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Authors: Josepha Sherman

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Forging the Runes

BOOK: Forging the Runes
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Table of Contents

What matter promises to them? They're only Human!

His honor riven from him, Elven Prince Ardagh suffers that worst of all possible fates: banishment to the world of humans. Alone in a land of Christian kings and Viking raiders, Ardagh has at last learned to make his way--more, he has made himself a place; he is much valued by his friends and comrades at arms. His fate is beginning not to seem so terrible after all.

But now, Ardagh, he who was falsely branded "Oath-breaker," is called upon to defend Ireland against the fierce magic of an Anglo-Saxon menace and so fulfill his pledge to human King Aedh. Though it may well cost him his immortal life, fiercely, joyfully Ardagh--no oathbreaker he--joins the fray. Then, in the midst of war, he is summoned to rejoin the Sidhe. His choice is stark and clear: to stand by his sworn comrades or regain all that he has lost--and to be in truth as well as name Ardagh Oathbreaker.

Forging the Runes

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 1996 by Bill Fawcett & Assoc.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

ISBN: 0-671-87752-6

Cover art by Ruth Sanderson

First printing, November 1996

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Typeset by Windhaven Press, Auburn NH

Printed in the United States of America

Electronic version by Baen Books

eISBN: 978-1-62579-449-9

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The author would like to thank Dr. Susan M. Shwartz for her help in answering such questions as "Would he be an ealdorman or a thegne?" The author would also like to thank Diana Paxson for help in separating the runic wheat from the chaff.

Old Storms and New
Chapter 1

Ardagh Lithanial, exiled prince of the Sidhe—green of slanted eye, tall, elegant and almost too blatantly Other to be passing for human as he was—sat a horse on a hill in this human land of Eriu, and stared out at devastation. The wind was strong enough to scream in his ears and whip his long black hair stingingly about his face, but it was an ocean-borne wind, cleanly scented and no more than natural. The forest that lay before him had been torn apart by a force far greater than that, trees thrown aside like so many broken spears.

Arridu,
the prince thought, remembering that demonic force nearly crushing the life from him, and just barely kept his hand from rubbing newly healed wounds.
Arridu and Gervinus. Bishop Gervinus, human lie though that title was. Ae, let the demon rend him forever!

Ardagh's horse stirred restlessly, calling a rumbling greeting to another. A second rider was coming up the hill, a solidly built man, no longer quite young, at least as humans rated such things, his red hair streaked with silver: Aedh mac Neill, High King of all Eriu. Reining in his horse beside Ardagh, Aedh looked out over the ruined forest and drew a shuddering breath.

"Dear God." It was said with soft, fervent horror. "Dear, loving God." The king shook his head as though trying to deny his own vision. "Each time I dare to think, no, the damage couldn't be that bad, and then . . . Eriu has always been storm-racked; we're surrounded by sea, after all. I've seen my share of tempests, and some of them monstrous enough to seem truly sorcerous. But . . . I have never seen anything to match the fury of . . . that."

"Nor are you likely to see such a storm again," Ardagh said, and felt Aedh's keen grey glance turn his way. "Not if I have any way to stop it."

"Are you
expecting
another sorcerer?" the king asked sharply. "Yes, and since when has a prince of the Sidhe developed such concern for a human Realm?"

"No, to the first. And since he's had to take shelter here, to the second." But then Ardagh stretched wearily in the saddle. "Ae, that's not the whole of it. King Aedh, this can never truly be my homeland, we both know that, but I have . . . grown fond of it. I would not see it harmed."

Aedh snorted. " 'Grown fond.' I wish you could have been fond enough of Eriu to keep that—that storm demon from—"

"I did what I could."

"And nearly got yourself killed in the process. Yes. I know."

The king turned away, looking out over the ravaged land again. "I'm not accusing you. You saved us all from God only knows what further horror. And if it were simply this one forest devastated, och, well, we could all say, 'Was that not a terrible thing?" and go on with life. But I'm beginning to think that the whole land's been changed!"

"Surely not—"

"Surely yes! You've heard of the island of Fitha? No? Our tour hasn't included it, but there've been enough witnesses to swear that the cursed storm tore it to shreds! And so many people slain . . .
my
people . . ." Aedh's face was rigidly impassive, but he could not keep the anguish from his voice. "Over a thousand dead in Corca-Bhaiscinn alone." He glanced at Ardagh. "How can you look so composed?"

"My brother," Ardagh said softly, "once went to war with a traitor." He could not keep the bitterness from his voice. "A genuine traitor, not someone betrayed by false courtiers into only seeming an Oathbreaker. The war didn't last long; magical battles seldom do. And Eirithan was, of course, the victor. When he was done, the traitor's lands looked . . . far worse. Nothing ever grew on them again."

"
This
land will recover," Aedh said, almost defiantly. "I don't think I would like to see your people's idea of war. Or peace."

"Ae, no, there are long periods of tranquillity, of beauty that would, I think, make even you weep. As for a Powerful war—you saw it, or at least a hint of it."

"Ah." Aedh looked out again at the ruined forest and shuddered. "That was more than enough of—ha, who is this?"

A horseman was riding frantically up the hill. "News, King Aedh," he called out, "foul news!"

"What, worse than this?" the king retorted. "Then we are sorely pressed, indeed!"

But he signalled to the messenger to approach.

Ardagh glanced subtly about, recognizing this man, that. The audience chamber here in Fremainn, Aedh's royal fortress, was walled with stone, one of the few buildings not of wood, and crowded now with men: advisors, courtiers, all of them murmuring like an angry hive of bees. Ardagh sat among them with total Sidhe stillness—which meant that the humans around him had nearly forgotten his presence—but he, too, was feeling a sympathetic stirring of anger as he watched King Aedh. The king, too well schooled in regal ways to pace, fairly blazed with rage, nearly blinding to Ardagh's Sidhe sight.

"Leinster dares attack us now,
now
! Does King Finsneachta think us broken by the storm?"

That brought a roar of denials. Aedh held up a hand for silence and continued, "He is obviously blind to Eriu's pain, or so jealous for power that he doesn't care about the wrecked land, the ruined harvest—he would starve his own people to attack us! What shall we do about this, eh? What shall we do?"

Clever,
Ardagh thought.
They can hardly fail to shout for war. And I—I cannot help this time but agree.
Pitching his voice to carry over the turmoil, the prince said (feeling his neighbors flinch in surprise at his sudden coming to life), "It seems to me that the only choice of honor is to take the fight to Finsneachta—but after he has made the first move."

"Wait?" shouted someone.

"We cannot wait!"

"We dare not wait!"

But Aedh held up a hand again, and the shouting gradually died back into silence. "What would you have us do, Prince Ardagh?"

"I will not pretend to fully understand your"
human
"ways. But it seems clear to me that Finsneachta did, indeed, mean to catch you with your guard lowered." He glanced about, seeing every man watching him intently. "Very well, then, let him start on the march. Then
he
is the aggressor, the one in the wrong, not you. Gather a force, not just of your own men but of those from your vassal kings as well, to show that all Eriu is outraged by his action."

From the light blazing in Aedh's eyes, he'd already decided on that. "Exactly! Laity and clergy both shall meet him on the field of battle—and it shall be
our
choice of battle,
our
choice of field!"

"Not the clergy!" protested one voice. "The Church has no part in this!" It was Fothad mac Ailin who spoke, Aedh's Chief Poet and Chief Minister. Wise Fothad, with his clear gaze and deceptively ordinary face.
Fothad,
thought Ardagh,
father of Sorcha, my Sorcha.
"You must not involve the Church!" the poet continued to protest as they all began filing out of the audience chamber.

But the others were too mad with battle-hunger to heed. And only Ardagh, the prince thought, even heard him.

Eithne, queen and wife to Aedh mac Neill, stared bitterly up into darkness and told herself this was no different from all the other times she'd lain awake beside her husband, hearing him sleep and knowing he would ride out tomorrow. Ride out into battle. Ride out and maybe not return—

"No," she whispered, softly so Aedh would not hear, "gods above, gods below, no, not that."

Aedh had no idea that his wife held this one secret from him, Aedh had no idea that Eithne still belonged to the old religion, the ancient faith. And he most certainly had no idea that she practiced the smallest, weakest but very real magics.

Eithne reached out a tender hand to stroke her husband's bearded cheek and heard him murmur her name in his sleep. "Whatever magics I possess are for you, my love," she whispered.

If only they were enough! If only they could wrap Aedh and their children, their Neill and little Fainche, safe forever . . .

There was no such thing as "forever" for mortals. And she'd known when she'd wed him that a High King must almost always be at war. Eithne shivered, wriggling closer to Aedh for warmth. He murmured again, wordlessly, and an arm, heavy as a log, fell across her. Eithne squirmed into a more comfortable position under the weight, feeling the heat of his body, smelling the familiar scent of him.

Mortal,
she repeated silently, and that brought her to the next thought: Prince Ardagh, who knew nothing of the word. Prince of the Sidhe that he was, he should, were there any justice, bear magic enough to Ward all this land. But in this mortal Realm, he had little more Power than she.

I've kept your secret,
Eithne told the prince silently, never quite sure if he might actually hear her.
And you've kept mine. Our pact remains. I'll work what spells I can to keep Aedh safe—but you, och, you, too, must do what you can.

With the softest of sighs, Eithne burrowed her head against Aedh's broad chest. Let the night pass, and the following day. Let the battle come and go and let Aedh win and be unharmed.

Let it be so. Let it be so. Let it be so.

"
Cadwal.
"

No, ah no,
Dewi Sant,
not this dream, not again. Cadwal ap Dyfri, leader of the High King's mercenary band, groaned in his sleep and fought to wake. And yet the voice called to him:

"
Cadwal,
cariad,
Cadwal.
"

The voice was so real, the endearment so familiar.

"
Cadwal, dearest heart, hear me. Know me. Cadwal, you must hear me!
"

"Gwen?" he asked softly. Now Cadwal knew for certain it was a dream: His Gwen, his Gwenith, was dead these many years, falsely accused of sorcery and put to death. Murdered. All for having fought off the lord who'd tried his hand at rape. Cadwal had slain that lord, his own liege lord—and in the process gotten himself thrown into exile. His only comfort in all these years since had been the surety that Gwen was up there with God and His holy ones. And: "Och, Gwen," Cadwal said with a dreamer's certainty, "you can't be here. Your soul is safe in Heaven now."

But the voice continued, as he knew it would, as it had continued these three nights running: "
Cadwal, no. I am not safe. I am not safe. Come to me, Cadwal. Free me. I beg you, love, save me. Free me.

"
Free me . . .
"

Cadwal woke gasping, sitting bolt upright in his lonely bed, then swore, harshly and steadily. He was that rare thing, a mercenary of middle years, and he hadn't made it to this age by allowing weakness of body
or
mind to steal into him. A dream, curse it, this was nothing more than a dream! And why he was letting the thrice-damned thing haunt him—

Because it felt so real, so very painfully real, Gwen's enslaved soul calling for his help . . .

Pw,
what nonsense!
You're a warrior,
Cadwal snapped at himself,
head of the High King's mercenaries—yes, and a fine bit of good you're going to do Aedh letting dreams get the better of you.

He shot to his feet, fiercely splashing his face with water from the pitcher at his bedside, letting the icy water shock him fully awake. Still dark out there, still a good way from morning, but Cadwal knew he was not going to sleep again this night.

Aedh, now. Aedh mac Neill had always dealt well with him, treating Cadwal not like an exiled mercenary, but like a man of honor fallen on difficult times.

"And damned if I'm going to betray that trust!"

Throwing on his clothes, Cadwal stalked out into the night. A walk would stir the blood, get him back to— to reality. Away from . . . dreams.

"No," Sorcha said and, "no," again. "Ardagh, no, you can't mean to go—"

"I can. I will." Sidhe vision keen even at night, Ardagh glanced down at his human love with her fierce face and lovely deep blue eyes, then turned sharply away. No one dared say to a prince,
you must not do this thing,
certainly not a mere human—

Save this one. "What else is there for me to do?" Ardagh asked, still not looking at her. "Return to my own land? I would most dearly love to do that. But thanks to my oh-so-suspicious brother and his oh-so-treacherous court and that one necessary spell they stole from my mind, I cannot. These folk have given me sanctuary. What else is there for me here but to aid them in turn?"

"As what? Ardagh, you're not a-a warrior! And I thought we—"

He whirled back to her at that. "Ae, 'we!' What is there of that? You know I've sworn a vow to harm no one here—and thanks to that vow and your people's code of honor, I cannot even exchange more than chaste words or a few stolen kisses with you! Anything more would harm your honor, and that would hurt you."
And you are human, short-lived human, and I—I

will not think of that.
Despair feeding his anger, Ardagh continued, "And if any suspected we walked together alone at night like this—ae, I can imagine the outcry then! Prince I may be, Sidhe, yes—but in the eyes of these folk I am nothing more than a
cu glas,
a grey dog, a landless, clan-less exile—"

"And do you think it's so easy for me?" she snapped. "Do you? I'm a widow, not a simpering maid, I'm a thinking, feeling
person,
not just the daughter of Fothad mac Ailin, I'm not just some ridiculous symbol of honor or purity or-or—"

BOOK: Forging the Runes
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