The war began with the death of the old Tiria.
The war would end only when the last of the Elasians were banished from
Gayome or the last of the Gayomians died in defending their homeland.
In a world where those who lived in centuries past are as much a part of life
as those living now,
In a world where dreams speak of the future, and skilled dreamsingers can
pull back the mists of forgotten memory to reveal what is to come. . .
In a world where the truths once known must be discovered anew, nothing is as
it seems. . .
Not even a war. . .
Hyndla Shenvirl held her breath. She had waited for this moment all day.
Slowly she raised the bow to sight an arrow on the four-legged beast rushing
between the trees on a path that would bring the fleet runner within easy range.
Hunting had become scarce on the side of this mountain as more weary people came
to answer the call to help the Tiria force the Elasians out of Gayome. So many
stomachs to fill. So few to hunt when every able-bodied warrior was needed to
patrol the forest beyond the holderís house where the Tiria had her
The war was going poorly.
Hyndla tried to ignore that thought, but the facts refused to be denied. The
Elasians had invaded Gayome more than four seasons before. Winter had waned,
come once more, then waned again, and still the Elasians prowled Gayome, their
faces with the skeletal tattoos as frightening as a mad dreamsingerís song.
The invaders had tried to find where the Tiria and her allies were hiding, but
Yet the Tiriaís allies were still too few to confront the Elasians in
battle. The Elasians continued to hold the northern half of Gayome, including
the northern woods and the section of the Ring Mountains surrounding the city of
If only the Elasians would return over the Ring Mountains to their own
horrible realm. . .
Hyndla concentrated on the runner, waiting for it to come closer. The war
would not be ended today. Today, they needed this meat as well as the hide which
could be tanned to make shoes or trousers.
She drew back the arrow, holding her breath. The string twanged like a harp
string as the arrow flew through the trees. The runner shrieked out its dying
breath when the arrow struck it. It took two more steps, then fell into the
fresh spring undergrowth.
Hyndla leaped to her feet and ran forward. Once gutted, the runner would be
hung in the courtyard of the holderís estate where the Tiria and her allies
lived. Then soon, it would be supper. Her mouth watered at the thought.
A screech rang through the trees.
She dropped into the brush, flat against the still cool ground. A forest cat!
Its cry was unmistakable. Where was it? Many beasts roamed the forest, but only
the most foolhardy would fail to respect the powerful claws and hunting skill of
a forest cat.
A flash of golden-brown rippled through the trees. She cursed. The forest cat
was headed right toward the downed runner! She jumped to her feet and pulled her
knife. She had been hunting too long today to let that forest cat steal the
runner she had shot.
She did not hesitate. She might be risking her life, but this was her
kill! Let the forest cat find its own supper.
With a screech of her own, she propelled herself into the clearing where the
runner lay in its own blood. Her raised knife was ready to cut into the forest
cat. Let it learn that Hyndla Shenvirl did not give up what was hers.
Hyndla skidded to a halt and stared at a man who was squatting beside her
"Did you see where it went?" she cried.
The man faced her, his face taut with fury, and his lips drawn back in a
snarl. "Where what went?"
"The forest cat. Did you see where it went?"
When he pushed himself up from the ground, she stared. She had not guessed
while he knelt that he was taller than she was. It was as if he were coming
toward her from a distance at the same time as he stood. She blinked, sure her
eyes were deceiving her. Since she had gained her full height just past her 16th
summer, she had never seen anyone taller than she was. His ebony hair drifted
down upon the shoulders of a tunic shiny from long wear. His deep-set green-gold
eyes drew her gaze from the raw, sharp planes of his face. She never had seen a
face quite like his, for it possessed a refined savagery that hinted at stronger
emotions than those glowing in his eyes.
"I did not see a forest cat," he said.
"If you did, you probably would be dead." She frowned when she saw
he carried no weapon other than the small blade in the belt of his light brown
tunic. Maybe he had another hidden in his cross-gartered green leggings or
beneath the shirt of the same shade that was visible at the tunicís deep
neckline. She had learned through hard lessons not to believe that all was as it
He laughed, amazing her, for the deep sound seemed to soar on the spring
wind. "I am woods-wise enough to know that."
"Then you should be woods-wise enough to know that you do not try to
butcher another hunterís prey."
Hyndla pointed to the red splotch on his sleeve. "That is fresh
"But not from your beast." He folded his arms in front of him so
the bloody spot was directly before her eyes. "Check it, if you doubt me,
woman. The only cut into the runner is from your arrow." He gave a snort.
"The arrow that might have been in my heart if I had not leaped
"I did not see you."
"I saw you."
"Then you should have seen that I was about to fire on the runner."
"I did not suspect you would let the arrow fly when I was within its
Hyndla unstrung her bow and settled it over her shoulder. She must not delay
any longer gutting the runner. "The arrow did not strike you, so you can
continue on your way."
"When there is a forest cat about?" His question was taunting.
"Do you always consign strangers to travel in the path of such a
Hyndla knelt, drawing out her knife. "Jest if you wish, stranger, but
you are not needed here. The meat of this runner already has mouths waiting for
"Enough so that no meat will be wasted." She cursed herself
silently. By the first song, would she ever learn to hesitate before she gave
voice to the thoughts in her head? No stranger should know how close he stood to
the Tiriaís small band of allies. This man might be an Elasian sympathizer
here to spy on them, or worse. The only thing she could imagine worse would be
an Elasian, but they could not challenge her height as this man did.
With quick, deep cuts of her knife, she split open the runner and removed the
poisonous entrails, tossing them aside. If the forest cat returned, it could
have a feast, for the innards would not sicken the beast. She lashed the runnerís
legs together with a rope she carried in her quiver for such a purpose.
Resheathing her knife, she stood, hefting the runner onto her shoulders.
The stranger arched a dark brow. "How far do you plan to carry that
beast like that?"
"To where I must."
"I would help in exchange for a share of the meat."
"That is not necessary." The weight of the runner was grinding down
into her shoulders, but she refused to show any sign of weakness before this
man. He might then try to steal her catch.
"Will you at least offer me some information?"
Hyndla fought knees that were threatening to buckle. "Giving away
information now is not a wise thing."
"You speak as one who has suffered directly in the war."
"An easy guess when there must be few in Gayome who have not." She
took a step toward the trees.
The man matched her pace.
"What do you want?" she asked.
He smiled coolly. "A dangerous question for a woman who is alone in the
"How do you know I am alone?" She wanted to pull her knife to show
him that she would not be taunted. She could not. Not when she was holding this
dreamless beast on her shoulders. Or was that what he wished? If she set the
runner down, he could snatch it and try to flee. It would be futile, because he
would not get far before she caught him and made him sorry he had tried to steal
"I honestly hope you are not alone," he replied, his voice as low
as the breeze playing with the new leaves.
"What do you mean?" She shifted the runner. Its spine was biting
into her shoulders.
"I had hoped you might know where to find the Tiria (May she live
forever!) and her allies."
Hyndla flinched in spite of herself. It had once been as natural to speak
that blessing after the Tiriaís name as to breathe. How long had it been since
she last had heard anyone address Nerienne in that manner? Nerienne was the
Tiria. No one contested that, save the Elasians who wished to see her dead and
her claim on Gayome ended. Necessity had changed many customs, leaving some
Setting the runner back on the ground, she put her foot on the carcass and
looked at the stranger. Again she found it curious to raise her eyes to meet
anotherís when she was standing. "Why do you want to find her?"
"I need to speak with her."
Hyndla frowned and eyed the man up and down. "Why? About what?"
"Are you her advisor that you dare to ask such a question and keep me
from speaking with her?"
"I will give you some advice, stranger. You will win no allies here by
angering everyone you meet." She put her hand on the haft of her knife.
"I asked you a question which you never answered."
"Odd, I was about to say the same thing."
"I am glad I could save you the trouble of having to say that. Why not
use the breath you have been wasting on this aimless conversation and answer my
His golden eyes narrowed. "You are glib. You may be an advisor, after
Hyndla would not let him goad her into doing something she would regret.
"I learned long ago that, in the right circumstances, words can be as
worthy a weapon as any blade."
"In the right circumstances." He took a step toward her. "And
in the right circumstances, words can be the difference between knowledge and
ignorance. I have something that I wish the Tiria (May she live forever!) to
hear, something she will be eager to hear." Putting his foot on the haunch
of the dead runner, he smiled. "You have no reason to trust me. Yet, on the
other hand, I have given you no reason to distrust me. Like you, I am far from
my home, driven out by the Elasian scourge. Like you, I wish to see them gone
from Gayome. Like you, I hunger for the taste of vengeance which would be even
sweeter than freshly cooked runner meat." He stood straighter, his hands
dangling at his sides. "If you know the way, take me to the Tiria (May she
Hyndla laughed. "You accuse me of being garrulous, but you have honed
your skill with words."
"That is no answer to my request."
"You are right. I have no reason to trust you. Some Gayomians have
aligned themselves with the Elasians." She chuckled again. "Much to
"Maybe this will convince you that I am no ally of the Elasians."
He knelt and drew up the left leg of his trousers.
Hyndla gasped as she stared at the dark blue scar that ran nearly from his
knee to the boot reaching just above his ankle. She had seen many wounds and
tended to some of them herself, watching for healing. She even bore some scars.
And the crescent-shaped mark inside her right elbow she believed was a
birthmark, although her foster mother had said it was a sign of good luck. But
only one thing left a scar of shade of blue on a the strangerís legóan
Elasian persuader. The horrible tool was used in the interrogation of a
recalcitrant prisoner who had information the Elasians wanted. To say that it
burned was like comparing the sparse heat of a campfire to the power of the sun.
He stood, shaking his pant leg back into place. "I thought you would
"When were you captured?"
His lips drew back in that feral expression as he snarled, "It does not
matter, for I escaped, leaving my surviving captors to wish they had never seen
me. Now will you take me to the Tiria (May she live forever!)?"
"Come. I will take you to her." Hyndla tapped her blade. "You
need to remember that she has many allies who will gladly release the blood of
anyone who would do her harm."
"I would be a fool to think otherwise, and I am no fool."
Hyndla bent to pick up the runner, but the stranger hoisted it to his
"Do not think to steal my kill," she said.
"You know these woods far better than I. You should guard our
route while we seek out your allies, for you would recognize what was
amiss among these trees."
She could not argue with that. Motioning for him to come along, she stepped
beneath the trees. She watched for him to follow. He did. Maybe he was being
honest, but she doubted that. No one dared to be completely honest when the line
between friend and foe was not a constant thing, always moving as some set aside
their loyalties to save their lives.
The man was woods-wise, she noted. He walked with a smooth stealth that she
had struggled to learn when she first began to hunt. Her foster father had
doubted she would ever acquire the ability to slither through the forest,
leaving no sign of her passage other than her scent.
The throb of grief was no less strong simply because it was so familiar. Her
foster father and the rest of her familyóand the neighbors who had accepted
her as one of them, even though she had not been born in that villageóall of
them were dead. The Elasians had swept over the village, slaying everything that
breathed. She had heard the screams of the dying and of those who longed for
death while enduring the Elasian torture.
Only she had escaped because she had been preparing for her journey to the
Tiriaís compound. She had planned to offer herself into service as one of the
Tiriaís elite guards, but had heard of the Tiriaís death and seen the
Elasiansí destruction of her compound. Returning to her own village with all
due speed, she had been too late to save anyone but herself. She vowed not to
die without savoring her vengeance against the hideously tattooed invaders.
Then she would seek the truth of why she was different from everyone else in
her village. The truth must lie somewhere along the Mirror Lake, for she had
been found near there as a child and taken into her foster familyís home to
live with their children.
A low hiss behind her brought Hyndla back to this time and place. She looked
back and saw the strangerís eyes were wide with amazement. She smiled.
Nerienne had chosen sagely when she selected this abandoned holderís house for
her own compound. It might not be as glorious as her late motherís, but it
served this Tiria well.
The holderís house had been built to be invisible to anyone who did not
look closely. The walls were covered with lichen, but were strong. Painting on
the wooden gate, that was no wider than a single person, suggested it was
composed of tree trunks instead of iron. The whole compound seemed, on a cursory
glance, to be part of the unbroken forest. One could walk right past it without
noticing the walls.
"I have never seen its like," the stranger said.
"Nor had I. So many things I have seen that I could not have imagined
before I left my village."
"Who built it?"
"We do not know." She smiled as she opened the gate. "Maybe it
was put here by the Eldest Ones for our use."
"Or raised from the very flesh of the ground by the Tiria (May she live
Hyndla laughed. "She can do many things, but I doubt she can do
"You doubt the skills of your Tiria (May she live forever!)?"
She ducked through the gate, then took the carcass from him, so he could do
the same. Calling out to a group of lads, she handed them the carcass and told
them to hang it so it could be butchered on the morrow. Then she turned back to
the stranger. Again, as she had before, she was startled to look up into
"I do not doubt the Tiriaís skills," she said, "for I have
seen her use her gifts from the Eldest Ones to protect her people. It is simply
that I have been honored to come to know her well."
"Know her well? The Tiria (May she live forever!) lives in seclusion andó"
Hyndla knew she should not laugh at his assumptions that Nerienne had been
unchanged when the rest of Gayome had been torn apart by the Elasians. She could
not halt herself. When his dark brows lowered, she said, "Come with me and
judge for yourself."
This time she did not look back. She knew he would follow as she led him past
the byres within the wall and toward the tall house that looked as if it were a
stand of ancient trees growing closely together.
The people in the courtyard between the outer wall and the house within froze
as they stared at Hyndla and the man who was walking with her. She watched as
heads tilted toward each other, and the buzz of whispers sounded like a hive of
"It appears the fact that you are no longer unique here is upsetting to
your allies," the man said. "Or is it that you get few strangers
"Travel has been difficult during the cold months."
"Because the Elasians have cut off the routes through Gayome?"
"As well as because the Elasians have cut off the heads of those who try
to travel far through Gayome."
He shrugged. "Those who dearly wish to be somewhere will find a way to
get there." He paused and gazed around. "Apparently many others share
my belief about that, for they have come to offer their services to the Tiria
(May she live forever!)."
Hyndla looked about as if she were the newcomer. Their numbers, although more
than at this time last year, were still few. However, the courtyard was busy
with those who practiced skills with a sword or a bow. The animals in the pens
were well-tended. Children played a game near where their mothers were doing
laundry. The gentle odor of baking bread drifted toward them, and her mouth
watered. Bread was more of a luxury than meat. The flour that had been found in
the storerooms of this house must be nearly gone, and there was little hope of
obtaining more because the fields of Gayome lay fallow.
She went into the house, lowering her head with the ease of habit. Her eyes
narrowed when she saw the stranger almost walked into the stone lintel above the
door. He grumbled something under his breath as he ducked.
"Where are you from?" she asked.
"East of the Hollow River."
He added nothing else, and she did not ask. It had been silly to think this
tall man might have answers to her own past. The Hollow River, it was said,
emptied into the Mirror Lake and was leagues from here. If he had traveled from
that distant place, he could have much information for Nerienne.
Inside, the house seemed as much a part of the forest as the exterior. Green
walls were laced with vines. Blossoms peeked from among the leaves hanging from
the ceiling. At one side of the long hallway, a pool was an emerald jewel
beneath a glass roof. Climbing the steps that seemed to be cut out of the ground
rather than built within a house, Hyndla smiled when she heard the soft sounds
of frogs around the pool.
"You have beasts within the hall?" asked the man.
"It would seem so, although no one has actually seen the frogs in here.
We only hear them." She paused at the top of the stairs. "We hear
birds as well, but there is no sign of them within the house."
"Arenít you curious about how the sounds are created?"
"Extremely, but no one has discovered the truth."
"Even the Tiria (May she live forever!)?"
Hyndla faced him. "She has had other matters to concern her."
For what she suspected was the first time, his smile was genuine. He remained
silent, and she went to knock on the door that led to Nerienneís rooms.
"It is Hyndla," she replied to the call from within. Opening the
door and glancing over her shoulder, she added, "It is Hyndla, Tiria (May
you live forever!)."
Hyndla was not surprised that Nerienne stiffened as she stood, for no one
within the compound addressed her so formally. The sunlight glittered like spun
silver off the Tiriaís waist-length hair. Around her neck she wore a pendant
with stones nearly the same shade as her brilliant blue eyes. At her waist hung
a small black shell.
Hyndla smiled. Bidge must be sleeping, but certainly the small creature that
always was close to Nerienne would awaken to listen to this discussion. Nobody
had ever seen anything quite like Bidge, with her silver fur and single foot
that held her to Nerienneís tunic belt. The Tiria communicated with Bidge
through thoughts that only Nerienneís mate, Durgan Ketassian, was also privy
Noting an odd grayness of the Tiriaís face, Hyndlaís smile vanished. Was
Nerienne ill again? She had kept to herself in this room for the past week,
seldom venturing out among her people.
Nerienne gave no sign of weakness as she looked past Hyndla to the man
entering the room. He dropped to his knees, then prostrated himself on the stone
floor. Yet Hyndla noticed that he was peering around his outstretched arms to
determine more about this room and who was in it.
"Tiria (May you live forever), I am yours," he said correctly.
"Use me as you and the Eldest Ones deem necessary to regain Gayome for the
"Rise," Nerienne replied, lowering herself back into her chair.
When Hyndla took a step forward as Nerienne wobbled on that simplest of
motions, Nerienne waved her away. Hyndla clasped her hands behind her back. She
must not betray Nerienne by making the stranger more aware of this unknown
Hyndla stared at the bluestones around Nerienneís neck. The lifestones
could heal, but Nerienne would use them only for others, not for herself. Yet,
if Nerienne sickened, those who had withstood the Elasian advance might lose
heart for the battles still to come.
The man came slowly to his feet. "I am Runolf Tocho." He bowed his
head again. "I am here to serve in the battle against the Elasians."
"Welcome." Nerienne put out her hand. "We welcome all who come
in friendship, Runolf Tocho."
Hyndla grinned when Runolf Tocho stared at the proffered hand. If he had
asked, she would have told him that Nerienne was like no other Tiria who had
ruled Gayome since the Beginnings. Certainly she was unlike her mother who had
been a despot, dominating Gayome with fear and slowly exterminating anyone who
might contest her edicts.
Runolf Tocho bowed over Nerienneís hand, but did not touch it.
Nerienne glanced at Hyndla, and Hyndla saw her mouth working as she struggled
not to smile. Nerienne had become as accustomed to the informality as the rest
of them. "I would like to hear how you found Runolf Tocho, Hyndla."
She motioned for them both to sit.
Hyndla dropped, grateful, to pillows stacked on the uneven stone floor. This
holderís house had been deserted when the Tiria led them here, but all the
furnishings and food had remained behind. There were some who believed that the
Eldest Ones had led the Tiria here and arranged for this house to be waiting
with all they needed. Hyndla suspected that faith would be tried now that the
supplies were almost gone and nothing more had come to replace them through the
Eldest Onesí intervention.
Runolf Tocho continued to stand. Hyndlaís hand went to her knife again. If
he dared to contradict Nerienneís orders before he had said more than a score
of words, then he might not be a man to trust.
"Runolf Tocho," Nerienne said, her voice calm, "you appear to
have traveled far. You are welcome to sit and relax while we speak."
"What I have to say, Tiria (May you live forever!), is best said while
"Then speak what you have journeyed here to say."
"The Elasians have completed their decimation of the lands on the east
side of the Hollow River, and now they are amassing to take this last corner of
Gayome. They know you are here, and they are determined not to be halted until
you are dead."
"They have said that before," Hyndla said with a tight laugh.
Nerienne pushed herself to her feet. "But you have seen something,
Runolf Tocho, havenít you, to make you think this time it is different?"
"Yes." He reached beneath his tunic and pulled out a small box. He
lifted off the lid before holding it out.
"Itís empty!" Hyndla frowned. "Is this some sort of
"I wish that it was a jest. Then so many of my people would not be
dead." He turned the box over. Tapping it gently, he let some white powder
fall to the floor. "Donít!"
Even as Nerienne grasped her arm, Hyndla pulled back her finger that was
about to touch the powder. "What is it?"
"A poison so deadly that even a single touch can kill." He bent and
carefully blew the poison back into the box. Securing the lid, he handed it to
Nerienne. "This is how the Elasians intend to wipe out what is left
of Gayome. Do you have a way to halt them?"
Nerienne glanced at Hyndla before shaking her head. "No."
"Then you are doomed."