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Authors: Angela Highland

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Then someone else’s hands touched him and Faanshi both, and only when power flowed into him, replenishing his flagging strength, did Julian register the presence of Alarrah. “We’re here,” she affirmed as he looked up at last. “We’re in Dolmerrath.”

They’d reached the cavern where the elves kept their horses, though he had no clear recollection of how exactly they’d ridden in. Alarrah’s and Kirinil’s mounts weren’t far from Morrigh, and all three horses stood with lowered heads and heaving flanks. Just behind them, three more riders had come in—Tembriel, her eyes still visibly sparking with leftover magic, and two more scouts whose names Julian didn’t know. One of them was bleeding at the shoulder and leaning heavily against her companion, and as soon as the wounded scout made it off her horse, Alarrah whirled and ran to her. So did Kirinil, gray-faced and grim, to help the others with their mounts.

“The Hawks shot her,” Faanshi said, her voice still small and thin, but stronger now. “Because they came out to help us make it in. I should help Alarrah.”

But she didn’t move out of his arms, and though he was loath to let her go, Julian asked, “Can you handle it?”

“I don’t want to leave you.” With eyes at once too unhappy and too
knowing
for his comfort, Faanshi stared up at him. “Your head and your hand. Julian, I can feel you hurting.”

Of course she could. Her quiet words shouldn’t have surprised him, much less disturbed him, but they did both. Tykhe take it, he couldn’t lie to those eyes, but their gaze was stripping him bare. “I’ll function,” he told her gruffly. It wasn’t as if he had a choice in the matter, after all. He had no time for weakness or vulnerability, no matter how badly he ached, or how much he had to struggle to see straight.

Faanshi didn’t look like she believed it, and as she came back over to join them, neither did Alarrah. “Don’t try to lie to a healer about your physical state,” she advised, her tone and her expression as weary as Julian felt. “Especially one whose magic knows every inch of you.”

This didn’t comfort him in the slightest, but nonetheless he said again, determined to make it true by sheer willpower alone, “I’ll function. We have much bigger questions to worry about.”

Alarrah didn’t argue, though she still stared at him with a gaze not unlike Faanshi’s, as if she could see straight through his flesh and down to his nerves, his bones. Just behind her Tembriel and her two compatriots made their slow way out of the cavern, with the wounded scout helped along between the other two.

Kirinil had turned his attention to stripping the gear from their horses, but he paused now, looking past the others to a new arrival storming into view. “For starters,” he murmured, “we’ll want to worry about that.”

They turned their heads to find Gerren striding toward them. The leader of Dolmerrath had no magic that Julian knew about, but fury as tangible as Tembriel’s fire radiated from every inch of his frame, turning his eyes hard and bright as crystal. Without a word he strode straight for his brother, and before any of them could react, he launched a punch straight at Kirinil’s jaw. Kirinil went down, making both Elisel and Morrigh sidestep nervously out of the way.

Julian had never before heard an elf snarl in his native tongue, but such was Gerren’s apparent rage that the Elvish syllables poured out of him in a harsh and unlovely torrent. Then he caught himself, snapped a sizzling glance around to them all, and added in Adalonic, “I’d strangle you with my bare hands, brother, if it wouldn’t take down the gods-damned Wards. The same goes for you, Alarrah, and we need you just as badly.
Astàllemerron!
What were you thinking, running off like that?”

Faanshi pulled out of Julian’s embrace, and for a moment he thought she might wince, or struggle to meet Gerren’s eyes. She did neither. She spoke up, soft and clear, “I offer my humblest apologies for taking them away from your people and putting them in danger,
akreshi.
It’s all because they wished to help me.”

Something rolled through Julian then, something he had to work to recognize as wonder—because this, he realized, was a Faanshi arguably as changed as he. This was the Faanshi who’d faced down her master, his pet priest and all his men, not to mention surviving the Voice of the Gods.

“It’s true,” he offered. “We went to find Faanshi’s Hawk so she could heal him and get him out of her head. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without Kirinil and Alarrah’s help.”

“So you’re telling me that they chose saving two lives over protecting every one of our people?” Gerren growled. His gaze raked over his brother, even as Kirinil cautiously hauled himself to his feet, rubbing his knuckles along his jaw to wipe away a trickle of blood. Alarrah took a step toward him, only to provoke another furious glare in her direction. “And you! If you lay a finger on him, I swear by all the stars in the heavens I’ll strike you too. Two lives versus hundreds. I would’ve thought you among us all would know better.”


Hìorollè
,” Alarrah said, “the Mother of Stars Herself couldn’t ask me to make that choice when one of the lives in question is my sister. Nor would She, when my sister is the first mage in living memory to stand against the Anreulag.”

“She’s your...” Gerren froze. Then, though it didn’t quite overrun his anger, surprise flooded his face—Julian thought the elf might break his own neck, so quickly did he whip his head back round to study Faanshi. “She did
what?

“The Anreulag came to us. I made Her go away.”

Faanshi might have sounded innocent, even childlike, if not for the gravity and the exhaustion in her voice. Julian couldn’t repress a shudder, and that brought Gerren’s attention swinging back to him. Dolmerrath’s leader blinked, and then finally studied him with the same shock with which he’d regarded the girl. “Is she also responsible for how you look rather different than the last time you were here?”

Julian nodded, and even that tiny motion hurt his head. “The Anreulag burned me where I stood. Faanshi’s the reason I’m alive...” He scowled, but nevertheless couldn’t quite suppress the hitch in his voice as he finished, “And, ah, altered.”

Gerren considered him, swung one more glower at them all, and finally settled on Alarrah once more. “Is this true?”

Kirinil nodded once, curtly, while the she-elf said, “When has your brother ever lied to you? When have I? Furthermore, we were successful. The Hawk has our blood, too, and he’s learned to shield himself. He and Faanshi are no longer in each other’s heads.”

The anger in Gerren’s eyes didn’t vanish, but at Alarrah’s calm and steady tones, it began to lose its harshest edge. Back to Faanshi, he went on, “I should throw you right back out for stealing my two most powerful mages and putting all of our people at risk. But if you’ve faced the Anreulag and lived I can’t afford to ignore that. See to your horses, and then all of you come and see me. We need to discuss this, and we’re going to do it
now
.”

Chapter Six

Camden
,
Kilmerry Province
,
Jomhas 27
,
AC 1876

Nirrivy’s rising began not with weapons, but with whispers.

In the townships of Burin and Tolton and Marriham, rumors of discontent began to blossom in taverns and pubs, and in the shops of tailors and farriers and bakers. There was nothing that hadn’t been heard in the western provinces before, at least not at first. Commandeered crops, lower wages, higher taxes and stricter interpretations of the heresy laws—all of it had been condemned in Kilmerry Province, over food and drink and the buying and selling of goods, for as long as anyone living could remember.

This time, though, some of the rumors were new.

A man in Burin’s marketplace, selling provender to a group of drovers for their herd, warned of a group of Hawks spotted on patrol in the Garmbinn Range. “I’m as gods-fearing as the next man, but I’ve got to say, that old granddame they were questioning didn’t look like any elf I ever saw.”

“Frankly, I don’t see why we’ve got yet more Hawks riding through,” complained a woman in Marriham. “Didn’t we just have a pair of them a few weeks ago? Do they think we’ve all suddenly got elves hiding in our closets?”

Tolton’s single pub saw the outbreak of a debate that nearly came to blows, prompted when one man brandished his pint and proclaimed, “Why we have to put up with it is what I want to know. The Anreulag may see all, but who says the Hawks do? Who says a shiny necklace makes ’em any holier than the rest of us?”

And in Camden, Sister Idrekke Sother, known to the town as the priestess who’d taken over the local church in the ongoing absence of Father Enverly, shocked her congregation with her next sermon.

“My brothers, my sisters, those who sit in the seats of power in our land have always extolled to us the virtues of piety, peace and prosperity, and that as long as we have the first of these, the others will follow. Why then are our children going hungry? Why are our pockets empty of hard-earned coin? Why, when we call out for these things to be answered, do we hear that we must be even
more
pious, so that we can be protected from a threat most of us will never, ever face?”

“But elves exist, Sister!” called out a man in the congregation. His voice cracked on his last few syllables. “Gods help me, I’ve seen them. Just as sure as I’ve seen the Anreulag Herself!”

Sister Sother immediately whirled to face him, gesturing to him in acknowledgement. “Yes! Tell us your name, brother. Tell us what you’ve seen!”

“My name’s Taarklig, if you please, Sister.” The man stood, bringing his gaunt features more clearly into the view of all. He looked consumed from within, as though he hadn’t slept in a week, and his gaze was flat and hollow as he starred himself. “I’m...I
was
...one of the guards at Lomhannor Hall. I was with His Grace the Duke when he went to the abbey, after his elf slave. I was there when the Anreulag came.”

Cries broke out all through the nave, and a dozen more people fervently starred themselves at Taarklig’s words—though Idrekke Sother, oddly, wasn’t one of them. Her sturdy features did, however, take on a look of profound gentleness as she nodded for him to continue. He did, haltingly, with the relief of a man confessing the burden of his sins.

“Father Enverly called Her. How he did that, none of us in the barracks know. And She came for the slave girl and the others with her, and I thought for sure She’d smite them, but...”

“But what, friend? You can tell us all.”

Reflexively Taarklig began to star himself again, only to catch himself and stare at his own trembling hand. “The girl...she raised golden light. And the Anreulag didn’t smite her.” His gaze snapped up, then, swinging around the congregation at large. “They said in the barracks she’s a healer. A gentle little slip of a thing, and she heals people, and that’s magic, isn’t it? And she chased off the Voice Herself! I swear to you all, I saw it with my own eyes. Dear gods, what if we’ve all been wrong?”

The babble of voices in the nave redoubled, some shouting denials, some support. But over them all, the voice of Sister Sother pealed like a silver trumpet. “Hear him, brothers and sisters! I ask you all now, what sin could there be in hands that soothe the sick and weak, and give strength and life to the injured? If the Anreulag Herself turns away from striking down one who bears such a gift, might not the Voice of the Gods be speaking unto us a lesson we should heed? I say to you now that we knew a better way once, and the Anreulag in Her mercy has bidden us to remember the gods, the land and the heritage that those who call themselves our betters would have us forget.

“Remember them with me now, my friends. Remember the tales your grandfathers knew, and the holy names your grandmothers spoke in their prayers. Degne. Tykhe. Seid. Kelthes. Andris. Lerain. And above them all, the Allmother. Remember the songs of our forefathers, and the days when we were masters of our own land. Remember when we lived in harmony with the elvenkind, not at war. Remember the days when we were masters of our own land.

“Remember the days when we were Nirrivy!”

On her final ringing words, the nave erupted into chaos.

* * *

From the privacy of her carriage, Khamsin watched the crowd streaming out of the front of the church. Men, women and children scattered in all directions into the streets of Camden, their faces alive with agitation, and in many cases wet with tears. Several of the men and not a few of the women looked as if they were close to coming to blows, though to the duchess’s eyes, they looked ready to find a common enemy rather than strike out at each other.

Which was exactly what she’d hoped for.

“That,” she murmured in satisfaction as her carriage door opened, “went rather well.”

Idrekke Sother, heavy-set and sturdy, with her white hair worn in simple braids coiled around her head, looked the very picture of a matronly priestess of the Mother. The robe she wore proclaimed her as such to the casual eye—but after the sermon she’d just delivered, she now openly displayed the amulet that hung around her neck. No Hawk’s amulet was this, for it was gold, not silver. Etched upon it were the shapes of a sheaf of wheat and a single apple.

Even after twenty years Khamsin was still in essence a stranger to this land. She knew enough, though, to know that the tiny sun-shaped disk Sother wore was the sigil of the Allmother, the greatest of the Nirrivan gods. On anything larger, a painting or statue or tapestry, there would have been the Allmother Herself, cradling the wheat in one arm and holding the apple high in the light of the sun behind Her. Most such works, as Khamsin had learned, were long destroyed or altered to pass as representations of the Mother of the Church of the Four Gods.

For their purposes, the golden amulet and its sigil were close enough.

“It was the finest sermon I’ve ever given, if I do so say so myself,” Sother said. “Shaymis never did stir the people so. Are you absolutely sure we can’t do without him, my lady? We can drive the population to their guns and swords without him.”

The duchess inclined her head. “You heard Taarklig’s testimony as clearly as I. Enverly knows the Rite, and we need what he knows. I expect to hear from the party I sent to retrieve him at any time. Don’t worry, Idrekke. I have no intention of letting him displace you. He may be able to call the Voice of the Gods, but
your
voice is the one I want to call the people to war. They wouldn’t listen to me. But they will listen to one of their own.”

Sother’s eyes, blue and pale as a winter’s dawn, lit with a fierce and stalwart pride. “When Nirrivy rises,” she said, “we will remember that Tantiulo gave us aid.”

“And Adalonia will pay for the insult it’s dealt to both our lands. Go, Idrekke. The people will be looking to you for counsel. Be on hand to advise them in the right direction.”

* * *

Dolmerrath
,
Kilmerry Province
,
Jomhas 27
,
AC 1876

There were no windows in the caves of Dolmerrath, and so as far as Faanshi knew, there should have been no way to see the waxing and waning of light from outside. Yet in the stable caverns as well as the passage they followed away from it, light that at first came seemingly from nowhere brought to her sight large stretches of the place that should have been in shadow. And because her mind was full to overflowing and because she had to say
something
lest she scream, she asked Alarrah about it as they made their way to Gerren’s study.

“Look up high along the walls,” Alarrah advised her, with a certain heaviness to her voice that warned Faanshi that her sister was perhaps almost as mentally exhausted as she. “Tembriel enchanted mirrors with her fire-magic. There’s a great mirror in our central hall that sees the sunlight, and she set the rest to show the same light that that one sees.”

Once she knew to look, Faanshi spotted the shapes of polished silver. She distracted herself with seeking them out and counting them, all the way to Gerren’s library, and it almost served to occupy her restless thoughts. Yet not even charmed mirrors could distract her from the ongoing drain that Julian made upon her magic. He was moving under his own power. He’d personally seen to Morrigh, making sure that his horse was watered and fed and resting before he was ready to leave him. And she had to admit that even to her anxious eye, there was no obvious slowness or stiffness in the motions of his tall, lean frame. His stride was almost normal, and there was no trace of strain on his face.

But because her magic warned otherwise, she kept looking closer—and so, more than once when she was sure he thought no one was looking, she caught him flexing his new right hand’s fingers, or reaching up to rub at the left side of his head. Days after their departure from the abbey he was no longer so alarmingly pale, but his eyes were still hollowed, his features still gaunt and worn.

She didn’t bother to ask him if he was all right; she’d already done so, as had Alarrah, and he’d deflected them both. Nor did she have any time to confront him again, not when Gerren had summoned them. Alarrah and Kirinil led them at a brisk pace through the caves, and brisk too was the mood of those who worked in the great hall as they passed through. The wide, open chamber looked much as it had on her previous visit, with sunlight falling down from above upon delicate living trees and the carved stone cousins that kept them company. As before, people at work filled the room. Now, though, their mood was entirely different. There was no music; murmurs of conversation echoed instead from wall to wall. What faces Faanshi glimpsed were serious of mien, and several of the hands occupied with what even her inexperienced eyes could identify as the care of weapons.

After all, she’d just spent several days learning to look after Julian’s own knives while he himself could not. She knew what that looked like, and she feared that she was seeing what it looked like when a people prepared to go to war.

The passages through the caves looked almost all the same, winding without apparent rhyme or reason through whatever hill or mountain where the elves hid from the eyes of the world. Yet when they reached it she recognized the green-and-brown curtain bearing the design of a tree whose branches were hung with a moon and stars. It marked the entrance to Gerren’s study, and Alarrah called out to ask permission for them to enter.

Would this meeting with Gerren proceed any better than her first visit?

Would she and Julian be permitted to stay?

The questions nagging at her made Faanshi faster than the Rook for once. When Gerren called back to Alarrah, Faanshi caught the curtain and held it open, so that Julian could proceed through without any break in the rhythm of his stride. One crooked eyebrow and a faint, fleeting smile in her direction told her he’d noticed. It was probably foolish to let that lift her heart as much as it did—but as she’d had to abandon Dolmerrath the last time she’d set foot in this chamber, she would take what comforts Djashtet sent her way, gladly.

Especially given Gerren’s dour gaze as they came into the library that served as his personal domain. He leaned against the table in the center of the room, his expression only marginally less angry than when he’d left them in the stable cavern. But to Faanshi’s surprise, rather than greeting them with harsh tones, he gestured to a plate of food on the table beside him. “Eat something. Please. You all look like walking death, and I’m not going to have you falling over from starvation or exhaustion while I decide what to do about you.”

The fare he offered them was simple, small cakes that smelled of fish and salt and herbs. Though she had in truth little appetite, Faanshi gratefully took one to nibble on as long as Alarrah and Kirinil were doing so. Relief flickered briefly in Julian’s eyes as he took a cake and then a seat, offering Gerren a simple, “Thank you.”

“Yes, thank you,
akreshi
,” Faanshi added. After the Anreulag, facing one disheveled elven male was oddly easier than she’d expected—but she was nervous before him nonetheless, offered hospitality or no. With tousled brown hair and blue eyes a few shades lighter than Julian’s, Gerren didn’t have the blatant beauty of his silver-haired, amber-eyed brother Kirinil. Yet he was the prince of the elves in function if not quite in name, and the last time she’d stood before him, she’d had to leave his stronghold. “Please don’t punish Alarrah and Kirinil for what they did. If you wish to punish anyone, it should be me.”

“You said that already, and with that fear I see in your face, I have to wonder what punishment you think I’m planning.” Gerren shot the other two elves a look full of angry frustration before glancing back to her. “For the record,
valannè
, I’m no tyrant. Or so at least I like to hope. I’m willing to overlook all your actions if they prove to be for the greater good—this time. You said that the Hawk is gone from your head?”

Letting out a long breath, Faanshi bobbed her head. “Kirinil taught Kestar to shield too. Once we’d both practiced it a bit, the bond between us began to fade. And then...” Her gaze flashed to Julian. He was eating another of the fish cakes, with the same slow, deliberate motions, forcing himself to eat slowly. “Then my magic had other things to do.”

BOOK: Vengeance of the Hunter
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