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CHAPTER ONE – THE POISONED BRIDE
Lucan Mandragon’s eyes shot open.
He sat up and threw aside the blankets, his hand raised to cast a spell. Green light flared around his fingertips as he summoned magical power. Marstan dared to attack him? He would burn his former teacher to ashes.
He looked around, seeking for Marstan.
But his bedroom was deserted, save for a terrified page in the livery of the House of Mandragon.
A boy of eight or nine, eyes enormous with fear.
“My lord,” whispered the page. “Please. Please. I…your father sent me, please…” He swallowed. “Please don’t hurt me.”
Lucan blinked several times, his mind swimming into focus.
He was in his bedroom at the castle of Swordgrim. Faint sunlight leaked through the narrow windows, the sun rippling off the waves of the Lake of Swords. Books and papers covered his desk, and a variety of jars and glass vials sat on his sagging worktable. The page stood by the door, face white with horror.
Marstan had been dead at Lucan’s hand for over a year.
Lucan looked at the terrified boy and felt a wave of shame.
He dismissed his magic, the green light fading.
“What is it?” he said.
“My lord,” said the page. “My lord, your father summons you to the chapel at once.”
“Why?” said Lucan. “What does the mighty Dragonslayer wish of his wayward son? I doubt my father has grown pious in his old age.”
“Your father summons you to chapel at once…”
“I know that,” said Lucan, annoyance creeping into his voice. The page flinched, and Lucan rebuked himself. They were all so afraid of him. One harsh word, one dark look, and the servants fled and the knights muttered about dark magic.
Of course, given what Marstan had been, Lucan could hardly blame them.
Given what Marstan had done to Lucan.
“Why am I summoned?” said Lucan.
“He wishes you to attend Lady Tymaen Highgate.”
A wave of anger shot through Lucan.
“No,” he said. “I will not see Lady Tymaen. Not for any reason. If she wishes aid, let her speak to her husband.” He spat the last word.
“My lord,” said the page. “She’s…”
“Tell my father that,” said Lucan.
“My lord,” said the page. “She’s dying.”
“What?” he said at last. “That’s impossible. I saw her when she arrived with Lord Robert.” Not that he had spoken with her. “She was the image of health. She couldn’t have sickened in a day.”
“Your father thinks she was poisoned,” said the page.
Lucan stared at the wall for a long moment.
“Tell my father,” said Lucan, “that I shall arrive presently.”
The page sprinted from the room.
A short time later Lucan came to Swordgrim’s chapel.
Like most of the churches of the Grim Marches, the castle’s chapel had been built in the style of Old Dracaryl, a high dome rising overhead. Altars to the gods of the Amathavian church stood against the walls. Amatheon the king, the ruler of justice. Amater the lady, whose touch brought mercy. Joraviar the knight, who brought courage to valiant warriors. Lucan paid the altars and the priests praying before them no heed.
He had knelt before those altars as a child, and none of his prayers had ever been answered.
Lucan went through a small side door to the sick room, where the chapel’s priests tended to the castle’s ill and wounded. Three noblemen stood over one of the sickbeds. The first was his father, Lord Richard Mandragon, the white streaks in his red hair and beard seeming to wreathe his head in flames. Lucan’s elder brother Toraine Mandragon stood next to Richard, and as always he wore the armor fashioned from the scales of the black dragon he had slain. Besides Toraine stood Lord Robert Highgate, who seemed to grow a little fatter every time Lucan saw him.
But he ignored them.
Tymaen Highgate lay unconscious on the sickbed, her long hair a golden pool around her head. Sweat glittered on her brow, and her breath came in short gasps. She wore only a linen shift, and Lucan saw peculiar black streaks marking the pale skin of her wrists and ankles.
He stopped before the bed, gazing down at her.
“Lucan,” said Lord Richard. “We require your assistance.”
Toraine laughed. “Though little good it will do us, I’m sure.”
“Lady Tymaen has been poisoned,” said Richard.
“So I see,” said Lucan. He took a deep breath, making sure his next words came out calm. “How did it happen?”
Lord Robert shrugged. “I don’t know.” He looked at Lucan with a mixture of contempt and wariness. Like a man regarding a sick dog. “She seemed healthy enough when we arrived yesterday. This morning I awoke to find her like this.” He sighed. “I have the worst luck with wives.”
“Perhaps the third one will prove more robust,” said Toraine.
“One may hope,” said Robert.
Rage burned through Lucan. He wanted to draw on his magic and smash Robert and Toraine against the wall. Or to reach into the dark morass of Marstan’s memories and unleash forbidden spells…
Instead he said, “So she was poisoned at the feast.”
“That is my thought as well,” said Richard.
“Mitor Cravenlock’s doing, I’m sure,” said Toraine.
Lucan frowned…but his brother had a point.
“Mitor Cravenlock hopes to rebel against my rule,” said Richard, “but he cannot defeat the strength of Swordgrim unassisted. So, like his father before him, he turns to the aid of the serpent priests.”
“The San-keth,” muttered Robert. “Mitor is a toad, but stupid enough to ally himself with the serpents? Even I thought he was smarter than that.”
“You showed Mitor too much mercy, father,” said Toraine. “When you defeated the Cravenlocks, you should have exterminated them utterly. Then we would not face this danger now.”
“Perhaps,” said Richard.
“But why Tymaen?” said Robert. “My wife, true, but she is no one of significance.” Lucan’s hands curled into fists. “So why poison her?”
“A mistake,” said Toraine. “The San-keth sought to poison my father at Lord Mitor’s urging, but made an error and put the poison into Lady Tymaen’s cup instead. Father, you have all the evidence you need. Call your vassals, march south, and put the Cravenlocks to death.”
Lucan examined the black streaks on Tymaen’s forearms and lower legs. They were her veins, she realized, turning black from the poison. Lucan himself knew very little about poison.
But Marstan had…and Marstan’s memories filled the inside of Lucan’s head. And like a drop of blood darkening a glass of clear water, someday those memories would merge entirely with Lucan’s own.
What would become of him then?
He pushed aside the thought and searched Marstan’s memories.
“I wish to avoid a war against a vassal,” said Richard. “The other liege lords would take it as weakness. The lords of the Black Plains and the High Plain may attempt to seize the moment. And Lord Malden of Knightcastle certainly would.”
“There may be an easier way to forestall war,” said Robert. “Send Sir Tanam Crowley to abduct Lady Rachel Cravenlock. Mitor has no heir, but his sister is young, unwed, and presumably fertile. Any child she births will inherit Castle Cravenlock.”
Toraine grinned. “I have thought about taking a wife.”
Richard lifted a flame-colored eyebrow. “So you wish to become Lord of Castle Cravenlock?”
“Why not, father?” said Toraine. “I will be the Lord of Swordgrim and the liege lord of the Grim Marches after your death. If I take Rachel to wife and get a child on her, one day that child will inherit both Swordgrim and Castle Cravenlock. Since you won’t let me kill all the Cravenlocks, this will guarantee peace instead.”
“Yet,” said Robert, eyes narrowed with suspicion, “that is a lot of land for one lord to hold.”
Toraine turned his black gaze toward Robert. “I will be liege lord one day, Robert, and I suggest…”
“It’s not San-keth poison,” said Lucan.
The three lords looked at him.
“San-keth poison kills by attacking the heart and the brain,” said Lucan. “Death is almost instantaneous. This,” he pointed at the black streaks on Tymaen’s arms, “is something different entirely. Those black stripes upon her arms show the progress of the poison.” He looked at Robert. “Do you object if I touch her?”
Robert made a dismissive gesture. “By all means.”
Lucan did not tell him that he had already touched Tymaen a great deal.
Robert already knew that. He simply did not care.
Tymaen would never go back to Lucan.
He lifted her wrists. “Do you see? The black stripes follow her veins precisely. The poison is working its way up her limbs. When it reaches her heart, she will die.”
“Then what manner of poison is it?” said Richard.
Lucan hesitated. He did not know, and neither did Marstan’s memories.
“I am not certain,” said Lucan. “But it is not a San-keth poison.”
“This changes nothing,” said Toraine. “Perhaps the San-keth simply chose to employ a different poison. The facts have not changed. Mitor Cravenlock is in rebellion against his lawful liege lord, and he has chosen to ally himself with the serpent priests. By both the laws of gods and men, you have every right to smash him and claim his lands for your own.”
“For your own, you mean,” said Robert.
Toraine’s smile did not touch his pitiless black eyes.
“The Justiciar Order,” said Richard, “is inclined to disagree.”
“The Justiciar Knights are fools,” said Toraine. “They sided with Mitor’s father against you, and you rightfully claimed some of their estates in the Grim Marches in recompense. If they join Mitor, you shall have every right to expel them completely from the Grim Marches.”
“And that would gain us another problem,” said Robert. “We already have enough enemies. Lord Malden would ally himself with the Grand Master.”
“There is a more pressing problem,” said Lucan.
“Such as?” said Richard.
“Finding a cure for Lady Tymaen’s poison,” said Lucan.
The three lords stared at him, and Lucan realized they did not care.
They cared about the implications of Tymaen’s death, certainly. How it would change the balance of power in the Grim Marches, if it would give Lord Richard justification to launch a war against his rebellious vassal.
But they did not care whether Tymaen lived or died.
Not even Lord Robert, Tymaen’s husband. The man she had chosen over Lucan.
Lucan wanted to kill them all for their indifference. Marstan would have.
Of course, Marstan would not have cared about Tymaen either.
“If you do not know the poison,” said Richard, “then it is doubtful any of the priests or surgeons will know the antidote. Lady Tymaen’s death is tragic, yes. But we can ensure that no one else will die as she has. If Mitor Cravenlock is responsible for her death, we shall bring him to account.”
“There is something I can do,” said Lucan. “A spell to slow her heartbeat and put her into a deeper sleep. It will give her a few hours longer to live, perhaps even an extra day.”
“It seems like a futile effort, father,” said Toraine. “If Lucan wants to waste his time on useless magical research, that is your business. But he can do nothing to save Lady Tymaen. Why put her through additional pain?”
“What business is it of yours?” said Lucan.
“I will be the liege lord of the Grim Marches one day,” said Toraine. “You ought to respect…”
“Shut up,” said Lucan. “I’ve heard nothing else from you since I was old enough to walk. Once you are the liege lord, what will you do? Go whoring and kill a few peasants? Perhaps you’ll find a bard to put your exploits into song…”
Toraine’s hand fell to his sword hilt.
“Enough,” said Richard, voice calm, but both brothers subsided. “Lord Robert, she is your wife. What do you say?”
Robert shrugged. “I see no harm in it. And if by some stroke of good fortune the spell reverses the poison, it shall save me the trouble of finding another wife.”
Lucan managed a curt nod, put both hands on Tymaen’s clammy forehead, and muttered a spell, drawing magic to himself.
“This is forbidden!”
Both Lucan and the nobles looked up in surprise as a young priest in a black robe hurried towards them.
“Black magic is an affront to the gods!” said the priest, pulling Lucan’s hands from Tymaen’s. “We know you are a student of the necromancer Marstan, and we will not allow…”
Lucan snarled in fury and gestured. Invisible force came at his call, seized the young priest, and slammed him against the wall. The priest’s eyes widened in pain and fear, and he clawed at the wall, trying to pull free.
But Lucan’s will held him fast.
“Do not,” he growled, “touch me.”
The priest began to scream.
“Lucan,” said Richard.
Lucan looked at his father and released the spell. The priest fell to the floor, gasping.
“Lucan works his arts at my command,” said Richard. “Neither the church nor the wizards’ brotherhood nor the Justiciars rule in the Grim Marches. Remove yourself from Swordgrim at once, and do not return.”
The priest hurried away, giving nervous glances over his shoulder.
“Continue,” said Richard.
Lucan nodded, forcing aside his temper, and placed his hands on Tymaen’s brow. He cast the spell, and her skin grew colder beneath his fingers. Her breathing slowed, and her pulse faded to a faint flicker.
“It is done,” said Lucan. “The spell put her into a deeper sleep. It will slow the poison. A day. Maybe more.”
“How terribly effective,” said Toraine. “She’ll die tomorrow instead of tonight. What a worker of miracles you are, brother.”
Lucan opened his mouth to answer, and a wiry page hurried into the room.
The boy bowed before Richard. “My lord Richard.”
“Yes?” said Richard.
“The armsmaster sends word,” said the page. “The embassy from the Justiciars has arrived.”
Richard’s perpetual frown sharpened. “Earlier than I expected. Well, Sir Commander Galan Hawking can wait until I have time to see him.”
“My lord,” said the page boy, “the armsmaster says that the Grand Master has come.”
A brief moment of silence answered his pronouncement.
“All the way from Swordor?” said Robert. “The Justiciars are serious about reclaiming their lost estates.”
“A foolish hope,” said Richard, “and all the more foolish if they intend to ally themselves with Mitor Cravenlock to reclaim them. Come, my lords. We shall deal with the Grand Master at once.”
Richard strode from the sick room, Toraine and Robert following. Lucan stared at Tymaen, gazing at the black streaks in her arms.
“Lucan, come,” said Richard.
Lucan looked at Richard’s retreating back, a sharp retort on his lips.
Instead he followed his father.