Authors: Jennifer Melzer
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogue therein are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Melzer
All rights reserved.
By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this book. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, compiled, reverse-engineered, or stored in or introduced to any information storage and retrieval system, in any form of by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express permission of Jennifer Melzer.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
Formatting by Dragon’s Gold Publishing
Cover design by Starla Huchton
For Christie, who always knows exactly what I’m saying, even when there’s absolutely nothing to say
Special thanks to Denise, Bonnie, Elizabeth and Karein for being the first to return to Vennakrand with me, and to Brian, who took time out of his busy schedule to share his vast knowledge of all things equestrian, even though he had books of his own to write.
“It’s been three days, Your Majesty.” He said the word majesty with deliberate disdain, watching the king’s face with sharp, excited green eyes. The prince grinned just a little and stretched his long legs further beneath the table. He perched both arms atop the ledge, as if that lip of wood alone held him aloft. The casual position lent an appearance of laziness and indifference, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
His sorceress stood at his back, arms crossed, head tilted. Strategically in front of the door, which she blocked with magic so they might not be disturbed while interrogating the king, the length of her silver hair hung around her shoulders and the muscles of her mouth flexed tight with superiority.
“I’ve given you appropriate time to grieve your losses, and now I want answers. Why did she do it? What did she know that was worth dying for?”
King Aelfric of Leithe, one of the proudest men in the Middle Kingdoms, was little more than a mere shell of the arrogant monarch he’d been only five days earlier, lifted his embittered stare with surprising alacrity, but there was nothing pleasant about the leer hidden beneath the untrimmed hairs of his mustache. His pride unbroken, Trystay could see he was on the very edge. The man was horrified and more afraid than he had probably ever been in his fifty-nine years.
How quickly the mighty fall
, he thought, his own cynical grin stretching into a tight, pinched line of disgust.
A kinder man would have shown more compassion, considering everything the king lost in the blink of an eye, but Trystay was in no way kind, nor was he compassionate. Such trifles were the attributes of lesser men and kings, and he knew that were the boot upon the other foot, were he in Aelfric’s position, the king of Leithe would spare him no quarter, offer no kindness. From time to time he caught the king glaring at him, and he knew what dark and twisted wishes the man plotted behind those steely eyes. The barest hint of the warrior he’d once been stared back at the prince from time to time, but he’d lost too much to form even a convincing scowl or challenge.
Sorrow… It was a wonderful thing. Grief bred weakness, where once strength dwelt.
“Yes,” Aelfric nodded, the word barely leaving his lips. His voice grew hollow as he went on to confess, “You’ve been very generous, Trystay, offering three days so I might grieve, but it feels as if it’s been a lifetime, and I still know not why she did what she did. Why she betrayed me.”
“Then perhaps it would be best to set your grief aside and act, Sire.” That last word he spoke with unbridled distaste, as though the mere acknowledgment of the other man’s royal blood was ash on his tongue, but Aelfric didn’t seem to notice. “There is little time to dwell on sorrows when a man has a target for his frustrations. Your daughter…”
“If it is to Lorelei you refer, that abomination is not my daughter,” the king hissed, showing signs of rage for the first time in days. “I would have been a smarter man to poison the seed while it still festered in the womb.” And then the grief returned, unshed tears swelling in the man’s eyes as he thought to his wife. “I spared her for her mother’s sake, because I loved her more than life itself. Oh Ygritte,” he moaned, lowering his head. The sound evoked an impatient eye-roll from Trystay, who drew his legs from beneath the table and sat up straight. “The things we do for love.”
“Pull yourself together, man!”
The prince’s flat palm came down atop the table, the blunt force of it tingling through his hand almost painfully and the sound startling the king in front of him before he was able to slip into another pathetic spell of sobbing over a woman who’d clearly been plotting against him since he’d taken her to bed on their wedding night.
At his back, Deallora did not move, but stood stoic and proud, staring straight ahead as if in deep trance.
“Your woman betrayed you, fool! And from the looks of it, it was a betrayal planned long before its execution.” Trystay pushed his chair away from the table, his long legs rising as he stood to tower over the king. “Do you really think she took her life out of guilt over the things she’s done?”
Trembling lower lip, eyes red-rimmed and irritated, Aelfric lifted his head again, shaking it in disbelief. “I was good to her,” he stammered. “I gave her everything…”
“You hunted her down like a dog when she ran from you, killed her husband and made her watch!”
“She was mine. Promised to me, just as Lorelei was promised to you, but she…”
“But she had other plans, just like her daughter. I will not stand by and be made the fool, and I will not make the same mistakes you made.”
“Wh—what are you saying?”
“I will do that which you did not have the courage to do. Ygritte should have been culled for her crimes against you. Both her and the mutant offspring she carried inside her should have put down like the rabid dogs she chose to keep company with.”
“You’ll kill her?”
“Does she deserve any less?”
Tilting back his head, Trystay felt the jostling of his own hair as it slid down the center of his spine. For a moment he closed his eyes, knowing that timing was everything. Aelfric’s grief made him weak, a liability if ever there was one, and though he’d shown definite signs of animosity toward the child he raised as his own in the days since his wife was discovered dead in her sitting room, the poisoned cup shattered on the floor around the golden strands of her lovely hair, the unexpected blow of her suicide broke the king beyond repair.
There was madness behind every utterance, rumor spreading through the castle he’d been muttering rather often to himself, or rather to his queen, as if she walked beside him as he paced the magically blocked corridor outside the wing in which Trystay’s men kept watch over him. Senseless phrases, oh how he prattled on, they said. The king was mad, no longer fit to rule, and though he could have called for reinforcements, taken the city by force and placed himself upon the throne in Leithe, Trystay had other plans.
“She betrayed me,” Trystay went on. “She made me look like a jester in front of my men, my father and everyone in both kingdoms. I nearly fell for her harlotry when she threw herself at me, but now I know she would have likely slit my throat while I slept. For that I will do to her the very thing you were too sodden with lust for her mother to carry out.”
Head shaking, eyes squinting as the king tried to make sense of his threat, Aelfric murmured something that didn’t quite reach Trystay’s ears.
Tilting his head almost thoughtfully, the grin that wrenched the left-hand side of his face was hideous and triumphant.
“I will not reward her for her betrayal with a crown, but hunt her down,” he said rather simply, “and when I find her, I’m going to kill her for making me look like a fool.”
An eerie softness washed over the king’s face, smoothing the lines and wrinkles as he held his head up high and said, “She’s just a girl. Despite her nature, she was a good girl… Surely there are other ways… I made promises to her mother…”
Squinting with disgust, Trystay’s head began to shake, but his glare never wavered from Aelfric’s face. “She’s not a girl, you doddering imbecile. She’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a beast no better than the dogs in my hunting party before her U’lfer tore them to pieces and scattered their remains across the Edgelands. I won’t make the same mistakes you made, Your Majesty. I will never take that traitor to my bed, or call her my wife.”
“Ygritte is dead, and her last act before she took her own life was to steal from you the only legitimate heir to your kingdom and hide it. You need to find your daughter, Your Majesty. Your true daughter, not the U’lfer bastard you attempted to taint my family line with, and when you do, she and everything you hold dear become mine.”
“You…” Aelfric shook his head, confused and disoriented. “You would still honor the terms of our alliance, still tie our houses together and forgive…”
“Forgive?” Trystay laughed, the boisterous clamor of his mock-amusement ringing through the long halls so loudly several servants on the other side of the palace were later said to have heard it. “I don’t forgive, Sire, and I never forget.”
“But you said…”
“I said you will give the girl to me, along with everything else you have. Your crown, your castle, your men… They’re mine now, and if you utter even the slightest word of protest, I’ll gut you where you stand and take it all by force. Your people will know such suffering under my rule.”
For the briefest of moments the monarch in Aelfric, the warmongering conqueror who’d almost single-handedly wiped out the U’lfer race, rose to the surface and he straightened his shoulders in defiance. “What’s stopping you then? Why don’t you just kill me and get it over with?”
“Don’t fool yourself for even a moment it is a kindness,” he assured him.
“Then be a man and do it. If you want my kingdom, you’ll have to take it by force because I’ll never hand it over to you.”
“We shall see,” he shrugged, then called over his shoulder to the guards posted just outside the door. With a clatter the doors opened and two guards strode in, heads held high as they focused their attention on the prince.
“You called, my lord?”
“I did, Kellen.” He grinned back over his shoulder at Aelfric. “Were my orders carried out?”
“Yes, my lord. The royal adviser and the king’s steward have both been tended to.”
“Tended to?” Aelfric’s glare shot upward in dismay. “What does that mean, tended to?”
“I believe they suffered an unfortunate accident, did they not?”
“Most unfortunate, Highness,” Kellen confirmed.
Quivering lips spilled anxious words into the air. The king of Leithe leaned back in his chair, flabbergasted to the point of speechlessness.
“I am to be your adviser in his stead,” Trystay announced. “And it is my advice that you draw up orders for your men.”
“Yes, it’s time we finish what should have ended with the War of Silence.”
Eyes arcing toward the high ceiling overhead, he shook his head as if he couldn’t believe how daft the man in front of him was. “You’re sending troops into the Edgelands,” he explained. “Five thousand men to rout her out and burn that pitiful prison to the ground. With my help, you will finish what you started, put an end to the U’lfer once and for all, and when they’ve found that simpering bitch you tried to pawn off on me, they will drag her back here and we will bring her to justice for her crimes.”
Aelfric’s expression was indescribable, horror mingled with relief, guilt wrangling with self-righteousness and sparking strange light in his watery eyes. “And if I don’t?” he finally asked.
“Why wouldn’t you?” Trystay shrugged.
“Why would I?”
“Aelfric,” it felt good to dispense with the formality of a title he felt the king didn’t truly deserve. “You are an old man,” he pointed. “You’ve lost your wife and the only legitimate heir to a kingdom you can barely hold onto with those stiff, arthritic hands of yours. I am offering to help you, pledging my men to your cause. All I’m asking in return is that you bring back your daughter, your true daughter, and give me her hand so that when you die,” he paused for a moment, choosing his next words carefully, “and you will die sooner or later, old man, rule of your kingdom falls to me through our heirs. You see, I don’t want it to come to a fight. I want your men to follow me, to embrace and accept me because their dying king wishes his son-in-law to succeed him.”