The kingdoms of Osten Ard have been at peace for decades, but now, the threat of a new war grows to nightmarish proportions.
Simon and Miriamele, royal husband and wife, face danger from every side. Their allies in Hernystir have made a pact with the dreadful Queen of the Norns to allow her armies to cross into mortal lands. The ancient, powerful nation of Nabban is on the verge of bloody civil war, and the fierce nomads of the Thrithings grasslands have begun to mobilize, united by superstitious fervor and their age-old hatred of the city-dwellers. But as the countries and peoples of the High Ward bicker among themselves, battle, bloodshed, and dark magics threaten to pull civilizations to pieces. And over it all looms the mystery of the Witchwood Crown, the deadly puzzle that Simon, Miriamele, and their allies must solve if they wish to survive.
But as the kingdoms of Osten Ard are torn apart by fear and greed, a few individuals will fight for their own lives and destinies—not yet aware that the survival of everything depends on them.
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The touch of slender fingers frightened Morgan so badly that he leaped off the branch where he had been perched, banged his knee and elbow hard on a lower branch, then half-swung, half-fell to the ground. Even before he rose he was scrabbling forward across the forest floor on hands and knees, his pulse drumming in his ears. Only when he was some dozen paces away from the tree did he dare turn and look.
The moonlight seeping through the ancient trees did not reveal much of the thing that had touched him but cast enough silvery light for Morgan to know he had never seen another creature like it. It was smaller than his young sister, which eased his fears some, but it was no animal he could recognize, neither bear cub nor ape. Its startled black eyes were huge and, before the creature turned and vanished into the upper part of the tree, he even caught a glimpse of hands that seemed to have fingers instead of claws.
Morgan sat on the damp ground as the moon slid out of sight again behind the trees. He shivered, waiting for his heart to slow, wanting to weep but not daring to make a sound. He had no idea which direction he had come from or how long he had run.
I’m lost, he realized. Alone in Aldheorte Forest. Lost. It hit him like a blow.
He badly wanted a drink of something strong.
Morgan woke from a harrowing, dark dream of tripping roots and tangling branches, of vines that clutched and dragged him down like vengeful ghosts, to discover that, instead of angry phantoms, a bright blue summer sky peeked at him from between the branches overhead, and the warm morning air was full of the scent of green things.
He had but a single moment to appreciate the relief, the perfect innocence of the day; then as he tried to untangle himself from his cloak he rolled over and fell out of the tree where he had fallen asleep. He was slowed in his tumble by branches beneath; he was lucky to have climbed only a couple of times his own height. Still, branches scratched and gouged him in several places before he struck the ground.
At first he could only lie panting, testing his limbs to see if he had injured himself badly. So much, he thought, for the safety of perching in trees.
Thank our merciful lord Usires I didn’t climb any higher!
But his next thought was, What will happen to me? Is anyone searching? Are any of the others I came with even alive? He remembered the last time he had seen poor old Count Eolair, and his insides clutched in fear and sorrow for the count and Porto, for Binabik the troll and his family. Morgan did his best to push bleak thoughts away. He was a prince, he reminded himself; he could not let fears or unhappiness unman him. And he had not seen any bodies back at the camp except for Erkynguards, so it was even possible Snenneq and Qina and the rest had survived. But it was hard to believe it.
He desperately wanted a drink. A jug of wine would make the aches go away, and the worries, too. How had he been such a fool as to leave his flask at the camp, when he and Eolair first departed with the Sithi? Porto had probably drunk all of Morgan’s brandy. If the old knight had lived long enough.
Morgan was torn between genuine fear for his comrade and the idea that the last of the brandy might have been wasted on someone who wouldn’t live to appreciate it.
Now past the first shock of his fall, Morgan climbed unsteadily to his feet and began gathering the things that had tumbled from the branch with him—his sword, water skin, and lastly his dark green cloak, which he had wrapped around himself during a particularly cold stretch in the middle of the night. He sat beneath the beech and laid them all out on the damp ground around him, then untied his purse from his belt and emptied its contents onto the spread cloak.
The pouch that held his flint and steel for making fire were the first thing that struck his eye, and he promptly thanked God. But other than his mail shirt and the clothes he wore under it, he did not have much—his sword and his dagger and the things he had dumped from the purse. He examined the small pile, an unhappily brief inventory.
Flint and steel.
His mother’s Book of the Aedon.
A bundle wrapped in leaves that he didn’t recognize but prayed was something to eat.
The spiked foot-irons that Snenneq had given him for walking on ice, as useless here in the summer forest as teats on a boar.
But there was still a weight in the purse. He reached in to see what it was. Someone—his squire Melkin or perhaps even Snenneq the troll—had coiled up a few fathoms of slender cord and knotted them into a tight bundle at the bottom of the purse. He was unspeakably grateful to whoever had done it. If nothing else, he could use the rope to help make a shelter.
Or hang myself, he thought, then said a hasty prayer of apology. Why give God ideas?
Prayer over, he swiftly turned his attention to the leaf-wrapped parcel. He and Eolair had last eaten at the camp of the scarred Sitha Khendraja’aro. Morgan had not eaten much, although the food had been very good. It was hard not to curse himself now for having stinted when he could have feasted—but how could he have guessed what would happen next?
For the love of Our Lord, what will I find to eat here in the wood?
To his great relief, the bundle of leaves turned out be food that either old Porto or Morgan’s squire Melkin had put there for him—hard cheese, bread, and an apple, all wrapped in grape leaves. But where did the apple come from? Morgan couldn’t remember the last time they had been near a tree. Still, the rest of the food would keep a while longer, but the fruit was already softening, so he took a bite and for a moment was almost restored to happiness simply by the taste.
So I’m not such a fool as my grandfather thinks me, he told himself. Not helpless. Look at what I have with me—a knife, some food, flint and steel for fire. The moment of satisfaction was interrupted by a memory of his grandfather’s friend, Jeremias the Lord Chamberlain, who had strongly criticized Morgan’s leather belt-purse.
“It’s the kind of thing peasants and pilgrims wear,” Jeremias had told him. “And you, Highness, are neither.”
Well, Lord Purse-Hater, Morgan thought, who’s right and who’s wrong now? Then he realized he was sitting alone in a huge forest with no idea of how to get home, arguing in his head with someone who wasn’t there.
“When you wind up in one of those bad situations,” his grandfather had once told him, “sometimes you just have to get on with things. Just get on with them. Keep going. Keep pushing forward.” Now, years later, the king’s words finally began to make sense. Just during the time he had been staring at his few possessions the sun had moved higher in the sky, passing from below one branch to above it, hurrying toward its eventual noon summit, after which it would roll down into darkness again.
The food in his purse would not last long, and Morgan knew nothing of what might be edible in Aldheorte other than a few berries. He had not caught a rabbit since his childhood, while pretending to be wandering heroes with some of the other high-born children of the Hayholt. He hoped he still remembered how to make a snare.
If you remain here you’ll starve, he told himself. You must do something. Think, Morgan, think!
The most obvious plan was to try to find his way back to the edge of the forest. It had been hard to guess where to go before, but that had been while he was with the Sithi, and doubtless was due to some kind of heathen spell meant to confuse outsiders. There should be no reason now to doubt the sun’s path and the directions it would give him.
He bundled everything back into the purse, then looked up in the sky to calculate how the sun had moved before setting out toward what he felt sure was the south, toward the nearby grasslands. Despite his worries—and a fierce thirst for something strong, a thirst that was growing, not easing—he felt brave enough to whistle as he walked. It was only when he recalled that whoever had attacked the camp might well be searching for him that he fell silent.
By the middle of the afternoon Morgan could not have mustered the courage to whistle even if he had wanted to. His stomach was cramping painfully and his legs ached, but he could not seem to make any progress. After the sun crossed the peak of the sky he kept the line of its descent to his right, which should have taken him back to the forest’s edge. Instead, as the afternoon wore on he found himself still deep in the shadows of the tall trees, hornbeam and lindens and spreading Erkynland oaks, a darkness alleviated only by an occasional sun-scoured clearing or patch of marshy bottomland between hills. He had walked for far longer now than he could possibly have run the night before, no matter his terror. But even with the Sithi no longer about, their forest magic still seemed to afflict him.
He stopped to take stock, resting against the trunk of a broad beech tree halfway up a hillside. He’d finished the apple hours before, and squeezed and sucked the juice out of its core, then crunched up the seeds between his teeth so as not to waste any of it, feeling almost virtuous as he did so. But now hunger was a constant companion, so he pulled a piece of crust off the bread and ate it with a few morsels of cheese. That helped a little, but he still pined desperately for some strong drink. The thought of it and the frustration of having none was a constant misery.
The problem with where he was going seemed simpler to solve: he knew that in a general way the grasslands and the Ymstrecca must be south of him somewhere, but he did not know how deep in the forest he was. He wiped the sweat from his brow and peered up a nearby slope. If he climbed straight up, it seemed likely he would see something of his surroundings from the hilltop. He might even be able to see the edge of the forest and how far he still had to travel.
The climb took no little while because the slope was steep and covered with brush and fallen trees. By the time Morgan reached the top the sun had sunk considerably farther toward the horizon. He made his way across the summit until he found an open space where the trees fell away at the edge of a stand of ghostly birches. He looked out at the sea of trees spread below him—a sea with no shore.
“It’s not fair!” he cried. A jay squawked its disapproval at him. “Not fair!”
In every direction, the forest stretched away in all directions, nothing but endless treetops and a few hills here and there like the one on which he was standing, isolated islands in the green and brown ocean of leaves.
His eyes misted with tears of frustration and fear chilled him. He desperately longed to be able to drink himself witless.
The Sithi called their villages “little boats.” How he longed to see such a thing now. He wouldn’t care if it was the camp of that scarred villain Khendraja’aro himself.
Morgan’s knees felt weak, so he leaned against a birch trunk. The sun was even lower, its light skipping over dark places where the evening mists were already beginning to form. He wiped his eyes, angry with himself for this moment of weakness, but not strong enough to do anything else yet.
I’m going to die here. At that moment there seemed no other possibilty. Starved, or frozen, or after falling down and breaking my neck. Wolves. Bears. And nobody will ever know what happened to me.
“Kill the nobleman and take his clothes. He’s got nothing else of worth.”
Count Eolair, Lord Steward, Hand of the Throne, hero of the Storm King’s War, was all but picked up by a sneering Thrithings-man and thrown to the ground.
The rough, bearded men outnumbered Eolair by six to one. His tormentors wore pieces of armor that did not quite match, many of them in dirty surcoats from which the emblems had long ago been torn. The one who had thrown Eolair down stabbed at him with a sword, but it was meant to wound rather than kill—this grasslander wanted sport, first—and the count rolled out of the way so that the man’s thrust only pierced his cloak and pinned it to the ground.
One of the other riders dismounted, saying, “Stay your blade, Hurza.” The newcomer was young, but Eolair guessed by the easy way he gave the order that he must be the leader. He stared down at Eolair, mouth twisted in a smirk. His cheeks bore ceremonial scars, and numerous small, ornamental bones had been knotted in his fair hair and beard. Like the others, he wore no Thrithings clan-sign, which confirmed for Eolair that they were most likely free-roving bandits. “We can kill him any time we like. I want to know what he’s doing here.”
“And I will be very willing to tell you,” said Eolair, “but I would like to stand up first.” He lifted himself into a sitting position. Hurza’s blade was still in Eolair’s cloak; as the cloth ripped, a piece of it remained tacked to the ground. The grasslander scowled but did not argue with his young chieftain. Hurza withdrew his sword, then slowly wiped the mud from its tip on the count’s leg before sheathing it again. “Unless you are all of you afraid of a single Hernystirman twice your age,” Eolair added.
“More than twice mine, I guess,” answered the bandit leader, grinning now. “But as I said, there is no hurry in killing you, so tell us—what is a Hernystiri rabbit-eater doing on our land?”
“Is it yours? I see no clan emblem on any of you.” Eolair knew he was courting death by such bold replies, but the men of the Thrithings respected courage, and he might as well be killed for a leopard as for a lamb. He also had the feeling that the young one truly did want to hear him out, if only because the chieftain was smarter and more practical than his followers. Also, but not least in importance, Eolair saw three more members of the bandit company still poking around in a disgruntled manner near the fringe of the forest where Morgan had disappeared, and he wanted badly to keep the rest of them distracted. “I am Eolair, Lord Steward of Erkynland. I am here because I was on a mission for the High Throne.”
“A mission?” The chief laughed. “To who? The Fox Clan? Or the Sparrows? Or were you on your way to visit the fat villagers of New Gadrinsett?”
“None of those, nor to any other mortals. I was sent to find the Sithi.”
Several of the other bandits grew nervous at these words; a few spit on the ground and made signs against evil. “Ha,” said the leader. “Now I know you are lying, Hernystirman. Why would anyone want to seek the Forest Folk? And who could find them if the fairies did not wish to be found?”
The men who had been searching the edge of the woods had remounted their horses and were now heading back toward them; Eolair felt a rush of relief. Great Brynioch, thank you. Keep the boy safe, he prayed. Perhaps Jiriki was still waiting nearby and would help Morgan to safety. Despite their bad treatment at Khendraja’aro’s hands, Eolair thought there were few places outside of the Hayholt where the prince would be safer than with the Sithi.
“We had a horn,” he told the bandit leader. “One of the Sithi’s. And it worked, because I have only just returned from speaking with the Forest Folk, as you call them, only to find that you have attacked and killed my company.”
“I am tired of all this talking,” said Hurza, squinting and frowning, but he did not say it loudly, and his leader ignored him.
“This is rare storytelling, sir. Are you sure you are a nobleman, not a bard?”
One of the other bandits, a dark-bearded man older than the chieftain, suddenly spoke up. “By the Thunderer, I think I know this man, Agvalt.”
The leader turned. “What do you say?”
“I have seen him before. He knew my father.” He looked at Eolair with something like wonder. “I am Hotmer. My father, Hotvig of the Stallion Clan, fought for Prince Josua. Do you remember him?”
“Remember him?” Eolair was astounded, but still cautious. “Of course I do. But Hotvig became a great man in New Gadrinsett—an alderman of the town, I heard. How do you come to be here?”
Hotmer shook his head and his face went grim. “I do not talk of it.” He turned to Agvalt. “But this Eolair was an important man even then—the king’s right hand, and that was more than twenty summers ago.”
“Does any of this matter?” demanded Hurza with narrowed eyes and a sneer. “He has no purse so he has no use. Let us slit his throat and be on our way.” A few of the others seemed to agree with him, but the rest of the bandits looked to their young chief.
“It matters if he is worth ransom,” Agvalt pointed out. “What do you think, Hernystirman? Does the king care about you enough to ransom you?”
“Of course. If nothing else, he will want news of . . .” Eolair realized that in his exhaustion and fear he had almost said something foolish. “He will want news of my embassy to the Sithi. Yes, King Simon and Queen Miriamele will pay a ransom for me—but only if I am alive and well and can tell them what they want to know.”
Agvalt laughed. “Of course. But that is also what any desperate man would say. But though this day has already seen good pickings—” He gestured to a pile of shields and swords and bits of armor on the ground, no doubt looted from dead Erkynguards “—We should not risk missing a bigger prize by hastiness.” His scarred face suddenly became canny. “But who was the boy who ran off?” He looked up to the nearing riders and scowled. “The boy my men failed to catch.”
Eolair waved his hand. “My squire, a foolish oaf who deserted me when trouble came. I am better off without him.” For a moment he wondered if there was some way he could trick the bandits into helping him find Morgan, but could not imagine it without divulging the boy’s true rank. This was followed by a longer moment of anguished indecision: which was worse, to leave the prince alone in the wilderness or help him become a prisoner of murderous bandits? Agvalt might well torture and kill them both if the chieftain decided the prospect of ransom was too unlikely or too dangerous.
Agvalt interrupted his thoughts with another question. “And those other boys? The ones we saw in the distance, riding sheep?”
Eolair was astonished but also heartened. That had to be some of Binabik’s family, and it seemed they had survived the attack and escaped. “Those were not children but trolls of the high northeastern mountains. A group of them were accompanying us on their way home.”
Now Agvalt laughed hard and loud with what sounded like genuine pleasure. “Trolls? Ah, my, what a day this has been! Even if we decide to kill you, Eolair the so-called King’s Hand, we will keep you alive at least until you tell us all your stories. Nights on the grasslands can be dreary without a tale or two.” Suddenly his face became cold again. “Bind him, Hurza. Not so tightly as to ruin him, but I want no tricks, and he will stay tied until we make camp. He can ride behind Hotmer, who will doubtless enjoy the company of his father’s old friend.”
Since it seemed he would live at least a while longer, Eolair risked another question. “Where is the rest of your band? You would not have attacked so many armed men with only these.”
“The rest of my band?” said Agvalt. “We are not fools.” He turned toward the smoldering remains of the Erkynguard camp, where little was left to see but streamers of smoke shredded by the wind. “This butchery was not our work. These were clansmen—and not a few of them, either. A whole clan, on the way to the moot at Spirit Hills, that is my guess. But enough talk. We ride now.”
As he was lifted up onto the back of Hotmer’s saddle, Eolair took one look back at the spot where Morgan had disappeared, but with evening now fallen across the grassland, he could see nothing of the ancient forest but an endless breakfront of shadow.
All the gods keep you safe, Prince Morgan. I pray you find your way home without me. I don’t think I could bear to go back to your grandfather and grandmother with the news of my failure to protect their heir. Better to die here in the wilderness.
At first Morgan kept his sword in his hand, taking an occasional practice swipe at the shafts of sunlight falling through the trees, certain that at any moment he would be surrounded by bandits and forced to fight for his life. But as the day wore on and the forest air became hotter his arm tired and he sheathed the sword again. The bumping of his scabbard against his thigh quickly became another kind of annoyance. Though the sun was halfway down the sky, the day grew hotter until he felt as though he was smothering in his wool cloak. He took it off, rolled it, and draped it over his neck where it protected him from some of the nastier, scratching branches and made only the back of his neck itch instead of all of him.
The itching was the least of his problems. Nothing felt right, everything irritated or disturbed or frightened him. Despite the day’s heat and the sweat that dripped off him, he had moments of shivering chills. He could not stop thinking about brandy, wine, even small beer, anything that might ease the pain and numb his miserable thoughts. And on top of everything, he was still hopelessly lost in a strange, dangerous place.
Morgan had never thought much about forests except as places for hunting and the occasional drunken adventure with Astrian and Olveris, like the time they’d gone out to shoot deer in the royal Kynswood and wound up lost, staying out long after dark and only finding their way back with the help of some royal foresters who heard them arguing. But he was beginning to understand that the familiar forest beside the castle was a much different sort of place than this Aldheorte. For one thing, even in the depths of the Kynswood evidence of men was everywhere, hunter’s blinds and signs cut into tree bark, stacks of stones meant to mark a path, even the occasional charred remains of an old campfire. Here in the trackless Aldheorte nothing of mankind existed, and he encountered few other living things, just the occasional red flash of a squirrel in the treetops or the swift flutter of fleeing birds, heard more often than seen. He might have been in a new land that had never known a human footstep, yet he could not escape the sense that something—often more than one something— was watching him. He could not even say precisely what made him feel that way, but the sense of being an outsider, of being an object of interest, perhaps even to the great trees themselves, was inescapable.
He had never felt so lonely.
In the Kynswood and the parts of Hernystir’s great Circoille forest that he had seen, the woods were never entirely empty of people and human habitations. Forest folk farmed the trees, coppiced or pollarded them, and chopped some down for fuel, leaving only their stumps jutting from the ground like headstones. The underwood was gathered by charcoal burners, the fallen mast eaten by pigs driven into the woods to feed. Everything was bent to some use. Here he walked completely alone through hot, damp, and silent dark.
By the ending of the afternoon every breath Morgan took seemed to fill his chest without clearing his thoughts, and he fought constantly against a growing sense of helpless despair. Several times, as he crested a rise to see, not a glimpse of the forest’s outskirts or a heartening sign of human existence, but only the same apparently endless expanse of trees and tangled brush still stretching before him, it was all he could do not to sink down on his knees and weep.
I can’t do that, he told himself, over and over. I’m a prince. Not allowed.
He managed to hold the tears at bay, but as the day wore down and it became more and more certain he would not reach anything like the edge of the forest before nightfall, his fear began to rise like floodwater.
“That farmer’s son took up his sword
And ran to Greenwade’s bank
Where stood the Holly King’s cruel men
In rank by heathen rank.
“The lad he stopped and raised his sword
Close by the foaming flood
And cried ‘You’ll not take Erkynland
Though the river fills with blood!’ ”
Morgan had wanted to sing something martial and cheering, but his voice sounded small and pointless, and—worse—seemed to offend the eternal quiet of the forest, so he gave up before he was halfway through “The Dolshire Farmer’s Son.” Soon, though, he could not have sung even if he had wanted to. Instead, it was all he could do to keep picking his way through the undergrowth, to ignore the countless bloody scrapes from thorny shrubs overhanging the few animal paths, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
He spent what must have been an hour in a dense grove of towering, ancient linden trees, some straight and narrow as guards at attention, others so thick with their own new growth that the original trunks crouched in the center like silent grandfathers nodding by the family hearth. When he finally crossed into more open forest he paused to rest. The sun was setting now in the west—it had to be the west, or nothing meant anything—and the air was finally starting to cool. He was putting his cloak back on when he noticed a particular ash tree with a wide, angled trunk, as though it had grown in the shadows of some earlier, now vanished giant tree and had stretched toward the sunlight. Morgan could not help thinking, it seemed . . . familiar.
He walked a little closer, then from side to side, and could not dispel the feeling. Something pale on the ground near it caught his eye. It was the stem and topmost bit of an apple. Ants had covered it and the flesh had turned brown, but he knew even before he saw the print of a boot heel pressed into the loamy soil beside it that it was his own, the remnants of his long-ago morning meal.
He had come back to the place where he had started.
Morgan collapsed then, kneeled with his forehead pressed against the ground, and finally wept. The sun was a liar and a traitor, trying to murder him as surely as a knife-wielding assassin. The entire forest hated him, and now he hated it as well. He had walked all day and gone precisely nowhere.
He slept that night—or tried to—in the same tree that had sheltered him the night before. Things moved in the dark forest all around him, and he could hear the murmur of what almost sounded like voices. When he sat upright, heart beating fast, he saw three pairs of large round eyes catch the moonlight, shining on a high branch as they looked down on him, but whatever they were, they kept their distance. After that, Morgan did his best to ignore the rustling and soft murmurs.
The stars he could see through the trees seemed wrong, too—stretched or even unfamiliar shapes in what should have been familiar skies. Where the bright orb of the Lamp should have smoldered in the firmament hung a constellation like a spider or a crab instead, a central bright fire surrounded by radiating lines of lesser fires. It seemed even the sky had turned against him.
Morgan wept again, helpless to stop, but did his best to do it quietly, not wanting to draw the attention of some predator. He no longer feared any human searchers—he would have welcomed something so ordinary. But small noises escaped despite his most powerful efforts, and in the darkness of surrounding trees the invisible watchers murmured softly to each other, as if discussing what strange thing this alien creature might do next.