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Kiarda lives in a magic-laced land where peace is guarded so fiercely that those who train as warriors are outcast . . . until the arrival of a well-trained foreign army bent on conquest and determined to use everything in their power, including mages trained in the deadliest of the six magic arts: the magic of destruction. Kiarda should have been spirit-linked to a fox, but the cub died at the moment of their birth. Now that spirit lurks deep inside her, and at the time of her greatest need, it could prove her greatest ally . . .
Release date: January 1, 2000
Print pages: 464
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Mickey Zucker Reichert
His wife, Lady Wylfre, slept beside him in the curtained bed, her left leg flung over the small of his back. Her big belly pressed warmly against his side, moving with the silken rhythm of her breath. The unborn child also seemed to slumber now, though she spent most evenings in determined attempts to kick her way into the world.
Wondering if he were the only waking member of the household, Stane lifted his head to listen. In the alcove just outside their chamber, the whistling snores of Wylfre’s old nurse split the air. One of the two deerhounds at the foot of the bed sighed in its sleep. Outside, no louder than a whisper, an early April wind blew over the earthen walls of the ancient fort of Dorlach Tor.
It suddenly occurred to Stane that, between the active baby and her aching back, Wylfre rarely managed sleep. Raising his head a bit higher, he peered down at the plaited band of horsehair around his right wrist. A recent gift from his Horsemaster, the charm was supposed to draw the discomforts of pregnancy away from Wylfre and onto himself. He hoped his wakefulness meant the bracelet worked. If it did, he would gladly tie horsehair around every part of his body.
Moving with tender caution, Stane propped himself up on his elbows to admire his lady. In the dim light, Wylfre’s strong-jawed face seemed to glow with inner radiance, and her auburn curls appeared black. Seven songs extolled her beauty and proud will, and the extravagant poetry of the High Marchland bards styled her “the Dark Flame of Dorlach Tor.” Her right hand rested on Stane’s pillow, callused palm up, fingers curled slightly. A powerful hand, he knew, capable of a crushing grip, the hand of a noble lady, the hand of a horsewoman. He longed to press his lips to her palm in a secret kiss but dared not for fear of waking her.
In the morning, Stane would tell the Horsemaster that the charm seemed to work, but he would neglect to mention to Swordmaster Gaer that he had spent the night awake. Gaer tended to worry about such things, and he might see it as his duty to put the new Lord of Dorlach Tor through a grinding afternoon of practice.
Grinning, Stane stroked the new growth of blond hair on his upper lip. Though her idea, Wylfre loathed the mustache. To command the respect of men twice his age, a young lord of twenty summers must look like a war chieftain. Stane’s lips matched the perfect curve of a bow, his nose was small and fine, and his long lashes were as golden as his hair. Without the mustache, he did not resemble a fierce Battlemaster so much as a pretty maiden.
Since the death of Wylfre’s father in early December, Stane needed to claim his rightful place as the new Lord of Dorlach Tor. His smile faded. No one openly challenged his leadership, but he knew they obeyed him only out of deference to Wylfre. She was their Lady, their law-giver; and he was merely her new husband, an unproven outsider from the Low Marches. It was fortunate, he reflected, that she possessed no brothers to complicate matters.
Stane held his breath, pinching the strand of horsehair. Work, he silently urged the charm. Work.
Wylfre opened her eyes. Blinking sleepily, she smiled up at him.
Crestfallen, Stane released his hold on the bracelet. “Awake, my love?” he whispered. “And you slumbered so beautifully.”
Wylfre did not answer but reached up to his face. With one finger, she rubbed the anxious crease between his brows. “You’re worried,” she said quietly. “What is it this time?”
Stane clasped her hand in both of his and pressed it to his cheek. “Everything.”
Wylfre chuckled warmly. “Again?” She propped herself up on one elbow and leaned to touch her forehead to his. Her sparkling eyes filled his vision. “Tell me.”
Stane’s breath caught in his throat as he gazed at her. So beautiful. “I’m just—” Undone by emotion, Stane struggled to marshal his thoughts. “Spring is already upon us, and there’s so much left to do.”
“Ah,” she said softly. “You’re thinking about the news from the Low Marches.”
Reluctantly, Stane dropped his gaze. Surrounded by mountains, the Marchlands lay between the northern wastes and the highly populated countries to the south. Though always racked by blood feud and war, the Marchlands faced a new threat in recent years. Raiders from the south traveled in ships up the eastern coast and invaded the interior by the riverways. Every spring, the raiders rode the rivers farther north; and the current news from Stane’s kinfolk in the Low Marches indicated they would soon breach the High Marches. “Actually,” he confessed, “I was worrying about the baby.”
Wylfre’s smile deepened. “But everything is perfect. Our firstborn will be a daughter. Yes?”
Stane nodded. Men died in battle, many while still young. Women inherited the lands and properties, to insure the continuance of bloodlines. The healer, old Sygil, seemed certain that the ancient passage of Dorlach Tor from mother to daughter would remain unbroken. “Yes,” he answered softly. “A daughter.”
Wylfre sank back onto the pillows, still smiling. “And she will be born in May, spirit-linked to one of the finest colts in our herd. Yes?”
Following her lead, Stane also reclined. He disliked contradicting his lady, but the spirit-link was not a sure thing. If a human and an animal were born at precisely the same instant, and within a certain distance of each other, their souls merged and they could communicate. A spirit-link was a rare and special blessing of the gods, but he and Wylfre would attempt to force the link to occur. No one, to his knowledge, had ever tried to do such a thing. It might prove impossible. “Maybe.”
Wylfre gave a low, provocative laugh. “ ‘Yes,” she corrected. She laced her fingers through his and pretended to wrestle him. “Say ‘yes.’ ”
Stane offered no resistance. Mona, Wylfre’s cousin in the neighboring fort of Sarn Moor, had borne a spirit-linked child just over a year ago, and Stane understood it was Wylfre’s deepest desire to do the same. “Yes, my lady.”
Wylfre drew their joined hands to her belly. “And because of the link, our daughter shall never know illness, shall live beyond a hundred years, shall find—”
From the courtyard, a dog barked a warning. At the foot of the bed, the deerhounds stirred and grumbled. Stane lifted his head and held his breath, listening.
Abruptly, discordant clanging rang through the air, the night watch hammering an old, iron cauldron as the alarm signal.
Stane swept aside the curtains and rolled out of bed. Born and raised in the battle-torn Low Marches, he expected the worst.
Moonlight spilled into the bedchamber from a high, narrow window. The air was damp and chilly. Upon the oaken rack on the wall beside their bed, his sword belt hung beside Wylfre’s bow and quiver. He pulled his weapon down and strapped the belt on over his night robe, muttering to the goddess of battle an invocation that was also a curse. “Almighty Hepona!”
From the courtyard, a man hailed the watch. Stane could not make out his words through the alarm’s din, but he recognized the voice of the Swordmaster, Gaer.
The hammering fell silent. “A rider!” called the watch. “A rider from the south!”
Sarn Moor, the closest fort, lay a half-day’s ride to the south, the holding of Wylfre’s cousin, Mona. Stane’s sense of disaster settled into certainty, and he loosened his sword in its scabbard. To send a rider out in the night, alone against ghosts and the Dark Court, bespoke a dire emergency, and he could only assume the River People had staged a surprise raid.
Moving awkwardly, Wylfre clambered toward the edge of the bed, her eyes wide and anxious. “Wait for me,” she said. “I’m coming, too.”
Despite the need for haste, Stane gave Wylfre a hand to her feet. He knew she worried about her kin, and he could not find it in him to reproach her. “My love,” he said. “Of course, I’ll wait.”
The most ancient of forts in the High Marches, Dorlach Tor crowned its steep hill with two concentric rings of earthen walls. Within the inner ring, a rugged outcropping of solid granite rose to the sky like a tower. It took its name, “dorlach,” from the ancient word for a quiver of arrows, and it overshadowed the Great House built at its base.
Breath steaming in the cold night air, Stane glanced around the outer courtyard. A thin blanket of dry snow had fallen in the night, and it magnified the light of the full moon. Wrapped in Stane’s borrowed cloak, Wylfre stood close, her shoulder brushing his, her face pinched. Around them, the household of Dorlach Tor assembled. Several men wore their swords, and a few women carried their bows. Excited children and dogs scampered among the adults.
One of the great gates stood ajar, open just enough to admit a single horse and rider. Gaer, the Swordmaster, stood by the wall, fully dressed and impeccably groomed. He wore his silver hair long, and his lean face evinced no sign of weariness. With an admiration bordering on envy, Stane studied the urbane and elegant figure. He wondered how Gaer always managed to appear wide awake and fresh from the bath.
As if sensing the young lord’s regard, Gaer turned to meet his gaze. A trifle embarrassed, Stane nodded his head in a dignified greeting.
Wylfre also noticed the Swordmaster. “Uncle Gaer,” she called. “Over here.”
Suddenly smiling, Gaer tossed his cloak over one shoulder and performed an elaborate bow. He was not actually Wylfre’s uncle, but her late father’s most trusted retainer. A lone wanderer from exotic lands across the Sea, Gaer retained the pretty manners of a foreign court, even after fifteen years in the High Marches. He could sing, dance, and tell a good story. Though not born to the Marchlands, he nevertheless served the goddess of battle with a devotion that earned him the respect of the most hardened warriors. In Gaer’s hand, a sword became the very lightning of Hepona.
Gaer strolled to where they stood, moving with easy grace. “My lady,” he said in a reverent tone. “My lord.”
The night watch, a battle-scarred old warrior named Fawley, crouched atop the outer wall. The sound of hoofbeats pounded the air, and Fawley raised his voice. “Watch out,” he called. “Here he comes.”
The thunder of galloping hooves grew louder, joined by the jingle of tack.
Stane tensed and wrapped his arm around Wylfre, ready to pull her from danger. The messenger might be one of the Dark Court, those rumored to steal children and pregnant women in the night.
Gaer drew his sword in a smooth, sweeping motion and stepped between Wylfre and the gate. Around the courtyard, other men also held their swords at ready, and the women bent their bows, taking aim.
A tall, white horse hurtled through the narrow opening. Its rider hauled back on the reins. The horse screamed and shook its proud head but came to a plunging halt. Foam spilled from its mouth and flanks, and its sides heaved with every breath; but the horse pawed the flagstones as if spoiling for a race.
Wylfre gasped. “Sea Cloud!” She clutched Stane’s arm. “It’s Sea Cloud!”
Stane gazed in wonder at the stallion, the pride of Sarn Moor, the last horse in whom the old blood ran true.
From the sheltered paddocks of the inner courtyard, the horses called in answer to the newcomer, high-pitched whinnies of wild distress.
Stane’s scalp prickled. The horses of the Marchlands were known in song as the Children of Hepona, and they were stronger, more fleet of foot, and wiser than the lesser breeds. He wondered what Sea Cloud had told them, what news caused them to keen like banshees.
The rider slid from the stallion’s back, falling more than dismounting. Mud plastered his hair flat and covered his face, save for his eyes and the tracks made by tears. He cradled his left arm in his right, and his breath was dry panting. He gazed around, seeming dazzled by the torchlight, and took a staggering step.
Moving before anyone else, Stane abandoned dignity and darted to the rider’s aid. “Easy,” he said. He threw a steadying arm around the youth. “Easy, now. You’re safe at Dorlach Tor.”
Trembling, the rider stared blankly at Stane. “Dorlach—?”
Wylfre said, “He’s hurt. Someone, go bring Sygil.”
A murmur passed through the gathered folk, and several young men raced toward the Great House.
Cadder, the Horsemaster, wove his way through the crowd, moving purposefully toward the agitated stallion. Only a few years older than Stane, he stood as solid as a block of granite, but was already graying at the temples. Behind the Horsemaster trailed his four-year-old son, Maddock, clomping in boots a bit too big.
The rider turned erratically, as if he also intended to care for his mount.
“Easy,” Stane repeated. “Cadder will look after Sea Cloud.” He could only imagine what terrors the rider had faced on his dark journey, and he tried to speak gently. “Give us your news, my lad, while we wait for old Sygil to come heal your arm.”
The rider’s eyes widened. “No!” he cried out, trying to twist away from Stane. “No, not for me! For little Adan!”
Afraid the fellow would fall, Stane gripped the rider’s shoulders in both hands. Adan was the oldest son of Wylfre’s cousin Mona, he recalled, just six years old. “Adan?” He kept his tone calm. “What happened to Adan?”
The murmur strengthened, and the folk passed along Adan’s name in a rising tone of worry.
Wylfre drew near, her face white and rigid in the moonlight.
The rider caught sight of her and spoke in a breathless rush. “Oh, my lady! For the love of all mercy, lend the skill of your healer—” He broke off in a rasping cough.
At that moment, Sea Cloud roared low in his throat. Cadder stroked the stallion’s neck. “Gently, brave one,” he said in a soothing tone. He eased his hand around the headstall’s cheek piece and attempted to lead Sea Cloud forward. “Steady, now.”
The stallion took one step and stumbled, throwing Cadder to his knees. The horse balanced splay-legged on the flagstones for a heartbeat, then collapsed onto his side.
With a desperate cry, the rider ripped from Stane’s supporting hands and scrambled to his mount. “No!”
Sea Cloud’s legs thrashed, as if he attempted to canter on air. A flying hoof sent Cadder tumbling. With an oath, Gaer leaped forward and carried the Horsemaster’s young son from harm’s way.
The rider flung himself to the ground and lifted the stallion’s head onto his lap. “Get up, Cloudy,” he begged. Tears left new trails in the mud on his cheeks. “You can … do it. Get up … for me.”
Sea Cloud sighed, then lay still.
For a long time, no one moved or spoke. Feeling as if he’d just woken from a spell, Stane walked stiffly to the rider and knelt beside him in the snow.
The rider sat with his face averted, one hand crushed against his mouth, shaking his head in denial. “No,” he whispered. “Oh, gods, no.”
Stane looked at the dead stallion, the bright pride of Sarn Moor, and did not know what to say. He glanced around at the crowd. Cadder slowly got to his feet, his expression blank with shock and grief. Little Maddock clutched the Swordmaster’s hand, his face puckered with encroaching tears.
“I tried to hold him in,” the rider said thickly. “I tried—” A sob choked him, and he paused for breath. “But he seemed to know Adan needed help. When he smelled Dorlach Tor, he just ran away with me. I tried—”
Stane set a careful hand on the rider’s shoulder. “Tell us,” he said. “What has befallen young Adan?”
“Horrible,” croaked the rider. “Accident.” He gestured feebly toward his own forehead. “Horse … kicked—”
A cold deeper than the snow seeped into Stane’s blood. He remembered the last time he saw Adan, when Wylfre’s father died, and what a consolation the lad had been to Wylfre. Stane’s memory presented a picture of Adan with his small hand pressed against Wylfre’s belly, feeling the baby kick.
As if given a signal, the crowd shook off its daze and stirred to action. Some clustered around the fallen Sea Cloud. Others ran to bring more torches. Chatter broke out as people speculated about the accident. An elderly woman drew little Maddock away from the Swordmaster, and several men gathered around the rider.
Relieved of his responsibility toward the fellow, Stane climbed to his feet and turned to Wylfre.
The Lady of Dorlach Tor stood as rigid as a post in the courtyard, shoulders tight, arms folded. The wind lifted strands of her hair and tugged at the embroidered hem of her cloak. She looked down at the rider. “When did the accident happen? What time?”
The rider drew his brows together, as if thinking were an immense effort. “Before sundown,” he whispered. “Rode all night.” His gaze fell again upon the dead stallion. “Sea Cloud.” He tried to escape from the men’s ministering hands. “My poor Cloudy.”
At that moment, old Sygil pushed her way through the crowd. Her face was as brown and wrinkled as a dried berry, but her blue eyes remained shrewd and bright. “What’s this about Adan?” she snapped.
Stane looked at Wylfre, since it was her place to speak; but the lady of Dorlach Tor remained silent. Stane nodded toward the rider. “Evidently a horse kicked Adan in the head. They beg you to come tend the lad.”
“Huh.” Sygil did not sound enthusiastic. She strode to the rider and laid her hand on his injured arm. “You. Did you see Adan?”
“Oh,” the rider stammered, “blood everywhere. Blood—”
Sygil made an impatient noise. “Never mind that. What part of Adan’s head? Was the skull broken?”
The rider made an obvious effort to think. “I saw—His scalp above his brow … laid open like a flap.” He gestured to the right side of his face. “And the flesh here … like pulp.” Two tears rolled down the rider’s face. “You … you should have heard him. Telling his mother … not to cry….”
Sygil’s gray brows shot up. “Awake and talking? That’s encouraging.” She released the rider and turned to Wylfre. “I’ll go. There’s a chance I might do some good.”
Wylfre did not seem to hear her. Stane stepped forward. “Let me send someone ahead of you, so they’ll be ready.”
The old healer grunted approvingly. “I’ll want a cauldron of boiling spring water and lots of clean linen for bandages. And don’t let Adan sleep.” She turned on her heel and strode toward the house, still talking. “I’ll get my bag. Bring my mare to the door when she’s saddled. I want to ride before the next quarter-hour.”
“Wait,” Stane called after her. “This fellow’s arm—”
“Broken,” she replied without looking back. “Someone ought to set the bone.”
Fresh chatter burst over the courtyard as folk began preparations. A young fellow ran to Stane and dropped to one knee. “My lord,” he said, eyes shining. “Send me ahead to Sarn Moor. I’m not afraid of the Dark Court, and my horse is the fastest.”
Stane could not recall the youth’s name, or that of his horse. “Good man. May Almighty Hepona ride with you.”
“Thank you, my lord!” He snatched Stane’s hand and kissed it, then leaped to his feet and ran to the stables.
Stane turned to the Swordmaster. “Gaer, please arrange an escort for Sygil. I don’t want her riding out alone.”
Gaer bowed. “My lord.”
Wylfre spoke stiffly. “I’m going, too.”
Gaer glanced at Stane.
Though dismayed, Stane nodded, as if agreeing. Neither he nor the Swordmaster possessed the right to argue against Wylfre’s wishes. “My lady and I,” he said carefully, “will ride for Sarn Moor at daybreak.” He glanced at the sky, checking the position of the stars, hoping he had provided enough time to change her mind. “That allows about four hours for us to make preparations for an extended absence.”
Wylfre looked from Stane to Gaer. “Daybreak.”
Gaer bowed again. “I’ll see to it.” He turned away and began calling instructions.
Stane gestured to the group of men who held the rider. “Take him inside and see to him. Give him a place close to the fire.”
Against the rider’s protests, the men bundled him in a horse blanket and led him away to the Great House.
Stane turned to Wylfre. She still stood stiff and unmoving, her face like a mask of white stone, her eyes fixed on the dead stallion. Gently, Stane cupped her chin in his hand. “My lady?”
Wylfre sighed as if awaking from a deep sleep and leaned into him. “Oh, my love.” She pressed her face into his neck. “What a wicked folly we have contemplated.”
Stane enfolded her in his arms and bent his mouth to her ear. “How so?”
“The spirit-link. Had the messenger been linked to his mount—”
The man would have killed himself when his link-mate died. Stane understood her misgivings. A spirit-link prevented illness and extended the lives of those so blessed to span three generations. But if one member got killed, the other must pay the ultimate price. “We knew the risks—”
Wylfre lifted her head. “I thought so. I thought I knew the risks, but now I’m not sure. What doom might we be placing upon our daughter?”
Stane touched his forehead to hers and gazed deeply into her eyes. “It is all,” he whispered, “in the hands of the gods.”
“The gods.” Wylfre repeated woodenly. “It’s because of their quarrel that we suffer.”
Stane searched for words of comfort. Humankind learned war and poverty when Hepona and Hernis, the divine lovers, became estranged. Some said the deities had disagreed when the goddess created horses, encroaching upon Hernis’ lordship over animals. Others claimed the separation occurred when the god invented the bow, thereby challenging Hepona’s reign over tools and weapons. Only in a future age, when the Lady of Battle married the Lord of the Hunt, in the time of the Joyous Reunion, would mortals know peace and plenty. “The gods,” he said, “also suffer. In life or death, our only choice is to follow our hearts. Yes?”
“Yes.” Wylfre returned her head to his shoulder. “Yes, my lord.”
After two hours of riding, the entourage from Dorlach Tor left the grassy slopes of their home country and descended into the lowland moors that bordered the edges of the Old Forest. Birdsong filled the air. The sun burned bright in the April sky, melting the snow and coaxing green from the trees and scrub brush. The warmth did not touch the mood that hung over the travelers, however, and the group rode in silence. The coil of anger and worry in Stane’s gut tightened with every passing mile.
A lanky woman who never smiled, Anra the Hunt-Keeper headed the line of riders. She held her tightly-curved bow ready, guiding her mount with her legs and weight. Beside Anra rode an armsman, one of the fort’s best swords. Stane had learned as a boy that the warm weather often brought more than birds to the Marchlands; with the spring came raiders from the walled settlements along the river valleys. And though Stane doubted the River People would make a move so early in the year, or travel so far north undetected, he could not risk complacency.
Behind the leaders rode two bow-women dressed in their hunting leathers. Stane stayed beside Wylfre in the center of the column, and Gaer rode just behind them. Two more bow-women followed, leading the packhorses; and a lone armsman brought up the rear.
Six deerhounds paced alongside the horses. They were not quite a year old, still pups, and Wylfre brought them as gifts for the lady of Sarn Moor.
Stane pretended to survey the surrounding countryside while keeping a close watch on Wylfre. If he stared at her, it would only make her angry; then her pride would never permit her to admit she had made a mistake in undertaking this journey.
Wylfre rode her gray mare with her back rigid and her eyes straight ahead. Stane recalled seeing a similar expression on the face of a soldier with an arrow in his gut. The mare seemed to sense her rider’s distress. Her ears flicked back and forth to catch Wylfre’s slightest sound, and she stepped carefully.
Stane’s mount, a bright bay stallion, also responded to his rider’s mood. He snorted with excitement and danced, obviously believing they rode to battle. Stane stroked the stallion’s muscled neck and wished the situation were that simple.
The road turned marshy in places, and mud hissed and sucked at the horses’ hooves. To the left of the road, a bowshot away, a tiny grove of beech trees stood on a hillock. Stane smoothed down his mustache with his thumb knuckle. The grove could yield drier ground, a good spot for Wylfre to rest. He glanced in her direction, ostensibly checking the position of the sun.
Perspiration ran down Wylfre’s colorless face, and her dark brows knotted in pain.
Heart stinging, Stane flung up his arm. “All halt!”
The party reined in their horses, and those in front glanced over their shoulders. Wylfre slowly turned her head to look at him, moving as if it required concentration. “My lord?” Though controlled, her voice carried a note of anger. “Why are we stopping?”
Because I don’t want you to die! Stane forced himself to smile pleasantly. “I think Blood Rage picked up a stone.” The deliberate lie raised heat in his cheeks. Unable to look Wylfre in the eye, he dismounted from the opposite side and crouched by the stallion’s front feet.
Sneezing and snorting in happy greeting, the pups gathered around him. Stane gently pushed them aside and picked up his horse’s foot. Aside from mud, the hoof was absolutely clean. “Ah, poor fellow,” he said. “No wonder you hopped around like a sparrow.”
Blood Rage twisted his neck to watch Stane and nickered curiously.
The Hunt-Keeper trotted her mount back to him. “Need help?”
Caught in the lie, Stane glanced up at the dour-faced woman and wordlessly nodded in Wylfre’s direction.
Anra’s hard gaze flicked toward the lady, then down at him again. Her expression remained unaltered, but she gave a slight nod. “Looks bad.”
Stane spoke casually. “This may take time. Lead everyone to those trees over there to wait. Let them eat, if they’re hungry.”
The Hunt-Keeper nodded again and whirled her horse. Trotting back to the head of the column, she raised her bow in the air. “All ride!”
The party ambled off toward the little beech grove, but Gaer hung back and dismounted. He dropped the reins, leaving his mount where it stood, and approached Stane. “My lord,” he said in an elaborately courteous tone, “you are a miserable liar.”
Stane looked over his shoulder and watched Wylfre’s stiff back as she rode away. His heart twisted within him. “Gaer, I—” He sighed and reluctantly met the older man’s gaze. “I don’t know what to do.”
The Swordmaster knelt on one knee beside Stane. “The Dark Flame of Dorlach Tor has left you little choice.” He smiled kindly. “Don’t blame yourself, my lord. Had you refused to make this journey, she would have ridden without you.”
Blood Rage shifted restlessly and tried to pull his foot from his master’s hands. Stane set the hoof down. “But she’s in pain. I need to—” He spread his hands, unable to finish. He did not know what to do, or what he might say to Wylfre to persuade her to return home.
Gaer shrugged, as if he heard Stane’s unspoken thoughts. “Pain lends strength.” His tone was gentle and respectful, taking the edge from his words. “Borrowed pain, my lord, only weakens.”
“But I love her,” Stane protested. “How can I harden my heart against her suffering?”
“Not against her,” Gaer explained. “For her.” He clasped the young man’s shoulder with a fatherly hand. “Your hard heart will become a rock in the wild sea. She can cling to it.”
Stane shook his head. “But don’t you see, Gaer? She could lose the baby, or she might—” His throat closed, but he swallowed and forced himself to go on. “She might die. I can’t let that happen.”
Gaer tilted his head. “You can’t prevent it,” he said softly. “My lord, even if we were safe at Dorlach Tor, the hand of death could close around her at any moment. She could fall down the stairs, or—”
Stane’s pulse raced. He scrambled to his feet, dragging himself from Gaer’s grip. “No!” His voice was too loud, and he struggled for composure. “No.” Worried that Wylfre had heard his outburst, he glanced toward the beech grove.
The party was dismounting. Two of the women helped Wylfre from her mare. She stood doubled over, as if the weight of eighty winters lay upon her. Stane’s heart dropped. Anra strode over to the lady and seemed to question her. He could not hear what they said, but Anra turned and ordered the packhorses unburdened.
Only at that moment did Stane realize he was sprinting toward the grove. He could not remember a decision to move.
The deerhounds loped out to meet him, wagging their tails. They frolicked along beside him as he ran and escorted him up the hill.
Wylfre still stood in a half-crouch, breathing in little grunts. Stane rushed to her
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