The night was fine and dry, with just enough of a chill in the air to keep a man on his toes. Overhead, a gibbous moon rode high in the sky, casting a ghostly light upon the gathered knights. Their armor didn’t gleam in the moonlight, however. It was scuffed and dented, with nary a crest or coat of arms to be seen. They were sellswords from the Febrile Marshes and clansmen from the White Mountains—none of them true knights, and none of them cared for finery, honor, or glory. They cared plenty for gold, however, and King Ungor Blackwater of Castle Black was known to pay generously when he was pleased.
Fine weather for a raid, Thrain Blackwater thought sourly, as his horse snorted softly and shifted beneath him. Though not so fine for the unsuspecting sheep asleep in the castle before them. He had known this night would come—the dragon had foretold it. But that didn’t mean he had to like it.
Castle Rowan lay silent beneath them, its drawbridge down and the portcullis raised invitingly. Thrain frowned. Like an eager wench with her legs spread. The guards at the gate had been bought and paid for during the peace talks King Ungor had initiated with good Queen Alaina Trueheart. Peace talks indeed—they were nothing more than a scouting party for the hungry king. The Truehearts had been fools to let them in—the chickens inviting the fox into their coop. But as their name bespoke, they were trusting and eager to hear talk of peace from the larger, more imposing kingdom that crowded their northern border. It was too bad their show of openness and good faith should result in their deaths, but so it would.
Thrain had his orders from his father, the king—take no prisoners. The nobles of Castle Rowan were known sorcerers and witches, and King Ungor would not suffer a witch to live. Not that he was a pious man—he wasn’t. Wenching, drinking, and gambling were more to his liking than studying the holy word. But at the start of his reign, a wisewoman had come to Castle Black and foretold his doom at the hands of those who wielded magic. Ungor had declared war upon any unnatural thing forthwith, and so began a purge of his kingdom that had lasted until this very day. Just to be on the safe side, the wise woman had been the first to the fire. Take no prisoners indeed.
Though he was reluctant to slaughter innocents, Thrain knew this would be a bloody night. His older brother, Baynor, was leading the charge, and unlike their father, who was merely cold and calculating, the crown prince had a genuine lust for blood. Men did not call him Baynor the Beast for nothing—his favorite sport was to cut an enemy’s throat while he fucked the man into submission. Thrain had seen him do it on numerous occasions, to his mingled revulsion and disgust. Baynor claimed that the death throes of a fallen foe were more erotic than the tightest cunt wrapped round his shaft, and the gurglings of a dying man more delightful than the sweetest murmurs from a woman’s lips.
Thrain did not share his brother’s lust for death. He only hoped he could save the one he needed from Baynor’s ravages this night. He stiffened his resolve at the thought. I must save him. He must live, no matter what the cost, no matter what I have to do to keep him safe.
He frowned again as he adjusted his gorget, which tended to squeak if not oiled properly. Along with the chain-mail shirt he wore, the metal plate that encircled his neck was all the protection he needed—aside from the black iron circlet of magic null that sat firmly on his brow. Let other knights cling to their helmets—great bulky things that were impossible to see out of, let alone fight in. Thrain had never met a man faster than he with a sword, so he felt no need for such confinement.
His speed with a sword was not his only gift. He was well built and muscular, but not in the bulky way of Baynor and their father. It was said that with his blond good looks and dark blue eyes, Thrain more resembled his mother’s family than the hulking Blackwaters. As to any resemblance between himself and his mother, Thrain could not say. She had died birthing him—a fault his father could not or would not forgive. Not that it would matter much if he had the royal favor. He was only a second son, and with Baynor in such rude health, it was a certainty that Thrain would never wear the crown.
Unless something extraordinary happened.
Sometimes you have to make your own luck. Or as the Truehearts would have it, your own magic. Up ahead, Baynor gave the signal to attack, and Thrain kicked his horse to life and surged forward with the rest of the rabble his father had hired.
Tonight he would make his own magic, or die trying.
* * *
Elias Trueheart was having a restless night.
It was the dreams again; they wouldn’t leave him alone. Swords in the night. The flash and clash of steel—the stench of fire and blood and death. A great dragon with eyes like flame. He speaks my name and says I know his as well. He tells me of days to come and deeds I must do and a riddle I must solve, but I cannot hear him over the roaring fire. A castle in flames! And then different eyes. Blue as the midnight sky, they stare into mine. A deep voice in my ear. Arms like steel bands wrap around me. I am trapped! I cannot get loose!
He woke suddenly, shaking in the dark. Gods, but they were getting stronger. What was he to do when the sleeping drafts the court physician gave him no longer worked? At that point he supposed he would be driven mad, and the kingdom would be free to find another, more suitable heir to the throne.
Elias put out his hand to ring the bell that connected his room to his mother’s…and let it drop, the bell untouched. He was no babe in arms to ask for comfort, no little boy who needed his mother’s soothing touch to fall back to sleep. He was a man grown, and though he had no magic as a Trueheart noble ought to have, he could still act the part. Besides, he knew what his mother would say.
“’ Tis only your magic trying to get out,” she’d told him half a hundred times. “You have the power in you. I feel it, Elias. But it is buried deep—too deep to come out without cause.”
Too deep to come out without cause. Well, then it will never come, for nothing of importance ever happens at Castle Rowan. It wasn’t that he wished for misfortune, but it might be nice if something happened to trigger his magic’s release—if he even had any, which he had long doubted.
Elias dropped his head to his knees and thought longingly of his cousin Aubrey’s talents. He could conjure things from thin air—small things, to be sure, pretty little birds and rainbows and creatures of daydream. But at least his ability was proof he had Trueheart blood running through his veins. Elias had no such outward proof, for all his own mother was queen and the most powerful sorceress the line had ever produced. Even his looks were odd. He had the thick, curly black hair found in all of the Trueheart blood, but his eyes—his eyes were strange. Instead of being dark green, they were pale gold—a color that no one ever remembered seeing before in a true-bred Trueheart heir.
A throwback—that’s all I am. A magicless dud. A Null. That was what they called him when they thought he couldn’t hear. Elias had even heard Aubrey telling the visitors from Castle Black the month before when they had come to talk of peace. There had been a great banquet, and as the only living heir, Elias had been forced to dance the Spider’s Web—an intricate tracery of steps that was as much about displays of power and diplomacy as it was skill on the dance floor.
It was traditionally a dance between men, but his mother, as ruling sovereign of their small realm, would have danced with King Ungor and said as much. She feared no man and demanded the respect of an equal from any male who crossed her. But the Blackwater king had shaken his head and said with false cheer, “No, my lady. Let us not profane the dance. Allow our sons to do the honors for us.”
Elias had been horrified at first, fearing he would have to do the elegant and intimate dance with the older Blackwater heir. Baynor the Beast frightened him and would have even had Elias possessed twice as much magical skill as his formidable mother instead of none at all. But the great, lumbering mountain of a man had laughed and waved at his younger brother, the cold-eyed, golden Prince Thrain, to dance in his stead.
Closing his eyes, Elias remembered that night…
Standing in the middle of the grand ballroom, boots planted firmly on the many colored mosaic tiles, the younger Blackwater prince looked every inch as deadly as his older brother. But while Baynor was a bull, ready to charge, Thrain reminded Elias of a hawk—swift and deadly to strike. He probably wasn’t more than two or three years older than Elias’s age of eighteen, but there was an air of menace about him that spoke of long experience with danger.
Thrain’s broad shoulders were covered in a rich crimson cloak, and on his brow, below a shining cap of dark gold hair, rested a circlet of black iron—magic null. King Ungor and Baynor the Beast wore similar crowns to protect them from what Elias had heard them calling “unnatural acts and dark arts.” For a moment he wished he had some magic of his own so he could test the efficacy of the black metal. Could it really turn aside a spell as those who wore it claimed? And did the Blackwaters really fear magic so much that they never took the black circlets off, even when they slept?
“Will you dance? Or do you fear to tread the Spider’s Web with me?” Thrain’s deep voice broke his train of thought, and Elias saw that the Blackwater prince’s predatory gaze was focused directly on him. Even the man’s features reminded him of a hawk, from the knife-blade nose to the keen, midnight blue eyes that seemed to pierce him with a glance. And judging from the look in those intense eyes, Thrain must have seen Elias as a rabbit—the hawk’s natural prey.
“I fear nothing.” Stiffening his spine, he glided forward, taking up the implied challenge. Thrain extended his hand, and Elias took it, entwining their fingers boldly as he matched the other man’s gaze with what he hoped was a fierce look.
“So you are come to sue for peace,” he said as the court musicians began the sensuous, flowing melody.
Thrain barked a laugh, raising one dark gold eyebrow in scorn. “Hardly that.”
“You came under the white banner,” Elias pointed out in irritation. Without asking, Thrain had taken the lead in the dance, pressing his broad chest to Elias’s narrower one and looking down from a height that was several inches taller than Elias’s admittedly modest five feet ten. They were close enough that Elias could smell him—a mixture of sandalwood and clean skin and some dark spice he could not name.
“We did,” Thrain admitted and spun Elias without warning. He must have been hoping that Elias would trip, but though he had no true magic, Elias did have the Trueheart grace. He leaped nimbly, turning the spin into a move of power and poise that drew murmurs of appreciation from the assembled court. But before he could use the move to his advantage and gain the lead, Thrain pulled him back into his arms and was frowning down at him again.
“Why did you come if not to speak of peace?” Elias demanded, wishing he could wriggle out of the other man’s iron grasp without looking undignified.
“Let us say we wished to learn about your little kingdom.” Thrain gave him that cold, humorless smile again. “After all, there are no magic makers in all our land. That in itself is reason enough to be curious about a country full of them.”
“You have no sorcerers because you persecute them,” Elias snapped, finally slipping from the other man’s arms to turn in time to the music. “I have heard you burn them at the stake.”
“The witch pyre at Castle Black never lacks for firewood,” Thrain admitted, entwining their fingers again and putting an arm around Elias’s waist. “My father has no love for those who practice the dark arts.”
“All magic is not dark,” Elias protested as they turned and spun together again. He had to admit that as irritating and superior as Thrain was, he was at least a worthy dance partner. Never had the steps of the Spider’s Web come more easily, and Elias threw himself into them with confidence, knowing that the taller man had the strength to catch him during even the most difficult moves.
“So your family claims to only practice ‘good’ magic?” Thrain raised that annoying eyebrow again.
“Magic is neither good nor evil—it is the intention of the one who wields it that matters. Just because we practice it does not make us evil,” Elias said stiffly.
“I have heard you do not practice at all. Are you not what they call a Null? A royal with no magic?” Thrain’s face was innocent of offense, but his deep voice was mocking.
Elias felt his jaw clench. “I speak of my family as a whole, not myself in particular. We are not trolls living in caverns and conjuring demons at midnight. Trueheart magic comes from the Fairy blood that flows in our veins.” He used a turn in the dance to throw an elbow into his partner’s ribs with all his might, but Thrain barely winced. Elias frowned. Hitting the Blackwater prince was like ramming his elbow into solid iron.
Thrain seemed amused at his assault. “Fairy blood in your veins, hmm? No wonder you’ve such delicate features. They set off those strange golden eyes of yours.” He lifted a hand and brushed Elias’s high cheekbone with the tips of his fingers—a surprisingly gentle caress.
The light touch raised an angry blush on Elias’s face. How dare the Blackwater bastard make amorous gestures for all to see? The Spider’s Web was a dance of diplomacy. Attempting to seduce during its intricate steps was a grave offense. But he wasn’t one to pass up a challenge. Growing up without magic in a household full of sorcerers had made him nothing if not resilient when it came to insults.
“Not all of us can have the rough-hewn features of a Blackwater, my lord,” he murmured sweetly. Taking advantage of a particularly complicated step, he reached up and placed a featherlight kiss on Thrain’s full lips, giving insult for insult. He spun away as the angry prince reached for him, and just then the music stopped and the dance ended.
Elias bowed low to the raised dais where his mother and the other royals sat with the delegation from Castle Black. King Ungor’s face was bland, and Baynor’s expression was like a thundercloud. Elias’s mother looked worried. He shot her a triumphant look, his eyebrows raised, a mocking grin on his face. There was no doubt who had bested whom and won the dance. Elias reveled in his moment of triumph.
He turned to leave the dance floor, but a cruel hand caught his arm, and suddenly he was chest to chest with Thrain again. “This isn’t over, little prince,” Thrain growled, his hawk eyes narrowing. “I’ve been watching you. I wasn’t certain at first, even with those Fay eyes of yours. But now I know—you’re the one.”
“The one what?” Elias stared at him in confusion.
“Never you mind. You’ll find out soon enough.” Thrain’s fingers were still biting into his arm.
“Perhaps you hadn’t noticed, my lord, but the dance is over.” Elias made his voice icily polite. He refused to jerk against the stronger man’s grip, preferring to take what would certainly be bruises tomorrow over the loss of his dignity. Nor was he stupid enough to call Thrain out—the Blackwater prince was known as a deadly swordsman, and Elias had spent much more time in the library than on the training field.
Finally Thrain released him. “Next time we meet, you may have cause to regret your actions here tonight,” he warned.
“I’m certain I’ll cry tears of sorrow for any pain I’ve caused you,” Elias said lightly. Giving Thrain a last, mocking grin, he turned his back and strode into the crowd of lords and ladies waiting to dance. The night had been a great success, and he was pleased to have proved that a Trueheart noble did not need magic to best a Blackwater.
Elias opened his eyes in the darkness of his bedroom and sighed. Why did he keep playing that night over and over in his mind? Probably because it was the most exciting thing he could remember happening in the walls of the dull Castle Rowan. But not, apparently, exciting enough to awaken any magic in him. What would it take to do that?
Laying his head on his pillow, Elias closed his eyes and tried to rest. No more dreams. No more thoughts of Thrain or the rest of those beastly Blackwaters. Just sleep, he implored his brain. But just as his eyelids were drifting closed, he heard a woman scream.
It was his mother.