Crown of Vengeance: Prologue and Chapters 1-4

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Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we’re featuring an extended excerpt from Crown of Vengeance by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory, introducing a new series set in the world of the Obsidian Mountain and Enduring Flame trilogies. Blade of Empire, the next book in the Dragon Prophecy trilogy, will be available October 24th.

The child Vielle is the daughter of a mad king and queen, her lands lost before her birth, her family erased from history. Born on a night of storm and terror, raised in hiding, then banished from the only home she has ever known—the final stroke of a war begun centuries before.

Vieliessar, grown into the long adulthood that is Elven life, secretly studies hidden lore to discover the prophecy that heralded her birth, secretly studies the use of magic everyone assumes she does not have. Dark dreams teach lessons of war and duty, of strategy and magecraft, that she could not learn in a thousand lifetimes.

She does not have a thousand lifetimes. She has just one—and her time is running out. For the prophecy speaks not just of her, but of a great Darkness that will destroy the Elven kingdoms. A Darkness that is soon to rise, now that Vieliessar has embarked on her quest for the High Kingship. Vieliessar is both the trigger for her people’s destruction–and their only hope of survival.

 

PROLOGUE

POWER AND PAIN

The Endarkened cannot make, they can only mar.   Thurion Pathfinder, The Scroll of Darkness

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

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

A world.

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

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

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

Life and death.

*   *   *

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

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

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

And to this life, it would give weapons.

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

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

For skill … magic.

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

Perfect.

*   *   *

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

Who had set him his task.

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

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

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

But he was not, and so he sought counsel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT DO YOU WANT OF ME?

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

THIS IS NOT A TASK BEYOND YOUR SKILL. I HAVE GIVEN YOU TOOLS.

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

The Black Chamber.

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

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

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

But that knowledge came at a price.

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

Then he fell.

The Obsidian Blade pierced his body.

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

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

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

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

And it was still not enough.

*   *   *

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

Save one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His last words were a howl of anguish.

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

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

*   *   *

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

The destruction of all life.

And becoming the supreme power in the World Without Sun.

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

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

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

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

All but one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CHAPTER ONE

THE FALL OF FARCARINON

Even as we reckon time, our history is long—so long its beginnings have been worn away by the passage of time. Long before Man came to be, we were. It could be said that our history begins with the Endarkened, for that terrible conflict scoured away all that we had been before it, leaving us one purpose:

Survival.   Peldalathiriel Caerthalien, Of the Reign of Great Queen Vieliessar

Perchelion used to tell me the Hunt rode through every storm. When I grew old enough to question I said I did not believe her. I remember how she slapped me, and said I would never become a knight of my father’s meisne, for to doubt the Starry Hunt meant I would never wield a sword. I remember I laughed, and said there were not enough storms in all the year for them to do that …

Ladyholder Nataranweiya forced her mind to focus on such ancient trifles, for to allow it liberty would mean she thought of things it would not be good to think on now. Her child-swollen body shuddered harder than the cold should merit, even as the horse’s body shook with weariness.

Lightning stitched the woods to sudden brightness, and in its light she could see Falthiel, his face turned toward her, shouting something. She could not make out the words over the howl of the wind and the thunder of the horses’ hooves. Dioniron had given their mounts enough of the battle cordial to poison them: they would run until they died.

They would have to. Caerthalien’s dogs were a candlemark—no more—behind them now, and Nataranweiya knew they outnumbered the scant handful of her surviving protectors.

Suddenly her mount put a foot wrong, slipping and staggering through mud and autumn leaves for a handful of terrifying moments before finding its balance and running on. The near-fall jarred her agonizingly, but Nataranweiya did not cry out. She would not shame her Bondmate, even though all her broken soul yearned for was to follow him into the death he had found. Serenthon Farcarinon would have made her queen over all the Hundred Houses. If only Serenthon had never known of Amrethion’s Curse. If only he had not taken it into his heart, as if it were a lover’s message meant for him alone.

As reasonable to wish he had never known of the sun, or the sky, or the trees.

Why was our Bond not enough for you? Why must you reach for more?

“Near, my lady!” Beleval shouted, his voice loud enough to cut through the roar of the storm. Near to the Sanctuary of the Star.

Near to safety. Near to revenge.

Pain gripped her, this wave coming sooner than the last, and when it passed she tasted the blood from where she’d bitten her lip. She had been upon the birthing couch when the traitors had come. That the child had delayed even from nightfall to nightfall was more grace than she had hoped for; the unborn babe would not grant her yet more clemency. She must be delivered soon or this nightmare ride would have been for nothing.

Only within the Sanctuary of the Star could she be safe.

The bright call of a warhorn sheared through the noise of their flight and jarred her back to full consciousness. Any daughter of the Hundred Houses learned early the strategies and treacheries an enemy might use to gain what it wished. She knew their pursuers had no need to signal an intended attack. It was an attempt to startle the prey into rash action, so they might be easily taken.

The horn called again, closer.

Suddenly Nataranweiya found herself alone. Moments later the full fury of the storm struck her; so much water was flung at her by the wind that she coughed and choked on it. The shock was so great that in her exhaustion it took her precious heartbeats to understand what had happened. Beleval and Dioniron have turned back.

The three of them had been in the lead. If Beleval and Dioniron had turned back to throw themselves against their pursuers, the others had as well.

Farewell, farewell, friends, companions, cousins! We shall meet again in Tildorangelor, beneath the trees.…

She would have wept, save that her tears had all been shed long before. Now the sky must do her mourning. She could not open her eyes against the wind to search for the lights ahead, but they must be there. They must.

Her mount’s gait was even more jarring now. It had run the sun down out of the sky, its drug-maddened gallop as unchanging as the beat of drums. Even in her exhausted, pain-racked state, Nataranweiya knew the instant that rhythm changed. The horse slowed from a gallop to a jarring trot, forced itself to a gallop again, staggered to a stiff-legged exhausted canter and held there. Nataranweiya could hear the desperate whistling sound it made as it fought for air, for life

The animal lost its fight between one step and the next. She felt its muscles go slack, even as the hot blood of its death sprayed her, she was already kicking her feet free of the stirrups and releasing her cold-cramped grip on its reins. She must throw herself from the saddle or be trapped beneath its body when she fell. Who had first taught her that? She no longer remembered; nor was she the bright slender girl who had learned that lesson any longer. She screamed at another wave of pain that rose just as she flung herself free. Hurry, you must hurry, they will hear, they will follow.… Then all thoughts were driven from her mind until it passed.

She crawled from beside the horse’s body as soon as she could. With shaking fingers she ripped the jeweled clasp of her fine fur cloak open, shedding its sodden weight in the mud.

Hurry. To your feet, witless girl, you must run now.…

She crawled.

Three times she was forced to halt by the agonizing pressure on her abdomen. She barely knew when she reached the Sanctuary gates. They stood eternally open in both warning and promise that no conflict might enter here. She clawed herself to her feet along one pillar.

Beyond the gate. Inside. You are not safe until you are within. Not safe. Not safe …

*   *   *

For six centuries Maeredhiel had served the Sanctuary of the Star. Let the children come and go in their season, let a new Astromancer be chosen each time the ever-living Vilya bore its fruit; what was that to her? Maeredhiel had made for herself a place and a peace that none would take from her. Did not Lightborn need to eat and sleep? Did not the workrooms and stillrooms run more smoothly when there was a proper supply of herbs and fruits to hand for decoction and enchanting?

And did not young Candidates tear their tunics and outgrow their sandals, here just as within the walls of the Keep in which she had been born?

The time was late, and tomorrow as always would be a day of much work, yet Maeredhiel found she could not sleep. She had already checked the storerooms and the sleeping rooms for possible storm damage, and even visited the high tower where Celelioniel spent so many nights. The Astromancer had not gone there tonight, for clouds had obscured her beloved stars, but still Maeredhiel was uneasy. Tonight’s storm was fierce and unseasonable.

Fool! she berated herself. Are you yourself an Astromancer, to know the stories the stars whisper? What troubles you is indigestion and age, nothing more.

She hesitated in the antechamber of the Shrine, adjusting her hooded shawl. It was always as bright as summer noon here, for the walls and ceiling shone with Silverlight renewed again and again since the day Mosirinde Peacemaker had first set this place apart. The stone floor was inlaid with a silver wheel whose arms pointed the true directions, and the ceiling was inlaid with the star pictures that edged the Hunt-road. It was both promise and warning, as was the depiction of the Silver Hooves themselves upon the great bronze doors at the far end of the chamber. Beyond those doors stood the Shrine of the Star itself.

As if her musings had summoned Them, the antechamber was filled with a sudden blast of cold.

No one would come to the Sanctuary in this storm merely to bid us good greeting, Maeredhiel thought in alarm. She clapped her hands to summon the servants—the simple cantrip she wore on a string about her neck ensured her summons would be heard in their bedchambers—and hurried to open the inner door. Gusts of wet wind skirled around her and she turned her head away.

“… please…” The word was the faintest of whispers.

How did you come here? Maeredhiel wondered, gazing down at the bundle of muddy rags barely discernible as a living body. She stepped over the body to pull the outer doors back into place, peering out as she did, but if any followed, they were as dark as the storm.

“Mistress, what—?” It was Elithreth, one of the Candidates in his Service Year.

“What else but someone seeking Sanctuary?” Maeredhiel answered. “A woman, and with child,” she finished smoothly. “So use care.”

With Elithreth’s help, Maeredhiel lifted the supplicant to her feet and helped her inside. Many came to the Sanctuary of the Star seeking that which only it could supply. Normally such a one would place a hand upon the bronze doors of the Shrine and make their formal petition before being sent to hospital or resting chamber. Maeredhiel did not think this one had that much strength left in her body—if she and Elithreth had not supported her, she would have collapsed. Every footstep she took left pools of muddy, bloody water upon the stone floor, but in the stronger light of the antechamber, Maeredhiel saw the glitter of silver, moonsilver, and gems.

Noble—and with child—and hurt—and alone. None of these things boded well for the peace of the Sanctuary. “Your name and your House, Lady?” Maeredhiel asked, her voice low and urgent. Celelioniel would wish to know these things—and at once.

The traveler struggled to answer, turning her face toward Maeredhiel—Maeredhiel saw blood-bitten lips, bruises, abrasions—but any reply she might have made was cut off by a gasp of pain.

Best to place her in a retiring room until I can call Mistress Healer’s lazy servants to bring a litter. “Come, Elithreth, we will—” she began.

But her words were cut short by the arrival of the Astromancer herself.

“Is it she? Is it now? Oh, this creature has come in an evil time!” Celelioniel Astromancer cried. She looked like a creature demented, with her shorn hair in disorder and her thin woolen robe kilted up past her knees. Her feet were bare and earth-smeared. She has come from the Shrine, Maeredhiel realized with a pang of unease.

“I know not who she is, Lady,” Maeredhiel said. “But surely this poor creature cannot be anyone’s great enemy?” She struggled with the visitor’s full weight now, for at Celelioniel’s cry, Elithreth had released his hold on her and backed away.

‘When stars and clouds together point the way—And of a hundred deer one doe can no longer counted be’! It is the Prophecy, Maeredhiel! It comes true—now—for has not Caerthalien a sennight hence led the breaking of Farcarinon? Here—here!—lies the Doom of the Hundred Houses!”

Maeredhiel turned away so that Celelioniel would not see her face. When Celelioniel had begun her research, she had known no more of Amrethion’s Curse or the Child of Prophecy than any Sanctuary-trained Lightborn might know. Maeredhiel would never know what steps had led Celelioniel to The Song of Amrethion, and what hints gleaned from ancient histories had led her to decide she alone could unriddle Amrethion’s Curse. But whatever she had found there had terrified her. Maeredhiel had watched the obsession—the madness—grow from the day Celelioniel had become Astromancer, nearly a century ago.

I pray the Vilya fruits soon, she thought sorrowfully. And my lady goes far from this place that has done her such harm.

“Lady, no harm may enter here,” Maeredhiel said soothingly. “Only let me bring this one to Mistress Healer Nithrithuin before her babe is brought to harm, and—”

“It is the babe I fear!” Celelioniel wailed. “Does not The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel speak of the birth of a babe who will cast down the High Houses? A babe whose birth will herald the beginning of great Darkness?”

Suddenly Celelioniel darted forward and seized the woman’s chin, gazing into her eyes for a moment before springing back and wailing as if she were but a babe herself.

“Sanctuary … I claim … I must…” the Lady whispered. The Astromancer’s touch seemed to drain the last strength from the supplicant; rather than drop her, Maeredhiel knelt with her upon the stone floor. As she did, her heart sank further: nestled in the hollow of her throat was a pendant, a Vilya blossom of moonsilver. Somewhere, this woman’s Bondmate awaited her. The Soulbond was the greatest joy any alfaljodthi could know, and the greatest sorrow as well, for once the Bond was made, to slay one half of it was to slay the other. Two lives might end this night—if not three.

“Your name, Lady, and how you came here,” she asked again, though she thought the Lady might be past hearing. “You lie before the Shrine itself. None will carry you away.”

Maeredhiel had nearly made up her mind to send Elithreth for Mistress Healer without waiting for Celelioniel’s order, for the Sanctuary Healer would be willing to overrule the Astromancer if Celelioniel’s hysterics continued. But Celelioniel’s wailings had roused others.

“What disturbance is this?” Hamphuliadiel Lightbrother had obviously been roused from his rest, for his Green Robe bore signs of having been hastily donned and he had bound it with a simple acolyte’s cord. “I should have been summoned before you opened our doors!” Hamphuliadiel added.

“You are not Astromancer yet, bold one,” Maeredhiel muttered, lowering her eyes lest he should read her words in them. She was saved from whatever reply Hamphuliadiel might have made by the arrival of yet more strangers.

Outer and inner doors slammed open as one and three komen in Caerthalien green and gold stalked into the antechamber. “There she is!” the foremost barked out. “Farcarinon’s bitch in whelp!” She reached up and unlatched her helm. “Has she claimed Sanctuary?” she added, the mocking tone in her voice making it clear what she thought the answer would be.

“She has,” Maeredhiel answered, her voice bold and loud over the howl of the wind. “Ladyholder Nataranweiya of Farcarinon has set her hand upon the door of the Shrine and set her words aloft for the Silver Hooves to hear!” She could not say why she spoke so, save the long-burning anger in her heart against those who would dice with the lives of innocent folk.

The knight drew back with an angry curse, placing her hand upon her sword.

“Yet if it is her own will to leave…” Hamphuliadiel began.

“We turn none away who seeks Sanctuary,” Maeredhiel said sharply. “Nor do we permit weapons within it,” she added, glaring at the swords the Caerthalien knights still bore. “Elithreth, you must lead our guests to the stables, so they may put up their horses, then see them lodged in our guesthouse.”

“Yes, Mistress Maeredhiel,” Elithreth answered, sounding relieved to be given a task that would take him from the Astromancer’s presence. “My lords komentai’a, will you accompany me? And say, perhaps, if there are others abroad who need shelter this night?”

“I thank you, young one,” the nameless knight answered. She could do nothing else, for no one would dare to profane the peace of the Sanctuary of the Star—nor rouse the anger of its Mages. “Yet I say I will remain to see what is done here. Nimboroth, take you my sword and blades.”

“It shall be done, Komen Harthelin,” Nimboroth answered.

“And shut those damned doors!” Harthelin added.

At least someone gives ear to orders this night, Maeredhiel thought sourly, as a loud banging and the sudden absence of wind told her Harthelin’s order had been followed.

By now the antechamber was filled with the curious and the concerned. “I would see Ladyholder Nataranweiya beneath the hands of the Healers,” Maeredhiel said again, raising her voice.

“Name her Lady-Abeyant, of your courtesy, for her traitor-lord is dead,” Harthelin said with a mocking smile.

“Perhaps…” Celelioniel said, as if speaking to herself, “… perhaps we can yet outrun our fates.”

At last Mistress Healer Nithrithuin arrived. She knelt beside Nataranweiya and laid quick hands upon her. “Why lies she upon cold stone?” she demanded, glaring at Celelioniel. “Is it more of your addled prophecy, witless one? Go!” she demanded of the nearest Lightborn. “Summon a litter from the hospital—and bearers.”

“I should be honored to bear Serenthon’s sow wherever she must go,” Komen Harthelin said.

“I know not what cause you have against this lady, but I say to you, you may not bring your quarrel here,” Nithrithuin said sternly.

“I?” Harthelin answered. “I hold no quarrels but that of my lord, and it is his word—the word of Caerthalien—that Farcarinon shall be cast down and ended.”

Two of the hospital servants appeared, carrying a litter between them, and swiftly and efficiently transferred Lady Nataranweiya to it. Nataranweiya would not release her death grip upon Maeredhiel’s hand, so when the servants lifted the litter to carry it away, Maeredhiel had no choice but to accompany them.

*   *   *

The Sanctuary hospital was a quiet place. It trained the Lightborn who would become Healers throughout the Fortunate Lands, and was the last resort of those whose hurts could not be mended by their own Lightborn. This realm was Mistress Healer’s jealously guarded domain, over which she ruled as absolutely as the Astromancer ruled the Sanctuary itself.

Here Nataranweiya was laid upon a bed in one of the small chambers used for the healing of Banespells. A stool was brought for Maeredhiel, as each time she tried to pull free of Nataranweiya’s grip, the lady’s agitation because so great that Mistress Healer told her to remain.

What came next should have been done in decent privacy, but the hallway outside the room was crowded with Lightborn and gawking servants, and Komen Harthelin had not withdrawn when Nataranweiya was set upon the bed, but leaned against the wall, her arms folded across her chest.

Servants entered with braziers and such other things as might be required for the ease and comfort of a patient. A touch of Nithrithuin’s hand unmade each seam of her patient’s garments, and their jeweled fastenings rang upon the floor as Nithrithuin pulled them away. Those ragged clothes had been sodden with blood, so the chamber now stank of it.

“My daughter … my daughter…” Lady Nataranweiya moaned until her words were cut off by a new spasm of pain. She thrashed weakly upon the mattress.

“Not even the Silver Hooves can hurry a birthing babe,” Maeredhiel said for Harthelin’s benefit. She possessed no understanding of the birthing mysteries, but no daughter of the Hundred Houses grew to adulthood without knowing how much blood a body could hold—and how much blood one could lose before they must ride with the Starry Hunt.

“No!” Celelioniel said, forcing her way through the press of servants and dropping to her knees beside Maeredhiel. “She must not be hurried! Delay—you must delay the birth until dawn. Then we will all be safe!”

Maeredhiel made to get to her feet. If Celelioniel’s madness had fixed upon this inconvenient Lady and her even-more-inconvenient babe, Maeredhiel wished to be elsewhere. But Lady-Abeyant Nataranweiya still would not release her, and though a week-old kitten could have broken that grasp, it was enough to hold Maeredhiel where she sat.

“Where is the birthing-woman?” Celelioniel demanded, sounding frantic now. “Where is Thelfelient Lightbrother?”

“At Farcarinon,” Komen Harthelin said, the mockery in her voice enough to make Maeredhiel set her jaw. “He was called to attend the birth of the heir. So I am told.”

“Surely in all the Sanctuary one Healer skilled in midwifery remains?” Maeredhiel snapped, her patience—never great—coming to an end.

Harthelin laughed in triumph. “No Healer can stay the lady of Farcarinon from the journey she must make. Indeed, she fails because my lord of Caerthalien has succeeded for all of us, and Serenthon has gone to the Vale of Celenthodiel before her!”

“Silence, armored whelp!” Nithrithuin Lightsister rapped out. “You attend here by our courtesy, nothing more.”

Maeredhiel felt a spasm of relief at the intercession of Mistress Healer, for no one would willingly cross one whose services they might someday need. But when Nithrithuin Lightsister laid her hand upon Lady-Abeyant Nataranweiya’s forehead, she drew back sharply, shaking her head.

“I am no Great Power, to Heal death,” she said. “It is as this sword-wielding bully says—the Lady tarries but for the sake of the babe. Then she will follow her Bonded upon the road to the Vale of Celenthodiel.”

And the babe will soon follow, Maeredhiel thought grimly. For if Serenthon and Nataranweiya are dead, any who wishes to become Farcarinon’s War Prince must see their child slain as well.

“The child’s name,” Celelioniel said urgently. “I must know it! The Prophecy—”

Nithrithuin shook her head sadly, but took Nataranweiya’s hand in hers. “The lady your daughter,” she said softly. “How shall she be named?”

“Vielle—Vieliessar…” Lady Nataranweiya whispered. “Her name—Her name must be—”

“An odd name for Farcarinon’s heir,” Harthelin said. “To name for the Light what would have cast all of us into darkness.”

“You know not what you speak of!” Celelioniel cried. “Therefore be silent!” Once more Maeredhiel felt the thrill of power ghost over her skin, and Harthelin did not speak again.

*   *   *

“Both will die,” Maeredhiel whispered.

She did not know how long she had been here, for the healing chambers were windowless. She knew only that Nataranweiya’s struggles grew weaker and that she could not push the babe from her body. Celelioniel’s near-constant fretting and pacing had driven away nearly all who had come to watch the birth. Again and again the Astromancer would vanish upon some mysterious errand, always to return with more impossible demands: Nithrithuin must hasten the birth. Nithrithuin must delay it.

“Perhaps you would like her to simply slit the woman’s throat and simplify matters?” Maeredhiel snapped at last, goaded beyond endurance.

“Not her throat,” Nithrithuin Lightsister said softly as she approached the bed once more. Maeredhiel saw the gleam of a knife in her hand and realized that Mistress Healer was taking pains to conceal the weapon from Celelioniel. “The mother is lost, but the babe may yet be saved.” Before Maeredhiel could shape a question, Nithrithuin had lifted the blanket from Nataranweiya’s unmoving, sweat-drenched body. She set the point of the blade against the stretched flesh of the Lady’s swollen belly …

… and slashed with one quick motion.

Celelioniel’s cry of anguish blended with Nataranweiya’s even as Nithrithuin reached into the wound with ruthless hands and lifted the blood-slimed form of the infant into the light and air. Another moment, and the infant’s angry squalls filled the chamber.

“Your daughter lives,” Maeredhiel said. But too late. Farcarinon’s lady would hear no more.

“Fool! Witless meddler! A curse upon you and all your House! Let Penenjil’s fortunes be tied forever to Farcarinon’s!” Celelioniel’s voice soared and cracked with rage—no, Maeredhiel realized uneasily, not rage.

Fear.

“Let it be so, Lightborn,” Nithrithuin said, bowing her head in acceptance.

At the far wall, nearly forgotten, Komen Harthelin stirred at last. Her laughter, when it came, startled all of them.

A week later, Celelioniel sent Vieliessar away into fosterage.

Years would pass before she returned.

*   *   *

The Wheel of the Year turned upon its great Festivals. In Flower Moon was the Kite Festival, when young girls flew their kites against each other, and afterward braided their hair in the style of maidens. In Rain Moon the tribute caravans went to the Sanctuary of the Star, and those who had been Called at Midwinter made their journey with them. In Sword Moon the princes rode to war, and those who had flown their kite or leapt the fire the year before rode with them, as squire and page and arming page. In Thunder Moon the people of the Great Keeps waited eagerly for news of victory or defeat, for the ransoms and penalties levied would affect the fortunes of all. In Fire Moon was the Festival in which boys wishing to become men dared the flames, and blazes were kindled on every hill. Harvest Moon marked the end of War Season, and at Harvest Court fates and fortunes were set: this one to the Swordmaster for training, that one to apprentice to the Warlord, those youths and maidens who had distinguished themselves in War Season to be granted the spurs and sword of a maiden knight. Rade and Woods and Hearth were for Landbond and Farmfolk to bring the harvest and prepare for winter; in Frost Moon the first snows fell. Snow Moon followed, and with it the Midwinter Festival.

Each year at Midwinter, the Lightborn Called to the Light in all the youths and maidens of their lord’s domain, to see which of them were most truly Pelashia’s Children, and the children the Lightborn chose went to serve at the Sanctuary of the Star. Cold and Ice and Storm were the moonturns in which the land slept, and the komen hunted and feasted and fought one another in the Challenge Circle in their lord’s great hall. And then Rain Moon came again, and the year truly began.

The Great Wheel was kept differently in Farmhold and village and border keep than it was in the Great Keep, but Varuthir knew nothing of those ways. Rade Moon had come twelve times since she had taken her first breath, and she knew no world but the Great Keep of Caerthalien. As far back as she could remember Varuthir had been told by everyone she should be grateful she had a place at Caerthalien now that her mother and father were dead. In truth, she thought little about her own Line: she was of Caerthalien, and this year at Harvest Court she could make her petition to Lord Bolecthindial to train in arms. Knights didn’t care if they were fosterlings and neither did anyone else. Knights fought for the House they were born into (unless they were captured and had to pledge allegiance to another House) and if they fought well, they could gain rich rewards and even pledge komentai’a to one of the princes of the House, to serve him or her always and ride to war as part of their meisne. They might even be granted estates where they might have dozens of servants, and meisnes of their own, and nobody but the head of the Line Direct could tell them what to do. They sat at the tables at the front of the Great Hall and everyone looked up to them. They had adventures.

She’d paid no attention to the preparations to send the tithe-wagons and the Candidates to Sanctuary, for it didn’t concern her. Ivrulion Light-Prince hadn’t even looked at her at Midwinter.

That was before the day Mistress Nindorogond held her back after the day’s lessons were finished.

All the castel children were schooled to read and write and do sums, for whether one had been born a servant or a lord, such knowledge was useful. Later, those who would become komen and commanders of a taille or a grand-taille would learn maps, geography, and history along with horsemanship and swordcraft, but for now, all learned together, whether their place was castel servant, treaty hostage, or future knight. Perhaps I will not need to petition Lord Bolecthindial, she thought. Perhaps Mistress Nindorogond means to tell me now I am to train as komen.

Mistress Nindorogond waited until the schoolroom was empty and silent. Varuthir waited with her, standing silently before the great table piled with scrolls and wax tablets and ciphering frames. When the last to leave had closed the door behind her, Mistress Nindorogond looked up.

“You have been an apt pupil, Varuthir,” she said at last. “I am pleased that you will be given this opportunity. All know that the Sanctuary is a place of great learning as well as great Magery.”

“I do not understand, Mistress. What has the Sanctuary of the Star to do with me?”

“You know that Storm Moon is nearly fled. Caerthalien sends its tithe early this year. In a fortnight the wagons go. And you go with them.”

“To the Sanctuary?” Varuthir said in horror. “But I—But why, Nindorogond?” she’d stammered in shock. “Prince Ivrulion—”

“This is not a matter that concerns him,” Nindorogond said sharply. “This has been a thing settled since the day you were born. It is for the best.”

“But I—” Varuthir said again. “But they’ll see I have no Light in me! How long do I have to stay there? Do you mean I…”

Her words stumbled to a halt as she stared at Nindorogond’s face, for in the set of her lips, Varuthir could read her answer. Forever. Never to follow the Way of the Sword, to be a great knight, to earn War Prince Bolecthindial’s regard …

“You cannot mean I have to stay there forever!” she’d cried in protest. “I want to be a knight! I want to fight for Caerthalien!” Caerthalien would need her. The Long Peace that had followed the Breaking of Farcarinon had been all she had ever known, but for the last two summers, there’d been raids along the borders as the High Houses gauged one another’s strength. War would come again soon.

“It is for the best,” Nindorogond repeated, and Varuthir had run from the schoolroom before Mistress Nindorogond could see her tears.

*   *   *

When the first shock of Nindorogond’s announcement passed, Varuthir went to everyone she knew among the lesser nobles of the Court trying to find some explanation, some way to undo this terrible fate. Everyone who would answer her said the same thing. It is for the best. It is a matter settled long since.

She would go to the Sanctuary. But she would never leave it.

She thought of simply running away—but where would she go? She couldn’t just walk up to a manor or a farmstead and ask them to take her in: as soon as they discovered she was promised to the Sanctuary, she’d be sent there, for to stint the Sanctuary was to risk the wrath of the Silver Hooves. There were parts of the Fortunate Lands claimed by no House, wild lands that had become the lairs of outlaws and bandits, and she thought of making those her destination. They at least would not send her to the Sanctuary!

But to reach the Wild Lands she’d need a cloak, and good boots, and to steal a horse from the stables—and not just the horse itself, but its saddle and bridle. She had a cloak, gloves, and boots, for in the days that followed the settling of her fate, gifts had come to her from Caerthalien’s Ladyholder—green leather boots with silver heels, the leather stamped in gold with patterns of twining vines; a matching green cloak of the best wool, lined with white fox fur; and fur-lined riding gauntlets to match both boots and cloak. But from the candlemark Nindorogond had told her she was to go to the Sanctuary, Varuthir had always been watched. Four times in the last fortnight she’d nerved herself to slip away to the stables, and four times she’d been stopped, or turned back, or noticed.

And now she’d run out of time.

A sennight ago the Called who were to go to the Sanctuary had arrived at Caerthalien. The preparations for departure had been going on since yesterday’s dawn. They would leave today.

The morning dawned grey and rainy, as if it were late autumn instead of early spring. It was too early for the leaves to have returned to the trees, and the flagstones of the outer courtyard were still covered with straw each night so ice would not form on them by morning.

She had not slept the night before, and had dressed as soon as it was light enough to see. When Mistress Tiradil tapped at the door to summon her, she simply walked out into the hallway, leaving the door open behind her.

“It is for the best, Varuthir,” Mistress Tiradil said quietly. “Someday you will understand that.”

I shall never see this room, this place, these people again, Varuthir thought to herself, and silently set her jaw against her tears of anger and grief.

The time of the morning meal at Caerthalien was a good candlemark away, and the Great Hall was empty except for those who would be riding out today and the servers bringing out pitchers and trays and baskets for the meal to come. Berthon and Athrothir—two of the other Called—were already there, eating bread and cheese, drinking mulled cider, and chattering happily about what was to come. They were Farmfolk, and in the ordinary way might never have expected to see the Great Keep in their lives. But if they gained the Green Robe, they would live in luxury for the rest of their lives. They would live in a Great House even if they did not become Mages, for those who completed their Service Year at the Shrine without becoming Lightborn were eagerly sought after as servants.

Varuthir walked toward them, feeling as if her feet were shod in lead and not in leather. Berthon offered her a tankard of cider, but she had no appetite, and mutely shook her head. A few minutes later Thurion, the last of this year’s Candidates, rushed in. With his arrival, the komen who were to accompany them began getting to their feet.

Varuthir hung back until the last minute, wishing desperately that some reprieve would come. She dawdled long after the komen and the Candidates had gone out to the courtyard, pretending she’d gained a sudden appetite.

Perhaps she could simply hide somewhere. They would not delay the caravan’s departure just to look for her. Perhaps they would not think it worthwhile to commit a taille—or more—to escort her after it. Perhaps she would have another year at Caerthalien. Anything might happen in a year.

As she was edging her way toward the door that led back into the Keep there was a flurry among the servants, and Ladyholder Glorthiachiel strode into the Great Hall, her personal Lightborn beside her.

Glorthiachiel of Caerthalien was a commanding presence, her husband’s equal in all things. For centuries she had ruled over the Caerthalien lands, and would rule for many more. The first time Varuthir had heard Ladyholder Glorthiachiel and Lord Bolecthindial Caerthalien called “Hawk” and “Hound” she’d been struck breathless by the presumption, but the rude nicknames suited them, for Ladyholder Glorthiachiel was as beautiful and dangerous as any of the falcons in the castel mews, and her husband was as relentless and tenacious as any hunting hound.

To Varuthir’s amazement, Ladyholder Glorthiachiel beckoned her over. Varuthir’s heart leapt with hope at this unexpected summons. It had all been a mistake! She wasn’t meant to go to the Sanctuary at all, and Carangil Lightbrother had discovered the error and told his mistress, and now Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had come to give the order that would mean she didn’t have to leave.

But Glorthiachiel’s first words dashed that hope. “So today you leave us, child,” she said, and Varuthir nodded mutely.

Ladyholder Glorthiachiel smiled, as if this were a day for great celebration. “In ten years and two, all the time you have lived beneath my roof, it has never come to my ears that you spoke of your parents, and I find that a curious thing.”

“I know they are dead,” Varuthir said in a low voice. “I had hoped—”

Ladyholder Glorthiachiel’s smile widened and her eyes gleamed predatorily. “Indeed they are. You are too young to know the history of the Hundred Houses, so what I tell you now will mean little. But you will remember it. Oh, yes. You will remember it all the days of your life. You, who will toil as a servant, were born to be War Prince of Farcarinon! It was Caerthalien that erased Farcarinon as if it had never been. You are Vieliessar Farcarinon—the last of Farcarinon—and you are nothing!”

In all the days of her life, Varuthir had tasted scorn and indifference aplenty, but never had she been hated as she saw Ladyholder Glorthiachiel hate her now. For a moment it was incomprehensible—what could she have done to merit this?

I have done nothing. It is my Line—my House …

She had heard the tale of the Breaking of Farcarinon all her life. She had never known it told the tale of her parents’ murder. And never had the story been sung of the last survivor of Farcarinon. But if Ladyholder Glorthiachiel spoke true, she was not Varuthir of Caerthalion. She was Vieliessar of Farcarinon—no, more: she was Vieliessar Farcarinon.

And Caerthalien …

“Murderess!” Vieliessar hissed in rage. She took a quick step forward, scrabbling for the knife upon her belt. She would slay the enemy of her House, and in her own death buy honor and a place at the Starry Huntsman’s right hand.

But Carangil Lightbrother was quicker than she. He raised his hand and Vieliessar felt a sudden icy tingling everywhere on her skin. Suddenly she was unable to move, to cry out, to demand vengeance.

“Today my vengeance is complete—Vieliessar Farcarinon!” Ladyholder Glorthiachiel said mockingly. “I would not have you leave us without knowing all I have taken from you. Fare you well, Farcarinon. And live a long, long time.”

I shall see you drown in your own blood! Vieliessar thought in fury. But it did not matter how hard she fought the geasa that had been placed upon her: the frenzied anger she felt did not transmute itself to action. Instead her body made a formal deferential bow, her feet turned her away, and her body walked from the Great Hall to the courtyard. Her hands plucked her gloves from the sash of her tunic and pulled them on, and her hands lifted the hood of her stormcloak to cover her hair. Without her will, her hands laced its drawstrings tight against the rain and the chill. Her body walked sedately to the bay palfrey that would carry her to debasement and imprisonment; her hands grasped the cantle, her foot set itself into the stirrup.

No matter how hard she tried, she could not make a sound.

*   *   *

It would take the caravan a fortnight to travel from Caerthalien to the Sanctuary of the Star. Traditionally the Candidates’ processionals were exempt from attack, though this tacit truce was something that held only among the Hundred Houses—outlaws and Broken Spurs might see nothing more sacred than a rich prize for the taking. For that reason, tribute caravans traveled with an armed escort in addition to the servants and drovers. Berthon, Thurion, and Athrothir laughed and chattered, excited by the journey and delighted with everything they saw.

The night’s mist still hung heavy over the fields and meadows as the gates of Caerthalien rattled open. The winches creaked as the heavy bronze portcullises were raised over the inner and outer gates; heavy chains rattled over pulleys and then the outer doors—massive slabs of bronze-bound oak—swung outward as their counterweights were released.

At last Runacarendalur of Caerthalien could spur his mount through the inner gate, through a long narrow tunnel, and through the outer gate. He took a deep breath as Gwaenor began to prance, the warhorse’s joy at reaching the open air plain to see. Both horse and rider relished the chance to be out and doing, and as Gwaenor danced, Runacarendalur laughed aloud.

“Is it not a beautiful morning, Helecanth?” he asked.

“Any morning is beautiful when one is not yet dead,” the chief of Runacarendalur’s personal guard grumbled.

“And so it will be a beautiful evening, too,” Runacarendalur said teasingly. “For you cannot think anyone will offer insult to a Sanctuary party—still less when a full double-taille of Caerthalien’s finest ride with it?”

“I think one stone can end a life—if it is the right stone at the right time,” Helecanth answered dourly. “And you are not such a fool as to think yourself safe even within the shadow of your father’s walls,” she added, frowning at him. Instead of a battle standard, for this journey Helecanth carried the long white pennion that would tell all who saw it this was a Candidates’ Escort bound for the Sanctuary of the Star. The pennion itself was sodden with rain, and hung down limply, its silk growing more transparent the wetter it got.

“Let us go more than a bowshot from Caerthalien before you begin fretting at every shadow,” Runacarendalur protested, laughing. It might be Helecanth’s duty to worry—for she was charged with his safety—but the countryside had been quiet for longer than he liked to remember—for so many years together that the time had been named the Long Peace.

Some suggested the Hundred Houses waited to see if the Starry Hunt meant to strike them down for the Erasure of Farcarinon, for the doing was against the Code of Battle. Serenthon Farcarinon had done only what any of them might do when he had schemed to make himself High King. Some said they waited for the Curse of Amrethion to fall upon them. In fact (as Runacarendalur knew) there was a far simpler explanation: the war against Farcarinon had been costly. Thousands of blooded warriors and trained warhorses had been lost, tracts of land laid waste—and the wrangling over who should gain Farcarinon’s lands had nearly bred a second war.

Serenthon was a fool. We have lived since the time of Amrethion and Pelashia without a High King, Runacarendalur thought. Yet I will say this for Farcarinon: the battles against it were glorious.

“Helecanth,” he said abruptly. “Do you think the Hundred Houses need a High King to govern them?”

“I say that if you do not rein in, we will reach the Sanctuary a sennight before the wagons do,” his Mistress-at-Arms said.

Runacarendalur glanced over his shoulder as he checked Gwaenor. The wagons were far behind them. His taille—which knew its business was not to indulge their commander’s fancies where his father could see—rode sedately at the head of the column, their bright cloaks and lacquered armor the brightest spot of color in the grey overcast day. Just behind the knights rode the Sanctuary Candidates—two Farmfolk more used to mules than palfreys, a Landbond who had probably never seen a horse before a sennight gone, and …

Better if she’d been slain before she was a day old, Runacarendalur thought grimly. Better even that the Lightborn had fostered her within the Sanctuary so she knew no other life. But the Sanctuary of the Star had no provision for the care of a child. Her fate had been set from the moment she first drew breath: to return to the Sanctuary of the Star in her twelfth year, never again to set foot outside it lest she find her death.

At least she does not know her true parentage, he thought. Perhaps the Lightborn would be kind and she never would.

*   *   *

I am Vieliessar of Farcarinon! Caerthalien killed my parents! I will have vengeance on them—on all of them! Only the spell held her silent. Losing her hope for her future and what she’d thought was her House was a doubly bitter blow: she’d dreamed ever since she was a child of becoming komen to Caerthalien. But the Magecraft that held her imprisoned and silent granted Vieliessar one unlooked-for boon.

It forced her to think.

Ladyholder Glorthiachiel did not have to tell me the truth.

If Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had told her of her parentage and then said that Caerthalien had wished to show mercy to a helpless child, Vieliessar would have been grateful and devoted. Instead Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had sent her into exile bearing the knowledge that she—a child—was held their enemy.

Why?

She had no answers.

*   *   *

In the last fortnight, his world had grown wide. Thurion had never been farther from home than the fields his family worked for Menenel Farmholder, and if the Light had not awakened in him, he would have lived and died without ever going more than a mile from the hut in which he had been born.

There were not enough Lightborn in all Caerthalien’s domain to visit every crofthold and farmstead each Midwinter, so it was the custom for all the children of a certain age to be sent to the nearest manor house to be overlooked. His father had not wished to risk the loss of Thurion’s labor, even though—should it come to pass that Thurion Landbond became Thurion Lightbrother—Lord Bolecthindial would make a great award to his family. At ten, at eleven, at twelve his father had said he was too young to make the sennight’s journey there and back, for Brightwater Manor lay far distant from Goldentrees Farm.

But in the spring following his twelfth year, the Light had awakened in Thurion without being Called. He had been able to hear the speech of beast and growing thing as plainly as he heard the words of his family and kin. His father had beaten him uncounted times for tale-telling, yet Thurion could not keep from speaking of what he knew.

That winter, for the first time in Thurion’s memory, Menenel Farmholder hosted Dilvalos Lightsister beneath his roof and made a great feast for all who toiled upon his lands. Dilvalos Lightsister had looked into Thurion’s heart and said, “This one shall go to the Sanctuary in the spring,” and her words were such a telling as not even one of the great lords could set aside.

It was barely Storm Moon when Thurion was summoned to Menenel Farmholder’s house to hear that he must journey to Caerthalien. He hoped to say farewell to his family, but Menenel insisted he must start for Komen Radanir’s manor house at once. The journey would have been more speedy if he had not gone at a wagon’s pace, but Thurion had never ridden a horse.

Komen Radanir’s husband had tsked over Thurion’s smock and leg-wrappings and knitted shawl of oiled wool, and said such garments would not do for Caerthalien’s Great Keep. He’d given Thurion a tunic, trousers, and the first boots he had ever worn, then said it would be a long cold ride to Caerthalien and given him a fine wool cape as well. Thurion was ashamed to say he had never ridden a horse, but somehow Komen Radanir had known. She said Thurion must learn, and quickly, but there had only been time for a lesson or two before they set off for Caerthalien.

And oh!—he’d thought Komen Radanir’s fine manor house was wondrous enough, but Caerthalien’s Great Keep was more magnificent still. In the castel there was magic everywhere, and the bed he slept in was soft as down and covered with many soft blankets in more colors than he had thought possible. More wonderful even than that was the food. He ate until he was full to bursting, and there was yet more food—so much food that full bowls and platters were returned to the kitchen from every table. He had asked, the first evening, if this were some great feast day, and the others had laughed …

But Thurion didn’t care. A scant sennight was barely time enough for him to list Caerthalien’s wonders. And not once was he called upon to do any work at all. It was as if he had fallen into an endless holiday.

A few days after his arrival, Berthon and Athrothir joined him at the keep. Berthon was the son of a knight, Athrothir the son of a castellan—one who held the manor house of a knight when he or she rode off to fight. They teased Thurion greatly about his wide eyes, for Berthon had visited the castel many times with his father and Athrothir had lived all his life in a rich manor house. Yet despite their teasing, Thurion thought they might well become friends, for—as Komen Radanir had explained to him—they would be a full turn of the seasons at the Sanctuary of the Star, tendering their service to the Lightborn. Then, if those of the Sanctuary, who would look more deeply into their hearts than had those who had Called the Light at Midwinter, felt them worthy, they would begin their training as Lightborn.

A whole year at the Sanctuary! And honor to his family, and to Menenel Farmholder, and to Komen Radanir. So Thurion simply laughed when Athrothir and Berthon spoke mournfully of the privations those in their Service Year endured, and told them he would be sure to give them advice on how to bear up beneath them.

They were not the only ones making the journey to the Sanctuary of the Star this springtide. There was Varuthir. Berthon, who knew all the gossip, said she was a fosterling of House Caerthalien who had lived all her life here. Thurion was far too shy to speak to her; she seemed as distant and unreachable—and as beautiful—as the winter stars.

Perhaps—if I become Lightborn—she will look kindly upon me. Perhaps, if she is not betrothed already …

In the castel, as on the farms which made up the estates which made up the domain of Caerthalien, betrothals came early, for what better way to seal a contract or to plan for the future? One might set aside a betrothal in the name of greater fortune, or if those promised to it disliked the idea enough to win their parents’ agreement. But the most certain way to break a promise, a handfasting, or even marriage itself, was a Bonding. Not even a Lord of the Line Direct could stand against the magic that bound Bondmates together for the rest of their lives. Such unions were deeply blessed, but the sorcery that tied soul and soul together created a binding so deep and true that one heart could not continue to beat if the other was stilled. Thurion well recalled the day when Henion (Bonded, as all knew, to Aglahir) had been plowing the field with a new team and had fallen and been trampled by the young, skittish beasts. Though Thurion had only been a child, he remembered how Aglahir had run screaming from the main house to the field and found Henion, though the fields were far and only the Bond had given her knowing. Henion had not survived to see the next day’s dawn, and Aglahir had been dead by the following nightfall.

So though the first time he saw Varuthir Thurion thought he had seen his heart’s twin, his destined Bondmate, he was grateful to realize he had not. This did not keep him from adoring her in silence and secret.

When at last the great day came for their departure, there were wonders enough to distract Thurion from the contemplation of his love. Not only were they to travel with a company of knights—a thing he had known already—but Caerthalien’s heir, Prince Runacar, was to escort them. The prince was a glorious figure in Caerthalien livery, with armor enameled just the shade of his surcoat and a great black destrier who pawed the flagstones and snorted steam from his nostrils. Thurion was just as glad to be riding the gentle mare Filioniel Horsemaster had chosen for him, for he had grown fond of her, and he could tell she liked him as well.

On the journey to Caerthalien he and Komen Radanir had stopped each night at a farmstead or manor, but on the journey to the Sanctuary of the Star they would sleep in pavilions, just as the knights did when they went off to war. On the road, the four Candidates were much in one another’s company and Thurion fell even more deeply into love with Varuthir, though she spoke few words to anyone and seemed to wear grief like a heavy weight.

*   *   *

Ten days’ travel saw the convoy deep in the Unclaimed Lands that bordered the forests surrounding the Sanctuary. Runacarendalur had escorted four previous groups of Candidates to the Sanctuary of the Star: even in the depths of war, Candidates from every House made the journey, for nowhere else could those with the Light receive training, and without the Lightborn there would be no one to Heal the sick and the injured. To make the fields bear fruitfully, to enchant stone and wood and cloth to endure, to do all the thousand tasks that required Magery. For that reason, even when House and warring House met upon the road to the Sanctuary gates, they nearly always passed one another in peace.

And in the gap between “nearly” and “always” fell reason enough for Caerthalien to send Runacarendalur forth a full moonturn early. He would gladly have brought an escort of a hundred, but to do so would be to reveal the thing Caerthalien needed to hide—that Farcarinon’s last daughter traveled with them.

She was too tempting a prize.

*   *   *

Knowing it was only a fantasy, Vieliessar spent the days of her journey hoping for some reprieve from the future she saw before her. There’d been a hundred chances on the journey to run. But the problem remained: where would she go, and how would she gain vengeance on Caerthalien?

Again and again she’d come to the very edge of wishing Ladyholder Glorthiachiel had never told her who she was—but to wish that would be to deny her father, her mother, her House. And she could not. House and kin were sacred. Vengeance was sacred. She would have learned that same lesson in Aramenthiali. In Vondaimieriel. In Sarmiorion.

In Farcarinon.

Even if she managed to escape to another House and persuade its lord to grant her knightly training, the outcome would be much the same as if she remained in the Sanctuary of the Star: if and when she fought, she would fight for the House to which she had pledged her fealty. Not for Farcarinon. Farcarinon would still be unavenged.

No. She must watch, and wait, and plan. No matter how much she loathed the thought, her best—her only—chance to be avenged on her parents’ murderers was to continue to the Sanctuary of the Star.

*   *   *

Four more days of travel would see them at the Sanctuary, and the last of them would be spent in the Flower Forest that surrounded the Sanctuary of the Star. Thurion had stretched his eyes at the thought of a Flower Forest so large it would take a whole day to ride through it, and the prince had laughed and said Caerthalien’s eastern reaches held Flower Forests greater than that.

Thurion had looked to Varuthir to see if she thought this as great a wonder as he, yet she seemed not to have heard Prince Runacarendalur’s words. She stared off into the distance and her face was still with grief.

He knew she walked the bounds of the camp each night until the spell-lamps were covered and all composed themselves for sleep. In the first days he had been too tired to do anything but seek his bed after the meal, but when that exhaustion had passed, he’d often spent those candlemarks in games or in hearing story-songs of great deeds, for even though Helecanth was very grand, she said she was happy to have the telling of them to fresh ears. But Varuthir had never joined them. It did not seem good to him that something so joyous as this journey should make one so beautiful so sad, and so, this night, he left Athrothir and Berthon to their amusements and sought her out.

Thurion had become accustomed to the sounds of the camp at night—the faint grunts of tethered horses, the grinding sound of grain being chewed, the long sighs of the oxen, the jingle of bridle and clink of stirrup as the sentries rode the bounds. Tonight there was a new scent upon the wind, for one might smell the blooms of a Flower Forest even from so far away. He soon found Varuthir, a dim figure in the darkness, only the silver embroidery on her cloak gleaming in the light from the pavilions.

“You should be happy,” Thurion blurted out when he reached her. It was not what he’d meant to say. He had intended to say he cared for her, and worried about her, and had seen her sadness. He might even have asked if she missed her friends from the castel, for he felt certain she’d had many.

“I?” she asked, turning. The distant glow of the lanterns fell full upon her face, framed in the white fur of her cloak’s hood, and she twined one long ebony braid between her fingers. “I was not born to be happy,” she said in a low voice.

“I don’t know why,” Thurion answered, his tongue stumbling over the words. “To be Called to the Sanctuary of the Star—I always hoped to be summoned there, even if it is only for a year, as it might be, you know, and … Berthon will be made a knight, if he is not found to be Lightborn, but such as I—to become one with the Light is a great honor—” At last he managed to stop talking, cursing his clumsy tongue, for he had meant to offer comfort, and instead he saw Varuthir’s eyes glitter now with tears.

“It is an honor I never sought, nor is it one I shall gain,” she said flatly.

“Have you Seen this?” he blurted. “The dreams that come—if you have Light—they do not matter unless—until—”

But she held up her hand to stop him. “The dreams I held were not of this. I thank you, Thurion, for your kindness,” she added after a pause. “You do not know me, and so it does you honor.”

It was plainly a dismissal, but he could not bring himself to leave. “Do you—do you think—when we are at the Sanctuary—” he began, but she shook her head and he fell silent.

“You do not know me,” she repeated. “But you will. And then you will … Then you will have your answers.” Still she did not send him away, so Thurion stood with her in silence until Komen Helecanth summoned them both to their beds. He wondered at the words she had spoken, and it was not long before he could place knowing upon them.

 

CHAPTER TWO

CHILD OF THE PROPHECY

Listen, child, and I will tell you a tale that is both true and real. Long ago, in the morning of the world, when there was nothing but Jer-a-kalaliel itself, nine stars looked down from the sky and saw the beautiful land we live in. And they were so enchanted by its beauty that they fell from the heavens. And each place one fell to the ground was more beautiful than the next, and because each was so beautiful, great Flower Forests grew up where each of the nine stars fell down. And the Flower Forests contained every tree and plant that grows, and some that remain only in Tilinaparanwira the Lost, which grows behind the East Wind.   —Ancient Nursery Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because I am Farcarinon,” Vieliessar said bitterly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She would wait.

And plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the teaching itself is the test.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

“A word with you, girl.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nor was this place unoccupied.

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

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

“I … didn’t know…” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To the world,” he said.

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

Thurion had the answers Maeredhiel had said were here.

 

CHAPTER THREE

THE SONG OF AMRETHION

When stars and clouds together point the way
And of a hundred deer one doe can no longer counted be
When peace is bought with maiden mother’s blood
And those so long denied assert their ancient claim
When scholar turns to sword, and warrior to peace
And two ford rivers swelled with mortal gore
When two are one, then one may speak for all
And in that candlemark claim what never has been lost.    —The Song of Amrethion Aradruiniel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It seems unlikely,” she said.

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

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

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

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

And Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor a haunt of shadows lie

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

While all who husband hidden secrets die…”

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

And Vieliessar did not know why.

Yet.

*   *   *

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

I shall go next spring. Next spring.

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

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

And her work suffered for it.

*   *   *

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

“I am sorry, Lightsister, I thought—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vieliessar nodded slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

She was not sure why.

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

The Long Peace was over at last.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

The coals still glowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell no one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a few days later, it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No! Don’t!

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

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

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

The brazier had gone dark.

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

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

Unmade.

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

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

Vieliessar fled, holding a skirt full of dust.

*   *   *

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

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

And time passed.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The front of his grey tunic was dark with blood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind her, Vieliessar heard running footsteps.

“What has happened?” Hervilafimir Lightsister cried.

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

*   *   *

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

Vieliessar had been waiting here for a long time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He enthrones himself as if he would be High King!

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

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

She was angry.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she had not.

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

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

He saw her chin come up and her eyes flash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had no choice.

She reached out and set her hand in his.

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

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

I can do this.

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

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

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

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

Some entered the Shrine and never emerged again.

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

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

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

Will I be as fortunate?

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

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

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

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

Go now, before you lose your nerve.

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

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

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

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

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

Brightness flared up between her fingers.

She heard the sound of a bridle clink.

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

“You have come to end us.”

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

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

“Yet you shall. For you are Farcarinon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

She could. But …

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER FOUR

THE VEILED PATH

Then spoke Berendriel, Notariel’s Heir: I do not set my foot upon Your stirrup, I do not set my hand upon Your horse. I shall not ride the night wind, nor leave my House, my komen, or my kin.And the Star-Crowned, Hunt-Lord, Master of the Silver-Shod answered: As you say, so it will be. Your name shall be no longer Berendriel but Mazhnune. You shall battle forever, a hungry ghost, and never will you die and never will you live.    —Berendriel’s Song

“Fall back! Fall back!”

“Stand!”

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

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

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

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

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

He had never learned to deafen himself to the sounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narcheliel. It must be her.

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

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

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

There always was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Caerthalien did not receive any great challenges.

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

If.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was content.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or had died.

The Banespell eddied around those standing sentry in the hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shall not choose, Vieliessar told herself grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My power is greater than theirs.

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

It was time now to ride to battle once more.

She closed her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the Lightborn was strong enough.

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

All could be hers, if she chose.

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

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

And her Healing was done.

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as Haldil clearly had decided … a pretext.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she thought.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamphuliadiel Astromancer’s house was Haldil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To me.

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

If the question arose.

When it arose.

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

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

*   *   *

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

She spent it outside the Sanctuary.

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

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

And more than some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She turned her back and strode from the Sanctuary.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If anyone sought her, she must not be found.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

Listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But against whom?

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

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

Who?

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

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

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

It made no sense.

And Hamphuliadiel had put the explanations far beyond her reach.

INTERLUDE ONE

FEAR AND BETRAYAL

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

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

And with it, their curiosity.

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

The first creatures of their making were the Lesser Endarkened.

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

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

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

As much of a necessity as pain.

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

The Endarkened wouldn’t have it any other way.

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

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

Hunting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of their Brightworld powers saved them.

And Virulan had been confident none of them ever would.

*   *   *

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

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

Fool, Virulan thought.

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

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

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

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

Irritating.

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

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

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

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

And then his body erupted in flame.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His former consort.

Copyright © 2012 by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

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