Kieran had made a serious mistake; his stomach churned sourly
with the realization. Wind blew as cruelly as the breath of the ice-dragon in
the Ballad of Barran, driving white,
wet flakes against his face, his hair, his already-sodden clothes. Despite the
bitter cold, sweat darkened his mare’s gray coat in streaks. He patted her
shoulder in apology and urged her on. The only slim hope they both had for
surviving the night lay in moving forward.
He had only himself to blame if he died out here, but his
poor horse had not taken part in that decision.
Kieran was surrounded by snow and gray rock and the
occasional bare, gray tree thrashing against a slate sky that darkened with
encroaching night. He could see no sign of habitation, no shelter to speak of.
Maybe over the next
He had though the path he followed was a bridle path or at
least a peddler’s track, but now he wondered if it had just been a deer trail. It
had risen, and dipped, and risen again, but here, clear of the thick forest, he
could no longer deny he overall ascended the mountain. Did mortals dwell in
higher altitudes? The ones he’d encountered before all seemed to prefer to farm
the fertile valleys.
His hands ached with cold, and he wondered how long it would
take for them to warm up enough to play, should he find some place to exchange
a few songs for food and a roof to sleep under. The cobwebby tightness he felt
in his chest did not bode well for his singing voice. Nor did the congestion
that made his head feel twice its normal size.
What was all this cold and damp doing to his harp? It nestled
in its protective case, carefully wrapped in oilskin, but still the weather
couldn’t be doing it any good.
The harp had been his father’s, as had the sword at his side.
He was rather more skilled with the former than the latter, though he could
take care of himself well enough.
He thought fondly of the warm, cozy village inn where he’d
slept last night, of the orange glow of the fire in the huge hearth. His
stomach rumbled, remembering the savory stew the innkeeper had been pleased to
serve him in exchange for songs and stories to entertain his guests.
That inn was nearly a day’s ride behind him. Yes, he could
have asked them the distance to the next town, asked for advice as to the road
ahead. But he’d been having far too much fun playing the mysterious,
all-knowing elven bard, coming from nowhere to nowhere on a whim.
A poor legacy he had become for the great bard his father had
been if he ended up dead on the road like some beggar, and all a result of his
pride and folly. Doubtless few he’d left behind would be surprised at his end.
Likely they’d just shake their heads. Crazy
Kieran. Talented, but impulsive. Entirely too foolhardy.
Some, at least, might
miss him. Brona would. Surely more would miss his music.
The mare lost her footing in the snow just as the path
dipped. She slid for a few dangerous lengths before regaining her balance. She
snorted in alarm. Kieran murmured to her soothingly.
The snow had started well after noon. By that time, he had
gone hours without seeing an inn or even a farmhouse, and decided his best
chances lay in pressing ahead, though all he could see was endless forest. Then
even the trees became sparser, smaller, and bent, stretching away from the
fierceness of the prevailing winds. Stark, black rock rose up through the snow
drifts like the teeth of the mountain. The sun sank low, and the air grew
Kieran shivered convulsively. He could no longer feel his
Fortune had favored him for weeks into his sojourn. The
mortals were kinder and more generous than he’d expected, eager for music and
in awe of his strangeness. A bard was a rarity, an elven bard something out of
legend. That they recognized him at all, and that they were surprised at his
dark hair, set whispers of caution running through his mind, but he ignored
them. He’d shared songs and stories, gathered material to be worked into new
tales and ballads. He represented an old tradition, and one nearly dead now.
Kieran’s father had been the last elven bard to honor it, in his own youth,
At least, his father had been the last Scathlan elf to follow
the tradition. Kieran knew nothing of the Leas elves, nor did he care to know,
so long as they stayed far away from him.
By setting out in the
world his own people had long abandoned, he risked encountering his people’s
enemies—the Leas elves had been responsible for his father’s death and, indirectly,
his mother’s, as well as his stillborn brother’s. Ironically, mere cold and
snow proved a bigger threat.
Reckless, old Cyrna would say. Reckless and irresponsible.
She’d said it often enough in the years she’d put into
raising him to his majority. He’d given his old nursemaid plenty of
The mare raised her head, alert, ears pricked hard forward.
Kieran’s hearing, far keener than a mortal’s, didn’t quite match that of his
elven horse. A few moments later, he heard what had caught her attention.
Thunder of hooves, belling of hounds, and voices calling back
and forth. He turned his mare toward the sound. She picked up the pace of her
own accord, breaking into a trot.
Closer still, and he could make out the words. Could he be
mad from the cold? That sounded like his own tongue which he had not heard
spoken for nearly a month.
His own tongue, yes, but the accent was wrong. His people,
and yet not his people.
He reined the mare in. She pinned her ears and pawed but
obeyed the command. The coming night meant certain death unless he found
shelter and warmth. The Leas he was less sure of. They were still elves, after
all. He was alone, and a bard, and a stranger in need. Even the meanest mortal
crofter would not refuse him a place at the hearth under such circumstances.
He remembered the stench of blood and the moans of the
wounded and dying, before the healer’s aide found him and shooed him from the
infirmary. His four-year-old mind had struggled to grasp that other elves had
done these terrible things. Not animals, not even mortal men, but elves. Leas. He’d had nightmares about
Leas, fueled by what little he’d heard of them. Like his people, and yet
unlike. Pale-haired, with mouths twisted in awful cruelty.
He had never met one face to face, though they were distant
kin to his kind. He felt a morbid curiosity about those who had been
responsible for the destruction of his family and his queen.
The sounds of the hunt came closer, and Kieran realized he
had been sitting frozen, like a rabbit in the hypnotic stare of a fox. He shook
himself. Maybe he was not the bard his father was, after all, but he was all
the hope his people had, whether they acknowledged it or no. He’d be damned
before he yielded meekly to the foe.
Kieran turned his mare, ignoring her rumble of protest. He
urged her to a gallop. She refused. He clapped his heels into her sides as
though she were a mortal’s nag. She bucked in shock, then lunged forward.
The shouts behind him changed in tone. He had been spotted.
The mare labored in the deep snow drifts, skidded,
floundered, and pitched to her knees. His cold-stiffened limbs reacted too
slowly. He tumbled over her head, landing on his back. His father’s harp broke
beneath him with a sickening crunch that echoed forever against uncaring rocks.
The mare struggled to her feet, but the dark shapes of tall,
powerful horses were coming upon him, close enough now that he could see the
fair hair of the riders escaping from under their hoods. Not enough time to remount,
and too many of them to fight.
The horses pulled up in a semi-circle around him, blowing
clouds of steam with each breath. Several of the riders dismounted. All wore
swords, and all moved as though they knew how to use them. All were pale and
eerie beings out of his nightmares.
Kieran spared a moment’s regret for the music that would die
with him and for the home he would never see again. If this were the end, he
hoped it would be quick and clean.
Alban shook his head at the sweat-streaked coat of the
stranger’s mare. Irresponsible. He
handed his reins to his squire, then turned his attention to the fallen rider
who had just become his problem, at least until he could get the fool to his
Why had the man tried to flee? Yes, he was trespassing, but
the Leas and the mortals were on good terms. The worst the interloper would
face was a lecture from Alban’s father before he was returned safely home. No
other shelter lay within half a day’s ride, and with night and the storm
closing fast, being taken in by the Leas offered his only chance at survival.
What was the man doing here in the first place, so far from any mortal
Best get the horse and the fool to shelter and sort it out
later. He approached the stranger with a hand out to help him to his feet—and
He registered features just as fine and angular as his own—elf!—and hair black as the heart of all
Alban had never expected see one in the flesh, though the war
between their peoples had shadowed his life since before his birth.
Scathlan. Cold. Proud. Ruthless. Elves, yes, but elves
bloodthirsty enough to slaughter their own cousins over a small slight of
If the Scathlan had had their way, he would have never been
born. The love that had brought him into being had also birthed the bitterest
war in the long history of elvenkind.
Footsteps crunched in the snow. Alban turned to face Eamon,
his swordmaster and hunting companion. Eamon knew far more of the Scathlan than
did Alban. He had known them before the war, when there had been peace between
their peoples and civil, if stiff, relations between them. He had fought them
in the war, and still bore a nasty scar from a Scathlan arrow in his thigh that
had left him with a limp in cold weather.
Eamon had twice his years and had been his mentor since he
was a child. Still, he deferred to Alban here because Alban was the lord’s son,
even though Alban wished he would take the decision from his hands. Alban
couldn’t show hesitance or weakness by conferring in front of the enemy. The
Scathlan was yet another responsibility on his shoulders, and none of his
Maybe the Scathlan was a spy or perhaps an advanced scout. He
didn’t look dangerous. To be honest, he looked scared, and cold, and miserable.
Looks could deceive.
Everyone—the Scathlan, his own companions—were waiting for
him to take charge of the situation. As King Toryn’s son, he had
responsibilities. He drew himself up.
“What are you doing on Leas land?” Alban asked in his coldest
The stranger gave a sharp laugh. “Believe me, if I had known
this was Leas land, I would have stayed far, far away.”
“I don’t. Believe you, that is. I know how far your dwellings
lie from here. How could you possibly end up here by accident?”
The stranger glared at him with eyes as black as a crow’s.
“By following my nose.”
“To what purpose?”
The Scathlan’s smile showed false, his shrug insolent. “Only
to chase songs from inn to inn, like a lark flitting from tree to tree.”
“Liar.” Alban stalked toward the Scathlan whose very presence
threatened the peace and the lives of his people.
The stranger tried to rise and flee. He floundered, and his
scream rent the darkening sky. The Scathlan must have injured himself in the
fall and been too numb with cold and the shock of the fall to feel it until he
tried to stand.
Alban pushed pity aside, pushed aside the healer’s instincts
that were part of the Leas royal birthright. This was a Scathlan elf who would
kill Alban if he could.
The Scathlan scrambled backward, dragging one leg and
revealing the remains of a harp that must have broken beneath him when he fell.
Alban knew a little about harps; his mother played and had
even studied under an itinerant Scathlan bard before the war. From what he
could see of the pieces that spilled from the smashed case, the instrument had
once been a fine travel harp.
The Scathlan wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword.
Alban wondered if he even knew how to use it. He wore no armor, and wasn’t even
properly dressed for mountain weather in this season. He looked like nothing
more than the wandering musician he claimed to be.
Alban couldn’t kill the Scathlan in cold blood, not for
merely trespassing. Leaving him here, injured and with the snow falling and
night setting in, would condemn him to a slower death. Though every instinct
screamed against bringing a Scathlan into his father’s hall, he had no other
The wind blew harder. Alban pulled his fur-lined cloak closer
about him. He wanted to get out of the cold and get the stranger to shelter. It
would be easier if the stranger cooperated. Alban’s approach, to this point,
had not been particularly conducive to encouraging cooperation.
He took a deep breath, concentrating on his empathy for the
stranger’s misery and setting aside his antipathy for the stranger’s race.
He forced a smile and approached the Scathlan. “What is your
“What business is it of yours?”
“I could say it is
my business, as you are trespassing on our lands.” Matching the stranger’s
hostility wouldn’t help; Alban took a calming breath. “But let’s set that aside
for the moment. You’ve gotten yourself into a bad spot, Scathlan. Even an elf
can’t survive a night on the mountain this time of year, and I take it you’re
“Whatever you want from me, you’ll not get it. I’d rather
For certain, the Scathlan had a bard’s flair for the
dramatic. “I can’t imagine wanting anything from your kind. But tempting as it
may be, I can’t let even a Scathlan elf freeze to death. My name is Alban,
since you didn’t ask, and I am prince of the Leas. You will be a guest in my
“Guest? Prisoner, rather. At least speak the truth.”
Alban’s tenuous hold on his temper started to slip. “Believe
me or don’t, it makes no difference to me. But I can’t leave you here to die,
and there is no other option. If there were a mortal village anywhere near, I’d
be only too happy to dump you at the inn with enough coin to cover a bed and
The wind gusted, blowing snow into his face. He shivered.
Past time to end this conversation and return to the warmth of his father’s
Alban took a step toward the stranger, reaching out to help
him to his feet.
The stranger crawled backward, struggled to his knees, and
awkwardly drew his sword.
Alban stopped, more in astonishment than fear. The Scathlan
had courage. Not much sense, but courage to spare.