he babe? He prayed to every god who walked or flew that the queen would know what to do—in the way he assumed a woman knew of such matters.
IN a distant time, in a distant place, the great island of Twylia swam in the vast blue Sea of Wonders. It was a land of mountains and valleys, of green forests and silver rivers, of wide fertile fields and quiet lakes. To those who lived there, it was the whole of the world.
Some said that once, in the dawn of beginnings, there was a bridge of land that led to other worlds, and back again to Twylia. A bridge of rock and earth conjured by the great wizard-god Draco, and so destroyed by him when the world beyond became a battlefield of greed and sorrow.
For on Twylia peace and prosperity prevailed for a thousand seasons.
But a time came when men—some men—sought more. When the more they sought was riches not earned, women not wooed, land not honored. And power, most of all—power not respected.
With this avarice, war and death, treachery and fear infected Twylia so that Draco, and those who came from him, wept to see the green fields stained with blood and the valleys echoing with the cries of starving children. He vowed, as he stood on the peak of Sorcerer’s Mountain, in the light of the moon, on the night of the solstice, that peace would return to the world.
It would come through blood, and courage, through pure love and willing sacrifice. After dark days, the light would shine again. And so he cast his spell.
There will be one born in the darkest hour of the darkest night who will wield the power and bring the light. The Crown of Stars only one will wear to prove this be my one true heir. Through blood and valor, through grief and joy, the True One shields what greed would destroy. But one seeks another, woman to man, heart to heart, and hand to hand. So warrior, witch, daughter, and son, will complete what has begun. If there is strength and hearts are pure, this land of Twylia will endure.
The midnight hour will forge their power to free this world of tyranny. As I will, so mote it be.
From the peak of Sorcerer’s Mountain, to the Valley of Faeries far below, across the fields and lakes and forests, the length and breadth of the island trembled from the might of the spell. Wind swirled and lightning spat.
So Draco sat atop his mountain and watched in glass and fire, in star and water as years passed.
As Draco bided, the world struggled. Good against evil, hope against despair. Magic dimmed in all but the secret places, and some grew to fear as much as covet it.
For a time, a short time, light bloomed again when good Queen Gwynn took the throne. The blood of the sorcerer ran in her veins, as did his love for the world. She was fair of face and of heart and ruled with a firm and loving hand beside her husband, the warrior-king Rhys. Together, they worked to heal the world, to rebuild the once grand City of Stars, to make the forests and fertile valleys safe again for the people of the world.
Hope shimmered into light, but its opposite lurked, and plotted. The shadows of envy and greed slithered in the corners and the caves of Twylia. And those shadows, under the guise of peace and reconciliation, armed for war and treachery. They marched into the City of Stars on a cold December morning, led by Lorcan, whose mark was the snake. And he would be king at any cost.
Blood and smoke and death followed. Come the dawn, the valiant Rhys lay dead and many who had fought with him slaughtered. Of the queen there was no sign.
On the eve of the solstice, Lorcan proclaimed himself king of Twylia and celebrated in the great hall of the castle, where royal blood stained the stones.
SNOW fell in streams of icy white. It chilled to the bone, but she didn’t curse it. It would blind any who pursued, and cover the trail. The bitter white cold was a blessing.
Her heart was broken, and her body nearly done. But she could not, would not yield. Rhys spoke to her, a spirit whisper in her mind that urged her to be strong.
She did not weep for his death. The tears, a woman’s tears for the man she loved, were frozen inside her. She did not cry out against the pain, though the pain was great. She was more than a woman. More even than a witch.
She was a queen.
Her mount plowed through the snow, surefooted and loyal. As loyal, she knew, as the man who rode in silence beside her. She would need the loyalty of the faithful Gwayne, for she knew what was coming, what she could not stop. Though she hadn’t seen her beloved Rhys’s death, she knew the instant the usurper’s sword had struck him down. So inside her cold and shattered heart she was prepared for what was to come.
She bit back a moan as the pain tore through her, breathed fast through her teeth until it eased again and she could say what needed to be said to Gwayne’s silence.
“You could not have saved him. Nor could I.” Tears stung her eyes and were viciously willed away. “Nor could I,” she said again. “You served him, and me, by obeying his last order to you. I regret . . . I’m sorry that I made it difficult for you to do so.”
“I am the queen’s man, my lady.”
She smiled a little. “And so you will continue to be. Your king thought of me. Even in the heat of battle, he thought of me, and our world. And our child.” She pressed a hand to her heavy belly, to the life that beat there. “They will sing songs of him long after . . .” The pain ripped a gasp from her, had her fumbling the reins.
“My lady!” Gwayne grabbed her reins to steady her mount. “You cannot ride.”
“I can. I will.” She turned her head, and her eyes were a fierce and angry green in a face as pale as the snow. “Lorcan will not find my child. It’s not time. It’s not yet time. There will be a light.” Exhausted, she slumped over the neck of her horse. “You must watch for the light, and guide us to it.”
A light, Gwayne thought, as they trudged through the forest. Night was falling, and they were miles from the City of Stars, miles from any village or settlement he knew. Nothing lived in these woods but faeries and elves, and what good were they to a soldier and a woman—queen or no—who was great with child?
But here, into the Lost Forest, was where she’d ordered him to take her. She’d fought him, that was true enough, when he bowed to the king’s command and dragged her from the castle. He had no choice but to lift her bodily onto the horse and whip her mount into a run.
They fled from the battle, from the stench of smoke and blood, from the screams of the dying. And royal command or not, he felt a coward for being alive while his king, his people, his friends were dead.
Still, he would guard the queen with his sword, with his shield, with his life. When she was safe, he would go back. He would slay the murderous Lorcan, or die trying.
There was murmuring under the wind, but it was nothing human, so didn’t concern him. Magic didn’t worry him. Men did. There may have been sorcery in Lorcan’s ambush, but it was men who had carried it out. It had been lies as much as spells that had opened the doors for him, allowed him to walk into the castle under the flag of diplomacy.
And all the while his men—those as vicious as he, and others he’d gathered from the far edges of the world and paid to fight in his name,—had prepared for the slaughter.
Not war, Gwayne thought grimly. It wasn’t war when men slit the throats of women, stabbed unarmed men in the back, killed and burned for the joy of it.
He glanced toward the queen. Her eyes stared straight ahead, but seemed blind to him. As if, he thought, she was in some sort of trance. He wondered why she hadn’t seen the deception, the bloodbath to come. Though he was a queen’s man in spite of her reputed powers rather than because of them, he figured sorcerer’s blood should have some vision.
Maybe it had something to do with her condition. He didn’t know anything about increasing women, either. He hadn’t wed, and didn’t intend to. He was a soldier, and in his mind a soldier had no need of wiving.
And what would he do when the time came for t
The heir to Twylia born in a snowbank in the Lost Forest during a winter storm. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t seemly.
And it terrified him more than any enemy’s sword.
They must stop soon, for their mounts were near exhaustion. He would do what he could to make a shelter for her. Build a fire. Then, gods willing, things would . . . progress as nature demanded they progress.
When it was done, and they’d rested, he would get them—somehow—to the Valley of Secrets, and the settlement of women—some said enchantresses—who lived there.
The queen and the child would be safe, and he would go back—go back and drive his sword through Lorcan’s throat.
He heard a sound—it was like music through the soughing wind. And looking to the west, he saw a glimmer of light through the stormy dark.
“My lady! A light.”
“Yes. Yes. Hurry. There isn’t much time.”
He pushed the mounts off the path, so they were forced to wade through the sea of snow, to wind around ice-sheathed trees toward that small flicker of light. The wind brought the smell of smoke to him, and his fingers gripped the hilt of his sword.
Ghosts slipped out of the dark, with arrows notched.
He counted six, and his soldier’s sense warned him there were more. “We have no gold,” he shouted. “We have nothing to steal.”
“That’s your misfortune.” One of the ghosts stepped forward, and he saw it was a man. Only a man, and a Traveler at that. “Why do you journey here, and on such a night?”
Travelers might steal, Gwayne knew, for the sport of it. But they wouldn’t attack unprovoked, and their reputation for hospitality was as renowned as their love of the road.
“Our business is our own, and we want no trouble from you, but only some of the warmth of your fire. I have a lady with me. She is near her time. She needs women to help her with the birthing.”
“Throw down your sword.”
“I will not, Nor will I raise it against you unless you seek to harm my lady. Even a Traveler should honor and respect a woman about to give birth.”
The man grinned, and under his hood his face was brown as a nut and just as hard. “Even a soldier should honor and respect men with arrows pointed at his heart.”
“Enough.” Gwynn threw her hood back, gathered her strength to raise her voice. “I am Gwynn, Queen of Twylia. Have you not seen the portents even through the storm of snow? Have you not seen the black snake slither over the sky this night to snuff out the stars?”
“We have seen, Majesty.” The man and those with him lowered to one knee in the snow. “My wife, our wisewoman, told us to wait, to watch for you. What has happened?”
“Lorcan has overthrown the City of Stars. He has murdered your king.”
The man rose, laid a fist on his heart. “We are not warriors, my lady queen, but if you bid it, we will arm and band and march against the snake in your name.”
“So you will, but not tonight, and not in my name but in the name of one yet to come. Your name, sir?”
“I am Rohan, my lady.”
“Rohan of the Travelers, I have sought you for a great task, and now I ask your help, for without it, all is lost. This child seeks to be born. Draco’s blood runs through me, and through this baby. You share this blood. Will you help me?”
“My lady, I and all I have are yours to command.” He took her horse’s halter. “Go back,” he shouted to one of his men. “Tell Nara and the women to prepare for a birth. A royal birth,” he added, his teeth flashing in a smile. “We welcome a cousin.” He pulled the horse toward the camp. “And enjoy a fight. Though Travelers pay little mind to the changing wind of politics, you will find none among us who has love for Lorcan.”
“Politics play no part in murder done under a flag of truce. And your fate is tied to what happens this night.”
He looked back at her and fought off a shudder. It seemed her eyes burned through the dark and into him. “I give you my sympathies for the loss of your husband.”
“It is more than that.” She reached down, gripped his hand with an urgency that ground bone to bone. “You know the Last Spell of Draco?”
“Everyone knows it, my lady. The song of it is passed generation to generation.” And he, a man who feared little, felt his hand tremble in hers. “This child?”
“This child. This night. It is destiny, and we must not fail to meet it.”
The pain seized her, and she swooned. She heard voices, dim and distant. A hundred voices, it seemed, rising up in a flood. Hands reached for her, lifted her down from her mount as the birth pangs ripped a cry from her throat.
She smelled pine, and snow and smoke, felt something cool pressed to her brow. When she came back to herself, she saw a young woman with bright red hair that gleamed in the firelight. “I am Rhiann, sister of Rohan. Drink a little, my lady. It will ease you.”
She sipped from the cup held to her lips and saw she was in a rough shelter of branches. A fire burned nearby. “Gwayne?”
“Your man is just outside, my lady.”
“This is women’s work, and men are useless here, be they warrior or scholar.”
“My mother,” Rhiann said. “Nara.”
Gwynn looked at the woman busily tearing cloth. “I’m grateful to you.”
“Let’s get this baby into the world, such as it is, then you can be grateful. Get that water on the fire. Fetch my herbs.” The orders were snapped out as Gwynn felt the grip of the next pang.
Through the blurring of her vision she saw movement, heard chatter. More women. Women’s work. Birth was the work of women, and death, it seemed, the work of men. Tears she’d conquered earlier now began to spill.
More voices spoke to her, inside her head, and told her what she already knew. But they were small comfort as she fought to give her child life.
“Midnight approaches.” She turned her head against Rhiann’s bracing shoulder. “The solstice. The darkest hour of the darkest day.”
“Push,” Nara ordered. “Push!”
“The bells, the bells strike the hour.”
“There are no bells here, my lady.” Rhiann watched the cloths go red with blood. Too much blood.
“In the City of Stars, Lorcan has the bells rung. For his celebration, he thinks. But they ring out for the child, for the beginning. Oh! Now!”
Rearing back, she pushed the child into life. She heard the cries and laughed through her own weeping.
“This is her hour, this is her time. The witching hour between night and day. I must hold her.”
“You’re weak, my lady.” Nara passed the squalling baby to Rhiann.
“You know as well as I, I’m dying. Your skill, Nara, your herbs, even your magic can’t stop my fate. Give me my child.” She held out her arms, and smiled at Rhiann. “You have a kind heart to weep for me.”
“I must speak to Gwayne. Quickly,” she said as Rhiann put the baby in her arms. “There’s little time. Ah, there you are. There you are, my sweet girl.” She pressed a kiss on the baby’s head. “You’ve healed my heart, and now it tears in two again. Part to stay here with you, part to go to your father. How I grieve to leave you, my own. You will have his eyes, and his courage. My mouth, I think,” she murmured and kissed it, “and what runs in my blood. So much depends on you. Such a small hand to hold the world.”
She smiled over the baby’s head. “She will need you,” she said to Nara. “You will teach her what women need to know.”
“You would put your child into the hands of a woman you don’t know?”
“You heard the bells.”
Nara opened her mouth, then sighed. “Yes, I heard them.” And she had seen, with a woman’s heavy heart, what would pass this night.
Gwayne came into the shelter, fell to his knees beside her. “My lady.”
“She is Aurora. She is your light, your queen, your charge. Will you swear your fealty to her?”
“I will. I do.”
“You cannot leave her.”