CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Hedi kept the fire low and pulled the cloak tighter around Korey and Wynn. Wynn coughed and opened her eyes. The young scholar rolled her head to look about, and fright washed over her face.

“You are safe,” Hedi said. “We are all safe.”

“Ch… Chane?” Wynn stammered. “What happened?”

“Your strange friend brought us out,” Hedi answered. “He carried you all the way. I gave him my word that I would watch over you until your companions came. He left us here and would not stay. How do you know such a man?”

“Then it was real?” Wynn asked. “He was there in the corridor… with the soldiers?”

Little Korey frowned and muttered, “He was cold-bad man,” and snuggled closer to Wynn beneath the cloak.

“How do you know him?” Hedi repeated. “Is he a foreign soldier of some kind? I have seen him before but cannot remember where.”

“Where are we?” Wynn asked, and glanced about as if truly noticing her surroundings for the first time. “Where is your baron?”

Hedi tried to be patient. “Your friend thought Emel went into the keep, looking for us. I hope he did not, and that he will come for us soon.”

If only poor Emel had known what would happen. In hindsight, she should have told him everything from the start. Byrd must have located the tunnel’s exit, or Emel-far too chivalrous for Darmouth’s domain- would never have gone in after her. Soon enough, Byrd’s associates would be sent to finish Darmouth, but not before Hedi dealt with Leesil.

“And Papa and Mama will come, too?” Korey asked.

“Maybe not tonight, but soon,” Hedi said.

Rhythmic scraping sounds came through the forest behind her.

Hedi leaned around the tree and looked toward the opening in the dead trunk. She started to pull herself from under the cloak.

A tall, cowled man stepped out into the forest with someone draped over his shoulder. Both were cloaked, and the one standing had a cloth wrapped across the lower half of his face. He turned his head, looking about, and Hedi barely made out large eyes in a dark-skinned face. He staggered in weariness, as if it were an effort to remain on his feet and still bear his burden.

Hedi pulled back out of sight and put a finger to her lips, signaling Wynn and Korey to be silent.

The dagger taken from Wynn’s guard lay by her side, and she gripped its handle. As she looked at the small fire, her fear rose sharply. Its light could not be missed by anyone so close. If this was one of Byrd’s elven assassins, then they had closed in on Darmouth more quickly than Hedi had thought possible. And this one might not care to be seen by three women in the forest.

She leaned slowly back to peer toward the tunnel’s exit.

The elf was gone. She scanned the darkness between the trees. After long, tense moments, Hedi relaxed again.

“What was it?” Wynn whispered.

“I thought I saw something, but… no, nothing.”

Disturbing Korey or Wynn over this strangely fortunate near-miss would serve no purpose. They huddled in silence, letting the fire burn lower. Wynn appeared lost in thought. Angry dissatisfaction filled Hedi in realizing Leesil would not die before Darmouth. Then she heard another soft scuffling in the direction of the dead tree.

A tall woman crawled out of the opening, dressed in a leather hauberk and wearing a sword on her hip. The sleeves of her shirt seemed torn or tattered, though it was too dark to be certain. One shoulder looked stained, and she held that same arm against her chest. Hedi turned on her knees, holding the dagger ready.

Emel crawled out next, his face smudged and dirty, and Hedi rushed out of hiding.

“Emel! Here!”

He saw her and held out his arms. Then her face was in his chest, and he pulled her close.

“Magiere!” came a cry from behind.

Hedi caught a glimpse of Wynn rounding the tree that blocked the fire, steadying herself with one hand on its rough bark.

“Wynn?” the tall woman said, her tone melting to relief. “You got out.”

Before the woman named Magiere took a step, a large silver-gray dog lunged out of the tree. It rushed to Wynn, and the little scholar sank to her knees. The animal licked her swollen face with a whine.

Another figure rose up in the hollow of the dead tree.

Slender, with brown skin and white-blond hair, his eyes were like amber. Clearly he was an elf, but Hedi was confused. Had Emel joined with the assassins? The man’s face was expressionless as he held a bundle to his chest with one arm.

“Leesil,” Wynn cried. “You’re safe.”

Hedi went cold.

Leesil. The son of Gavril and Nein’a. The one who had murdered her father in his sleep. And now, of all sick twists… Wynn was his companion and not his target?

He did not acknowledge the little scholar and stared into the darkness, slowly blinking now and again. Everyone else began speaking at once.

“Ah, look at your face!” Magiere said, kneeling beside Wynn. “What are you wearing? Where’s your coat? It’s freezing out here.”

“Magiere, you are bleeding!” Wynn returned. “Let me see your shoulder. What’s wrong with Leesil?”

Emel whispered softly in Hedi’s ear, but she did not hear his words. Korey came out next around the fireside tree, the hem of Wynn’s coat dragging around her bare feet.

“Are Mama and Papa with you?”

Hedi was barely aware as Emel’s mouth opened and then closed. He crouched, dropping from her sight. Hedi’s gaze turned on Leesil alone.

“No,” Emel answered to Korey. “They are not with us.”

“We have a fire back here,” Wynn said. “Magiere, I need to look at your wounds.”

“Not now,” she said. “You go sit down.”

Hedi still had the dagger in her hand-she felt the hard hilt and the strain of her aching fingers.

Someone passed through her sight. Was it Emel carrying Korey? She heard the others move away toward the fire, and the only one left was Leesil… his hands and thighs stained dark with someone’s blood.

He blinked rapidly as if waking, and turned his head toward her. There he stayed, motionless with his eyes upon hers. She understood his expression-recognition.

“Assassin!” she hissed, and charged him.

He did not try to block her swing but only retreated and stumbled. The dagger’s tip skidded across his hauberk, clicking across its iron rings as he fell to the forest floor.

Hedi threw herself onto him, where he sat clutching his bundle. She raised the dagger.

“Leesil!” someone shouted from far away, and the voice grew ragged and snarling. “Get off him!”

“Murderer,” Hedi whispered. She ripped the bundle from Leesil’s arms, and her voice rose so loud it tore at her throat. “Do you know what happened to my mother? My sisters!”

She drove the blade down.

Leesil’s eyes awakened-hardened. But not at her. They followed the tumbling bundle she had taken from him.

“Hedi, no!” This time it was Emel’s panicked voice.

Leesil reached for the bundle, twisting beneath Hedi. The dagger’s tip slid off the hauberk’s side and sliced through the inside of his shirtsleeve. Leesil whipped his other arm across her, and Hedi fell away as he lunged for the bundle. She righted herself on her knees, looking at the one man she wanted dead more than Darmouth.

Leesil knelt on the ground with his back to her, gathering the cloak into a bundle against his chest. He stayed there, not turning to face her, not even trying to defend himself. Hedi rose up, turning the dagger point down as she approached Leesil’s exposed back.

A figure landed in her way like an animal pouncing from the dark, and its growling words were barely intelligible between distorted teeth.

“Get… away… from him!”

The woman named Magiere crouched, nearly on all fours, in Hedi’s way. Her face was so pale it looked white in the darkness, but her irises had no color at all-only black, like her sweat-tangled hair. Her fingernails were pointed like claws. And in her mouth, upper and lower fangs extended beyond sharpened teeth.

The large silver-gray dog leaped through the brush behind Leesil and crept forward with its head low, watching Hedi with crystal eyes.

There were tears running down Magiere’s cheeks, but her feral features held no sorrow, only rage slipping beyond the edge of reason.

Hedi looked into the face of a monster and did not care. All that mattered was that Leesil died, here and now. She inched forward, ready to gouge out this monster’s eyes.

“Hedi, get back,” Wynn cried out. “Magiere! Don’t hurt her!”

Hedi rushed at Magiere, and someone grabbed her wrist.

“Stop it,” Emel snapped, and jerked her back against his chest, closing his arms around her from behind. “You do not understand.”

“Yes, I do!” Hedi shouted, but no matter how she thrashed, she could not break free of Emel’s hold. “He is the one! He took my life and did not bother to kill me for it.”

“He was a slave,” Emel said. “Like all those who serve Darmouth. Like his parents, Nein’a and Gavril. No different from that girl you brought out with you. What would have happened to Leesil’s parents if he refused to obey Darmouth? You know the answer. You of all people know how Darmouth works, just as he used you against me for years.”

Hedi stopped struggling, but she had no outlet for the hate inside of her.

Leesil huddled on the ground with his back turned and would not move at all.

The monster, Magiere, backed toward him, torso and inhuman jaws expanding in deep, agitated breaths. Her appearance slowly changed, becoming more human as her lips closed. She crouched over Leesil and took hold of his shoulders. By the time she had him on his feet, Hedi saw only a pale, tall woman in leather armor and long black hair.

Hedi kept her eyes on Leesil until Magiere led him out of sight beyond the tree shielding the fire. Then she saw Korey huddled in terror in Wynn’s arms. Hedi could only think of what she had lost long ago.

“No more killing,” Emel whispered. “There will be more blood in the days to come than any of us can bear.”

She did not understand and did not care.

Hedi crumpled. Rage’s heat and anguish bled out in tears as Emel gripped her in the black cold of the forest. There had been nothing but deceit and betrayal living under Darmouth. Slaves murdering one another to live one more day.

But Hedi had no pity for Leesil, and wished his life filled with all the suffering forever buried within her.

Magiere sat on a fallen log near the newly built campfire. All of them had returned to the wagon and then traveled northeast along the road. Not far, but enough that they’d never be spotted from the keep upon the lake. Far enough that she would never have to look at it again. Yet Leesil was still here to remind her of what she’d learned of his past in that place.

What she’d learned about him.

Emel gathered canvas tarps from the wagon’s back and busied himself constructing makeshift tents. Korey scurried about in wool footings Wynn had fashioned from part of a blanket. By her hair and coloring, it wasn’t hard to guess who were her papa and mama. The girl busily helped Emel with his work, which amounted mostly to getting in his way. Magiere wondered how long the baron would wait to tell Korey the truth about her parents.

Hedi assisted Emel as well, keeping her head turned away from Leesil. Magiere didn’t believe so much hatred would ever die, and kept her eye on the woman when she strayed too far toward the trees beyond the camp.

Out there, at the edge of the fire’s orange light, Leesil sat against a tree, gripping the bundled skulls. Chap paced back and forth at the camp’s edge, watching him. The dog was still unsettled. Magiere had not forgotten Chap’s maddened outcry in the crypt. It worried her almost as much as Leesil’s silence.

Wynn took a blanket from the pile Emel set out and walked with a bit of a wobble to drape it around Leesil’s shoulders. Returning to the camp, she retrieved a second blanket and came to drop wearily to her knees in front of Magiere. She dug in her pack and pulled out a cloth and the jar of healing ointment.

“Take off your hauberk and that wool pullover,” she said.

Magiere did so, and Wynn began cleaning and bandaging her wounds.

“Is Leesil injured?” she asked.

“He’s not bleeding,” Magiere answered, though she’d seen the welt line around his throat. “I don’t think there’s anything to be done for him-for now.”

Not in the flesh, at least. Wynn’s attention wouldn’t heal the real wounds he had taken.

Wynn finished bandaging Magiere, and firelight reflected off her oval face, still swollen and battered. Her injured eye was half-open.

Magiere was grateful that the little sage was still with them. Wynn suddenly turned her face away and settled to the ground, leaning against the log beside Magiere.

“I have something to tell you,” Wynn said. “And it should not… cannot wait.”

Magiere frowned as Wynn swallowed hard, reluctant to continue.

“Chane is still alive… or exists.” She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders. “I cannot remember much, but I saw him come for me in the keep. Hedi says he carried me out and helped her and Korey escape. Then he left us.” She paused. “I needed to tell you. I want no more secrets between us.”

Magiere absorbed Wynn’s words. A Noble Dead loose in Venjetz, wearing stolen clothes? It made sense, and for an instant her instincts made her consider going back. Chane, loose in a city soon to see war at its gates, in its streets, and no one would ever notice his victims.

“Hedi said he cannot speak properly,” Wynn whispered, “as if his throat was injured.”

Too many thoughts filled Magiere’s mind from this long night. She dropped off the log to the ground beside Wynn and pulled the blanket around both of them without a word.

“There is more,” Wynn said. “In my journals and notes… the ones

I sent back to the guild… Not everything I wrote was about the people and lands we passed through.”

“You mean about me,” Magiere said flatly.

Wynn glanced at her. Some color drained from the sage’s olive face.

It hadn’t been hard to guess. From the very start at the Guild of Sage-craft in Bela, Wynn and her mentor, Domin Tilswith, had been quite curious about a woman born of a Noble Dead father.

“You’re not very good with deception,” Magiere said with only a touch of ire, and as her gaze drifted to Leesil, her voice dropped to a whisper. “Not like the rest of us.” She took a long, slow breath before she looked back at Wynn. “It’s all right… writing about me, that is.”

Wynn sighed, huddling down closer to Magiere. “And how do we help Leesil?”

Magiere didn’t know how. He had ensured more death and suffering in his homeland. And all he had to show for it were the last remains of his parents.

Leesil had lived with years of wine-smothered nightmares over what he believed had happened to his parents when he fled his first life. She had held him in the night, felt him twist and mumble in his sleep. Then in Bela, the Anmaglahk named Sgaile had given Leesil a spark of hope that at least his mother had survived. Along the way he’d chosen to go looking for his father as well.

He’d returned here to have his worst guilt-driven fears become real. This night, hope had died in that crypt more quickly than Leesil’s last victim.

“Leave him be for now,” she said to Wynn. “Darmouth is dead.”

“Emel told me. You did what you could, but I cannot imagine what this has done to Leesil, trying to save a man who abused him in youth… only to fail.”

Magiere gazed into the fire, not looking at Wynn. There was still a secret between them. Magiere could tell no one what had truly happened in the crypt.

Korey and Hedi laid out remaining blankets in the tents as Emel came to join Magiere and Wynn. Magiere had never been one to give manners much notice, but beneath his noble arrogance, there was something worthwhile in the baron. Perhaps.

“I want you to take Hedi and Korey north for me,” he said quietly. “To the fief of Lord Geyren. His people know us and will protect them for me.”

Magiere pulled away from Wynn to sit up on the log again. “What about you?” i am staying. You were wise to leave Omasta alive. I will try to get him to listen.”

“Are you mad?” Magiere said a little too loudly. “He’ll execute you on sight.”

“I do not think so. Lord Geyren is in Venjetz even now. He’s young but a good man, and we can both give credence that Omasta is Darmouth’s son. Most of the soldiers will be desperate for someone to follow-anyone with a true claim as heir. If we act quickly and keep our heads, we might avoid civil war and stand against what comes at us from outside our borders.”

Wynn sat upright. “Omasta is Darmouth’s son? How many know of this?”

“Not many, but enough. Most of the officers.”

“Careful, Emel,” Magiere warned. “Make certain Omasta learns all this before you get near him. I suppose he’s preferable to his father. And you might curtail a civil war.”

She looked over at Leesil, wondering whether he’d heard them.

“Both of you get some sleep,” she said. “Emel… you, Hedi, and Korey take one tent. We’ll take the other. Go on to bed, Wynn. We’ll be along soon.”

Wynn nodded. She left Magiere the blanket and followed Emel to the tents.

Magiere sat by the fire awhile longer, watching Leesil. She finally got up and headed through the camp. As she passed Chap, still pacing, the dog whined and huffed twice. She crouched and put her arms around his thick neck, then leaned her head into his.

“I know,” she whispered. “You lost Nein’a and Gavril, just as Leesil has.”

Chap pulled away, snapping out two sharp barks for “no.”

Magiere didn’t know how to make Chap accept the loss. Or how she could deal with Leesil’s grief in the face of what he’d done in that crypt.

She stood up and headed for the tree, coming up beside it to look down at a man she still loved but was no longer certain she truly knew. She knew only that when he suffered, she suffered as well.

Magiere sank down along the tree. She reached over to grasp his face, and leaning close, held his head to hers. Then she gently touched the bundle he held.

“I am sorry,” she whispered, “for this.”

Leesil trembled. He buried his face into Magiere’s neck in silence. She felt his tears against her skin as they ran down across her collarbone.

Chap watched Magiere hold Leesil while the half-elf trembled in small, steady intervals. Chap’s anger grew upon one name stuck in his mind.

Brot’an’duive… Brot’an… the elder Anmaglahk in the crypt.

Chap could recall any memory he had seen and bring it back to the surface of the owner’s mind. A crude way to communicate-or influence-that gave Leesil fits of anger. But he could not give the memories of one person to another, and Brot’an’s memories had revealed much.

For the first time Chap truly longed for the power of speech. Elvish was more subtle and useful than Belaskian, but there was so much to relate. A frustrating amount depended on Wynn’s translation. Even attempting to explain the truth would require a long night of pawing at the hide.

Brot’an had triggered Leesil’s vengeance with a lie.

Chap padded softly up behind the tree, drawing ever closer to Magiere and Leesil. Before either noticed him, he swerved around the trunk and snatched the bundled cloak in his teeth. With a quick lunge, he jerked it from Leesil’s arms.

Magiere sucked in a sharp breath. “What are you doing?”

Leesil gasped and clawed after the bundle, but Chap dragged it beyond reach. He shook the cloak until the skulls fell out upon the forest floor and then set his front paws around the one of the elven female.

“Give them back!” Leesil cried.

Chap snarled and added a loud snap of his jaws.

Magiere grabbed Leesil about the waist and pulled him back, staring at the dog in shock. Chap locked his gaze on Leesil’s eyes and called forth memories of Nein’a, one after another. He sharply barked twice for “no” as he nosed the skull of the female elf.

“Stop it!” Leesil shouted, and curled into Magiere’s arms, cringing under the assault of memories.

Chap could not stop. Leesil had to understand.

When Chap locked gazes with Brot’an in the crypt, the scars on the elder elf’s face confused him at first. Brot’an had had no scars on the long-ago night he accompanied Eillean carrying a young Chap across the cold mountains. Disjointed memories twisted through the elf’s mind like autumn leaves caught in a whirlwind. And like catching those leaves in the order they fell from the trees, it had taken time for Chap to understand all that he saw therein.

Brot’an had been there eight years ago, the night Nein’a and Gavril fled from the keep…

Eight years in the past, Brot’an’duive walked out of the Crown Range beside Eillean and entered the woodland foothills of Darmouth’s province.

Aoishenis-Ahare, Most Aged Father, had grown impatient with Cuirin’nen’a and requested that she be returned. Brot’an and Eillean had been sent to Venjetz to bring her home-along with her half-blood son.

The request had been quick and sudden-with a hint of challenge.

Brot’an feared that Most Aged Father now questioned his allegiance and that of Eillean. He said as much to her once on the journey. Her reply was a glower laced with concern.

Disloyalty was unheard of in their caste. No Anmaglahk was ever doubted for the sacrifice each made in service to their people. Alone in faraway places, they relied on their own judgment to solve any complication in their assigned tasks. Brot’an knew he now walked a line as thin as a web’s strand and half as fragile. There was no choice but to comply.

The journey was long, and passage through the mountains was bitter. Winter was not far off, and the return home through the hidden ways of the Crown Range would be worse. On the fifth night after entering the foothills of Darmouth’s province, he stepped across the road running south to the gates of Venjetz. Amid the trees beyond, he quickly held out a hand for Eillean to stop.

Harsh footsteps moved fast and stealthless through the forest. He glanced at Eillean, saw that she heard them too, and they separated to hide within the forest’s underbrush.

From out of the trees came Cuirin’nen’a and a human male, both sweat-soaked and breathless. Brot’an did not understand. Why and how had she run from the city straight to this happenstance meeting?

He stepped out in their way as Eillean reappeared at his side.

Cuirin’nen’a slid to a stop on the forest mulch, a pair of silvery stilettos clenched together in one hand. She stared at them, and her eyes settled upon Eillean as the human male looked frantically back the way they had come.

“Mother?” she said.

“Where is your son?” Eillean asked. “We must take both of you back with us.”

Cuirin’nen’a fumbled for a reply. “No! Leesil must never come under Most Aged Father’s influence.”

“Why are you here?” her mother continued in demand. “Where is Leshil?

“Leesil is gone,” the human answered. “And we are pursued!”

A grating snarl rose from among the trees, and a dark form leaped into view, followed by another.

The human shoved Cuirin’nen’a toward her mother. “Go!”

Two great cats with dark, shining coats prowled forward in the moonlight, each as large as a mountain lion. Their eyes fixed upon their prey, but they hesitated at the sight of Brot’an and Eillean.

Cuirin’nen’a’s husband crouched with a stiletto in each hand, even as she twisted away from Eillean and separated her own blades. She tried to step in behind him.

Brot’an snatched her cloak and jerked her back toward the nearest tree. One cat leaped for her husband.

“Gavril!” she cried out, and swung back at Brot’an with one blade. “Mother, help him!”

Brot’an ducked Cuirin’nen’a’s swing, and Gavril glanced back when she shouted.

The lunging cat landed on the man, one forepaw against his throat, and he went down. When he hit the ground, the animal’s claws raked open his throat and the underside of his jaw.

Gavril’s stilettos rolled from his hands. Blood spattered his face. He lay twitching with his eyes still open.

“No!” Cuirin’nen’a cried out.

She tried to jerk her cloak free from Brot’an’s grip as Eillean rushed at the cat perched upon Gavril.

The second cat leaped for Cuirin’nen’a’s back. It slammed her down upon the mulch.

Brpt’an stumbled as her cloak tore from his grip, and Cuirin’nen’a’s head bounced hard against the earth. The animal’s large paws ground into her back. Its claws bit through her cloak and shirt into her skin. She neither cried out nor moved.

Eillean called out from somewhere to Brot’an’s right. Before he looked for her, twin stilettos tumbled through the air at the cat atop her daughter. Neither struck true, and both fell away, but the animal twisted its head with a snarl. Brot’an took in everything in that instant and hope died.

Eillean thrashed beneath the cat that had killed the human male. Leaves and twigs flew up around her as she tried to fend it off without her blades. Her dark cowl shredded beneath its claws. The cat upon Cuirin’nen’a swung its head back to its own prey.

Brot’an could not save them both.

He leaped upward from the earth and pushed off a nearby tree with his left foot. High in the night air, he watched the cat atop Cuirin’nen’a turn to look frantically about, trying to find him.

Brot’an became still and silent as his ascent slowed above the animal. Stiletto hilt gripped hand over hand, he focused upon the cat’s neck just behind its skull. He began to descend on top of it.

The cat glanced upward.

The tree that Brot’an had pushed off from was too far out of reach. The cat pivoted to get from under him. He had to fold his left leg before his foot struck its back. His knee and shin hit instead.

He drove the blade down, but the cat twisted sideways under his weight. The blade seemed to skim off of its head. The animal slapped at him with a forepaw as it screamed out in pain.

Brot’an saw claws pass before his face. He toppled from the cat and pushed off against its side to throw himself clear. He landed atop Cuirin’nen’a, rolled away, and came up crouched above her. The right side of his face stung, and his heart pounded as he steeled himself for the cat’s lunge.

Instead, it writhed upon the ground, screeching.

The sting in Brot’an’s face grew to a burning as he saw that the cat’s left ear was completely gone. The fur around that side of its dark head glistened as if wet, and dead leaves and pine needles clung to it. Something warm and wet ran down Brot’an’s face into his own right eye.

For an instant he thought it was sweat, blinking his eye to clear it. But this only darkened and blurred his vision more. There was blood running into his eye.

He had not escaped the claws altogether and felt searing lines in his forehead and right cheek. He crouched and heaved Cuirin’nen’a over one shoulder then ran back through the trees at the road’s edge. Within the thick branches of a fir tree, he crawled up along its trunk.

The cat’s screaming subsided to a rolling yowl that he heard coming closer.

Brot’an braced himself among the branches, with Cuirin’nen’a’s limp form draped over his bent legs. He pressed the branches slowly apart enough to see out and wiped at his right eye with the back of his hand.

The maimed cat pounded about the forest below but never found where he had gone. It turned back to join its mate, and Brot’an watched in anxious fascination.

The two felines writhed upon forest mulch beside each other.

Their bodies rippled into two naked forms-a man and woman of dusky skin and dark hair. The male held the side of his head, still kneeling in pain. They whispered to each other, gestures wild with panic, and both stared at Eillean’s torn face and body. When they set upon her, Brot’an went rigid. His back pressed into the tree’s trunk, and it ground into his spine.

They sawed at her neck with one of her own blades and severed her head.

Eillean had thrown away her life trying to save a human who was already lost.

They severed Gavril’s head next and ran off into the forest with their trophies.

Brot’an saw no more of them. By the time he could bring himself to climb down, he no longer heard their running feet. He set Cuirin’nen’a’s unconscious form on the ground. He crouched over Eillean’s headless corpse, at a loss over what he could do for her so far from their homeland.

Chap understood what Ventina and Faris had done. In fear of punishment, they stripped the skulls of flesh and presented these tokens to Dar-mouth. Their lord knew of only one elven female, and an elf’s skull was proof enough of the couple’s success.

This token of death had deceived Darmouth. And Brot’an had used it again to goad Leesil’s rage. In turn, master and slave set upon each other. All for the skull of the wrong woman…

The last remains of Eillean, Leesil’s grandmother.

In the aftermath of the crypt battle, the memory of Most Aged Father’s withered face surfaced in Brot’an’s memory… along with the request made by the patriarch. Brot’an knew he could not fight his way past both Leesil and Magiere to reach Darmouth. Magiere had wounded him too badly. But he was determined to preserve Most Aged Father’s trust. The only way was to force Leesil to murder the warlord.

Chap shook off Brot’an’s memories and snarled again. He could not give these memories to Leesil and only recalled Cuirin’nen’a’s-Nein’a’s- face over and over as he barked twice for “no.” Leesil cowered away, covering his ears.

“Enough!” Magiere ordered. “Stop this-now, Chap!”

Chap glared at her. He kept his eyes locked straight into hers, then nosed the skull toward her. He barked twice for “no” and slowly swung his head back and forth.

Magiere held Leesil close in her arms, but anger faded from her face. She looked down to the skull between Chap’s paws.

“No?” she whispered, her head shifting slightly side to side, mimicking Chap’s own. “Not… Nein’a?”

Chap barked once for “yes.” He lay down, his head upon the skull of the woman who had first brought him to Leesil, and closed his eyes. Magiere’s dawning awareness of the truth was no relief to him.

“Wynn…” Magiere said, voice hesitant, and then she shouted in panic. “Wynn, get the talking hide… get it now!”

* * *

As dawn approached, Chane crawled into a forest thicket and buried himself with dead leaves, tree needles and snow-crusted earth. He had tried to get back into the city, but the gates were sealed in the night. Soldiers openly patrolled the rampart with loaded crossbows.

Hunger kept him from settling into full dormancy. Even hidden and shielded, the sting of sunlight crawled over his flesh like biting insects as he thought of Wynn. He lingered in discomfort until the sun finally set, and then crawled out shuddering, as if once again rising from that second grave. He was covered in cold earth and mulch. It was no less unsettling. When he neared the gates of Venjetz once more, hunger squelched his unpleasant memories.

But he could not release Wynn from his thoughts. Had she even truly seen him in the keep?

A few wagons and peasants on foot gathered before the city’s main entrance, but the gate was still shut tight. A soldier upon the wall beside the gatehouse shouted down that “Captain” Omasta had closed the city until further notice. No one was allowed in or out.

Chane did not know what had become of Wynn. Or his horse. Or Welstiel, for that matter.

He stepped back into the forest. Wynn had his cloak and, except for his sword and the clothes he wore, everything he owned was still at the Ivy Vine inn. He lingered behind a tree and searched the gathering of wagons and people for an opportunity to feed.

Most of those on foot stood before the city gate, arguing and pleading to be let in. A few remained behind among the wagons and carts. One was alone, sitting on the lowered gate of a wagon with a small lantern.

She was young, perhaps not yet in her teen years. It was hard to tell with the blanket draped over her head and pulled tightly about her. She had folded her legs beneath the covering as well, and only her face was visible. Lean cheeked, with a nose blushed by the cold, she looked down into her lap.

Chane crouched low, darting to the next closest tree. He could take this one and drag her into the forest. A feeble peasant girl was easy enough to smother into silence until he was done with her.

She struggled with the blanket to free one slender hand, and turned a piece of parchment in her lap.

Chane froze behind the tree.

It was not a parchment, but the page of a book. He saw it clearly now. When she turned the next page, Chane saw lines of faded writing on the yellowed paper, stained with age.

Hunger’s ache reminded him they were only mortal cattle, breeding and toiling, and living out their short existence in such ignorance that their deaths were no loss to the world. No loss at all, but…

The girl was reading.

Chane clenched his teeth. Where and how had this peasant whelp become literate? As he was, as Wynn was?

“Skulking?” someone whispered behind him.

Chane turned, ready to satisfy himself with whatever fool had managed to catch him unaware. A few paces into the woods, the shadowed silhouette of Welstiel stepped from between the tree trunks.

“How did you get out?” Chane rasped.

“Most likely the same way you did.”

There was something akin to defeat in Welstiel’s voice.

“What’s wrong?” Chane asked.

Welstiel gazed toward the city gates. “It is probable that Magiere still follows Leesil into the elven territory.”

Chane did not care, but he had nowhere else to go. “Then we find our horses and a way to retrieve our possessions, and we follow-as always.”

“We cannot.”

“Why?”

“She and her companions can enter that land. She travels with a half-elf and a majay-hi. We do not. If we tried to enter, we would fail. The dead cannot walk in to those lands.”

Chane stood there, absorbing his companion’s words. There were too many times Welstiel revealed knowledge and awareness of things only when it suited him. Chane was growing very tired of this.

“And we cannot reenter the city,” Welstiel continued. “Now that Darmouth has been assassinated, there is no telling how long before the gates will be unsealed, if at all.”

“Our money, clothing, my bird… my books are still inside!” Chane rasped at him. “We have no horses. We have nothing, and now you tell me we cannot follow Wynn… Magiere any longer? There has to be a way to get to the inn.”

Welstiel shook his head. “Omasta knows my face, and yours will be remembered as well. I have coins with me, and we will find horses and make our way.”

Chane could scarcely believe Welstiel’s calm demeanor. “To where?”

Welstiel looked him in the face. “The Crown Range. I have my own notion of where to look, and for the moment there is nothing more to be done with Magiere. If we find the location of the object I seek, we may better drive her to it once she finishes this nonsense with Leesil. She will have to pass through the mountains again when she leaves the elven lands. If we cannot follow Magiere, we must wait and make her come to us.”

Chane leaned back against the tree.

Wynn would go north with Magiere to play interpreter, a human thrown in among elves who despised her kind. Welstiel had once again bungled his attempt to control Magiere, and once again Wynn walked a hazardous road. This time Chane could not follow.

“Leesil will protect her,” Welstiel said, guessing his thoughts. “I believe he has much to answer for. He will look out for her, as will Magiere.”

Such sentiment was unexpected-and unwanted-but Chane saw no choice but to follow his companion yet again. Sooner or later he would make Welstiel answer many questions… answer for the way he played with Wynn’s well-being.

And Chane had not forgotten Welstiel’s slumbering mumbles. To never feed again.

If whatever Welstiel sought possessed such power, Chane now wished to pursue it as well. Once this journey ended, Welstiel was to write him letters of introduction to a sage’s guild. In the smallest part of Chane’s mind, he imagined Wynn might yet…

He shook his head. Such a possibility was far from his reach, if he ever came within its grasp at all.

“We should find horses,” Chane whispered.

Welstiel nodded and turned away. Before Chane followed, he looked back once through the low branches at the peasant girl reading an old book.

Two evenings later, Leesil drove the wagon into the courtyard of Lord Geyren’s stone manor. A soldier, or perhaps just a house guard, greeted

Hedi politely. He looked a little surprised at how she traveled and the company she kept.

Magiere sat beside Leesil, their shabby clothing badly in need of washing. The wagon was packed with chests and blankets and canvas tarps. Korey sat on one chest, her curly hair in a tangle. She wore one of Hedi’s wool gowns and Wynn’s sheepskin coat-both too large-and struggled to keep her hands free for the apple she munched. Wynn huddled with Chap upon a pile of canvas. She had donned breeches and her short robe but also wore Chane’s cloak, much too large for her small frame, and it hung about her like a blanket.

Leesil remained quiet for most of the journey. His throat ached, and hurt worse when he tried to speak, but this wasn’t the reason for his silence. Wynn and the others were unaware of how Darmouth had truly died. Magiere had told no one.

“My lady,” the guard said to Hedi. “I am at your service. Lord Geyren sent word that you would come.”

No matter what the man thought of Hedi’s ragtag arrival, he treated them all as guests. Servants unpacked their chests and took Port and Imp to a stable. The guard led the weary travelers inside the manor. Hedi put her arms around Korey. She did not look at Leesil or acknowledge his presence as she turned to the guard.

“We would prefer food brought to our rooms,” she said. “We are tired, and my young charge needs rest. Please put the two of us in the same room.”

The guard nodded.

Hedi had decided it would be too much for Korey to learn of her parents’ fate along the road. Now she asked for time alone with the girl. Or perhaps she didn’t care to eat with the man who had destroyed her loved ones, her family. Leesil felt sorrow for Korey, but at least she would have a place with Hedi and her baron, Emel.

Chap and Wynn were shown to a room on the second floor, and a servant opened up a thick wooden door across the hall for Leesil and Magiere. Leesil carried in their travel chest and set it down at the foot of the bed.

A plush carpet covered the stone floor between a cushioned chair and dresser with polished brass handles. The painting on the far wall showed sun-drenched mountains in the early dawn. On the bed, large enough for three, was a cream comforter decorated with lace fringe.

Magiere settled a smaller chest upon the one Leesil had set down. She walked around the bed’s side and brushed the comforter with her fingertips. She stood there, staring blankly at it, as if uncertain she could trust such luxury.

Leesil opened the small chest, one that Emel had emptied of other possessions and given to him. Within, carefully padded with a blanket, were the skulls of his father and a grandmother he’d never known.

His mother was still alive, and right now the thought brought him no relief. He touched his father’s skull, and looked at that of his grandmother. Chap had called her Eillean. She had been an elder of the Anmaglahk.

Civil war now spread through Droevinka. A bitter and weary fear of the same had been spoken by the tall captain of Soladran at the border of Stravina. And now the Warlands would begin to burn with it.

He had sparked that last fire himself in one moment of overwhelming anguish.

Chap hadn’t said as much, with Wynn and the others present, but it now became clear to Leesil just the same.

Though he had opposed his mother’s caste, in the end, he had served their purpose.

Leesil’s gaze shifted back to the skull of his father as Magiere stepped in behind him.

“My mother will want to bury him herself,” he whispered. “If we can find her… get to her.”

Magiere’s hand brushed his shoulder quickly and then the touch was gone. “Let’s get your boots off.”

This was the role she’d adopted over the past days-politely detached caretaker. He stood up and went to sit on the bed, taking off his cloak and boots. As he pulled the shirt over his head, he shuddered. It smelled terrible. Hopefully they’d have time to wash their belongings before heading into the mountains.

Magiere sat down beside him, pulling off her own boots. A dried bloodstain covered the rip near one shoulder of her shirt.

“We’ll find her, Leesil. We’ll start tomorrow.”

He nodded without speaking.

“Lie down,” Magiere said quietly.

Leesil lay back, watching her pull loose the leather thong that held her black hair back. He saw the stain on her shirt under her other arm.

She let the thong drop, not seeming to care where it fell, and shook her hair loose across her back. There was too little light in the room to spark its red depths.

Magiere remained faced away for so long that Leesil wondered if a father was all that he’d lost… if opposing his mother’s people was not the only betrayal he’d committed in coming home. She turned so suddenly that he didn’t see her pale face as she lay down next to him on her side. In another moment she slowly reached her arm across his chest.

He was barely able to put his hand atop hers, fearing how she might react.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

She slid her hand up to his shoulder, pulling herself closer, until her face pressed into his hair and cheek. Her answer was long in coming.

“We will be,” she whispered.

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