Enjoy the beginning of Limits of Power, the penultimate volume in this epic fantasy of elves, dragons and kingdoms under threat, from fantasy legend and Nebula Award-winning author Elizabeth Moon!
Chaya, in Lyonya
You killed her!” That first voice, instantly joined by others, rose in a furious screech of accusation. “You killed her! You killed her!”
The angry voices penetrated Kieri’s grief and exhaustion, and he looked back over his shoulder to see at least a dozen elves, some with swords drawn, his uncle Amrothlin among them. Behind them, more Squires pushed into the room.
“I did not,” he said. “I tried—”
“She’s dead! You’re alive; you must have—!”
“I tried to save her,” Kieri said. “I could not.” He stood up then, automatically collecting his weapons as he rose.
“Let me see that!” Amrothlin strode forward, pointing at Kieri’s sword. “If it has her blood on it—”
“Of course it does,” Kieri said. “You saw: my sword lay in her blood, there on the floor.” He had knelt in her blood, he realized, and his hands were stained. No wonder Amrothlin suspected him, though the blood that spattered his clothes had come from others.
Amrothlin reached out his hand. “Let me smell it. I know her scent; I will know another’s scent, if indeed another’s blood is there. Give it to me.”
“No,” Arian said before Kieri could answer, blocking Amrothlin with her arm. “You will not disarm the king,” she said. “Not after what has happened.”
“You!” Amrothlin glared at her. “You half-bred troublemaker, child of one who should never have sired children on mortals—”
“Daughter of one who gave his life to save the Lady,” Arian said. Kieri saw the glitter of both tears and anger in her eyes. “There he lies, and you would insult him?”
“And you know you cannot hold this sword,” Kieri said, forcing a calm tone through the anger he felt. How dare Amrothlin insult Arian—and where had he been all this time? Was he the traitor? “You remember: it’s sealed to me. Smell if you wish, but do not touch it.”
Amrothlin glared at them all, then fixed his gaze on Arian. “What should I think when I find three mortals around my Lady’s body with swords drawn and her blood run out like water from a cracked jug? I see no other foe here. It is you, I say, and this—this so-called king.”
Kieri glanced past Amrothlin. The ring of elves stood tense; behind them were Squires who hesitated to push them aside, and behind those the hooded figures of two Kuakkgani. He met Amrothlin’s angry gaze once more.
“I am the king,” he said, keeping his voice as steady as he could. “I am the king, and my mother was your sister, and this Lady was my grandmother. So we are kin, whether you like it or not. If you can indeed detect identity by the smell of the blood, then you will smell another immortal’s blood on this—and on the queen’s sword and Duke Verrakai’s as well.”
“Do you dare accuse an elf?” Amrothlin asked. He still trembled like a candle flame, but his voice had calmed.
“The one who did this could appear without walking through a door. Its mien seemed elven at first and also its magery, a glamour of the same sort as the Lady was wont to cast. Yet it was like no elf I have known in its malice and determination to kill the Lady. I believe you name such iynisin; in Tsaia we called them kuaknomi.”
Amrothlin glared. “We do not speak of them.” He looked over his shoulder, then back to Kieri. “Who was here at the time?”
“Later,” Kieri said. Voices rose in the corridor: angry, frightened, demanding. Time to take command. “Uncle, this is not the time for questions. I am the king, and I am not your enemy, nor the Lady’s. People are frightened; I must speak to them.”
Before Amrothlin could answer, he raised his voice and called to those beyond the room. “The danger is over for now: I, the king, am alive, and the queen is safe here with me. Those of you in the corridor: fetch the palace physicians for the wounded. The rest disperse, but for the Queen’s Squires assigned to the queen today and one Kuakgan. Put by your swords.” The elves by the door looked at Amrothlin, who said nothing, and then at Kieri again and finally put up their swords. Two Queen’s Squires made their way into the room and edged through the elves to Arian’s side.
Dorrin had already moved to one of the wounded Squires. “This one first, sir king. Both are sore wounded, and though I tried, I cannot heal them.”
Kieri knelt beside her. When he laid his hand on the man’s shoulder, he felt nothing but a heaviness. “Nor I,” he said, standing again. “I must be more worn than I thought.”
The noise outside diminished. “I will tell the whole of it to Amrothlin,” Kieri said to the elves. “Two may remain; the rest of you go and make what preparations you need make for the Lady’s rest.” He knelt beside the other Squire yet felt no healing power in himself. Sighing, he stood again.
Amrothlin’s stony expression did not change, but he did not contradict Kieri; with a wave of his hand he sent most of the elves away. Now the carnage showed more clearly—the pools of blood, the stench of blood and death, bloody footprints on the fine carpet, what looked like scorch marks, the dead: the Lady, Dameroth, another dead elf whose name Kieri did not know, Tolmaric’s twisted and shrunken body, and the two iynisin Kieri and Arian and Dorrin had killed. Arian’s clothes were as bloodstained as his own, and Dorrin, though she had not knelt in any blood, still had splashes on her shirt and sword hand.
“More dead elves,” one of the other elves said, bending to examine them. Then he stiffened, turning back to Amrothlin. “My lord! These are not elves! They are . . . what the king said.”
Amrothlin, still looking at Kieri, said, “Is this what you fought? Did you kill it?”
“That is another it split from its body after it killed Sier Tolmaric,” Kieri said. “Look at Tolmaric, look at its body, and if you can explain how that was done, I will be glad.”
Amrothlin turned and walked over to Tolmaric’s remains. “This was human?” He sounded more worried than angry now.
“Yes. The iynisin did that with a touch of its blade to his throat. He was already bespelled by the Lady, as I said, and helpless.”
“Where were you?”
“There.” Kieri pointed. He told of questioning Sier Tolmaric, the Lady’s interruption, and then the appearance of the iynisin—he insisted on using the name, though Amrothlin flinched every time—and its taunting of the Lady and attack. “I had just taken such a blow on my shoulder as almost threw me down. It was almost invisible; I could not see to parry the blow—and then it made for poor Tolmaric and did that to him, whatever that is. Then from the iynisin came two more, and each of those split into two.”
“A formidable foe indeed,” Amrothlin said. “Few of . . . such . . . can do that, and only with fresh blood and life taken.” He moved over beside the elf looking at the other body. Kieri saw his shoulders stiffen. Amrothlin crouched beside the body and touched the blood staining its dark clothes, then sniffed at his fingers. He stood and faced Kieri again. “You brought this on us.”
“What?” That accusation made no sense to him.
“You could not survive such a one unless it willed it so. The—these beings—” Even now Amrothlin would not use the word. “You know their origin? Traitors who once were elves, in the morning of the world, and who turned against all because of those.” He pointed at the Kuakgan now standing near the door. “You called Kuakkgani here; that must be why the evil ones came. We do not speak of them. We do not acknowledge them.”
“And yet these iynisin exist,” Kieri said, once more using the elven name for them. “And they—or one—killed the Lady. Are all of them that powerful?” This, he was certain, was one of the secrets the elves had withheld from him; how could they think that not speaking of danger meant it did not exist?
“So you say, that she was killed by such.” Amrothlin made an obvious attempt to calm down, but did not answer Kieri’s question. He sniffed his fingers again. “It is more likely a lord of the Severance could kill her than a half-human like you,” he said. “These dead are certainly ephemes, split from such a one. And that—” He glanced at Tolmaric’s remains. “That is what any living thing looks like that they destroy to make ephemes.” He nodded to Kieri, now apparently calm. “I accept your story of the fight, but still—it is your fault that the Lady came here unescorted and such evil followed her. You knew what she thought of the . . . the Kuakkgani.” He nearly spat the last word, his voice full of venom again.
“What I see is that you are determined to blame the king,” Arian said. Kieri had never seen her so angry before. Flanked by her Squires, she stalked over to him. “Where were you when I was poisoned and my child never had a chance to live? The Lady did not come. None of you came. It was a Kuakgan who found the poison concealed in a block of spice: you elves did nothing. And you blame us for that?”
Amrothlin stared at her, speechless in the face of her anger.
“So now,” Kieri said, taking over once more, “let us clean up this mess and confer.” The palace physicians bustled into the room; he pointed to Binir and Curn, the two wounded Squires. Linne, another of the King’s Squires, handed him cleaning materials for his sword; he began wiping it down. Arian handed her blade to one of her Squires. “Who is now the ruler of the elvenhome?” Kieri asked Amrothlin. “Will it be you, her son, or had she named another in her stead?”
Amrothlin shook his head. “There is no elvenhome.”
“What—? Of course there is . . . must be.” At the look on Amrothlin’s face, Kieri said, “How can it be gone?”
“Do you not see?” Amrothlin gestured to his own grief-stricken face. “Do I look the same? Do you feel the influence of the elvenhome? It was hers—her creation—and it died with her. She alone sustained the Ladysforest; she had no heir. We are unhomed, Nephew. We are cast away, and nowhere in the world will we find a home now.”
“That cannot be. The taig is still here.” Kieri could feel the taig, the strength of it, even in its grief.
“The taig, yes. It is the spirit of all life. Where there is life, there is taig, greater and smaller. The taig nourishes elvenkind, and kind nourishes the taig. We encouraged it, taught it, lifted it toward more awareness, according to the Lady’s design. But it is not the elvenhome.”
This was the longest explanation Kieri had ever heard about the relationship of elves and taig. “Then what is an elvenhome? Did the Lady then maintain the elvenhome with her own power? By herself?” And if so, how could such a power be stripped away?
“At first, yes,” Amrothlin said. “But after we left the great hall below, in the time of the banast taig . . .” His voice trailed away; he looked down and away. “I cannot talk of it now, Nephew, please. Her power diminished, and now she is gone; the elfane taig is gone; I must prepare to lay her body to rest.”
Kieri felt tears rising in his eyes and blinked them back. “Why didn’t you ever tell me? Why didn’t Orlith? If I had known—”
“You would have tried to interfere,” Amrothlin said, his voice harsh again. “And what could you, a mortal, do? You had no power to lend us. You could but cause the Lady more anguish, to know that you knew her shame.”
“And this is better?” Kieri asked. The familiar irritation with elven arrogance overrode even his fatigue. He waved at the room, at the bodies and the blood and the stench of death. “Her pride cost you dear, Uncle. You were so sure we could not help, you did not even seek understanding, let alone alliance—”
“How could such as you understand?” Amrothlin said. He looked more weary than angry now, his grace diminished. “What we live—what she lived—is beyond your comprehension. It is no use to explain; you do not have the mind for it.”
Kieri’s anger grew, but he knew that for a postbattle reaction as much as a fair response to Amrothlin. He glanced around the room. Everyone but the physicians working on the wounded Squires was looking at him. This was not the time to continue a quarrel with Amrothlin.
“Are any others wounded and in need of care?” No one answered. Arian’s Squire returned her blade, now cleaned, and Arian slid it into the scabbard. Kieri had almost finished with his own.
“We will need to make a bier to move her,” Amrothlin said. “And . . . and the others.”
“Is there any menace in Sier Tolmaric’s remains?” Kieri asked.
“No,” Amrothlin said. “The evil destroyed him but does not remain. Do what you will with . . . that.” He gestured toward Tolmaric’s body but averted his gaze. “But beware the iynisin ephemes. Even their blood taints anything alive or that once lived. You must burn such things in a safe place away from here.”
“Sier Tolmaric was a brave man from a family that had suffered much at elven hands,” Kieri said, ignoring the rest for the moment. Amrothlin’s arrogance grated on him. “Had the Lady not pressed her glamour on him, he might have fought at my side.”
“What injury had he from elves?” Amrothlin asked, brows raised.
Kieri regretted mentioning it; this was something else that would be better discussed later. But if he wanted answers to questions, then he must answer those asked of him. “When my mother was killed, and I abducted, Tolmaric’s father and grandfather were taken away by the elves—possibly by you yourself. Were you involved in that?”
Amrothlin scowled. “We thought humans were, of course. How else?”
“Perhaps today you see another possibility,” Kieri said. “Elves took some of his family, and they came back damaged, with no apologies or recompense made. Nor, though I asked the Lady, was any recompense made for his losses from scathefire. Nor was that family the only one injured in your search for my mother’s killers.” He slid his sword home in its scabbard, picked up the dagger, and wiped it down. “But we will talk of this later, when you have taken the Lady away. For now, tell your people what happened—what really happened—and give those who died whatever honor you can. Where will you lay the Lady?”
“In that valley where the elvenhome below was,” Amrothlin said. “She loved that valley. It is not in Lyonya as you know it, but you would be welcome to come there.”
Kieri shook his head as he slid the dagger, now clean and oiled, into its sheath. “With this menace hanging over us, I cannot leave, Uncle. It would be better, indeed, if you found a place for her nearer to Chaya, since you lack the protection of the elvenhome. Why not the King’s Grove, where the symbol of our alliance is? You say, I understand, that your people have no existence beyond death—though truly I do not understand how you can know that—”
“We were told,” Amrothlin said in a low voice.
Kieri wanted to ask, By whom?, but this was not the time. “Linne, please tell the steward or Garris—whomever you find first—to summon the Council to the large dining room. They may already have heard, but I will formally announce Sier Tolmaric’s death there. And we will need a bier for Tolmaric’s body.” He looked at Amrothlin again. “The palace can furnish biers for your dead. I will want two elves at the Council. You, unless your duties to the Lady’s body require you here, and whomever you choose.”
“Yes,” Amrothlin said. His sword hand moved weakly, as if he could not decide on a gesture. “Yes, to all. Is there—is there any place we could take the bodies to wash them? I do not wish to parade the Lady through the streets to our inn.”
“Of course. We will use the salle for them. Arian?” Kieri turned to her. “What is your desire in this?”
“That it not have happened,” she answered, her voice choked with grief. “But it did. I would stay with my father’s body, if you can spare me.” Her expression was grave and resolute.
Kieri nodded. “Of course I can. You are his kin; it is your right.”
“You said you were hit on the shoulder,” Arian said. “I see the cut in your clothes—”
“And the blade did not touch my skin thanks to the mail. I will have it seen to when I can, but not now.” He laid his hand on her shoulder. “I will come, Arian. But first I must speak to the Council, and then I will come to the salle.”
“Then I take my leave,” Arian said. “But you will be seen by physicians, Kieri—I insist on it.” She gave a little bow and turned away, going back to her father’s body. Kieri watched the set of her shoulders. He had lost his parents so long ago . . . he knew the pain of having none but not the pain of recent loss. And with the loss of their child . . . she had lost so much in so short a time.
He moved away from the iynisin’s body to Tolmaric’s. He could hardly recognize this ugly twisted relic as human remains. “You were brave,” he said to Tolmaric’s spirit in case it lingered. “You were not afraid to speak out the truth you knew and would have fought if you’d had the chance. I am sorry I could not save you from this fate. I swear to you, I will do my best by your family. Your sons and daughters will have a father in me.” Tolmaric, he knew, had no living brothers.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement near the door and turned to look. Two servants came in with one of the net-covered frames used to move the injured and lifted Tolmaric’s body onto it. “Don’t move him until I am with the Council,” he said. “They should hear it first, not see it. And the elves will need enough for these—” He pointed to the other bodies. Then he went to the door, where the Kuakgan had been waiting, and stepped into the hall.
“Do you blame us?” the Kuakgan asked, speaking softly. For the moment, Kieri could not think of his name.
“For what?” Kieri asked. He could think of nothing the Kuakkgani had done that day worth blame.
“It was our song to the One Tree, they say, that began the Severance and the evil that followed, when some elves rebelled against the Singer and chose destruction.”
Kieri huffed. “The Severance happened long ago, and your responsibility lies with your own acts. Today you did us more than one good service. I am not angry with you, nor do I blame you. But I would ask what you can add to my knowledge of these iynisin, as the elves call them.”
“The kuaknomi have some powers beyond ours,” the Kuakgan said. “We depend on the bond of kinship with trees and the taig and can do no more than kinship allows. The kuaknomi draw their power from hatred—from Gitres Unmaker.”
Kieri had heard the iynisin called kuaknomi before, in Tsaia. “Did you know what it was without seeing it?”
“Oh, yes. We feel the taig all the time, you see, as elves do, and the trees felt their most dire enemy near.”
“I thought fire was their worst enemy—or the scathefire at least.”
“Fire is the nature of dragons and their young,” the Kuakgan said. “The young do not burn out of malice, but joy. Kuaknomi, though, hate trees especially and delight in tormenting them.” The Kuakgan paused, looking past Kieri around the room. “Kuaknomi blood is corrosive to living things and to things that were alive. See where the carpet is blackening as with fire? And your wounded—if such blood touches an open wound, that is very bad. Do your physicians know about the dangers—?”
“I doubt it,” Kieri said.
“You and others have much blood on you—some of it kuaknomi by the smell. If you are wounded even slightly, you need treatment now.”
“I’m not,” Kieri said. A bruised shoulder was not a wound. “Can you help my physicians with the wounded?”
“We will try,” the Kuakgan said. “I will call the others. We were going to ask if we could visit the ossuary and the bones of your ancestors, but this is more urgent.”
“The ossuary? That seems a strange desire for those who live in groves,” Kieri said.
“It may seem strange, but to us . . .” The Kuakgan paused, frowning. “I am not sure I can explain it. When we find bones in the forest, they . . . they tell us things. Not only how the animal died but who has passed. I felt an urge to visit your ossuary.”
Kieri thought suddenly of the connection he’d discovered between the ossuary and the King’s Grove mound. His face must have shown something, because the Kuakgan’s gaze sharpened and he said, “What is it, Lyonya’s king?”
“We must talk,” Kieri said. “But first I must speak to my Council. Please help with the wounded, as you can, and I will talk to you later.”
The Kuakgan was silent and motionless a long moment, then he nodded, his eyes bright beneath his hood. “I have called the others; we will do what we can.”
Kieri turned and went down the passage to speak to his Council. The mumble of conversation stopped when he entered the room; the men and women all turned to look at him.
“My lord king! You’re hurt!” That was Sier Halveric, just a beat ahead of the rest.
“No,” Kieri said. “It’s not my blood.” Most looked scared, startled, shocked. Across the room, Aliam Halveric’s brows went up; the glance between them conveyed the years of comradeship and shared experience in war. “Sit down, please,” Kieri said. He felt the battle letdown even more now, but they needed his steady confidence, as they had needed it before he rode away to war. He hoped that this time they would respond better. He waited until they were seated and silent. Amrothlin came in just then, his expression strained, followed by another elf. Kieri waved them to their seats as well.
He began with a terse recital of events leading to his confrontation with Sier Tolmaric.
“Then it’s true you know what the poison was?” Sier Davonin, of course. Women losing their children would interest her more than a fight in his office, however bloody.
“Yes,” Kieri said. “And there’s no more danger of contaminated food here. But let me go on—what comes is as important.” He told it in order, ignoring all signs that someone wanted to ask a question. “The queen and I are alive, unharmed,” he said as he finished. “Lord Amrothlin—” He nodded to Amrothlin. “—as you know, is the Lady’s son. He has told me that the elvenhome is no more. He and I will discuss later what this means for Lyonya, for the remaining elves, and for us, who have long been partners here. I counsel you all to be vigilant. If you have doubts of something you see, tell a palace official or a servant. I must go to the salle, where the bodies are laid for the night. Those who wish may pay respects later.” With a short bow, he left them and headed for the salle.
In the passage near the salle, he met Sier Tolmaric’s wife, escorted by one of Arian’s Squires. Lady Tolmaric’s face, normally pale, was blotched with crying, her graying red hair loosening from its braid.
“My lady,” Kieri began, but she burst into more tears before he could offer any comfort. He knew it had been her first visit to Chaya—she had not come for the coronation—and he had seen her wide-eyed joy in the splendor of the court and her shyness around other Siers’ wives. Now she was bereft here in this strange place with strangers all around and no husband to guide her.
She sobbed out her misery, her fears, her certainty that nothing would ever come right. “The children—they’ll starve—who’ll take the land? And the farms—what will I do? Salvon knew it all; he worked so hard for us—”
“My lady, listen to me,” Kieri said when the fit seemed like to go on another turn of the glass. “Your children will not go hungry, nor your house be taken away . . . I promise you, as I promised him—”
“Do you . . .” A gulp and cough interrupted that. “Do you really mean . . . you’ll help?”
“Yes,” Kieri said. “A king keeps his promises, and I have promised. Before a witness here—” He glanced at Arian’s Squire, who spoke up on cue.
“I witness the king’s promise,” she said. “Now, Lady Tolmaric—”
“You should not go in yet,” Kieri said. “It would distress you—and where are the children?” He knew that one son and two daughters had come, as wide-eyed and shy as their mother.
“At—at the house. This—this lady, this Squire said the queen had sent word, so I would not hear it from gossip, but I do not listen to gossip, sir king, truly I don’t. And she said I should wait, but I could not, I must come, he was my husband. Oh—” She broke into sobs again. “Oh, what will I do?”
“You will listen to me,” Kieri said with more force. Her mouth opened, and she stared but was quiet. “Listen carefully now. A dangerous being killed him, and the killing defaced him. What was done to his body was evil. You should not go in now but wait until those whose business it is have sewn him into a shroud for burial.”
“But I must see his face one more time—must kiss his hands, his feet—”
“No, you must not. Remember his face as it was. Hold that memory and do not degrade it with how he now appears.”
Her eyes were wide, fixed on his. “But . . . it is what a wife should do . . . it is what his mother did when his father died. What my mother did . . .”
“Yes, if his death was natural. This is not. Trust me, your king, to know what is best. You will have enough distress when you see him in the shroud, for the evil that was done distorted what was left. You must not remember him as he is now.”
“Then what—how long—?”
“Your children need you. Do you have servants in the house where you are?”
“N-no. It is not our house; we paid to use one for three hands of days. No need for servants; I can cook as well as any.”
“Yes, but you should not be alone now.” He sent the Squire to arrange an escort and someone to stay with Lady Tolmaric for a day or so. As soon as Lady Tolmaric and the two servants headed back to her rented house, Kieri went on to the salle.