a man underneath all the layers. But then Finn was not what most men would name a man at all, being Cheysuli.
He pulled wrappings from his face. Unlike me, he wore no beard in an attempt at anonymity; the Cheysuli cannot grow them. Something in the blood, Finn had said once, kept them from it. But what he did not have on his face was made up for on his head; Finn’s hair, of late infrequently cut, was thick and black. It blew in the wind, baring a sun-bronzed predator’s face.
“I have sent Storr ahead to seek shelter,” he called back to me. “Is there such a place in all this snow, he will find it.”
Instantly my eyes went to the side of the narrow forest track. There, parallelling the hoofprints of our horses—though glimpsed only briefly in the blowing snow and wind—were the pawprints of a wolf. Large prints, well-spaced, little more than holes until the wind and snow filled them in. But it marked the path of Finn’s lir nonetheless; it marked Finn a man apart, for what manner of man rides with a wolf at his side? Better yet, it marked me, for what manner of man rides with a shapechanger at his side?
Finn did not go on at once. He waited, saying nothing more. His face was still bared to the wind. As I rode up I saw how he slitted his eyes, the pupils swollen black against the blinding whiteness. But the irises were a clear, eerie yellow. Not amber or gold or honey. Yellow.
Beast-eyes, men called them. I had reason to know why.
I shivered, then cursed, trying to strip my beard of ice. Of late we had spent our time in the warmth of eastern lands; it felt odd to be nearly home again, and suffering because of the winter. I had forgotten what it was to go so encumbered by furs and wool and leather.
And yet I had forgotten nothing. Especially who I was.
Finn, seeing my shiver, grinned, baring his teeth in a silent laugh. “Weary of it already? And will you spend your time shivering and bemoaning the storms when you walk the halls and corridors of Homana-Mujhar again?”
“We are not even in Homana yet,” I reminded him, disliking his easy assurance, “let alone my uncle’s palace.”
“Your palace.” For a moment he studied me solemnly, reminding me of someone else: his brother. “Do you doubt yourself? Still? I thought you had resolved all that when you decided it was time for us to turn our backs on exile.”
“I did.” I scraped at my beard with gloved fingers, stripping it again of the cold crystals. “Five years is long enough for any man to spend in exile; it is too long for a prince. It is time we took my throne back from that Solindish usurper.”
Finn shrugged. “You will. The prophecy of the Firstborn is quite definite. You will win back the Lion Throne from Bellam and his Ihlini sorcerer, and take your place as Mujhar.” He put out his gloved right hand and made an eloquent gesture: fingers spread, palm turned upward. Tahlmorra. The Cheysuli philosophy that each man’s fate rested in the hands of the gods.
Well, so be it. So long as the gods made me a king in place of Bellam.
The arrow sliced through the storm and struck deeply into the ribs of Finn’s horse. The animal screamed and bolted sideways in a twisting lunge. Deep snowdrifts fouled the gelding’s legs and belly almost immediately and he went down, floundering. Blood ran out of his nostrils; it spilled from the wound and splashed against the snow, staining it brilliant crimson.
I unsheathed my sword instantly, jerking it free of the scabbard on my saddle. I spun my horse, cursing, and saw Finn’s outthrust arm as he leaped free of his failing mount. “Three of them…now!”
The first man reached me. We engaged. He carried a sword as I did, swinging it like a scythe as he sought to cut off my head. I heard the familiar sounds: the keening of the blade as it slashed through the air, the laboring of his mount, the hissing of breath between his teeth as he grunted with the effort. I heard also my own grinding teeth as I swung my heavy broadsword. I felt the satisfactory jar of blade against body, though his winter furs muffled most of the impact. Still, it was enough to double him in the saddle and weaken his counterthrust. My own blade went through leathers and into flesh, slowed by the leathers, then quickened by the flesh. A thrust with my shoulder behind it, and the man was dead.
I jerked the sword free instantly and spun my horse yet again, cursing his small size and wishing for a Homanan warhorse as he faltered. He had been chosen for anonymity’s sake, not for his war-sense. And now I must pay for it.
I looked for Finn. I saw instead the wolf. I saw also the dead man, gape-mouthed and bleeding in the snow; the third and final man was still ahorse, staring blankly at the wolf. It was no wonder. He had witnessed the shapechange, which was enough to make a grown man cry out in fear; I did not only because I had seen it so many times. And yet I feared it still.
The wolf was large and ruddy. It leaped even as the attacker cried out and tried to flee. Swept out of the saddle and thrown down against the snow, the man lay sprawled, crying out, arms thrust upward to protect his throat. But the teeth were already there.
“Finn!” I slapped my horse’s rump with the flat of my bloodied blade, forcing him through the deep drifts. “Finn,” I said more quietly, “it is somewhat difficult to question a dead man.”
The wolf, standing over the quivering form, turned his head to stare directly at me. The unwavering gaze was unnerving, for it was a man’s eyes set into the ruddy, snow-dusted head. A man’s eyes that stared out of the wolf’s head.
Then came the blurring of the wolf-shape. It coalesced into a void, a nothingness that hurt the eyes and head and made my belly lurch upward against my ribs. Only the eyes remained the same, fixed on me: bestial and yellow and strange. The eyes of a madman, or the eyes of a Cheysuli warrior.
I felt the prickling down my spine even as I sought to suppress it. The blurring came back as the void dissipated, but this time the faint outline was that of a man. No more the wolf but a two-legged, dark-skinned man. Not human; never that. Something else. Something more.
I shifted forward in the saddle, urging my horse closer. The little gelding was chary of it, smelling death on Finn’s mount as well as on the first two men, but he went closer at last. I reined him in beside the prisoner who lay on his back in deep snow, staring wide-eyed up at the man who had been a wolf.
“You,” I said, and saw the eyes twitch and shift over to me. He wanted to rise; I could see it. He was frightened and helpless as he lay sprawled in the snow, and I meant him to acknowledge it. “Speak,” I told him, “who is your master?”
He said nothing. Finn took a single step toward him, saying nothing at all. The man began to speak.
I suppressed my twitch of surprise. Homanan, not Ellasian. I had not heard the tongue for five years, except from Finn’s mouth; even now we kept ourselves to Caledonese and Ellasian almost always. And yet, here in Ellas, we heard Homanan again.
He did not look at Finn. He looked at me. I saw the fear, and then I saw the shame and anger. “What choice did I have?” he asked from his back in the snow. “I have a wife and daughter and no way to support them. No way to clothe them, feed them, keep them warm in winter. My croft is gone because I could not pay the rents. My money was spent in the war. My son was lost with Prince Fergus. Do I let my wife and daughter starve because I cannot provide? Do I lose my daughter to the depravity of Bellam’s court?” He glared at me from malignant brown eyes. As he spoke the anger grew and the shame faded. All that was left was hostility and desperation. “I had no choice! It was good gold that was offered—”
The knife twisted in my belly, though the blade did not exist. “Bloodied gold,” I interrupted, knowing what he would say.
“Aye!” he shouted. “But worth it! Shaine’s war got me nothing but a dead son, the loss of my croft and the beggaring of my family. What else am I to do? Bellam offers gold—bloodied gold!—and I will take it. So will we all!”
“All?” I echoed, liking little of what I heard. Was all of Homana desiring to give me over to my enemy for his Solindish gold, my life was forfeit before the task was begun.
“Aye!” he shouted. “All! And why not? They are demons. Abominations. Beasts!”
The wind shifted. It threw ice into my face again, but I made no move to rid myself of it. I could not. I could only stare at the man in the snow, struck dumb by his admission.
And then I looked at Finn.
Like me, he was quite still. Silent. Staring. But then, slowly, he lifted his head and looked directly at me. I saw the shrinking of his pupils so that the yellow of his eyes stood out like a beacon against the storm. Yellow eyes. Black hair. The gold that hung at his left ear, bared by the wind that blew the hair from his face. His alien, predator’s face.
I looked at him with new eyes, as I had not looked at him for five years, and realized again what he was. Cheysuli. Shapechanger. A man who took on the form of a wolf at will.
And the reason for the attack.
Not me. Not me at all. I was insignificant. The prisoner did not know that my head—delivered to Bellam—would give him more gold than he could imagine. By the gods, he did not even know who I was!
Another time, I might have laughed at the irony. Been amused by my conceit, that I thought all men knew me and my worth. But here, in this place, my identity was not the issue. Finn’s race was.
“Because of me,” he said, and that only.
I nodded. Sickened by the realization, I nodded. What we faced now was more impossible than ever. Not only did we come home to Homana after five years of exile to raise an army and win back my stolen throne, but we had to do it in the face of Homanan prejudice. Shaine’s purge—the Cheysuli call it qu’mahlin—was little more than the petty vengeance of a mad king, and yet it had not ended even with the sundering of his realm.
They had not come to slay me or even take me prisoner. They had come for Finn, because he was Cheysuli.
“What did they do to you?” I asked. “The Cheysuli. What did this man do to you?”
The Homanan stared up at Finn in something akin to astonishment. “He is a shapechanger!”
“But what did he do to you?” I persisted. “Did he slay your son? Take your croft? Rape your daughter? Beggar your family?”
“Do not bother,” Finn said. “You cannot straighten an ill-grown tree.”
“You can chop it down,” I returned. “Chop it down and into pieces and feed it to the fire—” I wanted to say more, but I stopped. I saw his face, with its closed, private expression, and I said nothing more. Finn was not one for sympathy, or even anger expressed on his behalf. Finn fought his own battles.
And now there was this one.
“Can he be turned?” I asked. “His need I understand—a desperate man will do desperate things—but his target I will not tolerate. Go into his mind and turn him, and he can go home again.”
Finn’s right hand came up. It was empty. But I saw the clenching of his fingers, as if he sought to clasp a knife. He was asking for my approval. He was liege man to the Prince of Homana, and he asked to mete out a death.
“No,” I said. “Not this time. Use your magic instead.”
The man spasmed against the snow. “Gods, no! No! No sorcery—”
“Hold him,” I said calmly, as he tried to leap up and run.
Finn was on him at once, though he did not slay him. He merely held him on his knees, pressing him into the snow, on one knee himself with an arm thrust around the throat and the other gripping the head. One twist and it would be done.
“Mercy!” the dead man cried. But could I do it, I would leave him alive.
Finn would not ask again. He accepted my decision. I saw the hand tighten against the Homanan’s head and the look of terror enter the brown eyes. And then they were empty, and I knew Finn had gone in to do as I had ordered.
It shows in the eyes. I have seen it in the faces and eyes of others Finn has used his magic on. But I also saw it in Finn’s eyes each time: the total immersion of his soul as he sought the gift of compulsion and used it on another. He went away, though his body remained. That which was Finn was elsewhere; he was not-Finn. He was something less and something awesomely more. He was not man, not beast, not god. Something—apart.
The man wavered and sagged, but he did not fall. Finn’s arm remained locked around his throat. The hand was pressed against his skull, but it did not break it. It did not snap the neck. It waited.
Finn twitched and jerked. The natural sunbronzing of his face was suddenly gone; he was the color of death. All gray and ivory, with emptiness in his eyes. I saw the slackening of his mouth and heard the rasp in his throat. And then, before I could say a word, he broke the man’s neck and threw the body down.
“Finn!” I was off my horse at once, thrusting my sword blade down into the snow. I left it there, moving toward Finn, and reached out to grab what I could of his leathers and furs. “Finn, I said turn him, not slay him—”
But Finn was lurching away, staggering in the snow, and I knew he had not heard me. He was not himself. He was still—elsewhere.
“Finn.” I caught his arm and steadied him. Even beneath the thickness of winter furs I could feel the rigidity in his arm. His color was still bad; his pupils were nothing but specks in a void of perfect yellow. “Finn—”
He twitched again, and then he was back. He swung his head to look at me, and only then realized I held his arm. At once I released it, knowing he was himself again, but I did not relax my stance. It was only because he was Finn that I had left my sword behind.
He looked past me to the body in the snow. “Tynstar,” he said. “I touched—Tynstar.”
I stared. “How?”
He frowned and pushed a forearm across his brow, as if he sweated. But his face was dusted with snow, and he shivered from the cold. Once, but it gave away his bewilderment and odd vulnerability. “He was—there. Like a web, soft but sticky…and impossible to shed.” He shook himself, like a dog shaking off water.
“But—if he and the others were hunting Cheysuli and not the Prince of Homana…” I paused a moment. “Would Tynstar meddle in the qu’mahlin?”
“Tynstar would meddle in anything. He is Ihlini.”
I nearly smiled. But I did not, because I was thinking about Tynstar. Tynstar called the Ihlini, because he ruled (if that is the proper word) the race of Solindish sorcerers. Much like the Cheysuli were the magical race of Homana, the Ihlini sprung from Solinde. But they were evil and did the bidding of the demons who served the netherworld. There was nothing of good about the Ihlini. They wanted Homana, and had aided Bellam to get her.
“Then he does not know we are here,” I said, still thinking.
“We are in Ellas,” Finn reminded me. “Homana is but a day or two away, depending on the weather, and I do not doubt Bellam has spies to watch the borders. It may well be these men were sent to catch Cheysuli—” he frowned, and I knew he wondered what tokens Bellam required as proof of a Cheysuli kill. Probably the earring, perhaps the armbands as well. —“but it may be they sought Homana’s exiled prince.” He frowned again. “I cannot be sure. I had no time to learn his intent.”
“And now it is too late.”
Finn looked at me levelly. “If Tynstar is meddling with Homanans and sending them out against the Cheysuli, they must be slain.” For a moment he looked at the body again. Then his eyes came back to me. “It is a part of my service to you to keep you alive. Can I not do the same for myself?”
This time I looked at the body. “Aye,” I said finally, harshly, and turned back to retrieve my sword.
Finn moved to his dead horse and stripped him of the saddlepacks. I mounted my horse and slid the sword home in the scabbard, making certain the blade was clean of blood. The runes ran silver in the white light of the storm. Cheysuli runes, representing the Old Tongue which I did not know. A Cheysuli sword for a Homanan prince. But then that was another thing the prophecy claimed: one day a man of all blood would unite, in peace, four warring realms and two magic races. Perhaps it would no longer be a Cheysuli sword in the hand of a Homanan prince. It would merely be a sword in the hand of a king.
But until then, the golden hilt with its rampant, royal lion and the huge brilliant ruby in the prong-toothed pommel would remain hidden by leather wrappings. At least until I claimed the Lion Throne again and made Homana free.
“Come up,” I told Finn. “You cannot walk in all this snow.”
He handed up his saddlepacks but did not move to mount behind me. “Your horse carries enough bulk, with all of you.” He grinned. “I will go on as a wolf.”
“If Storr is too far ahead—” I stopped. Though the shapechanger was governed by the distance between warrior and lir, it was obvious this time there was no impediment. The peculiar detached expression I knew so well came over Finn’s face. For a moment his body remained beside my horse, but his mind did not. It was elsewhere, answering an imperative call; his eyes turned inward and blank and empty, as if he conversed with something—or someone—no one else could hear.
And then he was back, grinning in genuine pleasure and the attack on us both forgotten. “Storr says he has found us a roadhouse.”
“A league, perhaps a bit more. Close enough, I think, after days without a roof over our heads.” He ran a hand through his black hair and shook free the powdery snow. “There are great advantages to lir-shape, Carillon. I will be quicker—and certainly warmer—than you.”
I ignored him. It was all I could ever do. I turned my horse back to the track and went on, leaving behind three dead men and one dead horse—the others had run away. I cursed the storm again. My face was numb from the ice in my beard. Even the wrappings did not help.
When Finn at last went past me, it was in wolf-shape: yellow-eyed, ruddy-furred, fleet of foot. And warmer, no doubt, than I.
The common room was crowded with men seeking respite from the storm. Dripping candles puddled into piles of cooling, waxy fat on each table, shedding crude light and a cruder pall of smoke into the low beamwork of the roadhouse. The miasma was thick enough to make me choke against its acrid odor, but there was warmth in abundance. For that I would share any stench.
The door hitched against the hardpack of the frozen earthen floor. I stopped short, ducking to avoid smacking my head against the doorframe. But then few roadhouse doors are built to accommodate a man of my height; the years spent in exile had made me taller than I had been five years before and nearly twice as heavy. Still, I would not complain; did the added height and weight—and the beard—keep me unknown on my journey home, I would not care if I knocked myself silly against Ellasian doorframes.
Finn slipped by me into the room as I wrestled with the door. I broke it free, then swung it shut on half-frozen leather hinges, swearing as a dog ran between my legs and nearly upset me. For a moment I thought of Storr, seeking shelter in the forest. Then I thought of food and wine.
I settled the latch-hook into place and marked absently how the stout iron loops were set for a heavy crossbeam lock. I could tell it was but rarely used, but I marked it nonetheless. No more did I have room in my life for the ease of meaningless friendships found in road- and alehouses.
Finn waited at the table. Like the others, it bore a single candle. But this one shed no light, only a clot of thick smoke that fouled the air where the flame had glowed a moment before. Finn, I knew. It was habit with us both.
I joined him, shedding furs and leathers. It felt good to be man again instead of bear, and to know the freedom of movement. I sat down on a three-legged stool and glanced around the common room even as Finn did the same.
No soldiers. Ellas was a peaceful land. Crofters, most of them, convivial in warmth and the glow of liquor. Travelers as well, bound east or west: Ellasians; Homanans; Falians too, by their accents. But no Caledonese, which meant Finn and I could speak Ellasian with a Caledonese twist and no one would name us other.
Except those who knew a Cheysuli when they saw one, and in Ellas that could be anyone.
Ellasians are open, gregarious folk, blunt-speaking and plain of habits. There is little of subterfuge about them, for which I am grateful. I have grown weary of such things, though I have, of necessity, steeped myself in it. It felt good to know myself accepted for what I appeared in the roadhouse: a stranger, foreign, accompanied by a Cheysuli, but welcome among them regardless. Still, it was to Finn they looked twice, if only briefly. And then they looked away again, dismissing what they saw.
I smiled. Few men dismiss a Cheysuli warrior. But in Ellas they do it often. Here the Cheysuli are not hunted.
And then I recalled that Homanans had come into Ellas hunting Cheysuli and I lost my smile entirely.
The tavern-master arrived at last, wiping greasy hands on a frayed cloth apron. He spoke with the throaty, blurred accent of Ellas, all husky and full of phlegm. It had taken me months to learn the trick, but I had learned. And I used it now.
“Ale,” he said, “or wine. Red from Caledon, a sweet white from Falia, or our own fine Ellasian vintage.” His teeth were bad but I thought the smile genuine.
“Have you usca?” I asked.
The grizzled gray brows rose as he considered the question. “Usca, is’t? Na, na, I have none. The plainsmen of the Steppes have naught of trade wi’ us now, since Ellas allied wi’ Caledon in t’last war.” His pale brown eyes marked us Caledonese; my accent had won us that much. Or me; Finn did not in the least resemble a Caledonese. “What else would you have?”
Finn’s yellow eyes were almost black in the dim candlelight, but I saw the glint in them clearly. “What of Homanan honey brew?”
At once the brows drew down into a scowl. The Ellasian’s hair, like his eyebrows, was graying, close-cropped against his head. A blemish spread across one cheek; some childhood malady had left him scarred. But there was no suspicion or distrust in his eyes, only vague disgust.
“Na, none of that, either. ’Tis Homanan, as you have said, and little enough of Homana comes across our borders now.” For a moment he stared at the gold earring shining in Finn’s black hair. I knew what the Ellasian thought: little enough of Homana crossed the borders, unless you counted the Cheysuli.
“No trade, then?” I asked.
The man picked at snags in his wine-stained apron. He glanced around quickly, judging the needs of his customers out of long practice. “Trade, after a fashion,” he agreed in a moment, “but not wi’ Homana. Wi’ Bellam instead, her Solindish king.” He tipped his head in Finn’s direction. “You might know.”
Finn did not smile. “I might,” he said calmly. “But I left Homana when Bellam won the war, so I could not say what has befallen my homeland since.”
The Ellasian studied him. Then he leaned forward, pressing both hands flat against the table. “I say ’tis a sad thing to see the land brought down so low. The land chafes under that Solindish lord. And his Ihlini sorcerer.”
And so we came to the subject I had wanted to broach all along, knowing better than to bring it up myself. Now, did I say nothing and ask no questions, I made myself out a dullard, and almost certainly suspect. The man had proved talkative; I had best not disabuse him of that.
“Homana is not a happy land?” My tone, couched in Caledonese-tinged Ellasian, was idle and incurious; strangers passed time with such talk.
The Ellasian guffawed. “Happy? Wi’ Bellam on her throne and Tynstar’s hand around her throat? Na, not happy, never happy…but helpless. We hear tales of heavy taxes and over-harsh justice. The sort of thing that troubles us little enough in Ellas, under our good High King.” He hawked and turned his head to spit onto the earthen floor. “They do say Bellam desires an alliance with Rhodri himself, but he’ll not be agreeing to such a miscarriage of humanity. Bellam’s a greedy fool; Rhodri is not. He has no need of’t, wi’ six fine sons.” He grinned. “I hear Bellam offers his only daughter to the High Prince himself, but I doubt there will be a match made. Cuinn has better thighs to part than Electra of Solinde’s.”
And so the talk passed to women, as it will among men. But only until the Ellasian left to see about our food, and then we said nothing more of women, thinking of Homana instead. And Bellam, governed by Tynstar.
“Six sons,” Finn mused. “Perhaps Homana would not now be under Solindish rule, had the royal House proved more fertile.”
I scowled at him. I needed no reminders that the House of Homana had been less than prolific. It was precisely because Shaine the Mujhar had sired no son at all—let alone six of them!—that he had turned to his brother’s only son. Ah, aye, fertility and infertility. And how the issues had shaped my life, along with Finn’s. For it was Shaine’s infertility—except for a defiant daughter—that had left an enormous legacy to his nephew, Carillon of Homana, and the Cheysuli shapechanger who served him. The Lion Throne itself, upon the Mujhar’s death, and now a war to fight.
As well as a purge to end.
The tavern-master arrived bearing bread for trenchers and a platter of steaming meat, which he set in the center of the table. Behind him came a boy with a jug of Ellasian wine, two leathern mugs and a quarter of yellow cheese. I saw how the boy looked at Finn’s face, so dark in the amber candlelight. I saw how he stared at the yellow eyes, but he said not a single word. Finn was, perhaps, his first Cheysuli. And worth a second look.
Neither boy nor man lingered, being too pressed by other custom, and Finn and I set to with the intentness of starving men. We were not starving, having eaten at the break of day, but stale journey-loaf eaten in a snowstorm is not nearly as toothsome as hot meat in a warm roadhouse.
I unsheathed my knife and sliced off a chunk of venison, dumping it onto my trencher. It was a Caledonese knife I used now in place of my own, a bone-handled blade wrought with runes and scripture. The hilt had been cut from the thigh of some monstrous beast, or so the king of Caledon had told me upon presentation of it. The blade itself was bright steel, finely honed; the weight of it was perfect for my hand. Still, it was not my own; that one—Cheysuli-made—was hidden in my saddlepacks.
I ate until I could hardly move upon my stool, and ordered a second jug of wine. And then, even as I poured our mugs full again, I heard the hum of rising conversation. Finn and I both looked instantly for the cause of the heightened interest.
The harper came down the ladder with his instrument clasped under one long arm. He wore a blue robe belted at the waist with linked silver, and a silver circlet held back the thick dark hair that curled on his shoulders. A wealthy harper, as harpers often are, being hosted by kings and gifted with gold and gems. This one had fared well. He was tall, wide-shouldered, and his wrists—showing at the edges of his blue sleeves—were corded with muscle. A powerful man, for all his calling was the harp instead of the sword. He was blue-eyed, and when he smiled it was a professional smile, warm and welcoming.
Two men cleared space for him in the center of the room and set out a stool. He thanked them quietly and sat down, settling harp against hip and thigh. I knew at once the instrument was a fine one, having heard so many of the best with my uncle in Homana-Mujhar. It was of rich honey-gold wood, burnished to a fine sheen with years of use. A single green stone was set into the top. The strings glowed gossamer-fine in the smoke and candlelight. They glinted, promising much, until he touched them and fulfilled that promise with the stroke of a single finger.
Like a woman it was, answering a lover’s caress. The music drifted throughout the room, soft and delicate and infinitely seductive, and silenced the voices at once. There is no man alive who cannot lose himself in harpsong, unless he be utterly deaf.
The harper’s voice, when he spoke, was every bit as lovely as the harp. It lacked the feminine timbre of many I had heard, yet maintained the rich liquid range the art requires. The modulation was exquisite; he had no need to speak loudly to reach all corners of the room. He merely spoke. Men listened.
“I will please you as I please myself,” he said quietly, “by giving you what entertainments I can upon my Lady. But there is a task I must first perform.” From the sleeve of his robe he took a folded parchment. He unfolded it, smoothed it, and began to read. He did not color his tone with any emotion, he merely read. But the words were quite enough.
“Know ye all men that Bellam the Mujhar,
King of Solinde and Mujhar of Homana;
Lord of the cities Mujhara and Lestra;
Sets forth the sum of five hundred gold pieces
to any man bringing sound word of Carillon,
styling himself Prince of Homana,
and wrongful claimant to the Lion Throne.
“Know ye all men that Bellam the Mujhar
desires even more the presence of the pretender,
offering one thousand gold pieces
to any man bringing Carillon—or his body—
The harper, when finished, folded the parchment precisely as it had been and returned it to his sleeve. His blue eyes, nearly black in the smoky light, looked at every man as if he judged his thoughts. All idleness was gone; I saw only shrewd intensity. He waited.
I wondered, in that moment, if he recruited. I wondered if he was Bellam’s man, sent out with the promise of gold. I wondered if he counted the pieces for himself. Five hundred of them if he knew I was here. One thousand if he brought me home to Homana-Mujhar.
Home. For disposal as Bellam—or Tynstar—desired.
I saw what they did, the Ellasian men. They thought of the gold and the glory. They thought of the task and the triumph. They considered, for a moment, what it might be to be made rich, but only for a moment, for then they considered their realm. Ellas. Not Homana. Rhodri’s realm. And the man who offered such gold had already swallowed one land.
The Ellasians, I knew, would do nothing for Bellam’s gold. But there were others in the room, and perhaps they would.
I looked at Finn. His face was a mask, as ever; a blank, sun-bronzed mask, with eyes that spoke of magic and myth and made them both quite real.
The harper began to sing. His deep voice was fine and sweet, eloquently expressing his intent. He sang of the bitterness of defeat and the gut-wrenching carnage of war. He sang of boys who died on bloodied fields and captains who fell beneath Solindish and Atvian swords. He sang of a king who hid himself in safety behind the rose-red walls of Homana-Mujhar, half-mad from a crazed obsession. He sang of the king’s slain brother, whose son was trapped in despair and Atvian iron. He sang of the same boy, now a man and free again, who lived his life in exile, fleeing Ihlini retribution. He sang my life, did this stranger, and brought the memories alive.
Oh gods…the memories…
How is it that a harper can know what was? How is it that he captures the essence of what happened, what I am, what I long to be? How is it that he can sing my song while I sit unknowing, knowing only it is true, wishing it were otherwise?
How is it done?
The poignancy nearly shattered me. I shivered once convulsively, then stared hard at the scarred wooden table while the shackle weals beneath the sleeves of my leather shirt ached with remembered pain. I could not look at the harper. Not while he gave me my history, my heritage, my legacy, and the story of a land—my land—in her death struggle.
“By the gods—” I murmured before I could stop.
I felt Finn’s eyes on me. But he said nothing at all.
“I am Lachlan,” said the harper. “I am a harper, but also a priest of Lodhi the All-Wise, the All-Father; would you have me sing of Him?” Silence met his question, the silence of reverence and awe. He smiled, his hands unmoving upon the harp. “You have heard of the magic we of Lodhi hold. The tales are true. Have you not heard them before?”
I looked over the room. Men sat silently on their benches and stools, paying no mind to anyone save the harper. I wondered again what he intended to do.
“The All-Father has given some of us the gift of song, the gift of healing, the gift of words. And fewer of us claim all three.” He smiled. It was an enigmatic, eloquent smile. “I am one, and this night I will share what I can with you.”
The harp’s single green stone cast a viridescent glow as his fingers danced across the strings, stirring a sound that at once set the flesh to rising on my bones. His eyes passed over each of us again, as if he sought to comprehend what each one of us was about. And still he smiled.
“Some men call us sorcerers,” he said quietly. “I will not dispute it. My Lady and I have traversed the leagues of this land and others, and what I have seen I have learned. What I will give you this night is something most men long for: a return to the innocent days. A return to a time when cares were not so great and the responsibilities of manhood did not weigh so heavily. I will give you your greatest day.” The blue eyes swelled to black. “Sit you still and listen, hearing only my Lady and myself, and I will give you the gift of Lodhi.”
I heard the music begin. For a moment I thought nothing of it: it was harpsong as ever, boasting nothing more than what I had already heard. And then I heard the underscore moving through the melody. A strange, eerie tone, seemingly at odds with the smoother line. I stared at the harper’s hands as he moved them in the strings, light glittering off the strands. And then I felt him inside my head.
Suddenly I was nothing but music. A single, solitary note. A string plucked and plucked again, my use dictated by the harper whose hands were on my soul. I stared at the eloquent fingers moving, caressing, plucking at the strings, and the music filled my head.
The colors of the room spilled away, like a wineglass tipped and emptied. Everything was gray, dark and light, with no blacks and no whites. I saw a harper in a gray robe with gray eyes and grayish hair. Only the harp held true: honey-gold and gleaming, with a single emerald eye. And then even that was gone…
No more war—no more blood—no more wishing for revenge. Only the sense of other days. Younger days, and a younger Carillon, staring with joy and awe at the great chestnut warhorse his father had gifted him on his eighteenth birthday. I recalled the day so well, and what I had thought of the horse. I recalled it all, for on that day I was named Prince of Homana, and heir to the Lion Throne.
Again I clattered down the winding staircase at Joyenne, nodding at servants who gave me morning greeting, thinking only of the promised gift. I had known it was to be a horse, a warhorse, but not which one. I had hoped—and it was. The great red stallion had gotten a matching son on my father’s best mare, and that son was mine at last. Full-grown and fully trained, ready for a warrior. I was not so much a warrior then, knowing only the practice chamber and tourney-fields, but I was more than ready to prove what I could of my skill. And yet I could not have wished for that chance to come so soon.
I saw then the underside of the harper’s spell. It was true he gave me my innocent days, but with those days came the knowledge of what had followed. He could not have summoned a more evocative memory had he tried for it; I think he did it purposely. I think he reached into my mind, digging and searching until he found the proper one. And then he gave it to me.
The memory altered. No more was I the young prince reaching out to touch the stallion. No. I was someone else entirely: a bloodied, soiled, exhausted boy in a man’s body, his sword taken from him and his wrists imprisoned in Atvian iron. Taken by Thorne himself, Keough’s son, who had ordered the iron hammered on.
All my muscles knotted. Sweat broke out on my flesh. I sat in a crowded common room of a roadhouse in the depths of an Ellasian storm, and I sweated. Because I could not help myself.
And then, suddenly, the colors were back. The grays faded. Candlewicks guttered and smoked, turning faces light and dark, and then I realized I sat still upon my stool with Finn’s hand imprisoning my right wrist. It was not iron, it was flesh and bone, holding my arm in place. And then I saw why. In my fist was gripped the bone-handled knife, the blade pointing toward the harper.
“Not yet,” Finn said quietly. “Perhaps later, when we have divined his true intent.”
It made me angry. Angry at Finn, which was wrong, but I had no better target. It was the harper I wanted, for manipulating me so, but it was Finn who was too near.
I let go the knife. Finn let go the hand. I drew it in to my body, massaging the ridges of scar tissue banding my wrist as if it bore iron still. And I glared at him with all the anger in my eyes. “What did he give you? A Cheysuli on the throne?”
Finn did not smile. “No,” he said. “He gave me Alix.”
It took the breath from my chest. Alix. Of course. How better to get to Finn than to remind him of the woman he had wanted badly enough to steal? The woman who had turned her back on him to wed Duncan, his brother.
The woman who was my cousin, that I wanted for myself.
I laughed bitterly. “A skillful harper indeed…or more likely a sorcerer, as he claims.” I stared across at the blue-robed man who was calmly refusing to sing again. “Ihlini, do you think? Sent from Bellam to set a trap?”
Finn shook his head. “Not Ihlini; I would know. And I have heard of this All-Father god.” He grimaced in distaste. “An Ellasian deity, and therefore of less importance to me, but powerful nonetheless.” He shifted slightly on the stool, leaning forward to pour himself more wine. “I will have a talk with him.”
He had named himself Lachlan, and now he moved around the room to gather up his payment in coin and baubles and wine. He carried his harp tucked into the crook of one arm and a cup in his other hand. Light glittered off the silver links around his waist and the circlet on his brow. He was a young man still, perhaps my own age, and tall, but lacking my substantial height and weight. Still, he was not slight, and I thought there was strength in those shoulders.
He came last to our table, as I expected, and I pushed the wine jug forward so he would know to help himself. And then I kicked a stool toward him. “Sit you down. Please yourself with the wine. And this.” I drew forth from my belt-purse a jagged piece of gold, stamped with a crude design. But it was good gold, and heavy, and few men would look askance at its crude making. I slid it across the table with a forefinger, pushing it around the bone-handled knife.
The harper smiled, nodded and sat down upon the stool. His blue eyes matched the rich hue of his robe. His hair, in the dim candlelight, showed no color other than a dull dark brown. It looked as if the sun had never touched it, to bleach it red or blond. Dyed, I thought, and smiled to myself.
He poured wine into the cup he held. It was a fine silver cup, though tarnished with age. The house cup for a harper, I thought, seeing little use. I doubted it was his own.
“Steppes gold.” He picked up the coin. “I do not often see payment of this sort.” His eyes flicked from the coin to my face. “My skill is not worth so much, I think; you may have it back.” He set the coin on the table and left it.
The insult was made calmly and clearly, with great care. Its intent was unknown, and yet I recognized it regardless. Or was it merely a curious man gone fishing for an outsize catch? Perhaps an exiled prince.
“You may keep it or not, as you wish.” I picked up my own mug. “My companion and I have just returned from the Caledonese war against the plainsmen of the Steppes—alive and unharmed, as you see—and we are generous because of it.” I spoke Ellasian, but with a Caledonese accent.
The harper—Lachlan—swirled wine in his tarnished cup. “Did it please you,” he said, “my gift?”
I stared at him over my mug. “Did you mean it to?”
He smiled. “I mean nothing with that harpsong. I merely share my gift—Lodhi’s gift—with the listener, who will make of it what he will. They are your memories, not mine; how could I dictate what you see?” His eyes had gone to Finn, as if he waited.
Finn did not oblige. He sat quietly on his stool, seemingly at ease, though a Cheysuli at ease is more prepared than any man I know. He turned his mug idly on the table with one long-fingered hand. His eyes were hooded slightly, like a predator bird’s, but the irises showed yellow below the lids.
“Caledon.” The harper went on as if he realized he would get nothing from Finn. “You say you fought with Caledon, but you are not Caledonese. I know a Cheysuli when I see one.” He smiled, then glanced at me. “As for you—you speak good Ellasian, but not good enough. You have not the throat for it. But neither are you Caledonese; I know enough of them.” His eyes narrowed. “Solindish, perhaps, or Homanan. You lack the lilt of Falia.”
“Mercenaries,” I said clearly, knowing it was—or had been—the truth. “Claiming no realm, only service.”
Lachlan looked at me. I knew he saw the thick beard and the uncut, sunstreaked hair that tangled on my shoulders. I had hacked off the mercenary’s braid I had worn for five years, bound with crimson cord, and went as a free man again, which meant my sword was available. With a Cheysuli at my side, I would be a valuable man. Kings would pay gold for our service.
“No realm,” he said, and smiled. Then he pushed away from the table and got to his feet, cradling the harp. He picked up the blackened silver cup and nodded his thanks for the wine.
“Take your payment,” I said. “It was made in good faith.”
“And in good faith, I refuse it.” He shook his head. “You have more need of it than I. I have no army to raise.”
I laughed out loud. “You misunderstand mercenaries, harper. We do not raise armies. We serve in them.”
“I said precisely what I meant.” His face was solemn, eyes flicking between us shrewdly. And then he turned away.
Finn put out his hand and gathered up his knife. No, not his precisely; like me, he hid his away. He carried instead a knife taken from a Steppes plainsman, and it served its purpose. In Finn’s hand, any knife did.
“Tonight,” he said quietly, “I will have conversation with that harper.”
I thought fleetingly of the Ellasian god the harper claimed to serve. Would Lodhi interfere? Or would Lachlan cooperate?
I smiled. “Do what you have to do.”
Because the storm had driven so many inside for the evening, the roadhouse was crowded to bursting. There were no private rooms. The best I could do was give gold to the tavern-master for two pallets on the floor of a room already occupied by three others. When I went in alone, later than I had intended, they already slept. I listened silently just inside the open door, to see if anyone feigned sleep to lure me into a trap, but all three men were deep asleep. And so I shut the door, set my unsheathed sword on the lice-ridden pallet as I stretched out my legs, and waited for Finn to come in.
When he did, it was without sound. Not even the door squeaked, as it had for me. Finn was simply in the room. “The harper is gone,” he said. It was hardly a sound, but I had learned how to hear it.
I frowned into the darkness as Finn knelt down on the other pallet. “In this storm?”
“He is not here.”
I sat back against the wall, staring thoughtfully into the darkness. My right hand, from long habit, touched the leather-wrapped hilt of my sword. “Gone, is he?” I mused. “What could drive a man into an Ellasian snowstorm, unless there be good reason?”
“Gold is often a good reason.” Finn shed a few of his furs and dropped them over his legs. He stretched out upon his pallet and was silent. I could not even hear him breathe.
I bit at my left thumb, turning things over in my mind. Questions arose and I could answer none of them. Nor could Finn, so I wasted no time asking him. And then, when I had spent what moments I could spare considering the harper, I slid down the wall to stretch full length upon the lumpy pallet and went to sleep.
What man—even a prince with gold upon his head—need fear for his safety with a Cheysuli at his side?
It was morning before we could speak openly, and even then words were delayed. We went out into the ethereal stillness of abated storm, saddled and packed our horses and walked them toward the rack. The snow lay deep and soft around my boots, reaching nearly to my knees. The track was better, packed and shallow, and there I waited while Finn went into the trees and searched for his lir.
Storr came at once, bounding out of the trees like a dog, hurling himself into Finn’s arms. Finn went down on one knee, ignoring the cold, and cast a quick, appraising look toward the roadhouse. I thought it highly unlikely anyone could see us now. Satisfied, Finn thrust out an arm and slung it around Storr’s neck, pulling the wolf in close.
What their bond is, I cannot say precisely. I know only what Finn has told me, that Storr is a part of his heart and soul and mind; half of his whole. Without the wolf, Finn said, he was little more than a shadow, lacking the gifts of his race and the ability to survive. I thought it an awesomely gruesome thing, to claim life only through some sorcerous link with an animal, but I could not protest what so obviously worked. I had seen him with the wolf before during such greetings, and it never failed to leave me feeling bereft and somehow empty. Jealous, even, for what they shared was something no other man could claim save the Cheysuli. I have owned dogs and favorite horses, but it was not the same. That much I could tell, looking at them, for Finn’s face was transfigured when he shared a reunion with Storr.
Finn’s new horse, a dark brown gelding purchased from the tavern-master, pulled at the slack reins. I pulled him back again and got his reins untangled from those of my little Steppes pony. When I looked again at Finn I saw him slap Storr fondly on the shoulder, and then he was pushing back through the snow toward me.
I handed the reins to him. “How does he fare?”
“Well enough.” The fond half-smile remained a moment, as if he still conversed with the wolf. I had thought once or twice that his expression resembled that of a man well-satisfied by a woman; he wore it now. “Storr says he would like to go home.”
“No more than I.” The thought of Homana instead of foreign lands knotted my belly at once. Gods, to go home again…I looped my horse’s reins over his ears, pulled them down his neck and mounted. As ever, the little gelding grunted. Well, I am heavier than the plainsmen who broke him. “I think we can reach Homana today, does the sky remain clear.” I looked skyward and squinted out of habit. “Perhaps we should go to the Keep.”
Finn, settling into his saddle, looked at me sharply. He went hoodless as I did, and the early dawn light set his earring to glinting with a soft golden glow. “This soon?”
I laughed at him. “Have you no wish to see your brother?”
Finn scowled. “You know well enough I am not averse to seeing Duncan again. But I had not thought we would go openly into Cheysuli land so soon.”
I shrugged. “We are nearly there. The Keep lies on the border, which we must cross. And, for all that, I think we both wish to see Alix again.”
Finn did not meet my eyes. It was odd to realize the time away from Homana had not blunted his desire for his brother’s wife. No more than it had mine.
He looked at me at last. “Do you wish to take me to her, or go for yourself?”
I smiled and tried not to show him my regret. “She is wed now, and happily. There is no room for me in her life except as a cousin.”
“No more for me except as a rujholli.” Finn laughed bitterly; his eyes on me were ironic and assessive as he pushed black hair out of his dark, angular face. “Do you not find it strange how the gods play with our desires? You held Alix’s heart, unknowing, while she longed for a single word from your mouth. Then I stole her from you, intending to make her my meijha. But it was Duncan, ever Duncan…he won her from us both.” Grimly he put out his hand and made the gesture I had come to hate, for all its infinite meaning.
“Tahlmorra,” I said sourly. “Aye, Finn, I find it passing strange. And I do not like it overmuch.”
Finn laughed and closed his hand into a fist. “Like it? But the gods do not expect us to like it. No. Only to serve it.”
“You serve it. I want none of your Cheysuli prophecy. I am a Homanan prince.”
“And you will be a Homanan king…with all the help of the Cheysuli.”
No man, born of a brief history, likes to hear of another far greater than his own, particularly when his House has fallen into disarray. The Homanan House had held the Lion Throne nearly four hundred years. Not long, to Cheysuli way of thinking. Not when their history went back hundreds of centuries to a time with no Homanans. Only the Firstborn, the ancestors of the Cheysuli, with all their shapechanging arts.
And the power to hand down a prophecy that ruled an entire race.
“This way, then.” Finn gestured and kicked his horse into motion.
“You are certain?” I had no wish to get myself lost, not when I was so close to Homana at last.
Finn cast me a thoroughly disgusted glance. “We go to the Keep, do we not? I should know the way, Carillon. Once, it was my home.”
I subsided into silence. I am silent often enough around him. Sometimes, with Finn, it is simply the best thing to do.
The weather remained good, but the going did not. We had left behind the beaten track that led westward into Homana, seeking instead the lesser-known pathways. Though the Cheysuli were welcome within Ellas, they kept to themselves. I doubted High King Rhodri knew much of the people who sheltered in his forests. They would keep themselves insular, and therefore more mysterious than ever. There would be no well-traveled tracks leading to the Keep.
At last, as the sun lowered in the sky, we turned into the trees to find a proper campsite, knowing Homana and the Keep would have to wait another day. We settled on a thick copse of oaks and beeches.
Finn swung off his mount. “I will fetch us meat while you lay the fire. No more journey-loaf for me, not when I have tasted real meat in my mouth again.” He threw me his reins, then disappeared into the twilight with Storr bounding at his side.
I tended the horses first, untacking them, then hobbling and graining them with what dwindling rations remained. Once the horses were settled I searched for stones, intending to build us a proper firecairn. We had gone often enough without a fire, but I preferred hot food and warmth when I slept.
I built my cairn, fired the kindling we carried in our saddlepacks and made certain the flames would hold. Then I turned to the blankets I had taken from the horses. Pelts, to be precise; each horse was blanketed with two. The bottom rested hair-down against the horse, the top one hair-up, to pad the saddle. At night the pelts became blankets for Finn and me, smelling of sweat and horsehair, but warm. I spread them now against the snow; after we ate we could thrust the hot stones beneath them to offer a little heat.
As I spread the blankets I heard the muffled movement in the snow. My hand was on my sword instantly, ripping it from the sheath at my left hip. I spun, leveling the blade, and saw the flash of setting sunlight turn the runes to blinding fire.
Three men before me, running at me out of the thickening shadows. More than that behind me. I wondered where was Finn, and then I did not, for I had no time.
I took the first one easily enough, marking the expression of shock on his face as I swung my blade and cut through leather and furs and flesh, shearing the bone of his arm in two just below the shoulder. The momentum of the blade carried it farther yet, into his ribs, and then he fell and I wrenched the sword free to use it on yet another.
The second fell as well, thrust through the lungs, and then the others did what they should have done at the first. They came at me at once, en masse, so that even did I try to take yet a third, the others could bear me down. I did not doubt I would account for at least another death before I died, perhaps even two—Finn and adversity had taught me well enough for that—but the result would be the same. I would be dead, and Bellam would have his pretender-prince.
I felt the cold kiss of steel at the back of my neck, sliding through my hair. Yet another blade was at my throat; a third pressed against the leather and furs shielding my belly. Three men on me, then; two were dead, and the last man—the sixth—stood away and watched me. Blood was splattered across his face, but he bore no wound.
“Stay you still,” he told me at once, and I heard the fear in his voice. As well as the Homanan words.
I gestured toward my belt-purse. “My gold is there.”
“We want none of your gold,” he said quickly. “We came for something more.” He smiled. “But we will take it, since you offer.”
I still held my sword in my right hand. But they did not let me keep it. One man reached out and took it from me, then tossed it aside. I saw how it landed across the firecairn, clanging against the stone. I saw how the hilt was in the flames, and knew the leather would burn away to display the golden lion.
“Whose gold do you want, then?” I spoke Homanan, since they did, but I kept my Caledonese accent.
“Bellam’s,” he confided, and grinned.
Inwardly I swore. The Solindish usurper had caught me easily enough. And I had not even reached Homana.
Still, I forced a bewildered frown. “What does Bellam want with a mercenary? Can he not buy hundreds of them?”
“You travel with a shapechanger,” he stated flatly.
Still I frowned. “Aye, What of it? Has Bellam declared it unlawful? I am not Homanan, I am Caledonese. I choose my companions where I will.” I looked at the sword hilt and saw how the leather turned black and crisp. In a moment it would peel away, and I would be unmasked. If I were not already.
“Cheysuli are under sentence of death,” the Homanan said. “That is one policy Bellam has kept intact since the days of Shaine.”
I allowed surprise to enter my face. “You welcome Bellam as king, then? Though you be Homanan?”
He glanced at the others. They were all familiar: I had seen them in the roadhouse the night before. And they had heard Bellam’s message the harper had read. But I wondered how I had given myself away.
The man spat into the snow. “We welcome Bellam’s gold, since we get none of it another way. While he offers payment for each Cheysuli slain, we will serve him. That is all.”
I kept my surprise from showing. Once more, it was not me they sought. Finn again. But it was me they had caught, and worth more—to Bellam—than five hundred Cheysuli warriors.
Except there were not five hundred Cheysuli left in all the world. My uncle had seen to that.
“You have come across the border hunting Cheysuli?” I asked.
He smiled. “They are hard to find in Homana. But the Ellasian king gives them refuge, so we seek them here. How better to earn the gold?”
“Then why,” I asked very calmly, “do you disarm me? I have no stake in this.”
“You came in with the shapechanger. By taking you, we take him. He will not turn beast with your life in our hands.”
I laughed. “You count on a bond that does not exist. The Cheysuli and I met on the trail; we owe each other nothing. Taking me wins you nothing except a meaningless death.” I paused. “You do mean to slay me, do you not?”
He glanced at the others. For a moment there was hesitation in his blue eyes, and then he shrugged. His decision had been made. “You slew two of us. You must pay.”
I heard the jingle of horse trappings. The blades pressed closer against my neck, throat and belly as the man rode out of the trees. In his bare hands was a harp, and the single note he plucked held us all in thrall.
“You will slay no one,” the harper said. “Fools, all of you, when you have Carillon in your hands.”
The Homanans did not move. They could not. Like me, they were prisoners to the harp.
Lachlan looked at me. “They are Homanans. Did you tell them your name, they might bend knee to you instead of baring steel.”
His fingers tangled in the strings and brought forth a tangle of sound. It allowed me to speak, but nothing more. “I am a mercenary,” I said calmly. “You mistake me for someone else.”
He frowned. His eyes were on me intently, and the sound of the harp increased. I felt it inside my head, and then he smiled. “I can conjure up your life, my lord. Would you have me show it to us all?”
“To what purpose?” I inquired. “You will do what you will do, no matter what I say.”
“Aye,” he agreed.
I saw how his fingers played upon the strings, drawing from the harp a mournful, poignant sound. It conjured up memories of the song he had played the night before, the lay that had driven a blade into my belly with the memories of what had happened. But it was not the same. It had a different sound. His Lady sang a different song.
The blades moved away from my neck, my throat, my belly. The Homanans stepped away, stumbling in the snow, until I stood alone. I watched, mute, as they took up the men I had slain and bore the bodies away into the trees. I was alone, except for the harper, but as helpless as before.
“Ah,” I said, “you mean to claim the gold yourself.”
“I mean to give you what men I can,” he reproved. “I sent them home to wait until you call them to your standard.”
I laughed. “Who would serve a mercenary, harper? You have mistaken me, I say.”
Quite calmly he set the harp into its case and closed it up, hooking it to his saddle. Lachlan jumped down from his horse and crossed the snow to me. He knelt swiftly, pulled thick gloves from his belt and folded them, then pulled my sword from the firecairn. The leather had burned away, and in the last rays of the setting sun the ruby glowed deep crimson. The lion was burnished gold.
Lachlan rose. He held the blade gingerly, careful of the heat even through the gloves, but his smile did not fade. He turned to look at me with subtle triumph in his eyes. “I have leather in my packs,” he said quietly. “You will have to wrap it again.”
Still I could not move. I wondered how long he meant to hold me. I wondered if he would take me all the way to Mujhara in his ensorcellment, so that Bellam would see me helpless. The thought set my teeth to gritting.
And then I smiled. As Lachlan turned to go to his horse—for the harp, no doubt—Finn stepped around the horse’s rump and blocked Lachlan’s path. Around the other side came Storr. And the ensorcellment was broken.
I reached out and closed my gloved hand upon the blade of my sword, still in Lachlan’s careful grasp. I felt the heat, but it was not enough to burn me. Simply enough to remind me what had so nearly happened.
Lachlan stood quite still. His hands were empty of everything now save the gloves he held, folded in his palms. He waited.