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Path of Honor

Path of HonorThe Path Trilogy, Book Two
Roc (December 2004)
ISBN-10: 0451459911
ISBN-13: 978-0451459916

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“The tone of PATH OF HONOR is darker than that of its predecessor, for the personal and political problems in it are much harder to fight against. But, well plotted and exhibiting superior characterization, it is definitely a worthy sequel that Path of Fate readers will want to read.”
Booklist

“World-building is strong and characters are multifaceted – fans will be particularly pleased by Reisil’s slow-building relationship with the commoner Yohuac.”
Romantic Times

“…likeable characters and plenty of action keep things entertaining.”
Locus

Two years after Reisil’s arrival, Kodu Riik is decimated by plague and famine. And now a race of sorcerers is trying to take over. Reisil’s power is feared by the nobility, others wish to exploit her, and her fellow ahalad-kaaslane begin to doubt her loyalty, as her healing magic fails to stem the rising plague. But Reisil will discover that although she has lost her power to heal, she now possesses a surging new ability-to destroy.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

The rain drove the wind through the canopy and washed down the mountain in fierce torrents. Nicxira bent crablike and struggled up the path. Water ran over her bare feet and hands as she grasped tiny outcroppings to pull herself along. Her fingernails tore and her long hair clung to her arms and back. At last she came to the lip of the sacred road girdling the top of the mountain. She turned to the right and jogged along, her feet splashing in the swift river of rain water. She came to the south basin, skirting it carefully. South for speaking the dead. She paused at the shrine on the other side to offer a handful of kalmut grain from the pouch at her waist. She continued on, pain stitching beneath her ribs. She passed the east and north basins, repeating her offering, stopping at last at the west. Far-seeing. She piled the kalmut offering in the shrine and stripped, leaving only the tiny, chipped-obsidian knife dangling on a leather thong between her breasts. She slid into the warm water. Comfortably so, with the mix of rainwater cooling its heated depths. The bottom was curved like two cupped hands, making it impossible to stand. Nicxira bathed quickly. Somewhere ahead on the path was Kinatl.

She hoisted herself out of the basin and returned to the path, leaving behind her clothing. She found the stair upward. It resembled a waterfall more than anything else. The steps seamed upwards, on and on up the mountain. More than once Nicxira thought to rest, but though her legs burned and her lungs ached, she dared not. If Kinatl succeeded . . . . She groaned. It was her fault. Taunting Kinatl, making such a show of having greater powers. Kinatl was new to being nahualli, and would grow in strength. But she craved more, desperate to prove her worth, and knowing that, Nicxira had flaunted her own waxing power. Now Kinatl was going to ask the gods for more, for greater magic. As if the gods were so easily prevailed upon.

At last the stairs ended. Nicxira stepped out onto the mountaintop, the rain and wind battering at her, driving her back. She inched forward, feeling the ridges in the stone beneath her feet. Long ago, the Monequi had been the sacred gathering place of the Teotl, the fifty-two gods. The top of the mountain had been sheered off as if sliced by a knife. The names and faces of each of the gods had been etched in the stone.

Nicxira hunched her shoulders, cold making her flesh prickle like a plucked bird. She could not see Kinatl, but that meant nothing. Nixcira could hardly see her own outstretched hands through the streaming rain. She started toward the middle of the sacred circle toward the image of Ilhuicatl. Father of the gods and creator of the nahuallis, he was the one Nicxira would choose if she was seeking favor. She inched slowly against the pummeling wind, hoping she’d be in time.

Of all the Teotl, only Ilhuicatl was represented in his entirety. Man-shaped, his body stretched more than 100 paces. Around his legs and arms were wrapped serpents. His penis stretched in a great staff, sprinking rain and life from its head, shaped like a spearpoint. In his hands he held a sun and a moon. On his head he wore a feathered headress, and around his neck was a necklace of skulls. His mouth gaped open. A trick of the mountain drained it so that the rainwater did not collect inside. Nicxira staggered around the god’s likeness, searching for Kinatl. But there was no sign of the other woman. Her stomach tightened and she knew what she must do.

Nicxira paused beside Ilhuicatl’s gaping mouth. She dropped down inside. The flat, moist bottom was warm against her bare feet. Without hesitation, she lifted the obsidian knife from around her neck and sliced across her wrists. Blood ran from the wounds, mixing with the rain. Nicxira sank to the hot floor. As she did, it grew warmer. She closed her eyes and began to pray, using the old words, those Ilhuicatl had given to the nahualli before the scattering.

Time passed. The heat intensified. If not for the rain, she thought she might have burst into flame. Her blood continued to trickle. Dizziness crept over her and her words slurred. She felt her heart slowing and struggled to breathe.

“You have sought me. You have given me your blood. Your life. Tell me your need.”

The words rumbled through her like an earthquake. Nicxira blinked. She found herself sitting on a vast gold plain. Above there was blackness and coiled in front of her was a tiny snake. It’s head was triangular shaped. It was the color of fresh grass, its stomach as red as her blood. It stared at her with brilliant yellow eyes, the tip of its tail twitching. That this tiny serpent spoke with the voice of Ilhuicatl could not be doubted.

Nicxira licked her lips, sitting up straight. What to say? She’d been prideful and foolish and now Kinatl had risked herself, perhaps thrown herself away. There was no asking forgiveness, but only help in restoring balance to the tribe. There were too few nahuallis anymore to chase even one away, and with her actions, she might have lost the tribe two. How could she balance that?

“I seek aid for my sister. She sought greater powers because I goaded her. If she has been punished for overstepping, then I ask to take her place so that she may return home.”

“Ah.” The snake’s bright yellow tongue flicked out. “She did not come to me. I have nothing to give you.”

Nicxira stiffened. Kinatl had not gone to Ilhuicatl? But surely she knew how capricious the others were? How little they cared for the nahuallis? Nicxira swallowed, aware of the snake’s unwavering gaze.

“I fear for her,” she said. “How can I help her?”

There was the faintest pause.

“She has made her choices. She will become was she is meant to be. But what about you? Have you nothing else to ask?”

Nicxira shook her head. She’d been proud and greedy. She would not be so again.

“Nothing for all the blood you spend? Even now your body dies.” The voice was cold and reproving.

“I would serve,” Nicxira said, goaded. “I would ask you for a task. For balance.”

“Ah. And what if that task required great sacrifice?”

“I am nahualli.”

“Then you shall have your wish. There comes that which even the Teotl may not stop. Does that frighten you? Good. Because it will remake everything, including the gods. There may be no hope. I cannot see so far. But the Teotl takes what steps it may to salvage what we can. Go now to she who waits; serve her well. For in serving her, you serve us all.”

The snake’s mouth opened, tiny teeth shining. It struck her wrist where blood continued to spill. Nicxira screamed, pain sluicing over her in rising waves.

She woke again, this time in a glade. Pillars of silver and gold circled around her, hanging heavy with flowering vines. The grass was thick and soft. She dug her fingers into it. Never in all her wanderings had she seen a place like this.

“You are welcome here.”

Nicxira startled, yanking her head up. Standing before her was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Her hair was the color of honey. It spilled down her back to her feet, and was twined about with flowers and leaves. A silver crown made of leaves circled her forehead. Her pale face was austere as she examined Nicxira with cold appraisal. Her eyes were an unworldly green from corner to corner and her fingers were tipped with talons of shining crystal. Beautiful as she was, she looked every inch the warrior, and around her the hair was heavy and thick with choking power. Nicxira trembled and bowed her head.

“I am to serve you.”

“Are you? So says the one who sent you, but you must choose. I require your heart and your mind. If you cannot give me both, you are useless.”

Nicxira nodded, mouth dry.

“You came here a powerful witch. You are no longer.”

Nixcira’s stomach clenched and her teeth closed on the agonized protest that rose in her throat.

“Only farsight remains to you. Even this close to me, I can feel the talent sparking in you. It shall not be so strong as before, for in my lands magic is forbidden. You shall go among my people and live as one of them. When you’re visions come, you will tell me all you see, down to the smallest detail. When it is necessary, you will act as my hands.”

She paused, stepping closer.

“You will never see your homeland again. You will live amongst strangers, in a land that is completely different from all that you’ve known. You must do this willingly, without reservation. For what is coming is dangerous, and my weapons must be strong and true. They must not break in the heat of battle.”

Nixcira didn’t have to think. Despite the shock of this god’s first words, Nixcira meant to serve her, heart and soul.

“I am yours.”

The god nodded, a smile softening her austere expression.

“I will give you my language and I will send you to the town called Kallas. There you will live and wait for what comes next. Henceforth you will be known as Nurema. Call on me and I will answer.”

Then she extended a hand. The crystal claws curved around Nixcira’s head. Darkness swirled around her and she felt herself falling down a great hole. As she fell, a name came to her. Amiya. The Blessed Lady.

Chapter 1

“I don’t understand.” The sharp complaint in Reisil’s voice made Indigo’s ears twitch. The dun gelding tossed his nose reprovingly.

“Give it time. They will come around.” Sodur reached over and patted her knee. Reisil frowned. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d brought the subject up in the last year, but Sodur never seemed worried, always giving her the same answer. The longer it went on, the more stale his reassurances became. Then again, he didn’t know bad it had gotten to be.

“It’s been a year. How long does it take to welcome a new ahalad-kaaslane? Besides, they were fine when I first arrived. Then like that,” she snapped her fingers, “things changed. Now I might as well be a ghost for all they look right through me. I can’t stand even going to the Lady’s Temple anymore. It would be different if Reikon and the others were still around. Or the magilanes.”

Sodur shrugged, his thin, drooping face shadowed beneath the brim of his floppy hat. “Reikon, Bethorn and Fehra were all there when you destroyed the wizards. They saw your bravery and what it cost to challenge the wizards. They felt the Lady inside you. How could they doubt you? As for the magilanes—” He broke off, shrugging again. “They’re a breed apart. No one rules them; no one frightens them. It was enough that Saljane made you one of them.”

And it was true. The magilanes, those ahalad-kaaslane who shared a bond with predator birds, had sought her out. But being among them was like being a single bird in a silent flock. They spoke seldom, conveying much by a flick of the fingers, a turn of the wrist, a tip of the head. Reisil hadn’t had time to learn this silent language of spies and explorers. So she sat mute, watching, listening, alone but for Saljane. If there had been time—

Sodur interrupted her thoughts. “You have to be reasonable, Reisil. The stories of what you did in Patverseme are frightening. After Upsakes’s betrayal, it’s no wonder the rest of the ahalad-kaaslane fear you. Think about it. They thought they knew him. He was everyone’s friend. Not one of us doubted him, not even me and I was his closest friend. And all the while he was plotting with the wizards. How he could imagine killing another ahalad-kaaslane…” Sodur shook his head, lips pinched. “All this from a man we trusted without question. And then you come along and incinerate a hundred wizards without battling a lash…” Sodur sighed. “I was there and it still curls my hair to remember. The story only grows in the telling. Can you really wonder why you frighten them?”

He glanced over at her. Reisil glared back, unbent.

“Because I killed our enemy, I cannot be trusted. Should I have just let the wizards attack us? What more do they want?”

“Of course not. You did exactly what was required.” Sodur scratched his jaw. “Try looking at it from their point of view. The wizards were our greatest fear in the war. There was nothing we could do to defeat them. We had no magic of our own, and they were merciless. The only thing that kept us safe was the Blessed Amiya’s prohibition of magic within our borders. And even then, look what they did at Mysane Kosk. The magilanes had managed to killed wizards before, but usually at the cost of their birds. Here you kill a hundred in one blow. You must know how frightening such power is. But then you came to Koduteel and—” He gestured meaningfully.

But Reisil was determined to say the words aloud. “The Lady disappears and my power drains away. Do they think I chased Her off? That I’m pretending I lost my power?”

Sodur shrugged. “Before you came, the Blessed Amiya was always present, offering guidance, answering prayers, giving us new ahalad-kaaslane. Since your arrival, there have been no new ahalad-kaaslane and none of our prayers go answered. Is it any wonder they blame you? No,” he said, forestalling her reply with a raised hand. “I’m not saying you’re responsible. She gave you power and I think there can be no doubt that She’s withdrawn so you could learn to use it. Her very presence suppresses magic and you could not do what She wants you to do if She remained. But the result has been devastating. The other ahalad-kaaslane have become powerless. Those amongst the nobility who have long resented our power in Kodu Riik have begun to move against us and we have no means to stop them. And all wonder if you have plans of your own…”

“Like Upsakes,” Reisil said, her lips twisting.

“Yes. And no one would—or could—challenge you after your annhilation of the wizard circle. And what if you really are the Lady’s Chosen? The ahalad-kaaslane dare not go against you either way. So instead they hold their distance. It is unfair, but not unreasonable given all that’s happened.” Sodur brushed away a biting deerfly. “Maybe if destroying the wizards had been the end of it, everyone could start healing. But with the loss of the Lady, the plague and the nokulas, not to mention the Mesilasema’s death and the Iisand’s withdrawal from rule, no one feels safe. They have to blame someone. The main thing to do now is to learn how to control your magic and heal the plague. That will prove your loyalty like nothing else.”

Reisil didn’t answer, gritting her teeth together. Her chest was tight and her stomach felt hard as a stone. Even the relief of being out of Koduteel and in the mountains couldn’t melt away her bitterness. In those early days when she’d returned to her hometown of Kallas, she’d been able to do so much. She’d spent long days just healing, her instincts guiding her. But now her magic rarely came to her call and when it did, she didn’t know if she would accidentally light the whole world on fire. How would she ever control it enough to heal the plague? Nor did it help that many blamed her for the Mesilasema’s death and the Iisand’s self-imposed isolation. But that wasn’t her fault. The Mesilasema had refused to let Reisil even be in the same room during that awful childbirth.

Reisil thrust the thought away, reining herself in. She was not going to start pitying herself. She drew a deep breath, turning her face up to the afternoon sun and pushing back her hat. The cloudless sky arced like a brilliant ocean above. The morning had dawned cold and frosty, but the autumn day had warmed nicely. The air was redolent with the smell of evergreens and aspen, meadowgrass and damp earth.

She drew another breath, forcing her shoulders to relax. Sodur’s explanation made sense, but the relentless snubbing from the other ahalad-kaaslane was a wound that never stopped bleeding. Between her own failures and their constant suspicion, she had begun to feel as welcome in Kodu Riik as a Patversemese wizard. Except a wizard would be able to do something with his magic. But this trip was to change all that, she reminded herself. And outside of Koduteel, with Sodur’s unfailing, stalwart support, surely she’d find a way to tap into her power and heal the plague.

She pulled her hat back on and straightened her spine. Whether the other ahalad-kaaslane trusted her or not, she still had her duty to do, and whining wasn’t going to help.

“Has anyone heard from any of them?” She asked as she pulled the cork on her water bag and drank the sun-warmed water. “Reikon? Fehra? Bethorn?”

Sodur frowned, nudging the liver chestnut with his heels as the gelding dropped his head to snatch a mouthful of grass. A flurry of tiny gnats swirled up around his head and the rawboned beast shook his head vigorously, rubbing his head against his forelegs.

“Not for awhile now. Not since late spring. No news is probably good news. Most ahalad-kaaslane don’t send word except in an emergency.”

“How long do ahalad-kaaslane usually ride circuit?” Reisil startled herself with the question. It seemed she ought to know after more than a year in Koduteel. But then how would she find out? Except for Sodur, none of the ahalad-kaaslane would even speak to her, and Sodur spent most of his time in the palace these days, trying to keep the nobles from squabbling, trying to keep them from revolting against the failing power of the ahalad-kaaslane.

“There’s no set length of time. No set place to go. Each ahalad-kaaslane comes and goes as he is called and travels wherever the Lady guides him.”

“Juhrnus wasn’t called.”

“No. But then it is a tradition for new ahalad-kaaslane to spend time learning about Kodu Riik by traveling its length and breadth. I suggested Juhrnus make such a journey, listening to what calls guided him as he went.”

But there wouldn’t be any calls. Not since the Lady had withdrawn from Kodu Riik. Reisil didn’t say it. “How do you know what to do then? What the Lady wants you to do?”

“For me, being at the palace is the best way I know how to serve Kodu Riik. Without the Iisand on the throne, the Verit Aare jostles for the regency. It would devastate the land. He’s hungry for war and he hates the power of the ahalad-kaaslane more than the other nobles. He’s already developed a substantial network of supporters. If he became regent, the Arkenik would soon bend to his will—and then we’d be in much worse trouble than we are now. If the Lady was to speak to me, I believe this is the path She’d choose for me.”

“How can you be sure?”

Sodur grimaced. “Who is sure? But what does it matter? We know we must protect Kodu Riik. Even without the Lady to guide us, we must answer our oath to Her. Certainly we cannot sit on our hands doing nothing. Your path is to find a way to use your power, and mine is to give you the time to do so while keeping the court from tearing itself apart.”

Reisil nodded, thinking of her experiences with the court nobles. Most didn’t like her any better than the ahalad-kaaslane, only they didn’t mind telling her so. Or they cultivated her for what they thought she could do. On those rare occasions she’d accompanied Sodur to the palace, she couldn’t escape a feeling that she was prey, and lions and wolves stalked in the shadows. Sodur had shouldered a staggering task. She slanted a look at him. He looked like much as he had when she first met him: clothing patched and threadbare, now covered with the dust and dirt of nearly two weeks travel. His shoulders were slouched, his thin figure unprepossessing. He felt her eyes on him and glanced up, a smile illuminating his haggard features, his eyes twinkling.

“Not the most impressive looking diplomat, am I?”

Reisil grinned back, shaking her head. “But I’ve seen you. You know how to manage people. And you don’t make them angry when you do it.”

“That’s because they don’t realize what I’m doing. That’s the key, Reisil,” he said sobering. “They are a prickly bunch. They’re born to lead and they know it. They don’t take interference well, even well-intentioned. Some would rather burn in the Demonlord’s third circle. Better to herd them slowly in the direction you want and teach them to see reason—but never let them know what you’re up to.”

Reisil fell silent, thinking. Then asked, “You didn’t say—have you heard from Juhrnus?”

“No.”

“You’re not worried anything’s happened to him? To any of them?”

Sodur turned his head to look for Lume, his ahalad-kaaslane. The silver lynx wound through the shady grasses along the treeline, leaping after grasshopers and tree lizards.

“Of course I am,” he said at last. “Things have changed in Kodu Riik. People do not welcome the ahalad-kaaslane as they used to. They still haven’t recovered from the war and the drought hasn’t helped. Bandits and thieves prowl the land. Nokulas appear everywhere, slaughtering entire villages. And then there’s the plague.” He drew a breath. “As I said, no news is probably good news, but yes, I worry.”

There didn’t seem to be an answer to that and so Reisil settled back in her saddle, thinking about the two weeks since they’d departed Koduteel. The people they’d encountered thus far had welcomed them, offering food from their meager stores. They did not seem to blame the ahalad-kaaslane. Not yet. But that didn’t mean everyone felt the same. Reisil closed her eyes, sending a prayer to the absent Lady to protect her friends.

She tipped her head back, making an effort push aside her worries and enjoy the breeze on her face and the smell of the summer grasses. Saljane had disappeared several hours before and now Reisil could feel the goshawk’s happy satiation.

Fat girl. Are you going to eat all the squirrels in the forest?

Marmots. Two, came Saljane’s smug reply.

Two? How are you going to fly?

Before Saljane could answer, a sudden prickling ran up Reisil’s arms. The hair on her neck stood on end. She jerked around, eyes darting to the trees swathing the hills to the left and the right. Behind and before, the long grassy channel they’d been following snaked away between the rising foothills, the tall, heavy seedheads waving in the breeze. She could see nothing. Dread closed a hard fist around her throat.

“What’s that?” she whispered. The birds and insects had ceased their chatter. The only sounds were the creak of the saddles, the thud of the horses’ hooves, and the rustle of the wind. Sweat slicked Reisil’s palms and she tightened her hands on her reins. Indigo pranced and tossed his head, snorting. “Do you feel it?”

“There’s something . . . .” came Sodur’s hushed answer as he slid his sword free. Reisil grimaced. Would that she had any ability to fight, but there’d been no one to teach her in Koduteel. Sodur was the first to admit his own paltry skills. Which left them nearly defenseless now. Stupid, stupid arrogance . . . . Her hand fell to the hilt of her dagger. It was sharp enough, but in her hand would do little damage against—what?

A fierce yowl sounded from the trees and Lume bounded through the grasses, tufted ears pricked, teeth bared. At the same moment, Sodur’s horse squalled, eyes rimmed white. He spun around, haunches crushing Reisil’s leg against Indigo. Fire spiked up to her hip as the dun gelding staggered, his braying neigh echoing. Reisil lurched against the pommel of her saddle. Pain bit into her stomach, the air gusting from her lungs.

“Run! By the Lady, Reisil, run!”

Sodur’s hand cracked down on Indigo’s rump. The terrified dun leaped and Reisil clutched her reins, her left leg dangling loose from its stirrup. Indigo flattened into a thundering gallop. Reisil clutched his mane, wobbling in the saddle. Sodur shouted behind. She twisted to look. Like her, he hunched flat over his gelding’s neck, the horse stretched long in panicked flight. Behind them Reisil could see nothing.

They raced up the fold in the hills, slowed by the high, thick grasses. Foam lathered on Indigo’s neck and his ribs bellowed with effort. By the time they crested the hill, Sodur’s long-legged chestnut had pulled even. Blood ran from a long slash in the animal’s neck and freckled Sodur’s pale face.

They plunged down the swell, leaping a trickling creek at the bottom. A narrow game-track opened on the other side and Indigo slotted himself into it, racing up the slope. Sodur fell in behind.

Fury. Fear. Purpose.

Kek-kek-kek-kek!

Saljane!

The goshawk dropped from the sky, skimming past the galloping duo with another shriek. Reisil twisted around, but could see nothing except Sodur’s bloodstained face.

“Go!” he yelled, waving, his sword still clutched in his hand. Reisil faced back around, patting Indigo’s sweat-slicked shoulder. Neither horse could keep up this pace much longer. The gelding’s breath came in rasping gasps and his gait was becoming more choppy as exhaustion shortened his stride. Sodur’s taller chestnut thumped against Indigo’s haunches and the smaller horse bounded forward only to slow again.

But their pursuers had not given up. Reisil could feel them closing in. Her skin prickled warning and her blood went cold with sudden certainty.

Nokulas.

Saljane! What do you see?

Reisil’s head whirled as she found herself looking out through Saljane’s eyes. They were close above the grass, flying behind the fleeing horses, the ground a sweeping blur. Glinting shapes fanned out behind, their bodies alternately silvered and transparent like moonlit water. Saljane winged upwards, circling and returning to dive at the foremost of the beasts. It reared up, eerily silent, swiping at the goshawk with ruthless talons longer than Reisil’s fingers. It’s nose was blunt and full of needle-like teeth, its eyes an uncanny opaque silver.

Even as Saljane twisted away, Reisil snarled, yanking on Indigo’s reins. The gelding swerved and stumbled. Sodur’s chestnut veered away into the tall grass. Too late, Reisil realized her mistake. The nokulas swarmed through the grasses, surrounding each rider in a ring of gnashing teeth and knife-edged claws.

It was hard to know how many there were. Their shapes flickered and shifted like shadows on water. Reisil caught a glimpse of a head, a paw, a haunch. There a curve of shining starlight, here a distortion in the grass. They sniffed and circled, silent as hunting cats. Reisil’s stomach churned, her breath thick in her throat. Beneath her, Indigo tensed. She held him still. Any movement would invite an attack.

As the beasts circled, she began to pick out details. They were graceful, muscular things, all teeth and armor, with sharp spines spiking down their necks and backs. Long, snaking tails whipped from side to side. None looked alike, except for their coloring, if the patchwork translucence could be called coloring. She sensed from them malevolence and amusement. They prodded in closer and seemed gloat at Indigo’s stricken moan.

High above, Reisil felt Saljane’s fear and anger as the goshawk circled.

No. Wait, she said as she felt Saljane preparing to dive in for another attack. It’s too soon to move.

Reisil glanced over at Sodur. He held his sword out to the side, still as marble. His mount pawed at the ground, sawing his head against Sodur’s taut hold. No! Reisil cried silently. Stay still!

Suddenly the horse gave a braying neigh and reared. He spun to the side and bolted through the ring of nokulas. The beasts whirled and dashed after, flowing through the grass like flood waters down a steep mountainside. They romped after the desperate pair, teasing them, driving them. The nokulas herded the frothing horse first one way then another, then round in a circle. Reisil was left to watch or run as she chose, all the nokulas joining in the sport.

Frantic, she reached for her power, praying it would answer. Nothing happened. She tried again, demanding, pleading. Still nothing. Like calling for help in an empty room. Tears ran down her cheeks and she sat helpless.

Sodur’s gelding slowed and staggered to a halt, head dangling, his breath coming in great, echoing pants. Sodur whirled his sword about himself, driving the nokulas back. But as one dodged aside on the left, three more rose snapping and snarling on the right. Reisil gasped as the chestnut sagged to the ground. Sodur lunged clear, sweeping around himself with his blade until one of the nokulas snatched it scornfully in its claws and flung it aside.

Reisil’s nails dug gouges in her palms. Sodur backed away, falling back to lie prostrate over his collapsed horse. A nokula pounced up on top of him. Horror swept Reisil and her mouth dropped open in a silent cry. Gone was the shimmering watery transparency. The creature crouching over Sodur was molten silver. It had a long, narrow head. Tusks protruded from its mouth and curved like scythes along its jaw. Narrow horns sprouted from behind a bony nob on the top of its head. There was a rough texture to its hide, with odd lumps and bumps running down the length of its body, ending in a stubby tail. Ridges rose like serrated mountain peaks down its spine.

It crouched over the fallen man, a snakelike tongue slithering out to taste its victim. Sodur lay still, eyes wide, his neck soft and pale and white. The nokula‘s lips pulled back in a sinister smile. The beast drew back its powerful foreleg, claws shining in the afternoon sun, tongue sliding over its muzzle as if revelling in Sodur’s moan of terror.

For a long moment the nokula did not move. Reisil’s legs clamped around Indigo and he stuttered forward a few steps in response, then stopped, digging in stubbornly. The other nokulas closed in until Reisil could see nothing of the fallen horse and only glimpses of Sodur’s clothing. She dashed at the tears on her cheeks and kicked at Indigo. The gelding refused to move.

A shape flickered past her. Lume. The lynx burrowed through the grass, a low growl sounding in his throat. Reisil jumped to the ground to follow, ignoring the pain ravelling up her leg. She yanked her dagger free and dropped down to scurry after, watching the scene through Saljane’s eyes.

The nokula on top of Sodur remained motionless as ice, muscular foreleg levered back. It would take only one swipe to tear out the terrified man’s throat. The seconds ticked past. Still the blow did not come. Reisil edged closer, hunching down as Lume fell silent. Saljane swooped lower. Not far ahead in the grass, Reisil could hear the sound of the nokula pack sliding through the grass, and the shuddering breaths of the chestnut gelding.

Suddenly the nokula on top of Sodur moved. Reisil bit her lips to stop her scream as its forelegg dropped. But it didn’t strike. Instead it pinched Sodur’s face in its claws. It bent forward, snout a bare inch from Sodur’s crooked nose. Saljane shrieked and dropped until she was barely ten feet above the tableau. Reisil clenched her fist around the dagger and squirmed forward.

Then inexplicably the nokula leaped from Sodur, landing silently amongst its companions, leading them away through the grass. Straight toward Reisil. She stiffened, crouching ready, but they parted around her. In moments they were gone.

Reisil stared after them, her mouth hanging open. Then she lurched to her feet, legs shaking. Sodur had slid to the ground, one arm looped tightly around Lume who nuzzled at him furiously. Sodur turned his head and began to retch. Reisil dropped to her knees beside him, instinctively lifting her fist to catch Saljane.

“Are you all right?”

Sodur nodded, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. Beneath the spatter of his horse’s blood, his face was white. There were four bleeding holes on his jaws where the nokula had held him.

“Horse is worse off than I am. Got to get him up or he’ll founder for certain. Hate to have to walk the rest of the way.”

Reisil paused a bare moment and then stood, allowing him his privacy. She heard him retching again as she coaxed the exhausted animal to stand. She loosened the saddle and dropped it to the ground and then led the animal in looping circles. Slowly the big chestnut’s breathing slowed, the sweat dried and the trembling stopped. He walked with his head down, his hooves dragging and catching in the grass. The slash on his neck continued to seep, but Reisil was pleased to see the wound was shallow. Indigo soon came to join them, nuzzling his companion and then dropping in behind.

By the time the horse was cool and out of danger, Sodur had regained his composure. He’d washed his face and hands in a little rill and recovered his sword.

“Let’s take the horses up into the trees and camp,” he said.

“What if they come back?”

He shook his head, looking off into the distance, expression remote. “They had their chance.” He sounded quite certain and Reisil wasn’t sure how much farther they could manage anyway.

They built a roaring fire and picketed the horses close by. Reisil cleaned the chestnut’s neck and applied a salve, not bothering to use her magic for a healing. She turned, feeling Sodur watching her. She felt herself flush hotly and averted her face.

Saljane brought back a fat grouse and retreated to a low branch to preen herself. Reisil set the grouse over the coals in a pot with water and rice. Afterwards she gathered more wood, piling it in a small mountain near the fire.

When there was nothing left to do, she sat down opposite to Sodur who hunkered back against a tree, whittling at a piece of pale birch, Lume flopped over his outstretched legs. The sun had slid down behind the mountains and the moon rose like a sickle blade, reminding Reisil of the nokulas, of their eyes, the sly, cruel knowingness behind them.

The silence stretched thin, Reisil looking alternately at the fire, at the horses, at Sodur.

“I thought they were going to kill you,” she said finally, twisting a stick between her fingers. Even saying it made her skin turn cold. Sodur had mentored her since leaving Kallas. But he was more than that. He was her friend. Aside from Juhrnus, he was the only one she had left. Tears trickled down her cheeks and she swiped at them in annoyance.

“I thought they were too.” He never looked up, scraping the wood gently with his knife.

“Why didn’t they? Why didn’t they kill all of us?”

“They didn’t want to, I expect,” was the unhelpful answer. Reisil stared, unnerved by his diffidence.

“But why?”

He shrugged, finally looking up. “Isn’t it enough the Lady sent them running?”

Reisil stiffened, taken aback by the reproof in his tone. She opened her mouth and then closed it. The Lady is gone. The nokulas left for some reason of their own. Finally she settled for, “no one has ever escaped a nokula pack before.”

“Not that we know of. I just thank the Lady for Her aid.” Reisil squirmed. Though his tone was even, she thought she heard a cold reproach in his words. She should have helped. She was supposed to be the Lady’s hand, using her magic to protect Kodu Riik. And she’d done nothing but watch. She flushed again, her mouth setting in a thin line.

When the food was ready, they ate in silence. Hungry as she was, Reisil could barely keep her food down.

“Tomorrow we should get to Veneston. They’ll have word on where the plague might have struck recently,” Sodur announced, wiping his fingers on his thighs. “Might get a cup of kohv there too.”

He sounded more like his usual self and Reisil looked up at him, startled. He smiled at her, eyes twinkling once again. “Good food. I don’t remember being so hungry.”

She didn’t answer. It was as if he’d donned a mask. Or put one aside. She frowned. He wanted to be strong for her, she knew. But pretending the attack hadn’t happened— She wasn’t going to forget it. Still, she didn’t want to force him to relive what he chose to put aside.

They said little else to one another, tying the horses close and curling up to sleep on opposite sides of the fire, counting on Lume and Saljane to keep watch. That night Reisil dreamed of a hovering black presence, a green snake with yellow eyes and a blood-red belly, and invisible beasts that gnawed the flesh from her bones. In the morning when she woke, her clothes were drenched in cold sweat.

Chapter 2

Reisil woke before dawn, her left leg aching. She sat up, biting back a groan. Sodur was already awake, feeding twigs to the coals. He glanced up with a smile, but said nothing. The flames flickered, reflecting in the shadows and hollows of his craggy face and making him look sinister.

Reisil stood slowly, breathing a sigh, her breath pluming in the chilly air. She flexed her toes, pain ravelling up her leg. Snatching up her pack, she retreated into the underbrush to have a look at the damage. Her skin was a mottled tapestry of black, purple and blue from mid-thigh to her ankle. Luckily the shaft of her boot was a soft, slouching leather, with crisscrossing straps to hold it in place. The swelling around her ankle wouldn’t prevent her from putting it on again. With tender fingers, Reisil rubbed a salve over her ankle to reduce the swelling. There wasn’t much she could do right now for the bruises.

By the time she returned to the fire, Sodur was stirring a porridge. He nodded, still not speaking. Reisil checked the horses, pleased that the wound on the neck of Sodur’s gelding was cool to the touch. Indigo shoved his head into her stomach and sawed it up and down. Reisil staggered.

“Itchy? All right, come on then.” She scratched his forehead and behind his ears. He groaned, stretching and tilting his head. Sodur’s horse looked on enviously and Reisil obliged him with a chuckle.

Sodur and Reisil ate their breakfast in silence. Reisil couldn’t help twitching every time something scurried through the underbrush or the wind rattled the trees.

“They’re gone. They won’t be back,” Sodur said, scraping his bowl.

Reisil cast him a dubious look. “Met a lot of them, have you? Or maybe they whispered it in your ear?”

He flushed. “They’re gone. That’s all.” He rose and strode off to rinse his dishes in the rill. Reisil watched him go, frowning.

When he returned, he began packing up their camp and Reisil quickly finished her porridge and joined him. Most of the last two weeks had been a meandering journey, a chance for her to see Kodu Riik, meet more of its people, and perhaps most importantly, relax after months of winter confinement in Koduteel. But now she felt all the tension come flooding back. They were here for a purpose. To find plague victims.

Her stomach tightened, the porridge balling thickly in her stomach. She thought about the previous day, her inability to call up even a trickle of power. They were here to find plague victims. But what she was going to do with them, she didn’t know.

The morning quickly warmed, though the high clouds made wearing a hat unnecessary. They ranged higher into the foothills, Sodur pushing their pace as fast as the exhausted horses would go. Lume trotted close beside him, while Saljane flittered and twisted through the trees.

As they crowned a high ridge, Reisil couldn’t resist twisting in her saddle to gaze behind at the Karnane valley stretching out below them. Far across the vast valley she could see a purple smudge where the Melyhir mountains hemmed in the eastern expanse of the Karnane. They had traveled through the southern end of the valley after leaving Koduteel, taking a wide, circuitous route from the city. The drought continued to hound the valley dwellers, with the rivers providing the only source of water. Even the deep wells had run dry. The fields were stunted and withered, except in those small green patches where farmers had devised ways to draw water from the rivers.

Reisil sighed and turned back around. The irony of the mountain greeness did not escape her. But with the nokula packs, who from the valley would brave the mountains to hunt or forage? She glanced at Sodur. She ought to tell him about her failure to draw her power yesterday. The words withered on her tongue. He stared ahead, his gaze distant and brooding. She’d never seen him like this. Not even after Upsakes’s betrayal. Until now he’d always shown infinite patience and unshakeable tranquility.

Reisil turned away, touching her bond with Saljane for reassurance. The isolation was creeping up again: the feeling that she was always on her own, even in a crowd. Sodur didn’t mean to do it. He had no idea how much she had come to rely on him. And it wasn’t fair to burden him. But the sudden wall between them was like a slap in the face and she felt lost.

Times like these I even miss Juhrnus.

Juhrnus is a friend.

Juhrnus is a bully and boil on my backside.

You like him.

Don’t tell him.

He knows.

And takes advantage of it every chance he gets. I wonder when he’ll get back.

Before winter. Esper does not like the cold.

Reisil’s lips quirked. Juhrnus’s ahalad-kaaslane was a sisalik. The enormous lizard hated anything resembling cold and would revolt against another winter riding circuit. As completely besotted with Esper as Juhrnus was, she didn’t doubt that the two wanderers would be back before winter took hold. She smiled. As much as he’d bullied her through her childhood, she never would have imagined Juhrnus could care about anything as much as he did Esper. But nearly losing his ahalad-kaaslane when Upsakes had tried to murder them had made Juhrnus grow up. Now she counted him as a good friend. Him and Sodur.

“Nearly there. Over that ridge.” Sodur pointed to heavily wooded slope. The sun broke through the clouds high overhead, spangling the trees with light.

Reisil yawned, her jaws cracking. “Hope they have kohv on the fire. And hot bread.”

“Best not dawdle then. Don’t want to be late for lunch or there won’t be anything left. Not in a town this small.”

Veneston was situated in a verdant valley, the drought having had little impact on the thriving town. It perched on the edge of a narrow, quick-running river that sparkled in the sun, reminding Reisil uncomfortably of the nokulas. She shoved aside the thought.

At the top end of the valley was a mineshaft where the villagers quarried copper and silver. A waterwheel poured water into pipes that ran down to the fields and filled cisterns in the town. The air smelled of blue spruce, hemlock and birch. It was an idyllic spot, with tidy, half-timbered houses, green meadows dotted with black sheep and spotted goats.

There was no stockade to discourage visitors and Reisil wondered if the town had been troubled by nokulas. But she saw no signs of violence. They rode down the main street, eager to break their midday fast, charmed by the quaint tidiness of the town.

But as they passed between the boat shed, cartwright and smithy, the wind turned and the stench of death rose about them in an invisible fog. Reisil covered her mouth and pinched her nose, gorge rising in her throat. Down on the ground, Lume whined, his hackles rising. The two horses snorted and sidled around uneasily.

Now Reisil noticed that the town was eerily quiet, except for the low musical sound of wooden pipe chimes ringing from the gable of the nearby tavern, the swishing rush of the river, and the sough of the wind through the trees.

“I guess we found what we were looking for,” Sodur said grimly, pulling his gelding up and dismounting. He tied the animal to the hitching post. As Reisil swung to the ground, she called Saljane. The goshawk arrowed from the trees and landed on Reisil’s gauntleted fist, her slate wings making a popping sound as she spread them to halt her descent. Reisil lifted Saljane to her shoulder, glad of the goshawk’s fierce strength in her mind.

“Where is everybody? They can’t all be dead—can they?” Her voice quivered. The reports spoke of entire villages killed, but she hadn’t believed them. She couldn’t even conceive of such death.

“Not all, not yet,” came a harsh voice from within the tavern. Sodur and Reisil jerked in surprise. “Soon enough. Best get back on those beasts and ride like demons was chasing you.”

“We came to help,” Sodur stepped up the low steps onto the wide, skirting porch.

“Nothing you can do, ahalad-kaaslane. Nothing anyone can do. Justice from the Lady, I reckon. Built our fires, made our prayers, did our rites. No answers but for more dying. Maybe that was the Lady’s answer.”

“Maybe we’re the answer.” Reisil sent a silent prayer to the Lady that this was true.

“Likely not,” came the unimpressed reply. “But if you’re so eager to die, go down to the shearing sheds at the end of the street. Go on then, and don’t come back here after.”

Sodur and Reisil looked at one another and proceeded down the street, leading their horses. On all sides the houses turned grim faces on the ahalad-kaaslane. One had been burnt to the ground, leaving a gaping hole filled with ash and charred timbers. Several others had been sealed shut from the outside and archaic symbols painted on the shutters and doors. Reisil gasped and angled toward the closest of those boarded up. Sodur caught her arm, his face harsh.

“Don’t bother,” he said. “Whoever’s inside is probably long since dead, from thirst or hunger, if not the plague. Better to see what we can do for the people in the sheds. They might still be alive.”

Reisil nodded jerkily. Saljane dipped her head and rubbed Reisil’s cheek with her beak.

It will be well.

Trust. Faith. Solace.

Reisil returned the caress, stroking Saljane’s black and white breast, savoring her ahalad-kaaslane‘s confidence.

If I can’t call my magic…

As the Lady wills it, came Saljane’s impassive reply.

Reisil’s lips pinched together. Everything she had been taught said that the Lady protected Kodu Riik from ill, and would do so as long as its people remained faithful. But then why permit the war with Patverseme? Why send a drought? And what about the plague and the nokulas? Kodu Riik and its people were dying. Which pointed to an obvious conclusion. The Lady no longer cared. Or worse, were all these horrors punishment? Was Saljane right? Did the Lady will this?

A chill ran down Reisil’s spine and her toes curled inside her boots.

“I hope not,” she muttered.

As they walked by the boarded-up houses, Sodur swore, eyeing the symbols painted garishly on the outsides.

“What?” Reisil asked.

“You don’t recognize them? No, of course not. You shouldn’t. These villagers shouldn’t either. These are ancient hexmarks and curses, wards against evil. They have no business here.” His voice was clipped, his chin jutting like a hatchetblade.

Reisil glanced at the crude, stark symbols. They had been drawn with charcoal and a paint that looked unnervingly like blood. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Stupidity,” Sodur spat. “They look for salvation and ask for worse than what they’ve got. These symbols belong to the old gods and those evil times before the Lady saved us.” He shook his head again, lip curling. “The price was faith in Her. Absolute faith. All the old gods were to be left behind forever. And we wonder why She does not answer our prayers. The people have proven themselves faithless.”

“Did the people lose faith and the Blessed Lady stop answering? Or did She stop answering and so the people lost faith?”

Sodur jerked to a halt, rounding on Reisil and grasping her arms in a bruising grip.

“Don’t you question the Lady! You, of all people!”

Startled, Reisil couldn’t find the words to defend herself.

He dragged her forward, lips pulled thin, pinched face flushed. “Look there, that first one. The mouth in the circle with the eye inside? That one represents Betinue. God of secrets and lies, of seeming and tales. He’s an eater of souls. They say that those unfortunate enough to grace his palate scream their torment forever in the black depths of his stomach. You curse your neighbor with that one and hope Betinue doesn’t turn on you.

“And there, the hand with the waves below and the lightning above? That one is Elwaak. She swims silent beneath the water, yanking the unsuspecting under like a hungry crocodile. She is blind, righteous vengeance, and chodha anyone who gets in her way. And there’s another. Suthmanya, the spoiler. A spider’s body, hands like talons, the long tongue. Do its bidding and you will reap blood and power. But the spoiler is fickle and not even its disciples are safe from it.”

Sodur faced Reisil again, his eyes glittering, flecks of spit speckling his lips and chin. Reisil’s blood curdled at the intensity of his fury. His expression was so twisted that she hardly recognized him.

“Can you imagine what would happen to Kodu Riik if we went back to following them or the dozen other gods we put aside when embraced the Lady? There’s not one that doesn’t revel in blood and carnage and suffering. There would be war again, like nothing we saw with Patverseme. And blood sacrifice. These gods must be fed, never forget. And feeding them may not be enough. I imagine they would want a bit of revenge for our faithlessness. Their power has faded in the years since the Lady’s had held us in Her hands, but feed them and they would raven this land. Kodu Riik would dissolve into a horror of rape and pillage and brutality. Believe me, this plague is nothing, nothing, compared to what these monsters would visit on us if we turned from the Lady.”

Sodur stopped, breathing hard, glancing back along the streets at the symbols repeated across so many of the houses. He held up his hands, looking up at the sky. “How can they even remember? We have worked so hard for so many years to erase such knowledge.”

Reisil rubbed her fingers over her arm, wincing. She frowned as his words sank in.

“What did you say? The ahalad-kaaslane have tried to erase knowledge of the old gods? I didn’t know that.” How come she didn’t know that? She asked the question aloud.

The look Sodur turned on her was one of aggravated impatience, sliding his fingers roughly through his hair.

“Demonballs, Reisil! Because you don’t look. You don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of you. Sometimes I wonder how if you can really be that naïve. One wonders how you’ve survived this long.”

Reisil stiffened at the contempt in his voice. He was looking at her like she was something smelly he’d stepped in. Once again it was like he’d donned a mask. Or set one aside. Her teeth clamped together and she faced him, her expression tight.

Am I naïve then?”

“Like a child hiding in her mother’s skirts.”

Reisil recoiled. She’d been abandoned as a child, raised by charity. There had never in her life been anyone to protect her. She’d never had the choice to hide in her mother’s skirts or anywhere else.

“Maybe you should educate me then,” she said, biting off each word as she folded her arms across her stomach.

“Would that you could see it for yourself,” he returned. “Open your eyes! You are never going to survive if you can’t see what there is to be seen. Being ahalad-kaaslane means standing on your own, making your own decisions.”

At Reisil’s continued look of hostility, Sodur flung out a hand and explained grudgingly.

“The Iisand has been a supporter of the ahalad-kaaslane all his reign, but he’s unusual. Many Iisands have rebelled against our authority. The ahalad-kaaslane have the power to gainsay the nobility. The Iisand and the Arkeinik rule Kodu Riik, but only so far as we allow them. It sticks in their craw. Since the founding of Kodu Riik, there has been a constant push to limit the influence of the ahalad-kaaslane.” He snorted and shook his head. “All they needed was an excuse. Upsakes gave them one. Now our heads are truly on the block. Our warnings fall on deaf ears, our protests are dismissed as self-serving, greedy or treasonous. The nobles begin to move openly against us. Even to murder. They no longer believe the Lady watches and judges.”

“And you think She does?” Reisil said. His lip curled, his glance scathing

“She always watches. But they forget, just like you.” He gestured at the scrawled curses and hexmarks. “Seeing that filth, can you doubt what I say? Why do you think I spend so much time in the palace? Why do you think—”

Sodur broke off abruptly, his cheeks flagged red, his eyes dropping evasively. Reisil stood very still, ice crystalizing in her blood. A quaking feeling began deep in her chest. Her mouth went dry. She felt as if she were standing on the edge of a precipice, a vast darkness looming before her.

There was something— Something she should see.

And then it came to her.

For a moment she couldn’t breathe. Everything inside her turned sere and cold and hard. The pain of it was like a needle through her brain. Her knees sagged. With great effort she caught herself, standing firm. No. Not in front of him. Never, ever again. Naïve? Not any more. Nor trusting. She took a step back, her voice uninflected, giving no hint of the storm raging inside.

“It was you all the time. You sent anyone away who might be my friend, who might tell me what’s going on. And the rest of the ahalad-kaaslane—you told them to avoid me. Convinced them they couldn’t trust me.” It wasn’t really a question, but she hoped with all her heart that he would protest. Sodur said nothing, his lips pursing. Pain tightened around her throat like hot copper wire. It was all she could do not to spit at him.

She felt as if she’d swallowed crushed glass. “You are right. I am naïve, because I never would have guessed that you were the maggot in my flesh. All the time you said not to worry, they’d come around, all the time you were sabotaging me.” Reisil paused, biting the tip of her tongue, welcoming the pain. “So what do you plan to do with me now that most of Koduteel thinks I’m as much a traitor as Upsakes? Or was that the point?”

Reisil’s voice cracked and she spun away, fist pressed against her trembling lips. She paced down the street, her gait stiff and graceless. She managed a dozen feet before Sodur strode past and stepped in front of her, blocking her path. His face was haggard and unrepentant.

“I’m sorry Resiltark,” he said, deliberately using a more formal term of address than his usual Reisil. Empty words. He wasn’t sorry. He was trying to manipulate her, to get her to focus on the plague and not on his lies. That way his plan wouldn’t be ruined. Her palm itched to slap him. She balled her hands into fists and shoved them in her pockets, saying nothing.

“It isn’t as simple as you’ve made it. With the Iisand as he is—”

Sodur broke off, a spasm rippling across his thin face. Unwilling sympathy bloomed in Reisil’s chest. Sodur and the Iisand had been close friends before the death of the Mesilasema. But since then, the devastated Iisand had become a recluse, refusing even the company of old friends. The Iisand’s unofficial abdication had hurt Sodur deeply. It had left Kodu Riik drifting and vulnerable. Now his eldest son, the Verit Aare, maneuvered for the regency, while the bickering Arkeinik attempted to lead the land, presided over by Lord Marshal Vare. Little was accomplished. The only thing they all seemed to have in commong was that they despised Reisil.

Her lips tightened, all sympathy for Sodur evaporating. He made them hate her.

“Why?”

Sodur didn’t answer right away, rubbing his hand over his face and pinching his lower lip. Fury crackled up inside Reisil.

“Don’t bother. You can keep your lies. The fairytales that mde me follow after you like a docile cow. You want me to see for myself, act for myself? Then that’s what I will do.”

“You want to know why? The ahalad-kaaslane are in terrible danger. If we want to serve Her, if we want to protect Kodu Riik, then the ahalad-kaaslane have to find a way to resurrect the nobles’ allegiance to us and the Lady. I am one of the few ahalad-kaaslane that certain powerful nobles yet trust. They have included me in their discussions, allowing me to offer counsel. If only to appease the Lady. But they do not like you, Reisil. They fear you, and they think you are playing coy with your powers.”

“Who’s fault is that?” she demanded. He ignored her.

“Worse, given the rift that already exists and their own eagerness to be out from under the ahalad-kaaslane thumb, here you are with the magic to force their cooperation. But if it is believed that you are not welcomed among us, if it is believed that you will not become the banner for the ahalad-kaaslane, the court relaxes. It buys us time for you to do what you need to do.”

Sodur paused, wiping his forehead. “Believe it or not, your isolation also protects you. If they thought you were an immediate threat, they would kill you tomorrow. It’s the only way to keep you healthy and whole until you can solve the problem of your magic. And that, Reisiltark, is my duty to the Lady.”

Reisil shook her head in disbelief. “Do you hear yourself? What happens when I do manage to conquer my magic? You’ve made me their enemy. They’ll be so afraid of me they’ll treat me like a Patversemese wizard. No matter what I do now, they’ll always see me as a vicious dog they can’t turn their backs on.”

“You’re wrong. You’ll cure the plague. They’ll have to trust you. The ahalad-kaaslane will stand beside you.”

“Now who’s being naïve? Thanks to you, the ahalad-kaaslane think of me as another Upsakes. No one will believe I haven’t witheld my power on purpose. You’ve painted me a traitor and nothing is going to wash it away. You should have told me. If you had—” If he had, what? Reisil didn’t know. “I’m not going to be your puppet anymore.”

“You aren’t my puppet. Trust me, this was necessary.”

“Necessary?” She shook her head sharply. “That’s just what Upsakes thought when he kidnapped Ceriba and had her raped and tortured. He thought he had all the right answers too.”

Sodur had stiffened, his face turning pale. “You’re too innocent, too green an ahalad-kaaslane, to understand. You don’t know the court like I do. You don’t know how these things work. But believe me, this is for the best. You will see.”

“I already see. You’re right about one thing. I have been too trusting. You couldn’t have taught me that better if you’d wanted to.

“The quaking inside was spreading outwards. However pure Sodur’s motives might have been, an enduring chasm had opened between them and she felt like she might shatter from the loss. “I guess this is why the ahalad-kaaslane aren’t supposed to get too anyone, not even each other,” Reisil said bitterly. “It makes it much easier to betray your friends. But what if you’re wrong? Have you thought about that? What if you’ve only made it worse?”

She didn’t wait to hear any more, but turned and strode up the street, the bobbing weight of Saljane heavy on her shoulder. She reached out again to touch the bond between them. Despite her fury at being manipulated, deep down, Reisil couldn’t help but wonder if Sodur really was right.

He thinks if I gain control of my magic then everything will be fine. But it won’t bring the Lady back. It won’t make the nobles any less greedy for power. It won’t protect the ahalad-kaaslane.

But that wasn’t really the problem. It wasn’t the source of the pain screwing through her in slow turns.

He told them to shun me, all the time smiling and holding my hand and telling me they’d come around. He watched to be sure his plan worked, fanning the flames whenever someone might have reached out to me.

Seething fury roiled up inside her.

It’s Kaval all over again. I was so in love with him I couldn’t see that he was a traitor, that he’d even think of raping and torturing a woman. How can I still be so gullible? Sodur’s right. If I were a proper ahalad-kaaslane, I would have known better: I never would have depended on him so much. All along he’s been playing his game and I’ve been too blind to even notice it was a game.

He does as he believes necessary.

But Saljane’s mindvoice was flat, chill, and unforgiving. Her talons tightened on Reisil’s shoulder.
Is he right?

Saljane was silent so long that Reisil didn’t think she was going to answer. When she did, it seemed as if she’d changed the subject.

Blessed Amiya does not require such sacrifice of the ahalad-kaaslane. The tradition is human.

What?

It is simpler to have no ties than to have to choose the Lady over someone you care about, as sooner or later every ahalad-kaaslane must. But it is not the Lady’s law to be alone.

Reisil’s head reeled and she stumbled, glancing up incredulously to meet Saljane’s carnelian eye.

How can that be? Everyone knows it. All the ahalad-kaaslane believe it.

Everyone knows many things that are not true, was Saljane’s terse answer. Just because it is what you do, does not mean the Lady decrees it.

Who does?

You do. The human ahalad-kaaslane.

But the animals know better? Why not tell us?

Reisil got the sense of a mental shrug, not dismissive, but frustrated.

I did not think it would help.

Reisil didn’t reply, her thoughts chasing one another. She didn’t have to guard herself against friendship, against taking lovers. Not that she had any prospects of either, except perhaps Juhrnus. He would have her in his bed, she knew, but the idea only made her want to giggle like an eight-year old. But she wasn’t prohibited. It wasn’t the Lady’s law. And no one else knew it.

She hugged the knowledge to herself. A secret of her own. Not earthrending. It wasn’t going to save or destroy anybody’s life. She thought of Sodur and her lips pressed together in a tight line. Still it made her feel independent, like she’d taken her first step out of his shadow.

Sodur isn’t right, she said slowly to Saljane, answering her own question. This isn’t going to work. It won’t stop with being suspicious of me. The ahalad-kaaslane will stop trusting one another, and the court will take advantage of our weakness. Sodur wants to make it look like I’m no threat, like the ahalad-kaaslane are no threat, but it’s more than just show. We’re are going to become what we appear to be.

And she winced as she remembered the advice from her mentor Elutark, the advice that had carried her through becoming ahalad-kaaslane: You are who you pretend to be. She thought of the way Sodur seemed to put on remove masks in the last day. Maybe Elutark was wrong. Maybe you weren’t who you pretended to be.

She was wrenched back to Veneston as the stench wafting from the shearing sheds overwhelmed her. She coughed, pressing her hand to her lips.

No time for self-pity, she scolded herself. People are dying.

She stopped outside the latched door of the main shed. Stacked beside the wall were charred logs. The side of the building was scorched. Someone had tried to burn the place with the sick inside.

“If you can’t cure them, burn them. After all, they’re only friends and family,” she said acidly. Sodur came to stand beside her, saying nothing.

Reisil reached for the latch, a twist of wire securing it from the outside. She paused, her eyes streaming at the unrelenting smell. After a moment, she motioned Sodur to follow her around behind the sheds. A row of kitchen gardens stretched the length of the row, taking advantage of the ready fertilizer and sunny southern exposure. Now, however, most of the neat patches were withered and brown.

Reisil walked along the row until she found a patch of lavender and rosemary growing in a green clump amidst the ruin of vegetables. She collected a handful of each and retreated to the cistern at the end of the garden row. She untied her scarf from her neck and dipped it in the tepid water before rubbing it thoroughly with the two herbs. The resulting odor was pungent and did much to cover the stench when she tied the scarf across her nose and mouth. Sodur followed suit.

“Are you ready?” he asked, and the doubt in his voice made Reisil’s spine snap straight, glad now that she had not admitted her failure to summon her magic when the nokulas attacked.

“I am a tark,” she replied, side-stepping him. She returned to the doorway, unfastening the wire and latch. An angled chute led up a ramp into the wide shearing area. The dimly-lit oval stretched a hundred feet in length and was dominated by rows of shearing tables. The interior wall around the oval was lined with slatted wooden bins for the wool. Gates leading into the holding pens between the inner and outer wall interspersed the bins every ten feet. Each of these small enclosures was designed to hold a dozen sheep. No doubt the place doubled in winter as both a barn and a village gathering area for meetings and celebrations. A dusty red ribbon dangled limply from an overhead beam. No one was celebrating now.

Reisil surveyed the expanse, horror congealing in her stomach. It was worse than any tales of the Demonlord’s torture pits, worse than any nightmare she’d ever imagined. There were so many people—most of the village. Adults and children both. Beside her, Sodur muttered something she didn’t hear.

The dead and the sick littered the tables and dirt floors. It looked as if many had collapsed in their tracks while tending others. The miasma of death, putrefaction and feces made Reisil’s eyes burn and her stomach buck despite the masking scent of lavendar and rosemary. Ignoring her discomfort, she marched resolutely to the closest table.

The man was dead. He wore only a filthy loincloth around his hips. His arms and legs were black up to nearly the shoulders and hips and swollen to five times their normal size. Black scabs pocked the surface between yellow blisters, dried and crusty now. His legs and the table were thick with dried, bloody feces. His face was smeared with the blood that had trickled from his eyes, nose and mouth. His tongue protruded from between his lips. His skin, where it wasn’t black and swollen, was yellowed and covered with a purple rash. Flies crawled over him and clustered in his eyes and mouth.

Reisil moved to the next table and the next, jaw clenching tighter and tighter with every death until she thought her teeth would crack. She paused to kneel and check those lying on the floor. The damage to every body was as catastrophic as the first. In some, the blackened arms and legs had ruptured from the pressure of the escaping gasses within, the putrid inner flesh crawling with maggots and flies. Horror thickened in Reisil’s chest. How could she begin to defend against this devastation? She swallowed, her tongue dry and feeling too large for her mouth. How could she defeat it with crippled magic?

Reisil remembered the wizard circle, the tremendous surge of power, of knowing she could call lightning. The blistering power that had filled her then, the glorious, rich fullness when she had grown back Reimon’s arm in that little grass hut on the Vorshtar plain. That power could pinch out the plague like a blown candle.

But she didn’t have it anymore. Maybe she never did. Then the Lady’s hand had guided her. That hand was gone now. Reisil stopped, staring around her at the bodies scattered like tortured dolls. Most people, the ones who didn’t blame her, said the wizards had done this. And she knew, down to the soles of her feet, that it was true. The plague suited the wizards’style down to the ground. It did their dirty work for them, efficiently, with no wasted energy.

They will pay, Reisil promised herself. I will make them pay.

Halfway down the line of tables, Reisil found a girl still alive. She lay sprawled, half on one side as if she’d tried to curl into a ball. Her hands were black halfway to her elbows, and her feet were black where they protruded from her skirts. Her breath came in wheezing gasps and she jerked and twitched in agony. Reisil could hear a soft, crackling sound, like crumpling paper, and realized that it came from the blackened limbs, the gasses within bubbling and popping. The girl gave a little groan, her mouth moving, her eyes closed.

“Here,” Reisil called to Sodur, who dropped down beside her.

“By the Lady,” he whispered in a gritty voice.

“I’m going to try to heal her.”

Reisil reached down inside herself. To her astonishment, the magic answered immediately, roaring up ferociously to engulf her with volcanic heat. Power crackled over her skin and snapped in the air around her. Reisil snatched her hands up to her chest. Sodur grunted and scuttled aside as the searing heat licked at him.

Reisil struggled against the rising tide. Either it came to fast and hard or it came not at all. What use was magic if she couldn’t control it? Long moments passed, her mouth growing parched, her skin feeling stretched and tight as the heat grew more intense.

At last she managed to contain it, but it pulled at her like a chained animal, snapping and growling.

She laid tentative fingers on the girl’s chest, her light touch making the girl twitch and moan. Reisil closed her eyes, concentrating, moving inside. The girl’s body was as bloated and rotten as a corpse floating in a river. Reisil shuddered as she explored the damage. Collapsed bloodways; pulpy, bruised organs; putrid, decaying flesh. How the girl still clung to life, Reisil couldn’t imagine.

She slid inside on a thick tendril of magic, wincing at the girl’s cry of protest, the way her body twitched and flinched. Reisil tried to thin the magic, but to no avail. She pushed further along, determined to do what she had to do quickly. Elation rolled through her as she went deeper. It was working! Then she forgot everything and concentrated on healing.

How long she sat over the girl, she didn’t know. Over and over again she repaired tattered nets of veins and arteries, restored putrid flesh to pink purity, swallowed poisons and corrosion. Over and over again the corruption returned, sliding unabashedly in behind her as she moved on to the next repair. She was besieged on all sides, frantically trying to stem the tide surging up in her wake as the one before her rolled higher and higher. Over and over she sought the epicenter of the body’s disaster, the source of the spreading horror. Over and over.

The girl died.

Reisil reeled back, feeling life fleeing away, trying to catch it with spectral hands. But the girl was gone, her body a patchwork of healed flesh and voracious rot. Reisil sobbed, the heels of her hands pressed hard against her eyes, her fingers curling hard into her scalp. She felt Sodur’s hands on her shoulders, pulling her against him in a rough embrace. She pressed her head against his chest, dry, wracking sobs shaking her like a sapling in a rough wind.

“Next time, next time,” Sodur soothed, repeating the words over and over. They worked their way into Reisil’s brain with dull slowness and at last she pushed herself up, scrubbing away her tears.

“Then let’s try again.”

There were a dozen others still living in the shearing sheds. Reisil tried again with each of them. To no avail, though none of them died under her ministrations. At last Sodur dragged her away, her body shaking and drenched with sweat.

“You’re a skeleton. I’ve watched the flesh melt off your bones while you work. You cannot do this any more. Not here. You’ve done all you can and it’s not enough. Not yet. You still have more to learn. And Kodu Riik cannot afford to lose you. We’ll have no hope then. You must survive and learn to use your power.”

She resisted his commands, pulling away weakly. She owed these people. She was supposed to save them. That’s what her magic was for; that’s what the Lady had told her to do. Heal my land. Heal my children. If she couldn’t do as the Lady bid, she didn’t have a right to walk away. And who else would care for these pitiful creatures in their last days? Certainly not those hiding in the tavern.

In the end, Sodur promised to send back ahalad-kaaslane to help. Even then Reisil would have waited for them, but Saljane agreed with Sodur and urged Reisil to leave. Reisil could not resist them both, allowing herself to be drawn away, though she couldn’t help but wonder if Sodur would do as promised. She made him promise again and again, but still he saw her skepticism and there was an answering flare of pain in his expression, but Reisil wasn’t sure she believed it. He wore too many masks, too well.

Before they left, she insisted on making the dozen still-living plague victims as comfortable as possible on pallets, moving them to a vacant home nearby. Then Reisil incinerated the sheds with the bodies inside, her magic still flaming bright inside her.

As with the wizard circle, it seemed she could always destroy. It gave her no satisfaction.

What the Reviews say

The tone of PATH OF HONOR is darker than that of its predecessor, for the personal and political problems in it are much harder to fight against. But, well plotted and exhibiting superior characterization, it is definitely a worthy sequel that PATH OF FATE readers will want to read. — Booklist

World-building is strong and characters are multifaceted—fans will be particularly pleased by Reisil’s slow-building relationship with the commoner Yohuac. — Romantic Times

…likeable characters and plenty of action keep things entertaining. — Locus