Roaran was a few steps from death. It waited in a cavern beneath his feet where a centuries-old bladesmith would try to kill him. The bladesmith did not know Roaran. But the guardian of the forge, dutiful to the gods, always struck first without seeking to learn an intruder’s intent.
For all the danger, Roaran could not turn back. Not only the gods’ games of power, their machinations and deceptions, but dark fate also closed about him. Soon, an enemy would hunt him. Then even he would be defenceless against his foe’s magic.
He climbed down the cliff face to the cave, a sword slash in rocks. Fog closed in, damp on his arms. The Enarae cleaved and shifted. Like a petal dragged through dust, its disquiet strummed his spine, until he muttered another spell, then time and place settled.
From deep within the salt grottos below the precipice where Caelan would one day build the castle of Tide’s End, metal rang. Someone shaped iron. Roaran walked towards the sounds through torchlit tunnels wrought from stone, wondering in awe at their age.
Scattered hammers, tongs, and cooling strips of iron crowded blackened benches in a chamber carved into rock. A figure with curly black hair, wearing only a leather apron over pants, impatiently turned from an anvil. Soot darkened the pores of scarred skin on his bare, broad chest. Woodsmoke, sweat, and heat thickened the air.
The smith snatched up a sword and came at Roaran fast, bellowing as he swung the sword.
As if cutting fog, the blade passed through Roaran’s body. The guardian reeled a step. The weapon slipped from his fingers to the floor.
“What are you?” he whispered, his language Seithin. “Are you even here? Or are you a ghost?”
Yes, Roaran might have said. He was a ghost of sorts, an echo in time. A seer with the ability to breach the Enarae, to harness its power, to ride its currents into the past. A rare talent he, a Telorian, had mastered only through the harsh teachings of a Quisnaf sorceress.
“Not a ghost.” Roaran spoke Quisnaf, the language from his time closest to ancient Seithin. “Not quite a sorcerer.”
“A seer,” the smith muttered. He flinched away, his hands raised as a barrier. “No seer may come here. No one human is permitted within the sacred forge.”
“I seek a charm to protect me from a god,” Roaran said.
The smith’s eyes held resistance. “What sort of god?”
“A god of Seithin who drinks blood. Just like his followers.”
The guardian scoffed. “There are beasts that eat flesh. We call them gormels, and they fall readily to steel. But blood-drinkers? We have no gods like that.”
Roaran swiped at beaded sweat on his temple. Though smoke from two fires escaped through a hole above, the intense heat coated his skin. Very quietly, he said, “Not yet.”
The smith shuddered, his eyes locked on Roaran. “The otherworld indeed clings to you, stranger. You’ve come to not only the wrong place, but the wrong time.”
“I bring an offering,” Roaran said.
The guardian lifted one brow. “Then you know the old lore. But beware, seer. If your offering does not please me, your life is forfeit. And I am rarely pleased.” Firelight mirrored in his eyes, the flicker of a secret pain buried within his stare.
“It must be lonely.” Roaran had intended to offer the guardian of the forge a ring of red beryl, gold, and blue diamonds, but the smith yearned for something far simpler but far more valuable than rare jewels. “To be so alone.”
“I have duty. It is enough.”
Is it? Roaran might have said. Can it be? “I offer you something more.” He ripped his knife across his palm. “I offer you a seer’s gift.”
“A seer’s gift?” The smith frowned at the blood ribboning down Roaran’s arms.
Roaran strode at him. As he held his bloody hand close to the guardian’s brow, the smith cried out in surprise. Then his eyes hazed in wonder.
Swept up in the guardian’s vision, Roaran glimpsed a young woman with light-brown hair and a girl with her mother’s opaque blue eyes. He, too, longed for them, longed for such untarnished love.
But that love could not be his. The guilty did not deserve it. No matter what incantations he cast, his dead queen did not come to him. Even in dreams. Certainly not with compassion. Never forgiven, Roaran had nothing. Just duty, as cold and hard as his heart.
The bladesmith clutched at air as if to touch the figures. The image from the past lingered with all its cruel promise, its pain. Then Roaran reeled, dizzy and spent, drawing his hand away.
“No,” the guardian said. “Please. Just one more moment with them.”
Shivering, coughing blood, Roaran braced his palms against his thighs. “I must recover my strength. Then I’ll bring them to you once more.”
“So many centuries since they died, since I was human.” The guardian sighed. “I see what the vision cost you. Thank you, seer, for the comfort you just gave me.”
“Everything of the heart comes at a cost.”
The smith stared into the flames. “You shall have your charm. I ask only for another moment with my wife and child.” He threw more wood into the forge and picked up his hammer. As the fire leapt high, a shape unlike the flames writhed on the stone walls.
The guardian did not see it. Nor did he hear the terrible rattling laughter from Roaran’s god.
“Roaran. Roaran.” Nicky’s familiar voice reached down into his trance, into the past, yanking him back to the tower tomb.
Disoriented, caught between wakefulness and the last hazy remnants of his vision, Roaran struggled in a terror-filled moment when he could not wholly return his spirit to Azenor’s body, when he feared he might drift in walking dreams forever. Then coldness seeped from the slabs at his back, a crisp chill gnawing at his bones.
Grey light stole beneath the door and into the tower tomb. It was near dawn then, the night lost to dreams. The air smelt of nothing. No wind skirled. No insects hummed. No paws skittered. The quiet was absolute, as though while he had walked beyond the Enarae, this chamber had broken away from the drab land outside.
“Thank the gods.” Nicky crouched at his side, his face tight with concern. “You’ve been unconscious for hours. I feared you were lost in the Enarae.”
“There’s one at least who’d be glad of that. Val’s still furious?”
“He’s in a foul mood, indeed,” Nicky said. “Been upstairs the entire night, plotting revenge. Now he’s outside somewhere.”
“Self-indulgent nonsense.” Roaran rubbed his eyes. Icy sweat jewelled his brow.
“You don’t look so good,” Nicky muttered. “Where did you go in your dream walk?”
“Further back than I’ve travelled before. To when Caelan was building his triangle of castles to establish his new kingdom of Telor.” For all the smith’s talk of gormels, surely that must have been a less troubled time than now. Because there had been hope, belief in that young king with a god’s blood.
If Roaran found a gateway, he could escape into Telor’s past. He could run from himself, the man with a soul stained by the long, weary centuries of guile and manipulation.
His fingers dug into the floor. Despair caught him up. Nauseous and dizzy, he shut his eyes hard. No. He could never elude that damaged man. Nor could he pull back. Not now. His duty was to destroy Archanin and save Roaran’s people. Nothing else mattered.
He lay quietly, letting himself sense the other soul within. His spell trapped Kaell in a blissful sleep. For now. Once they retrieved Roaran’s own body from the ice, he would surrender this form to Kaell once more.
“Well?” Nicky raised his brows. “Did you get it?”
Roaran sat up, struggling for a moment to align his movements with this different body again. He opened his fist. The iron amulet lay in his palm. “I got it.”
“Will it work?”
It had to. Roaran attached the charm to a cord and drew it down over his hair. Her hair. Once a luxurious velvet-soft cascade he had loved to run through his fingers, it was now cropped short, wisping onto his cheeks. Her cheeks. No, thinking like that would drive him mad. His cheeks. His hair. His body—until they cut his own from its icy grave.
He tucked the cord beneath his shirt. The amulet tingled against a breast as the magic settled. He sighed in relief.
“Roaran.” Nicky touched his shoulder. “About your other problem.”
“My Val Arques problem?”
“This won’t go away. Telor’s best bladesman, a man who just tasted darkness, is now your enemy.”
Roaran’s lips pulled back off his teeth. Curse Val for his stubborn, tiresome anger. “I can’t worry about him. Not yet. We have to recover my body. Before Myranthe wonders if I fooled her.”
“Roaran.” Nicky’s grip tightened. “You manipulated Val into an act of murderous violence that goes against his very nature. Now you’ve taken over this body without Kaell’s consent. If it were me, I’d come after you hard.”
Roaran smoothed damp hair away from his eyes. “Tell me what else I could have done?”
“I don’t know. Maybe there was another way.”
“And maybe there wasn’t. Whatever it takes, I have to destroy Archanin.” Roaran bunted air with a hand to accent his resolve. “Once he stops sulking and gets over his hurt feelings, Val Arques will understand my every action was to save this land.”
He pushed unsteadily to his feet, surprised at the differences in Azenor’s body, particularly the bulk of muscles in her shoulders and arms.
“Let’s just leave him here,” Nicky said. “We don’t need him.”
“You don’t want a swordsman of his ability at your side when we take down Archanin? We have precious few allies in this fight. We need Val Arques.”
“Roaran, he wants to kill you.”
“He won’t hurt me.” Roaran brushed his palms down his borrowed form. “If it means hurting Kaell, he won’t do a thing.”
CHAPTER 2. AINGEAR
From spikes upon a tower’s frost-glazed merlons, the heads of the dead stared at nothing, as oblivious to the slanted shadows and menacing wind as Archanin. His back to the Damadar city’s bulky walls, he watched from her side as his ghoul and Varee sycophants chipped a block from the glacial river below.
Ashen light fell on plunging picks showering silver shards of ice into the air. Snowflakes danced about the ghoul god like pallid butterflies dying upon the bare earth.
Aingear blew on her gloved hands, shivering at the bleak thump of drums through the ground. Wails came from the city where they burned the corpse of a Damadar lordling beloved by a sorceress.
The Ice caverns had been silent when she and Archanin found Myranthe weeping over her dead brother. An awful, paralysing silence. Only on the second day and upon Velleran’s return did the Damadars build a twilight pyre for Griffin’s perfumed body.
A cry rose from the river. “We have him, my lord.”
Archanin trembled with elation. “At last… at last.”
With heavy steps, Aingear followed him down the slope, her fists balled beneath her cape to hold in her guilt. In a prison in Dal-Kanu, a fearful old woman had told her captor a name. Just a name. That was all it had taken to betray a king, to bring him down.
A slab of ice crisscrossed by ropes rested on the river’s frozen surface. A blurred shape the length of a man discoloured its centre. Archanin pressed a gloved hand to the block. “I’ve waited centuries for this,” he said, his voice dark with triumph. “Now I’ll have vengeance.”
Aingear bit her bottom lip. “What do you intend to do with his body?”
Archanin ran his palm over the frozen slab, smiling to himself. “I’ll summon him back into it. Roaran will fight my spells for a time, until his strength is gone. By then, his body will be in Telor, in a prison I’ve prepared especially for him. The ice will preserve his flesh for the voyage.”
She dragged knuckled hands to her mouth. What have I done? Archanin would not bother with a long journey if he intended to merely kill Roaran. No, he wished to return the seer to this body then take his time destroying the man’s soul.
Raggamirron began issuing orders. “Get that block to the cart. Take great care.”
“Stop.” A woman’s voice broke through the tempest.
Ethereal in sleet, and snow, and squall, a cowled figure appeared like a vision from the otherworld at the top of the slope. Long sleeves fell away from slender wrists as she stabbed a finger at the slab. “Roaran Caelan is mine. You will leave him in the grave I chose for him.”
Within the hush beneath the wind, Archanin stilled.
Run, Aingear soundlessly urged the interloper. Run.
“You threw him away, Myranthe Damadar.”
Myranthe. Aingear gasped. This woman dared confront a god.
“How dare you.” As though stirred by her anger, snowflakes skipped about the sorceress. “Your presence displeases the gods.”
“I do not fear my brother, Ghani-Jai.”
Myranthe threw back her cowl. “You should fear me.”
He laughed, a cold ripple of menace. “I respect you, little sorceress. But I cannot fear you. You belong to me, after all.”
Myranthe scoffed. “I belong to no one but my gods.”
Archanin’s smile thinned to a cruel slit. “I own all creatures of magic, Myranthe Damadar. I am darkness, am I not? I am vengeance and fury.”
“I don’t care if you’re a toad prince. Leave him in his watery grave. He is mine.”
“He was yours. Now he belongs to me.”
“Bah.” She flapped a hand. “What good is a corpse to you?”
“This is a shell. Roaran abandoned this body to escape you. But he shall not escape me.”
“You’re lying. No one fools me like that.”
Archanin turned his back. “Get the body and its icy coffin in the cart,” he bid Raggamirron. “If we delay, we’ll be stuck in this forsaken white netherworld until spring.”
“No!” Myranthe screamed. She surged down the hill. “You will not have him.”
Archanin whirled and spat a Seithin curse. The spell’s force wrinkled through the air. Aingear shivered.
Myranthe slammed to a stop, every part of her frozen—except her eyes. Brimming with fury, they swivelled to the ghoul god.
“Little sorceress.” Archanin walked to her. “Thank you for keeping his body for me.”
She blinked rapidly.
He leaned in, as if pretending to understand. “What’s that? He’s dead? No. He tricked you, Myranthe Damadar. And one day soon, when you fall to your knees and beg me to save your city, I’ll tell you how.”