Gabriel’s manor was only a candlemark’s ride from Dark Haven. A black carriage arrived for Gabriel and Jonmarc at Dark Haven’s entrance, and the two rode in silence for a while. The carriage was not opulent, but Jonmarc knew from its solid build that it was one of the finest of its sort. Four sleek black horses drew the carriage, fitted in hand-worked leather tack trimmed with silver. The carriage and horses alone were worth a small fortune.
“Neirin says that we’re meeting the Council on your land because I’m safer there—something about ‘sanctuary’.”
Gabriel did not turn. He watched the forest slip by out the carriage window. Taking in the view or scanning for threat? Jonmarc wondered.
“Wolvenskorn is a very old manor,” Gabriel replied. Jonmarc followed his gaze and saw large, dark shapes keeping pace with the carriage, running silently in the shadows of the deep forest along the road. He repressed a shudder. The wolves of the northern forests were known for size and ferocity, and he had met more than one on smuggling runs. Things other than vayash moru hunted the deep forests. Even the bravest mortals did not venture deep into the woods at night.
“The name is ancient. It means ‘place of the wolf god’ in the language of the old tribes. There’s a stone circle that rings the great house. Those stones were carved almost a thousand years ago. They show the Dark Lady taking the Wolf God as her consort.”
“The Flow under Dark Haven didn’t keep the last couple of lords alive. Arontala still managed to make a mess of things. So why should a couple of stones make me feel safe?”
Gabriel’s blue eyes met his. “Old magic works in unusual ways. Neither my brood nor the wolves will allow harm to come to you.”
Torchlit under the blue light of a full moon, Wolvenskorn’s tall, sharply sloping peaks stood out against the sky, topped by narrow gables. Three levels of wooden and stone wings, one behind the next, rose from the snow. Each level had a deeply slanted roofline. The building was capped by a tall cupola ringed by carved monsters. The oldest wing was daub and wattle, with a sod roof that sloped back into the forest soil.
Grotesques and gargoyles looked down from the roof onto the front courtyard. Between them, intricately carved runes were both decoration and protection. The wooden sections of Wolvenskorn were set with carved panels and the lower halves were covered with overlapping shingles. Wolvenskorn looked nothing Dark Haven, and Jonmarc was certain that it was much older.
To his chagrin, wolves circled their carriage as they drew up to the front steps of Wolvenskorn. Large, dark and powerfully muscled, they were the size of a person crouching on all fours.
One grey-flecked she-wolf circled Jonmarc slowly. He stopped, hoping he showed neither fear nor aggression. The wolf eyed him with uncanny intelligence, and Jonmarc realized that the wolf’s eyes were deep violet. For a moment, he met those eyes and thought he saw a trace of humor. The wolves suddenly turned and padded off, melting into the shadows.
Other fine carriages were parked along the grand circle of the entrance drive. Inside Wolvenskorn, Jonmarc could see the flicker of candlelight and the shadows of partygoers. “I believe we’re the last to arrive,” Gabriel said, indicating with a nod that they should approach the steep stone stairs that led toward Wolvenskorn’s arched entrance.
Inside Wolvenskorn, a huge open room greeted guests. Three massive fireplaces, carved from the same dark rock, stood along the far side of the room. Only one of the hearths boasted a fire; the others lay dark. Jonmarc guessed that the fire was a concession to him as the evening’s only mortal guest. The vayash moru would not mind the chill.
Overhead, arched wooden beams soared to the rooftop. The beams were painted with intricate geometric designs that matched the runes on the outside of the building. From the steepest of the three roofs hung a chandelier the like of which Jonmarc had never seen. The massive iron chandelier hung in twelve circular tiers, one atop the other. Each tier was made of panels cut with intricate patterns, and more candles burned within, so that the entire structure glowed. Figures were cut into the patterns, each tier telling its own story.
“Good to see you again, Jonmarc.”
Jonmarc looked up to see Riqua standing in front of him. With her was Kolin, her second. Jonmarc remembered both from the night they had taken refuge in Riqua’s crypt. Kolin gave a nod of recognition, which Jonmarc returned. Turning to Riqua, Jonmarc made a perfunctory bow and took Riqua’s hand, pressing the back of her hand against his lips in greeting. Her flesh was icy.
“Greetings, Lady Riqua.”
“Better accommodations than my tomb tonight?”
Jonmarc was not sure whether she was joking or baiting him. “I’m grateful for shelter, whatever its form.”
Riqua took his meaning clearly. “A tomb can be a haven, and a haven can be a tomb. Fate has as much as the Lady to do with it.”
Jonmarc sensed no threat from Riqua, but he struggled to keep his expression impassive at her words. A warning?
Just then, a man and a woman joined them, and Gabriel made room for them within the circle of conversation. Both were dressed in black without ornamentation. The man looked to be near Jonmarc’s age. He had long dark hair that hung shoulder length and a neatly cropped beard. The woman was of similar age, but her dark hair was flecked with gray. Both the man and the woman were trim and lean muscled, and when Jonmarc looked up, he met the woman’s violet eyes.
“May I present Yestin and Eiria,” Gabriel said, and the man and woman nodded in turn. “Not members of the Blood Council, but, shall we say, visiting nobles who have an interest in seeing Dark Haven restored.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” Jonmarc said. Eiria smiled, and Jonmarc noticed that she lacked the long eye teeth of the vayash moru. Her violet eyes seemed to see right through him, and he shuddered, remembering the wolf.
“Our families have watched over the Lords of Dark Haven for generations,” Yestin said, taking Eiria’s arm. “Many of our kin died in the service of Dark Haven. We offer our welcome, and our deepest wishes for a long and prosperous tenure.”
Jonmarc did not mention the fact that the last lords of Dark Haven had not lived long enough to enjoy their holding. But before he could think of a reply, Yestin and Eiria slipped away in the crowd, moving with dancers’ grace.
“And this is Lord Rafe, with his second, Tamaq,” Gabriel said, shifting Jonmarc’s attention. Rafe carried himself with military bearing. He had short-cropped, sandy-colored hair and a perfectly trimmed beard. With him was a pale young man with the look of a scholar or a priest. Rafe’s dark eyes lingered on Jonmarc.
“Your reputation precedes you, Lord Vahanian.”
“Which reputation is that?”
Rafe smiled, showing the tips of his eye teeth above his lips. “Many. I have kin in Eastmark. They were witness to Chauvrenne. And the ways of the Nargi are well known to our kind. You have survived the kind of trials many vayash moru have not. Perhaps the Lady’s hand is on you.”
“If so, She has an odd way of showing it.”
Rafe’s expression was unreadable. “Always.”
“I understand you were in the presence of the Obsidian King himself,” Tamaq said.
Jonmarc nodded. “I saw the battle when Tris destroyed him.”
Tamaq’s eyes glittered with a thirst for information. “Then at some other time, we must talk. In my mortal life, I fought against the Obsidian King at his last rising. But I never personally saw him.”
“Count yourself lucky.”
Rafe made a parting bow. “We have much to talk about, Lord Vahanian. Be well.” At that, Rafe and Tamaq moved back into the press of the crowd. Jonmarc felt more than heard a presence behind him.
“You must be Jonmarc Vahanian.”
Jonmarc turned to face the speaker. She was a beautiful woman with chestnut-colored hair, and although her face and form looked to be that of a girl in her twenties, the woman’s eyes spoke of centuries. She was on the arm of a young vayash moru who looked to be barely out of his teens, pale even by vayash moru standards, his pallor heightened by his curly red hair. “I’m Astasia, and this is Cailan.”
Jonmarc bowed and kissed Astasia’s hand, noting that Cailan watched with a look of distaste bordering on jealousy. Astasia giggled, seeming to enjoy Cailan’s discomfort, and let her fingers tighten around Jonmarc’s hand as her thumb stroked his palm provocatively.
“So you’re the new Lord of Dark Haven.” She made no secret of a glance that looked him up and down. Cailan’s eyes darkened, but he said nothing. “You must visit my home. I give the best parties,” she said with a glance toward Gabriel and Riqua which clearly said they were not among her guests. “You’re more than welcome to spend the night.” Both Astasia’s manner and her eyes made the double meaning of her words expressly clear.
“Your invitation is gracious,” Jonmarc replied, hoping he could be half as diplomatic as he’d seen Tris be in similar situations. He guessed that spurning Astasia’s proposition outright might not bode well, although her offer did not appeal to him in the least. “There’s a great deal of work to be done at Dark Haven before winter. It doesn’t leave much time for parties.”
Astasia’s eyes narrowed. “I heard you’ll be bringing a guest back from the royal wedding in Margolan. Even among our kind, Lady Carina’s reputation is well known. Will she be staying long?”
Jonmarc disliked the undercurrent to her voice. He kept the same neutral expression that had let him win many a hand of cards. “That’s up to Lady Carina.”
Astasia smiled and laid a hand on his arm. “My offer still stands. Bring her, too, if you like. I’m flexible.” She let her hand slip over his in parting. Cailan’s eyes made it clear that he did not second Astasia’s welcome. Jonmarc’s throat was dry as Astasia moved away through the crowd, and he was grateful for the glass of brandy that Gabriel offered.
“That’s all of the Blood Council except one,” Gabriel said. Jonmarc made a mental note to ask him later what the role was of the Council’s seconds. Bodyguards? Consorts? A little of both?
In one corner of the huge room, a string quartet played courtly music. In addition to the Blood Council and their seconds, many other vayash moru mingled, carrying goblets of what looked to be red wine. Jonmarc was quite sure it was not. Although the candles sparkled and the fire danced in the fireplace, the reception was notable for its lack of food. Except for me, Jonmarc thought darkly. Maybe I’m the guest of honor and the main course. Cailan looked like he’d have happily gone for my throat.
All of the Blood Council had seconds, except for Gabriel. Jonmarc knew that Mikhail, Gabriel’s second, was in Margolan, helping Tris rebuild his army. Tonight, Yestin functioned as Gabriel’s attaché. Eiria was never far away. Jonmarc watched the pair with interest. The vayash moru treated the young couple with deference. If I’m right and those violet eyes are the same as the she-wolf—
“Yestin and Eiria are shapeshifters,” Riqua said. She had come up beside him so quietly that he startled. “There are small clans of them in the Black Mountains, not far from here.”
“Then the wolves—“
“Yes. They’re vyrkin. The wolf-clan’s alliance with the Lord of Dark Haven goes back many generations. That’s not true of all the clans.”
“There are more?”
“Each clan has a totem animal whose spirit they honor and from whom they seek wisdom. Most shifters can only take one shape. Some, the unlucky ones, can shift into many shapes.”
Riqua watched Yestin and Eiria. “Over time, the shifting becomes involuntary. Eventually, the shift becomes permanent. Most shifters die young or go mad. It’s worst for those who can take many shapes.”
“I thought that sort of thing only happened on a full moon.”
Riqua’s eyes darkened. “For many generations, shifters were hunted by superstitious fools who believed so. Those who were hunted and tormented by the light of the full moon—if they survived—found the sight of that moon triggered their pain, forcing them to shift. When that happens, they lose their memory of time and know only that they must defend themselves, even when no threat is near. They become a danger to all. Eventually, their pack has no choice but to destroy them.”
“Being mortal doesn’t seem so bad, compared to the alternatives.”
“While it lasts.”
Behind them, the doors to Wolvenskorn slammed open, and the group turned as one toward the entrance.
“Where is he? Where’s the Lord of Dark Haven?”
The questioner was a dark haired man with the coloring of a Nargi native. His voice was rough and he lacked features of the same fine breeding of the rest of the Blood Council. The man’s clothing made an extravagant show of wealth compared to the relatively subdued elegance of the other guests. Gold necklaces adorned his throat, and heavy rings covered his fingers. With him were a half dozen young men who moved with predatory grace. The crowd made room for the group to enter, parting with a sense of distaste that seemed palpable.
Jonmarc did not doubt that this was Uri, the last of the Blood Council. Although Gabriel’s description beforehand had been carefully neutral, Jonmarc had no difficulty detecting Gabriel’s dislike for the fifth member of the Council.
Jonmarc stepped forward, noting as he did so that Gabriel moved closer, as did Riqua. “I’m Jonmarc Vahanian.”
“Mighty fine company for a fight slave.”
“I’ve heard you know something of betting yourself.” It took a moment for Jonmarc to realize that Uri’s taunt had been spoken in Nargi, and that he had reflexively answered in the same language.
Uri’s black eyes glinted. His young men moved around him like feral dogs, and Jonmarc drew on his battle skills to avoid showing the fear he felt. These vayash moru were unrepentant predators, and it was clear Uri was in the mood for a fight. One of Uri’s brood was looking intently at Jonmarc. The young man rivaled Carroway for looks, with long black hair that fell shoulder length. He was dressed completely in black with the exception of a foppishly frilled white shirt, with sleeves that flounced beneath his cuffs, nearly obscuring his hands. The young man’s smile was cold, and Jonmarc was sure it was no coincidence that the man’s eye teeth showed plainly.
“So you were General Kathrian’s champion.” Uri shook his head. “Guess you’re not so tough any more. I heard Darrath nearly sent you to the Lady.”
It took all of Jonmarc’s control not to let his hand fall to the pommel of his sword. “State your business,” he said in the Common tongue.
Uri stepped closer. Had the man been mortal, Jonmarc would have sworn Uri was drunk, or besotted on dreamweed. His face was flushed, evidence that had recently fed well. Jonmarc guessed that Uri had once been in fighting shape, although his love of fine living rounded his jowls and softened his profile. “My business? I have no business with a mortal Lord of Dark Haven. And you have no business here at all!”
“That’s enough, Uri.” Gabriel moved forward, but Uri brushed past him.
“Let the pup speak for himself, Gabriel. If he’s going to be Lord of Dark Haven, then he needs to be worthy of the title.” Uri turned his attention back to Jonmarc, who stood his ground although Uri was now nearly toe to toe.
“What gives you the right to rule over your betters?” Uri’s breath smelled of stale blood.
Jonmarc consciously willed himself not to clench his fists. This is a fight you can’t win. Surprise Carina and show that you can think your way out of a brawl. “The title was a gift from King Staden. The lands were his to bestow. Maybe you’re better off asking him.”
Uri snorted. “What do I care for mortal kings? They come and go like dust. We are the rightful lords—of Dark Haven and the Winter Kingdoms. That day is coming—sooner than you think.” He gave an ugly smile that made his yellowed teeth plain. “Now if you’d like to be brought across, that changes things. I can arrange that.”
“No thank you.”
“I offer you immortality, and you decline!” Uri roared.
By now, the guests around them were plainly uncomfortable. Most of the partygoers had stepped back to give Uri plenty of room. Although Jonmarc kept his gaze focused on Uri, out of the corner of his eye, he saw motion. Riqua’s brood moved toward the front of the spectators. So did others, whom he knew to be among Gabriel’s family. Astasia was watching with a look of anticipation, as if the argument were a spectator event.
“Answer me, Lord of Dark Haven. Who are you to decline the power of the Dark Gift?”
Jonmarc knew he was on very dangerous ground. While many of the vayash moru around him might have long ago been brought across against their will, those who survived for lifetimes made their peace with it, and came to see their deathless state as both gift and curse. “Death and I are old friends,” Jonmarc answered carefully. “We’ve shaken hands many times. I don’t covet eternal life. Once around is enough for me.”
Uri’s smile turned into a snarl. “You presume to rule over us as an inferior being. How dare you! Perhaps you need to learn who your real masters are!”
There was a rush of air, a blur of motion faster than sight, and Jonmarc felt strong hands pull him backwards just as a flash of teeth grazed his throat. Instinctively, he reached for his sword. He twisted, and realized Kolin had a casually unbreakable hold on his right arm. He was too far back from the action to use either his sword or his arrow, even if he could have broken free. Riqua was now between him and Uri, although Jonmarc had not seen her move. Yestin was no where to be seen, but with a growl, a large male wolf barreled toward Uri, even as Gabriel caught Uri by the wrists and flung him backwards.
All but one of Uri’s guards circled Gabriel. The beautiful dark haired young man in black stayed back, studying the fight as if he were assessing his bets. Two of Riqua’s brood, a man and a young woman, blocked the advance on the left, while three of Gabriel’s vayash moru engaged the assault on the right. Although Jonmarc had gained a healthy respect for the fighting skills of vayash moru from his sparring partners, he had never seen the undead go against each other at full ability.
Kolin’s grip on his upper arms was unbreakable, hard enough that Jonmarc knew he would have bruises as he struggled to free himself and join the fight. “Leave this to us,” Kolin rasped near Jonmarc’s ear. “This is our matter.” Jonmarc could sense Kolin’s tension, as if Kolin wished to join in the fray himself.
Gabriel hurled one of Uri’s men against the wall hard enough to have killed a mortal. The exchange of blows was faster than sight could follow. The wolf connected with Uri’s chest, knocking the vayash moru to the ground. Uri cuffed the wolf and sent it flying, although the animal was easily the size of a full grown man.
Once before, Jonmarc had seen Gabriel fight, although it had been against drunken mortals in a back alley. Now, though both Gabriel and Uri were vayash moru, Gabriel out maneuvered his opponent with equal ease, sidestepping Uri’s strikes as if Uri were drunk.
As suddenly as it began, the fight was over. Three of Uri’s guards struggled to their feet, staggered but unhurt. The wolf was gone. Gabriel reached down and grabbed Uri by the collar, dragging him to his feet.
“You will never enter my houses again,” Gabriel said. He shook Uri free with a gesture of distaste. “Jonmarc Vahanian rules Dark Haven at the favor of the Dark Lady. And as Her servant, I am oathbound to protect him.”
Uri brushed himself off. “You see a pathetic shadow of the Lady. She made us like gods to rule with her as gods. The days of the mortals are ending. The days of the truce—and the Council—are over.” He gave a curt signal and his guards joined him, even the darkly beautiful young man who had watched the fight from the sidelines. It was he who made the last eye contact with Jonmarc, and something about those deathless blue eyes made Jonmarc shiver.
“You’re bleeding.” Gabriel’s voice broke the silence after the doors of Wolvenskorn slammed shut behind Uri and his brood. Only then did Jonmarc realize that he felt warmth at his throat. He raised his hand to his neck, and stared down to see that his fingers were covered with his own blood.
Gabriel withdrew a kerchief and pressed it against the wound. “It’s not deep. I think he was hoping to frighten you.” He chuckled dryly. “I don’t think he expected the fight he got.”
Jonmarc swallowed hard and hoped that his hands were steadier than his knees felt. I’m the only mortal in a roomful of vayash moru. I’m bleeding. And they all saw that I can’t even fight them. Great. Just great.
Rafe and Tamaq stepped up beside Gabriel. Gabriel rounded on them with a suddenness that took Rafe aback. “You did nothing. Uri violated sanctuary, broke Council law, and moved against the Lord of Dark Haven. Yet you and Astasia did nothing.”
Rafe raised an eyebrow. “You and Riqua had things under control. Were you expecting an open brawl?”
“I expected a show of support.”
“Uri will calm down.”
Riqua pushed forward. “Will he? Uri just declared both the truce and the Council to be dissolute. He’s gone rogue.”
Rafe shook his head. “Uri has the same temper that got him killed as a mortal. He’ll come around. I think he wanted to make a grand display and get everybody’s attention.”
“I hope you’re right,” Gabriel said. Jonmarc kept the kerchief pressed against his neck, unwilling to bare his blood in this company. Yestin stepped up beside Gabriel. The young man’s cheek bore a purpling bruise, and he was limping. Eiria moved toward him with concern, but Yestin waved her away.
“Thank you,” Jonmarc said to the small group that clustered around him. The rest of the vayash moru were slipping out of the door in twos and threes, clearly no longer in the mood for a social occasion.
“It would hardly do to hold a party in your honor and take you home dead,” Yestin said with a cheeriness Jonmarc found difficult to emulate.
“Under the circumstances, I can’t let you leave tonight,” Gabriel said. “There are rooms upstairs where you’ll be comfortable. Once it’s light, I’ll have a mortal escort for you. Uri’s not strong enough to attack in daylight without destroying himself, and none of his brood is old enough to even think of moving about when the sun is up. You’ll be safe come daybreak.”
“It’s going to get dark again tomorrow, you know.”
Jonmarc thought Gabriel looked troubled. “I’ve put the oldest and strongest of my family at Dark Haven for that very reason. I don’t think you’ll have any problems—at least, not on the manor grounds.”
“Arontala got in.”
Gabriel looked away. “That was before my oath to the Lady.”
Rafe, Astasia and the other guests were gone. The members of Riqua’s and Gabriel’s families drifted out of earshot. Jonmarc sat on the edge of a table, wondering if he looked as pale as he felt. “I don’t understand. If he’d been mortal, I’d have said Uri was drunk.”
Riqua grimaced with distaste. “In life, Uri had a taste for absinthe and dreamweed. As vayash moru, neither affect him. But he’s found that if he drinks the blood of someone drunk with either, it creates a similar effect. Of late, he’s like that often.”
“One of Uri’s bodyguards didn’t join the fight. He looked like he was taking bets.”
Riqua turned away. “That’s Malesh. He’s the worst of the lot—and for Uri’s brood, that’s saying something.”
“Malesh is old enough in the Dark Gift to be dangerous, and young enough that he doesn’t truly understand the power, and the limitations.” Gabriel moved to a cabinet on the far side of the room and returned with a goblet of brandy, which Jonmarc accepted gratefully. The strong liquor steadied him.
“What’s in it for him?”
Gabriel shook his head. “No one knows. Rafe hopes that Uri is all bluster. Uri may be—but I’m not so confident about Malesh. Uri is vain and arrogant. Malesh is hungry and clever. It’s a bad combination.”
“Astasia’s question, about Carina. Do you think Carina will be in danger if she comes to Dark Haven?”
Riqua and Gabriel exchanged glances. “I don’t think that either you or Carina should leave the grounds of Dark Haven without a guard,” Gabriel said. “Astasia’s goal isn’t overthrowing you. Bedding you, perhaps.”
“Don’t worry—Astasia’s hardly the type to pine. She enjoys the chase. Astasia may try to bait Carina—she’d enjoy giving the impression that there was something between the two of you. But I don’t think she has any reason to do harm. She tends to pick the men who offer the least resistance.”
“I’ll talk with Rafe,” Riqua said. “He can be damnably hard headed, but he’s got to recognize that Uri’s pushing this too far. We didn’t get rid of Arontala just to raise a new threat inside the Council itself.” She signaled to her brood that it was time to leave. “I’ll let you know how that goes.”
The great hall was empty except for Jonmarc, Yestin, Eiria and Gabriel. “There may be some dried herbs in the cook house that could make a poultice for that,” Gabriel said with a nod toward Yestin’s bruised check.
Yestin shrugged. “It’ll heal. There’s something else that concerns me more. The Winter Kingdoms haven’t recovered from the fight to bring down Jared the Usurper. Had Martris Drayke not succeeded, it wouldn’t have been long before every kingdom was at war—against Margolan or on its side. Now, the Council and the Truce are wavering. And there’ll be more questions to come. I’ve heard that King Martris will have to go to war against Lord Curane before too long. There are vayash moru in Margolan who intend to go with him. That will strain the truce or break it completely.
“Even the Sisterhood isn’t what it once was,” Eiria added. “The Flow’s unstable—and getting worse. My people can feel it, and it makes our shifting all the more difficult. The Sisterhood knows it. When it’s out of balance, the Flow’s power favors blood magic, and light magic becomes harder to control. That bodes badly for King Martris. Lord Curane is known to employ dark mages.” He paused. “There are some among the Sisterhood who aren’t ready to return to their citadels. When King Martris goes to fight Lord Curane, Sisterhood mages will go with him, whether the Sisterhood approves or not.”
“I’m not following your point,” Jonmarc said, sipping his brandy and trying not to sound as ill humored as he felt.
Yestin turned his violet eyes on Jonmarc. “The point is that the old ways are in flux. Old bonds are being broken. The alliances that kept an imperfect peace for hundreds of years are fracturing. These are dangerous times. My people know something about shifting. One is never more vulnerable than when one is between what was and what will be. The war isn’t over yet. It’s just changed form.”
“Then the Lady help us all,” Jonmarc said, feeling a sudden chill despite the brandy. “Because we’ll need it.”