Authors: Jeff Wheeler
BOOKS BY JEFF WHEELER
The Kingfountain Series
The Queen’s Poisoner
The Thief’s Daughter
The King’s Traitor
The Covenant of Muirwood Trilogy
The Lost Abbey
The Banished of Muirwood
The Ciphers of Muirwood
The Void of Muirwood
The Legends of Muirwood Trilogy
The Wretched of Muirwood
The Blight of Muirwood
The Scourge of Muirwood
Whispers from Mirrowen Trilogy
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 Jeff Wheeler
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by 47North, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and 47North are trademarks of
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Cover design by Shasti O’Leary-Soudant
In memory of Brigette Dawn
REALMS & CHARACTERS
Severn (House of Argentine): usurped throne from his brother’s sons and has defeated all attempts to break his grip on power. He is now the most powerful ruler of any realm.
Sinia (House of Montfort): succeeded her father as Duchess of Brythonica at age fifteen, and Lord Marshal Roux was named protector during her minority. At age twenty-one, she began ruling the duchy under her own authority. She is never seen outside her realm for risk of abduction and a forced marriage by power-hungry nobles throughout every realm. Allied with Ceredigion.
Chatriyon VIII (House of Vertus): Occitania has been financially jeopardized following the battle of Averanche, after which, many of the noble families were ransomed. Further aggressions by Ceredigion and Brugia have forced the king to surrender major portions of the kingdom. In a state of enmity with Ceredigion for his marriage to Elyse Argentine, Severn’s niece. They have three children, a son and two daughters.
Iago IV (House of Llewellyn): Atabyrion is the chief ally of Ceredigion through a marriage alliance between Iago and Elysabeth Victoria Mortimer. The couple has two children, and the kingdom has prospered due to increased trade.
LORDS OF CEREDIGION
Duke of Westmarch, master of the Espion
ailing Duke of North Cumbria
Duke of East Stowe
Duke of Southport
chancellor of Ceredigion, king’s new confidant
Thank you most ardently for news of my grandfather’s seizure. The latest letter I had from him held no reference to any complaints, mild or serious. When I received word from you that he was dying, I persuaded my husband to come with me at once to Dundrennan. It grieves me that my children have not known their great-grandfather as I knew him. A visit home is long overdue. I pray it will not be awkward between us. I still consider you a dear friend and long for you to find happiness as well. Dear Owen, I hope you will come to Dundrennan. My grandfather looked to you as his own son.
Yours with loyalty,
Elysabeth Victoria Mortimer Llewellyn
Queen of Atabyrion
The Winter of the North
The mountain road leading north was coated in ice, and Owen Kiskaddon was cold and saddle-weary as he made his way to Dundrennan. He was used to the feeling. Stiev Horwath had finally begun to show his mortality over the previous few years, and Owen had inherited most of the unpleasant tasks that had once fallen on the grizzled duke of the North. More often than not, he was traveling—riding from one end of the kingdom to the other on behalf of his master, Severn Argentine, King of Ceredigion. But Owen was grateful for any excuse to stay away from court. Watching the king’s degradation had soured his outlook on life and the world. More than once he had regretted his decision to support a king who eventually turned into the creature his enemies had once only feared him to be. Years before, he could have allied himself with Severn’s enemies and deposed him. If he was going to do that now, he would have to do it himself.
Though Owen was twenty-four years old, he felt like an old man. His cares and responsibilities were an unshakable burden. He was sick at heart, sick in his soul, and the only force that kept him going was the slender hope of escaping the daily misery his life had become.
The thought of seeing Evie again—no, seeing
again—both worried him and rekindled sparks of warmth inside his cold iron heart. He had not spoken to her once since the day they had said good-bye at the cistern in the king’s palace seven years ago. He occasionally received letters from her, flowery prose talking about the wonders of Atabyrion and the antics of her two children. He never answered—he could not bring himself to—but he had finally written to tell her of her grandfather’s failing health. He owed her that much, a chance to see her grandfather before he passed. Besides, Owen felt a debt of duty and gratitude to Duke Horwath, enough for him to summon the courage to face the girl he had loved and lost. That she was happy in her marriage to Iago made it worse somehow.
The trees opened up to the grand vista of Dundrennan, and Owen reined in his horse so he could take in the view. The mountain valley was thick with snow-capped peaks and gigantic avalanching waterfalls that roared off the jagged faces of cliffs. The scene never failed to fill him with wonder, but this time it was bittersweet.
would be there, and he could not look at nature’s incredible display without summoning memories of walking along those cliffs as a boy when he was a ward of the old duke, hand in hand with his former love, the duke’s granddaughter.
“Impressive, my lord,” said one of the knights who was part of Owen’s escort.
He kept his expression neutral and only nodded in agreement. Within the hour, they were dislodging chunks of ice and snow on the bridge to the city, watching the banners of the proud Pierced Lion, the sigil of the Horwath line, flutter in the gentle breeze. The courtyard teemed with visitors who had come to pay homage to the beloved duke of the North.
After dismounting, Owen handed the reins to a servant and took a deep breath, preparing for the whirlwind of emotions about to be unleashed inside him. More than anything else, he wanted to curl up on a pallet in the stables and hide from everyone. But he had made this pilgrimage for many reasons that he could no longer avoid. He was a little surprised that Elysabeth had not met him in the bailey in a rush of words and enthusiasm. Of course, her
would not have approved of that.
As he entered the vast castle, hand on the hilt of his sword, he thought briefly of the scabbard belted to his waist and how he had discovered it in the palace cistern at Kingfountain. The treasures hidden in the cistern waters could only be seen or touched by the Fountain-blessed. It was as if they existed in another realm until claimed by those who had been bequeathed that right by the magic of the realm—the Fountain. He had taken other items from the cistern over the years. A brooch that he always wore fastened to his cloak. A dagger he had fancied, with the symbol of the drowned kingdom of Leoneyis on the guard. There was even a chain hauberk, completely rust free, which he’d found in a chest that had been submerged for centuries. He wiped his mouth, feeling the bristles across his chin. He rarely shaved now, finding it more bother than it was worth. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone anyway, least of all the Mortimer girl.
He was greeted by the duke’s steward, the son of the man who had served Horwath for so many years. His name was Johns. “Lord Owen, I bid you welcome in your return to Dundrennan,” the man said, falling into stride with Owen. “It has been many months since we have seen you here.”
“How is the duke?” Owen asked, following Johns as he led the way to the duke’s bedchamber. That surprised Owen, for he had expected to find his old mentor in the solar.
“He’s old, my lord. His strength is failing.” The steward’s eyes shined with emotion. “He’ll be grateful you came.”
Owen frowned, trying to steel himself.
“I thought you should know that his granddaughter has come from Atabyrion.” The steward looked pained as he said this. It was no secret to anyone living in the castle that the duke himself had longed for a match between Owen and his granddaughter. Only the king had dissented. Owen kicked aside the memory as if it were a piece of clutter.
“Yes, I was aware of that. Would you make sure my men are given something to eat? We had to stop by Kingfountain on the way here, and they deserve a rest.”
“Of course, my lord. I have your room ready as well.”
Owen gave the steward a dark look. “It’s not my room, Johns. I am a guest here. Like any other.”
The gloomy hall was lit by a few mounted torches that hissed ominously in Owen’s ears. When they reached the door at the end, Johns tapped twice respectfully before opening it. He glanced inside, took in a breath, and then opened it for Owen to enter first, giving him a look of compassion that Owen didn’t feel he deserved.
And there she was.
It felt like someone had struck Owen’s shield with a lance and knocked him violently off his horse. That rarely happened to him, in fact—it
happened to him in years. But the memory of the pain and the sudden lack of air perfectly fit this moment. She was beautiful still, her long dark hair braided and bundled into various intricate designs. She was a woman now, a mother of two. There was a glow about her, a radiance that struck him forcefully and made him ache inside.
Elysabeth was sitting in a chair at Horwath’s bedside, holding his hands. The duke’s hair was as white as the snow of his mountains, his breath coming in fitful gasps. The duke’s eyes were closed in sleep. It hurt to see him so still, a mighty tree fallen to the earth. Owen’s eyes returned to Elysabeth as she turned to see who had entered.
“Owen,” she breathed. The smile that lit her face tortured him.
“Hello, Elysabeth,” he said thickly, trying to master himself. Failing.
She rose from the chair and gave him a look of warmth, tinged with pity. In the years that had separated them, he could see that she had progressed. She had learned to love again, to live a full life, while he had not even tried.
“I hadn’t imagined you with so much stubble,” she said, smiling kindly as she approached him. “But that spot in your hair hasn’t changed. I’d know you anywhere, Owen Kiskaddon. I am so grateful you came. Did you get my letter?”
He nodded, unsure what to say, how to bridge the chasm yawning between them.
Her eyes crinkled with sadness. “Is it to be like this between us now?” she asked him softly. “Strangers instead of friends? It pains me to see you this way. You look awful, Owen.”
What to say to that? The retort came easy enough. “At least you’re not wearing one of those silly Atabyrion headdresses. I’d feared the worst.”
He’d meant it as a barb. Being with Severn so much, he couldn’t stop them now. They came to him as naturally as breathing.
She flinched at his tone, his disrespect. “I had hoped our reunion wouldn’t be this painful. But I see now that it must be. I am sorry, Owen.”
“For what?” He chuckled, not understanding. “It wasn’t your fault. We both know who is to blame.” He sighed deeply, stepping around her and approaching the bedside. He looked down at the duke’s sunken cheeks, his gray pallor. “Sometimes I wonder how he endured it for so long. The sniping. The invectives. I tried to let it all go. But I’m a man. I bleed. He never seemed to.”
He felt Elysabeth sidle up next to him, and it made him cringe inside. “Why didn’t you answer my letters?” she asked him. “I tried to prevent this . . . distance from developing.”
He shook his head. “You could not be loyal to me without being unfaithful to your husband,” he said bluntly. “Nor did I want to tempt myself—or you. It was best that we stayed apart for so long. And the king has kept me busy,” he added dryly.
Elysabeth laughed. “That is true. You have expanded the domains of Ceredigion extensively. I’ve heard about your exploits, you know. I follow each one. First, you captured several more towns in Occitania and seized their castles. Then you subjugated Legault and made it a vassal state. The king sent you to Brugia to help Maxwell unite the land under his power, but you betrayed him to keep him from getting too powerful.”
Owen smirked. “That was the king’s idea, of course,” he said bitterly. “He doesn’t want any of his allies getting too powerful.” He looked at her. “Including Atabyrion.”
She blinked at him in surprise. “What do you mean?” Her eyes had always seemed to change color like the weather. Today they were green, but they were a lighter shade than the dark green gown she wore. He could barely see the tiny scar at the corner of her full eyebrow. An injury from falling off a horse during a riot.
“When your grandfather dies,” he said in a quiet voice, a
voice, “you will not inherit Dundrennan. I think the king plans to give it to Catsby.”
Her eyes went suddenly gray with anger. “But I am the heiress,” she stammered, her cheeks turning a shade of crimson.
“Welcome to the court of Kingfountain,” Owen said, giving her a mocking bow. “As I said, don’t be surprised. No one is secure, Elysabeth. Not even me.” Owen shook his head and started to pace. “He does this, you know. Frequently. He pushes his lords, promises one something they want and another the same thing. Then he lets them squabble and rip at each other. And in the end, he’ll give it to a third man instead. There is no allegiance anymore. People obey because they fear him. He is paranoid about anyone getting too much power. He hasn’t forgotten your husband
Ceredigion. Nor has he forgiven it.”
She looked at him in horror. “This is news I hadn’t even considered possible. Owen, how it must pain you to serve him!”
He shook his head. “You don’t know. There is so much you don’t know.” He stepped away from her, scraping his fingers through his hair.
He felt her hand on his shoulder. “Tell me. Who do you confide in now? There must be someone you trust.”
Owen nodded, but he felt dejected. “I trust Etayne.”
“The very one. She’s loyal to me. She helps me deceive the king. Trick him.” He shook his head again, wondering why he was opening up to her. Secrets were always trying to get out. He carried so many he felt he would burst. It was as if they had all been building up inside him until he saw her next. He clenched his jaw.
She came and stood in front of him, her eyes imploring him to trust her. She was still his friend, still cared about his well-being. He had almost forgotten what that felt like. “How are you deceiving the king?” she whispered.
Owen pursed his lips. “I’m disgusted with myself sometimes. When I defeated the king’s nephew’s attempt to claim the throne, Eyric claimed to have been Piers Urbick, a pretender, all along. It was a lie, Ev—Elysabeth. It was a lie, but the king has been wooing Lady Kathryn ever since. According to the laws and rites of marriage, their union is null and void if they were married under false circumstances. They have not
as man and wife since St. Penryn. Eyric is still a prisoner in the palace, like Dunsdworth. The two of them are conspiring, looking for ways to escape. I have to keep the Espion watching them constantly. Eyric wants to be with his wife . . . and so does Severn.”
Elysabeth’s face twisted with revulsion. “I’ve heard she still wears a widow’s garb. That she’s always dressed in black?”
“It’s true. The king is always making her new gowns. He’s fixated on her. He wants to marry her, but she insists she is still married to Eyric. He’s tried to use his Fountain magic to persuade her otherwise.”
“That is abhorrent!” she said, her emotions totally riled.
He nodded feverishly. “His determination sickens me. And so I’ve used Etayne to deceive him. She is Fountain-blessed herself, and has the power to look like anyone else. When the king is in one of his
to persuade Kathryn to relent, Etayne stands proxy and resists him. I help her as often as I can because the king’s magic won’t work on Kathryn when I am near. The poor woman is still faithful to her husband, but this constant pressure to yield is wearing her down. The king knows he’s not getting any younger, that he needs an heir. The privy council is practically bullying her to accept him.” He threw up his hands. “I don’t know how much longer we can hold it off. I want Eyric to escape. But no other kingdom would risk the wrath of Severn by abducting him.”