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Prologue:
The Strayaway Child

She had once thought that all the lands of Underhill were as familiar to her as the bounds of her own Domain, but the realms Rionne ferch Rianten now rode through were known to her only through the tales of Court Bards and the descriptions in the oldest books in her liege-lord's library. She was certain of only one thing about them: if she were caught here, she would be slain outright, without the privilege of fair combat, of trial, of Challenge. These were the realms of the Great Enemy, and Rionne slunk through them as a thief in the night, her every breath a prayer to Danu that her passage would go unnoticed. Each Gate she managed to pass unchallenged was both a gift and a curse, for even as it sped her on her journey, it meant that Jachiel had gone before her, deeper into peril, though he had as yet no more than a child's magic to call upon.


Jachiel. Each thought of him endangered was like a blow to the heart, filling her with the strong emotion that was the Sidhe's greatest danger. But she had accepted the geas willingly. Jachiel ap Gabrevys was a prince, and a prince's son, and his father's Court was beset by enemies. That much she had known from the moment he had been given into her hands at his Naming, she to be mother and father to him both, for his Lady Mother was untimely slain in the Chaos Lands defending their realm, and the Lord Prince his father had no time for mewling infants. As the boy had grown toward adulthood, she had faced the day when she must give up some of his care to those others who had stood up at his Naming, those who would teach him the arts of war, of sorcery, of music, and of torture. Those arts would make him strong. He would have less need of her strong arm to protect him, and that was good; she could look to the day when she could seek Healing for the bond that had grown up between them, for passions so intense were not meant to be among their kind. When Jachiel was an adult, and the term of her Oath was run, she would seek, as she was bound to, a Court far from this, so that the memory of him would fade into simple friendship, nothing more. But until that day she had sworn herself his Protector, his shield against all the world's ills.


And she had failed him.


How not? Why else had he fled from her? For it must be that—no enemy could penetrate his father's Court, subvert Prince Gabrevys' Mages and Knights to carry off the young Prince. Only Jachiel himself could have borne himself away from Prince Gabrevys' Domain.


And Rionne must find him, wherever he was.


She had told no one of the young Prince's disappearance. Any Ruler's Court was a place of shadow and intrigue: what could not be done by force might well have been done by trickery, and it would place a weapon in the Enemy's hand to let him know he had succeeded. No. She had summoned up her elvenhound and elvensteed and followed her charge as quickly as she could. Let the Court think they had gone together, and think nothing more. Prince Gabrevys was away, as he so often was, and no one else would have any right to summon the young Prince into their presence. Only Jachiel's Lady Mother would have had that right, she who had been dead these many years.


If she had lived—if she had not died fighting monsters in the formless lands—would it have made any difference?


No! It is I who am his Protector! Mine is the responsibility for his safety, until the day he can guard himself!  


And so she would guard him.


The Domain she rode through was green and pleasant, its boundaries firm with long definition and the work of many generations of Elven Mages. It lay in endless twilight, a parkland with no strollers, perfectly groomed and perfectly lovely—perfectly insipid, but then, that was the hallmark of the Enemy. And this made her move faster; now he was in lands that were firmly in the Enemy's hands. She followed Jachiel's trail as swiftly as she could, but no matter how fast she rode, no matter the spells of Tracking and Finding that she unloosed, he was always before her. The Gate that was her current goal lay only a short distance ahead, and as she approached it, Rionne's heart sank. Always the Gates led outward and upward, toward the World Above and the lands of Mortal Men, a place Rionne had never been.


It was a place filled with danger unimaginable—with poisons that could destroy the Sidhefolk, with metal that could burn away both magic and life, and with worse than these: with strange temptations that could destroy both sanity and grace. Her great-grandmother had been the last of her direct Line to walk among the Mortalkin, in the days before the High Court had summoned all the Princes of the Land to Council, to determine whether the Children of Danu would yet live among the Children of Earth.


Woe betide the High King for that summons! For—so song and legend had it—before that Council there had been no Dark Court and no Light, and the High King and the Queen of Air and Darkness had shared one throne and one bed. But the Princes of the Air could not agree to quit the treacherous pleasures of the World Above, even to save themselves. Instead of agreement, there had been war. Some, like Rionne's folk, had gone Underhill at once. Some had stayed. The Council had ended in strife and disarray, without a ruling being handed down, and from that moment, Oberon and Morrigan had ruled two separate Courts, the High King took himself a new Queen, and the Children of Danu were at war among themselves.


All for Earthborn whose bones were now less than dust upon the wind, so brief were their lives. Yet how enchanting, how dangerous they must be, to destroy so many Sidhe lives and noble houses!


Rionne hoped she would never see one.


As she approached the Gate, her every instinct cried warning, and she slowed, approaching warily. It was impossible that the Enemy would leave a Gate in their Domain unguarded.


Farras growled, his hackles rising. She had raised and trained the elvenhound herself, and knew his senses were keener than her own. She reined in her 'steed, loosening her sword in its sheath. Aeldana was tired; she must conserve the elvensteed's strength as much as possible, for at any moment she might face the need to fight or flee. She had pushed Aeldana hard in her search for Jachiel, but she had not dared to claim hospitality from any of Prince Gabrevys' allies, lest the fact that Jachiel was not with her be discovered. Any delay on her quest could prove disastrous to her charge—she must find him!


With a flicker of light, the warrior guarding the Gate dropped the glamourie shielding her.


"Halt!" she said. "Who goes there?"


Without hesitation, Rionne set Farras on.


The 'hound struck the defending Sidhe like a bolt of silent thunder, slamming her armored body to the grass. She hadn't been expecting an immediate attack. Good. It would buy Rionne the time she needed.


It was an unequal match, war-hound against armored foe. Farras could not win, but Rionne knew that the Enemy would show him no mercy because of that. And she could not stay to save him. Her mission was more important. She must set love against love and choose the greater, though it wounded a heart already broken. She spurred Aeldana forward.


There! She could plainly see Jachiel's mark still on the Gate. Her way was clear. She keyed the Gate, turning in her saddle just in time to see the enemy warrior drag a dagger from its sheath and plunge it into Farras' side.


Thrusting the 'hound's dying body aside, the Enemy ran forward, drawing her sword. But Rionne was faster. Aeldana leapt through the Gate, and Rionne used a hoarded levin-bolt to scramble the Gate's settings behind her.


They went on, two now instead of three, and she no longer had any doubt of Jachiel's destination.


The World Above—the deadly and treacherous human lands.


My heart, my heart . . . what are you seeking there? Rionne mourned wildly. But then she shook her head, smiling grimly at her own foolishness. Undoubtedly she would find out.


If she lived to reach the deadly lands of the Sons and Daughters of Adam.


And lived past reaching them.


 


 


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