The second book in the Chronicles of the Cheysuli continues the tale of magical warriors and shapeshifters as they battle the sorcerers that threaten their existence
For five long years, the land of Homana had been strangling in the grasp of a usurper king—its people ravaged by strife, poverty, and despair; its magical race, the Cheysuli, forced to flee or face extermination at the hands of their evil counterparts, the sorcerous Ilhini.
The time had come for Prince Carillon, Homana's rightful ruler, to return from exile with his Cheysuli liege man, free his land from the evil dominantion of the tyrant Bellam and his villainous magicians, restore the Cheysuli to their rightful position of grace, and claim his birthright.
To do this, he would not only have to raise an army, but overcome the fear and prejudice of an ignorant population and answer the call of a prophecy he never chose to serve!
Release date: July 2, 1985
Print pages: 352
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Song of Homana
Jennifer Roberson writes:
“The Chronicles of the Cheysuli is a dynastic fantasy, the story of a proud, honorable race brought down by the avarice, evil and sorcery of others—and its own special brand of magic. It’s the story of an ancient race blessed by the old gods of their homeland, and cursed by the sorcerers who desire domination over all men. It’s a dynasty of good and evil; love and hatred; pride and strength. Most of all it deals with the destiny in every man and his struggle to shape it, follow it, deny it.”
DAW titles by Jennifer Roberson
THE SWORD-DANCER SAGA
CHRONICLES OF THE CHEYSULI
THE SONG OF HOMANA
LEGACY OF THE SWORD
TRACK OF THE WHITE WOLF
A PRIDE OF PRINCES
DAUGHTER OF THE LION
FLIGHT OF THE RAVEN
A TAPESTRY OF LIONS
THE GOLDEN KEY
(with Melanie Rawn and Kate Elliott)
RETURN TO AVALON
HIGHWAYMEN: ROBBERS AND ROGUES
THE SONG OF HOMANA
Chronicles of the Cheysuli: Book Two
Copyright ©, 1985, by Jennifer Roberson O’Green
All Rights Reserved.
Cover art by Julek Heller.
DAW Collectors’ Book No. 635
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First Printing, July 1985
PRINTED IN THE USA
To Marion Zimmer Bradley,
for daydreams and realities
for making mine better
Table of Contents
I peered through the storm, trying to see Finn. He rode ahead on a small Steppes pony much like my own, though brown instead of dun, little more than an indistinct lump of darkness in the blowing snow. The wind beat against my face; Finn would not hear me unless I shouted against it. I pulled the muffling wraps of wool away from my face, grimacing as the bitter wind blew ice crystals into my beard, and shouted my question to him.
“Do you see anything?”
The indistinct lump became more distinct as Finn turned back in the saddle. Like me, he wore leather and wool and furs, hooded and wrapped, hardly a man underneath all the layers. But then Finn was not what most men would name a man at all, being Cheysuli.
He pulled wrappings from his face. Unlike me, he wore no beard in an attempt at anonymity; the Cheysuli cannot grow them. Something in the blood, Finn had said once, kept them from it. But what he did not have on his face was made up for on his head; Finn’s hair, of late infrequently cut, was thick and black. It blew in the wind, baring a sun-bronzed predator’s face.
“I have sent Storr ahead to seek shelter,” he called back to me. “Is there such a place in all this snow, he will find it.”
Instantly my eyes went to the side of the narrow forest track. There, parallelling the hoofprints of our horses—though glimpsed only briefly in the blowing snow and wind—were the pawprints of a wolf. Large prints, well-spaced, little more than holes until the wind and snow filled them in. But it marked the path of Finn’s lir nonetheless; it marked Finn a man apart, for what manner of man rides with a wolf at his side? Better yet, it marked me, for what manner of man rides with a shapechanger at his side?
Finn did not go on at once. He waited, saying nothing more. His face was still bared to the wind. As I rode up I saw how he slitted his eyes, the pupils swollen black against the blinding whiteness. But the irises were a clear, eerie yellow. Not amber or gold or honey. Yellow.
Beast-eyes, men called them. I had reason to know why.
I shivered, then cursed, trying to strip my beard of ice. Of late we had spent our time in the warmth of eastern lands; it felt odd to be nearly home again, and suffering because of the winter. I had forgotten what it was to go so encumbered by furs and wool and leather.
And yet I had forgotten nothing. Especially who I was.
Finn, seeing my shiver, grinned, baring his teeth in a silent laugh. “Weary of it already? And will you spend your time shivering and bemoaning the storms when you walk the halls and corridors of Homana-Mujhar again?”
“We are not even in Homana yet,” I reminded him, disliking his easy assurance, “let alone my uncle’s palace.”
“Your palace.” For a moment he studied me solemnly, reminding me of someone else: his brother. “Do you doubt yourself? Still? I thought you had resolved all that when you decided it was time for us to turn our backs on exile.”
“I did.” I scraped at my beard with gloved fingers, stripping it again of the cold crystals. “Five years is long enough for any man to spend in exile; it is too long for a prince. It is time we took my throne back from that Solindish usurper.”
Finn shrugged. “You will. The prophecy of the Firstborn is quite definite. You will win back the Lion Throne from Bellam and his Ihlini sorcerer, and take your place as Mujhar.” He put out his gloved right hand and made an eloquent gesture: fingers spread, palm turned upward. Tahlmorra. The Cheysuli philosophy that each man’s fate rested in the hands of the gods.
Well, so be it. So long as the gods made me a king in place of Bellam.
The arrow sliced through the storm and struck deeply into the ribs of Finn’s horse. The animal screamed and bolted sideways in a twisting lunge. Deep snowdrifts fouled the gelding’s legs and belly almost immediately and he went down, floundering. Blood ran out of his nostrils; it spilled from the wound and splashed against the snow, staining it brilliant crimson.
I unsheathed my sword instantly, jerking it free of the scabbard on my saddle. I spun my horse, cursing, and saw Finn’s outthrust arm as he leaped free of his failing mount. “Three of them…now!”
The first man reached me. We engaged. He carried a sword as I did, swinging it like a scythe as he sought to cut off my head. I heard the familiar sounds: the keening of the blade as it slashed through the air, the laboring of his mount, the hissing of breath between his teeth as he grunted with the effort. I heard also my own grinding teeth as I swung my heavy broadsword. I felt the satisfactory jar of blade against body, though his winter furs muffled most of the impact. Still, it was enough to double him in the saddle and weaken his counterthrust. My own blade went through leathers and into flesh, slowed by the leathers, then quickened by the flesh. A thrust with my shoulder behind it, and the man was dead.
I jerked the sword free instantly and spun my horse yet again, cursing his small size and wishing for a Homanan warhorse as he faltered. He had been chosen for anonymity’s sake, not for his war-sense. And now I must pay for it.
I looked for Finn. I saw instead the wolf. I saw also the dead man, gape-mouthed and bleeding in the snow; the third and final man was still ahorse, staring blankly at the wolf. It was no wonder. He had witnessed the shapechange, which was enough to make a grown man cry out in fear; I did not only because I had seen it so many times. And yet I feared it still.
The wolf was large and ruddy. It leaped even as the attacker cried out and tried to flee. Swept out of the saddle and thrown down against the snow, the man lay sprawled, crying out, arms thrust upward to protect his throat. But the teeth were already there.
“Finn!” I slapped my horse’s rump with the flat of my bloodied blade, forcing him through the deep drifts. “Finn,” I said more quietly, “it is somewhat difficult to question a dead man.”
The wolf, standing over the quivering form, turned his head to stare directly at me. The unwavering gaze was unnerving, for it was a man’s eyes set into the ruddy, snow-dusted head. A man’s eyes that stared out of the wolf’s head.
Then came the blurring of the wolf-shape. It coalesced into a void, a nothingness that hurt the eyes and head and made my belly lurch upward against my ribs. Only the eyes remained the same, fixed on me: bestial and yellow and strange. The eyes of a madman, or the eyes of a Cheysuli warrior.
I felt the prickling down my spine even as I sought to suppress it. The blurring came back as the void dissipated, but this time the faint outline was that of a man. No more the wolf but a two-legged, dark-skinned man. Not human; never that. Something else. Something more.
I shifted forward in the saddle, urging my horse closer. The little gelding was chary of it, smelling death on Finn’s mount as well as on the first two men, but he went closer at last. I reined him in beside the prisoner who lay on his back in deep snow, staring wide-eyed up at the man who had been a wolf.
“You,” I said, and saw the eyes twitch and shift over to me. He wanted to rise; I could see it. He was frightened and helpless as he lay sprawled in the snow, and I meant him to acknowledge it. “Speak,” I told him, “who is your master?”
He said nothing. Finn took a single step toward him, saying nothing at all. The man began to speak.
I suppressed my twitch of surprise. Homanan, not Ellasian. I had not heard the tongue for five years, except from Finn’s mouth; even now we kept ourselves to Caledonese and Ellasian almost always. And yet, here in Ellas, we heard Homanan again.
He did not look at Finn. He looked at me. I saw the fear, and then I saw the shame and anger. “What choice did I have?” he asked from his back in the snow. “I have a wife and daughter and no way to support them. No way to clothe them, feed them, keep them warm in winter. My croft is gone because I could not pay the rents. My money was spent in the war. My son was lost with Prince Fergus. Do I let my wife and daughter starve because I cannot provide? Do I lose my daughter to the depravity of Bellam’s court?” He glared at me from malignant brown eyes. As he spoke the anger grew and the shame faded. All that was left was hostility and desperation. “I had no choice! It was good gold that was offered—”
The knife twisted in my belly, though the blade did not exist. “Bloodied gold,” I interrupted, knowing what he would say.
“Aye!” he shouted. “But worth it! Shaine’s war got me nothing but a dead son, the loss of my croft and the beggaring of my family. What else am I to do? Bellam offers gold—bloodied gold!—and I will take it. So will we all!”
“All?” I echoed, liking little of what I heard. Was all of Homana desiring to give me over to my enemy for his Solindish gold, my life was forfeit before the task was begun.
“Aye!” he shouted. “All! And why not? They are demons. Abominations. Beasts!”
The wind shifted. It threw ice into my face again, but I made no move to rid myself of it. I could not. I could only stare at the man in the snow, struck dumb by his admission.
And then I looked at Finn.
Like me, he was quite still. Silent. Staring. But then, slowly, he lifted his head and looked directly at me. I saw the shrinking of his pupils so that the yellow of his eyes stood out like a beacon against the storm. Yellow eyes. Black hair. The gold that hung at his left ear, bared by the wind that blew the hair from his face. His alien, predator’s face.
I looked at him with new eyes, as I had not looked at him for five years, and realized again what he was. Cheysuli. Shapechanger. A man who took on the form of a wolf at will.
And the reason for the attack.
Not me. Not me at all. I was insignificant. The prisoner did not know that my head—delivered to Bellam—would give him more gold than he could imagine. By the gods, he did not even know who I was!
Another time, I might have laughed at the irony. Been amused by my conceit, that I thought all men knew me and my worth. But here, in this place, my identity was not the issue. Finn’s race was.
“Because of me,” he said, and that only.
I nodded. Sickened by the realization, I nodded. What we faced now was more impossible than ever. Not only did we come home to Homana after five years of exile to raise an army and win back my stolen throne, but we had to do it in the face of Homanan prejudice. Shaine’s purge—the Cheysuli call it qu’mahlin—was little more than the petty vengeance of a mad king, and yet it had not ended even with the sundering of his realm.
They had not come to slay me or even take me prisoner. They had come for Finn, because he was Cheysuli.
“What did they do to you?” I asked. “The Cheysuli. What did this man do to you?”
The Homanan stared up at Finn in something akin to astonishment. “He is a shapechanger!”
“But what did he do to you?” I persisted. “Did he slay your son? Take your croft? Rape your daughter? Beggar your family?”
“Do not bother,” Finn said. “You cannot straighten an ill-grown tree.”
“You can chop it down,” I returned. “Chop it down and into pieces and feed it to the fire—” I wanted to say more, but I stopped. I saw his face, with its closed, private expression, and I said nothing more. Finn was not one for sympathy, or even anger expressed on his behalf. Finn fought his own battles.
And now there was this one.
“Can he be turned?” I asked. “His need I understand—a desperate man will do desperate things—but his target I will not tolerate. Go into his mind and turn him, and he can go home again.”
Finn’s right hand came up. It was empty. But I saw the clenching of his fingers, as if he sought to clasp a knife. He was asking for my approval. He was liege man to the Prince of Homana, and he asked to mete out a death.
“No,” I said. “Not this time. Use your magic instead.”
The man spasmed against the snow. “Gods, no! No! No sorcery—”
“Hold him,” I said calmly, as he tried to leap up and run.
Finn was on him at once, though he did not slay him. He merely held him on his knees, pressing him into the snow, on one knee himself with an arm thrust around the throat and the other gripping the head. One twist and it would be done.
“Mercy!” the dead man cried. But could I do it, I would leave him alive.
Finn would not ask again. He accepted my decision. I saw the hand tighten against the Homanan’s head and the look of terror enter the brown eyes. And then they were empty, and I knew Finn had gone in to do as I had ordered.
It shows in the eyes. I have seen it in the faces and eyes of others Finn has used his magic on. But I also saw it in Finn’s eyes each time: the total immersion of his soul as he sought the gift of compulsion and used it on another. He went away, though his body remained. That which was Finn was elsewhere; he was not-Finn. He was something less and something awesomely more. He was not man, not beast, not god. Something—apart.
The man wavered and sagged, but he did not fall. Finn’s arm remained locked around his throat. The hand was pressed against his skull, but it did not break it. It did not snap the neck. It waited.
Finn twitched and jerked. The natural sunbronzing of his face was suddenly gone; he was the color of death. All gray and ivory, with emptiness in his eyes. I saw the slackening of his mouth and heard the rasp in his throat. And then, before I could say a word, he broke the man’s neck and threw the body down.
“Finn!” I was off my horse at once, thrusting my sword blade down into the snow. I left it there, moving toward Finn, and reached out to grab what I could of his leathers and furs. “Finn, I said turn him, not slay him—”
But Finn was lurching away, staggering in the snow, and I knew he had not heard me. He was not himself. He was still—elsewhere.
“Finn.” I caught his arm and steadied him. Even beneath the thickness of winter furs I could feel the rigidity in his arm. His color was still bad; his pupils were nothing but specks in a void of perfect yellow. “Finn—”
He twitched again, and then he was back. He swung his head to look at me, and only then realized I held his arm. At once I released it, knowing he was himself again, but I did not relax my stance. It was only because he was Finn that I had left my sword behind.
He looked past me to the body in the snow. “Tynstar,” he said. “I touched—Tynstar.”
I stared. “How?”
He frowned and pushed a forearm across his brow, as if he sweated. But his face was dusted with snow, and he shivered from the cold. Once, but it gave away his bewilderment and odd vulnerability. “He was—there. Like a web, soft but sticky…and impossible to shed.” He shook himself, like a dog shaking off water.
“But—if he and the others were hunting Cheysuli and not the Prince of Homana…” I paused a moment. “Would Tynstar meddle in the qu’mahlin?”
“Tynstar would meddle in anything. He is Ihlini.”
I nearly smiled. But I did not, because I was thinking about Tynstar. Tynstar called the Ihlini, because he ruled (if that is the proper word) the race of Solindish sorcerers. Much like the Cheysuli were the magical race of Homana, the Ihlini sprung from Solinde. But they were evil and did the bidding of the demons who served the netherworld. There was nothing of good about the Ihlini. They wanted Homana, and had aided Bellam to get her.
“Then he does not know we are here,” I said, still thinking.
“We are in Ellas,” Finn reminded me. “Homana is but a day or two away, depending on the weather, and I do not doubt Bellam has spies to watch the borders. It may well be these men were sent to catch Cheysuli—” he frowned, and I knew he wondered what tokens Bellam required as proof of a Cheysuli kill. Probably the earring, perhaps the armbands as well. —“but it may be they sought Homana’s exiled prince.” He frowned again. “I cannot be sure. I had no time to learn his intent.”
“And now it is too late.”
Finn looked at me levelly. “If Tynstar is meddling with Homanans and sending them out against the Cheysuli, they must be slain.” For a moment he looked at the body again. Then his eyes came back to me. “It is a part of my service to you to keep you alive. Can I not do the same for myself?”
This time I looked at the body. “Aye,” I said finally, harshly, and turned back to retrieve my sword.
Finn moved to his dead horse and stripped him of the saddlepacks. I mounted my horse and slid the sword home in the scabbard, making certain the blade was clean of blood. The runes ran silver in the white light of the storm. Cheysuli runes, representing the Old Tongue which I did not know. A Cheysuli sword for a Homanan prince. But then that was another thing the prophecy claimed: one day a man of all blood would unite, in peace, four warring realms and two magic races. Perhaps it would no longer be a Cheysuli sword in the hand of a Homanan prince. It would merely be a sword in the hand of a king.
But until then, the golden hilt with its rampant, royal lion and the huge brilliant ruby in the prong-toothed pommel would remain hidden by leather wrappings. At least until I claimed the Lion Throne again and made Homana free.
“Come up,” I told Finn. “You cannot walk in all this snow.”
He handed up his saddlepacks but did not move to mount behind me. “Your horse carries enough bulk, with all of you.” He grinned. “I will go on as a wolf.”
“If Storr is too far ahead—” I stopped. Though the shapechanger was governed by the distance between warrior and lir, it was obvious this time there was no impediment. The peculiar detached expression I knew so well came over Finn’s face. For a moment his body remained beside my horse, but his mind did not. It was elsewhere, answering an imperative call; his eyes turned inward and blank and empty, as if he conversed with something—or someone—no one else could hear.
And then he was back, grinning in genuine pleasure and the attack on us both forgotten. “Storr says he has found us a roadhouse.”
“A league, perhaps a bit more. Close enough, I think, after days without a roof over our heads.” He ran a hand through his black hair and shook free the powdery snow. “There are great advantages to lir-shape, Carillon. I will be quicker—and certainly warmer—than you.”
I ignored him. It was all I could ever do. I turned my horse back to the track and went on, leaving behind three dead men and one dead horse—the others had run away. I cursed the storm again. My face was numb from the ice in my beard. Even the wrappings did not help.
When Finn at last went past me, it was in wolf-shape: yellow-eyed, ruddy-furred, fleet of foot. And warmer, no doubt, than I.
The common room was crowded with men seeking respite from the storm. Dripping candles puddled into piles of cooling, waxy fat on each table, shedding crude light and a cruder pall of smoke into the low beamwork of the roadhouse. The miasma was thick enough to make me choke against its acrid odor, but there was warmth in abundance. For that I would share any stench.
The door hitched against the hardpack of the frozen earthen floor. I stopped short, ducking to avoid smacking my head against the doorframe. But then few roadhouse doors are built to accommodate a man of my height; the years spent in exile had made me taller than I had been five years before and nearly twice as heavy. Still, I would not complain; did the added height and weight—and the beard—keep me unknown on my journey home, I would not care if I knocked myself silly against Ellasian doorframes.
Finn slipped by me into the room as I wrestled with the door. I broke it free, then swung it shut on half-frozen leather hinges, swearing as a dog ran between my legs and nearly upset me. For a moment I thought of Storr, seeking shelter in the forest. Then I thought of food and wine.
I settled the latch-hook into place and marked absently how the stout iron loops were set for a heavy crossbeam lock. I could tell it was but rarely used, but I marked it nonetheless. No more did I have room in my life for the ease of meaningless friendships found in road- and alehouses.
Finn waited at the table. Like the others, it bore a single candle. But this one shed no light, only a clot of thick smoke that fouled the air where the flame had glowed a moment before. Finn, I knew. It was habit with us both.
I joined him, shedding furs and leathers. It felt good to be man again instead of bear, and to know the freedom of movement. I sat down on a three-legged stool and glanced around the common room even as Finn did the same.
No soldiers. Ellas was a peaceful land. Crofters, most of them, convivial in warmth and the glow of liquor. Travelers as well, bound east or west: Ellasians; Homanans; Falians too, by their accents. But no Caledonese, which meant Finn and I could speak Ellasian with a Caledonese twist and no one would name us other.
Except those who knew a Cheysuli when they saw one, and in Ellas that could be anyone.
Ellasians are open, gregarious folk, blunt-speaking and plain of habits. There is little of subterfuge about them, for which I am grateful. I have grown weary of such things, though I have, of necessity, steeped myself in it. It felt good to know myself accepted for what I appeared in the roadhouse: a stranger, foreign, accompanied by a Cheysuli, but welcome among them regardless. Still, it was to Finn they looked twice, if only briefly. And then they looked away again, dismissing what they saw.
I smiled. Few men dismiss a Cheysuli warrior. But in Ellas they do it often. Here the Cheysuli are not hunted.
And then I recalled that Homanans had come into Ellas hunting Cheysuli and I lost my smile entirely.
The tavern-master arrived at last, wiping greasy hands on a frayed cloth apron. He spoke with the throaty, blurred accent of Ellas, all husky and full of phlegm. It had taken me months to learn the trick, but I had learned. And I used it now.
“Ale,” he said, “or wine. Red from Caledon, a sweet white from Falia, or our own fine Ellasian vintage.” His teeth were bad but I thought the smile genuine.
“Have you usca?” I asked.
The grizzled gray brows rose as he considered the question. “Usca, is’t? Na, na, I have none. The plainsmen of the Steppes have naught of trade wi’ us now, since Ellas allied wi’ Caledon in t’last war.” His pale brown eyes marked us Caledonese; my accent had won us that much. Or me; Finn did not in the least resemble a Caledonese. “What else would you have?”
Finn’s yellow eyes were almost black in the dim candlelight, but I saw the glint in them clearly. “What of Homanan honey brew?”
At once the brows drew down into a scowl. The Ellasian’s hair, like his eyebrows, was graying, close-cropped against his head. A blemish spread across one cheek; some childhood malady had left him scarred. But there was no suspicion or distrust in his eyes, only vague disgust.
“Na, none of that, either. ’Tis Homanan, as you have said, and little enough of Homana comes across our borders now.” For a moment he stared at the gold earring shining in Finn’s black hair. I knew what the Ellasian thought: little enough of Homana crossed the borders, unless you counted the Cheysuli.
“No trade, then?” I asked.
The man picked at snags in his wine-stained apron. He glanced around quickly, judging the needs of his customers out of long practice. “Trade, after a fashion,” he agreed in a moment, “but not wi’ Homana. Wi’ Bellam instead, her Solindish king.” He tipped his head in Finn’s direction. “You might know.”
Finn did not smile. “I might,” he said calmly. “But I left Homana when Bellam won the war, so I could not say what has befallen my homeland since.”
The Ellasian studied him. Then he leaned forward, pressing both hands flat against the table. “I say ’tis a sad thing to see the land brought down so low. The land chafes under that Solindish lord. And his Ihlini sorcerer.”
And so we came to the subject I had wanted to broach all along, knowing better than to bring it up myself. Now, did I say nothing and ask no questions, I made myself out a dullard, and almost certainly suspect. The man had proved talkative; I had best not disabuse him of that.
“Homana is not a happy land?” My tone, couched in Caledonese-tinged Ellasian, was idle and incurious; strangers passed time with such talk.
The Ellasian guffawed. “Happy? Wi’ Bellam on her throne and Tynstar’s hand around her throat? Na, not happy, never happy…but helpless. We hear tales of heavy taxes and over-harsh justice. The sort of thing that troubles us little enough in Ellas, under our good High King.” He hawked and turned his head to spit onto the earthen floor. “They do say Bellam desires an alliance with Rhodri himself, but he’ll not be agreeing to such a miscarriage of humanity. Bellam’s a greedy fool; Rhodri is not. He has no need of’t, wi’ six fine sons.” He grinned. “I hear Bellam offers his only daughter to the High Prince himself, but I doubt there will be a match made. Cuinn has better thighs to part than Electra of Solinde’s.”
And so the talk passed to women, as it will among men. But only until the Ellasian left to see about our food, and then we said nothing more of women, thinking of Homana instead. And Bellam, governed by Tynstar.
“Six sons,” Finn mused. “Perhaps Homana would not now be under Solindish rule, had the royal House proved more fertile.”
I scowled at him. I needed no reminders that the House of Homana had been less than proli
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