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Authors: Angela Highland

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“Lady of Time,” Faanshi breathed.

“This Ward hides rather than repels,” Kirinil said. “And I need to renew it. Come in,
valannè
, quick as you can.”

That took doing, for the horses were tired and skittish, balking at their riders asking them to step straight into a hillside. Morrigh was the worst of the three, and only when Julian roused at Faanshi’s side, just enough to call out hoarse assurances, did the stallion subside enough for the elves to lead him into their hiding place.

Yet that brief show of energy cost the Rook. He sagged hard against Faanshi, leaving her to hold him up as best she could as she guided him into the cave in the horses’ wake. Within, she found space enough to surprise her, though in truth she could not bring herself to care whether their haven was cramped or as spacious as a palace. She made it as far as one of the cold, dry walls before the assassin crumpled, with nary a warning or sound.

“Julian!” Faanshi caught him before his head struck earth or stone, though his weight pushed her down along with him. Yet he hadn’t fainted; he flinched in her grasp and gave her that same strange, uneasy look she’d seen before. It wrenched her. Conscious of the tension in his frame yet loath to let him go, she pleaded, “Please don’t be scared of me. I don’t think I could bear it.”

Around them Alarrah and Kirinil were still in motion, the one stripping gear from the horses, the other pacing down the length of the cave. What her teacher sought, Faanshi didn’t know. All her attention remained on the man she held, and only when he finally met her eyes did she relax enough to remember to breathe.

But oh, he looked different indeed, with two eyes rather than one struggling to focus upon her. The hand that lay limp across his chest was just as great a change, in shape much akin to its mate yet slightly paler of hue. In trepidation Faanshi reached forward to clasp it in hers, and drew in a breath at the contact. He had new skin there, soft as a child’s, untouched by even the faint traces of sun that browned his face.

There were subtler changes too. Almost vanished was the scarring around his right eye, and a thin streak of white she couldn’t recall seeing before cut through the dark brow above it. White, too, were a few scattered strands mixed in with the black of his hair.

All in all, she could barely recognize him as the man who’d saved her from the Duke of Shalridan.

“I’m sorry,” he said at last. His new hand lifted, and he studied his fingers warily before raising them at last to rub at both his eyes. “I hadn’t expected to wake up to this.”

“Did you expect to wake up at all?” Alarrah stepped close enough to remind Faanshi of her presence. The healer had liberated a blanket from their gear, and she spread it out over the two of them, adding to her, “Stay put. You’ve done well tonight.”

Grateful for the warmth of the wool, more grateful still for the chance to lie back against the wall, Faanshi murmured her thanks. She would have lost herself in slumber in that instant if Julian hadn’t asked, low and rough, “Are you all right?”

He’d ignored Alarrah’s query, though he accepted the blanket’s warmth readily enough, shifting beneath it toward Faanshi. In what felt almost like approval her magic rippled out to welcome him, and it seemed inevitable that her arms would follow suit. “I’m well.” That her power felt it had more work to do wearied her all over again, yet all she could think of was his head against her breast, his closeness, his scent flavoring each breath she took.

All at once, tears prickled in her eyes. The heat returned to her cheeks, and her throat grew tight so that she wasn’t at all certain she could speak. But none of it mattered. By Djashtet’s mercy and grace, Julian lived. Her fingertips found his temple, where his flesh spoke to her of pain that she could soothe. Willingly she let the magic trickle through him as it wished.

Alarrah went still before her, but only for a moment. Her hands came to Faanshi’s shoulders to let her own magic flow. Faanshi gasped but welcomed that new light, for it steadied and guided what she had barely enough awareness to manage on her own. Between them, Julian settled, and then his eyes drifted shut.

Faanshi paused with her hand against his hair and gazed down at his face. The light in the cave was dim, though she could see well enough, and the wisps of magic she exuded told her what her eyes did not. He was thinner; some of the substance of his frame had been burned away, despite her efforts. New skin, like that of his hand, covered much of his face and made him look younger. Or perhaps it was simply because he’d utterly relaxed against her.
This is what he looks like at peace.

“I did this,” she said in wonder, when she was sure that he slept.

“You did,” Alarrah agreed. “Well done. But you too should rest. You’ve gone through as much as Julian.” As Faanshi raised her head in protest, the she-elf went on gently, “Sleep here beside him. Kirinil and I will keep watch.”

Mollified, Faanshi let Alarrah ease her and Julian both down to the cave floor and tuck the blanket about them. Even as she stretched out with Julian cradled against her, though, she peeked up over his head. “Alarrah. Are...are you and Kirinil scared of me?”

“No,
enorrè.
” Alarrah didn’t quite smile; she, like all of them, seemed too weary for that. She paused to consider, and her next words were uttered with care. “We’re just trying to absorb what happened. You turned away the Anreulag. No one in Dolmerrath has ever seen that done.”

“I only made Her go away,” Faanshi pointed out, her voice small. “That means She can come back.”

What trace of a smile Alarrah bore faded. “That’s true.”

Now that she was off her feet, Faanshi allowed her eyes to close. “I don’t know what I did to make Her go away,” she admitted. “I don’t know if I can do it again.”

“We’ll figure it out. Rest now. Let your power restore itself.”

That wasn’t answer enough to assuage Faanshi’s restlessness. Only when her hand crept across Julian’s chest, letting her feel the rise and fall of it through her palm, was she able to drift toward slumber. Her magic subsided to a background shine in her thoughts, just enough to let her know that the contact was unbroken, that Julian would heal.

One part of her, however, still lamented that the Hawk hadn’t come with them. “Kestar’s too far away now. If the Anreulag comes to him, I won’t be there to turn Her aside again.”

And for that, Alarrah had no answer at all.

Chapter Four

The royal palace
,
Dareli
,
Jomhas 17
,
AC 1876

The quiet knock was the simplest of noises, just a single thump of a fist against the sturdy oak of her bedchamber door. Yet Ealasaid, Bhandreid of Adalonia, Queen and Empress of the Nirrivan provinces and protectorates, took it in as though it were the tidings of war. Feeling every moment of her seventy years, she turned from the window where she had been staring out into the night, and called out her permission for the arrival to enter the room.

It was the High Priest, of course. Short of the threat of war or of the imminent destruction of the palace, no one else would dare violate her privacy so late in the night. Such were the hours when Ealasaid could claim time alone; at any other time, she was too visible, too called upon to lead, to rule. Only at such hours, in the sanctity of her personal suite, could she be assured that any words he might utter would go unheard by any ears but her own.

“What news have you brought, Deglis?”

Deglis Elirrides, High Priest of the Church of the Four Gods, was ten years her junior and mostly blessed rather than cursed by time’s passage. Though almost entirely white, his hair was still thick and full, his shoulders still powerful and broad. In his youth he’d been handsome and callow, and she’d almost married him. In his maturity he was distinguished, almost regal, and he always looked at her with eyes that reflected her deepest secrets.

Now he came up to her within conversational range but kept a respectful distance. “Your Majesty, word’s come over the Church telegraph lines. We now know where the Voice of the Gods went when She vanished, and we’re going to have to contain the situation. There have been witnesses—and casualties.” He paused, drew in a harsh breath, and then finished, “Notably, Holvirr Kilmerredes, the Duke of Shalridan.”

“I remember him,” she said, surprised. “He fought honorably in the war. His marrying that girl from Clan Sarazen was part of the treaty, for gods’ sake. What did he have to do with this?”

“That part is less clear, I’m afraid. But from what our agent conveyed, a priest of the Father, a known confederate of the duke’s, actually performed the Rite of the Calling.”

Denial flared in the Bhandreid’s thoughts, but she ruthlessly tamped it down; denial of that which had clearly happened was futile. “Do we know how he accomplished a feat that is supposed to be impossible for anyone but you?”

“No, my lady. You know as well as I that the Rite has never been transcribed in living memory.” Deglis was scowling now, deep lines of disapproval etched into his face, and his stiff carriage radiated personal offense. “I have however already ordered the questioning of every priest, priestess and acolyte who serves in Church archives. If you command it I’ll expand the interrogations to secular book merchants, but that will risk word spreading farther.”

“Do it.” Ealasaid studied him more closely, not liking the sight of reluctance in his eyes. “Come, come, what else is there?”

“Majesty, this is the most troubling part of all...why the Voice returned to us when She did...”

“Damn it, man, out with it!”

“Apparently there was a girl, an escaped elf slave. If the report is to be believed, she has magic of incredible strength. Enough to save the lives of two men, including a Hawk said to possess elven blood himself.” Deglis paused again, visibly steeled himself, and finally added, “Enough to turn aside the Anreulag.”

Now denial did breach the wall of the Bhandreid’s detachment, and with it, the first stirrings of alarm. Not once in all the years she’d known him had Ealasaid seen Deglis Elirrides falter, and while it troubled her to see it now, the thought of what might have caused it troubled her far more. “That’s ludicrous,” she rasped. “The Voice can destroy nations. She
has.
All the mages of Elisiya couldn’t stand against Her.”

“Yet a single girl appears to have done so.”

Shaken, Ealasaid spun back to the window, pressing her palms against the glass, seeking its night-cooled solidity. Her hands were old, dotted and gnarled with their accumulated age, though they’d never failed her during the long years of her reign. They were shaking now. And she’d lived too long not to recognize a warning from the gods when she saw one—even when they weren’t speaking through their own appointed Voice. But she could not afford the luxury of faltering. Not now, or ever.

Her hands touched the windows, and through them, her palace, her city, her realm. If she were a mage herself, she could draw magical power from that—she’d read every word Adalonian scholars had written on the matter, and she knew that a user of magic could replenish her strength through physical touch. If will and resolve could be called magics, then she would do the same.

“This elf-blooded Hawk you mention. I know of only one such in the entire Order. Dorvid Vaarsen’s son?” She glanced back over her shoulder, saw Deglis’s return nod, and frowned. “The Voice Herself blessed him as a baby. I was there.
You
were there. This boy wasn’t supposed to have been a problem.”

“Our agent reports he was supposed to have apprehended her for the Order but was swayed from his sworn duty by the girl. What’s more, there are indications that Kilmerredes may have been hoarding her power for himself.” His voice grew harsher still at this final intelligence, and as the Bhandreid glowered, he finished grimly, “That is, at least, the lot of it.”

“That is more than sufficient. This girl must be found, Deglis. At once.”

“Every Hawk in Kilmerry has already been deployed in search of her, my lady. Kestar Vaarsen’s mother will be taken into custody for questioning, and we expect to arrest him soon.”

“Send more. Find Kestar Vaarsen, find the girl and find this priest who’s learned the Rite. For the good of the realm, put them all to death. Cleansing the girl is optional. And if word begins to spread, do what must be done to put a stop to it.”

The High Priest bowed low, and when he straightened again his face was bleak with the weight of both their years, an expression he never wore before anyone else, and in no other chambers but these. “As Your Majesty commands.”

“What of Kilmerredes? Is he dead?”

“Not yet,” Deglis said, “but our agent’s report isn’t good. The duke appears to have been driven mad by what he witnessed.”

Ealasaid grimaced. It was bad enough that the Voice of the Gods had somehow slipped the magical bonds of centuries, and had been seen in the flesh on the opposite side of the realm. That one of the witnesses was a member of the nobility was even more of a problem, especially if the man’s mind had snapped. There was only so much that could be done to contain a situation involving a man of Holvirr Kilmerredes’s prominence.

But it wouldn’t be the first time she’d had to make that kind of judgment. Another such faced her this very night.

“Have our agent monitor the situation with Kilmerredes,” she said with deep reluctance. “We will act on that if we need to. For now we have a more pressing problem on our hands.”

“My lady, are you absolutely sure it’s necessary?”

In all the decades she’d known him, Ealasaid had never heard her High Priest sound so unsure, and to hear him be so now galled. “What other conclusion would you have me draw? The Anreulag escaped us. That is
not
supposed to happen.”

“But She did return, exactly as if I’d sung the Rite of the Calling myself, and She’s shown no sign of coming back out of Her dormant state—”

“A state She never should have left in the first place,” Ealasaid snapped. “The binding on Her is clearly weakened. We both know how it must be reinforced. And it’s only by the mercy of the gods that I have a grandson about to die anyway.”

With a heavy sigh Deglis closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he pointed out, “The princess Margaine is about to give birth. You will not even grant Prince Padraig the chance to see his firstborn child?”

She’d spent the past several hours anticipating that very expression while she waited for certain drugs to be slipped to the prince, who was already fragile of health, to ready him for the purpose at hand. “Don’t look at me like that, Deglis,” she said with asperity. “The boy has consumption, for gods’ sake, and wouldn’t likely see the child born regardless. This way, the babe may live, and the realm retains an heir.”

“I can hardly argue with your reasoning—”

“Then don’t. I require your obedience, not your agreement. Has Padraig been moved down to the catacombs as I ordered?”

“Yes, Majesty. The palace physicians already believe him dead, and they await your word as to when and what Princess Margaine must be told.”

Ealasaid strode away from the window, beckoning peremptorily for the High Priest to follow her to her chamber doors. “For the good of the realm, Margaine will have to wait until morning. Right now you and I have work to do.”

* * *

The body of Padraig Araeldes, grandson of the Bhandreid, heir to the throne of Adalonia, was already in the care of the catacombs attendants, rousted from their beds to prepare the prince to lie in state before his final interment. Ealasaid had no compunction at ordering them right back to their beds when she and Deglis arrived, on the grounds that she wished time to pray over the body of her grandson—and the High Priest’s blessing upon him. None of them would have dared argue with her on her own, and with Deglis at her side, they scrambled all the more quickly to vacate the preparation chambers. Soon enough the two of them were alone in the catacombs, and the Bhandreid paused beside the table where Padraig’s body lay, frowning down at his slack face.

He was immaculate; the attendants had done their work well. They’d washed him and garbed him in his Hawk’s uniform, for he’d done his royal duty and served three years with the Order before he’d fallen ill. Were it not for the extreme pallor of his features, she might have thought him sleeping. Indeed, she had to trust that the drugs he’d been given to simulate life’s passing without actually killing him were doing their work, for still-living blood was required for the sacrifice.

For his death.
Her back ramrod-straight, Ealasaid forced herself to think the words while she took in every detail of Padraig’s unmoving form. She wouldn’t go through with the task before her without acknowledging his presence, the form that had been tall and strong in the height of his health, and the last few embers of life that she and Deglis were about to extinguish.

“Gods help us. Gods forgive us,” she murmured, all too aware of the irony of calling upon the Father and Mother, here and now. “We have no choice, do we, Deglis?”

Over Padraig’s body the High Priest watched her, stark sympathy gleaming in his gray eyes. “None, my lady. The Voice refuses my commands to speak, and won’t tell me if She learned anything of this priest who summoned Her. The spell upon Her grows dangerously thin. If we wait much longer, She may find the strength to break free of it at last.” He paused, and after a moment finished, “New blood must be shed to renew the spell tonight. I’m sorry.”

She waved aside the apology; it galled. Nevertheless, she couldn’t quite bring herself to leave Padraig’s side. “Margaine has been kept suitably distracted?”

“As you commanded. She could go into labor at any time, and though she’s demanded her husband’s presence, the royal physicians have sternly advised her not to risk the birthing by exposure to Prince Padraig’s...unfortunate illness.”

The Bhandreid nodded curtly. “Had they chosen a name for the babe to come?”

“Methias if she bears a son, Your Majesty.” Deglis paused. “Princess Margaine has refused to say what she will name the child if it is a daughter.”

Ealasaid scowled at that, but there was little she could do for it tonight. Later, perhaps, she would go to the side of the woman her grandson had married, and be there for her when the babe arrived, boy or girl. It was a meager penance for what they were about to do, and no salve at all for how the knowledge that that child would never known its father stabbed into the deepest part of her heart. There was no justice here, and there never had been.

“Bring him, Deglis. Bear him with honor. Should he begin to stir, I have a dose of laudanum we can administer. He is a prince of the blood, and he will not suffer as he lays down his life for his realm tonight.”

The sympathy in Deglis’s eyes grew more pronounced as he hefted the prince into his arms, and Ealasaid could not abide the sight of it. She wanted no sympathy this night. She spun away from the old man and the young man he bore, bitterly reproaching herself for not even being able to utter her grandson’s name.
Padraig.
Forgive me
,
boy.
I
would have warned you if I could
.

But no. To warn a sacrifice of the blood risked refusal of the holy duty, and that was a risk their people would never bear.

With almost desperate swiftness she strode out of the preparation chamber, not bothering to look over her shoulder, for she had no doubt Deglis would keep up behind her. Through the catacombs she led him, past coffins of quiet stone to one of the many ornate mosaics that decorated the walls of the place. There she raised her hands to two spots in the patterned glass, one high, one low—but before she pressed her fingertips to the squares, she heard herself murmur, “I don’t want to do this.”

“I know, Majesty. But it’s time.”

Ealasaid drew in a steadying breath.
Stone.
She must be as the unshakeable bedrock of mountains, or else Adalonia would fall. “Then let us do the deed.”

With that, she pressed in upon the wall.

No noise signaled the activation of the mechanism behind the mosaic, for layers of granite and limestone muffled any telltale creaking of gears. Slowly, ponderously, a section of wall slid aside, revealing unremitting darkness beyond.

For this, too, Ealasaid was prepared. Just inside the revealed doorway, in a niche set into the wall, a candle and tinderbox were kept. She brushed the dust from these, checked the contents of the tinderbox to make sure they were dry, and lit the candle. Then she proceeded in through the door, leading Deglis down a narrow staircase. In silence they descended, following the spiral of ancient steps deep into the bowels of the palace. There were no other landings, no other doorways where this stairwell might have connected with other portions of the royal residence. There were only the endless walls of rock that flanked steps meant for she who sat upon the throne and he who led the Church, and no others.

BOOK: Vengeance of the Hunter
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