THEY had not met well, he brooded, crouching in the shadows of the fetid alley. He scowled—of course they hadn’t met well; she wasn’t even supposed to be here in this dangerous, corrupt, sewer of a place. The whole reason he was here was to make the world safe for the both of them. How was he supposed to do that when she was here and he was afraid for her with every heartbeat?
And not just her! She had brought everyone he had to worry about into the fray, and a very petulant part of him was stamping its foot and screaming that it wasn’t fair. He had worked hard—beyond hard, in fact—to come to a point where he could see his plan, his precious, angry, vengeful, necessary plan almost at a culmination, and here she was, sticking her little upturned nose into it.
The corners of his mouth turned upward. Yes, she had the potential to bollix everything up beyond belief. Yes, she had been infuriating tonight, giving him an ultimatum that boiled down to “abandon your bloody mad idea or let me help, you wanker.” Yes, he was terrified for her, and for the others, so terrified the very pores of his skin made the air between them vibrate with cold fear. Yes, to everything he had thrown at her during the bright and brittle waltz they had led, having a conversation beyond private in a venue that was beyond public, yes, yes, yes, he was absolutely right about all of it.
But… his smile turned upward another notch, and his breath, which had been fast with fear and anger, was now quickened with passion and anticipation.
But… she had looked beautiful tonight, even down to her newer, (ouch!) shorter hairstyle and the dress his old lover had thrown on her in a panic so that she’d fit in.
But… there were no buts, he acknowledged with a cold exhale. There was no arguing with himself in this—if he denied it, it would put them all in that much more danger, because Goddess, it had been so good to see her. Seeing her tonight in that room full of enemies had been like breathing his first clear breath after months of living in the sewer. Seeing her earlier this night may have been the one bright star of beauty that would get him through this terrible, dark, and pitiless chore.
Torrant heard his mark before he saw him and retreated deeper into the shadows, changing with his gift as he did so.
Please, Goddess, he prayed, don’t let my murderer’s soul taint the one perfect thing in my life….
The mark was coming closer, his “Goddess boy” held by the scruff of the neck. The poor boy was so used to being raped in alleyways that he didn’t bother to protest with more than a whimper. As Torrant prepared himself to do his job, the bitter thought began to glow in him that their families would have been appalled to know it had ever come to this….
Part I: The Exile’s Moon
Twelve years earlier
Casting Perfect Stones
THEY looked like brothers but were not. Torrant’s mother had been a widow, come begging at the home of Ellyot’s parents with her infant in tow, and she and Torrant had been taken in. Torrant’s father had been the local doctor and midwife, and one night he had gone out for a call, to never return. His body had been found, savaged and cold, the next morning, and Torrant’s mother had, for reasons known only to her, been afraid the attack had been more than random. She left her home to seek shelter at the Moon enclave. When Torrant was a child, he remembered her apologizing for being too weak to keep them safe on her own, but if there had been weakness in her, Torrant had never seen it.
In fact, there had always been strength and a quality to Myrla Shadow that had impressed the Moons of Clough in the extreme. She had volunteered to be a laundress and a maid, but her husband had delivered most of the Moon children with Myrla at his side, and so she had become the enclave healer, the lead housekeeper, a friend and equal to the family, and another parent to the Moon children.
In all of Torrant’s memory, he had been raised like a brother to Ellyot and the twins, since forever, since before Yarri, and since before the King’s guard had become an overt part of the marauding force that overran the countryside. Although Torrant had a Goddess’s name from birth, he didn’t realize how lucky he was to be safe with the Moons.
Torrant had learned to read alongside Ellyot. He had also learned swordplay and archery, politics and poetry. Eating at the table with Myrla and the other members of the enclave, among Ellyot’s father, mother, Tal and Qir, the older twins, he had learned family. Yarri had been born, the youngest daughter, their precious one, and he had learned joy.
He remembered that last day.
He and Ellyot had practiced their swordsmanship hard and ridden even harder. They had come pushing each other across the neat courtyard of the Moon hold with the rambunctiousness of fourteen-year-old boys. Ellyot, always arrogant, had swept his leg in a half circle, but Torrant had leapt above it and landed on his hands. Then he tucked into a perfect roll and came up twisting to catch Ellyot under the knee, bringing him down. Ellyot laughed, then winced as he felt the bruise to his calf, but laughed again anyway. They were just wrestling, and neither of them played dirty. Torrant won, and that was all.
Ellyot was taller than he was and had shocking blue eyes in his tanned face, whereas Torrant’s eyes were a complicated hazel; but they were both handsome, chestnut-haired boys. Ellyot had a cleft in one cheek, Torrant one in his chin. Ellyot had a slenderness, a grace, that spoke dancer, swordsman, and courtier. Torrant had a heaviness in the chest, a tumbler’s agility, a wrestler’s strength, and when he smiled, one corner of his lip curled up, and twin grooves bracketed his mouth in a way that had made people want to make him smile since he was very young. Ellyot had the family divot in the ear, and, of course, the deadly handsome dimple. But that was all. From a distance, which is all anyone not connected with the homestead really ever saw, they were identical.
That day, a tall soldier had approached, wearing the teal and black of Rath’s house on the tunic over his armor and in his horse’s livery. He called Ellyot by Tal’s name, and Torrant by Qir’s, and the boys looked at each other sideways and lied easily. “Yes, sir, no, sir, our father is not at home, sir. He paid his levies, sir; he’s loyal to the consort. The family is away, sir.” Then, when they were asked about worship services at the hold, Ellyot’s eyes narrowed, and his carefully politic answers melted like fog in spring.
“My father doesn’t allow politics in his hold,” he said evenly, and Torrant had to try very hard not to dart a glance at the boy he loved like a brother. People listened when Ellyot spoke—there was an authority to his voice; there always had been. You didn’t argue with someone who could kill you when you had that in your voice, not when you were unarmed and alone.
“I’m not talking about politics, boy!” the guard had protested. “I’m talking about religion!”
“When you’re wearing a uniform of the crown and asking me about worship, sir, that’s politics,” Ellyot replied with the arrogance of a child who had been born and raised on the land and power he stood upon.
“All I want to know, boy, is if your father is loyal to the Consort or not!” the guard snapped then, out of patience and obviously frustrated that he was being outconned by a youngster.
“We’ve been raised to love our country,” Torrant said honestly, because Owen Moon was nothing if not a patriot. That didn’t mean he liked what the Consort was doing to the Goddess’s people, but Clough was horse country, and horses were in the Moon blood, and the family all loved the open plains of the valley they lived in with something akin to fever.
“So this isn’t an island of Triane’s children, then, planning insurrection?” the man asked with narrowed eyes.
“You can be assured that no one here would know how to plan an insurrection,” Torrant answered, and this, he knew, was the gods’ honest truth.
But it was also the Goddess’s truth, because while Moon’s hold may not have been a hotbed of insurrection, it was a safe haven for those who didn’t feel comfortable making a living in their own country anymore. Although everybody in the hold had a place in their hearts for Oueant and Dueant, the twin gods, they also worshipped Triane, the Goddess, and that was what the Consort didn’t like. Torrant, who was named for the Goddess and who had a wizard’s gift to match, was certainly a child of Triane, and so were Ginny and Arel, two women who lived together in one of the cottages Moon had built for the workers on his land. So was Bren, who had conceived her son Orel during one of Triane’s wildings. There were over thirty workers on the fertile Moon-land: farmers, spinners, weavers, horsebreakers. Until he diced words with this man, who spoke well and stank so badly of death and lies even the nongifted Ellyot had to suppress a retch, Torrant hadn’t realized the two things he had in common with the others on Moon lands were also the two things that put the Moons in danger. When he realized that, he had no trouble lying, none at all.
And it had gone well, right up until the man had turned away, rudely, as it seemed, and a rock had sailed out of nowhere and crashed down on his helm, pitching him out of his saddle. Torrant and Ellyot looked at each other, startled. It was not that they hadn’t wanted to crack the man a good one across the skull, but that they hadn’t had the opportunity. And they had known of the consequences if they had.
“Dammit!” Ellyot exploded as they ran to the still form on the ground. “Where is—” Torrant held his hand up and shot a quick look at the fallen King’s man. They had lied about the family being home, and given the strength this man could bring to bear against them, it had been a good pretense to keep up. Ellyot caught himself. “Where did that come from?” he asked, gritting his teeth. He caught Torrant’s eye, looked to the oaks that arched the road to the boundary of Moon lands where Torrant himself was looking, and scowled consequence at the unseen rock launcher. They sat the man up, checked to see if he was sound, and put him dazedly back on his horse. Torrant closed his eyes hard, thought for a moment, and then staggered. A glazed, evil smile crept up the courtier’s face, and his fine horse cantered off, bearing the man’s wobbly weight with the grace of a nag with a sack of mud.
“What did you do?” Ellyot demanded, supporting his brother, his voice frustrated and protective.
Torrant shook his head. “Made him happy he came here, that was all.”
Their eyes met, and they both shivered. “Then why,” Ellyot murmured, “did that smile look so mean?” Without looking over their shoulders for the unrepentant Yarri, both boys took off running behind the homestead for the stables to tell Ellyot’s father.
Moon, a black-haired giant of a man, with a reddish beard and wide shoulders, was truly alarmed. His alarm was terrifying. “You told him we were gone?” he asked his son for the thousandth time. “And you made him happy he came?” He looked at Torrant, who was beginning to feel sick, and not just in the aftermath of using his gift.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, wobbling on his feet. “Triane’s travels, Moon—I didn’t mean to get us into trouble….” Moon gave him a grim smile and a fortifying clasp of the shoulder.
“Go rest, boy,” he said kindly. “You were trying to allay trouble, that was all, and it was a good aim. You didn’t count on the evil in Consort Rath. The one thing that would make him happy in all the world is to find me guilty of treason, you understand?”
“But, Dad, you’re a Regent!” Ellyot was saying, just as Torrant’s unusually pale face blanched green, and without ceremony he sank to his knees and vomited in the clean straw. Moon bent and held his head, then wiped his mouth with a cloth. Torrant was exceptionally gifted—as his name might imply—but gifts never came without cost. The Moon family understood that. With little protest, Torrant was ushered to a bale of hay in the corner of the barn, covered with a horse blanket, and told to sleep.
“I should help,” he murmured as Ellyot tucked him in. Moon was already making plans to gather the whole family and the workers off the land by sundown—Torrant could tell by his booming orders and the hard edge of command in his voice.
Ellyot rolled his eyes. “You’re no good to us now….” He grinned wickedly, his blue eyes twinkling. The dimple in his cheek deepened, and Torrant thought bemusedly that it was a good thing he’d known his brother all his life, or he might be made as foolish by that smile as girls were around Qir and boys around Tal. “Besides,” Ellyot continued, “we might need to hunt, and you know that’s not your thing.”
“Piss off—my aim is better than yours and you know it!” Torrant yawned, and his shoulders hunched as his body prepared to protect itself in sleep.
“Yeah—it’s hitting flesh and blood that balks you, you poor, sensitive thing,” Ellyot teased without mercy. “It’s a good thing you talk pretty, or we would have pasted the barn with you.”
“Piss off…,” Torrant mumbled again, and was rewarded by his brother’s laughter as his dark, curly head bobbed away among the hay bales. He would think about that later, because they had been telling each other to “piss off” since they were old enough to say it without adults present. He would hope, later, that “piss off” had come to mean, in the language of the fourteen-year-old boy, the same thing that “I love you” did to a full-grown man. As he drifted off, he was dimly aware that the family made ready to take a hasty holiday with cousins in the north.
The sun had traveled a bit when Torrant opened his eyes, and late afternoon shadows dappled the barn. It was autumn, so the heat was not too intense, but Torrant still sweated a bit as he made to turn in his nest in the hay. It was then that he met a somber pair of frightened brown eyes in a fair, piquant little face with a halo of reddish-gold hair caught back in a very frazzled braid.
“’llo, Yar…,” he mumbled, fighting to keep his eyes open. Torrant’s mother had been the midwife at Yarri’s birth, and Torrant had helped her. His mother had placed that perfect, red, wriggling body in his arms and he had heard, far off and ringing in his heart, the sound of great bells that tolled from the soles of his feet to the soul in his chest. Every time Yarri smiled at him from that moment on, Torrant heard the far-off sound of bells.
“Ellyot hollered at me,” she told him now, unhappily. Yarri was six, and she adored her older brothers—Torrant included—fiercely.
“You flew off the handle, Yar,” Torrant told her gently. “It made things difficult.”
She shook her head, brown eyes welling with tears. “I’m why we have to leave,” she quavered, and he opened the horse blanket so she could come in and snuggle. Usually Yarri was petted beyond words, every tear caught and soothed before it could hit the ground. But the family was packing for a flight from a bitter enemy, and she had probably been overlooked in the chaos. Torrant felt stirrings of guilt—he should be helping, but his body, overexerted by his gift, was not going to cooperate with that imperative.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Father’s brother, Moon in the next country,” she said softly, and Torrant grimaced—that wasn’t a help. Their little kingdom was an island surrounded by mountains; outside of the mountains were at least four kingdoms that could be termed “next country.”
“We’re going to the sea,” Yarri said next. “Mama said I could see a whale.” And Torrant had a better idea—they were headed northwest, to Eiran. Good, he thought, it should have been long before.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he told Yarri belatedly. “I’m the one who told the silly sot he was happy. Your rock on the head wouldn’t have done much harm if I hadn’t butted my big head into it.”
“Can you really do that?” Yarri sniffled. “Can you really tell someone that they’re happy, and they believe it?”
He knew what she was asking, but he’d known her since her first bath, and it wouldn’t take his gift to help. “Yes, Littlest, I can. Would you like me to make you happy now?”
“Oh yes…,” she sighed, wiggling down some more into in her big brother’s embrace. “Make me happy.”
Torrant began to sing of whales and travel, of autumn leaves and sweetness. Yarri’s eyes closed, and happily, she fell asleep.
A few moments later, his mother came to check on him. She rolled her eyes when she saw Yarri’s fair head peeping out of the blanket and bent to kiss her son’s own tousled, brown hair.
“How’re you feeling, sweetheart?” she asked gently. Myrla Shadow was always gentle, Torrant thought fondly. His mother was a pretty woman, even with the silver that shot her dark hair in other places than her temple and the lines at her hazel eyes from her deep and quiet smile.
“I’m feeling stupid, mama,” he confessed with a pained sigh, careful not to wake Yarri. “I can’t think of what else I should have done, though. I didn’t want him to get mad at Yarri.”
Myrla shook her head in mock exasperation. “The world is not all about Yarri, you know.”
“He would have hurt Ellyot too—”
“Or Ellyot!” she overrode, and then sighed. “I can’t blame you really, darling. They’re your family. I’m proud of that. But someday you’re going to need to see bigger than Yarri and Ellyot. We’re going to Eiran, you know.”
He nodded. “I heard—I’m sorry I can’t help.” Just raising his head made him dizzy and weak, and he was a little worried. “I’ve done… bigger things… with my gift. It’s never made me feel like this.” He had spun illusions for Yarri out of the air when he was singing and engraved paper with those same images when he’d held the paper and sung.
“You forced your will on someone else, son. That’s the biggest, hardest, most painful thing any human can do. It should have a bigger backlash, don’t you think?” He nodded, and his mother went on. “Going to Eiran will be good for you. You’ll see a bigger world than this hold.”
Torrant, as weak as he was, was shocked. “I love my home!” he said, although he knew, he always knew, that his heartbeat had never thumped in time to the hoofbeats of horses in the way of his brothers of the heart and their father. Clough was horse country, and Torrant loved it because his family loved it, but he’d never thought beyond that to the things he loved himself.
“So do I, Torrant.” Myrla laughed a little. “Of course we love our home. But it will be good for you to see the world beyond it, so you know what it is you love. Your father wanted the wide world for you. It will be good to see some of it.” He was going to protest, but she forestalled him with a kiss on the forehead. “Now sleep, baby—you and Yarri just stay out of the way and rest. We’re not leaving until dark of night, so you can get in plenty of sleep in the meantime.” She bent and kissed him again, and at first Torrant took the gesture for granted, as do all children who are loved, and then, feeling childish like Yarri but needing to say it just the same, he said, “I love you, mama.”
“I love you too, sweetheart.” She laughed outright. “And I love you too, Yarri,” she murmured, and Torrant realized the sleeping child in his arms was giggling and not altogether asleep. Myrla gave Yarri a hug and smoothed back the hair from her small face, then turned and left. Yarri settled down and actually slept, and Torrant found it easy to follow her.
When they awoke hours later, it was to the smell of smoke and the sound of screams.
Torrant knew instantly that something was wrong, and, well rested, without the muzz in his head, he knew enough to be still. He clapped his hand over Yarri’s mouth and peered out from the blanket that hid them both from view. Soldiers had herded the family into the barn, and the family was fighting bitterly. Ellyot had an arm twisted behind his back and a knee wedged against his knee, and Moon was on the ground with a boot on his head. Torrant’s mother had a gauntleted arm around her waist, and cruel fingers gripping her breast. That alone would have made Torrant bound out of the haystack, death to the wind, but against him he could feel Yarri, small and trembling, eyes wild under the blanket. The King’s guardsman was saying something to Moon, so all eyes were on the helpless, proud landowner, when Ellyot’s blue eyes caught Torrant’s attention. Ellyot knew what to look for and imperceptibly nodded at the hidden Yarri. Torrant felt his heart thud in his stomach and fought the urge to weep.
Under the haystack, in the back corner of the barn, sat a trapdoor. It was used at night so the barn cats could come and go, and in the summer so they could move the haystack and flush out the barn. It swung on hinges, both in and out, and was the size of a smallish man. Or a fourteen-year-old boy. Yarri, the family’s pride and joy, would slide out easily. Torrant, her adopted older brother, was the only one left to lead her to safety. Torrant gave Ellyot an anguished look. This was his family, in word and deed—leave them? But he felt Yarri trembling beneath his hand, and he knew, more importantly, what his priority should be. But it wouldn’t be easy.
Ellyot was growing tense for them. He glowered at Torrant, and Torrant shot him an annoyed look—yes, everyone was looking at Moon, but….
He shifted, just a little, and dug the two of them deeper into the straw. Damn! A guard saw the movement and began to wander in their direction. Ellyot shifted his stance, as though to create a diversion, but Myrla Shadow beat him to it. In the center of their frightened tableaux, of Tal and Qir straining against their own captors, of Myrla and Kes fighting an obscene embrace of evil men, and of the King’s captain with his foot perilously near Moon’s neck, a phantasm appeared.
It was ferocious and female, a wolf the size of a horse, standing upright and snarling, reaching out with a phantom paw and razored claws to rip the heart out, through metal and all, of the knight who had moved toward the corner. Blood flew everywhere, and the soldiers, dragging their victims, bolted about in confusion. Torrant saw his mother slump to the ground unconscious and took his chance to wriggle down into the straw with the wall at his back. When he felt the latch, he reached around and pushed, sliding backward as the straw slithered with him and pulling Yarri out at the same time.
They slid out into the rear of the courtyard, and Torrant tumbled wildly for a moment to get his bearings. When he came to his feet, his head swiveled toward the source of the smoke, and he felt his throat constrict with grief. His home. Their home. The Moon house, gracious, white-boarded, with its two stories and graceful willow trees flanking the wings… was ablaze, and the trees were catching. He heard Yarri’s outraged screech and barely caught her before she went running across the yard to the inferno.
“Yarri, no!” he thundered in her ear and caught the squirming body in a hard grip. She was surprisingly strong.
“But Anye!” she wailed, and he realized she was talking about the skittish calico fluff ball that sat on her bed.
“Anye’s a smart cat,” he told her, and to his relief she relaxed a bit. “She’ll get out… and we need to as well.”
Yarri came to her senses. “But Mama… Daddy…,” she realized and looked back to the barn from where they had come. Then she looked into his eyes and a totally adult look of understanding passed her pointed features. “You need to save them, don’t you?” His throat caught at her faith. He was fourteen, more child than man, and she had no doubts.
“I’ll try, pigeon,” he told her seriously. “But you need to be safe, or they’ll never forgive me for leaving you.” And with that, he swept her up and, hiding in the shadows of night, ventured to the west of the house, to where the road curved around. Across the road were the workers’ quarters, set on public lands where, Moon said, his people could know they were free men. He and Myrla had been the exceptions, because for the last ten years, they had been family. He could see soldiers, most of them in ranks, a few sent to set fire to the house, and only a few others, he was sure, in the barn itself. With desperate haste and a tensely still Yarri in his arms, he ran through the orchard and across the road to the workers’ quarters. He snuck in through the back, where he and his mother often came with meals. As the door closed and he accustomed himself to the darkness, his knees almost buckled into the blood coating the floor.
“Oh Goddess and moons,” he gasped and pushed Yarri’s head against his shoulder before using the same hand to open the door and let himself back out.
“Torrant…,” Yarri mewed, aware of the shaking of his usually sturdy body.
“No one’s there,” he lied.
“But Ginny and Arel—they could keep me safe.”
“No one’s there,” he lied again, keeping his face from crumpling. Oh merciful Dueant, please, let that be the truth. Let their souls be with you, if their bodies are that wreckage in the room. “We’ve got to find somewhere else.”
“But….” He clapped his hand over her mouth, listening. The soldiers were coming back. The center of the Moon property was near the river and thick with trees, and the servants’ homes were no exception. He looked at the frightened child in his arms and then up to the fierce tangle of oak and birch trees above him. Yarri’s eyes met his, and she nodded. In a fluid movement, he threw her in the air, catching her feet in his hands and catapulting her to the branches above. He didn’t wait to see her scramble aside. They had been playing together since her birth, and they had practiced this maneuver often in the sibling skirmishes they delighted in. In a mighty leap, he caught the branch Yarri had just alighted on, swung perpendicular to it, then caught the next branch up with his knees as he released from the first. Yarri watched his swing, then scrambled into position below him, throwing her hands up and letting him loft her to the branch above him. Her hands nearly slipped from his before she landed, and as they stilled and allowed the tree to stop shaking with the force of their acrobatics, she looked unhappily at the blood that had smeared on the branches with his shredded skin.
“Oh, Torrant, ouchie,” she quavered, her lip trembling as their eyes met.
“No gloves.” He shrugged. He didn’t need to add that the backs of his knees were shredded as well. They usually practiced acrobatics in the barn, with the hay below them and the smooth metal fixtures above their heads. Suddenly, the guards had moved up the hill and were under their tree.
“Torch the place?”
“Aye—but be careful of the trees and the grounds. Rath wants these grounds perfect—the better to show off the blood on the barn.”
“Wonderful. Artwork!” The guard shrugged ironically. Torrant could hear the tone of his voice and knew that this was distasteful work. He didn’t like the slaughtering of innocents. In that moment, at the disgust in the man’s voice and the memory of the carnage in the workers’ quarters, Torrant learned to hate that most of all. There was nothing, he raged, worse than a good man who could do nothing.
And then he caught Yarri’s anxious look and the full import of the man’s words hit him. Whether the guards stopped the blaze before it hit the trees or sacrificed a few for safety, the two of them were in the line of fire.
Anxiously, Torrant looked around, but there were only the two guards. He could probably knock them out, he surmised, because he was stronger and had surprise on his side, but he couldn’t risk leaving Yarri so vulnerable. With a quiet finger to his lips, he lay across the tree and began to inch his way to within hand distance of the next branch. Yarri, seeing his intent, moved into position behind him. After waiting until the armor-coated guards had moved on, checking for survivors, he let his bottom fall into the darkness, held his body on the limb with the bloody backs of his knees, and waited for Yarri’s practiced jump into his hands. This time he compensated for the blood and released her in perfect time to land in the next tree. After a painful backward swing, he caught the next branch of the tree, and they scuttled to its heart. In this way, scrambling, tumbling, and swinging, they moved from tree to tree along the outside of the orchard, to the borders of the Moon lands. They saw soldiers, periodically, riding back and forth across the way that ran parallel to their own course, and finally, they saw them riding only one way—away from the homestead itself. They stopped to rest every so often, not speaking, but nursing trembling, scratched limbs and pressing anguished faces together in comfort. As they neared their destination, they saw the lightening of the sky that indicated dawn.
In the last tree they crouched, their hearts beating, and listened for soldiers, knowing they were too exhausted to run if they saw any.
“We’re safe,” Torrant breathed at last and swung Yarri down to crouch near the bole of the tree. As he stumbled to a rest beside her, he caught her in a fall and settled her down. It was an old tree, and the season was early autumn. There were enough leaves piled near the cleft in the roots to cover her trembling body and assure she would be hidden.
“I’ve got to go back, Yar…. I’ve got to see….” He stopped at the stricken look on her face. Her next words would echo in his head until his own death and beyond, beca