The Gray Wolf Throne, p.1Cinda Williams Chima
Copyright © 2011 by Cinda Williams Chima
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Table of Contents
For my maternal grandmother,
Dorothy Downey Bryan, a gifted musician and indifferent housekeeper who had the second sight. Grandma had a lap that would accommodate several small children, but she always kept a shotgun in the closet.
And in memory of Ralph M. Vicinanza, who left us too soon.
C H A P T E R O N E
IN THE BORDERLANDS
Raisa ana’Marianna huddled in her usual dark corner at the Purple Heron, picking at her meat pie. She’d learned to stretch a meal and a mug of cider over an entire evening.
It was risky to sit out in the common room of a tavern every night. Lord Bayar’s assassins would be searching for her. They’d failed to kill her at Oden’s Ford, thanks to Micah Bayar, Lord Bayar’s son. But the High Wizard’s spies could be anywhere, even here in the border town of Fetters Ford.
Especially here. Bayar would prefer to intercept Raisa before she crossed the border into the Fells. It would be tidier that way, her murder easier to conceal from her mother the queen and her father’s people, the Spirit clans.
Still, she couldn’t hide out in her room all the time. She needed to be visible to the people she wanted to find her. Somehow she had to get home, reconcile with Queen Marianna, and confront those who meant to take the Gray Wolf throne away from her.
The name Rebecca Morley was no longer safe. Too many of her enemies knew it. These days she called herself Brianna Trailwalker, a nod to her clan ancestry. Her story was that she was a young trader returning from her first journey south, held up by the turmoil along the border.
After a month in the limbo of Fetters Ford, she knew the regulars at the Heron—mostly pilots from the ferry service on the river, and the blacksmiths, farriers, and stablers who serviced travelers along the road. Locals were in the minority, though. The town churned with the comings and goings of wartime.
Raisa scanned the room, picking out the strangers. Two Tamric ladies occupied a corner table for the second night in a row. One was young and pretty, the other sturdy and middle-aged, both too well dressed for the Heron. Likely a noble lady and her chaperone fleeing the fighting to the south.
Three lean young men in Ardenine civilian garb played cards at a table by the door. Four had come in, but one of them had left a while ago. Several times, Raisa looked up and caught one or another of them staring at her. Apprehension slithered down her spine. Thieves or assassins? Or just young men showing interest in a girl on her own?
There were no easy answers anymore.
Most of the rest of the patrons were soldiers. Fetters Ford swarmed with them. Some bore the Red Hawk of Arden, some the Heron of Tamron, others carried no signia at all—either sell-swords or deserters from King Markus’s army.
Any of them could be hunting Raisa. It had been a month since she’d escaped Gerard Montaigne, the ambitious young prince of Arden. Gerard hoped to claim at least three of the Seven Realms by overthrowing his brother Geoff, the current Ardenine king, invading his former ally Tamron, and marrying Raisa ana’Marianna, the heir to the Gray Wolf throne of the Fells.
Any day, they expected to receive word that the capital of Tamron Court had fallen to Gerard. The prince of Arden had laid siege to it weeks ago.
When Raisa arrived in Fetters Ford, she’d planned to ask the local Tamric authorities to send a courier to the garrison house at the West Wall in the Fells. They in turn could send her message on to her father, Averill Lord Demonai, or to Edon Byrne, Captain of the Queen’s Guard—perhaps the only two people in the Fells she could trust.
But when she arrived in the border town, there was no authority. The garrison house was empty, the soldiers fled. Some might have gone south to the aid of the beleaguered capital city. Likely, most had melted into the general populace to await the outcome of the war.
Raisa was left with the hope that her best friend, Corporal Amon Byrne, and his Gray Wolves might follow her north and find her here in Fetters Ford. She could travel on, hidden in their midst, as she had in the fall, on her way to the academy at Oden’s Ford.
As the future captain of her guard, Amon was magically linked to Raisa, so he should have a rough sense of where she was. But the weeks had dragged on and Amon had not appeared. Surely if he were coming, he’d be here by now.
Her other plan was that she might fall in with a clan trader heading back north. She was a mixed-blood; with her burnt-sugar skin and thick black hair, she could pass for clan. But that hope had also faded as weeks passed with no traders passing through. With Tamron in turmoil, most travelers preferred to avoid the marshy Fens and sinister Waterwalkers and use the more direct path through Marisa Pines Pass and Delphi.
A shadow fell over Raisa’s table. Simon, the innkeeper’s son, was hovering again, summoning the courage to ask if he could clear away her plate. Most days, it was an hour of hovering to three words of conversation.
Raisa guessed Simon was her age, or even a little older, but these days Raisa felt older than her nearly seventeen years—cynical and jaded, wounded in love.
You don’t want to get involved with me, she thought glumly. My advice is to run the other way.
Han Alister still haunted her dreams. She would awaken with the taste of his kisses on her lips, the memory of his scorching touch on her skin. But in the daylight it was difficult to believe their brief romance had ever happened. Or that he still thought of her at all.
The last time Raisa had seen Han, Amon Byrne had driven him off with a sword. And then she’d disappeared from the academy without a word—abducted by Micah Bayar. Han wouldn’t have fond memories of the girl he knew as Rebecca. Anyway, it was unlikely she’d ever see him again.
By now it was near closing time, another day squandered while events at home rushed ahead without her. Perhaps she’d been disinherited already. Perhaps Micah had escaped Gerard Montaigne and even now was proceeding with plans to marry her sister Mellony.
Someone cleared his throat right next to her
“My Lady Brianna,” he said for the second time.
Bones, she thought. I have to get better at answering to Brianna.
“The ladies over yonder invite you to join them at their table,” Simon continued. “They say as it can be awkward for a lady, dining alone. I told them you’d already eaten, but…” He shrugged, his hands hanging like twin hams at his sides.
Raisa looked over at the two Tamric women. They leaned forward, watching this exchange with eager expressions. Women in Tamron had the reputation of being pampered hothouse flowers, socially ruthless, but physically delicate beings who rode sidesaddle and carried parasols against the southern sun.
Still, it was tempting. It would be a pleasure to converse with someone other than Simon—someone who could carry one half of a conversation. And perhaps they had more up-to-date news about events at Tamron Court.
But, no. It was one thing to fool Simon with a story of being a trader stranded in a border town. Simon wanted to be fooled. It would be another thing entirely to sit down with highborn ladies with a talent for ferreting out secrets.
Raisa smiled at them and shook her head, gesturing at the remains of her dinner. “Tell them thank you, but I’ll be retiring to my room before long,” she said.
“I told ’em you’d say that,” Simon said. “They said to tell you they have a prop—a job for you. They want to hire you as an escort across the border.”
“Me?” Raisa blurted. She wasn’t exactly the bodyguard type, being slight and small-boned.
She gazed at the ladies, her lower lip caught behind her teeth, considering. There might be safety in numbers, but they wouldn’t be much protection to Raisa. While their social weapons would be finely honed, they would be no good in a physical fight, and they would slow her down.
On the other hand, no one would expect her to be traveling with two Tamric ladies.
“I’ll talk to them,” Raisa said. Simon went to turn away, but froze when Raisa put her hand on his arm. “Simon. Do you know who those men are?” she asked, nodding toward the card players without looking at them.
Simon shook his head. He was used to such questions from her, and understood what she wanted to know. “Came in first time tonight, but they’re not staying here,” he said, scooping up her plate. “They speak Ardenine, but they’re spending Fellsian coin.” He leaned closer. “They asked some questions about you and the Tamric ladies,” he said. “I didn’t tell them nothing.”
Simon’s head jerked up as the tavern door opened and closed. It admitted a rush of damp, chilly night air, a splatter of rain, and a half dozen or so new customers—all strangers. They wore nondescript boiled-wool cloaks, but they had a military edge. Raisa shrank back into the shadows, heart flopping like a stranded fish. She strained to catch any stray bit of conversation, hoping to make out what language they spoke.
How long can you keep doing this? she thought. How long could she wait for an escort that might never come? If Gerard gained control of Tamron, how long before he closed the borders completely, bottling Raisa in? Maybe it would be safer to cross the border now, rather than wait for an escort.
But the borderlands swarmed with renegades, thieves, and deserters, and she risked ending up robbed, ravished, and dead at the side of the road.
Stay or go? The question reverberated in her brain like the rain pounding on the tin roof of the tavern.
On impulse, she stood and threaded her way to the Tamric ladies’ table.
“I’m Brianna Trailwalker,” she said in a gruff, businesslike voice. “I hear you’re looking for escort across the border.”
The stocky woman nodded. “This is Lady Esmerell,” she said, nodding at the younger woman. “And I am Tatina, her governess. Our home has been overrun by the Ardenine Army.”
“Why choose me?” Raisa said.
“Traders are known to be skilled with weapons, even the females,” Esmerell said. “And we would feel more comfortable with another woman.” She shivered delicately. “There are many men on the road who would take advantage of two gently raised ladies.”
I don’t know, Raisa thought. Tatina looks like she could knock some heads together.
“Did you mean to cross via the Fens or the Fells?” Raisa asked.
“We’ll go whatever way you choose,” Esmerell said, her lip trembling. “We just want to get away and take refuge in the temple at Fellsmarch until the Ardenine brigands are driven from our lands.”
Don’t hold your breath, Raisa thought.
Esmerell groped in her skirts, pulled out a fat purse, and clunked it onto the table. “We can pay you,” she said. “We have money.”
“Put that away before somebody sees it,” Raisa hissed. The purse disappeared.
Raisa gazed down at them, debating. She couldn’t wait forever for someone to come fetch her. Maybe it was time to take a chance.
“Please,” Tatina said, putting her hand on Raisa’s arm. “Sit down. Maybe, if you get to know us, you will—”
“No.” Raisa shook her head. She didn’t want to be remembered sitting with the ladies in the tavern if anyone came asking questions. “We had better be early to bed if we’re going to make an early start tomorrow.”
“Then you’ll do it?” Esmerell said, clapping her hands with delight.
“Hush,” Raisa said, glancing around, but nobody seemed to be paying attention. “Be at the stables at daybreak, packed and ready to ride all day.”
Raisa left the two ladies and returned to her table, hoping she’d made the right decision. Hoping this would get her home sooner rather than later. Her mind churned with plans. She would ask Simon to pack up bread, cheese, and sausage to carry with them. Once in the Fens, she could make contact with the Waterwalkers, and they might…
“You look like you could use cheering up, young miss,” a rough male voice said in Ardenine. A bulky stranger dropped heavily into the chair opposite Raisa. It was one of the newly arrived patrons, his face shadowed within his hood. He hadn’t even bothered to remove his cloak, though it dripped puddles on the floor.
“You, there!” he called to Simon. “Bring the lady another of whatever she’s having and a jacket of ale for me. And step lively, now! It’s almost closing time.”
Raisa’s temper flared. One of the hazards of dining alone in a tavern was being seen as fair game by any male who wandered in. Well, she would disabuse him of that notion right away.
“Perhaps you were under the mistaken impression that I wanted company,” Raisa said icily. “I prefer to dine alone. I’ll thank you not to intrude on me again.”
“Don’t be like that,” the stranger complained, loudly enough to be heard across the taproom. “It’s not fitting for a girl like you to be sitting all by herself.”
The soldier leaned forward, and his voice changed, became low and soft, though he still spoke Ardenine like a native. “Are you sure you can’t spare a moment for a soldier long on the road?”
He tugged back his hood, and Raisa looked into the weathered gray eyes of Edon Byrne, Captain of the Queen’s Guard of the Fells. Eyes uncannily similar to his son Amon’s.
It was all Raisa could do to keep her jaw from dropping open. Questions crowded into her mind, threatening to pour out. How had he found her? What was he doing here? Who knew he could speak Ardenine so fluently? Was Amon with him?
“Well,” she managed. “Well, then.” She cleared her throat to speak, but just then Simon brought their drinks, slamming Byrne’s ale onto the table so hard that it sloshed. Byrne waited until Simon slumped away before he spoke again.
“Fetters Ford is no longer safe,” he murmured, still in Ardenine. “We’ve come to take you home.” Byrne looked beyond her, scanning the room. He smelled of sweat and leather, and his face was stubbled from days on the road. Though he slouched back in his chair, Raisa noticed that he’d raked his cloak back to expose the hilt of his sword.
“Let’s talk,” Raisa said, hope bloss
She rose abruptly. “If you won’t leave, I will. Go and bother someone else.” She turned toward the stairs. The Ardenine ladies fluttered and clucked sympathetically, likely thinking Raisa should have accepted their offer to join them.
“Miss! You forgot your cider,” Byrne called after her, drawing some catcalls and snickering.
Raisa strode past the stairs and through the kitchen, where Simon was kneading bread for the overnight rising. “My lady?” he said, looking up at her.
“I need some fresh air,” Raisa said. Simon stared after her as she walked out the back door and into the rain. Shivering, she drew Fiona Bayar’s wrap more closely around her shoulders. It had come with the horse she’d stolen from the High Wizard’s daughter—one of the few things of Fiona’s that fit.
The stable was warm and dry and smelled of sweet hay and horses. Ghost poked his head out of his stall, snorting and blowing bits of oats at her. She stroked his nose. Two stalls down, she recognized Ransom, Byrne’s large bay gelding, a mountain pony cross.
The stable doors creaked open and Byrne entered, followed by a handful of bluejackets. Though they could hardly be called bluejackets, since they wore a mixture of nondescript cold weather clothing in browns and greens.
Raisa scanned them quickly, but to her disappointment, Amon wasn’t there, nor were any of the other Gray Wolves. These soldiers looked more seasoned than Amon’s cadets, their still-young faces inscribed by sun and wind.
Byrne carefully latched the stable doors and set one of his company to keep watch. The others went immediately to work, leading out their horses and saddling them up.
“You mean to leave tonight?” Raisa asked, nodding toward the others.
“The sooner the better,” Byrne said. He stood gazing down at her, chewing his lower lip, examining her for damage. “It is a relief to find you still alive.”
As if he wouldn’t have known if she’d been killed. As if he wouldn’t have sensed the blow to the all-important Gray Wolf line.
“What’s happened?” Raisa said. “How did you know I was here? Where is Amon? Why is Fetters Ford no longer safe?”
The Gray Wolf Throne by Cinda Williams Chima / Romance & Love / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes