Allegria appears to all to be nothing more than a simple priestess devoted to worship of the sun goddess. Hallow is a masterless apprentice. Deo was meant to save the world and bring the Fireborn and Starborn together peace.
But then invaders besieged the land of the Starborn, breaking the prophecy. Now Allegria has fled the priesthood and wields the power of the sun. Hallow accepts the mantle of leadership he so long avoided. And Deo is tormented and tortured by the power of the invaders, using chaos itself to create an army that will drive the interlopers from the land and bring about the peace of the Fourth Age.
The three unlikely heroes must learn to trust where there is suspicion, to believe where there is only doubt, and to fight when all hope is lost.
Release date: June 11, 2019
Publisher: Rebel Base Books
Print pages: 298
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“I’m not too late, am I?”
The midwife looked up from where she was carefully cleansing and anointing her tools, mindful to treat them with the reverence they deserved. They had saved—and, goddess willing, would continue to save—many a woman’s life.
A tall man strode into the small antechamber, the air that swirled behind him bringing with it the soft scents of the rare night-blooming flowers that grew outside the queen’s chamber. The scent drifted through the room, banishing before it smells normal to such domains, instead providing a sense of relief and refreshment. The midwife breathed deeply for a moment, her mind calming and clearing… until those scents native to the impatient man tickled her nose. Horse, sweat, and leather had their places, but not in a queen’s bedchamber. Not in a birthing environment.
“The babe is born, if that is what you mean,” she answered finally, aware that the man had the decency to wait upon her answer before continuing into the next chamber.
He hesitated. “And Dasa? She does well?”
The midwife unbent a little in her consideration of the man before her. She had judged many a new father on his first words, whether his concern was wholly for his progeny, or if he had a care for the woman who had risked her life to bring a new being into Bellias’s domain. “The queen rests comfortably, my lord. She was in labor for half a day, but once the child wished to be born, it went quickly.”
“Good.” The man reached the door to the queen’s chamber in three strides, but he again paused, his hand on the doorknob. “And the babe?”
She knew what he was asking. “You have a son, my lord.”
“Thank the goddess,” he said, sighing in relief, and without another word entered the queen’s bedchamber.
The midwife sidled up to the door and leaned against it, listening for a moment, but the murmur of voices inside was too unclear to be distinguishable.
“Bellias bless and keep the child,” she murmured to herself as she returned to the task of cleaning her tools. “And may he be the salvation that we need.”
* * * *
Israel Langton, lord of the Fireborn and newly made father, examined the small bundle presented to him by one of the handmaidens. He wasn’t overly impressed by what he saw. “Are you sure that’s a babe?”
“Have you seen him?” He gestured toward the child. “He looks more like a boiled frog.”
“He does not. He doesn’t look anything like a frog, boiled or otherwise.”
He pulled back a bit of the swaddling. “Definitely has frog blood. And possibly some sort of mutant pig.”
“You are incorrigible!”
Israel smiled to himself and looked over to the mammoth bed where a woman lay draped against a plethora of red and purple cushions, her long black hair washing down over the bedcovers. Her face was pinched and exhausted, but her eyes—silver in color, and right now about as warm as the moon itself—were filled with life.
“How dare you say that about our son? He is perfect in every way.”
Israel took the bundle from the handmaiden and brought it to Dasa, carefully easing himself alongside her. Despite the midwife’s reassurances, the lines of strain around Dasa’s mouth told the tale of just how strenuously she’d fought to birth the baby. “Take a look.”
She looked. “Well… maybe not perfectly perfect.”
“He’s red. And blotchy.”
Dasa fussed with the swaddling blanket, adjusting it minutely and brushing her fingers against the child’s forehead. “He’s not blotchy. He just has… different colors to his flesh.”
“His head is pointed.”
“Yours would be, too, if you were squeezed out of a womb,” she countered.
He raised his brows. “I know you think I was born of the lord of the underworld, but my mother tells a different story.”
“Then your criticism is null. In time his head will become as round as yours.”
Israel considered his son, now nestled against his mother. “He’s not very attractive, is he? You are lovely, and I’ve been told I wouldn’t cause a maiden to lose her supper upon viewing me, and yet our child is… not like either of us.”
Dasa struggled to speak for a few moments. Israel knew that lies did not come naturally to her and was amused watching her find judicious words to counter his statement. “He won’t always look this way,” she finally allowed. “You needn’t hold his present appearance against him. He’s been through a lot in the last hour, and one doesn’t look one’s best after a battle.”
“You always do,” he said, shifting his gaze up to her face. “You emerge from even the hardest fight looking as if you could do it all over again.”
She gave a half shrug, but he saw one corner of her mouth curl up in acknowledgment of the compliment. “That’s different. I am a warrior.”
“And he is my son—is that what you’re saying?”
“Now you are reading an insult where one was not intended,” Dasa countered quickly. “I simply said that I am used to battle, whereas our son—Deosin—hasn’t had a chance to learn my ways, yet.”
Dasa inclined her head. “Our ways. He will be our salvation.”
Israel was silent for a few minutes, running his fingertip alongside the pink fists of the babe. Deo was asleep, and for a moment, Israel wanted to wake him up. Would his son have the blue or gray eyes of the Starborn, or would he bear the amber eyes of the Fireborn? “Do you believe that, Dasa? In your heart, do you believe it?”
She glanced away from him and addressed the two handmaidens who lurked in the room, tidying and waiting to be of service to their mistress. “You may leave me. Return in ten minutes.”
The women bowed, shot Israel a curious look, and left silently. Dasa waited for the count of twenty before answering. “We made this child because of the prophecy. Do you now doubt it?”
Deo’s arm twitched. Israel lifted the little fist and studied it. “It’s so minute, so perfectly formed, this hand. It even has tiny little fingernails. And yet it’s almost impossible to believe that this blotchy, red-faced little frog could be the one person to bring peace to Alba.”
“He had better be,” Dasa said with a touch of acid in her voice. “After what I went through bringing him into this world. Not to mention having to consort with a Fireborn in order to do so.”
Israel was annoyed for a moment, but decided that she had earned the right to make a few digs at his expense. “You aren’t my first choice for a life partner either, my sweet.”
She grimaced at the endearment, as he knew she would. “Then it’s a good thing we are not wedded, isn’t it?”
He leaned close and kissed the tip of her nose. “You may not like me any more than I like you, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy the making of this babe.”
“Sexual pleasure is hardly a fitting topic of conversation,” she said primly, but the corner of her mouth twitched again. “The future is. We should have Deosin’s future read now, before the night breaks.”
“It can wait. You are tired and need rest, and he is sleeping.”
She shook her head, a familiar flash of stubbornness in her eyes. “It must be done tonight, while the moon is still up.”
“His future has already been foretold—”
“That was before he was born.” She pulled a silk rope hanging alongside the bed. “I have a very good sage. It was she who predicted that your seed would find favor nine months ago. She will cast Deo’s fortune and reassure us that he is the one we have waited for.”
Israel hesitated for a moment before rising and glancing out through an open window. The goddess Bellias in the form of the moon was low on the horizon, just setting about her path across the night sky, a time when all right-thinking Fireborn were tucked up inside beside fires and family. And here he was, far from home, in the land of his enemies. “And if she doesn’t give us that reassurance?”
When he glanced back over his shoulder, Dasa’s gaze was on their son, her expression unreadable. “She will. She has to. My people are tired. Yours are decimated. We can’t go on like this many more generations before Alba is destroyed.”
He said nothing, returning to his examination of the city that lay outside Dasa’s stronghold, and his dark thoughts. A tap at the door interrupted those thoughts, and he turned to watch silently as a surprisingly young woman entered the room, bowed before her queen, and shot Israel a worried look.
“Cast your runes,” Dasa ordered the sage, who bowed again, and knelt before the side of the bed, one hand on the swaddled bundle.
Interested despite himself, Israel watched as the young woman sketched symbols in the air that glowed first pale blue, then turned silver, before dissolving into nothing.
“Arcane runes?” he asked Dasa.
Her brows rose slightly. “Are there any other kind?”
“Yes. My seers use bones and leaves.” He allowed a little grimace to twist his face. “They aren’t terribly accurate. They told me that our child was destined for a life of betrayal and sorrow.”
Dasa drew the child closer to her in a protective move that relieved some of Israel’s worry about leaving his son in the care of the woman against whom he’d fought his entire life. “Your sages are rubbish. Ciandra has never failed me.”
“Never, my lady,” the woman said, still drawing one-handed symbols in the air. As the last one faded, she shook her head, cast a quick glance over to Israel, and began the process again.
Dasa shifted uncomfortably in the bed.
“Do you have need of one of your women?” Israel asked, wishing to help her, but knowing she would reject any such offer.
“Not yet. I want Deo’s future read first; then we will sleep.” A little frown creased her black brows when she watched the sage repeating her symbols. “You are slower than normal, Ciandra.”
“I know, my lady, and I apologize.” She slid another glance toward Israel. “The runes… I’m having some trouble making them understand that it is the child they are to predict for, and not… not him.”
Dasa’s lips tightened. “I have just been praising you. Do not now make me look a fool for doing so.”
“No, my lady.” The sage continued to draw symbols in the air, her face tight with concentration, and her arcanist’s robes rustling softly with the increased movement of her arm.
Israel turned back to the window, about to resume his contemplation, when the sage gave an annoyed click of her tongue.
“It is not—they won’t—I’m sorry, my lady, but the runes are not cooperating.”
Dasa propped herself up on one arm. “What is it they are saying?”
The sage lowered her head and stared at the floor, her voice as soft as the night air. “They say a time of great trial is coming.”
“What sort of trial?” Israel asked.
The sage struggled for a moment, then spoke one word. “Invasion.”
“By whom?” Dasa demanded, her fingers digging into the silken bedcovers. Her gaze found his, and he fought against the need to flinch at the suspicion in it. “From where?”
“I know not, my lady.”
“When will the invasion happen?” Israel demanded to know.
The sage made a gesture of frustration. “I… the runes do not give a date. They simply foretell an invasion.”
Israel held Dasa’s gaze, his face a mask, but inside, suspicion fought with anger. Would the sage lie in his presence in order to hide plans Dasa had to destroy the Fireborn? But no, that made no sense. Why would Dasa want him deceived when she’d just given birth to the one who would, at last, bring the two warring races of Alba together?
“What do they say about my son?” Dasa asked, her eyes narrowed slits of silver when they turned to the young woman. “What do they say about the ending of the Third Age?”
The sage’s shoulders quivered for a moment; then she looked up, her face as pale as snow. “They say nothing, my lady. There is no mention of the savior who will bring upon us the Fourth Age. It is as if…” She hesitated, swallowing hard. “It is as if he does not exist.”
Israel wanted to snatch up the child and remove him from this place, this homeland of his enemies, and, without thinking, had moved toward the bed, but he caught the expression in Dasa’s eyes at that moment.
She was the greatest warrior he’d ever known—goddess knew how many times he’d fought her, a sword in one hand, and a staff in the other—and yet he saw a flicker of fear in her eyes.
The knowledge struck him in the belly almost as if it had been a physical blow: she was afraid for their child. Would she really arrange this elaborate plot if she held such fear for Deo’s future? Even as Israel watched, she pulled the babe into the crook of her arm, protecting the swaddled form.
“The runes are wrong,” she said at last, her voice as stark as the pain in Israel’s gut.
“My lady, I wish they were, but—”
“They are wrong!” Dasa said loudly, and with a jerk of her head dismissed the sage. The young woman scurried out, a strangled sob following the sound of the door closing behind her.
Israel stood helpless, unsure of what action he should take. They had prayed to the goddesses for so long, Fireborn and Starborn alike, and at long last, oracles of both races received identical messages: the joining of bloodlines would end the desolation of the Third Age and bring on the peace and prosperity of the Fourth. But now… he shook his head. “What will you do?” he asked at last.
Dasa lifted her chin, her gaze defiant. “We will do what we always do. We will prepare. We will defend what is ours. And we will survive.”
“And the invaders?”
Her lip curled in scorn. “The runes are wrong. But if they come, they will soon learn the error of their ways.”
The meaning of her words was quite clear to Israel. He squared his shoulders, reminding himself that although he had drawn up the terms of the accord with the Starborn, it was not to be put into place until their child was recognized by both races, and the Third Age ended.
Now, with the words of one slim girl, that fragile hope for peace was gone.
“So be it,” he said, and, with one final glance at the child, left the bedchamber.
“Is that a body?”
It took a few seconds for the question to filter through Deo’s dark thoughts, but at last the words pushed past the bubbling sense of injustice that had gripped him ever since his father had told him he was too young to attend the upcoming council meeting of the Four Armies. He looked up, his eyes narrowing on the mound in the road ahead, instantly dismissing it as not worth his time. “It doesn’t look like a person. It’s probably a dog.”
Lord Israel pursed his lips in the way that annoyed Deo to no end. “I believe it is a person. How tiresome of the locals to discard their bodies on the road. It will have to be moved. Marston!”
“My lord?” One of his father’s men rode up beside them. That, too, annoyed Deo. Why did everyone jump the second his father spoke? They treated him like a god, someone whose every whim must be instantly accommodated.
“There is a body ahead.”
“Indeed, my lord, so it appears.”
“Have it removed and given to those to whom it belongs. They must inter it properly lest Kiriah be offended.”
“It shall be as you demand, my lord.”
Deo’s lip curled at the toadying steward. Never would the day dawn when he allowed himself to lick his father’s boots as the others did.
“Now, where were we? Ah yes, a discussion of your behavior at the Temple of Kiriah Sunbringer. The head priestess, Lady Sandorillan, is an old friend of mine, Deo, and I would have you remember your manners around her.”
He ignored his father to continue fulminating over the unfairness of his life. He had seen fourteen summers! Others his age were already out fighting with his father’s army, but not him. Resentment simmered hotly, causing his fingers to tighten on the reins.
“I’ve allowed you to come with me on this visit because I think it’s time that you see the true plight of those who we serve. You are a Langton. The welfare of our people must always come first in your thoughts.” Lord Israel halted his horse as two of his men moved toward the body lying in the road. “I expect you to remember just who you are, and what you owe to me while you are in the presence of Lady Sandor.”
“What do I owe to you?” Deo asked, all but snapping off the words. “You treat me like I’m a child, gullible and unlearned and ignorant, but your own sergeant-at-arms says I am the best of all the fighters.”
“You get your prowess at arms from your mother, no doubt,” Lord Israel said dryly.
“Then why can’t I visit her? She must surely have much more to teach me than I can learn in Abet, and I—”
“It is out of the question,” his father interrupted, the words spoken with a sense of finality that further enraged Deo.
“But why? You always say that, but you never tell me why! You never let me do anything! I am my mother’s son just as much as I am yours; I should be able to visit her if I want!”
“It’s out of the question,” repeated Lord Israel. “It’s not safe for you in Genora. That is why your mother sent you to live with me when you were naught but a babe, and that is why you will remain here.”
Deo thought darkly upon his father’s words. He’d always been told that his mother had sent him from his homeland, but why would so brave a warrior as she do that? It had to be a tale his father had concocted to keep him from her. Everyone knew his father hated the Starborn. He had no doubt that the queen would have come to claim him long ago, but for the invaders that blighted Genora.
“But I am not a babe now,” Deo growled. “I am a man, and I want to learn—”
“Then you will learn here,” Lord Israel said firmly. “The invaders who came at your birth are more powerful than you can imagine, and your mother and I agreed that it was best for you to remain with me, where you will learn the ways of the magisters.”
He was surprised at that, and for a moment, hurt flashed through him at the thought that his mother might really have been complicit in his removal from the land of his birth; but suspicion about his father’s motives immediately flooded back. Israel Langton was born of a long line of magisters and wanted his only child to follow in that tradition.
“Bah,” Deo snorted, disgust all but dripping off the word. “The magisters are weaklings. Their earth magic heals, but it does not blast a foe into the lap of Kiriah Sunbringer. It is nothing compared to a good sword.”
“There is more to the magisters’ art than just healing, which you would know if you took the time to attend your lessons. No, do not continue to argue, as I see by your sulky expression you wish to do. If you want to convince me that you are an adult, and not an emotional boy railing against authority, then you must prove it with your actions.”
Deo was about to answer with a surly word or two, but just then the body in the road sat up. The two men-at-arms who were about to carry him off the road recoiled, and shrieked in surprise. A tall, gaunt boy with a shock of silver-blond hair got awkwardly to his feet and faced them, dirt smudged over every available surface. It was almost impossible to tell how old he was, given his appearance, his ragged and torn clothing, and the wary, hunted look about his eyes.
“By Kiriah’s breath!” the boy gasped, rubbing his face, and managing to smear even more dirt on an already filthy visage. “You almost ran me down!”
“We thought you were dead,” Lord Israel said smoothly, eyeing the boy with mild interest. “Who are you?”
“Hallow.” The boy scratched first his head, then his arse, before making a jerky bow. “My name is Hallow.”
“Well, Hallow, you might reconsider your choice of sleeping venues in the future. Does your family reside around here?”
“No, they are dead.” The boy peered out from under a clump of hair, his eyes watchful.
Deo stiffened when the boy’s gray eyes flickered over to him. He knew that to this wild, unkempt boy, he must appear exactly what he was—the pampered child of a powerful leader—and that made him feel intolerably uncomfortable.
“And I wasn’t sleeping,” Hallow finished, shoving his hair out of his eyes. “I… I haven’t eaten in a while, and I fell insensible for a bit.”
There was something in the boy’s voice, a defiant note that Deo understood well.
“You must have someone to whom you belong,” Lord Israel said in what Deo thought of as his (irritating) patient voice. “Tell me where your people are, and I will see to it that you are returned to them.”
“They’re all dead,” Hallow said with a shrug of one of his thin shoulders. “They were killed by the Harborym.”
“You’ve seen them?” Deo asked before he realized he was speaking. “What do they look like? Did you kill them? It is said they have a powerful magic unlike anything known—did you see this magic?”
“Deo!” Lord Israel said sharply. At the same time, Hallow answered, “I was very young. I don’t remember them at all.”
“A life on the road alone is not one for a lad as young as you,” Lord Israel told Hallow, giving Deo a side-look that warned of a lecture in the very near future. “I am fifteen summers,” the boy argued.
“Are you? You look much younger. Well, regardless, we shall have to find someone with whom you can live.”
“My lord,” Marston murmured, standing at the side of Lord Israel’s horse. “If I might suggest, the tavern keeper in the town we just left mentioned there was a traveling arcanist from Genora who sought an apprentice, but no one in the town would allow his son to be given over to such an ill-favored occupation. The boy would be fed and trained with him.”
“An arcanist,” Lord Israel said dismissively at first, then, eyeing the boy, said slowly, “It is indeed an unsavory magic, but all things have their purpose, or so Kiriah teaches us.”
“I would like to learn from the arcanist!” Deo blurted out. “It is the magic of my mother’s people. I should know of it just as I know of the earth magic of the magisters.”
Lord Israel said nothing of the outburst, nodding down at the man at his side. “Fetch some bread and apples for the lad and have one of the men take him back to Deacon’s Cross to deliver him to the arcanist. Better he should learn of arcany than be found dead of starvation on the road.”
“But—I don’t want to go to Deacon’s Cross,” the boy protested when one of the soldiers grabbed him by the back of his tattered tunic, although his eyes had lit at the mention of food. “I just came from there. I was driven out of the town for stealing cheese, as a matter of fact, so I really don’t think they will want to see me again—”
Hallow’s squawks died away as he was hustled in the direction from which the company had just come. Deo felt a pang of mingled envy and regret. For half a second, he wished he could switch places with the boy. What would it be like to go where he wished and do what he wanted? Instead, he was coddled and treated as if he were made of eggshells. The only reason his father had allowed him to train with the soldiers was that Deo had made it clear time and time again that no amount of beating (intended to keep his feet in the schoolroom and out of the training yard) would stop him from learning the ways of an armsman.
In both his build and his temperament, he favored his mother, and he would not let anything stand in the way of his learning how to be as great a swordsman as she was reputed to be.
“There is something I must discuss before we arrive at the temple.”
Deo slid his father a look. It wasn’t like him to speak with such an obvious note of hesitancy in his voice.
Lord Israel stared straight ahead. “You know that I go to consult with Lady Sandor about the invaders who are at present inhabiting Genora.”
“I know that you have done nothing to rescue my mother or her people,” Deo said, and for a moment thought he might have gone too far.
But rather than reprimanding him for being so outspoken, his father smiled briefly. “I hope I live so long as to see the day when your mother needs rescuing by anyone, and when the day comes that you see her again, I advise you to keep such an opinion to yourself. But that is not why I speak now to you—Lady Sandor is wise, naturally, else she would not be Kiriah Sunbringer’s handmaiden. But she is also suspicious of those of us beyond the temple walls, and she might wish to know if you are in agreement with me regarding the invaders.”
“The Harborym,” Deo said, rolling the word around on his tongue. He’d heard only whispers of the word before this trip and knew his father had kept all talk of the invaders from his ears. And to think the boy Hallow had actually witnessed them in action. True, it was in the act of slaughtering his family, but Deo would have given much to see them in person.
“Yes.” Lord Israel looked stiffly uncomfortable as they rode along the dirt road to the temple. “Your mother entrusted into Lady Sandor’s care something valuable, a boon of sorts, to be kept until… well, that is neither here nor there. It is a birthright your mother intended for you, and Lady Sandor may ask if you wish it to be used. Naturally, you will assure her that you do wish this.”
Deo stared at Lord Israel in surprise. What was this? A birthright that no one had told him about? And why was his father looking so uncomfortable about it now? “What birthright?”
“It is a boon, as I said.” His father waved away the question. “What matters is that should Lady Sandor ask, you must say that you agree to its use now.”
“How can I agree if I don’t know what it is?” Deo asked, quite reasonably, he thought.
His father evidently felt otherwise. “It is of no matter.”
“I think it is, if it is mine to use.”
Lord Israel’s lips thinned. “Deo, understand me—we must present a united front to Lady Sandor. If she suspects that we are at odds with respect to the invaders, she will withhold all but the most minimal support. Now is an important time. Your mother and I are in agreement that we must act before it is too late, and I will not have you put our plan in jeopardy because of imagined slights and abuses.”
“You have spoken to my mother?” Deo was prepared to be outraged at his father for keeping him from the woman who must so desperately want him by her side.
“I. . .
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