A footfall on the forest floor below brought Eliani’s head up sharply. The scroll in her hands curled back into itself. She had not been reading it–her thoughts had drifted long since. The Lay of the Battle of Westgard had failed to entrance her this day.
She leaned out from the branch where she sat and peered down between the leaves of her favorite oak, seeking the sound’s source. A shadow of movement below, the edge of a cloak curling out of sight. Not a kobalen, then. Nor could it be a guardian, for Alpinon’s patrols were always at least three strong.
Eliani laid a hand against the oak’s trunk–slender there, near its top–and closed her eyes. The tree’s khi was slow and deep. She sent her own khi through it and out into the forest: roots running strong into the earth, whisper- fine grasses moving with each light breeze, small creatures dwelling in branch or under root. A much brighter, stronger pulse of khi reverberated through the wood, one that could only be ælven. Eliani drew back from it, as the ælven did not trespass upon one another’s khi.
She opened her eyes and carefully set her scroll in a notch of two branches where she had stored little trea - sures since childhood. She loved the old ballad–heroic mindspeakers and soul- consuming alben warlords still thrilled her despite her inattention this day–but her curiosity about the intruder was more immediate. She moved stealthily down to the oak’s lowest limbs, making no sound at all, for she could have climbed the tree blindfolded in any direction. Pausing on a lower branch, she saw a solitary figure walking away northward: tall, male, pale- haired.
She caught her breath, thinking for an instant that it was an alben. Fear set her heart pulsing before reason reminded her that an alben would not be walking in daylight even if he dared to cross the mountains into Alpinon.
No, it was a Greenglen, his hair not white but pale blond, as was common to his clan. He wore a cloak of Clan Greenglen’s colors–sage lined with silver–and carried a long bow slung over one shoulder.
Greenglens rarely were seen in Alpinon, though their homeland of Southfæld shared a nearby border. Eliani had met only a handful of them in her short fifty years, and none recently.
She smiled a hunter’s silent plea sure. She would track this foreigner, try to glimpse his face, see how long she could follow him unnoticed. It was the sort of game she most enjoyed, and she was good at it, having spent the last two de cades in Alpinon’s Guard. She felt a moment’s wistfulness, reminded that soon she would become the Guard’s commander. The other guardians would call her “Warden” instead of “Kestrel,” the nickname they had given her.
Tomorrow, on Autumn Evennight, she would be confirmed in her majority and formally named heir and designated successor to her father, Felisan, governor of Alpinon. The command of the Guard would pass to her as well. This was her last day of youth and irresponsibility. A little mischief might be forgiven her this last time.
Grinning, she turned her attention to her quarry. She tensed her thighs, balanced carefully, and sprang to the forest floor, making no more sound than the falling of a leaf.
Turisan walked at his ease, enjoying the rich earthen smell and myriad colors of autumn leaves, only mildly curious at first about his pursuer. He was not quite certain how long he had been followed.
He was not averse to meeting a patrol from Alpinon’s Guard. In fact, he half hoped to encounter one, for he had not been in this realm previously and did not know the way to Highstone. His pursuer, however, though certainly ælven, was evidently not a guardian. Such a one would have challenged him, not stalked him. He therefore continued to stride through Alpinon’s fair woodlands, which were full of life and untouched by ælven hands, as unlike as could be to his home in Glenhallow. Pausing to examine a spray of scarlet leaves, he saw a flicker of movement above. His brow creased in a slight frown. It was impolite to treat a visitor so, whether or not they knew who he was. He began to tire of the game.
And now he could hear his father berating him for not bringing along an escort suitable to his dignity. Had he been accompanied by ten of Southfæld’s Guard, as Lord Jharan had wished, no zealous Stonereach would have dared to stalk him. In Jharan’s view, a member of Southfæld’s governing house should never travel unattended though he walk through the most benign lands.
Indeed, he should not walk. He should ride a finely caparisoned steed or, better yet, take his ease in a chariot emblazoned with marks of state, surrounded by a mounted escort.
It was such excess of ceremony that made Turisan long so often to be gone from the court at Glenhallow. The more he learned of the intricacies of governance, the more he yearned for the simplicity of a wild wood, a clear stream, and the flicker of stars through leafy branches.
This journey was in part an escape from court formalities, though at the end of it they awaited him again. His father had sent him here on a visit of ceremony, to pay respects and carry messages to Lord Felisan, the governor of Alpinon, and to witness the confirmation of his heir.
Turisan had made no objection to this errand, for he knew it to be his duty as his father’s nextkin. Lord Jharan’s eyes, so often stern, grew soft with fondness whenever he spoke of Felisan, and that alone made Turisan curious to know him. He also expected the visit to Alpinon’s woodlands to satisfy his longing for wildness. Yet even here in the forest he was to have no peace, it seemed. Annoyed all at once, he turned in midstride and nocked an arrow to his bow, aiming it amidst the branches overhead.
“You have followed me half the afternoon. Come down and declare your business with me or begone.” A moment’s silence. Then a rustle in the branches, and a lanky ælven female in worn and dusky hunting leathers emerged, landing softly before him. She brushed a strand of nut- brown hair from her green eyes and stood gazing at him.
“Peace to you, friend. I meant no harm. We seldom have visitors from the south.”
Turisan lowered his bow. “And who are you?”
The little chin went up, then a corner of her mouth curled. “I am called Kestrel. I am kin to Lord Felisan.” Surprised, Turisan paused to return arrow to quiver while he reevaluated her status. No rustic this, what- ever her appearance. Even a lesser relative of Lord Felisan deserved his respect, though she had not given her true name. He bowed.
“It is to bring messages to Lord Felisan that I have come. Will you honor me by guiding me to his house?” The green eyes lit. “Messages? From Southfæld?” Turisan smiled. “From Glenhallow.”
He had thought that mention of Southfæld’s seat of government would thrill her. She drew a breath, as of deep plea sure, then surprised him by replying with quiet dignity.
“It will be my honor to guide you.”
She turned and, with a friendly glance over her shoulder, started northward. Turisan hastened to come up with her. Though not as tall as he, she had a guardian’s purposeful stride. She looked at him sidelong as they walked apace.
“Forgive my discourtesy, I pray. What visitors we do receive from Southfæld generally come by the trade road.”
Turisan smiled to show he held no grievance. “I prefer the woodlands.”
“So do I. You have no horse? Glenhallow sends its messengers on foot?”
“I have a horse. I left it with the guardians at Midrange, thinking to enjoy a walk. I believe it is not far from here to Highstone?”
“No, not far.” She smiled, her mouth twisting with private amusement.
Not a rustic, and not quite so young as he had first thought. Turisan observed her while she answered his polite questions about the land through which they walked.
She was fair of face and form, her coloring middle dark as was common in the Stonereach clan, her figure well enough though leaner than the gently bred maidens of Glenhallow’s court. Turisan, being accustomed to receive the open admiration of every maid he met, was intrigued and somewhat abashed to realize that this female seemed more interested in his messages than in himself.
It would be a lesson to him, he acknowledged silently. He had indeed dwelt too long at court. The woodlands, all ablaze with autumn, grew denser. Turisan’s legs told him they were climbing, though at first the slope was scarcely noticeable. It became a true hill before long and led to numberless others increasing in size, greenleaf trees giving way to tall pines as they proceeded from foothills into the mountains proper. Though he would have enjoyed a rest, his guide seemed unweary, and he followed her onward, reflecting that the day he could not outmarch a slip of a Stonereach girl was the day he should renounce his heritage and become a magehall acolyte.
The mountain air took on a chill as eve ning fell, and warm glints of light had for some time been showing through the trees when they reached a road that sloped upward along one side of a pine- filled valley. It led to a town centered on a level shelf of rock where houses spread out from an open public circle and clung to the steep, rocky walls above and below. A pale river cascaded through the chasm to the north, and he heard the distant roar of a waterfall.
His guide paused at the edge of the circle. “Welcome to Highstone.”
This was Alpinon’s chief city, then. Smaller than Turisan had expected. The houses were built of stone with steep slated roofs to shed snow. Their ornamentation was minimal and rough compared with that of Glenhallow’s graceful buildings, but after the long walk, the glow of their lighted windows in the blue- shadowed dusk was especially welcoming.
The grandest structure was a long hall situated on an outcrop commanding the valley a little way above the public circle. Its roof timbers were carved with stag’s heads, the token of Clan Stonereach. A row of tall arched windows gave a muted glow through tapestries already drawn for the night.
“Felisanin Hall. Come, they will be at table. We are in time to join the meal.”
“I would not intrude on Lord Felisan. Will you show me to a place where I can await his leisure?”
She grinned. “We are not so formal here. He would berate me for keeping an honored guest waiting. Surely you are tired and hungry?”
She led the way across the circle with a backward glance to see that he followed, and started up the steep stone stair beyond that led up to the governor’s hall. Reflecting that a lack of formality did not necessarily imply a poor table, Turisan hastened after his guide.
Eliani could not wait to see the faces of the house - hold when she introduced their exotic guest. She was certain now that he was high- ranking. Elusive, too; he had said little about himself and had turned aside a probing question or two with practiced ease.
She had longed to question the visitor about his homeland and what was happening outside Alpinon, but as he clearly had not wished to discuss such things with her, she had refrained. When asked the same questions by her father, he could scarcely refuse to answer, and so she would hear the news all the same.
Pausing in the hearthroom that served as the entrance to Felisanin Hall, Eliani warmed her hands by the welcoming hearth and looked more closely at the stranger while he gave his cloak, bow, and small pack into the keeping of the attendants who came forward to welcome him.
He was tall and slim, though his firm shoulders told of strength with bow and sword. The hunting clothes he wore were of fine soft leather, dyed in subtle shades of green and richly embroidered. The silver clasp that pinned his cloak was intricate in design and bore a large glinting white stone. He left it in the cloak as it was taken away, as if its possible loss would mean little to him, though it was finer than any jewel Eliani possessed. How rich his life must be! How simple he must think what she deemed grand and fine. She felt as if she were watching a creature out of another world entirely, one to which hers bore no comparison. Even his person was of rare and unusual beauty: fine features, long graceful fingers, hair of rich gold, eyes like dark pools of shadow.
Abruptly he glanced up at her and smiled. Caught in her curiosity, she returned the smile and stepped forward. “May I know your name so that I may give you a proper introduction?”
He seemed to hesitate for an eyeblink, then answered quietly. “It is Turisan.”
“I have heard that name.” Eliani gazed at him, frowning slightly, certain they had never met. “I do not remember when.”
His lips twitched. “It matters not. I am ready, if you will lead me in.”
She started into the hall, pushing the tapestry aside. No doubt he was used to much grander feast halls, but at least she need not be ashamed of her house’s hospitality. Torches burned brightly, musicians played in a corner of the hall–for Lord Felisan was very fond of music–and the house hold talked merrily around the long table. Eliani was glad to see that the meal had not progressed very far. Her father looked up and beckoned to her, but instead of taking her place beside him, she strode up to his chair, bowed formally, and stepped to one side. The conversation fell away as the house - hold became aware of the stranger she had brought with her; thus, it was to the accompaniment of music alone that she made her announcement.
“Lord Felisan, I bring you a visitor from afar. May it please you to welcome Turisan, who bears tidings from Glenhallow.”
The murmur that followed confirmed the importance of their guest. Her father rose, and she was pleased to see that he wore one of his better robes of deep blue velvet broidered with gilt thread and pinned at the neck with a large violet stone.
Felisan glanced at Eliani, his eyes glinting mischief. The next moment it was gone as he turned to greet Turisan.
“Welcome indeed!” Lord Felisan smiled broadly as he offered his arm. “I was present at your naming day, but you will not remember that, of course. Lord Jharan does me honor to send his own son with his tidings.” Eliani drew a sharp breath. She hoped it would go unnoticed and quickly assumed a disinterested smile. As Turisan clasped arms with her father, she thought his glance flicked to her.
Lord Jharan’s son, was he? Heir to the governance of Southfæld, the second oldest and second largest ælven realm. She closed her eyes briefly, silently chiding herself for not remembering where she had heard his name.
“I thank you, Lord Felisan, and crave pardon for arriving unheralded.”
Felisan waved dismissal. “Jharan and I have been friends for centuries. There is no need of ceremony between our houses. Come, sit beside me and give me news of your father! These are all my house hold; I will not trouble you with their names just now. And two of my theyns, Luruthin and Gharinan, there at the end. My daughter you have met.”
Eliani, standing beside her chair, was gratified to see Lord Turisan glance up at her in surprise. Her suspicion was correct, then: He had thought her of little importance. She returned a sweet smile, and he acknowledged her with a bow before taking his seat. That appeased her somewhat. Even more so did the kind thanks he made to the cousin who gave place to him. Eliani helped herself to warm bread from the basket before her, listening to the pleasantries that passed between her father and his guest. Lord Jharan’s messages would be given later and in private. She intended to be present, and Lord Turisan might make of that what he would.
“Your mountains are beautiful. I have seldom seen such richly timbered woods, and some of the prospects are breathtaking.”
Felisan looked pleased. “You have yet to see the best of them, having arrived from the south. Ask Eliani to show you the Three Shades. It is a high fall of water not far from here, a very pretty spot with some interesting legends attached to it.”
Turisan’s gaze shifted to Eliani, and he gave a solemn nod. “I would be honored if Lady Eliani would show it me.”
Eliani felt color rising to her cheeks. No one had called her “lady” before. That honorific was reserved for governors and their heirs, the masters of guild- halls, and other persons of high responsibility. She was not yet formally her father’s nextkin.
She returned Turisan’s nod, then glanced away and took a sip of wine. She did not know why she should find Lord Jharan’s son any more disconcerting than she had found a nameless high- ranking Greenglen, but so it was. Perhaps because she had always thought of House Jharanin as stately and dignified, dwelling in luxurious palaces and occupied with lofty concerns of governance.
Turisan did not fit that picture at all. What governorelect of any self- importance would undertake a journey on foot and alone?
She would. She laughed and choked a little on her wine.
Her father raised an eyebrow at her. “I hope you will stay with us some few days, Turisan. We are to celebrate a handfasting soon. Your presence would grace the occasion.”
“A handfasting?” Turisan’s gaze shifted briefly to Eliani, then back. “It would be my honor to attend. Are both parties from your house hold?”
“No, only Beryloni. She is the daughter of my departed lady’s brother. She sits just there, in the blue gown, and beside her is her partner to be, Gemaron, who is of the Steppegard clan.”
Turisan turned to the couple and smiled warmly at them as he raised his goblet. “I wish you great happiness together.”
Others took up the toast. “Great happiness!” Eliani raised her cup, smiling, and sipped. She, too, wished them great happiness, though her feelings were shadowed with reserve. Handfastings were rare among the ælven, for it was a lifelong pledge, and the breaking of a promise was unthinkable. Part of the creed, to keep good faith and to speak truth.
Eliani had witnessed only one other handfasting, that of her father’s sister, Davhri, many years earlier when she herself was still a child. Her most vivid memory was of the ribbons: blue and violet for Stonereach, orange and gray for Clan Sunriding, and the mage- wrought handfasting ribbon woven with images and blessings– all tied into a complicated braid about the joined hands of the couple who were to be forever bound, body and spirit.
Davhri, whom Eliani had loved fondly but whom she now scarce remembered, had gone north to her new partner’s home in Fireshore. Gifts and messages had come from time to time, brought by traders, but Davhri had never revisited Alpinon. Thus, Eliani tended to associate handfastings with loss.
Cup- bonds were much more common than handfastings. A promise to be true for a year and a day was no less serious a pledge, but one more easily kept. Eliani had cup- bonded once herself, though she had regretted it halfway through the year. She was not an easy partner, it seemed. She and Kelevon had fallen into disagreement and dissolved their bond the day after its year at last had concluded. She had gone immediately into the Guard, and Kelevon had departed for his home in the Steppe Wilds and not been heard from again.
The minstrels struck up “The Battle of Westgard,” and Eliani glanced toward them, feeling a tingle of foreboding. She tried to shake it off. It was not unusual for them to perform the lay, for the tale of how the Bitter Wars had ended, how mindspeakers had helped the ælven conquer the alben and drive them westward across the mountains, was a favorite of her father’s. Eliani remembered hearing it at his knee, begging him to tell how he had fought in the battle, and his answer that it was at Midrange and Skyruach that he had fought, not at Westgard. The Bitter Wars had ended many centuries before his birth.
The meal drew to a close, and the house holders gradually took their leave. Many paused to exchange greetings with Lord Turisan. His courtesy was flawless, his voice soft, and he seemed never at a loss for a kind word, even to Eliani’s youn gest kin, Curunan, who at twenty summers was just old enough to sit with the house hold.
Felisan rose from the table. “Well, then, Lord Turisan, come into my chamber and give me Lord Jharan’s news. Good night, yes, good night.” He waved to the last few guests as he started toward the back of the hall.
Eliani followed her father, shoulders- on with Lord Turisan, who glanced toward her and yielded the way. In turn she held aside the tapestry for him to enter the governor’s private quarters. Only she and her father dwelt here now. Others of the house hold lived in their own homes in the city.
Lord Felisan led the way into his study. Scattered scrolls of music and tomes thick with history lent the chamber a comfortable air. Eliani banished a worry that Lord Turisan would think the place unkempt and held her chin high as she fetched mead and chalices from a cupboard. If Lord Jharan’s son disliked his surroundings, he could take his leave.
Excerpted from The Betrayal by Pati Nagle. Copyright © 2009 by Pati Nagle. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.