The mystic Beloved, before concealed by the veil of words, is now revealed to the eyes of men. I bear witness, my friends, that the benediction is complete, the testimony fulfilled, the proof demonstrated, the sign given. Let all now see what your efforts in the path of the Meri will unveil and accomplish. Divine grace has been bestowed on you and on all that dwell in the Lands of Shadow and Light. Sing duans of praise to the Spirit of All Worlds. — from the Testament of Osraed Bevol
Blood thundered in his ears. Daimhin Feich listened, heeding its siren call. He wondered at the strange visceral elation he felt just strapping on this sword. He had never worn one, save for ceremonial purposes, and this was no ordinary sword—it was a Malcuim sword, worn, so legend said, by The Malcuim himself. It was a sword intended for fighting, and Daimhin Feich had every intention of putting it to that use.
He strode the corridors of Mertuile with a new vigor this morning. A vigor the black banners and bundles of dead flowers that festooned the halls could not dampen. He was Regent to Airleas Malcuim, and Cyneric if Airleas failed to take the Throne. Dark joy bubbled in his breast, threatening to make him laugh. That would be inappropriate now, with Mertuile in mourning; he would laugh when he stood before the Stone and felt the Circlet on his head.
A Feich on the Throne! He began to whistle a tune, but Mertuile’s empty interior threw it back at him misshapen.
He stopped whistling.
In the lower hall, the Abbod Ladhar met him, along with his own cousin, Ruadh, commander of his fighting force. One was dressed for travel, the other for battle.
The Abbod’s face was screwed into a disapproving mask and he glowered fiercely. “Why do you insist that I accompany you on this war crusade? My place is here.”
“To comfort the mourners?” Daimhin asked. “To pray for the soul of your poor dead Cyne? His soul is wherever it deserves to be, Abbod. With the souls of other men who have taken their own lives. Your place is with those living, those who will march to free the Cyne’s heir from the clutches of the Taminist evil. Your place is beneath the banner of the Meri, facing that evil. Or do you fear facing it?”
“I fear no man, nor woman, nor Wicke. But the period of mourning is not passed. It has barely begun.”
“Mourn on the road, Abbod. Now, we ride to Halig-liath.”
He passed through the door his cousin held open for him, out into the morning Sun that slanted over Mertuile’s landward wall. The gates to the outer ward were open and, through them, he could see the ranks of horses and men that were now at his command. He smiled, letting his earlier elation rise to a boil within him.
Sensual, it was. He felt heat fan out from his groin and listened, again, to the song of blood in his ears. A quest. A crusade. And it would end at Halig-liath.
It was not Airleas Malcuim he thought of as he and his hundreds rode east, but she who had taken him—Taminy-a-Cuinn, Wicke.
The Feich forces were arrayed before the gates of the Holy Fortress. Daimhin Feich rode at their head with Ruadh Feich at his side. Behind them, the Abbod Ladhar glowered from the back of a sturdy horse, the Malcuim standard fluttering overhead.
Beside it, on a second staff, the Star Chalice was borne aloft. It was a bit of grandstanding that did not sit well with the Abbod, but to Daimhin Feich, it added a twist of historical irony to his crusade. Centuries before, another army had rallied to face down another Malcuim heir, using the same holy relic to confound his forces. And now, as then, hundreds had rallied.
Not only Feich, but Feich allies—southern Eiric, for the most part, to whom the Osraed were a nuisance and the idea of supernatural intervention an anachronism. For the Feich it was a return to the glory days. The days when the great House was a thorn in the side of whatever Malcuim happened to sit upon the Throne.
Daimhin Feich, Regent and would-be Cyneric, turned to glance up at the standards aloft behind him. He would tear down that Malcuim emblem soon, replace it with his own. But for now, the Feich crest appeared only on the arm bands of the troops massed behind him.
He moved his mount forward, all the way to the shadow of Halig-liath’s gates. The heavy oaken doors were open, but the portcullis was down. The Ren Catahn, leader of the Hillwild, stood behind it, the Chief of the House Claeg at his side.
Feich spoke to the lowland Chief. “A twist in history, this, old friend—that Feich and Claeg face each other across defenses.”
“Aye, well, it was inevitable. The Claeg do what they believe is right. The Feich do what they think is profitable.”
Feich chuckled. “Barbed words, Claeg.”
“May they draw blood.”
“I must speak to the Cwen Toireasa and the Riagan Airleas.”
From behind the sill of the gate, Toireasa Malcuim heard the words and shivered. Grasping her son’s hand, she willed her feet to move her forward. They behaved as if rooted to the cobbles.
Someone took her other hand, flooding her with strength. She smiled.
Oh, to feel this strong and resilient, always.
With Airleas on her left and Taminy on her right, she went out to face Daimhin Feich. His eyes gleamed when he saw them, and he dismounted, coming to stand before the portcullis.
“This is absurd,” he said. “I merely wish to reason with you, mistress. Can’t we do without further barriers between us?” He gestured at the heavy wood and iron grille that separated them. “Your men have their bows aimed and ready. What could we do against them?”
Taminy turned her head and glanced behind her. The portcullis rose ponderously.
“Thank you.” Feich dropped his gaze to Airleas. “I bring you sad news, Airleas. Your father, Cyne Colfre Malcuim, is dead. You are now Cyneric of Caraid-land.”
The boy’s face paled, but he showed no other sign of emotion. “We know,” he said. “We felt him die.”
Feich moved his narrowed eyes to Toireasa’s face. “I regret to say that he died by his own hand. Your desertion destroyed him, madam.”
The Cwen shook her head, keeping her gaze on him, hard and cold. “I destroyed nothing, Daimhin Feich. It was you who destroyed him. You who deserted him. You who passed him the cup of betrayal. This . . .” — she nodded toward the soldiers arrayed behind him — “this is forever and always what you have wanted, is it not?”