THE RED PATH
“The Path of the Prince of Tielmark will run red with the blood of the Common Brood.”
The rough-hewn stones of the wall behind the altar smoked, etched
with the ashy outline of two giant figures. In the great hall of Tielmark, the Twin Goddesses had descended to bless a marriage.
But now They were gone. The chaos that had been suspended for the short time They had remained broke free.
The Bissanty plot to destroy the Tielmaran God-pledge lay in ruins.
The young princess and her new consort huddled against the altar. Shielded from the fighting in the Great Hall by the flashing wall of the Common Brood’s spell, they devoted themselves utterly to prayer. In the glittering aftermath of the Great Twins’ departure, the young couple bent their heads and prayed, blessed with the certitude that they had seen their gods—and pleased them.
Whatever the attending crowd chose to believe.
Gabrielle Lourdes, the young Duchess of Melaudiere, looked beyond the fading brilliance of the spell-wall and frowned. Tielmark was saved—yet those loyal to the Princess and the land remained scattered. Regrouping their power would require more even than a visitation from the gods.
It would require facing down an enemy who had become as intimate as brother, as friend.
Outside the spell, Bissanty-loving traitors, clumsy in their finest and most elaborate court garb, fought hand and fist with similarly encumbered Tielmaran loyalists. A handful of conspirators, refusing to acknowledge defeat, were still struggling to reach the closed circle of the altar’s dais. The flashing spell-wall blocked them, spinning them aside so they roared with pain and frustration.
They were so entrenched in power, so sure of the controls they had exerted over the young Tielmaran Princess. This wall of spell that had severed their control—even with failure staring them in the face, they did not want to believe it could exist.
Gabrielle took a shaky breath and rubbed the old scars on her wrists. The traitors weren’t the only surprised ones. Ironically, despite her strong skills as a diviner, she had joined the Common Brood without foreseeing this victory. It had been duty, not belief, that had made her pledge to old Princess Lousielle’s secret coven. Now she—along with everyone else in Tielmark, loyal or otherwise—would have to adapt herself to the sudden change of circumstances.
Lousielle’s seven witches, robed in Tielmark’s princely blue and white, had penetrated the Bissanty defenses and taken control of the altar at the crucial moment. Raising the spell-wall that had severed the young Princess’s sorcerous bonds, they had thrown aside her usurper Bissanty consort and married her to her secret Tielmaran lover.
What had happened next had been a thing of legend and history: The Goddess-Twins Elianté and Emiera had made themselves manifest to approve Corinne’s match, and this was no feeble matter of a priest mouthing pieties. It was a horror of God-flesh incarnate, of the eyes of the Great Twins flashing as they strode upon the altar, passing judgment. Even the most pious among those crowding the Great Hall had not really understood that the gods would come to earth for Corinne as they had for her forebears every cycle past. Human memory was so fleeting, so easily changed and reformed. The fifty-year passage over which the God-pledge cycled—it was too many years for those who had witnessed it as children to believe it would come again in their old age—
“It was a trick!” a man beyond the spell-wall called, furiously disbelieving. “It was not the Goddess-Twins. It was those foul bitches’ spells! We are befuddled—believe not what your eyes have seen!” He threw himself wildly at the translucent silver shield. Gabrielle, safe behind the spell, was close enough almost to smell his panic as the pain of contact
sent him reeling back. “Believe not what your eyes have seen!” he screamed. “This marriage is a perversion!”
Gabrielle recoiled. The more dedicated traitors had too much at stake to concede that the Great Twins had truly descended, that Tielmark’s God-pledge remained unbroken. So many who had sought to break the pledge were crowded into the Great Hall tonight, disappointed in their expectations of triumph. Even as the great spell faded, she could not tell whether the loyalists or the traitors would prevail. The goddesses’ blessing aside, Tielmark was weak, and the Bissanty traitors were strong.
Who would consolidate Tielmark’s power and lead the land forward out of chaos? One of those outside the circle? One of those trapped within it?
There were ten of them inside the great spell. Ten who breathed the hot air, the deep stink of magic. The seven witches of the Common Brood, young Princess Corinne and her consort, and, lastly, the Bissanty Prince who had been fool enough to imagine that Tielmark would not rise to protect its own. He cowered now at the edge of the altar’s dais, a sick expression on his face as full realization of his danger seeped through him. Her gaze flickering past him, Gabrielle found herself staring from face to face, her six partners in the making of the great spell doing likewise, seeking direction or focus. The others, Gabrielle realized, were just as stunned as she was by their victory.
And Princess Corinne still remained prostrate on the altar, god-struck by this unexpected joy and freedom, allowing precious moments to slip away in lieu of rising to command.
Gabrielle frowned. Easy for Corinne to leave the aftermath to those who had fought so hard, and at such great cost, to unite her with her shepherd-boy lover. Was it for this that the young duchess had suffered so many losses, so many privations? Exhausted and strained from the effort she’d exerted to perform her part of the spell, Gabrielle fought back self-pity. It was no easy struggle. She was two years younger than Corinne, and when she herself had married, there had been a great scandal, with no one there to protect her from the consequences. With her own father a Bissanty traitor, Gabrielle had suffered under Bissanty domination all her life.
Now, with the chance of freedom before her, she was uncertain of her authority to act. No one had expected the old Princess, the founder of the Common Brood, to be dead when they faced this moment. They
had thought that Lousielle would be there to make the choices, to guide her sheltered daughter, to decide everything—
“We don’t have much time,” Richielle said. The herder-witch, the oldest of the Common Brood, reached up and touched the spell’s apex with the tip of her herder’s crook, a height already visibly fallen. “The wall won’t hold much longer. We have to act, or the chance is lost for another fifty years.”
Though Richielle was the oldest of the Brood, Gabrielle mistrusted her leadership. The herder stank of unwashed goats and grease and slaughter. There was something impetuous about her, something disordered. Despite Richielle’s age and her wide experience, Gabrielle did not believe that the old princess had ever intended for the herder to lead them.
Yet Richielle was brave enough to face the big question. The terrible question. Gabrielle could only wish that she had found the courage to speak first. The Brood had only a short time before their spell fell to pieces—would they have resolve enough to free Tielmark, for once and for always, from the ongoing Bissanty incursions? More troubling: should they? Gabrielle did not believe she was the only member of the Brood with doubts.
“We know what we have to do,” Delcora High Priestess said, echoing Richielle. “We have to free Tielmark from Bissanty. For now and ever after.” Tielmark’s most powerful religious sorceress, a spare, excitable woman, was visibly heady with the spell’s success. The green magic of the Goddess-Twins flowed through her with incredible potency, and it was Delcora’s strength which had provided the river of power from which the others had formed the great spell. Delcora should have been tired, but the close contact with her gods had left her flushed with energy. Her face shone with self-importance as she pulled a flag of shining silk from beneath her robe: Tielmark’s princely blue quarters replaced by the crimson color of a king’s red. “Elianté-bold and Emiera-fair will witness this!” she said. “We will make Corinne Queen!”
“We haven’t agreed to any such thing,” Gabrielle said sharply, alarmed that Richielle and Delcora seemed to have secretly colluded, preparing for this moment. “Tielmark has lived free of Bissanty for two hundred and fifty years. We bought it fifty more years of freedom with this night’s work. Just because we’ve worked this spell doesn’t mean we have the right to make more decisions for our Princess.”
“Altering the very nature of Tielmark’s rule requires rewriting her God-pledge,” Tamsanne broke in. She was a south-border witch, a
strange, usually unobtrusive woman, whose magic was tied closely to the raw power of the soil. Until Delcora declared herself, Tamsanne, the first member Lousielle had initiated into the Brood, had stood aloof. “Our Princes sweated blood to make that pledge, and we have only just renewed it. Even if Tielmark really is ready to make such a change as you are suggesting—tonight’s stars certainly are not right for it. This seeming urgency will pass.” The slender witch gestured to the chaos beyond the spell-wall. “It is no weakness to pause and consider what we are doing before we act.”
Gabrielle rolled a thankful glance in the border witch’s direction, grateful for her tone of moderation. Tamsanne was a little older than the four court sorceresses—herself, Dervla, Melaney Sevenage, and the warrior countess Marie Laconte. Despite her reserve, she was easier to talk to than the old harridan Richielle, or tiny prepubescent Julie, whom Princess Lousielle had dragged up from the gutter to fill the coven’s seventh place. Gabrielle trusted and respected Tamsanne’s judgment.
“We need to act
.” Richielle pushed forward, shoving Tamsanne aside—for all her bluster, a liberty she would not have attempted with any of the court women. The herder’s yellow eyes shone with a ruthless light. “Look at those sheep out there!” She gestured beyond the spell-wall. “They’re already trying to convince themselves that none of this has happened. Denying the evidence of their own senses. This happens every fifty years—every cycle of rule since free Tielmark was founded. It will go on happening again and again. Tielmark’s freedom jeopardized unless we do something today. Think of the tragedy of Berowne. The horrors that befell Princess Ann. Will our heirs face easier circumstances? We need to act. This moment is why Lousielle took our pledges.”
“The old Princess trusted us to protect Tielmark’s future,” Gabrielle said stoutly.
“Lousielle bound us to protect her heirs,” Richielle sneered. “But we can do more than that. We can make Tielmark great. We can make Tielmark free.”
“Lousielle wanted more than that,” Gabrielle protested. “She wanted Tielmark to be a productive and just land for her people, whatever sacrifices she had to make herself.”
“Then why bind us to prophecy?” Richielle said. “
The path of the Prince of Tielmark will run red with the blood of the Common Brood.
Do you imagine that that bond is unraveled by the strength merely of this night’s work?” Emboldened, the herder-witch stepped near to the young duchess, so close
that Gabrielle could smell her stink of grain and blood.
the young woman swore, fighting to conceal how the older woman unnerved her.
Tamsanne, with more poise than Gabrielle expected, slipped in between them, breaking the two women apart. “Perhaps Lousielle bound us to prophecy because she knew Tielmark’s problems could not be resolved by a single night of magic.” Her voice was mild, but something in her eyes made Richielle step away. “The Brood-pledge ties our blood to Tielmark’s future, whether or not we chose tonight to paint the Princess’s path the red color of Kingship.”
The future. Before this night, young Gabrielle had scarcely been able to imagine that there would
a future. “I don’t claim to understand all that the prophecy entails,” she said aloud, meeting Richielle’s eyes as calmly as she was able. “But I was willing to pledge my life to protect Tielmark from Bissanty when Lousielle called for it.”
“You don’t believe that the running red is the crimson blood of kingship, or you don’t want to believe it? Which is it?” Richielle asked. “The prophecy is a dangling sword. We
are the blood of the Brood. We have the power to turn Tielmark’s path from princely blue to kingship red. If we don’t, our lives will be sacrificed—”
“Don’t use that tone with me,” Gabrielle said angrily. “I won’t stand for it.” Richielle’s glance of contempt made the younger woman squirm. As though she had tried to pull rank on the herder, and the herder had ignored it! As though she were a sheltered court lackey, fool enough to attempt hauteur as a shield against this horrible woman! As though—
“What exactly is it that you are proposing, goat-herder?” Tamsanne said dryly, rescuing Gabrielle from her confusion. “Blue, red, purple. A prince, a king, an emperor. We all know that red can signify kingship as well as blood. You say you want to act tonight. What exactly would you have us do?”
“Commit that one’s life to the gods.” Richielle nodded at the Bissanty Prince, the sick-faced young man who stood hunched almost against the wall of spell, trying to avoid the witches, the young princess bent in prayer—and everything else within the spell’s confines. “Let his blood feed our earth. Let Corinne rise over him as our Queen. In Bissanty, they call that man the orphan Prince of Tielmark, and claim he is bonded to our soil.” The herder grinned, showing her bad teeth. “Let us make acknowledgment of that bond. Let the gods take his life in pledge, freeing
our land forever and after from Bissanty.” As she spoke, Richielle unsheathed a knife she had held hidden in her skirts.