A gentle breeze through the window stirred the lace drapes, driving ripples of hazy shadow across the bed sheets. Wisps of hair tickled Cassie’s forehead and the nape of her neck. The air drew cool fingers over beads of sweat on her back and thighs, in heady contrast to the firm body pressed against her and the hot hands grasping her hips.
Other senses, other contrasts. Lea’s lavender perfume overlay the musky scent of her body. Her lips were honey-sweet, her neck salty. Cassie flicked her tongue against the beating pulse point and heard a groan. One more small victory to chalk up. She raised herself on an elbow to take in the view.
A band of sunlight slipped between the drapes. Dust motes sparkled in the air. Lea’s breasts rose with each ragged breath, her legs spread in invitation, skin flushed against the white sheets, eyes closed, lips parted. She was beautiful and knew it. Her confidence in her ability to attract was unmistakable in her games of “look but don’t touch,” turning men and women into lovelorn puppets. But this time Lea was outplayed. Cassie had her helpless with desire.
Lea caught Cassie’s wrist, trying to drag it downwards, her goal obvious. “Please.”
Cassie slipped her hand free. After months of game-playing, it was Lea’s turn to wait.
“Please, Cassie, I need—”
Cassie silenced her with a kiss.
The city of Kavilli was basking in midsummer. Familiar sounds were softened by the heat—market traders’ cries, bells from a distant clock tower, the clatter of cartwheels on cobbles, the clop of a horse’s hooves in the courtyard below. Then came the creak of a saddle, boots hitting the ground, and a man’s growl, his words too low to make out. Someone mumbled a reply.
Did Lea understand what was said? The effect on her was dramatic. She shoved Cassie aside and scrambled away.
“I don’t care.” This time the man spoke loudly enough for Cassie to catch his words.
On the other side of the bed, Lea had her back pressed against the headboard, knees drawn up. Her fists were balled under her chin, clutching the corner of a previously discarded sheet. The white cotton partially hid her nakedness, but only succeeded in making her look more guilty.
Her expression was one of horror. Her lips quivered. “Oh, shit, no. My husband.”
“What did you think you were doing?” It was a silly question, even by Jadio’s standards.
Cassie relaxed on the couch and watched him stomp back and forth. How did someone so prudish cope with army life? She loved her younger brother, she truly did, but it was hard to believe they were related. Maybe they shared the same wavy black hair and dark brown eyes, but when it came to personality they could not be more different.
“It’s not a case of ‘think.’ I knew exactly what I was doing.” As, by now, did the rest of Kavilli. “How much detail would you like?” Cassie plucked a grape from a bunch on the side table.
Jadio broke off mid-stride and glared at her as if she were a new recruit who had forgotten to salute.
“I was having fun.” Cassie popped the grape into her mouth
“Yes. You should try it sometime.”
“This isn’t a joke.”
“Most people disagree. Haven’t you heard the gossip making the rounds?”
“Everyone in Kavilli is laughing at our family and you don’t care.”
How could Jadio be so dense? “It’s not us they’re laughing at. The jokes are all about Senator Flavinus and his floppy sausage. The only ones acting prissy are jealous. You might be an exception, but there aren’t many, male or female, who’d turn down the chance to hop into Lea’s bed.”
“It was Senator Flavinus Ennius pars Avitae dom Tribonae’s bed.”
As if his full name made a difference. “He wasn’t there at the time.”
“You don’t care do you?”
“We have the family’s position to think of.”
“The family’s position?” Cassie affected a thoughtful expression. “Is that the one where you put your legs over the—”
“Cassie!” Jadio turned to Mother. “Can’t you make her see how she’s sullied the family name?”
Mother remained standing at the window and gave no sign of hearing him, although of course she had. Nothing escaped her notice.
Cassie helped herself to another grape. “You’re being overdramatic. Anyway, it’s more likely to aid the family.”
“And there’s a flock of pigs swooping overhead as we speak.”
Mother left her contemplation of the rose garden. “Import taxes on wine are due for review when the Senate reconvenes. It affects our southern estates. We could use a few more votes swung our way. This distraction from Cassie is actually just what we need, if we play things right.”
“Why do you always side with her?”
“Oh, Jadio, don’t be so childish. You’re thirty, not three.” Mother settled on a chair. “I only agree with Cassie when she’s right. And stop marching around. You’re not on the parade ground.”
Jadio’s expression would doubtless have his subordinates quaking in their hobnail boots. However, Cassie merely continued demolishing the grapes, while Mother poured herself a glass of lemon water. Finally, he flung himself onto a couch as though trying to see whether it would break. “All right. Explain how Cassie playing the harlot helps us.”
“Harlot!” Jadio was not getting away with that.
“If the shoe fits.”
“Just because you can’t get—”
Mother raised her voice. “Stop it, the pair of you. Try to act like adults.”
“No chance of that with Cassie,” Jadio muttered, before adopting a firmer tone. “I don’t see how sleeping with his wife will entice Senator Flavinus into voting with us.”
“That’s not how it works,” Cassie said. “Flavinus and the rest of the Tribonae family wouldn’t support us, even if I’d seduced him, rather than his wife.” Which was not an image she wanted to play with. “It’s the effect on everyone else.”
Jadio turned to Mother, incredulous. “You agree with that?”
“Oh yes. Cassie’s handed me a useful weapon. Nobody will bring it up on the Senate floor, but in private will be a different matter. I will, of course, express my deep disapproval at suitable moments, just to keep the gossip bubbling. Flavinus is the best orator the Tribonae have, and they’ll be relying on him to make their case. But now, whenever he stands up in the Senate to challenge me, people at the back will be sniggering, and that’s a hard audience to carry. I doubt anyone will pay attention to a word he says.”
Jadio’s scowl deepened. “I can’t imagine you’d be so happy if I was the one caught shafting a rival senator’s wife.”
This was too tempting to ignore. “I can provide a list of candidates if you want to give it a try.”
Mother sighed. “Cassie, don’t tease your brother. And, Jadio, of course it would all play out quite differently.”
“For starters, if I’d dishonoured another man like that, he’d challenge me to a duel.”
“Exactly so. In fact, that’s the main reason I wanted to talk to you both. You’ve hit on our most pressing issue.”
“I couldn’t ju—” Jadio stopped, clearly caught by surprise. “I have?”
Cassie was equally confused. What rabbit was Mother chasing?
Mother put down her glass. “Senator Flavinus has never been one for duelling. Hired assassins are more his style. But if gossip gets out of hand, he may feel he has no option other than to challenge Cassie’s closest available male relative in her place. Which currently is you.”
Of course. That was the rabbit. A rather tricky rabbit that completely eluded Jadio. He gave a bark of laughter. “What’s the problem? I’d beat him easily.”
Cassie groaned and put a hand over her eyes. By all accounts, Jadio was a skilled military commander. He must be able to look beyond the obvious, though he showed no sign of it in everyday life. “Think it through.”
“Think what through? I’d win, even with one hand tied behind my back.”
“You’re missing the point,” Cassie said. “Everyone’s laughing at Flavinus. If he dies in a hopeless duel, defending his honour, it won’t be funny anymore. The rush of sympathy won’t do him any good when he’s dead, but it’d swing votes against us.”
Mother nodded. “At the moment Flavinus is a liability to the Tribonae. We need him to stay alive.”
“If he challenges me, I can’t refuse,” Jadio said.
“Quite. So you need to make yourself unavailable before things reach that point.”
“You must leave Kavilli. Rejoin your legion.”
“I’ve still got a month of my leave left. I’ve got plans.”
“Plans can be rearranged.”
Jadio launched himself to his feet. “I don’t believe it. Cassie whores herself around the city and I get banished.”
“Cassie, be quiet.” Mother raised her voice. “And, Jadio, you’re not banished. You just need to be somewhere else for a while.”
“It’s not fair.”
“Act your age.”
“Flavinus could still challenge our family, even if I’m not around.”
“Then it would be up to your uncle Ullesso to stand in Cassie’s place,” Mother said.
“But he’s eighty and half-blind.”
“Exactly. Challenging Ullesso would open Flavinus to yet more mockery. He won’t risk that.” Mother’s tone softened. “Oh, go fortify somewhere. Win a battle or two. You know you enjoy it more than slouching around Kavilli.”
This was undeniably true. However, Jadio was unwilling to give up. “What about Salicia? Doesn’t she get a say?”
“Then take her and the children to visit her parents. She’d like that. And, now that I think of it, you’re overdue a visit.”
Jadio’s face dropped and Cassie felt a twinge of sympathy. Jadio’s mother-in-law was more terrifying than a horde of barbarian warriors.
The fight went out of him. He ran a hand through his hair. “I’ll talk it over with Sal.”
Mother nodded. “You don’t need to go today. Just make sure you’re out of town before the Senate reconvenes.”
Jadio bent to give Mother a peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you before I leave.”
“Good. We need to discuss your next promotion.”
Cassie stood to give him a hug. “Tell Sal I’ll bring presents over for her parents.”
A suitable gift would soothe the way with his in-laws. Teasing her little brother was fun, but they were on the same side, and always would be. Family was what counted. It was the foundation the Kavillian Empire was built on.
After he went, Cassie returned to her couch and the grapes. Then she noticed Mother’s eyes fixed on her. “Is there something else?”
“Do you need to ask?”
There was always something else on Mother’s mind, usually several somethings, but this probably related to the Lea debacle. “You need to make a public show of reprimanding me, so the Tribonae family can’t accuse you of secretly approving?”
“I certainly don’t approve. Keeping your brain between your legs is supposedly a male failing. But you could do with taking lessons from your brother.”
Arguing was unwise, and apologising was pointless. Mother would not be deflected by either. Cassie swivelled to sit up straight and waited for her to continue.
“You were ‘having fun.’ I think that was your phrase. Now it’s time to be serious. We must make plans for you.”
What sort of plans? Marriage was unlikely. Cassie would get married again, of course, whenever it was to the family’s advantage. For the aristocracy, marriage was always a political matter. Love and lust were reserved for outside the marital bed, tolerated as long as one was discreet. But, given her recent display of indiscretion, a prospective husband might expect concessions. Negotiations would proceed more smoothly once the fuss died down.
Cassie was in no hurry. In truth, neither of her marriages had been dreadful, but being unmarried was more fun. Both divorces had been due purely to shifting power dynamics in the Senate. Just as well she had not loved either man, and Mother had secured good divorce settlements. All three of Cassie’s sons had stayed in the family, although they came with a bittersweet cost.
As with every male born into the aristocracy, all were destined for the army. The oldest, fifteen-year-old Rufio, had just received his first deployment. It would be twelve years before he could honourably take up civilian life. Even then, he might become a career soldier, like Jadio. Her youngest son, Derry, had gone to the military academy on his seventh birthday a few months before. The house was so quiet without him. How much was the pursuit of Lea an attempt to fill the gap he left? Cassie pushed the thought aside. Mother did not tolerate lapses in attention.
“There’s something I need to do?”
Mother’s expression sharpened. “Think. I don’t expect it of your brother, but you have no excuse. What trouble do you foresee? I’ve already mentioned it.”
She had? “Senator Flavinus might…” Cassie racked her memory.
“Yes. Senator Flavinus. As I said, he’s quick to use assassins.”
“You think he’ll try to have me killed? Risk a blood-feud over Lea?”
“I’d be surprised if he isn’t already checking his contacts.”
“He’s got no real interest in her. He’s keener on the houseboys.”
“I agree Leasilla is irrelevant in herself. But you’ve publicly humiliated him. That’s one thing Flavinus cannot bear. We must keep you safe until he’s calm enough to act sensibly.”
“How long will that take?”
“Too long for you to remain in the city. You won’t be able to avoid his agents.” Mother pointed to a leather dispatch wallet on a table in the corner. “An issue has cropped up in a remote location, so I’m sending an envoy to handle things at source. Xeranius was my first pick for the role, but it will be good experience for you and will get you safely away from Kavilli.”
Jadio would be pleased when he learned she was also leaving the city. Not that Cassie minded. Much as she enjoyed Kavilli’s social whirl, a change of scenery offered new opportunities.
“Where am I going?”
“The far northwest. Into the Shadowlands.”
Or maybe not so many opportunities.
Cassie had assumed her mission would be to an outlying province, exotic but civilised. The Shadowlands were ill-defined regions, lying beyond the empire’s border, but engulfed by its shadow. They were home to barbarian tribes, who were allowed their autonomy mainly because the land held nothing worth fighting over.
Mother continued. “The region is known as the Western Uplands. From which you might deduce it’s mainly mountains. Take the dispatch wallet with you to read later. It has maps and information.”
“What sort of problem will I be dealing with?”
“The only resource of any value in the area is mining, and even with that, the quantities were too small to bother about, until a rich vein of iron and tin was discovered two years ago. Since then, provincial representatives have tried to secure access to the ore, but the local king has rebuffed them. You’ll be representing the Senate, adding its authority to renewed negotiations.”
“Why negotiate? Can’t we simply send in the legions?”
Mother nodded. “We could. In fact, the army is under orders to annex the region. But that’s where we get to the heart of the problem. The legate is the person asking for my help.”
“An army commander wants diplomatic support? Why?”
“Rather than me tell you, see if you can work it out for yourself.”
All right. “Talking has got nowhere, so now the army’s involved.” Cassie voiced her thoughts aloud. “Barbarians and mountains are a tricky combination, but nothing that can’t be overcome with enough troops. If the legate has doubts about conquering the region, the first thing he’d ask for is reinforcements rather than a trade envoy. So…” Suddenly, it became clear. “His request has been denied. Someone’s pulling strings to block him. Either they want him to fail, or they’re using the threat of defeat to put pressure on the commander’s family. Since he made an appeal to you, we must be the family at risk.”
“Good.” Mother smiled. “The commander is your second cousin, Legate Quelinus Regulus con Cavionae dom Passurae. The Sabrinae family are the ones pulling strings, trying to force our hand over the upcoming governorship in the Tarrallo province. I’d rather one of our people was governor, but we can’t risk having a military disaster dumped on us. Unless you find a way to resolve things, we’ll have to concede the nomination.”
“I’m to negotiate a mining deal?”
“If you can get one the Senate finds satisfactory.”
“Is it likely?”
“So what am I really doing there?”
“If nothing else, buying time while I look for a counter weapon to use against the Sabrinae and force a compromise. I’ve got the Senate to agree that military action can hold off while this final attempt at negotiation goes ahead.”
“Can we stall until after the Tarrallo governorship is settled?”
“Unlikely. The vote is still months away.”
“Is there more I could be doing in the Shadowlands?”
“Of course, though it’ll depend on what you find when you get there. See what Legate Quelinus can suggest. Ideally, we like him to sidestep the Sabrinae and annex the region without needing reinforcements.” Mother pursed her lips. “Divide and conquer. That’ll be your best option. It’s just as effective with barbarians as it is in the Senate. Look for tribesfolk who can be brought over to our side—maybe a rival claimant to the throne who’ll be happy to trade ore in exchange for a few cohorts to boost his own supporters. Failing that, you’ll be working as a spy. Accurate enemy numbers and resources might reveal a weakness Legate Quelinus can exploit. Never forget the importance of good recognisance.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“You’ll have to do that, and more. Make no mistake, it won’t be easy.” Mother stood and returned to the widow with its view over the rose garden. “The chances are, one day, you’ll lead the family. Jadio doesn’t have the ability. But do you have the self-control? Consider this a test. Indulging in childish pursuits will not remain fun for long. You’ll be on your own, in an unpredictable situation. If things go wrong, you’ll have to handle the consequences.”
“Do you? Time will tell. However, I have more advice, if you want it.”
“The various tribes in the Western Uplands are forever fighting among themselves and taking slaves. Some end up in the empire. The tribe you’ll be dealing with call themselves the Lycanthi. Check the slave market for any on sale. Returning them to their homeland would start negotiations with a friendly gesture. More importantly, it’ll give you a chance to learn as much as you can about them. You’ll be on the road for two months. See what you can find out.”
Arian’s face ached from holding her false smile. She had totally lost track of the stream of gossip. The pretence of listening to meaningless chatter had got harder as the afternoon wore on. What her cousins were not saying was far more important.
Her son, Feran, was asleep on her lap, his head nestled against her shoulder. He stirred and murmured. Was her tension getting to him? Arian stoked the blond hair from his forehead and he settled back. She envied his carefree slumber. Last night she had lain awake for ages while the moon rose over Breninbury.
Pointless to tell herself she need not worry. What did it matter if none of the Lycanthi had witnessed Yehan’s birth? They had Merial’s word on it. That ought to be enough. But the knot in Arian’s guts would not go away. She just wanted the ceremony over.
The taste of dust and dry grass hung in the air, along with sweet smoke from the cooking fire. The sun was dropping as midsummer’s day drew to a close. The shadow of the Great Hall lay over half the meeting ground.
Folk were gathered, ready for the coming celebration. Women wore their finest shawls and jewellery. Men had their beards freshly braided. The children were in high spirits, running and whooping. Dogs scattered before them. If anyone shared her anxiety, they were hiding it behind a mask of restraint. Flasks of mead had not yet made an appearance. Might the drink blunt someone’s better sense? Arian bit her lip. Was she reading too much into the occasional shrug or wry pout?
A liquid chord rippled over the babble. The bard had finished tuning his harp. Arian slid along the bench to get closer, careful not to jolt Feran. Voices hushed in anticipation, broken by shouts from a group of children. Sharp words sent them off to continue their game out of earshot. Thankfully, Eilwen was not among them, though this did not mean she was not making mischief elsewhere.
Listening to music was better than worrying. As a child, Arian had believed the sagas to be true. Now she saw their value lay not in a bald recounting of facts. Even if the heroes had never performed the feats claimed, there was truth in lessons they taught.
Dark the hall, and cold the hearth.
Grim the foe, and hard the path.
Familiar words, and normally Arian’s favourite, the tale of Rigana, the Sword Maiden. Although she was a woman, Rigana had taken up arms to avenge her brother. It was a heroic tale of courage rewarded, and order restored. But maybe it was not the best choice for the occasion, starting as it did with the death of Cadryn, first king of the Lycanthi. Some might see it as a poor omen.
Why had the bard not picked Cadryn’s own saga, and sung of the semi-divine hero’s quest to rid the land of monsters? In reward, his mother, the goddess Alwyni, gifted the land to Cadryn and his descendants until the world’s ending—descendants who included Arian and the rest of the royal family.
The saga was barely begun when Feran stirred. Arian had hoped he would sleep a while longer, so as to stay awake for the coming ceremony. With his third birthday just a few days off, Feran would be too young to remember anything, but the day was important for their kin. Eilwen might even stop chatting with her friends long enough to notice.
Feran squirmed to be set down, then grasped her hand. “Hungry, Mama.”
“The food won’t be ready yet.”
Feran was undeterred and leaned with his whole body weight, trying to pull her to her feet. “Hungry. Come.”
Arian let herself be towed to the hog, roasting over the flames. Nobody would eat from it until Tregaran had led his fellow priests in making an offering to the gods. However, Daegal, who was overseeing the work, gave Feran a slice of goose breast that had been roasted earlier.
“Thank you,” Arian said, since Feran had stuffed the meat in his mouth and was unable to speak on his own behalf.
“That’s the summer-born for you. I swear they come into this world twice as hungry as anyone else.”
“And with worse manners.”
Feran chewed away, happily and noisily.
“I like to see a boy with a good appetite.” Daegal ruffled Feran’s hair. “He’s a proper summer-born princeling, right enough.”
“Shame he’s the only one in Breninbury.” The muttered words from behind were so low it was likely Arian was not intended to hear.
She did not bother looking around. Did it matter who had spoken? A renewed rush of anxiety made a fist in Arian’s throat. Was holding Yehan’s rite of passage on midsummer’s day wise? The day was normally seen as auspicious. But did it merely invite comparison with Feran’s birth?
Five years had passed since Merial returned to Breninbury, bringing her empire-born son with her. Simmering disquiet had grown ever more vocal as this day approached—the day when Yehan became a man and was acknowledged as Gethryn’s eldest nephew and heir.
Arian glanced across the meeting ground, to where her brother, Gethryn, was surrounded by a group of his friends. Beside him stood Nelda, his bedfellow. Even though the birth was months away, her bulging belly was unmissable. Just as evident were her fantasies, taken from the empire. So what if Gethryn had played a part in creating the baby. The Lycanthi were not conquered serfs and would never forsake their traditions. Boy or girl, the baby was not of Cadryn’s blood, and could not be Gethryn’s heir.
But would anyone dare challenge Yehan’s right to one day take the throne?
“Bring forth the boy.” Tregaran’s voice resounded over the meeting ground.
The urge to check the surrounding ring of faces was overwhelming, but Arian’s position by the fire was too conspicuous to permit nervous fidgeting. She looked up at the sky. Red flames snapped at the night. Sparks were carried up to dance among the stars. The priests would have studied the constellations. What fate had they foreseen for Yehan?
The door of the Great Hall opened. For a few seconds there was nothing, then Merial appeared followed by Yehan. They joined the small group in the firelight, Yehan beside Tregaran, and Merial with Arian and their aunts.
Tregaran spoke again. “I call on the witnesses.”
Aunt Ireni, as eldest, went first, by necessity, modifying her oath. “I swear Yehan is the true born son of Merial, sister to King Gethryn. This I know to be true.”
Arian was next. “I swear Yehan is the true born son of Merial, sister to King Gethryn. This I know to be true.” And it was true. She did know Yehan was her sister’s son. Merial would not lie about something so important. But Arian had not witnessed the birth. Nobody in Breninbury had.
Other witnesses repeated the oath.
“The gods hear your words.” Tregaran raised his hands to the night sky. “As do we. If any here dispute Yehan’s birth, now is your time to speak.”
A rustle of murmurs and shifting feet rolled in a wave around the meeting ground, and then faded. The only sounds were Arian’s heartbeat thudding in her ears, the crackle of flames, and a breeze whispering over the rooftops.
“So is it avowed. Cadryn’s blood flows in Yehan.” Tregaran slipped into the rhythmic chant. “The seasons turn. The boy becomes a man. The man becomes a warrior. The seasons turn…”
Ritual words, heard so many times before. Tension dissolved in Arian’s gut, flowing through her in a surge of relief, threatening to buckle her knees. Nobody had spoken out. Yehan was Gethryn’s heir, and all the stupid gossip could stop.
“The land is in our blood. Our blood is in the land. This is our bond.” Tregaran ended his chant and held up the knife.
Now came Yehan’s turn. “By my blood, I swear to keep faith with my ancestors. The land is in my blood. I give my blood to the land.”
The glass blade was as black as the night. Yehan did not flinch as Tregaran drew it across his palm. Even in the firelight, it was too dark to see Yehan’s blood drip onto the ground, but the land would know. The oaths were given. The bond was made.
Tregaran continued. “Yehan Cadrynson. In the sight of the gods, and the name of the ancestors, you are bound to the land, as its defender. Uphold this sacred bond, it is time to leave childhood behind.”
Yehan faced the burning logs, stacked waist high. He took one deep breath and set off. Three strides running and then he jumped, clearing the top by a hand’s breath. For an instant, he hung in space as the flames parted around him. Then he landed on the other side, chased by a flurry of sparks, a child no more. Gethryn and two warriors stood ready to welcome him into manhood. They pulled Yehan into a huddle, arms around shoulders, brows touching.
And there it was for all to see. Three blond heads and one black.
Yehan was so dark. How much easier if he had taken Merial’s colouring. Easier to fit in, easier to ignore the lies. Instead, he stood out, the only head of black hair in Breninbury.
Gethryn broke from the huddle. “This is Yehan, my sister’s son, and my heir. He will be king after me, guardian of the land. May he walk in the footsteps of Cadryn, our forefather.”
The men crossed the meeting ground to the Warriors’ House. It was the first time Yehan had been allowed to enter, and he would not leave again for six days. Arian did not know what happened in there—no woman did—but when he emerged, his face would carry the blue tribal tattoos, the stylised wolves. He would be a warrior of the Lycanthi.
Once Yehan earned his place in the warband, there would be an end to it. That was the way a true prince answered those who doubted him.
Feran was asleep even before the blanket was tucked around him. The moon was high in the sky. Enough light slipped past the door hanging to show his outline. Arian sat on the ground next to him, hands clasped around her ankles. Nearby, Eilwen was snoring softly. She had taken herself to bed in a sulk after falling out with a friend. Doubtless it would be forgotten by morning.
Although Arian’s home was on the opposite side of the Great Hall from the meeting ground, the sounds of revelry split the night. She should go back, but first she wanted a few moments to gather herself.
The day had gone to plan. Yehan had been named Gethryn’s heir and nobody had tried to start a pointless quarrel over Feran. Arian remembered the years of overheard gossip, folk stirring up discontent. Not that anything had ever been said to her face. Maybe this should have been a pointer. The troublemakers had lacked the courage to poke their heads over the palisade beforehand. It was unlikely they would suddenly discover a backbone during the rite of passage.
Arian pushed herself to her feet. Time to have fun.
Familiar faces greeted her return. Everyone had eaten their fill. Some had already drunk more than was wise. Arian drifted between the groups, intercepting a flagon of mead, clapping in time to a song, laughing at the punch-line of a joke. Kinsman hailed her. Friends beckoned to join them.
After a circuit of the meeting ground, Arian paused to take in the scene.
“Your son’s asleep?” The elderly woman was from an outlying steading and had come to Breninbury with her thane for the ceremony. Arian did not know her name.
“He’s a fine looking lad. A shame he’s not older.”
“True. I’d have liked him to remember this night.”
“That wasn’t what I meant.”
“What did you mean?” Though Arian already had a good idea.
“Him being true Lycanthian, and summer-born.”
“Yehan is true Lycanthian.”
“Weeeeell.” The woman drew the word out. “So they say. But a lot of folk think it would’ve been better if your sister had stayed away. Then your lad—”
“Yehan is the rightful heir. Feran will be a loyal companion to his king.”
“Oh, I don’t m—” The woman’s expression changed to a bland smile, as her eyes fixed over Arian’s shoulder.
“There you are. I wondered where you’d gone. I was looking for you.” Merial arrived.
Arian gave the elderly woman a last frown—age was no justification for her words—then turned away. “I was putting Feran to bed.”
Merial looped arms with her. “Let’s go somewhere quieter.”
They steered a path between the houses to the relative peace of the palisade. Cloud was rolling in from the south, cloaking the stars. The valley below was a patchwork of moonlight and shadow. No lights showed. The farming folk and their herds were asleep.
Arian slipped her arm free and leaned against the palisade. “Was there something you wanted to talk about?”
“Not really. Just to share my relief that today is over.”
“I know. But you needn’t have worried. Yehan is Gethryn’s rightful heir, and nobody was going to deny it. We won’t forsake our traditions. Not now, not ever.”
“Nothing lasts forever. The world will change no matter what we want.” Merial was facing east, towards the empire. “One day we’ll be just a memory.”
“No. This land is ours, from now till the end of time.”
“The land is ours because the empire doesn’t want it.”
“We’ve paid for it over and again with the blood of our warriors. As the empire will discover if they dare attack us.”
“Oh, Arian.” Merial sighed and took her hand. “You’ve no idea about the size of the empire. They can overwhelm us any time they choose. We’d be washed away like ants in a thunderstorm.”
Arian hunted for something safe and ordinary—a joke, gossip, plans for tomorrow, but then surprised herself by blurting out, “Why did you go away?”
Merial laughed softly. “Do you know you’re the only one who’s ever asked me that? All I get from anyone else is, why did I come back?”
“You came back because this is where you belong—you and Yehan and your daughters.”
“You can’t be serious. This is the land of your ancestors. It’s in your blood. It will always call you back.”
“Do you never hear the call of the empire?”
“No. Of course not.” The idea was ridiculous. “What does the empire have to offer anyone? Forget about it.”
“We can’t. The empire’s a seductive monster. We’ll end up inside it, either all at once, or little by little. If it doesn’t swallow us, we’ll crawl up its arse.”
“That’ll never happen. We’ll win in the end.”
“We’ve already lost.”
“No. We still…” Arian shook her head. “Why do you say that?”
“Because you’re the only one who’s never asked why I came back.”
“Have you been drinking?”
Merial laughed. “Some, but not nearly enough. Come on. Let’s see if we can fix that.”
Arian poked her head into Merial’s room. “Can you listen out for Feran and Eilwen, if they wake?”
Merial nodded, and then groaned, clearly regretting the motion. Her face twisted in a grimace. Not surprising. She had drunk considerably more than Arian the previous night, and Arian’s head and stomach were delicate enough.
She was not the only one who had overindulged, judging by the pained expressions Arian saw as she made her way across Breninbury. The main gate was already open. She paused just outside and drew a deep breath. The morning breeze over the hillside was cool on her face. Briefly, the thumping at her temples increased, and then faded.
Had Merial’s grimace been due to something other than a straightforward hangover? She rarely mentioned the time she had spent away from Breninbury, and what she did say was usually cryptic and lacking detail. But even by this standard, Merial had excelled herself. Leaving had been a mistake and that was all there was to say. It was not worth dwelling on the why of it.
The sun peeked over the hilltops to the east, lighting the familiar scene that had greeted Arian every day of her twenty-five years. Each tree, each rock, each bend in the river, was precious. It was her people’s birthright and was not going to change. She would not let it. Merial was wrong.
Arian set off downhill, weaving through the series of defensive earthworks. After the last embankment she turned onto the well-worn track to the sacred spring.
An ancient oak grove surrounded the spring and pool, nestling in a hollow near the foot of the hill. Rocky ground and thin soil meant the trees grew barely twice Arian’s height. Roots clawed around fallen clumps of boulders. Trunks were twisted and knotted. Far taller trees grew farther down the valley, yet none carried the weight of this grove. Years hung on the oaks, heavier than the moss draped over their intertwined branches. The air was thick, like water in Arian’s lungs.
The rustle of the breeze through the leaves was hushed. Even the birds seemed wary at breaking the solemn silence, leaving only the trickling of clear, fresh water, bubbling from the ground. It washed over smooth pebbles, before spilling into the sacred pool. Even with the brightening sky, the water was dark. Surrounding trees cast shadow, but no reflection.
Arian slipped the copper bracelet from her arm. The pool accepted her offering with hardly a splash. The circle of ripples spread and faded. Arian knelt and dipped her fingers. The water was chill on her forehead, her throat, and finally her lips. She closed her eyes and let her thoughts still. The ancestors’ spirits were here. She could sense them enfolding her, their strength and their love. A stirring of breeze was a mother’s kiss where the water had touched her skin.
A prayer for Yehan’s future. That was why she had come. Arian opened her mouth but was caught by unexpected doubts. Merial was wrong. Utterly wrong. The Lycanthi would never submit to the empire dogs. The ancestors would not allow it, and this sacred spring was the last place on Earth to waste a moment over the nonsense.
Arian tried to regather her sense of peace, but then came the sounds of someone approaching. Tregaran emerged from between a knot of trees. The high priest was also making a dawn visit to the sacred pool.
He smiled at her. “Well met, Arian. It’s good to see you here.”
“I wanted to make an offering for Yehan.” Not that any reason was required. “He needs the ancestors to intercede for him”
“As do we all.”
“Yehan needs more help than most.”
“Does he?” Tregaran lowered himself onto a boulder. Age was creeping up on him. His hair was more white than blond, and deep lines were etched on his face, but his eyes were as sharp as ever. “Yehan may embody the menace we face, and will have his own trials to face, but I do not think he stands in any greater danger than the rest of us. Dark clouds are on the horizon, drawing close. I fear the coming storm.”
“You’re worried about the empire?”
“Aren’t you?” Tregaran stared at the water. “It’s my sacred responsibility to guide our people on the path the gods have decreed for us. I pray I will be up to the task. If I fail, we lose everything. This is the land our ancestors fought and died for. We must stay true to them. We must stay strong.”
“If the empire dares invade, they’ll discover just how strong our warriors are.”
“The threat we face can not be defeated by swords and axes.”
“You think the empire would win?” Arian shook her head. “We’ll fight until the last drop of blood has been spent. We’ll never surrender.”
“If it were as simple as a battle, it would not be so important whether we won or lost.” Tregaran sighed. “Even if every last man, woman, and child were killed, we wouldn’t be shamed in the sight of our ancestors. We would have kept faith with the gods. Yet some are already tempted to stray. What I fear most is the slow creep into the trap. Some of our folk are falling for the lie that as long as you leave most of the palisade in place, it doesn’t matter if you give a few timbers away. But that’s how the empire will defeat us. One log at a time.”
The words had an uncomfortable ring. “Merial said something like that last night.”
“Did she? It’s not surprising. Your sister knows the empire well. And the temptations to be found there.” Disapproval was clear in Tregaran’s voice.
“But she came back. She rejected the empire in the end.”
“It might have been better had she stayed away. Now every time anyone looks at her, or her son, it raises questions.”
“They belong here. And Merial doesn’t talk about the empire.”
“That only makes it worse. It leaves every fool free to imagine the answers they want. And there has never been a shortage of fools.”
Gethryn. Arian was happy to supply a name. A question pushed into her head. “I…”
“I asked Merial why she left Breninbury. She wouldn’t answer. She never does. But I wondered if it might be because she hoped, without her, Gethryn would learn to stand on his own feet.”
“I cannot speak for your sister.”
No. Of course he could not. And it would not be fitting for a priest to voice criticism of the king. Arian bit her lip. If Merial had hoped Gethryn would become more independent, it had not worked. He just clung onto someone else as a prop. There was no iron in Gethryn’s soul.
Tregaran patted Arian’s shoulder and pushed up to his feet. “I’ll leave you to your prayers.”
Arian watched him disappear between the oak trees. Alone once more, she turned back to the sacred spring. Tregaran and Merial shared a fear of their people abandoning their traditions and willingly adopting the decadent empire ways. Why? What did they see as the lure? Why would any of the Lycanthi want to become a slave to foreign overlords?
Again, Arian dipped her fingers in the water and dotted it on head, throat, and lips. She closed her eyes, the request of the ancestors coming quickly and easily this time. “Please, let the world Feran and Yehan inherit be the one you left for them.”