The cowbell on the gate cut through the music. Mela’s mom stopped in the middle of a sentence. Glanced at dad. He looked sharply at Verry, who set his fiddle against the wall and disappeared inside. Lyran caught Mela’s hand and the two stepped back into the shadows. Her brother returned carrying two crossbows as the three strangers reached the light coming from the porch.
“You’re trespassing on private property.” Her dad and brother aimed at the mercenaries to either side of a cloaked man.
The man held up both hands. “We mean no harm. I am Kippis, Wizard of Kospora. My companions are King’s Guards, Tatkin and Doresse. Have we reached the farm of Lennert of Lomn?”
Dad nodded stiffly, but didn’t lower his crossbow. “I’m Lennert.”
Mela’s brow furrowed. Kospora had no king. Hadn’t in hundreds of years. And wizards were the stuff of stories.
Kippis smiled. “We’re seeking someone very important to all of Kospora. A great danger has arisen in the South. We’ve seen signs that the Shayden are rebuilding their army. The winds bring tales that they’ve uncovered an old grimoire and seek to raise terrors last seen in the War of Etwese to reclaim their power.
“Here in Kospora, a new generation of wizards has reformed the Council of the Enlightened. Just like the wizards of old, they are sworn to do everything they can to protect our kingdom. Our land stands to this day only because King Illys, Ninth of his Name, unlocked the seals of Xew and awoke the Winter Knights from their eternal slumber.
“Only one of his bloodline would be able to repeat that feat. My brethren and I scour the land, chasing rumors. Studying town records to find any trace of the remnants of his line. One of my colleagues, a great seer, consulted the stars, the cards, the runes. All auguries agree: we seek an orphan living somewhere in the Okerns.”
Lyran and Mela exchanged an excited look. Nothing ever happened in the sleepy, agrarian Okerns.
“Unfortunately, auguries being what they are, they could give no better advice. But we have other resources and those led us here. We believe your niece Lyran could be the one week seek.”
Everyone turned to stare at Lyran, who shook her head. Her hand crushed Mela’s.
Lennert snorted. “Lyran’s hardly an orphan. My brother is still quite alive.”
As far as they knew. A sailor’s life was never guaranteed. But then again, no one’s was.
“But her mother?” Kippis asked, an eyebrow quirked. “Died in childbirth, no? Do you know her line? Her family’s history?”
Their parents exchanged a look that clearly showed how startled they were by the question.
“They were from the next village over. Of course, we knew them.”
The wizard and his companions exchanged a significant look.
“Knew. As in dead? Bennan said the line had dwindled,” Kippis said, more to his companions than the family. Lyran’s grip tightened on her hand. Mela glanced over and caught her pleading look.
“But Lyran is not an orphan. She cannot be the one you’re looking for,” she said.
Their mom smiled. Wrinkles smoothing on her face. “My daughter speaks the truth. Lyran has a father and family. We can’t help you.”
The wizard’s hand fluttered dismissively. “Oracles are vague. They might not have meant ‘orphan.’ Orphan might have been the only word they could find for motherless and abandoned by her father.”
Mom’s lips thinned. Dad’s eyes narrowed. They’d raised Lyran since birth, and Mela knew they considered her as much their child and Mela and her brother. How dare these strangers barge in here and judge her family?
“My brother did not abandon his child.” Dad’s voice was steely. Lyran’s free left hand went to the pendant hanging around her throat. Uncle Tavall sent it for Lyran’s birthday only five months back when she turned fifteen.
“We do have a way to prove the Methinald bloodline.” The wizard swung his pack around, shoved his hand down into the depths, and withdrew an object wrapped in a shimmery purple silk.
The fabric unwound to reveal a silver coronet shaped like a bird. A crow. They were sacred in Kospora. The Methinald kings had taken crows as their sigil. Its head bent to the side and beak opened to clasp a brilliant ruby. Wings spread to either side creating the round sides of the coronet.
“This was the coronet of the king-to-be. Upon the head of the chosen heir of the land, the stone will glow.” Eyebrows raised, he held the coronet up and faced Lyran.
She made a tiny squeak of dismay that Mela didn’t think anyone else heard. Their parents looked at each other.
Mela slipped her hand free and took the coronet. The wizard frowned, but he let her take it. She gave Lyran a funny smile, meant to be reassuring, as she set the coronet on Lyran’s head.
Tension slipped from Mela’s shoulders. The silver coronet sat there and did noth–a faint red glow appeared in the heart of the ruby. Startled, she took a step back. Watching the hope die in Lyran’s eyes broke her heart.
The wizard and his companions fell to their knees. “Your Highness.”
Her cousin ripped the coronet off her head and stared at the now brightly glowing ruby. The light faded in her hands.
“I’m not.” She shot beseeching looks at their parents, at Mela.
Kippis stood slowly. “My dear, you are the hope of all Kospora. Without you, the Shayden will swallow us whole. You must come with us to Kressler.”
“Now wait a minute here,” dad said. “You’re not taking my niece anywhere.”
“Sir, please hear what we are saying. We’re not the only ones looking for her. We can’t be. The Shayden know that only one of the Methinald can summon the Winter Knights. They were winning in the War of Etwese until Illys brought the Winter Knights into the war. Without the Knights, we don’t stand a chance and they know it.
“What better way to ensure our loss than kill off every last Methinald? Can you protect her when Shadows slip into your farm in the dark of night, armed with their blackblades, crawling across your ceilings to her bedroom?
“Are you and your son crack shots with those crossbows and proficient in swordplay? I don’t think your village has so much as a lawman. Do you know anyone in a fifty-mile radius skilled in any sort of combat? Do you think they’ll assassinate only Lyran? You have an entire family to protect.”
Dad’s face had creased into a worried frown, but at those last words he glowered. “You think I would sacrifice my niece to protect my other children?”
“No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.” The wizard shook his head.
“He only meant if you let us protect Lyran, all your loved ones will be safe. Lyran included,” the guard Doresse said.
“This isn’t something to decide tonight–”
“But the Shayden–”
“If they kill us all in our sleep tonight, feel free to gloat,” dad said. “Kids, it’s time for bed.”
He took the coronet from Lyran and shoved it back into the hands of the wizard. She pivoted and dashed into the house. Mela hurried after her. Her cousin’s feet pounded down the hall overhead before she reached the stairs.
Though she ran upstairs, her cousin was already in bed, under the covers. Tossing looks over her shoulder every few minutes at her still and quiet cousin, she undressed and turned out the light.
“I am NOT leaving.”
“It might be safest.”
An outraged huff. “You would send me away with them?”
“If they’re right–”
“I can’t believe you.”
Mela threw a pillow at her. “Would you let me talk? That crown lit up. You’re not safe here. If the South’s really rising, they will send assassins for you. I’m not saying you should go off alone with them. I’ll come with you. Maybe Verry will come too.”
“Dad needs him on the farm. He needs you both.”
“Needs all of us, I’d say.”
“Exactly. Which is why I intend to stay right here in Lomn.”
“You know you can’t. We’ll all die. I will go with you. Even if no one else can. We’ll send word to Uncle Tavall. Kressler’s one of his ports of call. He’ll come as soon as he can. You won’t be alone with them.”
Despite tears and arguments all through the morning chores, Mela and Lyran had bags packed and were waiting when the wizard returned at noon.
“What’s this?” He looked at Mela.
“I’m going with Lyran.”
Kippis was shaking his head before she finished speaking. “No, that’s not possible.”
“We’re not sending our Lyran off alone with you,” Verry growled.
The wizard faced their parents. “There are only three of us. Do you believe that we can protect two girls against a fleet of Shadows should we need? Our priority must be Lyran. We couldn’t guarantee Mela’s safety. Her presence endangers the heir.”
There was no budging him. Mela couldn’t see what the difference was between three people protecting one or two, but he refused to give a good answer to that. They argued for a good half hour before Kippis threw up his hands. “We must be on the roads now. Please.”
A few more minutes and their parents caved in. Glaring at the wizard, Mela huffed harshly and pulled Lyran into a swift hug and whispered in her ear, “Play along.”
She pivoted, swept up her bag, and raced through the house–stopping in the kitchen for a few extra supplies–and out the back door. As if she was going to let that wizard order her around.
Begging the gods for help and chanting, “don’t see me, don’t see me,” softly, she ran through the fields. She spotted neighbors here and there, busily working. Not one of them looked her way or called out to her. At the edge of town, she climbed a tree by the road. Another half hour passed before the wizard, his guards and Lyran appeared.
Kippis spoke animatedly to Lyran. Her reddened eyes looked everywhere but at him. Mela’s heart ached to see her cousin so miserable, but she dared not reveal herself here, not within the bounds of the village. The wizard would simply send her home.
Walking to Kressler took five days. She skulked through the woods the entire way. Slept hidden in trees. Only ducked out near the road a few times a day to ensure she still followed the group. She continued to beg the gods of the valley to keep her hidden whenever she took that risk.
She didn’t like the woods. Strange noises emanated from behind trees. Too many that sounded like the wizard’s guards about to stumble upon her. Or worse. Forest barbarians who shouldn’t be this far east, but one could never know. All that rusting of leaves. Random cracks that might be a footstep on a twig. Her legs ached. Blisters formed and broke on her feet. Her head ached constantly. She was so tired and so hungry and often dizzy.
But too scared to present herself to the wizard.
Afraid he’d send her on home, even with home being days away now.
Worse, she feared he already knew. The dizziness struck only after she spied on them to ensure she still followed them. The wizard’s go-home spells weren’t going to work on her. She refused to abandon Lyran. If Kippis wanted her to, he’d have to come up with something stronger.
The morning of the fifth day, they turned from the road through the woods onto a main thoroughfare. Carts, wagons, and dozens of people on foot moved either direction. Lyran and her escort turned in front of a three-wagon caravan. Mela panicked, hesitated, and crept behind the third cart, pretending she was meant to be here.
The walls filled the horizon. She stared, awestruck, as they grew closer. The gates loomed taller than any structure in all of Lomn. Tall as the tallest trees.
Another road intersected theirs a hundred yards or so from the gate. A spill of people merged onto the road from both directions. She couldn’t see Kippis or Lyran at all. In this crush, once they went inside, she’d have no idea how to find them.
Heart stuttering, she tried to shove her way forward, but earned curses and a few attempted hits and rethought that plan. Kippis was a wizard. There had to be somewhere the wizards all set up in Kressler. Someone would know how to find them.
The guards paid her no attention–answering her desperate prayers as she approached them. Inside, she hurried around the streets as best she could in the crowd, looking for any glimpse of Lyran’s golden hair or Kippis’ spangled robes.
Hope fled. Crossing her fingers, she approached the vendors on the left side of the street and chose the friendliest-looking woman.
“What can I get you?”
“I’m sorry, I was just wondering did you see a wizard pass through here?”
The woman pealed with laughter. “A wizard? I doubt there’s been a wizard in Kospora in three centuries. Wizard!”
Mela shook her head. “He was coming here. To Kressler. His name’s Kippis.”
All the laughter fled. The woman’s mien turned dark and serious. “You don’t want anything to do with that lot, sweetheart. They’ll sell you off faster than you could call for help.”
Mela stared at her. The words made no sense.
“Scraggly black beard running grey? Losing half his hair? Struts about in spangled robes?”
She nodded to each question. The woman’s face softened into sympathy.
“He’s no wizard, sweetheart. It’s a scam. He works for Toble.”
Brow furrowed, she shook her head. Who?
“He’s a slaver. The Monglave Empire sets a value on pretty girls from Kospora. They’d snatch you up in a heartbeat.”
She shook her head again. “No, that’s the wrong man. Kippis, this one’s a wizard. He had a tiara that lit up.”
The woman winced. “Took someone of yours? Maybe Kippis has a little magic. Maybe they bought that tiara you saw off someone who did. They do a lot of business with Monglave, and they’ve got great Shamans over there. Powers you wouldn’t believe.
“But it’s a scam. Toble has half a dozen he uses to trap his victims into coming to Kressler docilely. When he has enough of them locked up, he ships the load off to Monglave.”
She refused to believe this. “But slavery’s illegal in Kospora. If you know, the guards must know–”
Unless this woman was one of them. She backed a pace away.
The woman spat over her shoulder. “Anyone could tell you this. The guards do know. Toble pays them to look the other way. Oh, I’m sure if it was thrown in their faces. If one of the victims fought and was brought into Kressler bound? I would think they’d have to put a stop to that. But Toble’s schemes work. People follow him willingly. Everyone wants to be important. Find glory and acclaim, no?
“He has his people move them to the ships in the middle of the night when no one’s around to see and protest the poor, unwilling, bound and gagged victims’ last moments on Kospora’s soil.”
Mela’s heart pounded in her chest. Chills ran down her spine, while fire filled her face. “Lyran didn’t. My cousin didn’t want to go at all. They forced her. Where–?”
Her voice broke on the “where.” She didn’t trust herself to try another word.
“I’m sorry, honey. Clearly you love her, but it’s hopeless. Go home. Stay safe.”
She couldn’t. She squeaked, “Where? Please.”
The woman grimaced and pointed slightly left with her chin. “See that road over there? Next to the Wayward Sun Public House?”
Mela pivoted and spotted the pub with the sun on its sign.
“That’s Harbor Road. Their headquarters are in the warehouse district, down nearer the harbor. You’re looking at an hour’s walk, but that’s a main thoroughfare. Stick to it until you get to Preacher’s Square. You should know you’ve reached it. There are three great statues in the square. One in the center, one at the east end, the other at the west. Lovian the Wise, Prilla of West Zicklin and Quillan Recek. You get lost before you reach the square, ask for directions there to set you back on your path.
“Carpenters Road leads east from behind the statue of Quillan Recek. I’m afraid that’s the last good point of reference I have for you. Not sure where his place of operations is. Rumors say to stay off Purvest Lane so maybe there? It should have a sign for Toble’s on it. Don’t recall what exactly his business is called, but it’ll have his name on it. That’s all I know.” The woman shrugged.
“Thank you,” Mela said.
“Here.” The woman held out a kebob.
“I haven’t the money.”
“On the house. We need a better reason to be talking.”
She took the kebob. “Thank you. For everything.”
“If you really want to thank me, go home. Mourn your cousin. They’ll sell you too.” The woman sighed. “Wish you’d listen. No? Good luck. You’ll need it.”
Mela only hoped she’d not used all hers up just getting to Kressler.
The road was crowded, but wide and straight and perfectly easy to follow. Still she checked every street sign to confirm she remained on Harbor Road. The street spilled out at Preacher’s Square, where every few feet an adherent to one path or another stood on a dais, a box, in a circle of candles, bellowing the word of their chosen gods–none of whom seemed to be the familiar gods of the valley.
Worried enough not to trust herself to reach an obvious conclusion–after all, she’d been wrong about the wizard being a wizard–she visited each statue, reading its plaque to confirm this must be Preacher’s Square.
Behind the statue of Quillan Recek, who smiled benevolently at her from above a pile of seashells, she spotted Carpenters Road. Her trek slowed at that point. Alleyways and larger roads branched off Carpenters every few feet. Half of the streets had no signs. Some of the signs were broken, graffitied or hidden behind other signs or bits of buildings. The sun was falling by the time she found Purvest Lane.
A long row of warehouses spread out before her on a fairly wide road–not at all what she’d think of as an lane. Two warehouses down several men operated a crane to load a large cart with crates taller than Mela–and still there was room for several people to walk abreast to pass the cart. The tail end of another cart peaked out from the warehouse directly on her left. Tralby and Sons Exporters.
Her head whipped to her right. East Kospora Trade. Her heartbeat sped. No name. The woman promised Toble’s would have his. She edged closer and read the smaller print under the name. Shipping concerns to Monglave, Shayden and Choch. Gurtis Family, owned and managed.
Exhaling slowly, she turned and strolled down the street. The warehouse workers at Nitems Company Shippers watched her with narrow eyes as she passed.
Two warehouses further down the street stood Specialty Exchange. Guaranteed fast and reliable deliveries. A joint business enterprise. Goggin and Toble, Partners. People moved about inside the warehouse. She walked slowly by, begging them not to notice her.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Tatkin and Doresse. Her heart broke. She’d hoped against all odds that the vendor had been wrong. Had lied. Had perhaps simply wanted to get Mela in a bad situation where she’d be sold into slavery. But that Lyran was really being honored somewhere clear across town, in comfort and celebration as the heir to the throne.
Not with slavers. If slavers were what they really were. The woman could be wrong. Could have lied.
Not that she was going to walk in the front door to find out. The building stood flush against the warehouses to either side. She walked past the next two before a finding a slender alley between two structures. It led to another busy street filled with trucks and workers. She wandered back to the Specialty Exchange. A double door stood under an awning with their company name on it.
Metal jangled. A woman across the way locked the doors of her warehouse. All around the street, trucks were being loaded, driving off. Were all these people leaving work? Going home for the night?
The sun had slipped down to be in line with the rooftops. The people at Specialty Exchange would go home too. Though the kebab vendor said they’d move their victims at night, that didn’t mean it had to be tonight that would happen. And she couldn’t break in while it was still open.
Trying to look like she belonged she walked to the end of the block and back down the other side. Loitering on the corner, she heard Kippis laughing. She turned her back and pretended to be reading the notices on the wall. He and his group walked past. She screamed in her head for them not to notice her. Dizziness made her slam a hand against the wall for support.
He couldn’t still have a spell–the thought stuttered to a stop. He wasn’t a wizard. He couldn’t have set any spells against her. Maybe hunger caused the dizziness. She’d never walked as much as she had these last few days. Waiting for the sun to set, she ate a chunk of cheese and her last apple.
Once she felt steady, she walked back to the front of the warehouse. Lights shone from within. She could see now that glass-fronted door opened into a lobby. Tatkin sat in one of the leather chairs, reading a broadsheet. A shadow moved in one of the offices behind him. She caught a glimpse of a number of doors, but dared not stare too long and draw notice.
The large doors beside the glass one could be unlocked, but Tatkin was sitting right there. No way he’d fail to notice her walking in.
Should she wait until later? Maybe he’d go home. But if they had humans locked up in there, they probably kept a guard all night. If she waited too long, tonight could end up being the night they moved their captives. She’d never be able to rescue Lyran from a ship. Nor from Monglave.
She wouldn’t even know how to get to Monglave. And from what the vendor had said, she herself might be enslaved the moment she set foot on their shore.
No more dithering. She strode quickly to the alley and around to the back door. Of course it was locked. Stupid townsfolk and their paranoia. No one back home locked anything. Ever. Her parents’ farm didn’t have a lock on any building on their land.
She jiggled the handle. She had to get in this way. She must. She was Lyran’s only chance at freedom. She twisted the handle harder.
“Let me in, damn you!” she hissed.
The door sprung open in her hand. She fell back with it. Clutched the knob, hanging on for balance as stars glittered and swooped before her eyes. The lock must have been broken.
The warehouse was dark inside. Pitch black once she shut the door behind her. Dammit, she had to be able to see. She squeezed her eyes closed. The room spun. She took several slow, deep breaths. Her eyes had to adjust and allow her to see.
Voices reached her. Someone crying. Someone else praying. Her eyes shot open and grew wide. A fine greenish haze filled the area before her. Couldn’t spot the source of the light, but was grateful all the same. Round and square shadows of varying heights filled the room. Barrels and crates, she assumed.
She edged around a crate. There had to be another door in here somewhere. Light flared at the front of the room. She ducked into the shadow between a large crate and a stack of boxes. The light came closer. With it, footsteps.
Oh gods, please. Squatting, she squeezed her eyes tight. She dared not move to a better hiding place. “Don’t see me, don’t see me,” she screamed in her head. Nausea bubbled in her throat. Vertigo threatened to tumble her to the ground.
Light shone before her eyelids. She dared raise them slightly. Oh gods, the light’s aura spread two feet from where she crouched. She babbled hysterically in her head, begging the gods to hide her. The slaver not to see her. The words ran together in her head and ceased making sense.
A series of thumps rose only a few feet from her. Paper rustled. A lid slammed. She jumped and squeezed herself down smaller. Not here. Nothing here to see.
The light receded. A door slammed. Terrified to move, she huddled against the crate until a voice roused her.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” a voice whispered.
“He was one of them. He’d never have listened.”
“You said you’d try to bribe him.”
“He’s the one who brought me here. I’m scared of him.”
Lyran. Must rescue Lyran. She rose. The room spun. Blackness ate away at the green glow. She squeezed her eyes closed and clung to the side of the crate. Several deep breaths later, the world felt almost normal again.
She peeked around. The whispers came from a barred door on the left. She tiptoed over. “Lyran?”
A flurry of whispered answered her.
And ever so quietly, she heard an astonished, “Mela?”
A patter of feet and then two hands clutched the bars on the door. “Mela?” Lyran repeated.
Impossible, but she saw her cousin’s eyes go wide before tears filled them. “You have to get out of here. They’re slavers.”
“Shh.” She glanced toward the dark reaches of the warehouse. “I know. I’m not leaving without you.”
“Please, let us out!” someone said a bit too loudly.
Half a dozen voices, Mela included, hissed, “Shh.”
A stout padlock hung from the handles of the split doors. She cupped it in her hands. This wasn’t some flimsy door lock that might give with a bit of a shaking. It was monstrously heavy in her hands and hung from two thick metal handles. Jiggling it would cause a racket.
She hadn’t a clue how to get it open. Dared not attempt to go find the key. But maybe…
“Do you know where they keep the key?” she whispered.
“On them,” Lyran and two others whispered back. She could see them all know. Five people clustered near the door, staring at her with hope on their faces.
She pulled against the lock. Of course, nothing happened.
“Do you know how to pick the lock?” one of the others with Lyran asked.
“No.” Hope flared. “Do any of you?”
Negatives from within killed that hope.
She couldn’t give up now. There must be a way to get this lock open. To free these people. She had no skill at arms. Couldn’t possibly hope to overpower Tatkin for the key.
But she had to open this lock. She had to.
Something wet trickled from her nose. She rubbed it on her shoulder. World spinning around her, she clenched her teeth, begged the gods, and pulled on the lock with her full body weight.
And fell. Hard. Impact knocked her breath from her body.
People hurried forward. Lyran on one side, a stranger on the other. They pulled her to her feet. Too weary to protest, she allowed herself to rise. Tried to stare at the lock in her hand, but her eyes refused to focus.
The top of the shackle looked to be gone. Sheered away. The bits of shackle that remained glowed a dim red.
“Wizard,” someone whispered.
Panicked, she tried to stand on her own feet. To pull away from Lyran and the other woman. She could barely see the two of them, let alone Kippis. “He’s not–”
“We have to get out of here. Where’s the door?” Someone asked.
“This way.” A woman ran toward the front of the warehouse.
“No,” Mela moaned. She tripped. Lyran caught her. “The back.”
“Just breathe.” Lyran and the other woman carried her toward the door. “Breathe. We’ll get you out of here.”
“I don’t know.” She took a deep breath. Two more as they reached the door that hung open now. “What’s wrong. With me.”
“Um, maybe you’ve been using magic without possibly knowing how.”
She thought her lungs stopped working at all on that thought. “What? I can’t. That’s ridiculous.”
Lyran yanked the lock from her hand and held it before her face. “This? This is magic.”
The stars swept wildly about in the sky. Light flared behind them. Illuminated the perfectly sheered lock. Shouts and screams rang out as darkness dragged her down.