Friday, December 18, 2009

The Silver Skull—Swords of Albion by Mark Chadbourn

The Silver Skull—Swords of Albion features a devilish plot to assassinate the queen, a cold war enemy hell-bent on destroying the nation, incredible gadgets, a race against time around the world to stop the ultimate doomsday device…and Elizabethan England’s greatest spy. 

Meet Will Swyfte – adventurer, swordsman, rake, swashbuckler, wit, scholar and the greatest of Walsingham’s new band of spies. His exploits against the forces of Philip of Spain have made him a national hero, lauded from Carlisle to Kent. Yet his associates can barely disguise their incredulity – what is the point of a spy whose face and name is known across Europe?

But Swyfte’s public image is a carefully-crafted façade to give the people of England something to believe in, and to allow them to sleep peacefully at night. It deflects attention from his real work – and the true reason why Walsingham’s spy network was established.

A Cold War seethes, and England remains under a state of threat. The forces of Faerie have been preying on humanity for millennia. Responsible for our myths and legends, of gods and fairies, dragons, griffins, devils, imps and every other supernatural menace that has haunted our dreams, this power in the darkness has seen humans as playthings to be tormented, hunted or eradicated.

But now England is fighting back!

Magical defences have been put in place by the Queen’s sorcerer Dr John Dee, who is also a senior member of Walsingham’s secret service and provides many of the bizarre gadgets utilised by the spies. Finally there is a balance of power. But the Cold War is threatening to turn hot at any moment…

Will now plays a constant game of deceit and death, holding back the Enemy’s repeated incursions, dealing in a shadowy world of plots and counter-plots, deceptions, secrets, murder, where no one… and no thing…is quite what it seems.

RT Book Reviews not only gave The Silver Skull 4 1/2 stars, but also called it, “Fantastic—[a] keeper,” ...the new Swords of Albion series, set in an alternate Elizabethan England, gets off to a smashing start. The historical detail sets a believable backdrop, and the main character, a spy, could pass for a fantastical James Bond. Chadbourn sets a fast pace, pitting his characters against supernatural threats with a bit of horror thrown in.”

Here is your chance to read an excerpt, below:

The Silver Skull
Swords of Albion

Mark Chadbourn


Far beneath the slow-moving Thames, a procession of flickering lights drew inexorably towards London from the east. The pace was funereal, the trajectory steady, purposeful. In that hour after midnight, the spectral glow under the black waters passed unseen by all but two observers.

“There! What are they, sir?” In the lantern light, the guard’s fear was apparent as he peered over the battlements of the White Tower, ninety feet above the river.

Matthew Mayhew, who had seen worse things in his thirty years than the guard could ever dream in his worst fever-sleep, replied with boredom, “I see the proud heart of the greatest nation on Earth. I see a city safe and secure within its walls, where the queen may sleep peacefully.”

“There!” The guard pointed urgently.

“A waterman has met with disaster.” Mayhew sighed. With a temper as short as his stature, the Tower guards had learned to handle him with care and always praised the fine court fashions he took delight in parading.

The guard gulped the cold air of the March night. “And his lantern still burns on the bottom? What of the other lights? And they move—”

“The current.”

The guard shook his head. “They are ghosts!”

Mayhew gave a dismissive snort.

“There are such things! Samuel Hale saw the queen’s mother walking with her head beneath her arm in the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula.Why, the Tower is the most haunted place in England! The Two Princes, Margaret Pole, Lady Jane Grey . . . all seen here, Master Mayhew. Damned by God to walk this world after their deaths.”

Mayhew studied the slow-moving lights, imagining fish in the deep with their own candles to guide their way through the inky dark.

The guard’s fear made his lantern swing so wildly the shadows flew across the Tower.

Steadying the lantern, Mayhew said, “When this great fortress was built five hundred years gone, King William had the mortar tempered with the blood of beasts. Do you know why that was?”

“No, no. I—”

“Suffice it to say,” Mayhew interrupted wearily, “that you are safe here from all supernatural threat.”

The guard calmed a little. “Safe, you say?”

“England’s defences are built on more than the rock of its people.”

The lights veered away from the centre of the river towards the Tower of London where it nestled inside the old Roman walls, guarding the eastern approach to the capital. Mayhew couldn’t prevent a shiver running up his spine.

“Complete your rounds,” he said sharply, overcompensating in case the guard had seen his weakness. “We must ensure that theWhite Tower remains secure against England’s enemies.”

“And the prisoner you are charged to guard?”

“I will attend to him.” Mayhew pressed a scented handkerchief against his nose to block out the stink of the city’s filth caught on the wind. Sometimes it was unbearable. He hated being away from the court where the virtues of life were more apparent, hated the boredom of his task, and at that moment hated that he was caught on the cold summit of the White Tower when he should have been inside by the fire.

He cast his eye around the fortress where pools of darkness were held back by the lanterns strung along the walkways among the wards. The only movement came from the slow circuit of the night watch.

The Tower of London was an unassailable symbol of England. Solid Kentish ragstone formed the bulk of the impregnableWhite Tower, protected by its own curtain wall and moat, with a further curtain wall and thirteen towers guarding the Inner Ward beyond. Finally, there was the Outer Ward, with another solid wall, five towers, and three bastions. Everything valuable to the nation lay within the walls—the Crown jewels, the treasury, the Royal Mint, the armoury, and England’s most dangerous prisoners, including Mayhew’s personal charge.

As he made his way down the stone steps, he was greeted by the clatter of boots ascending and the light of another lantern. William Osborne appeared, his youthful face and intelligent grey eyes unsettled. Mayhew contemptuously wondered if he now regretted giving up his promising career in the law to join the Queen’s Service out of love for his country, not realising what would be asked of him.

“What is it?” Mayhew demanded.

“A disturbance. At the Traitors’ Gate.”

Where the river lights were heading, Mayhew thought. “The gate remains secure, and well guarded?” he asked.

Osborne’s face loomed white in the lamplight. “There are six men upon it, as our Lord Walsingham demanded.”

“And yet?”

Osborne’s voice quavered with uncertainty. “The guards say the restraining beam moves of its own accord. Bolts draw without the help of human hand. Is this what we always feared?”

Pushing past him with irritation, Mayhew snapped, “You know as well as I that the Tower is protected. These guards are frighted like maidens.” For all his contempt at his colleague’s words, Mayhew’s chest tightened in apprehension.

Walsingham said it could never happen, he reminded himself. He told the queen . . . Burghley . . .

Trying to maintain his decorum, he descended to the ground floor with studied nonchalance and stepped out into the Inmost Ward. The whitewashed walls of the Tower glowed in the lantern light.

“Listen!” Osborne’s features flared in the gloom as he raised his lantern to illuminate the way ahead.

The steady silence of the Tower was shattered by a cacophony of roars and howls, barks, shrieks, and high-pitched chattering. In the Royal Menagerie, the lions, leopards, and lynxes threw themselves around their pens, while the other exotic beasts tore at the mud of their enclosures in a frenzy.

“What do they sense?” There was a querulous tremble in Osborne’s voice.

Scanning the Inmost Ward for any sign of movement, Mayhew relented.

“You know.”

Osborne winced at his words. “Are you not afraid?”

“This is the work we were charged to do, for queen and country. Raise the alarm. Then we must take ourselves to the prisoner.”

Within moments, guards raced to their positions under Osborne’s direction. Venturing to the gate, they peered beyond the curtain wall to where the string of lanterns kept the dark at bay.

“Nothing,” Osborne said with relief, his voice almost lost beneath the screams of the animals.

Mayhew kept his attention on Saint Thomas’s Tower in the outer curtain wall. Beyond it was the river, and beneath it lay the water entrance that had become known as Traitors’ Gate, after the enemies of the Crown who had been transported through it to imprisonment or death. The guards had disappeared inside, but there was no clamour.

After five minutes, Osborne’s relief was palpable. “A false alarm, then. Perhaps it was only Spanish spies.With the country on the brink of war, they must be operating everywhere. Yes?”

A guard emerged from Saint Thomas’s Tower, pausing for a moment on the threshold. Mayhew and Osborne watched him curiously. With an odd, lurching gait, he picked a winding path towards them.

“Is he drunk?” Mayhew growled. “His head will be on the block by noon if he has deserted his post.”

“I . . . I do not . . .” The words died in Osborne’s throat as the guard’s path became more erratic. His jerky movements were deeply upsetting, as if he had been afflicted by a palsy.

Mayhew cursed under his breath. “I gave up a life at court for this.”

As the guard neared, they saw his hands continually went to his head as if searching for a missing hat. Despite himself, Mayhew reached for the knife hidden in the folds of his cloak.

“I am afraid,” Osborne whispered.

“Do you hear music?” Mayhew cocked his head. “Like pipes playing, caught on the breeze?” As he breathed deeply of the night air, he realised the foul odour of the city had been replaced by sweet, seductive scents that took him back to his childhood. A tear stung his eye. “That aroma,” he noted, “like cornfields beneath the summer moon.” He inhaled. “Honey, from the hive my grandfather kept.”

“What is wrong with you?” Osborne demanded. “This is no time for dreams!”

Mayhew’s attention snapped back to the approaching guard. As he entered a circle of torchlight, Mayhew saw for the first time that something was wrong with the guard’s face. Revolted yet fascinated, he tried to see the detail behind the guard’s pawing hands. The skin was unduly white and had the texture of sackcloth. When the hands came away, Mayhew was sickened to glimpse large dark eyes that resembled nothing so much as buttons, and a row of stitches where the mouth had been. An illusion, he tried to tell himself, but he was left with an impression of the dollies the old women sold in Cheapside at Christmastime.

“God’s wounds!” Osbourne exclaimed. “What has happened to him?”

Before Mayhew could answer, a blur of ochre and brown burst from the shadows with a terrible roar, slamming the guard onto the turf. Claws revealed bones and organs, and tearing jaws sprayed viscera around the convulsing form. But the most chilling thing was that the guard did not utter a sound.

He could not, Mayhew thought.

The lion’s triumphant roar jolted Mayhew and Osborne from their shock.

“The beasts have escaped the Menagerie!” Mayhew thrust Osborne back towards the White Tower, where they ordered the guards who remained within to bar the door and defend it with their lives.

On the steps, Osborne rested one hand on the stone and bowed his head, fighting the waves of panic that threatened to consume him.

Mayhew eyed him contemptuously. “When you volunteered to become one of Walsingham’s men, you vowed to deal with the great affairs of state with courage and fortitude. Now look at you.”

“How can you be so hardened to this terror?” Osborne blinked away tears of dread. “When I stepped away from my quiet halls of study, it was to give my life in service to England and our queen, and to protect her from the great Catholic conspiracy . . . and the . . . the Spanish . . .” He swallowed. “The threats on her life from those who wish to turn us back to the terrible rule of Rome. Not this! I never foresaw that my soul would be placed at risk, until it was too late.”

“Of course not,” Mayhew sneered. “If the common herd knew the real reason why England has established a network of spies the envy of all other nations, they would never rest in their beds. Do not fail me. Or the queen.”

Osborne steadied himself. “You are right, Mayhew. I act like a child. I must be strong.”

Mayhew clapped him on the shoulder with little affection. “Come, then. We have work to do.”

They had only climbed a few steps when a tremendous crash resounded from the great oak door through which they had entered the Tower. Flashing a wide-eyed stare at Mayhew, Osborne took the steps two at a time. As they raced along the ringing corridors, Osborne asked breathlessly, “What is coming, Mayhew?”

“Best not to think of that now.”

“What did they do to the guard? I knew him. Carter, a good man, with a wife and two girls.”

“Stop asking foolish questions!”

The scream of one of the guards at the door below echoed through the Tower, cut short mercifully soon.

“Let nothing slow your step,” Mayhew urged.

In the most secure area of the White Tower, they came to a heavy oak door studded with iron. The walls were thicker than a man’s height. After Mayhew gave three sharp bursts of a coded knock, a hatch opened to reveal a pair of glowering eyes.

“Who goes?” came the voice from within.

“Mayhew and Osborne, your Lord Walsingham’s men.”

While Osborne twitched and glanced anxiously over his shoulder, the guard searched their faces, until, satisfied, he began to draw the fourteen bolts that the queen herself had personally insisted be installed.

“Hurry,” Osborne whined. Mayhew cuffed him across his arm.

Once inside, Osborne pressed his back against the resealed door and let out a juddering sigh of relief. “Finally. We are safe.”

Mayhew didn’t hide his contempt. Osborne was too weak to survive in their business; he would not be long for the world and there was little point in tormenting him further by explaining the obvious.

Six guards waited by the door, and another twenty in the chambers within. Handpicked byWalsingham himself for their brutality and their lack of human compassion, their faces were uniformly hard, their hands rarely more than an inch from their weapons. At any other time they would have been slitting the throats of rich sots in the stews of Bankside, yet here they were in the queen’s most trusted employ.

“The cell remains secure?” Mayhew asked the captain of the guard. His face boasted the scars of numerous fights.

“It is. It was examined ’pon the hour, as it is every hour.”

“Take us to it.”

“Who attempts to breach our defences?” the captain asked. “Surely the Spanish would not risk an attack.”

When Mayhew did not respond, the captain nodded and ordered two of the guards to accompany the spies. A moment later they were marching past rooms stacked high with the riches of England, gold seized from the New World or looted from ships from the Spanish Main to the Channel.

Beyond the bullion rooms, one of the guards unlocked a stout door and led them down a steep flight of steps to another locked door. Inside was a low-ceilinged chamber warmed by a brazier in one corner and lit by sputtering torches on opposite walls. Two guards played cards at a heavy, scarred table. On the far side of the room was a single door with a small barred window.

“I do not see why he could not have been kept with the other prisoners,” Osborne said.

“No, of course you do not,” Mayhew replied.

“The Tower’s main rooms have held two kings of Scotland and a king of France, our own King Henry VI, Thomas More, and our own good queen. What is so special about this one that he deserves more secure premises than those great personages?” Osborne persisted.

“You have only been assigned to this task for two days,” Mayhew replied. “When you have been here as long as I, you will understand.”

Crossing the room, Mayhew peered through the bars in the door. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom within, he made out the form of the cell’s occupant hunched on a rough wooden bench, the hood of his cloak, as always, pulled over his head so his features were hidden. He was allowed no naked flame for illumination, no drink in a bowl or goblet, only in a bottle, and he was never allowed to leave the secure area of the White Tower where he had been imprisoned for twenty years.

“Still nothing to say?” Mayhew murmured, and then laughed at his own joke. He passed the comment every day, in full knowledge that the prisoner had never been known to speak in all his time in the Tower.

Yet on this occasion the light leaking through the grille revealed a subtle shift in the dark shape, as though the prisoner was listening to what Mayhew said, perhaps even considering a response.

Mayhew’s deliberations were interrupted by muffled bangs and clatters in the Mint above their heads, the sound of raised voices, and then a low, chilling cry.

“They are in,” he said flatly, turning back to the room.

Osborne had pressed himself against one wall like a hunted animal. The four guards looked to Mayhew hesitantly.

“Help your friends,” he said. “Do whatever is in your power to protect this place. Lock the door as you leave. I will bolt it.”

Once they had gone, he slammed the bolts into place with a flick of his wrist that showed his disdain for their security.

“You know it will do no good,” Osborne said. “If they have gained access to the Mint, there is no door that will keep them out.”

“What do you suggest? That we beg for mercy, or run screaming, like girls?”

“Pray,” Osborne replied, “for that is surely the only thing that can save us. These are not men that we face, not Spaniards, or French, not the Catholic traitors from within our own realm. These are the Devil’s own agents, and they come for our immortal souls.”

Mayhew snorted. “Forget God, Osborne. If He even exists, He has scant regard for this vale of misery.”

Osborne recoiled as if he had been struck. “You do not believe in the Lord?”

“If you want atheism, talk to Marlowe. He makes clear his views with every action he takes. But I learn from the evidence of my own eyes, Osborne. We face a threat that stands to wipe us away as though we had never been, and if there is to be salvation, it will not come from above. It will be achieved by our own hand.”

“Then help me barricade the door,” Osborne pleaded.

With a sigh and a shrug, Mayhew set his weight against the great oak table, and with Osborne puffing and blowing beside him, they pushed it solidly against the door.

When they stood back, Mayhew paused as the faint strains of the haunting pipe music reached him again, plucking at his emotions, turning him in an instant from despair to such ecstasy that he wanted to dance with wild abandon. “That music,” he said, closing his eyes in awe.

“I hear no music!” Osborne shouted. “You are imagining it.”

“It sounds,” Mayhew said with a faint smile, “like the end of all things.” He turned back to the cell door where the prisoner now waited, the torchlight catching a metallic glint beneath his hood.

“Damn your eyes!” Osborne raged. “Return to your bench! They shall not free you!”

Unmoving, the prisoner watched them through the grille. Mayhew did not sense any triumphalism in his body language, no sign that he was assured of his freedom, merely a faint curiosity at the change to the pattern that had dominated his life for so many years.

“Sit down!” Osborne bellowed.

“Leave him,” Mayhew responded as calmly as he could manage. “We have a more pressing matter.”

Above their heads, the distant clamour of battle was punctuated by a muffled boom that shook the heavy door and brought a shower of dust from the cracks in the stone. Silence followed, accompanied by the cloying scent of honeysuckle growing stronger by the moment.

Drawing their swords, Mayhew and Osborne focused their attention on the door.

A random scream, becoming a sound like the wind through the trees on a lonely moor. More noises, fragments of events that painted no comprehensive picture.

Breath tight in their chests, knuckles aching from gripping their swords, Mayhew and Osborne waited.

Something bouncing down the stone steps, coming to rest against the door with a thud.

A soft tread, then gone like a whisper in the night, followed by a long silence that felt like it would never end.

Finally the unbearable quiet was broken by a rough grating as the top bolt drew back of its own accord. His eyes frozen wide, Osborne watched its inexorable progress.

As soon as the bolt had clicked open, the one at the foot of the door followed, and when that had been drawn the great tumblers of the iron lock turned until they fell into place with a shattering clack.

“I . . . I think I can hear the music now, Mayhew, and there are voices in it,” Osborne said. He began to recite the Lord’s Prayer quietly.

The door creaked open a notch and then stopped. Light flickered through the gap, not torchlight or candlelight, but with some troubling quality that Mayhew could not identify, but which reminded him of moonlight on the Downs. The music was louder now, and he too could hear the voices.

A sound at his back disrupted his thoughts. The prisoner’s hands were on the bars of the grille and he had removed his hood for the first time that Mayhew could recall. In the ethereal light, there was an echo of the moon within the cell. The prisoner’s head was encompassed by a silver skull of the finest workmanship, gleaming so brightly Mayhew could barely look at it. Etched on it with almost invisible black filigree were ritual marks and symbols. Through the silver orbits, the prisoner’s eyes hung heavily upon Mayhew, steady and unblinking, the whites marred by a tracing of burst capillaries.

The door opened.

Chapter 1

Even four hours of soft skin and full lips could not take away her face. Empty wine bottles rattling on the bare boards did not drown out her voice, nor did the creak of the bed and the gasps of pleasure. She was with him always.

“They say you single-handedly defeated ten of Spain’s finest swordsmen on board a sinking ship in the middle of a storm,” the redheaded woman breathed in his ear as she ran her hand gently along his naked thigh.


“And you broke into the Doge’s palace in disguise and romanced the most beautiful woman in all of Venice,” the blonde woman whispered into his other ear, stroking his lower belly.

“Yes, all true.”

“And you wrestled a bear and killed it with your bare hands,” the redhead added.

He paused thoughtfully, then replied, “Actually, that one is not true, but I think I will appropriate it nonetheless.”

The women both laughed. He didn’t know their names, didn’t really care. They would be amply rewarded, and have tales to tell of their night with the greatWill Swyfte, and he would have passed a few hours in the kind of abandon that always promised more than it actually delivered.

“Your hair is so black,” the blonde one said, twirling a finger in his curls.

“Yes, like my heart.”

They both laughed at that, though he wasn’t particularly joking. Nathaniel would have laughed too, although with more of a sardonic edge.

The redhead reached out a lazy hand to examine his clothes hanging over the back of the chair. “You must cut a dashing figure at court, with these finest and most expensive fashions.” Reaching a long leg from the bed, she traced her toes across the shiny surface of his boots.

“I heard you were a poet.” The blonde rubbed her groin gently against his hip. “Will you compose a sonnet to us?”

“I was a poet. And a scholar. But that part of my life is far behind me.”

“You have exchanged it for a life of adventure,” she said, impressed. “A fair exchange, for it has brought you riches and fame.”

Will did not respond.

The blonde examined his bare torso, which bore the tales of the last few years in each pink slash of a rapier scar or ragged weal of torture, stories that had filtered into the consciousness of every inhabitant of the land, from Carlisle to Kent to Cornwall.

As she swung her leg over him to begin another bout of lovemaking, they were interrupted by an insistent knocking at the door.

“Go away,” Will shouted.

The knocking continued. “I know you are deep in doxie and sack, Master Swyfte,” came a curt, familiar voice, “but duty calls.”

“Nat. Go away.”

The door swung open to reveal Nathaniel Colt, shorter than Will and slim, but with eyes that revealed a quick wit. He studiedly ignored the naked, rounded bodies and focused his attention directly on Will.

“A fine place to find a hero of the realm,” he said with sarcasm. “A tawdry room atop a stew, stinking of coitus and spilled wine.”

“In these harsh times, every man deserves his pleasures, Nat.”

“This is England’s greatest spy,” the redhead challenged. “He has earned his comforts.”

“Yes, England’s greatest spy,” Nathaniel replied acidly. “Though I remain unconvinced of the value of a spy whose name and face are recognised by all and sundry.”

“England needs its heroes, Nat. Do not deny the people the chance to celebrate the successes of God’s own nation.” He eased the women off the bed with gentle hands. “We will continue our relaxation at another time,” he said warmly, “for I fear my friend is determined to enforce chastity.”

His eyes communicated more than his words. The women responded with coquettish giggles as they scooped up their dresses to cover them as they skipped out of the room.

Kicking the door shut after them, Nathaniel said, “You will catch the pox if you continue these sinful ways with the Winchester Geese.”

“The pox is not God’s judgment, or all the aristocracy of England would be rotting in their breeches as they dance at court.”

“And ’twould be best if you did not let any but me hear your views on our betters.”

“Besides,”Will continued, “Liz Longshanks’ is a fine establishment. Does it not bear the mark of the Cardinal’s Hat? Is this land on which this stew rests not in the blessed ownership of the bishop of Winchester? Everything has two faces, Nat, neither good nor bad, just there. That is the way of the world, and if there is a Lord, it is His way.”

Ignoring Nathaniel’s snort, Will stretched the kinks from his limbs and lazily eased out of the bed to dress, absently kicking the empty bottles against the chamber pot. “And,” he added, “I am in good company. That master of theatre, Philip Henslowe, and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn are entertaining Liz’s girls in the room below.”

“Alleyn the actor?”

“Whoring and acting go together by tradition, as does every profession that entails holding one face to the world and another in the privacy of your room. When you cannot be yourself, it creates certain tensions that must be released.”

“You will be releasing more tensions if you do not hurry. Your Lord Walsingham is on his way to Bankside, and if he finds his favoured tool deep in whores, or in his cups, he will be less than pleased.” Nathaniel threw Will his shirt to end his frustrated searching.

“What trouble now, then? More Spanish spies plotting against our queen? You know they fall over their own swords.”

“I am pleased to hear you take the threats against us so lightly. England is on the brink of war with Spain, the nation is torn by fears of the enemy landing on our shores at every moment, we lack adequate defences, our navy is in disarray, we are short of gunpowder, and the great Catholic powers of Europe are all eager to see us crushed and returned to the old faith, but the great Will Swyfte thinks it is just a trifling. I can rest easily now.”

“One day you will cut yourself with that tongue, Nat.”

“There is some trouble at the White Tower, though I am too lowly a worm to be given any important details. No, I am only capable of dragging my master out of brothels and hostelries and keeping him one step out of the Clink,” he added tartly.

“You are of great value to me, as well you know.” Finishing his dressing, Will ran a hand through his hair thoughtfully. “The Tower, you say?”

“An attempt to steal our gold, perhaps. Or the Crown jewels. The Spanish always look for interesting ways to undermine this nation.”

“I cannot imagine Lord Walsingham venturing into Bankside for bullion or jewels.” He ensured Nathaniel didn’t see his mounting sense of unease. “Let us to the Palace of Whitehall before the principal secretary sullies his boots in Bankside’s filth.”

A commotion outside drew Nathaniel to the small window, where he saw a sleek black carriage with a dark red awning and the gold brocade and ostrich feathers that signified it had been dispatched from the palace. The chestnut horse stamped its hooves and snorted as a crowd of drunken apprentices tumbled out of the Sugar Loaf across the street to surround the carriage.

“I fear it is too late for that,” Nathaniel said.

Four accompanying guards used their mounts to drive the crowd back, amid loud curses and threats but none of the violence that troubled the constables and beadles on a Saturday night. Two of the guards barged into the brothel, raising angry cries from Liz Longshanks and the girls waiting in the downstairs parlour, and soon the clatter of their boots rose up the wooden stairs.

“Let us meet them halfway,” Will said.

“If I were you, I would wonder how our LordWalsingham knows exactly which stew is your chosen hideaway this evening.”

“Lord Walsingham commands the greatest spy network in the world. Do you think he would not use a little of that power to keep track of his own?”

“But you are in his employ.”

“As the queen’s godson likes to say, ‘treason begets spies and spies treason.’ In this business, as perhaps in life itself, it is best not to trust anyone. There is always another face behind the one we see.”

“What a sad life you lead.”

“It is the life I have. No point bemoaning.”Will’s broad smile gave away nothing of his true thoughts.

The guards escorted him out into the rutted street, where a light frost now glistened across the mud. The smell of ale and woodsmoke hung heavily between the inns and stews that dominated Bankside, and the night was filled with the usual cacophony of cries, angry shouts, the sound of numerous simultaneous fights, the clatter of cudgels, cheers and roars from the bulland bear-baiting arenas, music flooding from open doors, and drunken voices singing clashing songs. Every conversation was conducted at a shout.

As Will pushed through the crowd towards the carriage, he was recognised by some of the locals from the inns he frequented, and his name flickered from tongue to tongue in awed whispers. Apprentices tentatively touched his sleeve, and sultry-eyed women pursed their lips or thrust their breasts towards him, to Nathaniel’s weary disdain. But many revealed their fears about the impending invasion and offered their prayers that Will was off to protect them. Grinning, he shook hands, offered wry dismissals of the Spanish threat, and raised their spirits with enthusiastic proclamations of England’s strength; he played well the part he had been given.

At the carriage, the curtain was drawn back to reveal a man with an ascetic demeanour and a fixed mouth that appeared never to have smiled, his eyes dark and implacable. Francis Walsingham was approaching sixty, but his hair and beard were still black, as were his clothes, apart from a crisp white ruff.

“My lord,” Will said.

“Master Swyfte. We have business.”Walsingham’s eyes flickered towards Nathaniel. “Come alone.”

Will guessed the nature of the business immediately, for Nathaniel usually accompanied him everywhere and had been privy to some of the great secrets of state. Will turned to him and said, “Nat, I would ask a favour of you. Go to Grace and ensure she has all she needs.”

Reading the gravity in Will’s eyes, Nathaniel nodded curtly and pushed his way back through the crowd. It was in those silent moments of communication that Will valued Nathaniel more than ever; more than a servant, Nathaniel had become a trusted companion, perhaps even a friend. But friends did not keep secrets from each other, and Will guarded the biggest secret of all. It ensured his path was a lonely one.

Walsingham saw the familiar signs in Will’s face. “Our knowledge and our work are a privilege,” he said in his modulated, emotionless voice.

“We have all learned to love the lick of the lash,” Will replied.

Walsingham held the carriage door open forWill to climb into the heavy perfume of the court—lavender, sandalwood, and rose from iron containers hanging in each of the four corners of the interior. They kept the stink of the city at bay, but also served a more serious purpose that only the most learned would recognise.

Hands reached in through the open window for Will to touch. After he had shaken and clasped a few, he drew the curtain and let his public face fall away along with his smile.

“They love you, Master Swyfte,” Walsingham observed, “which is as it should be. Your fame reaches to all corners of England, your exploits recounted in inn and marketplace. Your heroism on behalf of queen and country is a beacon in the long dark of the night that ensures the good men and women of our land sleep well in their beds, secure in the knowledge that they are protected by the best that England has to offer.”

“Perhaps I should become one of Marlowe’s players.”

“Do you sour of the public role you must play?”

“If they knew the truth about me, there would be few flagons raised to the great Will Swyfte in Chichester and Chester.”

“There is no truth,” Walsingham replied as the carriage lurched into motion with the crack of the driver’s whip. “There are only the stories we tell ourselves. They shape our world, our minds, our hearts. And the strongest stories win the war.” His piercing eyes fell upon Will from the dark depths beneath his glowering brow. “You seem in a melancholy mood this night.”

“My revels were interrupted. Any man who had his wine and his women dragged from his grasp would be in a similar mood.”

A shadow crossed Walsingham’s face. “Be careful, William. Your love of the pleasures of this world will destroy you.”

His disapproval meant nothing to Will. He did not fear God’s damnation; mankind had been left to its own devices. There was too much hell around him to worry about the one that might lie beyond death.

“I understand why you immerse yourself in pleasure,” Walsingham continued. “We all find ways to ease the burden of our knowledge. I have my God. You have your wine and your whores. Through my eyes, that is no balance, but each must find his own way to carry out our work. Still, take care, William. The devils use seduction to achieve their work, and you provide them with a way through your defences.”

“As always, my lord, I am vigilant.” Will pretended to agree with Walsingham’s assessment of his motivations, but in truth the principal secretary didn’t have the slightest inkling of what drove Will, and never would. Will took some pleasure in knowing that a part of him would always remain his own, however painful.

As the carriage trundled over the ruts, the carnal sounds and smells of Bankside receded. Through the window, Will noticed a light burning high up in the heart of the City across the river, the warning beacon at the top of the lightning-blasted spire of Saint Paul’s.

“This is it, then,” he said quietly.

“Blood has been spilled. Lives have been ruined. The clock begins to tick.”

“I did not think it would be so soon. Why now?”

“You will receive answers shortly. We knew it was coming.” After a pause, he said gravely, “William Osborne is dead, his eyes put out, his bones crushed at the foot of the White Tower.”

“Death alone was not enough for them.”

“He did it to himself.”

Will considered Osborne’s last moments and what could have driven him to such a gruesome end.

“Master Mayhew survived, though injured,” Walsingham continued.

“You have never told me why they were posted to the Tower.”

Walsingham did not reply. The carriage trundled towards London Bridge, the entrance closed along with the City’s gates every night when the Bow Bells sounded.

Echoing from the river’s edge came the agonised cries of the prisoners chained to the posts in the mud along the banks, waiting for the tide to come in to add to their suffering. Above the gates, thirty spiked decomposing heads of traitors were a warning of a worse fate to those who threatened the established order.

As the driver hailed his arrival, the gates ground open to reveal the grand, timber-framed houses of wealthy merchants on either side of the bridge. The carriage rattled through without slowing and the guards hastily closed the gates behind them to seal out the night’s terrors.

The closing of the gates had always signalled security, but if the City’s defences had been breached there would be no security again.

“A weapon of tremendous power has fallen into the hands of the Enemy,” Walsingham said. “A weapon with the power to bring about doomsday. These are the days we feared.”

Chapter 2

In the narrow, ancient streets clustering hard around the stone bulk of the Tower of London, the dark was impenetrable, threatening, and there was a sense of relief when the carriage broke out onto the green to the north of the outer wall where lanterns produced a reassuring pool of light.

Standing in ranks, soldiers waited to be dispatched by their commander in small search parties fanning out across the capital. Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, strutted in front of them, firing off orders. Though grey-bearded and with a growing belly, he still carried the charisma of the man who had entranced Elizabeth and seduced many other ladies of the court.

A crowd had gathered around the perimeter of the green, sleepy-eyed men and women straggling from their homes as word spread of the activity at the Tower. Will could see anxiety grow in their faces as they watched the grim determination of the commanders directing the search parties. Fear of the impending Spanish invasion ran high, and in the feverish atmosphere of the City tempers were close to boiling over into public disturbance. Spanish spies and Catholic agitators were everywhere, plotting assassination attempts on the queen and whipping up the unease in the inns, markets, and wherever people gathered and unfounded rumours could be quickly spread.

Ignoring the crowd’s calls for information about the disturbance, Walsingham guided Will to the edge of the green where a dazed, badly bruised, and bloody Mayhew squatted.

“England’s greatest spy,” Mayhew said, forming each word carefully, as he nodded to them.

“Master Mayhew. You have taken a few knocks.”

“But I live. And for that I am thankful.” Hesitating, he glanced at the White Tower looming against the night sky. “Which is more than can be said for that fool Osborne.”

“You were guarding the weapon,” Will surmised correctly.

“A weapon,” Mayhew exclaimed bitterly. “We thought it was only a man. A prisoner held in his cell for twenty years.”

Walsingham cast a cautionary glare and they both fell silent. “There will be time for discussion in a more private forum. For now, all you need know is that a hostile group has freed a prisoner and escaped into the streets of London. The City gates remain firmly closed . . .” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “Although we do not yet know if they have some other way to flee the City. The prisoner has information vital to the security of the nation. He must be found and returned to his cell.”

“And if he is not found?” Will enquired.

“He must be found.”

The intensity in Walsingham’s voice shocked Will. Why was one man so important—they had lost prisoners before, though none from the Tower—and how could he also be considered a weapon?

“Your particular skills may well be needed if the prisoner is located,” Walsingham said to Will before turning to Mayhew. “You must accompany me back to the Palace of Whitehall. I would know the detail of what occurred.”

Mayhew looked unsettled at the prospect of Walsingham’s questioning, but before they could leave, the principal secretary was summoned urgently by Leicester, who had been in intense conversation with a gesticulating commander.

“They call your name.” Mayhew nodded to the crowd. “Your reputation has spread from those ridiculous pamphlets they sell outside Saint Paul’s.”

“It serves a purpose,” Will replied.

“Would they be so full of admiration if those same pamphlets had called you assassin, murderer, corruptor, torturer, liar, and deceiver?” Mayhew’s mockery was edged with bitterness.

“Words mean nothing and everything, Matthew. It is actions that count. And results.”

“Ah, yes,” Mayhew said. “The end results justify the means. The proverb that saves us all from damnation.”

Will was troubled by Mayhew’s dark mood, but he put it down to the shock of the spy’s encounter with the Enemy. His attention was distracted by Walsingham, who, after listening intently to Leicester, summoned Will over. “We may have something,” he said with an uncharacteristic urgency. “Accompany Leicester, and may God go with you.”

At speed, Leicester, Will, and a small search party left the lights of the green. Rats fled their lantern by the score as they made their way into the dark, reeking streets to the north, some barely wide enough for two men abreast.

“On Lord Walsingham’s orders, I attempted to seek the path the Enemy took from the Tower,” Leicester said, as they followed the lead of the soldier Will had seen animatedly talking to Leicester. “They did not pass through the Traitors’ Gate and back along the river, the route by which they gained access to the fortress. None of the City gates were disturbed, according to the watch. And so I dispatched the search parties to the north and west.” He puffed out his chest, pleased with himself.

“You found their trail?”

“Perhaps. We shall see,” he replied, but sounded confident.

In the dark, Will lost all sense of direction, but soon they came to a broader street guarded by four other soldiers, from what Will guessed was the original search party. They continually scanned the shadowed areas of the street with deep unease. Will understood why when he saw the three dead men on the frozen ruts, their bodies torn and broken.

Kneeling to examine the corpses, Will saw that some wounds looked to have been caused by an animal, perhaps a wolf or a bear, others as if the victims had been thrown to the ground from a great height. They carried cudgels and knives, common street thugs who had surprised the wrong marks.

“Were these men killed by the Enemy?” Leicester asked, his own eyes flickering towards the dark.

Ignoring the question, Will said, “Three deaths in this manner would not have happened silently. Someone must have heard the commotion, perhaps even saw in which direction the Enemy departed. Search the buildings.”

As Leicester’s men moved along the street hammering on doors, bleary-eyed men and women emerged, cursing at being disturbed until they were roughly dragged out and questioned by the soldiers.

Will returned to the bodies, concerned by the degree of brutality. In it, he saw a level of desperation and urgency that echoed the anxiety Walsingham had expressed; here was something of worrying import that would have consequences for all of them.

His thoughts were interrupted by a cry from one of Leicester’s men who was struggling with an unshaven man in filthy clothes snarling and spitting like an animal. Three soldiers rushed over to help knock him to the frosty street.

“He knows something,” the man’s captor said, when Will came over.

“I saw nothing,” the prisoner snarled, but Will could see the lie in his furtive eyes.

“It would be in your best interests to talk,” Leicester said, but his exhortation was delivered in such a courtly manner that it was ineffectual. The man spat and tried to wrestle himself free until he was cuffed to the ground again.

Leicester turned to Will and said quietly, “We could transport him back to the Tower. I gather Walsingham has men there who could loosen his tongue.”

“If we delay, the Enemy will be far from here and their prize with them,” Will said. “The stakes are high, I am told. We cannot risk that.” He hesitated a moment as he examined the man’s face and then said, “Let me speak with him. Alone.”

“Are you sure?” Leicester hissed. “He may be dangerous.”

“He is dangerous.” Will eyed the pink scars from knife fights that lined the man’s jaw. “I am worse.”

Leicester’s men manhandled the prisoner back into his house, and Will closed the door behind him after they left. It was a stinking hovel with little furniture, and most that was there looked as if it had been stolen from wealthier premises. The prisoner hunched on the floor by the hearth, pretending to catch his breath, and then threw himself at Will ferociously. Sidestepping his attack, Will crashed a fist into his face. Blood spurted from his nose as he was thrown back against a chair, but it did not deter him. He pulled a knife from a chest beside the fireplace, only to drop it when Will hit him again. As he scrambled for the blade, Will stamped his boot on the man’s fingers, shattering the bones. The man howled in pain.

Dragging the man to his feet, Will threw him against the wall, pressing his own knife against his prisoner’s throat. “England stands on the brink of war. The queen’s life is threatened daily. A crisis looms for our country,” Will said. “This is not the time for your games.”

“This is not a game!” the man protested. “I dare not speak! I fear for my life!”

Will pressed the tip of his knife a shade deeper for emphasis. “Fear me more,” he said calmly. “I will whittle you down a piece at a time—fingers, nose, ears—until you choose to speak. And you will choose. Better to speak now and save yourself unnecessary suffering.”

Once the rogue had seen the truth in Will’s eyes, he nodded reluctantly.

“You saw what happened out there?” Will asked.

“I was woken by the sounds of a brawl. From my window, I saw a small group of cloaked travellers set upon by a gang of fifteen or more.”


The man nodded.

“Fifteen? At this time? They cannot find much regular trade in this area to justify such a number.”

“It seemed they knew the travellers would be passing this way. They lay in wait. Some of them emerged only after the battle had commenced.”

This information gave Will pause, but his prisoner was too scared to be telling anything but the truth. “Who were these cutthroats?”

The man shook his head. “I did not recognise them. But if they find I spoke of them they will be back for me!”

“I would think they now have more important things on their minds.

What happened?”

“They surprised the travellers.” He hesitated, not sure how much he should say. “The travellers . . .” He swallowed, looked like he was about to be sick. “They turned on the cutthroats. I had to look away. I saw no more.”

“The faces of the travellers?”

He shook his head. “They moved too fast. I . . . I saw no weapons. Only the slaughter of three victims. It was madness! The other cutthroats fled—”

“And the travellers continued on their way?”

“One of them was different . . . his head glowed like the moon.”

“What do you mean?”

The man began to stutter and Will had to wait until he calmed. “I do not know . . . it was a glimpse, no more. But his head glowed. And in the confusion, two of the cutthroats grabbed him and made good their escape into the alleys. He went with them freely, as though he had been a prisoner of the travellers.”

“And the travellers gave pursuit?”

“Once they saw he was missing . . . a minute, perhaps two later. By then, their chances of finding him would have been poor.”

The frightened man had no further answers to give. Out in the street, Will summoned Leicester away from his men’s ears.

“The prize the Enemy stole from the Tower was in turn taken from them by a band of cutthroats,” Will told him. “Put all your men onto the streets of London. This threat may now have gone from bad to worse.”

Chapter 3

Will clung on to the leather straps as the sleek black carriage raced towards the Palace of Whitehall, a solitary ship of light sailing on the sea of darkness washing against London’s ancient walls. Lanterns hung from the great gates and along the walls. From diamond-pane windows, candles glimmered across the great halls and towers, the chapels, wings, courtyards, stores, meeting rooms, and debating chambers, and in the living quarters of the court and its army of servants. At more than half a mile square, it was one of the largest palaces in the world, shaped and reshaped over three hundred years. Hard against the Thames, it had its own wharf where barges were moored to take the queen along the great river and where vast warehouses received the produce that kept the palace fed. Surrounding the complex of buildings were a tiltyard, bowling green, tennis courts, and formal gardens, everything needed for entertainment.

The palace looked out across London with two faces: at once filled with the sprawling, colourful, noisy pageantry of royalty, of a court permanently at play, of music and masques and arts and feasting, of romances and joys and intrigues, a tease to the senses and a home to lives lost to a whirl that always threatened to spin off its axis; and a place of grave decisions on the affairs of state, where the queen guided a nation that permanently threatened to come apart at the seams from pressures both within and without. Whispers and fanfares, long, dark shadows and never-extinguished lights, conspiracies and open rivalries. The palace was a puzzle that had no solution.

The carriage came to a halt under a low arch in a cobbled courtyard so small that the buildings on every side kept it swathed in gloom even during the height of noon. Few from the court even knew it existed, or guessed what took place behind the iron-studded oak door beside which two torches permanently hissed. The jamb too was lined with iron, as was the step.

The door swung open at Will’s knock and admitted him to a long, windowless corridor lit by intermittent pools of lamplight. The silent guard closed the door and slid six bolts home. Will’s echoing footsteps followed him up one flight of a spiral staircase into the Black Gallery, a large panelled hall. Heavy drapes covered the windows, but it was lit by several lamps and a few flames danced along a charred log in the glowing ashes of the large stone fireplace.

A long oak table filled the centre of the hall, covered with maps, and at the far end sat Mayhew, one louche leg over the arm of his chair. His head was tightly bound in a bloodstained cloth and his left arm was in a sling. He was taking deep drafts of wine from a goblet, and appeared drunk.

Will always found Mayhew difficult. He was hard, in the manner of all spies forced to operate in a world of deceit, and had little patience for his fellows, more concerned with the latest courtly fashions. He liked his wine, too, when he was not working, but he was a sullen, sharp-tongued drunk.

Walsingham emerged at the sound ofWill’s voice, his features drawn. He listened intently as Will told him about the attack on the Enemy and their loss of the mysterious prisoner from the Tower, but he passed no comment.

“The queen has been informed?” Will asked once he had finished his account.

“I advised her myself,” Walsingham replied. “She is fully aware of the magnitude of what lies ahead.”

“Which is more than I am.”Will expected a terse response, but the principal secretary was distracted by the sound of slamming doors and rapidly marching feet.

Through a door at the far end of the hall, two guards escorted a man wearing a purple cloak and hood that shrouded his features. The guards retreated as the new arrival strode across the room to the fire.

“I can never get warm these days,” he said, holding out aged hands to the flames. “It is one of the prices I pay.”

The man threw off his hood to reveal a bald pate and silvery hair at the back falling over his collar. As he turned to face the room, fierce grey eyes shone with a coruscating intellect and a sexual potency that belied his sixty-odd years.

“Dee!” Mayhew visibly started in his chair, slopping wine in his lap.

Dr. John Dee cast a disinterested eye over Mayhew. “You have not aged well,” he said, before slipping off his cloak and throwing it over a chair.

To the outside world, Dee was a respected scholar and founding fellow of Trinity College in Cambridge who had been an advisor and tutor to the queen, whose General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Arte of Navigation had established a vision of an English maritime empire and defined the nation’s claims upon the New World. Few knew that Dee had been instrumental in helping Walsingham establish the extensive spy network, providing intelligence and guidance as well as designing many of the tools the spies used to ply their dangerous trade.

But Will had heard other rumours: that Dee had turned his back upon his studies of the natural world for black magic and scrying and attempts to commune with angels. Will had presumed this had contributed to Dee’s fall from favour—for five years he had been absent from the court in Central Europe. The last any of them had heard of him was in Bohemia a year ago.

“No word must be uttered of Dr. Dee’s appearance here. He has been engaged on official business in Europe under my orders and will return there shortly,” Walsingham stressed, in full understanding of what was passing through Will and Mayhew’s minds.

“It appears there are secrets kept even from the gatekeepers to the world of secrets,” Will noted.

“That is the way of things, Master Swyfte.” Walsingham poked the fire absently, sending showers of sparks up the chimney.

“It was fortuitous that I arrived at this time to deliver the information I had secured.” Filled with pent-up energy that revealed no hint of fragility, Dee prowled the room. “Events set in motion one year past are now coming to fruition. The Enemy are about to play their hand, and we must divine their secrets quickly before it is too late. Time is short. The queen’s life and all of England are at stake.”

Will carefully studied the way Walsingham held himself as he moved around the room. To the unfamiliar eye, there was an unruffled indifference to his seemingly detached state, but Will had observed the spymaster carefully since the day he had been brought from his chambers at Cambridge University to be inducted into the ranks of the secret service network. Although he had been overcome by grief and haunted by images of his loss, Will had seen from the first that Walsingham was a man whose deep thoughts were revealed in only the subtlest signs: the relaxation of the taut muscles around his mouth, the tension of a finger, a stiffness in his back.Walsingham was a man forged in the crucible of the secret war they fought, and a symbol of the toll that battle took. Though he hid it well, his mood at that moment was grim.

“Where is the weapon now?” Dee asked.

Once Will had spoken his piece, Mayhew added, “The operation was well planned and efficiently executed.” He cast a furtive eye towards Walsingham. “When I was given my post, I was told the Tower was under special protection, even beyond the protection that keeps England safe.”

“It is,” Dee replied. “And how those defences were breached remains a mystery.”

“That need not concern us now,” Walsingham interrupted. “Master Swyfte, you are charged with finding the weapon before it can be used and bringing it back to our control, or destroying it, whichever course is necessary. But first you must be apprised of the facts of the matter.”

Sifting through the charts on the table, he came to one of the New World and traced his finger along the coastline until he came to the name San Juan de Ulúa in the Spanish territories, the main port for the shipment of silver back to Spain.

“A poor harbour by English standards,” Walsingham said. “Little more than a shingle bank to protect it from the storms. Twenty years ago, on December 3, 1568, John Hawkins put in for repairs to his storm-damaged trading fleet, including two of the queen’s galleons.”

“Into a Spanish port?” Mayhew said, surprised.

“Hawkins paid his taxes and more besides. In the past the Spanish had always left him alone once their coffers were full. But on this occasion their own spies had told them there was more to Hawkins’s visit than the repair of rigging and the patching of hulls.” Walsingham looked to Dee.

“Since I first arrived at court,” Dee began, “I have been advising the queen on the threat that has faced England since the Flood. Every moment of my life has been directed towards finding adequate defences to protect the Crown, the people, the nation.”

“And you have succeeded. England has never been safer,” Will noted.

“We can never rest, for the Enemy are wise as snakes, and all of their formidable resources are continually directed towards recapturing the upper hand they once enjoyed. And so we too search for new defences, new weapons.” In Dee’s eyes, the gleam of the candles suggested an inner fire raging out of control.

“My enquiries into the secrets of this world pointed me towards a weapon of immeasurable power that the Spanish were attempting to unlock in the hills not far from San Juan de Ulúa,” Dee continued. “So fearful were they of the weapon that the king had insisted it be tested far away from the homeland. A weapon that had brought devastation to the great rulers in the far Orient. A weapon that had surfaced during the Crusades and had been fought over by the Knights Templar and the enemies of Christendom.” Dee looked from one to the other, now incandescent with passion. “With a weapon like that, England would be a fortress. The Enemy would retreat to their lakes and their underhills and their lonely moors and we would be safe. Finally.”

“What is the nature of the weapon?” Will asked.

“Therein lies the greatest mystery of all.” Kneading his hands, Dee paced the room. A tremor ran through him. “It is a mask, a silver skull etched with the secret incantations of the long-forgotten race that first created it. A mask that must be bonded with a mortal to unleash its great power. But all we have are stories, fragments, hints. The nature of that power is not known. All that is known for sure is that nothing can stand before it and survive.”

“So Hawkins was charged with seizing the weapon from the Spanish,” Will surmised.

“That, at least, was England’s fervent hope,”Walsingham replied. “While his fleet was being repaired, Hawkins, Francis Drake, and a small group of men slipped secretly into the interior. Five men gave their lives to secure the skull from the Spanish, but before Hawkins could reach his ships, the viceroy, Don Martin Enriquez, took his fleet into the harbour and launched an attack while the English guard was down. Hawkins, Drake, and a small crew escaped in two ships, but the remainder of the English party were tortured and killed by the viceroy as he attempted to discover what we knew about the skull.” A shadow passed over Walsingham’s face that was like a bellow of rage against his usual detachment. “One of the few survivors, Job Hortop, told how the Spanish dogs hanged Hawkins’s men from high posts until the blood burst from the ends of their fingers, and flogged them until the bones showed through their flesh. But not a man spoke of the skull. Heroes all.”

Nodding in agreement, Mayhew bowed his head for a moment.

“Hawkins and Drake returned in two storm-torn ships with just fifteen men,” Walsingham said. “Eighty-five stout fellows had starved to death on the journey home. But the skull was ours.”

Several elements of the story puzzled Will. “Then why did we not use this great weapon to drive back the Enemy, and our other, temporal enemies. Spain would not be so bold if it knew we held such a thing,” he asked.

“Because the skull alone is not enough,” Dee replied sharply to the note of disbelief in Will’s voice. “The stories talk of three parts—a Mask, a Key, and a Shield. All are necessary to use the weapon effectively, though its power can be released without direction and with great consequences for the user by the Mask and Key alone.”

Mayhew refilled his goblet, his hands shaking. “And the Key and the Shield?”

“The last twenty years were spent in search of them, to no avail,” Walsingham replied. “They were for a time in the hands of the Knights Templar, this we know for sure.”

“And those warrior monks fought the Enemy long before us,” Dee stressed. “The Templars must have known of the importance of these items and hid them well.”

“Then who was the prisoner in the Tower?” Will enquired.

“Some Spaniard who had been cajoled into trying to make the Mask work.What he cannot have realised is that, once bonded, the Mask cannot be removed until death,” Dee said. “You are a slave to it, as it is to you.”

Will finally understood. “And so he was locked away in the Tower for twenty years while you attempted to find the other two parts.”

“We could not risk the weapon falling into the hands of the Enemy in case they located the Key,”Walsingham said, “and brought devastation down upon us all.”

“But after twenty years, the Enemy chose this night to free the prisoner from the Tower,” Will pressed. “Why now, unless the Key is already in their hands?”

Walsingham and Dee exchanged a brief glance.

“What do you know?” Will demanded.

“The Enemy’s plans burn slowly,” Dee replied. “They do not see time like you or I, defined by the span of a man’s life. Their minds move like the oceans, steady and powerful, over years and decades, and longer still. Yet we knew some great scheme was in motion, just not its true nature.”

“When the defences of the nation were first put in place, all was quiet for many years.” Walsingham stood erect, his hands clasped behind his back. “The hope grew that finally we would be safe. But then there came the strange and terrible events surrounding the execution of the traitor Mary, Queen of Scots, one year ago and we glimpsed the true face of the terror that was to come.”

Chapter 4

18th February 1587

All through the bitter winter’s night, Robert, earl of Launceston, had ridden, and finally in the thin, grey morning light his destination fell into view on the rain-soaked Midlands terrain. His fingers were frozen on the reins, his breeches sodden and mud-splattered, and his bones ached from the cold and exhaustion.

Launceston was hardly used to such privation, but he could not refuse his orders to be the eyes and ears of Lord Walsingham for the momentous event about to take place. Though thirty-eight, he looked much older. His skin had an unnatural, deathly pallor that many found repulsive and had made him something of an outcast at court, his nose long and pointed, his eyes a steely grey.

When Walsingham called on him, it was usually to have a throat slit in the middle of the night, a Spanish agent agitating for Elizabeth’s overthrow or assassination, sometimes a minor aristocrat with unfortunate Catholic sympathies. He had forgotten how many he had killed.

At least this time he would only be watching a death instead of instigating it. Just beyond Oundle, Fotheringhay Castle rose up out of the flat, bleak Northamptonshire landscape on the north side of the meandering River Nene. On top of the motte was the grand stone keep, surrounded by a moat, with ramparts and a ditch protecting the inner bailey where the great hall lay alongside some domestic buildings. The gatehouse stood on the other side of a lake crossed by a bridge. Lonely. Well defended. Perfect for what lay ahead.

As he drew towards the castle, Launceston feared he had missed the event. Mary’s execution had been scheduled for the cold dark of seven a.m. and the hour was already approaching ten, but he could hear music from the courtyard and the distant hubbub of an excited crowd.

Encouraging his horse to find its last reserves, he pressed on through the deserted Fotheringhay village, across the bridge, and the drawbridge, and into the courtyard.

“A ghost!”

“An omen!”

When they saw his ghastly features peering from the depths of his hood, a shiver ran through the crowd of more than a hundred who had come to see history made. He hated them all, common, witless sheep, but to be fair, he disliked his own kind at the court just as much.

As they slowly realised he was only a man, they returned their attention to the grey bulk of the great hall. Some waved placards with Mary drawn as a mermaid, a crude insult suggesting she was a prostitute. She had no friends there on the outside, but the long wait had reduced the baying to a harsh murmur. The air of celebration was emphasised by a band of musicians, playing an air that usually accompanied the execution of witches. It could have been considered another insult, except Launceston knew that Walsingham had personally requested the playing of the dirge.

Dismounting, he strode towards the hall where his way was barred by the captain of the sheriff’s guard in breastplate and helmet, halberd raised. “Launceston,” he said, “here at the behest of your Lord Walsingham, and our queen, God save her. I am not too late?”

“The traitor has been at her prayers for three hours,” the captain replied. “She has read her will aloud to her servants, and prepared for them her final instructions. My men have been instructed to break down the door to her quarters if she delays much longer.”

Launceston pushed his way into the great hall where two hundred of the most respected men in the land waited as witnesses. They had been carefully selected for their trustworthiness, their numbers limited so that whatever happened in that hall, only the official version would reach the wider population.

Though logs blazed in the stone hearth, it provided little cheer. Black was the abiding colour in the room, on the drapes surrounding the three-foot-high platform that would provide a clear view of the proceedings to the audience, on the high-backed chair at the rear of the dais, on the kneeling cushion and the executioner’s block. It was there too in the clothes and masks of the executioner and his assistant. Bulle, the London hangman, was ox-like, tall and erect, his hands calmly resting on the haft of his double-headed axe.

Launceston could feel the stew of conflicting emotions, the sense of relief that the traitorous whore’s lethal machinations would finally be ended, the anxiety that they were embarking on a dangerous course into uncharted waters. Spain, France, and Rome watched and waited. The killing of one of royal blood was not to be taken lightly, especially one so many Catholics believed to be the rightful ruler of England. Her execution was the right course of action; Mary would always be a threat to England as long as she lived.

A murmur ran through the assembled group, and a moment later the sheriff, carrying his white wand of office, led Mary into the hall accompanied by the earls of Shrewsbury and Kent. Six of her retinue trailed behind.

Launceston had never seen her before, but in that instant he understood why she loomed so large over the affairs of several states. She exuded a rapacious sexuality that was most evident in the flash of her unflinching eyes. A glimpse of her red hair beneath her kerchief was made even more potent by the shimmering black velvet of her dress. She would not be hurried, her pace steady as she clutched on to an ivory crucifix. A gold cross hung at her neck, and a rosary at her waist.

Launceston was surprised to find himself captivated like every other man in the room. The blood of two men lay upon her, yet that only served to increase her magnetism; she appeared to be a woman who could do anything, who could control any man. She climbed onto the platform and sat in the chair, levelling her gaze slowly and dispassionately across all present.

Walsingham’s brother-in-law, Robert Beale, the clerk to the Privy Council, caught Launceston’s eye and nodded before reading the warrant detailing Mary’s crime of high treason for her constant conspiracies against Elizabeth, and calling for the death sentence. The earl of Shrewsbury asked her if she understood.

Mary gave a slight smile that Launceston found unaccountably chilling. “I thank my God that He has permitted that in this hour I die for my religion,” she intoned slyly.

No one in the room was prepared to listen to a Catholic diatribe, and the dean of Peterborough stood up to silence her. Mary suddenly began to sob and wail and shout in Latin, raising her crucifix over her head.

Launceston had the strangest impression that he was seeing two women occupying the same space; this Mary was devout, believing herself to be a martyr to her religion, not sexually manipulative, not threatening, or cunning. The change troubled him for it did not seem natural, and he was reminded of the coded warning Walsingham had given him before his departure: “Do not trust your eyes or your heart.”

After she had pleaded passionately for England to return to the true faith, she changed again, her eyes glinting in the firelight, her lips growing cruel and hard.

As Bulle the executioner knelt before her and made the traditional request that she forgive him her death, she replied loudly, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.” It was a stately comment, but Mary twisted it when she added in a whisper that only a few could hear, “But not your own.” As she looked around the room, she made it plain that she was speaking about England.

Bulle went to remove Mary’s gown, but she stopped him with a flirtatious smile and summoned her ladies-in-waiting to help. “I have never put off my clothes before such a company,” she said archly.

A gasp ran through the room as her black gown fell away. A bodice and petticoat of crimson satin flared among the dark shapes. It was a bold, almost brash statement, and in it Launceston once again saw two opposing faces: crimson was the colour of the martyr, but it was also the colour of sex, and Launceston could see the effect it had upon some of the elderly men around. Though forty-four, Mary was still a beautiful, alluring woman. She flaunted the swell of her bosoms and displayed her cleavage, as though she was available for more than death.

“Death is not the end,” she said. “For me. And there are worse things than death by far, as you will all come to know.”

With a flourish of her petticoat, she knelt, pausing briefly at the level of Bulle’s groin before placing her head upon the block. Launceston had the briefest sensation that she was looking directly at him. With another disturbing smile, she stretched out her arms in a crucified position and said, “In manus tuas, Domine.”

Bulle’s mask hid whatever he thought of this display, if anything. He swung the heavy woodcutter’s axe above his head and brought it down. It thudded into the block so hard Launceston was sure he could feel the vibrations. Mary made no sound, did not move, continued to stare at the assemblage, still smiling. Bracing himself, Bulle wrenched the axe free and brought it down again. The head lolled forwards, hanging by one piece of gristle that Bulle quickly cut.

Stooping to pluck the head by the hair as he had been ordered, Bulle called out, “God save the queen.” All apart from Launceston responded, “Amen.”

But Mary had played one last trick on her executioner. Her auburn hair was a wig that now flapped impotently in Bulle’s hand, the grey-stubbled head still rolling around the platform.

His breath tight in his chest, Launceston kept his gaze upon it, aware a second before the others that the eyes still swivelled in their sockets.

The head came to rest at an angle and Mary surveyed her persecutors. “Two queens now you have plucked in your arrogance,” she said, a slight smile still lying on her lips, “and the third that will fall shall be your own.”

The knights and gentlemen cried out in terror, making the sign of the cross as they pressed away from the platform. Even the sheriff’s guards lowered their halberds and shied away.

“Against you in the shadows, the powers align,” Mary continued. “Death, disease, destruction on a scale undreamed of—all these lie in your days ahead, now that long-buried secrets have come to light. Soon now, the thunderous tread of our marching feet. Soon now, the scythe cutting you down like wheat. The shadows lengthen. Night draws in, on you and all your kind.”

Two hundred men were rooted as their worst fears were confirmed and a mood of absolute dread descended on the great hall. As Mary’s eyes continued to swivel, and her teeth clacked, Bulle fell to his knees, his axe clattering noisily on the platform. Launceston thrust his way through the crowd to Beale and shook him roughly from his daze.

“Yes, of course,” Beale stuttered, before hailing two men who waited at the back of the crowd. Launceston recognised them as two of Dr. Dee’s assistants. Rushing to the platform, they pulled from a leather bag a pair of cold-iron tongs which one of them used to grip the head tightly. Mary snarled and spat like a wildcat until the other assistant used a poker to ram bundles of pungent herbs into her mouth.When the cavity was filled, the snarling diminished, and the eyes rolled slower and finally stopped as the light within them died.

A furore erupted as the terrified crowd shouted for protection from God, or demanded answers, on the brink of fleeing the room in blind panic.

Leaping to the platform, Launceston asked the captain of the guard to lock the doors so none of the assembled knights and gentlemen could escape. Grabbing Bulle’s dripping axe, he hammered the haft down hard on the dais, once, twice, three times, until silence fell and all eyes turned towards him.

“What you have seen today will never be repeated, on peril of your life.” His dispassionate voice filled every corner of the great hall. “To speak of this abomination will be considered an act of high treason, for diminishing the defences of the realm and putting the queen’s life at risk from a frightened populace. One word and Bulle here will be your final friend. Do you heed my words?”

Silence held for a moment, and then a few angry mutterings arose.

“Lest you misunderstand, I speak with the full authority of the queen, and her principal secretary Lord Walsingham,” Launceston continued. “Nothing must leave this room that gives succour to our enemies, or which turns determined Englishmen to trembling cowards. I ask again: do you heed my words?”

In his face they saw the truth of what he said, and gradually acceded. When he was satisfied, Launceston handed the axe back to Bulle and said, “Complete your business.”

Still trembling, the earl of Kent stood over Mary’s headless corpse and stuttered in a voice so frail few could hear, “May it please God that all the queen’s enemies be brought into this condition. This be the end of all who hate the Gospel and Her Majesty’s government.”

With tentative fingers, Bulle plopped the head onto a platter and held it up to the window three times so the baying crowd without could be sure the traitorous pretender to the throne was truly dead.

Immediately, the doors were briefly unlocked so Henry Talbot, the earl of Shrewsbury’s son, could take the official news of Mary’s death to the court in London. As he galloped through the towns and villages, shouting the news, a network of beacons blazed into life across the country and church bells were rung with gusto.

At Fotheringhay, Launceston spoke to each of the knights and gentlemen in turn, studying their eyes and letting them see his. Then he oversaw the removal of Mary’s body and head to the chapel, where prayers were said over them as Dee’s assistants stuffed the remains with more purifying herbs and painted defensive sigils on the cold flesh. Everything she had worn, and everything her blood had touched, was burned.

Few beyond that great hall knew the truth: that terrible events had been set in motion, like the ocean, like the falling night, and soon disaster would strike, and blood and terror would rain down on every head.

Chapter 5

After Walsingham had finished speaking, silence fell across the Black Gallery, interrupted only by the crackle and spit of the fire in the hearth.

“The Enemy has been planning the assault on the Tower for more than a year,” Mayhew said eventually.

Will now understood the depths of the worry he had seen etched into Walsingham’s face earlier that night. “Long-buried secrets have come to light,” he repeated. “Then we must assume they have the Key, or the Shield, or both, and are now able to use the weapon.”

“We have spent the last twelve months attempting to prepare for the inevitable,” Walsingham said, “listening in the long dark for the first approaching footstep, watching for the shadow on the horizon, every hour, every minute, vigilant.”

“And now all our souls are at risk,” Mayhew said. Upending the bottle he’d been steadily draining, he was disgusted to find it empty. “So that traitorous witch Mary was in the grip of the Enemy. Is no one safe from their sly control?” he added. “How much of the misery she caused was down to her, and how much to whatever rode her?”

“We will never know,”Walsingham replied. “The past matters little. We must now concern ourselves with the desperate situation that unfolds.”

“It is the nature of these things that the waiting seems to go on forever and then, suddenly, there is no time at all when the wave engulfs us,” Dee added. “Yet fortune has given us a gift. The Enemy has lost the weapon almost as soon as it fell into their hands.”

“For now. But they will be scouring London, even as we do. If time has been bought for us, it will not be long.” With one hand on the mantelpiece as he peered into the embers,Will turned overWalsingham’s account of Mary’s execution. “You said the thing inMary’s head spoke of two queens plucked in arrogance.”

“Elizabeth’s father provided ample candidates,” Mayhew said. “That is of little import. Of more concern are the actions of the Catholic sympathisers and our enemies across the water. Will Spain seize upon our distraction with this crisis to launch an attack upon England?”

“Philip of Spain is determined to destroy us at all costs and will use any opportunity that arises,” Walsingham replied. “He makes a great play of English heresy for turning away from his Catholic faith, but his hatred is as much about gold. He is heartily sick of our attacks on his ships, and our constant orays into the New World, the source of all his riches.”

“But war can still be averted?” Mayhew said hopefully.

Walsingham gave a derisive snort. “The spineless fools at court who nag Elizabeth believe so. They encourage her in peace negotiations that drag on and on. In the face of all reason, our lord treasurer, Burghley, is convinced that peace will continue. He will still be advocating gentle negotiation when the
Spanish are hammering on his door. Leicester opposes him as much as possible, but if Burghley wins the queen’s ear, all is lost.”

“War was inevitable when Elizabeth signed the treaty to defend the Dutch against any further Spanish demands upon their territories. Philip saw it as a declaration of war on Spain,” Will noted.

“Now the duke of Parma sits across the channel with seventeen thousand men, waiting for the moment to invade England. And in Spain, Philip amasses a great fleet, and plots and plans,” Walsingham continued. “The invasion will come. It is only a matter of when. And the Enemy has chosen this moment to assail us from within. Destabilised, distracted, we are ripe for an attack.”

“Spain and the Catholic sympathisers are in league with the Enemy,” Mayhew spat. “We will be torn apart by these threats coming from all directions.”

“No, this business is both greater andmore cunning than that.”Will turned back to the cluttered table. “In this room, we know there is a worse threat than Catholics and Spain. Our differences with them may seem great, but they are meagre compared to the gulf between us and the true Enemy, whose manipulations set brother against brother when we should be shoulder to shoulder. Religious arguments mean nothing in the face of the threat that stands before us.”

Will could see Dee agreed, but Mayhew cared little, and Walsingham was steadfast in the hatred of Catholics that had been embedded in him since his early days at the defiantly Protestant King’s College at Cambridge.

“There are threats and there are threats. Some greater and some lesser, but threats nonetheless, and we shall use whatever is at our disposal to defeat them.” Walsingham’s voice was stripped of all emotion and all the more chilling for it. “Barely a day passes without some Catholic plot on Elizabeth’s life coming to light. We resist them resolutely. We listen. We watch. We extract information from those who know. And when we are ready we act, quickly, and brutally, where necessary.”

An entire world lay behind Walsingham’s words, and Will fully understood its gravity. Elizabeth had chosen her spymaster well. Walsingham was not hampered by morals in pursuit of his aims; he believed he could not afford to be so restricted. The tools of his trade were not only ciphers, secret writing, double and triple agents, and dead-letter boxes, but also bribery, forgery, blackmail, extortion, and torture. Sometimes, in unguarded moments, the cost was visible in his eyes.

“This war with our long-standing Enemy has blown cold for many years, but if it has now turned hot, we shall do what we always do: trap and eradicate them at every level,” Walsingham continued.

Will watched the evidence of Walsingham’s cold, monstrous drive and wondered what had made him that way. The war shaped them all, and never for the better.

“We must move quickly, and find this Silver Skull before the Enemy does,” Walsingham stressed. He turned to Will and said, “All of England’s resources are at your disposal. Do what you will, but keep me informed at every step. Take Mayhew here, and Launceston.” He considered his options and added, “Also Tom Miller, a stout fellow, if simple, who has just joined our ranks. He has yet to be inducted in the ways of the Enemy, so take care in bringing him to understanding.”

Will attempted to hide his frustration. Putting an agent into the field without time to educate them in the true nature of the Enemy was cruel and dangerous. More than one spy had been driven out of their wits and into Bedlam after the heat of an encounter.

“And John Carpenter,” Walsingham concluded.

Will flinched.

“I know there has been business between the two of you, but you must put it behind you for the sake of England, and our queen.”

“I would prefer Kit.”

“Marlowe is your good friend and true, but he wrestles with his own demons and they will be the end of him. We need a steady course in this matter.”

Will could see Walsingham’s mind would not be changed. He turned to Dee and asked, “Have you developed any new tricks that might aid me?”

“Tricks, you say!” Dee’s eyes flared, but he maintained his temper. “I have a parcel of powder which explodes in a flash of light and heat and smoke when exposed to the air. A new cipher that even the Enemy could not break. And a few other things that will make your life more interesting. I will present them to you once I have apprised Lord Walsingham of my findings in Bohemia.”

Briefly, Will wondered what matter Dee could be involved in that was as pressing as the search for the Silver Skull. But the thought passed quickly; the burden he had been given was large enough and it would take all his abilities to shoulder it.

“There are many questions here,” Will said. “Who took the prisoner from the Enemy and why? Were they truly rogues, or were they Spanish spies, and the Silver Skull is now in the hands of a different enemy?”

“And can we possibly find one man in a teeming city before the Enemy reaches him first?” Mayhew added sourly.

“Let us hear no more talk like that, Master Mayhew,” Will said. “Time is short and we all have a part to play.” As Mayhew grunted and lurched to his feet, Will turned to Walsingham. “Fearful that their hard-won prize might slip through their fingers, the Enemy will be at their most dangerous at this time.”

The log in the hearth cracked and flared into life, casting a ruddy glow across Walsingham’s face. “The next few hours will decide if we march towards hell or remain triumphant,” he replied. “Let nothing stand in your way, Master Swyfte. God speed.”

Cover Illustration © Chris McGrath
Design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke

A two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, Mark Chadbourn is the critically-acclaimed author of eleven novels and one non-fiction book. A former journalist, he is now a screenwriter for BBC television drama. His other jobs have included running an independent record company, managing rock bands, working on a production line, and as an engineer’s ‘mate’. He lives in a forest in the English Midlands. Visit him online at

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sasha: A Trial of Blood & Steel by Joel Shepherd


Spurning her royal heritage to be raised by the great warrior, Kessligh, her exquisite swordplay astonishes all who witness it. But Sasha is still young, untested in battle and often led by her rash temper. In the complex world of Lenayin loyalties, her defiant wilfulness is attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Lenayin is a land almost divided by its two faiths: the Verenthane of the ruling classes and the pagan Goeren-yai, amongst whom Sasha now lives. The Goeren-yai worship swordplay and honour and begin to see Sasha as the great spirit—the Synnich—who will unite them. But Sasha is still searching for what she believes and must choose her side carefully.

When the Udalyn people—the symbol of Goeren-yai pride and courage—are attacked, Sasha will face her moment of testing. How will she act? Is she ready to lead? Can she be the saviour they need her to be?

Scroll down and read the excerpt below to find out.

“The whole book had me hardly able to put it down, and my perpetual human need for sleep continually stood in the way of decent reading time. The vague allusions towards what will come in the sequel … has me eager to read more. This is definitely a book you will want to pick up … downright and thoroughly enjoyable.”

--Fantasy Book Review

“…I thought Sasha was excellent, especially given that this is Joel Shepherd's first fantasy novel. It offers a huge fantasy world, a fascinating heroine, heart-pounding descriptions of both small-scale sword fights and full-on warfare, several characters that genuinely grow and change, and — maybe most importantly — the hint that this is just the start of what could become a great series…Sasha is an excellent epic fantasy novel that promises great things for the rest of the series. Recommended.”


“The second half of the book crackles with intriguing characters, witty banter and vivid, realistic battles, leaving readers optimistic about the planned sequels.”
--Publishers Weekly

“Those who savor the intricacies of rival religions, vividly choreographed fights, and lots of bloody battle will enjoy [Sasha]…. this heroic fantasy should please fans of, say, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels.”

Sasha: A Trial of Blood & Steel
Joel Shepherd

Blood & Steel Characters


Sasha ...................former Princess of Lenayin
Kessligh Cronenverdt . . . . . . . warrior, former Commander of Armies
Peg ....................Sasha’s horse
Terjellyn ................Kessligh’s horse
Teriyan . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . leather worker
Lynette . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Teriyan’s daughter
Jaegar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . headman of Baerlyn town
Andreyis ................Sasha’s friend
Lord Kumaryn Tathys . . . . . . Great Lord of Valhanan
Tarynt ..................councilman of Yule village

Jaryd Nyvar ..............heir to Great Lordship of Tyree
Lord Aystin Nyvar . . . . . . . . . Jaryd’s father, Great Lord of Tyree
Captain Tyrun . . . . . . . . . . . . Commander of Tyree’s Falcon Guard
Lieutenant Reynan Pelyn . . . . Falcon Guardsman
Lord Tymeth Pelyn . . . . . . . . Tyree noble
Sergeant Garys . . . . . . . . . . . . Falcon Guardsman
Tarryn ..................Jaryd’s younger brother
Wyndal .................Jaryd’s brother
Lord Redyk ..............Tyree noble
Lord Paramys .............Tyree noble
Lord Arastyn .............Tyree noble
Galyndry ................Jaryd’s sister
Pyter Pelyn ..............nephew of Lord Pelyn
Rhyst Angyvar . . . . . . . . . . . . Tyree noble youth

Damon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Prince of Lenayin
Torvaal Lenayin ...........King of Lenayin
Krystoff ................Prince of Lenayin, deceased
Koenyg .................Prince of Lenayin, heir to the throne
Wylfred .................Prince of Lenayin
WynaTelgar .............Koenyg’s wife
Sofy ....................Princess of Lenayin
Marya . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Princess of Lenayin, married in Torovan
Petryna .................Princess of Lenayin, married
Alythia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Princess of Lenayin
Myklas ..................Prince of Lenayin
Queen Shenai .............Queen of Lenayin, deceased
Anyse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Sofy’s maid
Archbishop Dalryn . . . . . . . . . Lenay archbishop

Lord Rashyd Telgar . . . . . . . . Great Lord of Hadryn, deceased
Lord Usyn Telgar . . . . . . . . . . Rashyd Telgar’s son, Great Lord of Hadryn
Farys Varan ..............Hadryn noble
Lord Udys Varan ..........Hadryn noble
Heryd Ansyn .............Hadryn noble
Martyn Ansyn ............Hadryn noble

Lord Krayliss .............Great Lord of Taneryn
Captain Akryd ............Taneryn soldier

Daryd Yuvenar ............Udalyn boy
Rysha ...................Daryd’s younger sister
Essey ...................Udalyn horse
Chief Askar ..............Udalyn chief

Captain Tyrblanc . . . . . . . . . . Banneryd Black Storm captain
Lord Cyan ...............Great Lord of Banneryd
Corporal Veln . . . . . . . . . . . . . Black Storm soldier

Lord Faras ...............Great Lord of Isfayen

Lord Aynsfar .............Neysh noble, deceased
Lord Parabys .............Great Lord of Neysh

Lord Rydysh .............Great Lord of Ranash

Duke Stefhan .............Larosan duke
Master Piet ..............Larosan bard

Rhillian .................serrin leader in Petrodor
Aisha ...................female serrin
Errollyn .................male serrin, archer
Terel ...................male serrin
Tassi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . female serrin

Jurellyn .................senior Lenay scout
Aiden . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nasi-Keth from Petrodor, Kessligh’s friend

Historical Figures
Hyathon the Warrior . . . . . . . Goeren-yai mythical hero
Markield ................Cherrovan warlord
Leyvaan of Rhodaan . . . . . . . . Leyvaan the Fool, King of Bacosh
Tharyn Askar .............great Udalyn chieftain
Essyn Telgar . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hadryn chief
Soros Lenayin . . . . . . . . . . . . . former king, head of Liberation army of old
Chayden Lenayin . . . . . . . . . . former king, Soros’s son
Tullamayne . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Goeren-yai storyteller


SASHA CIRCLED , a light shift and slide of soft boots on compacted earth. The point of her wooden tanch marked the circle’s centre, effortlessly extended from her two-fisted grip. Opposite, Teriyan the leather
worker matched her motion, stanch likewise unwavering, bare arms knotted with hard muscle. Sasha’s eyes beheld his form without true focus. She watched his centre, not the face, nor the feet, nor especially the wooden training blade in his strong, calloused hands.

An intricate tattoo of flowing black lines rippled upon Teriyan’s bicep as his arm flexed. Thick red hair stirred in a gust of wind, tangled where it fell long and partly braided down his back. High above, an eagle called, launched to flight from the row of pines on the northern ridge overlooking the Baerlyn valley of central Valhanan province. The westerly sun was fading above the ridge, settling among the pines, casting long, looming shadows. The valley’s entire length was alive with golden light, gleaming off the wood-shingled
roofs of the houses that lined the central road, and brightening the green pastures to either side. Nearby, several young horses frolicked, an exuberance of hooves and gleaming manes and tails. From a nearby circle, there came an eruption of yells above the repeated clash of wooden blades. Then a striking thud, and a pause for breath.

Of all of this, Sasha was aware. And when Teriyan’s lunging attack came, she deflected and countered with two fast, slashing strokes, and smacked her old friend hard across the belly.

Teriyan cursed, good-naturedly, and readjusted the protective banda that laced firmly about his torso. “What’d I do?” he asked, with the air of a man long since resigned to his fate.

Sasha shrugged, backing away with a light, balanced poise. “You attacked,” she said simply.

“Girl’s gettin’ cute,” Geldon remarked from amidst the circle of onlookers. Sasha flashed Geldon a grin, twirling her stanch through a series of rapid circles, moving little more than her wrists.

“Always been cute, baker-man,” she said playfully. Guffaws from the crowd, numbering perhaps twenty on this late afternoon session. Strong men all, with braided hair and calloused hands. Many ears bore the rings of Goeren-yai manhood, and many faces the dark ink patterns of the wakening and the spirit world. Lenay warriors all, as fierce and proud as all the lowlands tales, a sight to strike terror into the hearts of any who had cause to fear. And yet they stood, and watched with great curiosity, as a lithe, cocky, short-haired girl in
weave pants and a sheepskin jacket dismantled the formidable swordwork of one of their best, with little more to show for the effort than sweat.

Teriyan exhaled hard, and repeated his previous move, frowning with consideration. “Bugger it,” he said finally. “That’s as good an opening stroke as anyone’s got. If someone has a better suggestion, I’m all ears.”

“Improve,” Tyal remarked.

“Kessligh says the low forehand is a more effective opener than the high,” Sasha interrupted as Teriyan gave Tyal a warning stare. “For a man your size, anyhow.”

“Ah,” Teriyan made a mock dismissive gesture, “that Kessligh, what would he know about honest swordwork? You and him can stick to your sneaky svaalverd. Leave the real fighting to us, girlie.”

“Look, do you want to know how I do it, or not?” Sasha asked in exasperation. There weren’t many men in Lenayin who would dare call her “girlie.” Teriyan was one. Kessligh Cronenverdt, the greatest swordsman in Lenayin and her tutor in far more than just swordwork for the past twelve years, was another.

Teriyan just looked at her, a reluctant smile creeping across a rugged face.

A bell clanged from the centre of town, midway up the valley. Stanches lowered, and all commotion about the training yard ceased as men turned to look, and listen. Again the bell, echoing off the steep valley sides, and then again, as someone got a good rhythm on the pulley rope.

“Rack your weapons!” yelled Byorn, the training hall proprietor, above the sudden commotion as men ran, boots thundering up the steps from the outside yard to the open, broad floorboards of the inner hall. “No haste in this hall, respect the circles!”

Despite the haste, men did keep to the dirt paths between tachadar circles, careful not to disturb the carefully laid stones, nor the sanctity of the space within. Sasha moved with less haste than some, seeing little point in
elbowing through the crush of young men taking the lead. She walked instead with Teriyan and Geldon, up the dividing steps and into the high-ceilinged interior, unlacing her banda, and taking time to select her real
weapons from the wooden rack where she’d hung them earlier. With weapons, Kessligh had instructed her often, one never rushed.

Most men did not own horses and began running up the trail toward the main road. Sasha fetched Peg from his field beside the training hall, used a stone paddock wall to mount, and galloped him in their wake... but before she could go racing to the lead, she spotted a familiar bay mare coming up the road to the training hall, a slim, red-haired girl upon her back, waving one-handed for Sasha’s attention.

Sasha brought Peg to a halt, and waited. Lynette arrived with a thunder of swirling dust and flying hair, eyes wide with in a freckled, paleface. She was panting and the mare—Chersey—was sweating profusely. May be enough for as even- fold ride at speed, Sasha reckoned with a measuring eye, knowing Chersey’s abilities every bit as well as Peg’s.

“Sasha, ”Lynette gasped, “it’s Damon. Damon’s here.”

Sasha frowned. “Damon came to Baerlyn? With what?”

“I thi...think it’s the Falcon Guard.” She brushed a ragged handful of curling red hair from her face as a gust of valley wind caught it. Herlong dress was pulled well above her knees, with most unladylike decorum,
exposing a pair of coarse- weave riding pants beneath. And leather boots in the stirrups. “I’m not sure...I was taking Chersey for a ride out past Spearman’s Ridge when I saw them coming, so I turned around and came back as fast as I could... They had the banners out, Sasha, it was full armour and full colours! They looked magnificent!”

Sasha’s frown grew deeper. The Falcon Guard had been lately posted in Baen-Tar.“You didn’t speak to them? You don’t know why they’re here?”

Lynette shook her head. “No, I came straight back and told Jaegar, and he sent some one to ring the bell, and then I came looking for you...”

“Damnit. Lynie, I want you to go and get Kessligh—he went to buy some chickens.”

“He’ll hear the bell ringing, surely?” Lynette asked in confusion, as more men mounted nearby, and went galloping up the road.

“Kessligh takes his chickens very seriously,” Sasha said wryly. “Just try and hurry him along a bit.”

“I’ll try,” said Lynette doubtfully. Sasha kicked Peg with her heels, and

went racing up the road as Lynette pulled Chersey about in a circle and followed as best she could. A short way along, Sasha came across Teriyan, Geldon and several others, running at a steady pace. She pulled Peg to a trot alongside and extended an inviting hand to Teriyan.

“Come on,”she said, “council heads should get there first.”

“Leave it, girl,” Teriyan answered without breaking stride. “I still got some pride left, you know.” Sasha scowled. Lynette went racing past on Chersey. “Hey, where’d you send my girl off to?”

“Ask her yourself, if you ever catch her,” Sasha snorted, and galloped once more up the road.

The road wove between paddock fences and low stone walls, catching the full face of the sun before it vanished behind the ridge.

She was gaining fast on two men ahead as she reached the main Baerlyn road. Upon the wooden verandahs flanking the road, Baerlyn folk had gathered—mothers with their children, elderly folk in light cloaks or knitted shawls, and the men now walking or running along the road’s broad edge, keeping the middle clear for horses. Peg loved a target, and passed the leading horses in a thunder of hooves.

The road wound past Geldon’s bakery, then past the trading houses and side alleys leading to warehouses, and the workshops of jewellers, potters, furniture makers and Teriyan’s own leather shop.

Up ahead she saw a gathering of horses and dismounted men in armour blocking the road, milling before the stone facade of the Steltsyn Star, Baerlyn’s only inn. Heraldsmen held banners, gusting now in the light valley
wind, indicating that Damon was still in the vicinity.

Sasha pulled up beside several men from the training hall and surveyed the scene. There appeared to be an effort underway to lead the regiment’s horses down the Star’s side lane, to the stables and paddocks that stretched to the southeastern valley wall at the rear. Her searching eyes found Jaegar, Baerlyn’s headman, upon the Star’s verandah gesticulating in earnest discussion, then waving a thick, tattooed arm across the semi-organised mass of waiting men and horses. He spoke with Damon—tall, darkly handsome and notable by his purple and green riding cloak, the gold clasp at his neck, and the gleaming silver pommel of his sword at one hip. Now twenty-three summers, by her reckoning, and seeming tired and dishevelled from his ride. All the men held a respectful distance, except the Falcon guard captain and a young man in lordly clothes, eagerly surveying the conversation, whom Sasha did not recognise.

Then the guard captain turned upon the step and shouted above the snort and stamp of hooves, the jangle of armour and the busy discussions of men, “In units down the lane! The stables are already half full, fill them as
you can, then fill the barn—it should take another ten! The rest, there’s three more properties behind the inn toward the valley side, there should be enough room in those barns, if not, move down and knock on the next door. Be polite, I want not a hay bale disturbed without permission, nor a chicken’s feather plucked, nor a sow’s tail pulled. I’ll not have the good folk of Valhanan saying the Falcon Guard make poor guests! Tend to your mounts, then gather back here for a good hot meal on the king’s own coin!”

That got a rousing cheer from all present.

“Men of Baerlyn!” bellowed Jaegar, with a barrel-chested volume that surpassed even the captain. He was a stocky man of middling height but with massively broad shoulders. The angling light appeared to catch only one side of his face, leaving the other darkly ominous . . . except that the darker side as facing the light. Upon closer inspection, the spirit-mask of Goeren-yai manhood revealed its finer intricacies of weaving curls, waves and flourishes.

Sunlight glinted on the many rings in his ears, and upon the silver chain bout his broad, sculpted neck. His long hair, parted cleanly down the middle, bound down the centre of his back in a single, leather-tied braid.

“Those with space available indoors, please find a sergeant or corporal and say so!” Jaegar continued. “There’s no need for any more than the horse tenders to spend a night in the cold! Illys, we’d welcome some music inside tonight!” There was a cheer from the Baerlyn townfolk who had encircled the Falcon Guard, in all curiosity and eagerness to help.

"And Upwyld with the ale!” yelled someone from the periphery. “Don’t forget the ale!” And that got an enormous cheer from everyone, soldiers and locals alike.

Jaegar held both calloused hands skyward to quieten the racket, and then bellowed, “It is the honour of Baerlyn to receive this most welcome visitation! Three cheers for the Falcon Guard!”

“Hoorah!” yelled the Baerlyners. “Hoorah! Hoorah!”

“Three cheers for Master Jaryd!” with an indication to the young man beside them on the verandah. Again the cheers. The young man held up a hand with a cheerful grin. Something about the glamorous cut of his clothes, and the self-assured smile on his lips, made Sasha’s breath catch in her throat. The Falcon Guard were all from neighbouring Tyree province of central Lenayin. He must be one of Great Lord Aystin Nyvar of Tyree’s sons. Not Jaryd Nyvar? Surely the spirits would not be so cruel to her? “And three cheers for Prince Damon!” And those three cheers, to Sasha’s mild surprise, were loudest of all. Damon, she noted, glanced down at his riding boots and looked uncomfortable. She repressed an exasperated smile. Same old Damon.

“Three cheers for Baerlyn!” yelled the captain, and the soldiers answered back in kind. “Let’s move!”

With little more fuss, the soldiers began filing down the Star’s cobbled side lane. Sasha finally completed her rough headcount, and arrived at perhaps eighty men and horses, their numbers clustering a good way up the road past the inn. The strength of standing companies varied from province to province—in the north, the great armoured cavalry companies numbered closer to a thousand each. The Falcon Guard company, by her reckoning, should have about five hundred at full strength. Perhaps this contingent had left in a hurry and the others were following.

She left Peg in the care of a farmer she knew well. Damon and the young Tyree lordling stood in continued conversation with Jaegar, now joined by another two Baerlyn councilmen, similarly tattooed and ringed as Jaegar. Sasha eyed that contrast as she approached unseen, slipping between soldier-led horses—the Baerlyn men rough and hardy Goeren-yai warriors. And Damon tall, clipped and elegantly attired, a Verenthane medallion—the eight-pointed star—prominently suspended on a chain about his neck.

Rural Goeren-yai and city Verenthanes. The old Lenayin, and the new. The Goeren-yai believed in the ancient spirits of Lenay hills, the Verenthane in the foreign, lowlands gods. Sasha was born Verenthane, but lived amongst Goeren-yai . . . and was raised by Kessligh as Nasi-Keth, the followers of the teachings of far-off Saalshen. She sometimes wondered if she’d done something to offend some gods or spirits in a previous life to have deserved such a complicated fate. She often thought things would be so much simpler if she could just choose one or the other . . . or the third. But no matter which she chose, her choice would offend countless powerful people.

Sasha thrust the doubts aside, cleared the gathering about the steps, and trotted briskly up. Damon saw her at the last moment and straightened stiffly. Nearby commotion abruptly slowed, and conversation paused, as
people turned to look.

“Damon,” said Sasha, managing a half-genuine smile as Jaegar quickly made way for her atop the steps.

“Sashandra,” Damon replied, similarly ill-at-ease. And then, with meaningful emphasis, “Sister.” And spread his arms to embrace her. Sasha returned the hug, the first time she had embraced her brother in nearly a year, by her immediate reckoning. From about the verandah, and upon the road, there was applause and some cheering. Beneath Damon’s riding clothes, Sasha felt the hard weight of chainmail, which was sometimes decorative custom for a travelling prince, and sometimes not. This, she guessed from the size of the company, was not. They released each other, and Damon put both gloved hands upon her shoulders and looked at her.

“You’re looking well,” he remarked.

Liar, Sasha thought. Little though she’d seen him of late, she knew well his true opinion of her appearance these days. In Baen-Tar, the seat of Lenay kings, the ladies all wore dresses, and hair so long you could trip on it. Some of her wry amusement must have shown on her face, for Damon barely repressed a smile of his own.

"You too,” Sasha replied, and meant it. “What brings you to my humble town?”

“Well,” said the young prince with a hard sigh. “Therein lies the tale.”


“We’re still not clear exactly what happened,” Damon said to the table, his voice raised to carry above the mealtime clamour. Changed into a clean shirt beneath a patterned leather vest, covered again by the riding cloak in regal purple and green, he looked to Sasha’s eyes far more comfortable now than in the armour. His fingers toyed absently with the wine cup. “We only received word that Great Lord Rashyd Telgar is dead, and that Great Lord Krayliss is responsible.”

Sasha stared sullenly at the open fire upon the centre of the Star’s main floor. Flames blazed within the stone-lined pit as several kitchen hands hurried about and rotated the three sizzling spits. Men clustered at long tables between ceiling supports as Baerlyn youngsters served as waiters, hurrying back and forth with laden plates and mugs of ale.

Voices roared in conversation, and heat radiated from the fire, as music and the smell of good food filled the confined air beneath the Star’s low ceiling.

“You’re sure it was Krayliss that killed Rashyd?” Jaegar pressed from his seat alongside Captain Tyrun, commander of the Falcon Guard. Tyrun and Sasha were sitting on either side of Damon at the head of the table. On Sasha’s left sat Teriyan, widely regarded as Jaegar’s right-hand man in Baerlyn, due mostly to his swordsmanship and exploits in battle. The young Master Jaryd completed the group, ignoring the breathless stares that the serving girls sent his way. At the end of the table, a chair for Kessligh sat empty. If Damon were offended at his absence, he didn’t show it. Probably he knew that Kessligh was Kessligh, and did as he pleased.

“I’m not sure of anything,” Damon replied to Jaegar, somewhat testily, but recovered from his outburst no sooner than it had begun. Same old Damon indeed, Sasha noted sourly. Damon took a breath. “I only know what word reached us in Baen-Tar. The messenger said his lord was dead and that revenge must follow. Against Krayliss.”

Damon took another bite of his roast, then cleaned up the remains of his vegetable raal with a piece of bread. The table exchanged sombre glances, an oasis of silence amongst the raucous din. Sasha met no one’s gaze and simply stared at the central fire. Lord Rashyd was dead, and Hadryn province, the greatest of Lenayin’s three northern provinces, was now without its leader. And now the Falcon Guard were riding from Baen-Tar to take revenge on Lord Krayliss of neighbouring Taneryn province. It seemed that the age-old conflict between Hadryn and Taneryn had flared once more, with all the ancient, treacherous history that entailed. Sasha did not trust herself to speak, lest some slip of caution unleash the seething in her gut.

Lenayin had ten provinces—eleven, if one counted the city lands of royal Baen-Tar. A century earlier the Liberation had permanently established long-disputed borders and created a class of nobility to rule over them. In all of the provinces save one, the nobility were Verenthane. The one exception, of course, was Taneryn. Lord Krayliss was the only Goeren-yai great lord in Lenayin. No surprise then that the Hadryn–Taneryn border remained the most troubled in Lenayin. To all the many causes for countless centuries of
war between the Hadryn and Taneryn, the Liberation had added religion.

As grand as the Liberation had been, not all the Lenay peoples had shared in its benefits. For the Udalyn peoples, the Liberation had proven a disaster. Today, they lived trapped in their valley within the boundaries of Hadryn, holding fiercely to the old ways, despite the Hadryn’s attempts to convert them or kill them. The Taneryn considered them heroes. The Hadryn, heretics. It remained perhaps the most emotive of unresolved conflicts in Lenayin. For Goeren-yai across Lenayin, the Udalyn represented antiquity, the old ways from before the Liberation, too strong to die, too proud to give up the fight. If the Udalyn were somehow involved in this latest calamity, Sasha reckoned, then matters could become very grim indeed.

“Rashyd’s men were on manoeuvre, we heard,” said Captain Tyrun, downing his mouthful with a gulp of wine. Tyrun had a lean, angular face, like the falcon from which his unit took its name. His nose was large, his
moustache broad and drooping. Less well clipped, Sasha noted with reluctant curiosity, than most Verenthane officers, although his face bore no sign of the ink quill, nor his ears of rings or other, pagan decoration. Most likely he was no Goeren-yai, although if he wore a Verenthane medallion, it lay hidden
beneath his tunic. “It seems he was killed within Taneryn borders. What he was doing there, if he was there, we don’t know.”

“Making nuisance, most likely,” Teriyan remarked around a mouthful. “Hadryn’s claimed the western parts of Taneryn for centuries, damn Rashyd’s been angling for a war since his father died.”

“Words were exchanged,” Tyrun continued, ignoring the dark look that Damon fixed on Teriyan. “A fight ensued between Rashyd’s men and Krayliss’s. Some were killed on both sides. And Krayliss killed Rashyd personally, with clear intent. So the messenger said.”

“He might not have seen it all, ”Jaegar cautioned.

Or might be lying through his teeth to protect the honour of his ass of a lord, Sasha thought to herself. Still, she forced herself to remain silent. It would not befit anyone to be speaking ill of Lord Rashyd so soon after his death.

The calamity was beyond her immediate comprehension. No one in these parts liked Lord Rashyd Telgar, with his arrogant, northern ways and strict Verenthane codes. But for Krayliss to kill him... There were some who’d said that Lord Rashyd sat at the king’s right hand. And others who’d said that the king, at Lord Rashyd’s...

Tyrun heard Jaegar’s caution and shrugged. “As you say,” he said. “We have yet to discover what happened. But Krayliss has taxed the king’s tolerance for a long time now, and there comes a time when even our tolerant king must put his foot down. In this, we are the heel of his boot.”

“Our king,” said Master Jaryd, somewhat tersely, “is vastly long on tolerance. He is a merciful man, a man of the gods, for surely they favour him. My father says that Lord Krayliss has preyed upon this mercy as a spoilt child preys upon the tolerance of a doting parent. Like the spoilt child, Krayliss deserves a spanking. With His Highness the Prince’s blessing, I intend to administer it personally.”

Jaryd downed a mouthful of ale with a flourish, lounging in his chair as an athletic man might, who wished others to observe the fact. Sasha observed him with a dark curiosity, having never seen this particular young noble face-to-face before. Jaryd Nyvar was a name known the length and breadth of Lenayin, and even those like Sasha who tried to avoid the endless gossip of Verenthane nobility knew something of his exploits. At no more than twenty-one summers, Jaryd Nyvar was the heir of Tyree. His mother was a cousin to Sasha’s father—King Torvaal Lenayin—which made her and Jaryd related, she supposed. It was hardly uncommon amongst Lenay nobility—she was probably related to far more arrogant young puss-heads than Jaryd Nyvar. But it made her uneasy, all the same.

Every year at one of the great tournaments, Jaryd Nyvar would win personal honours of swordwork or horsemanship. His flamboyance was famous, his dancing reputedly excellent, and it was said he made grand gestures to the ladies before every bout. Sasha had heard it said jokingly that Jaryd’s swordwork was so excellent because he’d spent most of his days beating off hordes of girls, and their mothers, with a stick.

Looking at him now, she grudgingly conceded the stories of his appearance were not too far-fetched. He was very pretty, with light brown hair worn somewhat longer than most Verenthanes, just above the collar at the back, and large, dark brown eyes that promised fire and mischief in equal measure. She had not heard of his command posting to the Falcon Guards. Perhaps his father grew tired of his pointless gallivanting and thought to put his skills to some decent, disciplined use. And his father, they said, was dying. Perhaps that added to the urgency.

“The Falcon Guard was posted to Baen-Tar for the summer?” Teriyan asked Jaryd.

“The latter half of the summer, aye,” Jaryd agreed. He took a grape from the table and tossed it easily into his mouth. “We trained with the Royal Guard and others . . . gave them a right spanking too, I might add. Right, Captain?”

“Aye, M’Lord,” Captain Tyrun agreed easily. “That we did.”

“I’ve served in both Hadryn and Taneryn,” Teriyan said, chewing on a slice of roast meat. “That entire border’s full of armed men waiting for an incident. I wonder if the Falcon Guard will be enough. You’re damn good, sure, but eighty men can’t be everywhere at once. If this gets serious, there’ll be hundreds runnin’ around like headless chickens. Thousands, maybe.”

Three more companies are several days behind us,” Damon said. “Each of those is promised at closer to their full strength—five hundred men in total. Most of the Falcon Guard were on manoeuvre about Baen-Tar. That’s another hundred. We left in too much haste for anything more.”

“We’d have gathered a Valhanan company on the way through,” Captain Tyrun added, “but there’s none standing ready at present. We did think it common sense to gather Yuan Kessligh on the way through, however. If he’s willing.”

He glanced toward the empty chair. Sasha shrugged. “I can’t speak for him,” she said. “But I’d be surprised if he weren’t.”

Jaryd slapped the table with one hand, delighted. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “To ride with Yuan Kessligh! I’ve dreamed of that since I was a lad—smiting evil-doers at Kessligh’s side! That fool Krayliss won’t know
what hit him.”

“Krayliss is the evil-doer?” Sasha asked, implacably cool. “We have yet to establish what occurred surrounding Lord Rashyd’s death. Until such a time as we know for sure, Lord Krayliss deserves the benefit of any doubt, surely? Or has my father’s law changed so drastically when I wasn’t watching?”

Jaryd smiled broadly, in the manner of a masterful warrior challenged to a duel by a raggedy little farmer’s girl with a stick. “M’Lady,” he said, with a respectful, mirthful nod, “surely you know what Lord Krayliss is like? The man is a bigot, a . . . a rogue, a thief—a vain, strutting, pompous fool who is a blight upon the good nobility of Lenayin! And now, apparently, a murderer, though this will surely surprise no one who knows his type.”

“I’ve met Lord Krayliss, Master Jaryd. Have you?” Jaryd gazed at her, his smile slowly slipping. “I’ve met Lord Rashyd too. And strangely, I find your description could just as readily describe him as the other.”

“I too have met Lord Rashyd, several times,” Jaryd said coolly. Sasha wondered if he’d ever conversed with a young woman on a matter that did not involve her giggling shyly with starry eyes. “He is...or rather was...a hard man, at times confrontingly so. But at least he was not a...a shaggy-headed, mindless, chest-thumping...” he waved a hand, searching for a new, derogatory adjective.

“Pagan?” Sasha suggested.

Jaryd just looked at her for a moment, realisation dawning in his eyes. Sasha shifted her gaze to Jaegar, beneath meaningful, raised eyebrows. Jaegar coughed, and sipped at his drink. From this angle, the spirit-mask on the left side of his face was not fully visible, but gold glinted from his ear, and upon his fingers. The long braid, also, was like nothing a respectable Verenthane would ever stoop to wear.

Anger flared in the future Great Lord of Tyree’s eyes.“ You put words in my mouth, M’Lady,” he said accusingly. “I meant no such thing!”

“You young Verenthane lords put words in your own mouths,” Sasha retorted, “and scarcely a thought before putting them there. Remember whose guest you are. They’re far too polite to say so. I’m not.”

“Shut up, both of you!” Damon snapped before Jaryd could reply. The young man fumed at her, all trace of cool demeanour vanished. Sasha stared back, dark eyes smouldering. “Please excuse my sister, Master Jaryd,” said Damon,with forced calm. “Her tempers are famous.”

“And her allegiances,” Jaryd muttered.

“Oh pray do tell us all what that means?” Sasha exclaimed, as Damon rolled his eyes in frustration.

“I have many Goeren-yai friends, M’Lady,” Jaryd said, levelling a finger at her for emphasis. “None of them admire Lord Krayliss even a jot. You, on the other hand, seem all too pleased to rush to his defence.”

“I’ve heard those stories too,” said Sasha. “The Hadryn and their cronies have never been friends to either me or Kessligh. They accuse me of sedition, of plotting against my father.” She put both hands up on the table with firm purpose. "Are you accusing me of sedition, Master Jaryd?”

Jaryd blinked. Sedition, of course, was punished by death, with no exceptions. A person so accused, without reasonable proof, had obvious grounds for an honour duel. Those, also, ended in death. With very few exceptions. Jaryd started to smile once more, disbelievingly. No man about the table seemed to share his humour. Jaryd Nyvar, tournament champion of Lenayin, seemed barely to notice.

“No,” he said, offhandedly, with an exasperated raise of his eyes to the ceiling, as though he felt his dignity severely pained to have to tolerate such dreadfully silly people. Fool, Sasha thought darkly. “Of course not. Your tempers delude you, M’Lady. I have nothing but admiration for so great a Verenthane beauty as your own.”

“Tell me, young Master Jaryd,” said Teriyan, leaning forward with evident amusement, chewing on some bread. “Have you ever sparred against a warrior trained in the svaalverd?”

“As a matter of fact, no,” Jaryd said mildly. “The only two people so trained in Lenayin, I believe, are Kessligh Cronenverdt and his uma. And the visiting serrin, of course, but they never enter a swordwork contest, even though I have often seen them at tournaments.”

“And have you ever wondered why the serrin don’t enter swordwork contests?” Teriyan pressed.

Jaryd smirked. “Perhaps they are afraid.”

“Not afraid, young Master,” said Teriyan. “Just polite.”


Damon strode angrily along the upper corridor, the Star’s old floorboards creaking underfoot, as the sounds of merriment continued from below. Sasha followed, conscious that her own footsteps made far less noise than her brother’s, and that their respective weights were only half the reason why. When they reached
his room, Damon ushered Sasha inside, closed the door and threw on the latch.

It was a good room, as Lenay accommodation went. Four times larger than most of the Star’s rooms, its floorboards covered with a deer-hide rug, and small windows inlaid across the stone walls. Against the inner wall, two large beds, with tall posts and soft mattresses beneath piles of furs and fine, lowlands linen. Between the two beds, a fireplace, crackling merrily, and a small pile of firewood in the wicker basket alongside.

“Why do you have to go and do that?” Damon demanded at her back. Sasha walked to the space between the two beds, where heat from the fire provided some comfort.

“Go and do what?” she retorted.

“And this!” Damon exclaimed, striding over, reaching with one hand toward the tri-braid upon the side of her head . . . Sasha ducked away, scowling at him. “What in the nine hells is that?”

“It’s a tri-braid, Damon. One braid for each of the three spirit levels. Don’t they even teach basic Goeren-yai lore in Baen-Tar any more?”

“Why, Sasha?” Damon demanded, angrily. “Why wear it?”

“Because I’m Lenay!” Sasha shot back. “What are you?”

“Cut it off. Right now.”

Sasha folded her arms in disbelief. “Make me!” she exclaimed. Arisen from the dinner table, there was a sword at her back now, and more weapons besides. Damon, unlike Master Jaryd, knew better.

“Good gods, Sasha,” he exclaimed, with a sharp inhaling of breath. He put both hands to his head, fingers laced within his thick dark hair, looking as he would never wittingly appear before his men—utterly at a loss. “A year since I’ve seen you. A full year. I was almost looking forward to seeing you again . . . almost! Can you believe that? And this is the welcome I get!”

Sasha just stared at him, sullenly. Her temper slowly cooling as she gazed up at her brother. Not all the Lenayin line were blessed with height—she was proof enough of that. But Damon was. A moderately tall young man, with a build that spoke more of speed and balance than brute strength. He would be very handsome indeed, she thought, if not for the occasionally petulant curl of his lip and the faintly childish whine in his tone whenever he felt events going against him.

He was the middle child of ten royal siblings, of whom nine now survived. With Krystoff dead, Koenyg was heir. Wylfred would be next, had he not found religion and committed to the Verenthane order instead, with their father’s blessing. Then came Damon. Second-in-line now and struggling so very hard beneath the burden of expectation that came of one martyred brother who was already legend, and an overbearing stone-head of a surviving elder brother.

“I’m not a Verenthane, Damon,” Sasha told him, firmly. “I’ll never be a Verenthane. You could cut my braid, stick me in a dress and feed me holy fables until my mind dissolves from the sheer boredom, and I’ll still not be a Verenthane.”

“Well that’s all fine, Sasha,” Damon said, exasperated. “You’re not a Verenthane. Good for you. But you have a commitment to our father, and that commitment includes not making overt statements of loyalty toward the Goeren-yai.”

“Why the hells not?” Sasha fumed. “Goeren-yai are more than half of Lenayin last I looked! It’s only you lordly types that converted, and the cities and bigger towns . . . most of Lenayin is just like this, Damon! Small villages and towns filled with decent, hard-working folk who ask nothing more than good rulers and the right to continue being who they are without some shaven-headed, black-robed idiot strolling into their lives and demanding their fealty.”

“Sasha, your last name is Lenayin!” Damon paused, to let the impact of that sink in. Wiser than to rise to her provocations. That was new. “The family of Lenayin is Verenthane! It has been for a century, since the Liberation! Now, whether your arrangement with Kessligh means that your title is officially “Princess” or not, your family name remains Lenayin! And while that continues to be so, you shall not, under any circumstances, break with the continuity of the line of Lenayin!”

Sasha waved both hands in disgust and strode across the floor to lean against a window rim. Looking northeast up the valley, small lights burned from the windows of the houses that lined the road, then the dark, ragged edge of the upper treeline, separating the land from the vast expanse of stars. Hyathon the Warrior sat low on the horizon, and Sasha’s eye traced the bright stars of shoulder, elbow and sword pommel raised in mid-stroke.

“Sasha.” Damon strolled to her previous spot, blocking the fire’s warmth. "Master Jaryd speaks the truth. There have been rumours, since the call to Rathynal, of Krayliss courting your approval...”

“The nobility talks, Damon,” Sasha retorted, breath frosting up on the cold, dark glass. “Rumour is the obsession of the ruling class, everyone always talks of this or that development, who is in favour with whom, and never a care for the concerns of the people. That’s all it is—talk.”

“Just who do you think you are, Sasha?” Damon said in exasperation.“ A champion of the common people?Because I will tell you this, little sister—it’s precisely that kind of talk that breeds rumours. Krayliss and his kind cannot be dismissed so easily, they do have a strong following amongst some of the people...”

“Vastly overstated,” Sasha countered, rounding on him. She folded her arms and leaned her backside  against the stone windowsill. “The rulingVerenthanes simply don’t understand their own people, Damon. And do you know why that is? It’s because there are so few Goeren-yai among the ruling classes. Krayliss is the only provincial lord, and he’s a maniac!”

“A maniac who claims ancestry with the line of Udalyn,” Damon said sharply. “You of all people should know what the Udalyn mean to Goeren-yai all across Lenayin. Such appeals cannot be taken lightly.”

“I of all people do know,”Sasha said darkly.“ You’re only quoting what Koenyg told you. And he knows nothing.”

Damon broke off his reply as the door rattled, held fast against the latch. Then an impatient hammering. Damon looked at first indignant, wondering who would dare such impetuosity against Lenay royalty. Then realisation, and he strode rapidly to the door, flung off the latch and stepped back for it to open. Kessligh entered, holding a wicker cage occupied by three flapping, clucking chickens.

“Ah good,” said the greatest swordsman in Lenayin, noticing the fire. He carried the cage across the creaking floor with barely a glance to Damon or Sasha, and placed the cage between the two beds. The chickens flapped, then settled. “These lowland reds don’t like the cold so much. Makes for bad eggs.”

And he appeared to notice Damon for the first time, as the young prince r elatched the door and came across with an extended hand. Kessligh shook it, forearm to forearm in the Lenay fashion. Damon had half a head on Kessligh and nearly thirty years of youth. Yet somehow, in Kessligh’s presence, he seemed to shrink in stature.

“Yuan Kessligh,” Damon said, with grea tdeference. “Yuan,” Sasha reflected, watching them from her windowsill. The only formal title Kessligh still retained, and that merely denoting a great warrior. An old Leay tradition it was, now reserved for those distinguished by long service in battle, be they Verenthane or
Goeren-yai. It remained one of those traditions that boundt he dual faiths of Lenayin together, rather than pulled them apart. But Kessligh, of course, was neither Goeren-Yai nor Verenthane. “An honour to see you once more.”

“Likewise, young Damon,” Kessligh replied, his tones trong with that familiar Kessligh-edge. Sharp and cutting, in a way that long years in the service  of refined Lenay lords had never entirely dulled. Hard brow neyes bore into Damon’s own, beneath a fringe of untidy, greying hair. “And are you the hunter,this time? Or merely the shepherd, tending to errant sheep?” With a cryptic glance across at Sasha.

Sasha made a face, far less impressed by the gravitas of the former Lenay Commander of Armies than most.

“Oh,well...” Damon cleared his throat. “You have heard, then? About Lord Rashyd?”

“I was just talking downstairs,” Kessligh said calmly. “Catching up with old friends, learning the news, such as it is. So Master Jaryd will live to see past dawn, I take it?”

Damon blinked, looking most uncertain. Which was often the way, for those confronted with Kessligh’s sharp irreverence on matters that most considered important.

“It appears that way,” Damon said, with a further uncertain glance at Sasha. Sasha watched, mercilessly curious. “Please, won’t you sit? I’ll have someone bring up some tea.”

“Already done,” said Kessligh, “but thank you.” And he sat, with no further ado, crosslegged on the further bed, with the chickens murmuring and clucking to themselves on the floor below.

Sasha considered the study in profiles as Damon undid his swordbelt and made to sit on the bed opposite. Damon’s face, evidently anxious, his features soft and not entirely pronounced. And Kessligh’s, rugged and lined with years, with a beakish nose, a sharp chin and hard, searching eyes. Like a work of carving, expertly done yet never entirely completed. He sat straight-backed on the bed, legs tucked tightly beneath, with the poise of a man half his years. It was a posture that wasted not a muscle or sinew, an efficiency born of lifelong discipline and devotion to detail. And his sword was worn not at the hip, as with most fighting men of Lenayin, but clipped to the bandolier on his back, as with all fighters of the svaalverd style.

Damon sat with less poise than Sasha’s teacher—or uman, in the Saalsi tongue of the serrin—placing a foot on the bedframe and pulling up one knee. At his feet, the chickens clucked and fluttered at the further distur-
bance. Damon looked at the chickens. And at Kessligh. Struggling to think of something to say. Sasha tried to keep an uncharitable smile in check.

“These are good chickens?” he managed finally. Sasha coughed, a barely restrained splutter. Damon shot her a dark look.

“Well I’m trying to broaden the breeding range,” Kessligh replied serenely. “These are kersan ross, from the lowlands. The eggs have an interesting flavour, much better for making light pastries.”

“You traded for these?” Damon asked, attempting interest, to his credit. It was Lenay custom that no serious talk could begin before the tea arrived. Poor Damon was horrible at small talk.

“A local farmer placed an order through his connections,” Kessligh replied. “A wonderful trading system we now have with the Torovans. Place an order with the right people and a Torovan convoy will deliver in two or three months. They’re becoming quite popular.”

“As with all things Torovan,” Sasha remarked. Damon frowned at her. Kessligh simply smiled.

“Ah,” he said. “Thus speaks she of the Nasi-Keth. She who fights with Saalshen style, loves Vonnersen spices in all her foods, washes regularly with the imported oils of coastal Maras, lives off the wealth from the Torovan love of Lenay-bred horses, speaks two foreign tongues, and has been known to down entire tankards of ale with visiting serrin travellers while playing Ameryn games of chance. But no lover of foreigners she.”

Kessligh’s sharp eyes fixed upon her, sardonically. Sasha held her tongue, eyebrows raised in a manner that invited praise for doing so. There had been times in the past when she had not been so disciplined. He grunted, in mild amusement. Then came a knocking on the door, which Sasha answered and found the tea delivered on a tray.

She set the tray on a footstool for Kessligh to prepare, then settled into a reclining chair with a sigh of aching muscles.

Damon accepted his tea with evident discomfort. Prince or not, few Lenays felt comfortable having Kessligh serve them tea. But that had not stopped Kessligh from cooking for entire tables of Baerlyn folk when suitable occasions arose. Sasha had always found it curious, this yawning gulf between the popular Lenay notion of Kessligh the vanquishing war hero, and her familiar, homespun reality. Kessligh the son of poor dock workers in lowlands Petrodor,trading capital of Torovan, for whom Lenay was a second (or third) language, still spoken with a tinge of broad, lowlander vowels that others remarked upon, but Sasha had long since ceased to notice. Kessligh the Nasi-Keth—a serrin cult (or movement, Kessligh insisted) whose presence had long been prominent amongst the impoverished peoples of Petrodor. Kessligh, serrin-friend, with old ties and allegiances that even three decades of life and fame in Lenayin had not managed to erase.

Kessligh considered Sasha’s evident weariness with amusement, sipping at his tea. “Did Teriyan wear you out?” he asked.

"More demonstrations,” Sasha replied wryly, stretching out legs and a free arm, arching her back like a cat. Her left shoulder ached from a recent strain. It seemed to have altered the  balance of her grip, for the tendon of her left thumb now throbbed in sympathy where her grip upon the stanch had somehow tightened, unconsciously. The knuckles on her right hand were bruised where a stanch had caugh ther, and several more impacts ached about her ribs, causing a wince if one were pressed unexpectedly. The front of her
right ankle remained tender from where she’d turned it several days ago, during one of Kessligh’s footwork exercises. And those were just the pains she was most aware of. All in all, just another day for the uma of Kessligh Cronenverdt. “They all want to see svaalverd, so I show them svaalverd. And rather than learning, they then spend the whole time complaining that it’s impossible.”

Kessligh shook his head. “Svaalverd is taught from the cradle or not at all,” he said. “Best they learn little. It makes an ill fit with traditional Lenay techniques. Men who try both get their footing confused and trip themselves up.”

“We could try teaching the kids,” said Sasha, sipping her own tea. “Before Jaegar and others get their hooks into them.”

“The culture here is set,”Kessligh replied. “I’m loath to tamper with it. Tradition has its own strength, and its own life. And I fear I’ve caused enough damage to Lenay custom already.” Meaningfully.

Sasha snorted. “Well I would be a good little farm wench, but it’s difficult to fight in dresses, and impossible to ride...”

“You could have kept your hair long,” Kessligh suggested.

“And worn a man’s braid?” With a glance at Damon, who listened and watched with great intrigue. The former Lenay Princess and the former Lenay Commander of Armies. To many in Lenayin, it still seemed an outrageously unlikely pairing. Many rumoured as to its true nature.“ I couldn’t wear it loose like the women because then it would get in the way, but I can’t wear a braid like a man because then I’m not allowed to be a woman at all. The only option left was to cut it short as some of the serrin girls wear it. I don’t do everything just to be difficult, you know, I did actually put some thought into it.”

“The evidence of that doesn’t equal your conclusion,” Kessligh remarked with amusement.

Sasha gave Damon an exasperated look. “This is what passes for entertainment in the great mind of Kessligh Cronenverdt,” she told him. “Belittling me in front of others.”

“What’s not entertaining about it?” Damon said warily. Sasha made a face at him.

“I assume you’ve made comment on Sasha’s new appendage?” Kessligh continued wryly, with  a nod at her tri-braid. “She insists it’s all the fashion. Myself, I wonder why she can’t hold to Torovan jewellery and knee-high boots like good, proper Lenay children.”

Sasha grinned. Damon blinked, and sipped his tea to cover the silence as he tried to figure out what to say. “You approve?” he said finally.

Kessligh made an expansive shrug. “Approve, disapprove...” He held a hand in Sasha’s direction. “Behold, young Damon, a twenty-year-old female.In the face of such as this, of what consequence is it for me to approve or disapprove?”

Damon shrugged, faintly. “Most Lenay families are less accommodating. Tradition, as you say.” Sasha raised an eyebrow. It was more confrontational than she’d expected from Damon.

“This is my uma,” Kessligh replied calmly. “I am her uman. In the ways of the serrin, and thus the ways of the Nasi-Keth, it is not for uman to dictate paths to their uma. She will go her own way, and find her own path.

Should she have chosen study and her ball ore instead of swordwork and soldiery, that would also have been her choice...although a somewhat poorer teacher I would have made, no doubt.

“So she feels a common cause with the Goeren-yai of Lenayin.” He shrugged. “Hardly surprising, having lived amongst them for twelve of her twenty years. The mistake you all make, be you Verenthanes or romantics like Krayliss, is to think of her as anything other than my uma. What she does, and what she chooses to wear in her hair, she does as uma to me. This is a separate thing from politics. Quite frankly, it does not concern you. Nor should it concern our king.”

“Our king concerns himself with many things,” Damon said mildly.

“Not this,” said Kessligh. “He owes me too much. And King Torvaal always repays his debts.” Damon gazed down at his tea cup. “Baerlyn is not the most direct line from Baen-Tar to Taneryn. What purpose does this detour serve?”

Damon glanced up. “Your assistance,” he said plainly. “You are as greatly respected in Taneryn as here. My father feels, and I agree, that your presence in Taneryn would calm the mood of the people.”

“The king’s justice must be the king’s,” Kessligh replied, a hard stare unfixing upon the young prince’s face. “I cannot take his place. Such a role is more yours than mine.”

“We have concern about the people of Hadryn taking matters into their own hands,” said Damon. “Lenayin has been mercifully free of civil strife over the last century. The king would not see such old history repeated. Your presence would be valued.”

“I claim no special powers over the hard men of Hadryn,” said Kessligh, with a shake of his head. “The north has never loved me. During the Great War, my successes stole much thunder from the northern lords, and now Lenay history records that forces under my command saved them from certain defeat. That could have been acceptable, were I Verenthane, or a northerner. But I’m afraid the north views Goeren-yai and Nasi-Keth as cut from the same cloth—irredeemably pagan and godless. I do not see what comfort my presence there could bring.”

“But you will come?” Damon persisted.

Kessligh sipped his tea, his eyes not leaving Damon’s. “Should my Lord King command it,” he said, in measured tones. “Of course, you understand that Sasha must therefore accompany me?”

Damon blinked at him. And glanced across at Sasha. “These events make for great uncertainty. I had thought for her to remain in Baerlyn, with a complement of Falcon Guard for protection.”

“You’d what?” Sasha asked, with no diplomacy at all.

Kessligh held up a hand, and she held her tongue, fuming. He unfolded his legs, in one lithe move, and leaned forward to pour some more tea from the earthen-glaze teapot. “She’s safer at my side,” he said. And gazed closely at Damon. “And her continued presence here, away from me, would only create an inviting target, wouldn’t you say? In these uncertain times, it’s best to be sure.”


“I’M SAFER AT YOUR SIDE?” Sasha whispered incredulously, as she walked with Kessligh out through the inn's rear exit, and into the paved courtyard at the back. “What am I, some Baen-Tar noble wench to be
protected at every turn?”

The night chill was sharp, breath frosting before her lips as she spoke.  The remains of a declining fire burned within the courtyard, surrounded by a great many men, with a cup in hand, or placed somewhere nearby. Kessligh walked so as to keep well clear of the fire’s light, and to get her they passed unnoticed in the dark.

“Damon’s not here for me, Sasha,” Kessligh said grimly, hands in the pockets of his jacket as he strode. “He’s here for you.”

“For me? He doesn’t even want me along...”

“Damn it, pay attention,” Kessligh rebuked her, with more than a trace of irritation. “Haven’t you grasped it yet? Despite everything I’ve been telling you, with your friends and drinking sessions, and that new growth
sprouting from the side of your head? Krayliss is making his move, Sasha. It’s a desperate, stupid, foolish move, but no more so than one might have expected from Krayliss. He threatens martyrdom. If we’re all not extremely careful, he might just get it.”

Sasha frowned. She didn’t like it when Kessligh got like this. He made everything seem so complicated. Why couldn’t he just accept what she was, and how she felt? Why couldn’t everyone? “Krayliss... ” and she shook her head, trying to clear her mind. “Krayliss can’t use me as a figurehead.” Trying to be rational. “I’m a woman, he’d never accept a woman as his symbol of Goeren-yai revival...”

“You’re worse than a woman,” Kessligh cut in, “you’re Nasi-Keth. Krayliss hates all foreigners, Sasha—that means me, the lowlanders and the serrin equally, he makes no distinction. But you’re the closest thing to a genuine Goeren-yai within the royal line that he’s got, and he might just be desperate enough. Have you seen the condition of the Falcon Guard’s horses? Damon made the ride from Baen-Tar fast. He came to secure you, to make sure Krayliss couldn’t reach you first. That’s the doing of your father’s advisors. Your father has little enough fear of you. They have plenty.”

"My father’s advisors now include Wyna Telgar,” Sasha muttered. “To hear Sofy tell of it, anyhow. I’m sure my eldest brother’s wife would not have been pleased to hear that her father is dead. I wonder why Koenyg did not come himself, with that dragon breathing fire down his neck.”

“Prince Koenyg is a stickler for the rules,” Kessligh said grimly. “Rathynal approaches and the heir should not go gallivanting off to the provinces to bash some lordly heads together. That’s what junior princes are for.”

Lamps lit the stables ahead where several guardsmen were talking with local Baerlyn men, some of them regular stablehands. Several lads carried heavy blankets, or lugged saddlebags, or shifted loads of hay. The air smelled of hay, manure and horses—to Sasha’s nose, a most familiar and agreeable odour, tinged with the sweetness of burning lamp oil.

“It’s the Rathynal, isn’t it?” Sasha said, arms wrapped about herself, only partly to repress the shivers brought on by the cold air. “That’s why everyone’s so jumpy.”

“There’s a lot to be jumpy about,” said Kessligh, raising a hand in answer to the horsemen’s respectful hails. “Such a large meeting can only reopen old wounds. Especially with foreign lowlanders invited. There’s war in the offing, Sasha. Us old warhorses can smell it in the air. Damn right we’re jumpy. You should be too.”

“There won’t be a war,” Sasha said, with forced certainty as they walked down the long line of stables. “I just can’t imagine we’ll get involved in sometupid war in the Bacosh. It’s all too far away.”

“It’s nearer than Saalshen,” Kessligh said grimly. “And serrin come here all the time. Be careful of Master Jaryd—I know you derive great joy from boxing the ears of stuck-up young idiots like him, and I sympathise. But Rathynal is a time for all the great lords to make great decisions, and this Rathynal shall be greater than most. Lord Krayliss is a huge obstacle in such meetings—so long as he continues to sow division, Lenayin shall be forever divided, and the Verenthane nobility will never have its way on any great issue. Lord Krayliss delights in twisting the knife and ruining their grand plans at the most inopportune moments.

“Whether you like it or not, Verenthane nobility hear the rumours connecting you to the Goeren-yai, and to Krayliss, and they worry. In Lord Aystin’s eyes, there may not be very much difference between you and
Krayliss at all, and so I’d be surprised if his heir Jaryd feels differently. You can be certain Lord Rashyd and the northerners are not the only Lenay lords who would love to see Krayliss deposed and the entire ruling line of Taneryn replaced with a good Verenthane family. It would not surprise me to find that whatever incident has occurred, it was cooked up by Lord Rashyd with support from other Lenay lords, possibly including Great Lord Aystin Nyvar of Tyree himself.”

“You’re telling me that the gallant and dashing Master Jaryd Nyvar may wish to plant a knife in my back?” Sasha suggested with some incredulity.

“I’m telling you to be careful. Verenthanes frequently claim that all the old blood-feuds and bickering disappeared with the Liberation and the coming of Verenthaneism—don’t believe it. It’s still there, just hiding. It’s sneaking self-interest disguised beneath a cloak of smiling Verenthane brotherhood, and that makes it even more dangerous than when it was out in the open, as in older times . . . or more dangerous, at least, if you are its target. Trust me—I was born in Petrodor, and I’ve seen it. In such disputes of power, it’s always the knife you can’t see that kills you.”

“I’d prefer the old days,” Sasha snorted. “At least then rival chieftains killed their opponents face to face.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Kessligh said shortly. “A thousand corpses honourably killed is no improvement on a handful of victims strangled in the night.”

Terjellyn hung his head over the stable door, having heard them coming. Kessligh gave him an affectionate rub as a stable boy hovered, awaiting anything Baerlyn’s two most famous residents might require.

“You’ll be with Jaegar all night?” Sasha asked. The unhappiness must have shown in her voice, for Kessligh gave her a sardonic look.

“I think you can handle your brother for one night,” he remarked. “It would be nice if I could discuss Baerlyn’s affairs with Jaegar before we ride. We might be gone several weeks.” Terjellyn nudged at his shoulder. The big chestnut stallion was a direct descendant of Tamaryn, Kessligh’s mount during the great Cherrovan War thirty years gone. He’d ridden Tamaryn all the way from Petrodor, a mere sergeant among the Torovan volunteer brigades that had flooded into Lenayin following the invasion of the Cherrovan warlord Markield. The Liberation seventy years gone, the Archbishop of Torovan had not wished to see the thriving “Verenthane Kingdom” of Lenayin lost to a raging barbarian mob and had commanded Torovan believers to ride west on a holy war. Kessligh, however, had not ridden for faith.

Tamaryn had then borne him through the better part of an entire year’s fighting, in the wooded valleys and mountains of Lenayin, during which Kessligh had risen to lieutenant, then captain, and then Commander of
Armies for all Lenayin, and inflicted a thrashing upon the Cherrovan from which they had not recovered to this very day. Ever since, Kessligh had never had a primary ride that was not a descendant of Tamaryn—Terjellyn’s great-grandfather. It was the only superstition Sasha had ever known him to concede.

“Be nice to Damon. Try not to provoke him too much.”

Sasha stared elsewhere as Kessligh opened the stable door, and gave Terjellyn a once-over before mounting bareback. The big stallion, a more mature and refined gentleman than her Peg, walked calmly into the courtyard.

“We’ll be off before dawn,” Kessligh told her from the height of his mount .“We’ll go home first, get the gear, then rejoin the column on the way to Taneryn.” Sasha nodded, arms folded against the cold. “What’s your

"What’ll happen to Krayliss?” she asked.

“You care that much?”

About the fate of the Goeren-yai?” Sasha shot back. “How could I not?”

Kessligh exhaled hard, glancing elsewhere with a frown. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said finally. “You chose this path for yourself...”

“I did not,” Sasha retorted, sullenly. “It chose me.”

“You are still your father’s daughter, Sasha. Whatever new role and title you bear now.” His eyes refixed upon her with narrowed intent. “None of us can escape the accidents of our birth so easily.”

“That’s not what you told Damon back there. What was all that about me being your uma, and nothing more should matter?”

“One side of an argument,” Kessligh said calmly. “I’m sure Damon can provide the other side himself.”

“You should have chosen another uma. One without the family baggage.”

Kessligh’s lean, wry features thinned with a faints mile. “I don’t recall that I did choose you. In that, you chose me.”

Sasha gazed up at him. Kessligh’s expression, alive with the dancing shadows of lamplight, was almost affectionate.

“Don’t sleep in,” he warned her. “And for the gods’own sakes, stay away from that rye beer. It’s murder.” And he nudged Terjellyn with his heels, clattering off up the dark, cobbled path to the courtyard, and the laughing merriment of men.


Sleep did not come easy. For a long time, Sasha lay beneath the heavy covers and gazed at the ceiling. The room glowed with the orange embers from the fire. From the second bed, furthest from the door, she could hear little sound from Damon’s bed.

She would have preferred her own, separate room, as was the usual arrangement when she had cause to stay overnight at the Star. But Damon having acquired the lordly quarters, form dictated that one royal should not sleep in lesser accommodation than the other. Such an occurrence might spread rumours of a division.

Sasha hated it all. Hated the gossip and sideways looks, hated the out-of-towners who stared and whispered, hated the northerners who sneered and made smirking comments amongst themselves. Had always hated it, in all her living memory. And her memory, Kessligh had frequently noted with something less than pleasure, was vast. She recalled the echoing stone halls of Baen-Tar Palace all too well, with their expensive tapestries and paintings. Recalled well the texture of the grass in the little courtyards between buildings where she had sat for lessons on a sunny day, and found far greater interest in the beetles and flower gardens than in classical texts or Torovan history . . . to say nothing of scripture, or embroidery.

Recalled the look her instructors, servants and various assorted minders had given her, the “Sashandra-always-in-trouble” look, that expected bad behaviour and was frequently presented with such. She’d never understood those rules. Should a deep-cushion mattress not be used for jumping? And what on earth was wrong with throwing scraps of food to the pigeons that sat upon her bedroom window ledge? And running in hallways, what possible harm could it cause?

“Unladylike,” had been the routine answer. And undignified, for arincess of Lenayin. “Then I don’t want to be a princess of Lenayin!” had been her typically untactful, six-year-old reply. They’d locked her in her room and given her a composition assignment to fill the time. She recalled even now the blank page of paper sheaf, and the little, sharp-tipped quill that looked like it had once been a waterbird feather.

Was that natural? To recall the experiences of a six-year-old with such detailed clarity? Kessligh had said, only half-seriously, that it stopped her from growing up, so tightly did she clutch to the memories of her past. Sasha had answered that on the contrary, it spurred her to leave that time even further behind. But now, lying in the warm, orange glow of the Star’s lordly quarters, she wondered.

She recalled throwing the sheaf of papers out the window, scattering pigeons from the ledge, and papers all over the gardens below. Not being able to do what one chose had seemed a great injustice. Her minders had concluded that she was spoiled, and had determined to make life more difficult, removing more privileges, and increasing the severity of punishments. That had only made her angry. The next time she’d thrown something out of the window, it had been heavy, and she hadn’t opened the window first.

Damon, of course, had since challenged her recollections of those times. It had not been all her minders’ fault, he’d proclaimed, upon her first visit back to Baen-Tar in four years, at the ripe old age of twelve. He’d been fifteen, somewhat gangling and with two left feet – not an uncommon condition for boys, Kessligh had assured her, and one reason why girls were easier to train. She’d been born wild, Damon had insisted. Wild like a bobcat, breaking things and biting people from the moment she’d learned how to walk. They’d only been trying to stop her from killing someone—most likely herself. And all of it had been no one’s fault but her own.

Twelve-year-old Sasha had punched him in the nose.

Whatever the cause of the madness, Krystoff had been the cure. Krystoff, the heir to the throne of Lenayin, with his flowing black hair, his easy laugh, and his rakish, good-humoured charm. Eleven years her senior, the second eldest after Marya, who was now safely married to the ruling family of Petrodor. Sasha suffered a flash of very early memory...hiding behind a hay bale in a barn, watching Kessligh and Krystoff sparring with furious intensity.

Gods she must have been young. She tried to recall the dress—her memory of dresses was particularly excellent, much the same way as a long-time prisoner must surely recall various types of shackles and chains. The frilly, tight-stitched petticoats? Yes, it must have been, she remembered yanking at them beneath her pleated, little-girl’s dress, trying to stop them from tugging as she crouched. She’d been five, then, that night in the barn ...and it had been night, hadn’t it? Yes, she recalled the flickering lamp-light and the musty smell of burning oil behind the familiar odour of hay.

But there hadn’t been any fire damage to the northern wall in that memory. She’d nearly burned it all down at the beginning of her sixth year, when she’d been caught sneaking and forcibly removed. She’d grabbed and
thrown a bale hook in her fury as they’d carried her away, striking a nearby lamp and sending hay bales up in roaring flames. Serrin oil, she’d later learned—long-lasting, but very flammable.

Kessligh had seen that throw, however, and been impressed. That had been about the time Krystoff had begun to take pity on her, taking an interest in one of his sisters at an age when the others, save for Marya, might as well have been invisible. She recalled him entering her room the day following the fire, an athletic and well-built seventeen, and surely the strongest, most handsome man in all Baen-Tar to her worshipful eyes. She’d been crying. He’d asked her why. And she’d explained that she was to be kept under lock and key for a week. No sunlight, save what fell naturally through her bedroom window. No natural things, save the pigeons that squabbled and made silly sounds on her window ledge. No grassy courtyards. No running,
and definitely no chance to sneak to the creaky old barn in the old castle and watch the Lenayin Commander of Armies attempt to whip her eldest brother into a respectable heir and Nasi-Keth uma.

Krystoff had melted. And suddenly, in the following days, she was free. He’d promised her that if she just behaved herself, she could come and watch him train that night. She’d been courteous and attentive all through that day, and had performed all her required tasks without so much as fidgeting. Her minders had been incredulous. And Krystoff, true to his word, had found her a nice, high hay bale to sit on and watch proceedings in the barn that evening after dinner . . . for Krystoff trained twice a day, she’d been amazed to learn, and did many other exercises in between. He was going to be not only heir of Lenayin, but Nasi-Keth, like Kessligh. She had not, of course, grasped anything of the broader significance of this historic fact, nor the disquiet it had surely caused amongst devout Verenthanes everywhere, despite assurances that in Petrodor, most Nasi-Keth were also Verenthanes, and found no conflict between the two. All Sasha had known was that it seemed awfully exciting.

Kessligh, with curious humour, had even shown her some basic footwork when big brother Krystoff had needed a rest. She’d gotten it first go, slippered feet dancing on the dust and loose straw. Krystoff had encouraged her with typically infectious enthusiasm. They’d found her a broomstick, broken the end off and she’d used it for a practice stanch. She’d managed the basic taka-dan first time also—some of which had come from spying, and some from simple inspiration. She’d even gotten the tricky wrist-angle, and how it
shifted with different footing. Krystoff had been excited enough to pick her up and spin her about, where another man might have felt slighted, upstaged by his little sister with a broomstick. Very few pupils ever simply “got” the svaalverd first time, not even serrin. Kessligh had just watched, his expression unreadable.

From then on, within the privacy of the barn at evenings, there’d been instruction for Sasha also. Lessons and exercises, too, for her to perform in her room in early mornings, before the servants arrived to fill her morning bath, and dress her in their latest torture contraption, and brush her long, flowing hair. She’d kept that half-a-broomstick beneath her mattress, and when it was found and confiscated, she’d used the fire poker in her room instead. Those exercises had been her wonderful secret—something her minders could never take away—and she’d practised every time she’d found a private moment. Her minders did not approve of Krystoff’s increasingly active role in her life, despite her improved behaviour. With improved behaviour had come high spirits, and a happy, rambunctious little Sashandra Lenayin had been every bit the challenge that a sullen, moody one had presented.

They’d been kindred spirits, she and Krystoff. She recalled helping him to raid the kitchens when soldiers just arrived from impromptu exercises were hungry and unhappy at being told to wait until mealtime. Recalled
Krystoff flustering the chief cook, and sweet-talking the giggling, blushing kitchen maids, while Sasha had stood on a chair, and loaded loaves of bread and bowls of soup onto trays for the queuing soldiers, who’d grinned at her and ruffled her hair.

Another time, he’d somehow talked the proprietor of the training hall into admitting her—Krystoff had been said to own the knack of talking fish out of water, or chickens into flight. (Or virtuous Verenthane maidens into his bedchambers, many had also said, when they thought she couldn’t hear.) There she’d watched athletic Lenay warriors drenched in sweat, pounding each other’s defences with utmost confidence and swagger . . . until they’d come up against Krystoff’s svaalverd, and found it like trying to swat a fly from the air with a wheelwright’s hammer.
Yet another time, rather naively, he’d introduced her to horses, and his little sister had fallen in love for a second time. Little Sashandra would abandon classes to go wandering around the stables, watching the stable boys and pestering the trainers for desperately coveted knowledge. And when the Royal Guards put on a formation display for a visiting foreign lord . . . well, no locks nor bars nor solid stone walls could hold her.

Those had been the best days, when her newfound confidence had blossomed, and with it, her first true sense of self. She’d even made peace with her other brothers and sisters . . . or no, she reflected now as she gazed at the ceiling—maybe not peace. More like a truce. An uneasy and often hostile one, with occasional breaches caused by either party, but usually resolved in short order.

Given nine headstrong siblings, that had been no mean achievement. Other than Krystoff, Marya—the eldest—had been her best friend, and her marriage and departure for Petrodor had been a sad day indeed. Koenyg, then second-in-line for the throne behind Krystoff, had long been jealous of his elder brother’s carefree popularity, and had spent much of his life attempting to become everything that Krystoff was not—disciplined, calm and sober. Her sister Petryna, now married to the heir of Lenayin’s Yethulyn province,
had been studious and sensible, and no lover of outrageous antics. Wylfred had preferred his own company and spent much of his free time in temple with his books. And then there was Damon, only a boy himself in all her Baen-Tar memories, and oh-so self-conscious and awkward in the presence of his overbearing, talented elder brothers. And Alythia, the glamorous one, who loved everything princessly that Sasha hated, and loved even more to demonstrate that fact to the world.

And then, of course, there were her two younger siblings, Sofy and Myklas . . . and her eyes widened. She had not asked anything about Sofy! Gods and spirits, how could she be so forgetful? She rolled her head upon the pillow and cast a glance across at Damon, apparently asleep beneath the covers. But there might be no time tomorrow, she reasoned.

“Damon,” she called across the beds. “Damon. Are you awake?”

“If I said no, would you leave me alone?” came Damon’s reply, muffled in the pillows. Sasha wasn’t fooled—he couldn’t sleep either. No wonder, given how heavily the weight of command usually sat upon his shoulders.

“How is Sofy?” Sasha asked him. “In all this fuss about Krayliss, I forgot to ask.”

“Like Sofy,” Damon retorted.

“Is she enjoying her studies?” Sasha pressed determinedly. Damon wasn’t going to get off that easily. “She seemed happy in her last letter, but I sometimes wonder if she tells me everything.”

“Sofy’s always happy,” Damon muttered. As if there were something vaguely offensive about that. “She asks about you a lot.”

“Does she?”

“Oh yes. Every time a noble traveller arrives in court, having passed within scent of Valhanan, she never fails to corner him and ask for news of you.”

Sasha smiled. “But she’s well? Her last letter spoke of Alythia’s wedding. She seemed very excited.”

“Not nearly as excited as Alythia,” said Damon. And rolled onto his back, appearing to abandon hope of sleep, at least for the moment. “But yes, Sofy is helping with the preparations. Alythia scolds her, and tries to be upset at her interference . . . she was unhappy with Sofy’s suggestions for the ordering of vows and ceremonies, thinking that she knows best in everything. But of course, on reflection, she agreed that Sofy’s ideas were best. As always.”

For all Sasha’s differences with Damon, they shared a common affection for their younger sister Sofy. It was mostly thanks to Sofy’s mediation that Damon and Sasha had arrived at their present truce. Sasha was yet to be convinced of Sofy’s faith in Damon, but she had conceded that her previous, less flattering impressions of him had been wide of the mark. But then, that was Sofy, always intervening, always drawing compromise from the most hardened of opinions.

“And the holy fathers are pleased with the wedding preparations?” Sasha asked, having heard a little of that controversy.

“It’s ridiculous,” Damon sighed. “Father Wynal now protests that the arrangements are not in full accordance with the scripture, but Alythia protests that she wants a traditional Lenay wedding like Marya and Petryna had...”

“Marya and Petryna’s weddings were anything but traditional,” Sasha snorted.

“Well, they had the fire and the dancing with hand painting...”

“That’s hanei, Damon,”Sasha corrected. “And the fire is tempyr, the purifier, the door between states of being. Its ymbolises a couple’s transition into married life, the athelyn ,the destruction of the old, making way for the new. It’s the foundation of the Goeren-yai view of the universe.”

“Sounds serrin,” Damon remarked, with less interest than Sasha might have hoped. The ignorance of so many Verenthanes toward the old ways disgusted her. They had been their ways too, a hundred years before.

“Serrin and Goeren-yai belief has much in common,” Sasha agreed, keeping her temper in check. Outbursts and lectures would serve no good purpose, she told herself firmly.“It’s one reason the Goeren-yai and serrin
have had such good relations for so long.”

“Anyhow,” Damon said dismissively. “Alythia thinks it’s pretty, and the hand painting—the hanei—is. And so much more glamorous than a traditional Verenthane wedding.”

“I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so,” Sasha said sourly. “Verenthanes have to be the most morbid bunch, Damon. I hear in some parts of the Bacosh and the rest of the lowlands, women aren’t even allowed to dance. Can you imagine?”

“I can’t imagine,” Damon admitted, frowning at the ceiling. “But then, being a Verenthane means different things from one land to another. Lenayin will always be Lenayin. That is one thing Goeren-yai and Verenthane shall always have in common in this land. I think I shall always have more in common with a Lenay Goeren-yai than with a lowlands Verenthane.”

“We’ll see if you still believe in Lenay brotherhood should you have the misfortune to encounter Family Telgar on this ride,” Sasha said darkly.

“The men of the north are brave,” Damon said shortly. “I won’t prejudge them.”

“It’s not their bravery I question,” said Sasha. “It’s their humanity.”

Damon made an annoyed face, looking across the space between their beds. “Seriously, Sasha, need you always pick a fight? You of all people who can afford it least. I'm well aware what you think of the Verenthane north, you don’t need to hurl it at me at every opportunity. I can form my own opinions.”

Sasha bit her tongue with difficulty. “And how is Myklas?” she asked, determined to prove to herself that she could simply move on and not spill blood upon the floor. Kessligh would be proud.

“Well,” said Damon, with a note to his voice that suggested he too was surprised at the ease of his victory. “He’ll become a fine swordsman. He’s better than I was, at his age. Better than Koenyg, maybe. It’s certainly not from hard work. It must be talent.”

“Some things can’t be taught,” said Sasha, putting a hand behind her head upon the pillow. The air was cold upon her arm, whatever her undershirt and the fading warmth of the fire’s embers. But beneath the heavy
weight of skins and blankets, the warmth was delicious.

Damon gave her a long, curious glance, the fireplace illuminating one half of his face upon the pillows. “I heard that you fought,” he said. “Last summer, when the Cherrovan pressed Hadryn hard. I heard tell of some stories. Deeds of yours.”

“All lies.”

“The stories were greatly in your favour,” Damon added.

“Then they were all true,” Sasha corrected, with a faint smile. The incursion had been, for the most part, yet another ridiculous waste of Cherrovan life. A new chieftain had required a blooding, the story went. And a blooding he had received, most of it his own. Surely the Cherrovan had not been so stupid during the centuries when they had ruled Lenayin and all the mountain kingdoms as their own.

“I had doubted your abilities, once,” said Damon. “Even with Kessligh as your uman . . . I’d thought he’d only chosen you for other purposes. But the men bearing these stories are honest. It seems I was mistaken. And I apologise.”

Sasha gazed across at him with great surprise. And smiled. Sofy had always told her to try being nice to Damon, rather than arguing with him all the time. Good things will come of it, she’d insisted. And once again, it seemed, her little sister was right. “Apology accepted,” she said graciously. “You’re not the only man to make such a judgment. There are thousands who believe such, up in the north.”

Damon snorted. Then, “Has Kessligh told you of your standard? One story came from a man who was himself a master swordsman. He said he’d never seen anything like it.”

Sasha sighed. “Praise from Kessligh is rare. He hates complacency.”

“Can you best him sparring?”

“Sometimes. Maybe one round in three. More on good days, less on others.” But Damon looked very impressed. Besting Kessligh at all was said to be a worthy achievement. Most men would have been happy with one round in ten. But then, for those who did not fight with the svaalverd, it was no fair contest.

“I still don’t see how it’s possible,” Damon said, with a faint shake of his head. “For a woman. I have bested three Cherrovan warriors in combat. Combat is exhausting, for the fittest, strongest men.”

Never “frightening,” Sasha reflected. No Lenay man would ever admit so. “Yes, but you waste strength when you fight,” she told him. “Hathaal, serrin call it. There’s no direct translation in Lenay . . . energy, perhaps. Or maybe a life force, though serrin have too many names for that to count. A symmetry. A power derived from form, not bulk. The straight, sturdy tree is more hathaal than the crooked one, even if they are both as tall. You are stronger than me. But using svaalverd, I am more hathaal. And you cannot touch me.”

Damon snorted. “So confident are you. We’ve never sparred.”

“Tomorrow, perhaps?” Sasha said mildly.

“We ride first thing in the morning.”


“You know much of serrin lore,” Damon remarked, ignoring her barbs.

“Of course. I am Nasi-Keth.”

“Do you love the serrin?”

Sasha frowned. Footsteps creaked in the corridor outside, the last of the revellers coming upstairs to their beds. The dying fire managed one last, feeble pop. “I’ve yet to meet a bad or unpleasant one,” she said after a moment.

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

And it was not, Sasha knew, such an innocent question. There was war afoot between the Bacosh and neighbouring Saalshen. Visiting merchants fuelled a wildfire of rumour, serrin travellers had been rare of late, and Kessligh’s mood grim. She didn’t like to think on it. There had been bad news from the Bacosh before—for many, many centuries, in fact, one endless succession of terrible internal wars over power, prestige and matters of faith. Those had come and gone. Surely these latest rumblings would follow.

“The serrin are a good and decent people,” she answered. “Much of their lore, skills and trades has improved human lives beyond measure, from irrigation to building to medicines and midwifery . . . sometimes I wonder how we ever managed without them. Anyone who would make war on them will not gain my sympathy.”

“They live on lands that are not theirs,” Damon responded flatly. “Many include Verenthane holy sites. Sites of the birth of Verenthaneism itself. The Bacosh are the eldest and most powerful of Verenthane peoples, they’ll not let the matter rest.” Sasha rolled beneath her covers to fix her brother with an alarmed gaze.

“What have you heard?” she asked accusingly. Damon shrugged, his mood sombre.

“There is much anger. Talk of the Verenthane brotherhood uniting to take back the holy lands.”
In all recent history, the Bacosh had only been united once. The man who accomplished it, Leyvaan of Rhodaan, had named himself king, and repaid the serrin who’d assisted his rise with invasion and slaughter. The serrin response had been devastating, crushing Leyvaan and his armies, and taking the three nearest Bacosh provinces for themselves. That had been two centuries ago, and today, the so-called “Saalshen Bacosh” remained in serrin hands. Many in the priesthood called those lands holy, and wanted them back, out of the clutches of godless, pagan serrin.

“Such talk has existed since Leyvaan the Fool created the whole mess in the first place,” Sasha retorted. “The Saalshen Bacosh is a happy place. The only unhappy people are those outsiders who resent that fact. Besides, there is no Verenthane brotherhood. It’s a myth.”

“Even so,” Damon said tiredly. “People talk, is all. Perhaps it will fade, I hope so. We have enough troubles in Lenayin without lowlands concerns thrust upon us also.”

“Hear hear,” Sasha murmured. But Kessligh’s words remained with her: “War is in the air. Us old warhorses can smell it.”

“You’re not going to ask after Father’s wellbeing also?” Damon queried into that silence.

“No,” said Sasha. And tucked her warm, heavy blankets more firmly down about her neck. “Father has advisors enough to see to that already.”


JARYD NYVAR RODE at the head of the Falcon Guards as the road wound uphill from Baerlyn, with Prince Damon at his left stirrup. The morning dawned bright and clear across rugged hillsides of thick forest and sparkling dew. Cold air nipped at his cheeks, and the steaming breath of horse and men mingled about the column, so that it moved along the road like some great, puffing beast. The land in these parts was as beautiful as Jaryd’s native Tyree. Birds sang in the trees, and on the way out of town, a pair of handsome deer had startled across the road.

At the distance of perhaps one fold from Baerlyn, they encountered a pair of riders waiting for them on the road beside a narrow trail through the trees. Kessligh Cronenverdt and his brat uman. That trail, then, would lead to their horse ranch in the wilds. Prince Damon acknowledged them with a wave, which both returned. They fell into line several places further back, in plain cloaks to ward the morning chill, their back-worn swords invisible beneath those folds. An unremarkable and plain-looking pair, they seemed, amidst a
column of Tyree green-and-gold, gleaming silver helms and polished boots. Unremarkable, that was, but for their horses—both stallions, one light bay, the girl’s a charcoal black, and both beautiful to behold.

It was a reminder of Cronenverdt’s past service, of the debt owed to him by the king. Jaryd had heard the mutterings of his father’s men, that Cronenverdt was little more than a hired sword who had commanded from the king a steep ransom for his services. Jaryd thought it somewhat rich for wealthy nobles to accuse Kessligh of being a mercenary considering the plainness of the man living out here in the wilds with his uma. Cronenverdt could have commanded a far larger sum and lived in a grand holding, with lands and gardens and prospective wives clamouring for his hand. Instead, when Prince Krystoff had met an unfortunate end, he’d left the king’s service and asked for nothing more than a grief-stricken, impossible brat of a princess to replace the uma he’d lost, and some horses.

Jaryd thought it far more likely that his fellow nobility were jealous of the man, partly for his accomplishments, and partly for the way in which he showed up their expensive tastes. It was surely not unreasonable that a man who had freely given his services, instead of being born into the obligation of service, should receive some gift in return? How to criticise such a man, who did not play by the rules that others understood? No wonder he made so many enemies amongst the ruling classes.

After a while riding along the forested hillside, Prince Damon fell back in the column to talk with Kessligh. Lieutenant Reynan took his place at Jaryd’s side.

“The brat was up before dawn,” said the lieutenant, rubbing sleepy eyes beneath his helm. “I’d thought to follow her, but that horse of hers is fast and doesn’t mind a night-time torch. Mine gets all flighty near a flame.”

Jaryd frowned at him. Lieutenant Reynan Pelyn was the brother of Lord Tymeth Pelyn, head of one of the twenty-three noble families of Tyree, and close allies of Family Nyvar. He was a big man, with a round head, small eyes, and a barely discernible chin. He had not served with the Falcon Guards for long—barely a year, in fact, just a short time longer than Jaryd had been in command. Jaryd did not think that the men were particularly fond of him.

“You’d follow her to her home?” Jaryd asked. He kept his voice low, and there was little chance of anyone overhearing above the stamp of hooves and jangling harnesses.

Reynan shrugged. “Lord Tymeth told me to keep a close watch on her at all times. I’m keeping a close watch.”

“So much effort for one girl,” Jaryd mused. “One might think your brother actually believes the tales the Goeren-yai tell about her swordwork.”

“It’s not her sword that’s the bother,” Reynan said darkly. “That little bitch causes enough trouble with the Goeren-yai as is, and the king’s gone too teary-eyed since Prince Krystoff’s death to do anything about it.”

“Do about it?” said Jaryd. “Lieutenant, who said anything about doing something about it?”

“My Lord brother said to keep a close eye on her,” Reynan said stubbornly, “and that’s what I’ll do. Make sure she doesn’t cause any trouble.”

“She’s just a girl,” Jaryd said shortly. “How much trouble can she cause?” And why, he thought, be so much more worried about her than about Cronenverdt? Cronenverdt held the real power, surely. The brat was just a distraction. A distraction for Cronenverdt himself, some said, in a meaningful way. A plaything for a man who’d developed strange tastes in sword-wielding women while amongst the serrin and Nasi-Keth of Petrodor. Some claimed he wished to sire a son from her, who might then claim the throne. Surely the
nobles of Tyree did not believe such nonsense? There were so many before her in the line of succession, after all...

Reynan gave his commander one of those weary, superior, adult looks that Jaryd disliked so much. “Never you mind, Master Jaryd,” he said tiredly. "You just concern yourself with the road ahead, and leave the other business to me. Just remember to call on me if you need any advice—you’re a fine warrior, Master, but older heads have ridden this road before.”

“I have plenty of advice from Captain Tyrun,” Jaryd replied, annoyed by the older man’s patronising tone.“ He’s ridden these roads far more often than you.”

Reynan’s face hardened. “Master Jaryd,” he said in a low, harsh voice, “that man is not noble born. He’s a peasant, little better than a pagan...”

“Captain Tyrun is a true Verenthane and a veteran warrior!” Jaryd retorted in rising temper. “He rose from lowly status because he was the best, as is the tradition in the Guard! Do you question that tradition, Lieutenant Reynan?”

Reynan’s jaw clenched. So that was the sore spot, and the reason why the other men disliked him. A lieutenant, after just one year. True, Jaryd was in command after a shorter period, but he was heir to all Tyree, and made no bones that Captain Tyrun remained in true command.

“No,”Reynan bit out. “I would merely advise, Master Jaryd, that you give some serious thought to where your future interests lie, for yourself and for Tyree.”


It was midday before the column took its first rest, the men dismounting upon a broad, open shoulder of the Ryshaard River. Kessligh and Sasha found a large rock in the river shallows and spread out their food, whilst Peg and Terjellyn remained on the shore with a handler. Horses splashed in the shallows nearby, drinking deep, and men gathered to share rations.

Across the wide, wild bend of river, cliffs rose near-vertical in a broken, granite wall. Atop the cliff, trees lined the high ridge. Above those, an eagle circled. Sasha shaded her eyes against the bright sun as she ate, gazing upward. 

“Oh look!” she exclaimed. “That’s a silvertip. She must have a nest up there somewhere. There must be good fishing in the river.”

“How do you know it’s a she?”

“I don’t. But Lenay men have this silly habit of assuming every dangerous animal is a he, when in fact the females are usually more dangerous.”

High above, the eagle cried. Across the riverbank, men were gazing sky-ward, and pointing. Goeren-yai men in particular had a love of wild things, and birds of prey had a special place in their hearts. “Do silvertipped eagles have a legend to go with them?” Kessligh asked wryly.

Sasha frowned as she thought about it, watching the eagle’s circling flight. “Not that I can recall. Although it is said that a white-headed eagle swooped down to carry Hyathon the Warrior away from the fire mountain to escape the dark spirits. But white-headed eagles are much bigger than silvertips.”

“All nonsense,” Kessligh pronounced, and took a bite of his roll.

“Why?” Sasha demanded. “Just because it’s not what you believe?”

“Sasha,” Kessligh said around his mouthful, “if you’d seen as many people killed as I have, all because one of them believes this thing and the other believes this other thing, you wouldn’t think it was all so harmless.
Tales and legends are fun, but beliefs, Sasha. Beliefs are dangerous. Be very careful what you believe in, for beliefs are far more dangerous than swords.”

“And you believe in the Nasi-Keth,” Sasha retorted. “That makes you just as dangerous and misguided, doesn’t it?”

Kessligh nodded, vigorously. “Aye. But the Nasi-Keth take their learnings from the serrin, and the serrin simply don’t think like us. They don’t believe in truth. They don’t believe in anything they can’t prove, and they won’t construct these elaborate fantasies with which to advance their own power and kill each other. That’s the whole point of the Nasi-Keth, Sasha—it’s an attempt to help humans to think rationally. And that’s difficult, I know, because humans are fundamentally irrational. But it’s worth a try, don’t you think?”

“Hmmph,” said Sasha, chewing her own mouthful. “What’s rational?”

“Exactly the question the serrin ask each other constantly.”

“And what’s irrational about the Goeren-yai beliefs?” Sasha continued. “It’s rational, surely, that people survive as well as they can? Goeren-yai legends tell us much about these lands, and the animals, and the ways people can live and survive well out here. And the serrin have come here for centuries—they find Goeren-yai culture fascinating! So why should you, who takes his inspiration from the serrin, be so dismissive?”

“I’m not dismissive of the process, Sasha, just the conclusions. I’m dismissive of any culture that thinks it knows everything.”

“The Goeren-yai don’t . . . !”

Kessligh cut her off with a raised hand. “I’m dismissive of any person who lives his or her life like a frog down a well—all it knows is that well, and those walls, with no interest in what lies outside. I’m trying to make you think, Sasha. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. That’s all the Nasi-Keth as a whole have ever tried to do. To make people think before they commit some terrible evil in the name of their various truths, if it is at all possible that they might be wrong.”

“Aye,” Sasha replied, “well maybe that’s the difference between me and you. You lead with your head, I lead with my heart.”

“Hearts can be rational too,” said Kessligh. “They just need a little training.” Sasha knew better than to try and get the last word in. “How was Damon last night?” he asked then, changing the subject.

“Nervous,” she said. “He slept a while, I think. His temper’s short, but that’s normal. Best not to push him.”

“With any luck, he won’t make me. He’s second from the throne, in truth. It’s best he learned to deal with these kinds of things on his own.”

Sasha stifled a laugh behind her hand. “Damon. King!” She swallowed a mouthful, shaking her head in disbelief. “I can’t imagine it.”

“Men have similar difficulty picturing you as my uma,” Kessligh replied, unmoved by her humour. His eyes flicked toward the riverbank. Sasha looked, and saw Master Jaryd Nyvar talking animatedly with a corporal.
Their conversation was about swordplay by the look of their moving hands.

Sasha snorted. “Only because those men have never thought women good for anything but babies and housework.”

“What’s wrong with babies and housework?” Kessligh said with a faint smile.

Sasha shrugged expansively. It was pointless to get annoyed. Kessligh simply liked contradicting her.

Kessligh swallowed his mouthful. “Before I came to Lenayin, I hadn’t thought women good for much but babies and housework.”

Sasha frowned at him. “Oh come on! There are serrin everywhere in Petrodor! What about all of these wonderful serrin women you keep talking about, the ones you studied with as a Nasi-Keth uma yourself?”

“Serrin women, exactly,” said Kessligh around another bite. “Petrodor has a very conservative branch of Verenthane belief where women are concerned. My mother died when I was young and from then on the Nasi-Keth were my family. I saw many serrin women, but the human women I knew were very fixed in their notion of what a real woman was. Even when I rode to Lenayin for the war, I didn’t see Lenay women as much different. It’s only when I met you that I truly realised that a human woman might be born with
the aptitude to be my uma.”

Sasha smiled. “Well at least I know what kind of behaviour impresses the great Kessligh Cronenverdt—bratish, noisy and overactive. I could revert, if you like?”

“Revert?” Kessligh asked in mock surprise. Sasha kicked him lightly on his boot and scowled. “My point,” Kessligh continued, “is that people never know what they shall be, and how they shall respond, until the moment of testing arrives. I can assure you that very few of my Nasi-Keth elders and peers suspected that I could rise to such heights from my beginnings. As a student I was quiet, uncooperative and solitary. I loved serrin teachings because they seemed to me to offer the best solution I’d yet seen to all humanity’s obvious ills.

“But I was always frustrated that neither my uman nor my other tutors seemed to grasp the implications of those teachings fully. And so I enjoyed the company of the serrin more than humans. Serrin never judge. Through them I learned to see the world as it is, and myself as I am, rather than what I might want or expect them both to be. Which is how I recognised your talents, while other men would not. I realised I was wrong about human women. Many men cannot admit this about themselves.

“Always be aware that you may be wrong, Sasha—about anything and everything. I rose to Commander of Armies during the Great War simply because I learned from my mistakes, and the mistakes of others, and when something did not work, I stopped doing it and did something else. Many commanders did not, due to pride or stubbornness, and killed not only themselves, but many good men as well. The unquestioned belief in one’s own supremacy and righteousness is the surest road to ruin yet devised by man. Avoid it at all costs.”

Sasha listened sombrely, chewing the last of her lunch as the river bubbled about their rock. Kessligh did not lecture often, yet she was not surprised that he chose to do so now. A Hadryn–Taneryn conflict was surely the most serious calamity she had yet ridden into. An uman’s role was to teach, and to prepare his uma for trials to come.

“Why have the Nasi-Keth not spread more through Lenayin?” Sasha asked suddenly. “I mean . . . you led Lenayin to victory over Chieftain Markield, you risked your life and became a Lenay legend—all because you volunteered to come from Petrodor. The popularity of the Nasi-Keth and the serrin was surely never so high in Lenayin as then. And yet there are so few other Nasi-Keth here.”

Kessligh nodded slowly, as if faintly surprised at the question. “Your father tried,” he said. “He believes in providence, in signs from the gods. When Markield was beaten, your father saw that the gods favoured the Nasi-Keth, and thus surely they favoured the teachings of Saalshen. That was a time when the king was least persuaded by the northern fanatics, since the north had failed to defeat the invasion without help as they’d insisted they would, and had protested my ascension to commander at every turn. Trade with Saalshen improved dramatically, and many senior serrin were invited to visit the capital. And, of course, he declared that Krystoff would be my uma, binding the kingdom and the Nasi-Keth inextricably together.

“But the response of the Verenthanes was not good, especially in the north. And precious few Nasi-Keth from Petrodor have felt inspired to follow me to the highlands.” He shrugged. “Perhaps it would have been different had Krystoff lived. Then Lenayin would have had a king both Verenthane and Nasi-Keth, as are so many in Petrodor.”

“And we have the Hadryn to thank that it didn’t happen,” Sasha muttered.

Kessligh fixed her with a hard stare. “Sasha. What happened to Krystoff is old history. It hurt me as much as it hurt you. But we’re riding into this mess now on the king’s business, and the king must be impartial. If you feel that will be a problem for you, best that you tell me now.”

“They killed him,” Sasha said darkly. “Not by their own hands, but nearly.”

“I know,” said Kessligh. “It changes nothing.”

“And who are you to be accusing me of partisan loyalties?” Sasha retorted. “Saalshen is losing credit fast with Father, and doubtless the Nasi-Keth with them. And now you come on this ride claiming to act in Father’s interests?”

“I have always been your father’s servant,” Kessligh said flatly. “I’ve fought in his service since I rode to Lenayin thirty years ago.”

“And should Father act against the Nasi-Keth?” Sasha persisted. “What then?”

“Then,” said Kessligh, “I shall cross that bridge when I come to it.”

from Sasha: A Trial of Blood & Steel © Joel Shepherd
Cover Illustration © David Palumbo

Design by Grace M. Conti-Zilsberger

Joel Shepherd was born in Adelaide in 1974. He has studied film and television, international relations, has interned on Capitol Hill in Washington, and travelled widely in Asia. His first trilogy, the Cassandra Kresnov Series, consists of Crossover, Breakaway and Killswitch.  Visit Joel Shepherd’s Web site at