Authors: Mark Shepherd
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright (c) 1994 by Mark Shepherd
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Larry Elmore
First printing, November 1994
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Typeset by Windhaven Press, Auburn, NH
Printed in the United States of America
Adam opened the door, fumbled with the keys, and dropped them.
"Leave them," Moira said. She closed the door, and they stood silently in the main entrance for a moment. Then Adam looked up, put his arms around her, and closed his eyes.
The kiss lasted an eternity. Somewhere in the base of his spine a light exploded, sending shock waves through his body. She returned the passion, reaching around his back and running dagger fingernails up and down his inflamed spine.
Beyond his closed eyelids he perceived a flash of light, like a camera bulb. The kiss closed, and he leaned back, his eyes still shut.
"You've done this before," she whispered, her breath brushing against his cheek.
He opened his eyes a bit, and noticed something different in her blurred image. Their noses were touching; their arms wrapped around one another.
When his eyes opened all the way, he stared.
Her eyes, which were once dark blue, had become emerald with no whites. The pupils, dilated, stretched vertically, in slits.
The rush of hormones leveled out and finally drained from his system, replaced now with a confused fear. Slowly, he drew further from her. Her arms relaxed, fell to her sides. Adam's arms released her, but remained in position, as if he were clutching a thick force field surrounding her.
The tips of her ears extended a full two inches above her enormous hair, tapering to points.
The SERRAted Edge
Born to Run
Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon
Wheels of Fire
Mercedes Lackey & Mark Shepherd
When the Bough Breaks
Mercedes Lackey & Holly Lisle
Knight of Ghosts and Shadows
Mercedes Lackey & Ellen Guon
Summoned to Tourney
Mercedes Lackey & Ellen Guon
ALSO BY MARK SHEPHERD
FROM BAEN BOOKS
Prison of Souls: A Bard's Tale Novel
(with Mercedes Lackey)
The moment Samantha stepped from the Gate of light to the castle floor she knew that what the King had said about an Unseleighe invasion was true, and unexaggerated.
She stood unsteadily in the castle corridor, greeted only by the vertigo of Gating and a row of faerielight sconces along the wall. That no High Court elves greeted her on her arrival did not bode well. The Gate, a circle of yellow light large enough to step through, closed in on itself like a wilted flower, dimmed, then vanished altogether. Only a faint mist remained; this soon dissipated, leaving no sign of the temporary doorway between her world and the humans'.
This is not the reception I expected, even with the Unseleighe assaulting the castle with levin bolts,
she thought, making her way down the empty corridor. Her anxiety grew as she wondered what had happened to their domain while she was away pretending to be a human.
A spider webbing of magical energy danced on the floor and walls, crackling like electricity, blocking her path. She'd seen this power before. Unseleighe power . . .
Levin bolt . . .
And she ducked behind a stone arch moments before an explosion ripped through the palace. The blast started at the end of the long hallway and swept its length with dust and rock.
"Great merciful Danaa!" Samantha shouted as the explosion knocked her backward. Though the blast slammed her against the rock wall, her only injury was a small gash in her leg. She struggled to her feet.
The healers can tend to this soon enough,
she thought, eyeing the ceiling warily.
That is, if this corridor doesn't collapse. I doubt I could summon a shield strong enough to protect me from that.
The blast confirmed her worst fears. The explosion's strength proved that it was not just a powerful levin bolt, but one sent from nearby.
The Unseleighe must have penetrated the outer perimeter. This is worse than the King said it was.
She listened, but heard no others in the castle, and tried to remember how many layers of wall protected them.
Four, five chambers and a hallway. That bolt must have taken out the outer wing. Gods, how many of those have struck the castle?
From this she guessed the probable distance of the enemy to be within sight of the castle.
She clamored past portions of walls and ceiling, through a dusty tunnel that was once a spacious hallway, and peered into the gloom ahead of her.
Nothing. No movement, no sounds, save for the falling dust.
Faerielights flickered, threatened to go out.
Where is all the power
After a few false turns, she came upon what was left of the King's chambers. She viewed the remains with cool detachment. Obviously, more than one levin bolt had struck the castle; one had rent a larger, gaping hole where the chamber's entrance once stood. Through this opening she saw that the entire wing had indeed collapsed. She gasped at the sight, hearing nothing except her beating heart.
When her initial shock subsided, she saw the first victims on the floor, some crushed by falling rock, some the victims of elf-shot. Fifteen in all. She checked the bodies for life, with little hope. Had they lived the King would never have left them behind. Among the dead she found a servant, a nobleman of the northern province, and a King's guardsman. Though she knew none of them, she recognized the guardsman, a loyal elder who trained many of the new recruits.
He probably died protecting the King
, she thought sadly.
Where is the royal family?
Through the crumbling hole in the castle's side she caught a glimpse of the domain of Avalon, then, occupying it in large numbers, the enemy. Her breath caught.
There are so many of them. How could they have summoned that many Unseleighe, and the Court not know it until now?
Over a stretch of rolling, emerald hills a vast blanket of Unseleighe elves swarmed like bees, preparing for the final charge. Their banners, black silken ribbons dangling from staffs, and flags with the Unseleighe black eagle crest, left no doubt in Samantha's mind who was behind the attack. What she first took for solely Unseleighe forces was a mixture of Unseleighe, Bane-Sidhe, gargoyles, and other creatures of unknown origin.
Unseleighe mages gathered at the crest of a hill seemed to be summoning the power for another levin bolt hit. She did not recognize the family, or even the Court they came from; Unseleighe in general stayed away from Elfhame Avalon, so the Seleighe Court never became familiar with the vermin. Unseleighe kept to other regions of the elven lands, unless they planned an invasion, and had the means to carry one out. Clearly, to have gone this far, they had access to considerable power.
You will not win this one,
she promised the Unseleighe.
They may win the battle, but not the war.
Despite her bravado, she knew the situation was grim, and unless something happened soon to turn the battle around, Samantha knew the survivors would probably have to flee Elfhame Avalon.
That's why they summoned me,
And at the last minute, too.
She searched the castle for her brethren, finding many bodies, wreckage, levin bolt damage. She sensed their presence somewhere in the castle, and her Sight took her deeper, to the lower levels of the castle, areas few of the Court ever saw.
She found two weary guards watching a stairwell, their reaction disturbingly slow when they saw her. Blood stained their livery, a pale blue uniform with a cover of protective bronze mail. The two guards, young recruits, she noted from the shortness of their pointed ears, blinked at her briefly, as if wondering where she could have come from.
"Lady Samantha," one said. "I
I felt the Gate," he added wearily. After hearing the pitch of his voice, she subtracted a few years from her original estimate.
They're employing elven
"I am Iarbanel, humble servant to our crown. King Traigthren told us to be watching for you. We are to escort you to where they are waiting."
Waiting for what? A miracle?
she wanted to ask. The other guard stepped forward. Samantha recognized her.
Ethlinn. She was once engaged to be married to a nobleman. Now, she's a soldier?
She stared openly, unable to believe their lot had fallen so far. Ethlinn looked too tired to take offense.
"Take me to King Traigthren," Samantha said, trying not to let her edginess show.
In silence Iarbanel and Ethlinn led her to a chamber she didn't even know existed. Deep underground, fortified with enormous flagstones, the room housed what remained of the Court. She doubted any harm could come to anyone inside, even if the castle collapsed completely.
Which isn't an unrealistic fear . . . It may yet become a tomb.
King Traigthren Tuiereann, Ruler of Elfhame Avalon, sat on a large high-backed chair. Evidently, it was serving as a makeshift throne. He was leaning over a heavy oak table with his head in his hands and a tattered ermine cloak pulled around him. His gold crown sat on the table. Guards sat around in various stages of exhaustion, one sleeping, one standing wearily at attention. Samantha counted five in all, including the two who had met her above.
Is this all that's left of Avalon?
In one corner on the floor a body lay wrapped in a golden cloth, with the Avalon emblem prominent in its center.
Most of the Court was missing from the room; Samantha feared the worst. Prince Aedham, a mere elven child, sat forlornly beside his father, his eyes red with tears, wailing his grief into his father's cloak. Long, tightly curled black hair drooped over his shoulders, concealing all but the upper tip of his young elven ears. Broad of shoulder for one so young, the Prince resembled his father in other ways; on Samantha's last visit, she had learned of his mage potential.
Niamh, the King's Engineer, sat near an odd-looking weapon, tinkering with it madly, as if his enthusiasm alone would win the day. Samantha assumed that trauma had caused the poor elf to crack, and this was just another expression of elven insanity.
Two Counts from Highland provinces tried unsuccessfully to win the King's attention. King Traigthren ignored them. He reached down for his son's hand, who grabbed it and started wailing even louder. There were other elves, here and there in the shadows, some moving, some not.
Two bright faerielights illuminated the room from a high ceiling. Overhead, another levin bolt rumbled, and through the vibration of the floor, Samantha sensed the massive weight of still more rock coming down. Dust sprinkled from the ceiling. Faerielights flickered, dimmed.
King Traigthren looked up at Samantha. His expression chilled her. Even for an elf he had aged tremendously, and at that moment looked as if he was in his final century. A strip of bloodied cloth covered the tip of one of his pointed ears. His haunted eyes told her everything.
The King has given up.
"I thank you for coming to us in our final moments, daughter," the King said slowly, with a whisper that was heavy with defeat. He gently released his son's hand and pulled the cloak around him.
The word, which he had never spoken to her before, sounded strange coming from his lips. No one in the room seemed to notice. By mutual agreement King Traigthren had never acknowledged his relationship with Samantha, as she was the offspring from a previous, scandalous liaison. She easily forgot that she might have been Queen someday, had history dealt a different hand. Royal life never suited her, and even an elven existence proved boring once she came of age, this being the main reason she lived with the unpredictable, uncontrollable humans and their equally chaotic world. And, given the fate of the former Queen, it was just as well that history had omitted her from the royal succession.
The two noblemen turned and regarded Samantha with disdain. "You've summoned a mere
to take what's left of Avalon to safety?"
There it was. Now that her mission was no longer a mystery, she relaxed a little at the revelation. The snipe at her gender did not offend her. She had other things to worry about now.
"May I remind you both of the less than adequate job the
contingent of the Court did of protecting the nodes!" the King roared. Guards looked up. The noblemen looked away. Even the Prince had the presence of mind to stop crying at his father's outburst.