Authors: Elizabeth Vaughan
Mom instilled a love of reading in me at an early age, but it was Dad that introduced me to the worlds of fantasy. While I will read just about any book, put a sword in a warrior’s hand, hint at magic and an epic journey, and I can’t wait to get my hands on that story.
For what you hold in your hands, at the very moment that you read this, is the closest that I will ever get to casting a magic spell. No messy ingredients, no frogs, no eyes of newt, no secret room deep in a dungeon or high in a spire. No sparkly dress, no magic wand, no magic mirror. No, the only source of my power are the pages you hold and the words written thereon. As you read them, I hope the magic starts to work between my words and your imagination.
If I’ve woven my spell with a bit of art and skill, then you will be lost in the
Kingdom of Xy
, entranced with Xylara’s choices and the consequences for her and the Kingdom. And there are more tales to be told, more spells to be woven, more adventures to be had. But all stories must “begin at the beginning” and so it is with this one.
So please, let me tell you a story…
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
Edited by Anna Genoese
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
New York , NY
Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
First edition: June 2005
Printed in the United States of America
To my parents, Park and Patricia Vaughan
There are so many people I need to thank, who have extended their friendship, love and support to me during the creation of the book. Of all the gifts that writing has given me, your presence in my life is the greatest gift of all.
Spencer Luster, who told me to ‘put up or shut up’. My writer’s group, which includes Spencer, Helen Kourous, Robert Wenzlaff, Marc Tassin, and Keith Flick. Kathleen Crow, who refused to let my dream die. Kandace Klumper, for quiet words of encouragement and a good swift kick when necessary. Lisa Black, who always wanted more. Patricia Merritt, who is my partner in evil. JoAnn Thompson, who believes in me when I don’t. Mary Fry, Roberto Ledesma and David Browder, who cheerfully read and commented on my early drafts. Phil Fry, Cathie Hansen and Deb Spychalski, for putting up with me for the last two years. Jane Lackey, for her long suffering patience. Linda Baker, Don Bingle, and Janet Deaver Pack who showed me that it could happen. Annette Leggett, always running through the forest with sharp objects. The Maumee Valley Chapter of the RWA, who welcomed me with open arms. Tom Redding, who suffered through the galleys. Merrilee Heifetz, Anna Genoese and Fiorella DeLima, whose hard work and contributions to this book made me look damn good.
But most of all, credit must go to Jean Rabe, who pushed me into the pool, and to Meg Davis, who found me there.
I pulled the shard out just as his wound began spurting blood.
“Goddess, no.” I dropped the knife, pressed my hands against his stomach, into the blood, and threw my full weight onto the wound. Biting my lip, I pressed harder still, desperate to stop the bleeding. “Hold him, boys.”
The apprentices gathered around the table grabbed tight to his arms and legs, all of them wide-eyed and pale as they tried to keep him from moving. The wooden table beneath my aged patient creaked and complained at the added weight as the room echoed with the sound of our leather shoes slapping against the stone floor and my patient’s frantic panting.
A quick glance around the large kitchen told me that there were no other healers in sight. They were all in the main hall, tending the others. Just the apprentices, clustered around the table. Blood bubbled up between my fingers, warm and thick. The metallic smell was strong and settled in my mouth. There was something wrong with the smell, but I was too busy to think on it. One of the lads frantically waved a fresh bandage before my eyes, and I snatched it, crammed it into the wound, and pressed down. I had to get it stopped. The bandage turned to scarlet before my eyes.
The man under my hands groaned and thrashed, trying to get away from the pain. One of the smaller lads was flung away. The patient’s freed arm swiped through the air, catching me on the cheek. Vision blurred for a precious instant as my head rocked back with the blow. My hair came loose, and one long brown curl floated down to lie in the blood that surrounded my hands. The felled boy scrambled up and threw himself back into the fray, grabbing the flailing arm and wrestling it down. “Sorry, Lara,” he told me.
“Hold him.” My voice was a croak. I was too harsh on the lads who were trying their best. Their bloodless faces were pale blurs. I heard the one next to me swallowing rapidly. Pray to the Goddess that he’d not spew on the wound. My shoulders tightened as I tried to increase the pressure, trying to staunch the red flow. “I need help here.” I raised my voice to carry into the main hall that was filled with wounded and other healers.
“Lara? What’s happened?” A quiet, calm voice came from behind me.
It was Eln, thank the Goddess.
The warrior surged up again, and the table squeaked in protest. We stayed with him, trying to keep him still, trying to keep the pressure on. He cried out suddenly, then sagged back, exhausted. I gulped in breath to answer. “The shard came out clean but he’s bleeding.”
A head popped in next to mine as Eln craned his scrawny neck to have a look. My teacher for years, he always moved like a gray lake-crane. He made a noncommittal noise, then pulled a deep breath in through his nose. I gritted my teeth. Sometimes he decides that I need a lesson in the midst of saving a life, even though I’ve held my mastery for years. Eln’s head pulled back, but I could feel him standing behind me.
“Not my patient, and not my place to say.” Eln’s voice was quiet, but cut through the moans of the warrior. “But what happens after you stop the bleeding?”
I slammed my eyes shut. My patient shifted again, and we moved with him, automatically.
“Stubborn child…” Eln’s voice was a whisper, but I heard it. “You may have gained your mastery but you haven’t truly learned, have you?”
I did not want to concede to his wisdom, did not want to face what the scent of waste in the blood meant, the scent I’d failed to identify a moment before. But experience had been a hard teacher, harder then Eln had ever been. With a nod, and a strangled sob, I released the pressure on the wound. The apprentices froze, not understanding.
“Come, boys.” Eln spoke quietly. “Come with me.”
I ignored them all as they filed out. One stopped, and looked at me.
“Why’d ya stop?”
Kneeling to wash my hands in a bucket on the floor, I looked up into his wide young eyes. “Eln will tell you, child. Go now.”
Eln would not miss a chance to give a lesson, a chance to explain the slow, painful death of a belly wound that stank of waste. Explain that a good healer knew when to let a patient go, that death wasn’t always an enemy. Explain that good healers didn’t stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their limits. I wished them the best of it, for it was a lesson I’d never learned.
Coward that I was, I took a moment to rinse my tunic and trous of the worst of the blood. That might save me some abuse from Anna when I returned to the castle. She claimed that I didn’t own a piece of clothing that didn’t have blood on it at one time or another. The cool, wet cloth felt good against my hot and sweaty skin.
I took a fresh bowl of water and a clean cloth and bathed the man’s face. The bleeding had turned sluggish. It would not be long now. The man sighed and relaxed, muscles releasing their tension under my touch.
Aye, Eln would offer a lesson. But I would offer comfort to a dying man.
The water seemed to ease him, and I put the cloth down for a moment, and steadied myself. I forced myself to rinse my hands again, working the nails to get the blood off. I took a moment to clean the one stray lock of hair and tuck it up again. My hair was a constant irritation, the curls were never content to stay neat on top of my head.
The kitchen had cleared again. It was the best room in the old barracks to use for the worst of the wounded. The large tables served well, and every counter and cupboard was filled with jars and bowls of ointments and remedies. I stared at their bright colors and the false promise of the claims that they could cure all ails. But nothing lay there that could save this man.
A noise drew my attention down. His eyes fluttered open. Once again I took up the water and cloth. As I worked, he focused on me, a question in his stare. I smiled.