Following A Plague of Giants comes the second novel in the Seven Kennings series – an unforgettable fantasy world of warring giants and elemental magic from the New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Druid Chronicles.
THE HEARTHFIRE’S FURY
Few revelations light up a gathering more than the intelligence that there’s a traitor somewhere nearby. The tension sparks and pops like fresh pine logs in the hearth. If extra fuel for the fire is needed, just make it clear that said traitor is most likely responsible for the deaths of the friends and family of the gathered. Chances of enjoying a quiet evening after that are close to zero.
The Raelech bard’s assertion that a traitor had worked with the Bone Giants hit the crowd like a pat of butter thrown in the skillet, sizzling and steaming and spreading angrily. It was not just the shock of betrayal that got people talking but a matter of wrestling with the timeline. We were now in the month of Thaw and he’d been speaking of events that occurred late in the previous summer, so that meant the pelenaut had known about this traitor for at least half a year.
“Wait,” a mariner nearby us on the wall said. “Who’s this Vjeko, then? You’ve found him already, right? Or you wouldn’t have said anything. The pelenaut let you say that because he’s already got him.”
“More tomorrow, friends,” Fintan called out to Survivor Field, his kenning allowing his voice to be heard far out into the peninsula and all through the city of Pelemyn. Then he stepped down from his stage and headed for the stairs descending into the city, rumbles of protest trailing him.
“Come on, Dervan,” he said, waving at me to follow. “I need a word.”
“You might want to slow up,” I replied. “My knee won’t get me down those stairs that quickly.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. We should try to hurry, though.”
“Because everyone wants some answers from you?”
“Yes. And I don’t have them.”
I hobbled gingerly down the stairs behind him, putting weight on my cane, and considered what that meant. He must have been told by someone to include mention of Vjeko in Gondel’s latest story. Most likely Föstyr, the pelenaut’s lung, had relayed information from Röllend himself. In the streets, Fintan smiled at everyone who asked him about the traitor and he kept moving, saying only, “Tomorrow,” and I grew certain that he knew nothing at all about this. Which meant the traitor wasn’t caught yet. Revealing his existence was intended to flush him out, despite the unrest it would cause.
“You mentioned me in your tale today,” I said.
“Glad you caught that.”
“No one ever asked me about this Krakens’ Nest, or Nest of Man-Eaters, or anything like it.”
“There was no need. That part of the story, at least, I already know, and I’ll be sharing it in coming days. But I was told to mention it now on purpose.”
“I’m sure you can guess. You’re part of the puzzle somehow. Just like everyone else, I’m being given pieces and fitting them together with some pieces I already have.”
“But you have many more pieces than I do,” I said, to which he shrugged.
Fintan led us to Master Yöndyr’s establishment, the Siren’s Call, where a single mariner assigned to him provided protection and a modicum of privacy. There was little to fear from Nentian assassins anymore since the expulsion of Ambassador Jasindur Torghala, but in such a busy place we did need someone to fend off those who just wanted a “quick word” with the bard. It was not uncommon for him to be recognized now, and a truly quick greeting was always welcome, but Master Yöndyr made a point of telling everyone in his pub that Fintan was there, and he served us himself—honored guests indeed—so we were watched and drinks were bought for us and I began to wonder if we should not have tried to find someplace quieter.
“How’s Numa?” I asked him once we had giant schooners of Mistmaiden Ale placed before us. Fintan’s lifebond, a courier for the Triune Council of Rael, had arrived only the day before.
“Running back home as we speak,” he said. “Our time together was too short, but she’s well, and I’m happier for seeing her.”
I made a noise of approval as I drank from my monstrous vessel. It may have echoed a tiny bit.
“We could practically drown in these things,” Fintan observed, and grabbed his with both hands. “I am fairly certain this container is larger than a human stomach.”
“It is the most agreeable of challenges,” I said, smacking my lips.
The bard’s voice bounced off the interior of his schooner as he raised it to his mouth. “Yes, it is.” When he put it down with satisfaction, he flashed a grin that was partially obscured from view by his large nose, but then a thought chased it away. “I have a different challenge that may not be so agreeable now, but I might as well get it out of the way before Master Yöndyr brings over something to eat.”
“Oh, yes, you said you needed a word.”
He nodded and sighed. “I have a strange, vague message to deliver specifically to you, via Numa, from the Triune Council.”
“The Triune knows of my existence?”
Fintan chuckled. “Yes, they heard about this project of ours almost immediately—Numa let them know about it weeks ago, after leaving me here. They don’t know anything about the Nentian attempts on my life yet, I don’t think, but they have the idea that you have the ear of the pelenaut and represent a different channel, I guess, than the customary diplomatic ones.”
I snorted. “The customary channel is to have Numa talk to the pelenaut directly. Your couriers can speak to Rölly whenever they arrive. Involving me makes no sense. That’s adding a middleman.”
The Raelech bard spread his palms in a gesture of surrender. “I understand, believe me. But there’s a feeling that this message might be better heard by someone besides the pelenaut—his lung, perhaps, or someone else you may know of—and they want to leave it up to you to decide.”
Blinking and shrugging, I said, “Okay.”
“This is going to be word for word from the mouth of Clodagh, recorded by Numa and then by me.”
“So . . . not the Triune Council, then, but a single member of it,” I said, mentally preparing myself. Fintan nodded once.
“Message reads: ‘Someone in the employ of the Brynt government has stolen a personal item from me. Do not attempt to deny it: I know that you have it. If this item is used against me or Rael, there will be terrible consequences.’ ”
And there it was. She knew we had taken her journal, knew it compromised her, and threw in a threat to forestall acting on the information inside. Fintan had even hinted that they knew the Wraith existed, or some shadowy spymaster figure like him, and this message was clearly intended for him rather than for Pelenaut Röllend. And by delivering it to me she implied that she knew, or at least suspected, that I had some kind of connection to the Wraith. But I had to act as if I knew nothing about it. “That’s all? What personal item?”
Fintan shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I only have that message.”
“Does she want this item returned, or an official investigation, or reparations, or what?”
“I don’t know that either.”
“So I’m just supposed to walk up to the pelenaut and accuse him of stealing whatever it is and warn him against using it? You’re giving me week-old fish guts, Fintan, and telling me to make them smell like fresh flowers. That’s not my job. You can forget it.”
“Fair enough,” he said with a nod, and then held up his hands again. “You’ll get no argument from me. I’ve delivered the message and was told I could leave it entirely to your discretion, so it’s done. We can forget it like you said and enjoy whatever Master Yöndyr is bringing over.” His eyes flicked toward the kitchen, and I followed his gaze to find a jolly proprietor heading our way, carrying a tray laden with meats and cheeses. That he still had any when the city was suffering shortages was impressive.
“Fine,” I said before Master Yöndyr arrived, “but please let the Triune know the next time you can that I am not a channel of any sort. I’m an old soldier with a bad knee who writes down histories. They should talk to the lung or to our diplomats or whoever, and just leave me out of everything.”
“I will,” he said, and then beamed as our food arrived. It was excellent fare and gave me time to think about what to do. The Wraith needed to be informed, but apparently I was being watched by someone who didn’t mind reporting my movements to Rael. Should I inform Rölly too—or instead? Did my old friend even know about the theft or the fact that Clodagh had ordered my wife’s death? I wasn’t sure the Wraith told him everything, and he might be quite surprised and annoyed to find out all this had been done without his knowledge or consent, though Mynstad du Möcher had said Gerstad du Fesset had been sent by the pelenaut to Rael on a special mission. That meant Rölly knew about the journal, at least, if not its full contents.
The entire exercise may have been designed to see where I would run first. I hated this game—worrying about what to do, who was watching me, and letting it ruin the joy of the moment. Abruptly I remembered that I wasn’t required to play the game and had in fact told Fintan in so many words that I wouldn’t. Simply forgetting about it seemed the best option and brightened my attitude considerably, since it would require almost no effort. Taking a large draught from the giant schooner of ale might even help the process along, so I grasped it with both hands and tipped it back, guzzling it until I could drink no more. The long, loud belch that followed shortly afterward was the sum total of effort I would put into doing Clodagh’s bidding, and it also drew a round of wry applause from the pub.
When I stumbled drunk into my home hours later, trying not to wake Elynea and her kids, I thought something felt off but didn’t want to investigate and try to light candles with such degraded motor skills. I’d wind up burning down my house. So I crashed into my bed, woke up with a hangover on what was to be the twentieth day of the bard’s tales, and discovered what had felt off.
The house was empty. Elynea had once again moved out and left me a note on top of a gift basket of assorted marmalades, my favorite.
With Bel Tes Wey’s help, we have found accommodation near the furniture workshop—a place for just the three of us—and won’t need to trouble you for hospitality anymore. You have been the kindest and most generous of hosts.
Thank you always,
I checked their bedroom. The bed was made, all their belongings absent. Well. Good for them. That was the best possible news.
But I was alone again.
It was a rare morning of late in that no one disturbed me during the making of my toast and tea, but I didn’t feel the sense of victory that should have accompanied it. It sounded like my chewing echoed off the walls of my empty house. Since I couldn’t do much to help myself feel any better, I spent some time chatting with Dame du Marröd across the street and helping her get her spring garden planted, before it was time to meet Fintan and get the day’s writing done. He was bleary-eyed like me, recovering from last night’s carousing, and had little to say apart from an inquiry.
“I don’t suppose anyone’s told you how I’m supposed to answer the inevitable questions I’m going to receive about the traitor? Something I’m supposed to work into today’s tale?”
“No, I’ve not been told anything. You don’t know already?”
“No, they gave me the information about Gondel Vedd but neglected to tell me what happened next.”
“It’s fine for now. I have plenty of other tales to tell in the meantime.”
We kept working and guzzling tea and felt restored by the end of the session.
“I think I used to recover faster from nights like that when I was younger,” Fintan said.
“You and me both.”
The massive sea of humanity on Survivor Field churned and seemed especially excited for the bard’s tale to begin. I worried a little that they might be upset about him shouting “Traitor!” and then never pointing the finger at anyone. But faces turned and voices quieted when he strummed his harp, and his voice was carried throughout the city and the peninsula, thanks to his kenning.
“Hello, fine people of Pelemyn,” Fintan said. “Today I’m going to play for you a Hathrim smoke song. The people of the First Kenning assign a lot of meaning to smoke, as you might imagine, and though smoke can take many forms, the songs are very structured and were invented long ago, shortly after the discovery of the Fifth Kenning, so there are five lines to a traditional smoke song, and they are often meditative.” Fintan began to pluck at his harp with a series of rolling notes that swelled and then fell again until they steadied into a gentle rhythm. “Some of the Hathrim are more meditative in the practice of their faith than others. People often assume sometimes that the nature of fire is to destroy a thing, but look deeper and it is really fire’s nature to change a thing, whether by forging or baking or glassmaking or what have you. We are going to hear of some destruction in today’s tales, but I would not want anyone to assume that the work of some individuals is the nature of their people or their faith. In fact, I would like to share with you all that I greatly admire and esteem Hollit and Orden Panevik, a couple of wonderful people over eleven feet tall who live and work here in Pelemyn. They own and operate a restaurant down by the docks called the Roasted Sunchuck. Hollit is the chef and Orden is a master mixologist behind the bar, and they’ve been here for many years. They love Brynlön. And I love Hollit’s bladefin steaks.” He paused for polite laughter. “I need to try the sunchuck next. I hear it’s very good. Anyway, this is for you, and for my friends Hollit and Orden.”
He sang just one line at a time, and in between there were extended musical breaks that bridged into another key, scaling up to the third line, and then back down to the original key for the last line.
One Puff: I feel in my core the need to stop and ponder.
Two Draws: I am beset by problems I am helpless to solve as I am.
Three Drags: To be well again I must change, yet change is painful.
Four Breaths: To remain the same is also painful, so I welcome change.
Five Pulls: May this fire transform me and light my way to a better future.
After the customary break he gave everyone to get seated, he pulled out one of his black seeming spheres—his supply replenished by Numa’s visit—and grinned at Survivor Field.
“I have a new story to begin with you today. There will be more regarding the traitor Vjeko, never fear. The pelenaut will have much to share. But it is not yet the time.”
That earned a dismayed response from more than one throat, including mine, but Fintan pressed on.
“We met our new narrator earlier on the periphery of events, and you just heard of her surrender to the Nentians at the Godsteeth, but now she will get to speak to you in her own words. Friends, I give you Olet Kanek.”
He threw down his fragile egg of a stone, and when it shattered, the gas billowed up, covered him, and then revealed a much taller new form. Olet Kanek was eleven feet tall or more and armored, save a helmet. Her red hair spilled free about her head and rested on her steel shoulders. I thought her simultaneously attractive and fearsome, for she clearly knew how to use the weapon sheathed at her side. Her lips were drawn down in worry, or perhaps it was just solemnity.