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Traitor's Knot
Volume 7 of the Wars of Light and Shadow
Book 4 of Arc III: Alliance of Light
Excerpt from Chapter I
Late Spring 5670

The town of Erdane's formal banquet to honor the Divine Prince's return from his arduous campaign against Shadow had been planned as an effusive celebration, until the moment of Lysaer s'Ilessid's opening statement. Hushed anticipation welcomed his entry. Resplendent in the sharp glitter of diamonds, his state presence on fire with white-and-gold thread, he delivered the list of shattering losses that outlined a vicious defeat. Beyond words for sorrow, he retired at once. His wake left behind a stunned silence.

The lean companies from Etarra encamped by the south wall were not the advance guard, transporting the critically wounded. In harsh fact, no more troops would be marching home, bearing accolades, honor, and triumph.

Hours later, the impact still rocked the guests who lingered in the mayor's palace: news that Arithon, Spinner of Darkness, had escaped beyond reach through the entry to Kewar Tunnel. Everywhere else, that formal announcement might ease the impact of tragedy, even offer resounding relief. The renegade Sorcerer, Davien the Betrayer, had fashioned the maze that lay beyond that dread threshold. The foolish who dared to venture inside did not survive the experience.

Yet Erdane possessed more accurate knowledge concerning the powers of Fellowship Sorcerers. Here, where the archives had not been destroyed with the overthrow of the high kings, breaking word of the s'Ffalenn bastard's evasion was received with sobering recoil.

The terse conversations exchanged in the carriage yard became a trial on Sulfin Evend's taut nerves. Despite the biting, unseasonable cold, guild ministers decked out in jewels and lace seemed to pluck at his cloak at each step.

"My Lord Commander of the Light?" The latest petitioner plowed in, undeterred by the field weapons and mail worn beneath the Alliance first officer's dress surcoat. "What are your plans? Will the Divine Prince regroup his defense in the east?"

"I don't know," Sulfin Evend demurred. His hawk's features turned from the blasting wind, he unhooked the merchant's ringed fingers. "Too soon to tell."

"The entrance to Kewar should stay under guard." The insistent courtier still barred the way, unscathed by the war veteran's impatience. "Did the Prince of the Light leave no company in Rathain to stand watch over the portal?"

"Had anyone stayed, they'd be dead to a man!" Sulfin Evend barked back, since his tied hands on that score rankled sorely. Although tonight's bitter weather still gripped all of Tysan, to the east, spring thaws mired the roadways. Ox trains would labor, slowed to a crawl, with Daon Ramon rendered impassable. Meltwaters now roared through the boulder-choked vales, too engorged for a safe crossing. Supply would bog down in those forsaken notches, riddled with uncanny Second Age ghosts, and enclaves of hostile clan archers. "I won't post my troops as bait to be murdered. Our toll of losses has been harsh enough without risking more lives to stupidity!"

As the guildsman bridled, Sulfin Evend cut back, "That ground is reserved as Athera's free wilds, and deep inside barbarian territory."

"Your bound duty is not to eradicate vermin?" a fresh voice declaimed from the sidelines. "Our gold fills the coffers that arm your men! To what use, if you pack them up and turn tail each time the chased fox goes to earth?"

"Good night, gentlemen!" The Alliance commander shoved through the last wave of inquirers, pushed past his last shred of patience. Too many fine officers had died on the field. Left in sole charge of demoralized troops, he found his resources stretched far too thin. Erdane was a stew of insatiable politics, both council and trade guilds riddled with clandestine infighting, and colored by the entrenched hostility held over from past resentment of old blood royalty. The Lord Commander preferred not to billet the men here, worn as they were from the last weeks of a harried retreat. Yet his bursar lacked ready funds for provision, and troop morale was still fragile. Tempers ran too ragged to risk quartering the company at large in the countryside.

Beside the Master of Shadow's escape, Lysaer's regency faced pending crisis: each passing day raised the specter of famine, as the unnatural, freezing storms rolled down from the north and forestalled the annual planting.

Yet since the Blessed Prince had wed the Lord Mayor's daughter, a strategic refusal of this town's hospitality became a social impossibility.

Sulfin Evend outpaced the overdressed pack at his heels, stamped slush from his spurs, then mounted the stair from the carriageway. Admitted through the mayor's front door, he endured the butler's imperious inspection. He stood, steaming, for the liveried boy who removed his sunwheel cloak, and sat for another, who buffed his soaked field boots until he was deemed fit to tread on the mansion's priceless carpets.

Their service was gifted no more than a copper. The shame was no secret: the Alliance treasury was flat strapped. If the town's ranking ministers were all jumpy as jackals, expecting appeals for new funding, the mayor's sleek staff accepted their token with the semblance of deferent charm.

"Your Lordship," they murmured. "Enjoy a good evening and a sound rest."

Sulfin Evend stood up, a whipcord lean man with dark hair and pale eyes, and the well-set, alert bearing that bespoke a razor intelligence. Hanshire born, and the son of a mayor, he showed flawless courtesy, inwardly knowing he dared not trust Erdane's cordial reception too far. Secret brotherhoods still gathered inside these gates. Practitioners of magecraft and unclean rites lurked in the crumbling tenements by the west wall. Tonight's wealthy sycophants spurred his concern, as their flurried whispers and rushed, private dispatches widened the breach for covert enemies to exploit.

The Alliance commander climbed the stair to the guest wing, decided on his response. He would stand his armed guard in the Divine Prince's bedchamber, and be damned if the mayor's pretentious staff took umbrage at his distrust.

His intent was forestalled by the royal equerry, who had obstinately barred Lysaer's quarters.

"You'll admit me, at once," Sulfin Evend demanded. "I'll have the man whipped, who says otherwise."

"The Divine Prince himself." The equerry's nervous distress emerged muffled, from behind the gilt-paneled entry. "His Blessed Grace is indisposed. By his order, he stays undisturbed."

That news raised a chilling grue of unease, fast followed by burning suspicion. Lysaer s'Ilessid had often looked peaked through the weeks since the campaign ended. Aboard ship across Instrell Bay, his Blessed Grace had scarcely emerged from his cabin. The retirement seemed natural. Each widow and grieving mother would receive a sealed writ of condolence from the hand of the Light. Over the subsequent, storm-ridden march, Sulfin Evend had not thought to question the hours spent addressing correspondence in the shelter of a covered wagon. Yet if Lysaer was ill, and masking the fact, the cascade of damages ran beyond the concept of frightening. A man hailed by the masses as a divine avatar dared not display any sign of a mortal weakness in public.

"You will admit me!" His mailed fist braced against the locked door, Sulfin Evend surveyed the latch, an ornamental fitting of bronze the first hard blow would wrench from its setting. "Open up, or I'll come, regardless."

No man in the field troop defied that tone.

Wisely, the equerry chose not to risk scandal. "You, no one else." He shot the bar with dispatch. "The mayor's staff was led to understand that his Exalted Grace was overjoyed with the welcoming brandy."

Sulfin Evend slipped past the cracked panel, at once enfolded in blanketing warmth, expensively scented by citrus-polished wood and beeswax. As the nervous servant secured the entry behind him, his tactical survey encompassed the loom of stuffed furnishings and the gleaming, shut doors of the armoires. The room's gilt appointments lay wrapped in gloom, the resplendent state finery worn for the feast long since folded away in the clothes chests. By custom, one candle burned on the nightstand: the Prince of the Light did not sleep in the presence of shadow or darkness. Amid that setting of diligent neatness, the lit figure sprawled upon crumpled sheets stood out like a shout of disharmony.

Every nerve hackled, the Lord Commander advanced. The frightened page who minded the flame abandoned his stool and jumped clear. No stammered excuse could dismiss the harsh truth: Lysaer's condition had passed beyond indisposed. Nor had drink rendered him prostrate. Lifelessly white as a stranded fish, a torso once muscled to glorify marble lay reduced to skeletal emaciation.

Horrified, Sulfin Evend exclaimed, "How long has your master been padding his clothes?"

"My lord," the boy stammered. "His Divine Grace swore us to silence."

"Blazing Sithaer, I don't care what you were told!" Sulfin Evend strode forward. He tugged off his gauntlets, snatched up the pricket, then bent to assess the shocking extent of Lysaer's condition. The porcelain-fair profile on the pillow never stirred at his touch. The icy, damp flesh was not fevered. Alarmed, the Alliance commander raked back the disordered gold hair. No reflex responded as he pried back the flaccid, left eyelid. The unshielded flame lit a glassine, comatose stare, and a pupil wide black with dilation.

"Answer me now! How long has his Divine Grace languished like this?"

The equerry quailed before that steel tone. "My lord, we don't know when this wasting began. Grief would blunt the appetite, one might suppose, so soon after the loss of a son."

That honest uncertainty seemed reasonable, since the train of personal attendants initially brought from Avenor had all died in the course of Daon Ramon's campaign. Sulfin Evend shoved back the rucked coverlet and continued his anxious survey. The prior disaster did not bear thought, against this one, sprawled senseless before him.

"Do you actually fear someone poisoned him?" the equerry ventured from the sidelines.

Sulfin Evend said nothing—just thrust the candle back toward the page. "Hold this." While the whipped flame cast grotesque shadows about him, he grasped Lysaer's arm. Unnerved by the grave chill to the limp wrist, the Alliance commander held out in grim patience while the light steadied, and unveiled the dread cause of the malady.

Up and down milk pale skin, in recent, scabbed cuts and old scars, Lysaer wore the telltale marks of a man being leached by the dire magics of a blood ritual. Sulfin Evend leashed his stark fear. The nightmarish course of this sapping addiction scarcely could have occurred under Lysaer's informed self-command. Nor would such a complex and dangerous binding be invoked by rote or the lore of a fumbling novice.

"Those scabs aren't infected," a new voice declaimed. The prince's long-faced valet had emerged from the closet where he kept his pallet. Barefoot, still plucking his livery to rights, he padded up to the bed.

The Lord Commander waved him back, wordless. Peril stalked here for the unwary. Bearing a taint of clanblood in his ancestry, he owned a birth-born talent, if an untrained one. Though that unsavory history was nothing he wished to make public, he had little choice. Erdane's mayors had burned the mage-gifted for centuries. Since that policy was also held in force by the Alliance of Light, and the sealed mandate of Tysan's regency, no initiate healer could be summoned here without causing political havoc.

Exposed to risk, uneasily aware that his lack of knowledge laid him open to an untold threat, Sulfin Evend ran a tacit, spread palm above Lysaer's livid wounds. Eyes closed, he sounded the range of awareness outside his immediate senses. The horrid grue all but crawled up his wrist, as his seeking hand ruffled across what felt like a chill flow of wind, ripped with tingles.

Beyond question, an arcane influence was draining the Blessed Prince of his vitality. Worse, the debilitating tie was entrenched to the point where a recovery might lie beyond reach.

Sulfin Evend addressed the hovering staff, dangerously level and low. "First, how often does his Divine Grace undertake the foul ritual, and next, where are the knife and the bowl?"

Blank stares from the servants; Sulfin Evend met their stone-walled quiet with fury. "Don't pretend you don't know what I speak of! Your master has cast his life into jeopardy, and I won't stand down until you give me a straight answer."

"But my lord," protested the equerry. "His Blessed Grace said not to"—which words clashed with the valet's shrill dismay—"but my lord, he can't die! As the avatar sent here to put down the Dark, how dare you imply he is mortal!"

"Avatar or not, he can still cross Fate's Wheel!" Sulfin Evend smoothed the slack hand on the sheets. Distaste turned his lips as he lifted the other, which still wore streaked stains of dried blood. "Here! See the proof? Our liege may be blessed with unnatural longevity, but he can't sustain if he's been enslaved by dark practice. Or are you sheep, too awed to see that he's skin and bones? Before your eyes, he's bled himself white! For all we know, the vile rite has been feeding some sorcerous cabal that's hell-bent to destroy him!"

Consternation wrung gasps from the pair of servants, while the page boy looked sick unto fainting.

"Oh, yes! Believe it," Sulfin Evend cracked to their stupefied faces. "Did you think Avenor's high-handed Crown Examiner could sweep the length and breadth of the realm executing born talent and not draw a wolf pack of powerful enemies?"

"Merciful Light!" cried the valet, aggrieved. "His Exalted Self claimed he was scrying in search of the Master of Shadow to secure our defense against Darkness."

"That's doubtless the lure that first saw him entrapped." Raw with disgust, and taking due care not to sully his hands, the Lord Commander resettled the bloodied limb on the mattress.

Lysaer's unresponsive, comatose state whipped him to freezing despair. Had the High Priest's acolyte, Jeriayish, not died on campaign, the Alliance commander would have flayed the skulking creature skin from bone, here and now: for hindsight suggested that the priest's rites of augury had opened the access to engage this fell binding. Whether through slipshod practice, or by darker design, the dire plot would not originate there. Someone insinuated into Avenor's inner council wished Athera's Divine Prince reduced to a puppet-string power.

The equerry was speaking. Sulfin Evend refocused his wits and insisted, "Excuses don't matter. Stop dragging your feet! I can do nothing at all if you can't fetch the bowl and the knife that Lysaer used for the ritual. No! Don't touch them!" He barely quelled his imperative shout, as the page boy scrambled to fling up the lid of one of his master's clothes chests. "Such objects are unclean and unspeakably dangerous. Lend me a silk shirt to wrap them."


A fraught interval later, the Alliance Lord Commander braved the night in a borrowed servant's cloak, an anonymous shadow bound for the unsavory district flanking Erdane's west postern. Crystalline frost crunched beneath his boots. Under the gleam of spring's constellations, the unseasonable chill cut his exposed skin like a scourge. Sulfin Evend slipped past the gray-on-black timbers of the shuttered shop fronts and crafthalls. At each skulking step, his left instructions chased through his circling thoughts.

"Guard him! With your lives, do you hear? I'll send up my captain to stand at his door, and this time, no one comes in!"

No words could settle his harrowing dread. The alley he sought would be hidden from sight, guarded by ward since Avenor's harsh interdict, which outlawed the practice of talent. As ranking commander of the Alliance war host, Sulfin Evend knew he risked his life simply by showing his face here.

He pressed onward, regardless. The artifacts he held bundled inside one of Lysaer's silk dress shirts left him no rational alternative. His rapacious profile masked under his hood, Sulfin Evend closed his eyes and edged forward. One blind step, two; his third footfall raised a crawling chill. The eerie sensation surged through his boot sole, chased up his spine, and prickled his nape into gooseflesh.

Sulfin Evend kept his face averted and cautiously unsealed his sight.

The town gate loomed ahead, alight in the glow of the watch lamps. To his right, a narrow, nondescript archway opened into rank darkness. Sulfin Evend resisted the urge to use more than peripheral vision. If he tried, the uncanny portal would vanish, not to reappear without use of initiate knowledge. He sucked a deep breath. Braced by a courage as dauntless as any demanded of him on a battlefield, he turned away from the main thoroughfare and plunged through the queer, lightless entry.

Darkness and cold ran through him like water, then as suddenly fell away. He found himself in a squalid back alley, little more than an uneven footpath overhung by ramshackle eaves and sagged stairways. The prankish gusts jangled the tin talismans of iyat banes, a dissonance that seemed to frame uncanny speech as he picked his uncertain way forward. The ground-level tenements were shuttered, but not locked. Here, the prospective thief was a fool, who ventured without invitation. Sulfin Evend picked his way forward, the chink of fallen slates underfoot driving vermin into the crannies. The stairway he sought had carved gryphon posts, a detail he was forced to determine by touch, since no lamps burned in this quarter. No wineshop opened its door to the night, and no lit window offered him guidance.

By starlight, Sulfin Evend mounted the stair. The creaking, slat risers bore his weight sullenly, no doubt inlaid with spells to warn away the unwary. Against quailing nerves, he reached the top landing, just as the door swung open to meet him.

"You've come to the right place," said a paper-dry voice. Backlit by a glimmer of candleflame, a wizened old woman in rags beckoned her visitor inward.

Heart pounding, skin turned clammy, Sulfin Evend understood there would be a price. Nonetheless, he crossed over her threshold.

"You've been expected," the crone stated as she fastened the latches behind him.

Sulfin Evend believed his surprise was contained, until her crowed laughter said otherwise. Hunchbacked and ancient, she spun to confront him. Eyes blinded with cataracts picked at his thoughts as thoroughly as any dissection. No coward, he resisted his urge to step back as her seeress's talent unmasked him.

"What did you expect?" she admonished, not smiling. "You come to consult, have you not? Would you rather have met with a charlatan?"

He bowed to her, managed not to sound shaken as he named her with careful respect. "Enithen Tuer. Rightly or not, I have come to the only place where I might seek help within Erdane."

"I know why you've come," said the crone, fingers tucked in her mismatched layers of fringed shawls. "Years, I have known. So many long years, that I am left weary with waiting."

Her clipped gesture offered a rough, wooden chair.

Released all at once from her piercing regard, Sulfin Evend sat down as she bade him. Her attic was tiny, shelves and tabletops jammed with balled twine and strange leather sacks, filmed with the dust of years. Wrapped in the fragrance of drying herbals, smoke, and stale grease, the Alliance man-at-arms huddled under his cloak, afraid to disturb the unnerving items clutched in his awkward grasp. "What do you require to lend me your services?"

"No coin." Enithen Tuer shuffled to the hob. Her stumpy feet were bound in frayed flannel, and her fingers, chapped rough as a ragman's. She snapped a flint striker to give him more light. "There is peril in this. Are you prepared? Can't be turning back once you've chosen." Eerie, milk eyes surveyed him, unblinking, while the tallow dips hissed on the mantel. "Be aware, warrior. The cost will test and try you. If you are weak, you'll be broken."

"What cost, old woman?" Struck cold, Sulfin Evend suppressed his impatience. "I don't care for riddles or the drama of veiled threats. A man that I speak for lies dying."

But Enithen Tuer would not be rushed. Her uncanny awareness seemed to press like a blade against the raced pulse at his neck. "Beware who should carry your heart's pledge, brave man. The wise would walk softly, and rightly so. Lysaer s'Ilessid has been declared outcast from the terms of the Fellowship's compact." The crone sensed his start; nodded. "Ah, truly, then you do understand what that sentence means."

"Explain anyway." Unnerved by the pitfalls that might arise from the folly of a presumption, Sulfin Evend dropped pride. "My sources at Hanshire might not have been accurate."

Enithen Tuer decided to humor him. "For breaking the sureties sworn by the Sorcerers, your prince's license to inhabit this world is revoked. His fate will be ruled by Paravian law. All the worse, for the trouble you carry tonight. As a man disbarred, Lysaer can't ask for the grace of a Fellowship intercession."

"But the Paravians are vanished!" Sulfin Evend shoved back his hood, ruffled as a jessed hawk. "Should I fear the old races' absent reprisal? There are other powers abroad on Athera. Perhaps I should present my liege's appeal to the Order of the Koriathain."

The seer raised frosty eyebrows. "Would you indeed?"

Sulfin Evend steadied his rankled poise, aware all at once he was bargaining. "Their oath of debt might give me the more lenient terms." The sisterhood had chafed for thousands of years under the yoke of the Sorcerers' compact. Surely, in the breach of Paravian presence, they would extend arcane help if he asked them.

Enithen Tuer gave that prospect short shrift. "Koriathain will not treat with the powers that currently shadow your prince. Why else, worthy man, did you come here? After the scandal that destroyed your grand uncle, surely you recognized Lysaer's malaise as a blood-bound tie of compulsion?"

Sulfin Evend could not mask the straight fear that shot through him. "How I'd hoped not. You're certain?"

The crone tucked bowed shoulders. "Sure enough." She seemed suddenly tired as her gesture encompassed the objects swathed under his cloak. "The items you carry will show us which faction.

"No!" she exclaimed, arresting his move to unveil the unpleasant contents. "Not so fast! Never, without wards of protection where such a cult has engaged active workings!" Porcelain eyes glinted, nailing him down with the force of their occult regard. "I, too, must demand my due reckoning for this service. Will you bear the cost and the consequence?"

Her swift, stabbing finger forestalled his response. "I will help. But know this, young man. You bring me my death. The moment I opened my door to admit you, that forecast outcome was set. I have waited to go, for years longed for the day I would greet the turn of Fate's Wheel. What are you willing to pay in exchange? Would you give your heart, if I ask, or the last breath in your lungs? Will you stand firm, and risk all you hold dear to salvage the life of your master?"

The Alliance Lord Commander said, threadbare, "Anything. I must. The s'Ilessid prince carries my life debt."

"Then shoulder your fate." The crone bent to one side, and snatched up the blackened spike of the fire iron. "You are a loyal man, Sulfin Evend. There lies your strength and your downfall."

"Enough caterwauling emotion, old dame." Eyes like chipped slate matched that ancient, blind stare. "How do you want your pledge satisfied?"

"Set down your burden," the seeress replied. "Then, if I can, I will ease your straits, but after you've sworn a caithdein's oath to the kingdom."

"Here? In Erdane?" Prepared to unfasten the knots on the bundle, Sulfin Evend shoved upright, his brows arched with fierce incredulity. "That's a perilous folly, since the Fellowship Sorcerers have already appointed the post to a reiving forest barbarian!" This was insane precedent, set alongside the fact that the Lord Mayor would subject any man who dared to revive the old forms of crown charter law to a branding, followed up with a public gelding.

"Folly, is it?" The ancient wheezed through a breathless laugh as she heaved herself to her feet. Fire iron in hand, she stumped over the carpet and fetched a slender birch rod from a hook. "How little you know of your bloodline, young man."

Sulfin Evend clenched his jaw, head turned as the crone touched the wood stave to the floorboards. She began scribing a series of interlocked circles, her swaying steps moving widdershins.

"I won't hear this," he stated. "I can't. I'm aligned with the towns!" The witch had to know: he was a mayor's son by birth. The duties invoked by his Alliance office ran counter to all that Tysan's caithdein must stand for. "I'm not free to swear you an oath to the land. My rank as commander of Lysaer's war host has already claimed my pledged loyalty."

The old woman ignored him. She sealed the last circle, invoked a charm that puckered her forearms with gooseflesh, then hefted the iron and flicked back the silk that covered the ceremonial artifacts. Dingy glow from the dips brushed the bloodstained bowl, with its dark band of incised ciphers. The horrid, black knife, with its slender bone blade seemed to drink the available light.

Enithen Tuer gave his vehement protest a sorrowful shake of her head. "Then bear the cost of your pride, foolish man. The ones you oppose steal the living and usurp their identities." As Sulfin Evend turned pale, the crone nodded. "Yes." She flipped the shielding cloth back into place without ever touching the contents. "They are necromancers. Unopposed, they will suck off your prince's vitality. When he is weakened enough to succumb, they'll replace him with another, long-dead awareness. To have any hope of standing against them, you must invoke the latent heritage of your bloodline."

"My ancestress, the Westwood barbarian," Sulfin Evend snapped, startled. "Damn my forefather's unbridled lust! You claim to know who she was?"

Enithen Tuer settled cross-legged on the rag rug by the hearth. Her marble eyes remained fixed ahead, as though the far past had been written across the murk of her spoiled vision. "The first Camris princes were seated at Erdane. Their ancestress declined the honor of founding the lineage of Tysan's high kingship, did you know that?"

At Sulfin Evend's vexed breath, the crone nodded. "Oh yes. There are records the vaults under the palace have lost. The Fellowship did not compel your first forebear. They would not, by the Law of the Major Balance. When their second choice, Halduin s'Ilessid, gave his willing consent to enact the blood binding for his future heirs, Iamine s'Gannley accepted his plea to stand shadow for that authority. She became the steward for Tysan's throne. Her descendants have kept that tradition, unbroken, for well over five thousand years."

"Ancient history, old woman. This has nothing to do with me," Sulfin Evend broke in. "Nor does it bear on the life of my prince."

"It has everything to do with your threatened prince!" the crone contradicted him, curt. "In your generation, the old line of the Camris princes has devolved into three significant branches. In primary descent is Maenol s'Gannley, oathbound as Tysan's caithdein. He has answered the Fellowship's call for an heir. One branch, until this generation, bore the title of the Erdani earls, until its recent, importunate offspring established himself as unworthy. The other, descended matrilineally, is your own."

Sulfin Evend might have laughed for the evil, sharp irony. With his father now standing as Mayor of Hanshire, and his uncle, Raiett Raven, as Lysaer's acting chancellor to secure the absentee mayorship at Etarra, his immediate family wielded the axe blade of Alliance power. That set them in direct opposition to s'Gannley, as dedicated enemies of the clans. Unless, of course, the preposterous tale was founded on senile fancy.

"A fine theory," he said in scorching relief. "I might have believed you, had my great-grandame not been taken captive in Westwood."

Enithen Tuer nodded. "She was there for her wedding. Her name, do you know it?"

Sulfin Evend was forced to concede he did not. The infamy was part of the family legend. The woman had left a blank line in the register, when his great-grandsire had forced her to wife.

"Now you'll hear why. She was Diarin, Emric s'Gannley's first daughter. The clanborn blood enemy of Lysaer s'Ilessid is none other than your distant kindred."

That news fell like a blow to the chest. Strong man though he was, his heart missed a beat: for why else should the Koriani enchantresses have pursued their strangling interest in his father's offspring? Moved to slow rage, Sulfin Evend said tartly, "Old woman, which of my two bollocks would you take for your offering, that my prince might regain his autonomy?"

"Your oath," said Enithen Tuer, not gently. "Sworn now, on your blood and then repeated in the presence of a Fellowship Sorcerer. You must promise to journey to Althain Tower, where you will seal tonight's pledge in completion."

"No man could reconcile what you demand," Sulfin Evend blazed back.

The seeress stared him down. "There must be. I have seen. One day fate will force you to choose which of two loyalties you will sacrifice. The land does not bear a blood-sworn oath lightly. The powers you invoke will be greater than you, and they will not treat with duplicity. You will stand before them, stripped naked, young man. Heart, mind, and body, you will be bound true. No way else can I give what you ask for."

Sulfin Evend returned her glare, anguished. "Demand something different! My own life, if you must! I cannot consent to dishonor."

The crone watched him, saddened. "Then go. Abandon the life debt you owe to s'Ilessid. Walk away loyal, and do nothing."

Yet he could not. Should Lysaer be suborned by a necromancer's cult, the power at risk was too dire to unleash on an unsuspecting populace. The seeress had weighed the fiber of his character and measured him down to the bone. "Then fetch out your knife, and be quick, old witch. You have saddled me with the reckoning."

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