Omiroth, 14th of Autumn, Interregnum Year 20
The first time Adric, Lord Ardeth met Torisen was when he came to the Riverland as a boy.
It had started as another difficult day in a series of difficult days that were only likely to get worse. He was already embroiled in a blood feud with the house of Caineron, kept short of open warfare only by the fact that their respective home fortresses were separated by over two hundred miles along the length of the Riverland. A previous feud with the house of Coman had only been ended by selling one of Adric's daughters in marriage at a ridiculously low price in return for a promise that any male offspring would become heir to the house; the boy in question was half grown, but the conflict between the houses was merely in abeyance, not truly resolved. And now it appeared some of the Kendar from the house of Randir, his neighbors across the river, were encroaching upon farmland traditionally reserved for the house of Ardeth. With arable land so scarce in these parts, it was a provocation that could not go unanswered.
Honor demanded that he respond quickly and harshly, and yet he was beginning to fear for the Kencyrath as they broke into squabbling factions. Ardeth was not the only house facing conflict on multiple fronts; with each year that passed, almost as many Kencyrs died in feuds among themselves as in conflict with other races. For a people who regularly hired out as mercenaries, this was a bad situation to be in. The houses had been fragmenting apart ever since their mad Highlord, Ganth of Knorth, went into exile twenty years ago. Without a Highlord there was no one to arbitrate disputes, and the feuds just got worse.
If Ganth was still alive . . . if he could be persuaded to return from exile . . . if his madness was gone, or controllable, or at least concealable -- but no. The other houses would never accept the return of a lord who'd gotten half the Kencyr Host massacred in a hopeless battle -- never mind that nearly as many had died since then in reasonless feuds.
Meanwhile, the Kencyrs' God-given mission of fighting the spread of Perimal Darkling was all but forgotten. Adric remembered that mission well enough, but as head of house it was his duty to uphold the honor of the Ardeth. How could he act for the good of the Kencyrath as a whole without sacrificing the dignity of his house?
While he was contemplating this paradox of honor, his man Burr was announced, bearing dispatches from the Ardeth serving among the Southern Host. The letters had taken some water damage, despite being sealed in an oiled pouch. Stiffly, Burr described how he'd been attacked by hillmen along the road and had ended up retreating into the river itself to escape the superior numbers.
Adric frowned, checking over the letters. Only the outer ones were badly marked, and of those it seemed only the outermost pages -- bearing addresses and salutations -- were illegible. Almost all the content was still intact. "Relax, man. The letters are well enough. I'm not going to order you to use a White Knife!" Some forms of failure could only be expiated by ritual suicide; this was not one of them.
Burr sighed, and his shoulders eased. "Thank you, lord."
"You say you went into the river? I didn't know you could swim," Adric commented idly as he leafed through the stained letters.
"I can't, lord. I nearly drowned. But I had help from someone passing along the road -- a Kencyr from east of the Ebonbane, traveling to the Riverland."
Adric blinked. There were only a few minor Kencyr houses on the other side of the Ebonbane mountains, and almost no one traveled between them and the great houses of the Riverland. The only Kencyrs who went that way regularly were -- "Is he a priest?"
"No, lord. A boy, looking for . . . well, I said he could speak to you."
Adric sighed. "Burr, you know I can't offer a place to every houseless Kendar who comes seeking protection."
"I made no promises, lord. But he saved me -- and the dispatches -- and scared off the hillmen who attacked me."
"By himself?" Adric's eyebrows rose. "He must be quite a fighter."
"Well, yes, lord, but he . . . I think you'll want to speak to him."
Adric set the letters aside on his desk. "Very well, send in this fearsome fellow."
It wasn't, as he had envisioned, some precociously-large Kendar who stepped through the door, but a slender boy dwarfed by Burr's bulk. As he came into the room and the light from the great windows, Adric's breath caught. The triangular face, the dark curls, the silver eyes: this looked like any Knorth youth from the last hundred years, distilled into one -- with something more ancient still lurking behind that level gaze.
Adric came to his feet slowly, eyes fixed on the unknown yet familiar features. "What's your name, boy?"
"Torisen," he said, and the voice, young as it was, had the same ring Adric remembered. "Torisen of Knorth."
Burr, standing beside the door, choked a little. He must not have guessed; but then, he had only been a boy himself when Ganth went into exile.
"Your parentage?" Adric demanded.
"I am Ganth Gray Lord's son," said the boy, chin raised defiantly.
Adric nodded slowly. "And your mother?" By the look of him, the boy was full-blooded Highborn, but it was always possible he was part Kendar, unsuited to head a house.
Here the boy faltered a little. "She left when I was very young. But I'm told she was a Knorth also."
That was a surprise; there were supposed to be no Knorth females left, after the Shadow assassins had killed them all and started Ganth on the road to madness. But if there were a Knorth lady remaining, she would surely wish to keep her existence a secret for fear the notorious assassins would come after her as well. In fact, the tale of her 'departure' might have been to conceal something far more sinister.
So it was possible . . . but was it provable? Well, the mother's true bloodline was little matter so long as she was Highborn, and properly contracted. "She was contracted to your father, I trust?"
The boy blinked. "Sir?"
"Are you legitimate?"
A flush began to rise up the boy's neck. "I am no bastard, sir."
It had the ring of honesty. "Good. Excellent." Adric considered a moment. "Your father, is he dead? Ah no, never mind -- I can't imagine he'd let you leave if he still breathed."
The Knorth boy swallowed hard. "We lived in a keep up in the Haunted Lands."
Adric knew the place the boy referred to; he'd seen it on maps. But that keep had been abandoned generations ago as too dangerous, too close to the border and their eternal foe, Perimal Darkling.
"It wasn't a nice place to live. We were attacked more than once. Haunts, darklings, strange creatures with no name . . . " The boy ducked his head. "I . . . was the only one that got out."
"Do you have any token of your father's, to prove you are who you claim? His ring . . . his sword, Kinslayer?"
"No, sir. Only myself, and my word." The boy stood straight in the center of the room, looking as if he could anchor the world against all dishonesty. It was impossible to disbelieve him, yet Adric knew there were some who would take the lack of proof badly.
He began to pace as he considered all the implications. So old Ganth was no longer a concern, but against all expectations he'd left them an heir. This could be just what the Kencyrath needed to keep them from falling apart -- if only the boy could live long enough to take power.
"How old are you?" Not more than eighteen, Adric guessed.
Adric nearly groaned. Scarcely more than halfway to coming of age! They would have a long wait before them, with the blood feuds growing in number and intensity all the while. Perhaps it would help to announce that there was a Knorth heir ready to take power? No, no; Adric dismissed that thought almost as soon as it came to him. The boy would be assassinated without a doubt if he revealed his existence before a network of protection was ready. Then too, while he remained a secret, known only to Adric and a few select conspirators, he would also be beholden to them. When he made it to power, with considerable help from the house of Ardeth, he would owe this house -- and Adric himself -- a very great debt.
And what if he wasn't fit to be Highlord? What if he carried the Knorth madness in his blood, waiting to overtake him at the least opportunity? He would have to be tested first, then. He would need to face trials before Adric decided whether to support his claim -- though of course, he would make a show of support from the very beginning; honor demanded it, after all. And if the boy turned out to be unstable, Adric would have a hold over him that might prove all the more useful. Or possibly an accident could be arranged, though the idea was distasteful to all sense of honor. No, the Knorth line was too important to all the Kencyrath; better to keep the boy alive for breeding to some more stable line -- one of Adric's own daughters or granddaughters, for a preference.
Adric looked up thoughtfully from his pacing, aware of the boy watching him uncertainly. Burr was watching also: Burr, who obviously liked the boy, and who was a reliable messenger capable of operating independently and writing a fine hand (unlike many Kendar). Burr could be Adric's tool to keep track of the boy from a distance.
"Come," he said briskly, rubbing his hands. "Let's get out of this fortress. It's a lovely day, and there are so many ears inside, have you noticed? Let's go for a ride. There's much to discuss, much to plan -- and I want you to meet my Whinno-Hir mare, Brithany."
Urakarn, 39th of Winter, Interregnum Year 20
The first time Harn Grip-Hard met Tori was on the eve of the assault upon Urakarn when Genjar of Caineron, new commander of the Southern Host, promoted Harn to one-thousand captain and gave command of his old one-hundred unit to a green boy. The first time he really got Tori's measure was during the battle before the gates of Urakarn, and that was ironic since Harn usually didn't notice much during battle.
The hell of being an officer, Captain Harn had learned, was not being able to give in to his berserker instincts. He had to concentrate on what was going on all around him, see where his randons were weakening or overcrowded, issue orders to correct each situation. And now that he had a thousand-command, they insisted that he command from horseback. Horses, even battle steeds, tended not to like it when their riders went into berserk rages.
But beyond all that, it rankled that they'd given his old one-hundred command to a half-Highborn bastard who'd never even laid eyes on the war college at Tentir and probably didn't know which end of a sword to hold, much less how to do justice to Harn's friends and former fellows in the unit. Harn had put this deadweight in the center where he could keep an eye on him. His other one-hundred commands, less familiar to him personally but with experienced randon commanders, went to either side.
Rather than being house-oriented units, Harn's tenth of the Southern Host was composed of Kendar (and the occasional expendable Highborn or halfblood) from various houses, neither trained nor motivated to work together. Most of them were yondri-gon, threshold-dwellers, serving a particular house without actually being sworn to its lord, in hopes of one day earning a place. They were the misfits and rejects of the Southern Host, often given far longer tours of duty than the sworn Kendar who rotated back to more peaceful service in the Riverland -- an experienced lot, but weary and aging. As a group they were on the right flank of the line of battle, in the front line, a position that promised to be hot.
Harn had seen the child before the battle -- truly a child, since he must be years shy of coming of age -- white faced and shaking, hand clenched on the hilt of a sword too long for him but probably the shortest the armorer could come up with. Just come down from the north, he wasn't bronzed by the sun yet, and he looked all the paler for the black clothes he had chosen to wear. He was right-handed, too, unlike most Kencyrs -- this day was just full of foul omens. Harn wasn't completely devoid of feeling; he felt sorry for the boy, but he was more sorry when he thought of the fine randons who would suffer for lack of a better commander.
As it turned out, the boy should have been the last of Harn's worries. He'd listened gravely to Harn's suggestions on deployment and followed every one. He addressed the ten-commanders before the battle in a clear, high voice, holding them back from premature action.
Then the word came for the charge.
Off on the left flank, the elite house units bogged in heavy sand and couldn't hold the line. The Karnides must have known it was there, for they had only placed token forces on their right side, peppering the Kencyrs with arrows and the occasional spear. The heavy forces, pikemen and armored units with battle waggons drawn by vicious horned rhi-sar, were on the Karnides' left, directly in front of Harn's command -- who were attacking in a disciplined line, perfectly arrayed until the crack of that first contact.
After that, everything was tinged with red mist for Harn, but he held on, shouting commands and encouragement he was hardly aware of. He saw his right-front one-hundred overrun by waggons and decimated within minutes; even as he ordered the second rank forward, three tens from the center-front unit moved to assist at the word of the black-clad boy -- had Harn told him to do that? Then the waggons reached him, and Harn gave in to the red tide.
He surfaced once to the sound of a high-pitched cry and saw the slender black form make a Senethari fire-leaping move to clear a pike thrust. Apparently little Blackie did know which end of a sword to hold. And then Harn was swept away to one scene of carnage after another, some of his own making but too many that were not.
He woke with a roaring headache to find himself in chains, his arms slung over the backs of two other Kendar who were also chained. Karnides were urging a line of them along at spear-point toward the buildings in the distance. At intervals they stopped to murder people on the ground -- Kencyrs or their own kind, they seemed not to care. Kencyrs had an honorable tradition of easing the passing of those too badly wounded for care, but some of these needed only a day or two of dwar sleep to recover.
Harn tried to protest the killings, but with little effect until they came to a small figure in dusty black pinned beneath an overturned waggon. The boy was awake, watching with cool silver eyes as the battle-harvesters approached.
"Not him!" cried one of the Kendar in Harn's group as a Karnide stooped with knife in hand. "He's an officer!" The speaker was randon Larch, commander of the one-hundred unit to which the little Highborn had sent aid. "Officer!" Larch repeated in the Karnish tongue.
The religious fanatic looked to Harn, evidently recognizing him as the highest ranking in the group.
"Aye," said Harn. "The boy's a Highborn. You understand?" He didn't have the common Kencyr gift for language, and struggled to remember a few foreign words. He gestured to the boy's collar of office, already stained with blood and dirt after one day on the job. "Officer. One-hundred officer. Very big man." Which was a ridiculous description of a slip of a boy, especially coming from someone Harn's size; but it got the point across.
The Karnide looked at them all skeptically, then gestured to the prisoners to heave the waggon away. Beneath it, they found the boy's servant -- an Ardeth, Harn recalled, and a decent fighter even though he wasn't a trained randon -- stirring groggily.
"You spare him too," the black-clad boy said coldly to the Karnides, and incredibly they held their knives while the servant was hauled to his feet and dusted off.
"Come on, Blackie," said Harn, as their captors doled out another length of chain to bind the two newcomers. "Looks like we're going to Urakarn."
Restormir, 61st of Winter, Interregnum Year 20
The first time Caldane, Lord Caineron heard about "Tori" was in a letter from his eldest son Genjar.
Dear Genjar had finally taken command of the Southern Host, the Kencyrath's largest body of mercenaries. He spent some paragraphs outlining for his father and lord how this command would enable him to promote the glory and power of the house of Caineron, eventually propelling Caldane to the position of Highlord with Genjar, of course, as his heir.
As the first step in this grand scheme, Genjar detailed his plans for a strike upon the stronghold of Urakarn, a city of religious fanatics in the Southern Waste which had been a thorn in the side of their ally King Krothen of Kothifir for many years. The Karnides, who were pitiful cowards and insanely confident of support from their false god, would fold at once under the assault of trained Kencyr mercenaries. Genjar also planned to manipulate the order of battle to preserve the Caineron forces while allowing some of the more expendable yondri units to take the brunt of the attack.
In a hasty postscript to the letter, sent out the night before the assault was to begin, Genjar added that Lord Ardeth had sent along a green Highborn boy -- apparently a bastard of Ardeth's, or perhaps of one of his sons -- with orders that the boy be trained to command. Genjar had given this "Tori" a one-hundred command, enough to show up his incompetence without letting him undermine the entire battle strategy. And he'd promoted a Kendar berserker above the boy; the otherwise capable randon would notice no details once the fight was joined, and so wouldn't be in a position to come to the boy's aid.
It was all most sensible; Genjar was quite the strategist, almost as brilliant as Caldane himself. Ardeth would be distressed by the loss of his protégé -- perhaps distressed to the point of failing health -- and Caldane wouldn't have to worry about interference from that quarter again.
That letter marked the last time that Caldane's glorious plans appeared to be moving forward as expected.
Urakarn, 47th of Winter, Interregnum Year 20
The first time Rose Iron-Thorn met Tori was in the dungeons of Urakarn.
The rest of the prisoners in the cell were experienced randons, Kendar who dwarfed the boy in their midst and dreaded the approach of his torture as much as their own. After they brought Captain Harn back with his chest mutilated and his head dented even worse, and took the young Highborn away, the atmosphere among the remaining Kencyrs in the cell grew even more oppressive.
He was rumored to be an Ardeth bastard -- how else to explain the sworn Ardeth servant (a bound member of that house and not a yondri-gon as Rose was to Caineron), and the letter Ardeth had apparently sent along with him? But he was no half-Kendar, Rose was certain of that. At most he might be one-quarter or one-eighth Kendar blood. Or he might be full-blooded Highborn; bastards were rare among that race since most Highborn women could control conception at will, but they weren't unheard of. The thing was, he didn't look like an Ardeth. If Rose had to guess, she might almost have thought he was . . . something she shouldn't even be thinking about, far less voicing out loud. Better to let it lie, especially if they were all destined to rot in this dungeon.
As a Caineron, she wasn't really welcome in the group tending to the Captain's wounds, so Rose sat impassively in the corner of the cell and watched the boy's Ardeth servant pace. This man, Burr, seemed very fond of the boy even though he'd only been in service with him for a few months. Rose had felt the same pull of that Highborn command presence when she spoke to the boy earlier. That was part of what made her certain the boy -- Tori, he had told them to call him -- was full Highborn; he drew Kendar to him like moths to a particularly brilliant flame. Even the sworn ones like Burr and Harn weren't immune.
There was also the boy's slight build. Rose had teased him that he was scarcely taller than her own five-year-old daughter. Her stories of Brier had seemed to interest him, and he'd let slip the information that he was barely sixteen years old. More than ten years short of coming of age -- what had his parents (whoever they were, or however unwise to have begotten and borne him) been thinking, to send such a child off to war? But likely his parents were gone, or had no say in where he was sent. He had the air of someone alone in the world, and a little lost. But then, they were all lost, here in the dungeon.
A day after he was hauled away, Tori was tossed back into the cell with scorched and bloody hands curled protectively against his chest, and another one-hundred captain by the name of Rowan was taken away instead. Tori breathed in little choking gasps but didn't weep or scream as they pulled his burned fingers apart and wrapped them in what rags were available.
Afterward, Burr cradled the boy in his arms, practically in his lap, but Tori refused to sleep. Captain Harn woke briefly from the depths of dwar, murmured something about "Good, Blackie's back," and subsided again. But still Tori was awake, trembling in Burr's clutches.
Rose was mostly asleep herself, in the deepest watch of night, when she heard his young voice whisper, "Burr?"
"Shhh, Tori, just sleep."
"Burr, if they ask you -- if they ask you to recant, say yes. Say you believe in their god. Say you never liked the Three-Faced God anyway."
"You know I can't do that, Tori. The lie would stain my honor."
"Not if . . . not if . . . give me your soul."
Rose caught her breath. Here was proof, if she had needed it; only a full-blooded Highborn could carry another Kencyr's soul.
"I can hold it for you, keep it safe. They won't haul me out again soon . . . I don't think so, anyway. Give me your soul, then you can lie to them and, and it won't touch your honor."
"Tori, I . . . I can't . . . you're fevered, that's all. It wouldn't work."
Rose opened her eyes and leaned closer to them. "Maybe it would work," she breathed. "Tell them you recant and they won't torture you, well enough -- but they might also give you a bit of freedom. Chance to wander around. Maybe . . . a chance to grab the keys?"
Burr's eyes gleamed wide in the darkness. "That's madness. It wouldn't work! The place is crawling with Karnides."
"And a Kencyr with no soul is nearly impossible to kill. We can fight our way out!"
"We?" Burr hissed. "He's too young for this! How many souls do you expect him to carry?"
"I can do it!" Tori insisted, loudly enough that the others in the cell stopped pretending to sleep. Rose could hear him struggling to sit up, and guessed that Burr was restraining him.
"Better we should wait. They'll ransom us back," Burr said.
Rose shook her head. "I doubt it. My lord Genjar is dead." She heard breaths catch and mutters of surprise around them. "Last night. I felt it." Though she was only a yondri temporarily in service to Caineron, the Highborn of that house kept a heavy hand on their Kendar.
"Was he captured?" someone asked from the other side of the cell.
"I don't think so," said Rose. "It must have been the White Knife." Despite her enforced loyalty to the house, she knew that it had been folly for Genjar to use his command of the Southern Host to attack Urakarn -- and it had failed. If Genjar had survived the battle that cost so many Kencyr lives, he could only redeem his honor by ritual suicide.
"They've given up on us," someone said. "There'll be no ransom."
"Even if there were, could we wait for it?" another said.
"No, we can't," said a rough voice that Rose recognized as Captain Harn's. He sounded alert enough, so he must have emerged from dwar some time ago. "We have to try to escape. Blackie's plan is as good as any. How many souls can you carry, boy?"
The answer was simple and immediate. "As many as I have to."
Southern Waste, 50th of Winter, Interregnum Year 20
The first time Rowan Bitter-Shield got Tori's full measure was when he led them out of Urakarn by their souls.
The fight to get free of the dungeons was short, bitter and bloody. The long trek that followed was worse. The sun of the Waste beat down upon them powerfully, though most of them cast no shadows. If it were not winter, they would have had to stop and seek shelter during the day. As it was, they kept shuffling across the sand, but Rowan knew they had little hope of avoiding recapture. It was incredible that they had even made it this far. But the young Highborn told them to walk, so they walked.
She was the slowest of them still upright, with the infected wound she had taken in battle griping at her leg and the burn on her forehead from the torture feeling as if it must eat through her skull. Two others were being carried: a randon with both feet ruined by torture clinging to the back of one-hundred commander Larch; and Burr, the Ardeth servant, who had taken a pike-thrust through the chest and was left by the Karnides for dead. Yet Tori had insisted the man was still alive and started digging with wounded hands through piles of rotting bodies to find him.
When they had disentangled Burr from the carrion, he certainly looked dead. Captain Harn said, as gently as his gruff voice would allow, "Give him back his soul, lad, and let him go."
"He's not dead; he can heal," said Tori, stubbornly denying the obvious truth. "Anyway, there isn't time." He cupped his filthy bandages around Burr's face and ordered, "Sleep." And impossibly, the shattered chest began to rise and fall in the healing rhythms of dwar.
It couldn't be good for Burr to be slung over Captain Harn's shoulder now, but apparently refusing to give him up to death helped Tori, for he kept marching steadily across the sand with his hands curled in front of him. His shadow marched northward before him, deepened and enlarged eightfold, yet somehow not distorted out of shape. Rowan could scarcely conceive the strength that would allow this slender boy to carry seven souls besides his own, all intact and undamaged. It was like something out of the most ancient legends, the ones full of pageantry and tragedy and honor. She wondered, a little distantly, where the tragedy would come in, and where the honor.
Without her soul, she felt strangely light and uncaring. She was aware of the pain in her leg and forehead, but it didn't seem to matter much; all that mattered was walking, as she'd been commanded, and not letting her leg collapse beneath her. Even the sun didn't make her sweat -- though that might have been her fever, rising again. Tori wasn't sweating either.
Then Rose Iron-Thorn stumbled into sink-sand, and disappeared within seconds. Tori, being the closest, clutched at her. He fell prone, his legs on the dry surface and his arms descending into the sink-sand with Rose.
Rowan went after him, catching him by the legs and holding. He was so slight it seemed her hands could wrap right around each of his thighs. Others came to brace her or to reach for Tori themselves.
"I can't hold her," Tori was sobbing, his face almost lost in the sink-sand. "I can't hold on. Rose!"
Rowan sighed and pulled him back onto dry sand. His bandages, filthy with blood and grit, raveled free to show hands that looked like raw meat several days past edible.
"No, she's still in there! I couldn't hold on, she slipped away --"
"She's gone, Blackie," said Captain Harn gently.
"She's still alive!"
Rowan gulped. It was possible; without a soul, it was unlikely a mere lack of breath would kill Rose Iron-Thorn. She might languish there under the sand, suffocating, for days. Rowan began to think how someone might be able to go down after her, with a rope -- but they had no rope.
"She's gone. Will you release her soul now?"
"There isn't time!" Tori panted. "We have to keep moving."
So they marched. Privately, Rowan wondered if the boy was just reluctant to lose whatever consolation their souls brought to him. It was even possible he had some plan for making use of them; some of the old stories whispered of such horrors -- stolen souls, devoured souls, souls turned to evil use. Yet seven tough, experienced Kendar had entrusted their souls to this unknown boy on his bare word, without knowing his history or motives. It hadn't been easy to give her soul up; it had felt like peeling her skin away, except that it was something inside her that pulled free and went with Tori.
On they marched, until Rowan's leg gave out. She tried to tell them to go on without her, but an Edirr yondri pulled her arm over his shoulder and hauled her along. Now there were as many of them being carried or supported as walking.
Near nightfall they found shelter: a boat so ancient that its wood had turned to stone, or something like it, in the strange environment of this dry sea.
"We have time now," said Captain Harn, and Rowan could hear in his voice some of the suspicions that nestled under her own heart. "Will you release our souls now? Or do you have some other plan for them?"
The boy sat straight, flushed with fever. "I gave you my word. Is that not enough?"
Harn grimaced. "We've only known you a few days, Blackie."
"What are we coming to, if you can't trust the word of another Kencyr?"
Harn shrugged and turned away, but Tori, closing his eyes and muttering under his breath, began to release their souls -- Harn first, then Larch, then Rowan, and on down the line. As he'd said, it took time -- more than they could have spared while escaping. Rowan's soul felt so heavy when it was back inside her, weighting her down, that she wondered how Tori had been able to stand while carrying them. She had expected him to release Rose's soul first of all, but for some reason he clung to that one, as he did to Burr's.
Rowan lapsed into dwar sleep and missed what followed. When she woke, they were safe at the northern shore of the dry sea, and a Kencyr scouting party had found them. Tori was near delirious, muttering about Rose Iron-Thorn towing their boat from below the sand (or was it water he spoke of?) His shadow was merely doubled now; he was only carrying Burr's soul in addition to his own. And Burr was breathing more easily, the gaping hole in his chest smaller. He was healing faster without his soul; Tori had been right about that, too. But still the boy refused to sleep.
Rowan, remembering the strange dreams that had haunted her on the edges of dwar, could understand his reluctance.
Kothifir, 40th of Autumn, Interregnum Year 28
The first time Hollens, Lord Danior met Torisen was in a Kothifir brothel.
"Merry birthday!" he called expansively as he saw two Kencyrs enter the opulently-furnished room. "The celebration is on me!"
The two -- one burly Kendar and one Highborn near Holly's age -- looked rather grim, for customers in such an establishment. Also overdressed, one in the sand-colored uniform of the Southern Host and the other in dusty black leather.
"Please come with us, Lord Danior," said the Highborn flatly.
"What? But the party's just getting started. Joyous birthday!"
"It's not my birthday," said the Highborn. He gave the Kendar a nod and started to retrieve Holly's clothes from the floor -- and the divan, and the side-table, and the wall sconce (that stocking was slightly scorched).
"No . . . it's mine! Only two more years and be twenty-seven, full legal age, then I get to take over from Uncle Borsen in those dreary Council meetings! Happy birthday!" This last was muffled as the Kendar pulled a tunic firmly over Holly's head.
"It's not your birthday, either," said the Highborn, waiting for Holly's pants to be pulled up so he could start jamming boots onto his feet.
"Not anymore. That was yesterday." The Highborn waved at the bright sunlight streaming around the edges of the red velvet curtains. "Your Kendar have headaches, and your, er . . . companions are tired."
"No they're not. Give them some more gold -- that will wake them up!"
"And you're spending gold that your Kendar bought with blood. Time to leave, now." The Highborn turned away to exchange a few words with the madam while the Kendar hustled Holly out into the muddy street.
"Oh, that's no fun!" Holly protested. "And why's it so bright out here, anyway?"
"That happens, during the daytime," the Kendar said drily.
"Uncle Borsen sent me south to learn the ways of the world!" Holly declaimed to the spinning buildings.
"Funny," said the Highborn as he rejoined them. "I thought he sent you to learn discipline and command with the Southern Host."
"I haven't reported in yet, so that doesn't count."
Holly peered at the black-clad figure. He hadn't taken a good look at that collar before. "Oh. Are you Tori?"
"Commander of the Southern Host. All gates and hands are open to you. This is Burr," the Highborn greeted him.
"Honor be to you and your . . . lovely . . . street . . ." Holly retched into the gutter.
"Feel better?" Tori asked, as the two started to chivvy Holly down the street in the direction of the great barracks complex where the Southern Host were housed.
"Not especially. So you're an Ardeth, then? Welcome to the family, cousin!"
Tori blinked at him. "You're related to the Ardeth?"
"I'm related to everyone. Danior, like Ardeth and Caineron, makes many marriage alliances. Unlike Randir and Knorth, who keep -- or kept, in the case of Knorth -- mostly to themselves. Though, actually, I have the honor of a recent connection to the house of Knorth myself." Holly beamed and stood a little straighter. "My grandmother was a Knorth. In fact, I probably have a better claim to the Highlord's chair than anyone this side of the Ebonbane!"
"Is that so?" Tori murmured.
"Certainly better than old Caldane's claim. Not that I have the political power to back it up," Holly added ruefully. "For anyone but a pureblood Knorth to be Highlord, it'd take years of political maneuvering, and I just don't have the taste for that sort of thing. Caldane does, though -- he's been gathering the power for it."
"Caineron wants to be Highlord?"
"He wants anything that involves power. I don't think he'll ever be satisfied."
"Hmm. So, Lord Danior . . . are you this astute when you're not drunk?"
Holly laughed. "Astute? Hardly. Uncle calls me a featherweight. Brain. Featherbreight. I mean, um . . . "
"Perhaps he hasn't seen enough of you when you are drunk."
"Not what he says!" Holly crowed.
"Well, since you're in the mood for political pontificating --" Tori guided Holly carefully around a steaming pile of manure too large to have come from a horse. "What would it take if a pureblood Knorth wanted to be Highlord?"
"Oh, that's easy," said Holly, eyeing the manure pile doubtfully. "What made that?"
"A rhi-sar, I expect; some folk put them in harness around here. But you were saying, about a pureblood Knorth?"
"Oh yes. All he'd need are the symbols of the Highlord. The ring, the sword -- everyone would fall in line. They're already sick of having no one to lead, but they just can't agree on any of the current lords."
"But suppose the ring and sword were lost with Ganth Grey Lord?"
"Then I guess it would take some political backing. Less than for a Caineron, more than for a Knorth with the symbols of power." Holly considered a moment. "It would help if he wasn't mad, I suppose. Desperate as they are, no one wants another mad Knorth in control of everything."
"You seem to have a good grasp on the politics," said Tori. "Perhaps your uncle should see more of you when you're drunk."
"Did he write to you?" Holly demanded, suddenly suspicious.
"He requested that I keep an eye on you," Tori admitted. "Though I would think your own Kendar would be better for that."
"Oh, they don't know what to do with me," said Holly airily.
"So you slipped away from them and went to a brothel, eh?"
"Oh no, that's just good sense. It was one of my Kendar who told me where to find it."
"It was?" Tori paused, making Holly lurch.
"Young man needs to learn these things," Holly said earnestly. "Well, maybe not you; you're not going to be a head of a house. But I'm going to have beautiful Highborn ladies trying to turn my head and follow their father's lead in Council, or give their house a better deal on grain, or what have you."
"The lords send their daughters to do their negotiating for them?"
"Yes. Only one at a time, of course, and with proper contracts up to and including full marriage rights. But some of those girls are . . ." Holly shuddered. "Frightening. I'd almost rather face the fathers. Some of them, at least. Depends on the father, I guess."
"And so you go to a brothel rather than face the Highborn ladies," Tori concluded.
"Well, yes -- I wouldn't be allowed to lay hand on a Highborn lady just yet, you understand. I haven't come of age, so I don't have full rights myself. But the important thing is, the lovely girls at that brothel were teaching me all about how to indulge in manly pleasures without losing my head and trading away my house and all my heirs in perpetuity. See?"
"Considering all the gold you threw away, I'm not sure the lessons were working," said Tori.
"That's because I've only just started. That's it -- I need more lessons!" Holly tried to turn around, only to be corraled and straightened out by his two captors.
"Maybe after you've recovered from the first set of lessons," Tori said wryly. "But, um, aren't you worried about, um . . ."
"Picking something up?" said Burr from Holly's other side.
"I was going to say, leaving something behind."
"My money-pouch, you mean?"
"No, more like . . . a child?"
"Oh! A bastard, you mean?" Holly shrugged. "Between a Southron and a Kencyr? It's possible, I suppose, but not likely. And these girls do have their tricks to prevent it, you know."
"You'd trust a prostitute to protect your honor? Your house's honor? What if she wants to extort money or . . . something out of you?"
Holly blinked. "Hadn't thought of that. But I wouldn't have to acknowledge the bastard, y'know."
"Now, that sounds like something Lord Caineron would do," Burr offered.
"It does, doesn't it?" Holly frowned. "Could always try for a Kendar bed-mate, I suppose. Though one doesn't like to think of ordering someone to have sex."
"Yes, paying them is so much nicer," said Tori.
"What am I to do, then?" Holly demanded. "I'm not the sort to go for the boys!"
"It's your honor, Lord Danior," Tori said, a little more stiffly than he'd spoken before.
"Yes. Yes, it is. And this is the best solution I've found. I don't think Uncle Borsen disagrees, either; he said something about it, in a roundabout sort of way."
"But perhaps you should stick with just one night at a time," Tori suggested. Ahead, they could see the wall of the barracks complex. Two of Holly's Kendar were chatting casually with the gate guards; they looked up as the trio approached.
"Fine, fine. Just be glad you don't have to deal with the problems a head of house faces. You're fortunate to be out of it, I tell you."
Southern Waste, 12th of Spring, Interregnum Year 31
The first time Burr finally admitted to himself that Tori was a Shanir was when he fled into the Waste trying to avoid a dream.
Burr's family had been sworn to the house of Ardeth for generations. The Ardeth were more tolerant than most of those Highborn who possessed the mystical gifts of the Shanir. Even the Randir, who bred themselves deliberately to bring out Shanir traits -- and who contributed most of the students to the priests' college they ran -- looked upon the Shanir with a mix of fear and scorn, as if the gifts themselves might turn the bearer to betray the Kencyrath as Gerridon of Knorth had done thousands of years ago. Tori himself had an almost involuntary disgust of Shanir, and could scarcely bring himself to speak civilly to the Healers after a battle. More than once he'd referred to a Shanir by the old term, 'child of darkness.' But the Ardeth recognized that many of the most essential traits of the Highborn -- including that inimitable command presence and the ability to bind Kendar to service -- were closely related to the gifts of the Shanir, and strongest in those who possessed other Shanir gifts as well.
Burr had wondered, more than once, if Tori's occasional vivid nightmares were memories of his past or, instead, some kind of Shanir far-seeing which took hold of him. Of necessity -- since it was a part of his orders -- he had included these speculations in his reports to Lord Ardeth. Tori insisted they were only bad dreams, and refused to discuss their content. But when he felt such a dreaming episode coming near, he would sometimes stay awake for days at a time. He had done that at Urakarn, and afterward, while Burr lay in healing dwar sleep. By the time Burr woke, Tori was already past the worst of it, and Burr hadn't guessed that it would prove to be a pattern.
Now, after several days of growing more and more snappish and haggard, prowling restlessly about the complex by night, and refusing all Burr's possets and urgings to rest, Tori had slipped away, taken a horse, and ridden out of Kothifir. Harn would have it that their young commander had gone north, along the River Road. But Burr felt something indefinable pulling him toward the south instead.
"What's this?" said Harn, when Burr mentioned it to him. "Are you telling me now you're bound to him and not to Ardeth?"
"No," said Burr slowly, just beginning to feel out the shape of it himself. "I'm not sworn to him, but I do feel . . . some kind of connection. I'm sure of it."
Harn glowered at him. "He did carry your soul for over two weeks, while you were healing after Urakarn. D'you think that has aught to do with it?"
"It might," Burr conceded, but in fact he was sure this connection was more recent.
He'd felt protective and even somewhat possessive of Tori for years, but had noticed an increased sensitivity to his master's moods and needs starting just last Autumn, after . . . after their stay in Mensar, he realized. They had stopped at the village to set up a posting station for Tori's new system to get dispatches from the Southern Host to the Riverland more efficiently. While they were there, someone (very likely that Caineron idiot Nusair, who somehow blamed Tori for successfully commanding the Southern Host after Nusair's older brother Genjar had failed so spectacularly) had slipped an adder into one of Tori's boots as they returned from being cleaned. Tori had been bitten, and half-swooned despite Highborn resistance to poisons. Burr had, perhaps unwisely, tried to suck out some of the venom even though it was more likely to kill him than Tori.
Burr had felt something change that night, though he'd been too worried about Tori and too sickened himself by the venom to give it thought right away. He realized now that it almost did feel like his link to Lord Ardeth, but deeper somehow. It was a tether to his very soul, where the Ardeth bond was more of a guiding hand upon his shoulders.
If he was bound to Tori without making an oath or first breaking his bond to Lord Ardeth -- and this had happened when Burr sucked at Tori's wound -- that must mean Tori was a blood-binder. That was one of the rarest and most ancient Shanir traits, portrayed even in romantic tales as dangerously prone to abuse; yet some of the greatest Kencyr heroes had been blood-binders, as well.
And Burr, all inadvertently, had betrayed his vows to Lord Ardeth by becoming blood-bound to Tori. But he had no time to go looking for a white knife; he had to find Tori first and help him. And he felt positive, in his bones, in his soul, that Tori had gone south. He persuaded Harn to head that way with him, while they sent a few other trusted searchers (veterans of Urakarn) to try further north.
Once they were out of the city, beyond the most heavily trafficked roads, it was easy to pick up the trail of a Kencyr-shod horse. Two days into the desert it led them -- at least, two days if they spared their horses. Tori evidently had not been sparing his; the tracks showed signs of stumbling, and even the occasional splash of blood from spurs. It made Burr worry all the more, since Tori never pressed animals or people beyond what they could bear. Was this the famous Knorth madness, infecting Tori just months after he came of age? What was Burr to write in his report to Ardeth -- or where did his loyalty lie now?
"Is the boy going to lead us all the way back to Urakarn?" Harn demanded roughly on the second day.
Burr had hardly paid attention to their direction. "His mount will never last that long."
"Neither will ours," said Harn.
"Longer than his, anyway," said Burr. "Look!" The trail they followed had become more erratic, and not far ahead the carrion-birds were circling.
It was indeed Tori's horse, or a half-fleshed skeleton with Tori's gear on it. Tori himself had evidently leapt clear of the fall, which made Burr sigh in relief; but then the boot tracks staggered off to the south yet again.
"Blackie'll run himself to death as well as the horse," Harn muttered, retrieving a waterskin -- still half full -- from the abandoned gear.
"He can't be that far ahead," Burr insisted, and spurred his mount to follow.
Just a few miles further on they found the ruins of an abandoned village, bones of houses bleaching in the sun. It was impossible to tell now if the inhabitants had left because their wells dried up or because of some conflict, perhaps with the Karnides not so far away.
Tori was curled in the shade of a crumbling wall, alive and asleep. "It's about time!" Harn growled, but it soon became clear that this was anything but the healing rest Tori needed. He twitched and muttered and cried out fearfully, but couldn't be roused from the nightmare. They tried to make him comfortable and coaxed a few sips of water through his cracked lips, but they couldn't risk more or he would choke.
"He needs a healer," Harn said, squatting back on his heels.
"It would take days to bring one," Burr pointed out. "Anyway, you know how he feels about healers."
"Aye, and it's a load of manure so far as I can tell."
Burr grimaced. "Perhaps not entirely." Most of the healers with the Southern Host were Randirs, longtime political opponents of the Knorth. Those not directly sworn to the house still had an obligation to the Randir for their training.
Tori's head thrashed back and forth as he muttered, and words were coming audible now: "Attack" and "betrayed me" and "climb!"
"Is he remembering Urakarn?" Harn demanded doubtfully. They had been in other battles since, but none so large or so grim. None where Tori might have felt betrayed; he had triumphed in every conflict since he became commander.
"I don't think so," said Burr slowly. "Something older, perhaps."
Harn listened some more to the gravelly voice emerging from Tori's lips, so unlike his normal speech and yet carrying a faint echo of it.
"Unnatural . . . darklings!" Tori croaked.
"That voice . . . does it sound familiar to you?" said Harn.
Burr remained mute, afraid he knew what Harn was guessing. He had heard a few addresses from Tori's father, Ganth Grey Lord -- the voice had been something like this.
"Damn you all, fight them!" Tori barked. "If they won't die, cut off their arms and legs!" Then he subsided, his words becoming unintelligible.
Burr groaned inwardly as he mopped Tori's brow. It sounded like Tori was reliving the attack of the haunts upon his father's keep -- the attack from which only Tori had escaped.
"You know what's going on, don't you?" Harn growled. "Why is Tori talking in old Ganth's voice?"
Burr ducked his head and tried to squeeze a bit more water from a rag into Tori's mouth, but the young man tossed his head and the droplets spattered his cheek.
"I've heard him make the old rathorn war cry a time or two as well," Harn mused. "Didn't think someone his age would know that one. It was Ganth's war cry."
"It's the Knorth war cry," Burr corrected shortly.
"He looks a bit like the old lord, too."
Burr sighed. Harn had guessed most of it; time to tell him the truth and see if he would promise to keep it secret. "He's Ganth's son."
"His heir?" Harn demanded at once.
Harn let the breath trickle out through his lips on the shape of a curse. "So . . . he's remembering the old lord's death, is he?"
"I think so. He told us haunts attacked the keep, and he was the only one who made it out."
"God's claws. And he came here to command the Southern Host? He should be Highlord!"
"It wasn't safe -- he was still too young. He's been waiting to make his move until he comes of age."
"But that was a few months ago, in the wintertime, wasn't it? What's he waiting for now?"
"I don't know," Burr admitted.
Harn considered all this information while their commander and rightful Highlord panted and whimpered between them. "So Ardeth knows, does he, and sent you along to keep the boy in line?"
"Not to control him," Burr said quickly. He wouldn't have been able to do that, and his lord knew it. "To watch. To spy on him." And Tori would never forgive him for that. "To see if he has the Knorth madness in him." Burr mopped his young master's brow.
"Hmmph. This doesn't look the same, you know," Harn said shortly. "Not like what happened to old Ganth. That madness . . . it affected all of us. All who followed him. This is different."
Burr whuffed out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "It isn't right, though, this dreaming. He hasn't slept or eaten for days; he's too weak to fight this -- whatever this is. Perhaps you're right and we should take him to the healers. There's an Ardeth trainee healer we might be able to trust."
"Right." Harn nodded. "I'll shift the gear on the horses. My mount's heavier; he can carry a double load." He frowned disapprovingly at the black-clad form. "Not that the boy weighs much more than a full waterskin, anyway." He tromped off to prepare the horses.
Thus it was that Burr alone witnessed the end of Tori's dream: the grunts of a man who has taken a mortal blow, the defiant words against his opponents, and finally the old lord's voice rasping, "Damn you, boy, for deserting me. I curse you and cast you out. Blood and bone, you are no child of mine!"
He didn't tell Harn what he'd overheard, as they made their way out of the desert with Tori limp and unresisting in Burr's arms. When Tori woke clear-eyed from dwar, Burr said nothing of his suspicion that Tori had delayed making a move for the Highlord's seat because, as an outcast, he couldn't truly be considered Ganth's heir. When they got back to Kothifir and Burr sat down to pen the hated report to Lord Ardeth, he felt something like physical pain at the thought of betraying this, the very deepest of Tori's secrets. And there was still the question of his own loyalty, bound to two masters at once. He had to break with one of them, but would even that be enough to salvage his honor?
Then Tori knocked on his door and announced that he'd handed command over to Harn for the moment. They were heading north to the Riverland.
Burr would make his last report to Ardeth in person.
Gothregor, 1st of Summer, Interregnum Year 31
The first time Jedrak, Lord Jaran met Torisen was when the young man addressed the High Council to claim his birthright as Lord of Knorth and Highlord of the Kencyrath.
The Jaran sent as few as possible of their four thousand Kendar to serve in the Southern Host; the service brought in money and food that the house needed desperately, but it took time away from their scholarship, and no one wanted that. Nevertheless, Jedrak had received some very detailed reports over the last few years concerning the young upstart Lord Ardeth had instated as commander of the Southern Host. And so he wasn't entirely surprised when that commander announced that he was the son and heir of Ganth of Knorth, newly come of age and ready to claim his house.
"Come over here, boy," Jedrak said, while other lords stared agape -- all except for Ardeth, of course, who had probably planned this to the least detail. "My eyes aren't what they were. Come here, let me have a proper look at you."
Jedrak clasped the young man's hands. He hadn't the Shanir gift to read mysteries in a man's blood or palms, but he trusted his instincts. This boy was a Knorth, to be sure. There was even a touch of that family's madness about his eyes -- but only a touch.
"How was your father, when you saw him last?" Jedrak asked. "Still quite mad?"
There were murmurs about the room at his rudeness in asking so plainly, but the boy swallowed and answered, "Yes, sir. Getting worse each year, suspicious of everyone around him."
"Such a terrible tragedy, that was," Jedrak reminisced. "He's dead now, is he?"
"Killed by darklings that invaded from the Haunted Lands," the boy said firmly.
The mention of darklings brought a scoff from the direction of Caineron's chair, but Jedrak paid no heed. "So you came to lead us in our time of need, eh?"
More scoffing, but the boy took Jedrak's example and ignored them. "Yes, sir."
"Quite a job you've done with the Southern Host, I hear. My randons tell me it hasn't had such a fine leader in generations."
"He's had an easy time of it," Caineron objected. "No pitched battles."
"Because he had the wits to avoid them," young Danior returned stoutly. "The Southern Host is fifteen thousand strong now, thanks to his negotiations with King Krothen. And the posting system he set up to bring the dispatches is brilliant!"
Before the argument could go further, Jedrak patted the boy's hands and released them. "He's a born leader. A builder, a drawer-together. Engenesis, they called them in the old scrolls. An embodiment of one of the aspects of god: Torrigion, That Which Creates. What did you say your name was, boy?"
"You see? Even his name -- a fine old Knorth name, by the way. Someone must have guessed when he was born. One like him will be part of the Tyr-Ridan one day."
"That will be a Shanir," Tori pointed out. "I'm not a Shanir."
Jedrak smiled and nodded to humor him. "You'll be a fine Highlord, though. You have my vote."
Caineron stood. "As diverting as these . . . scholarly flights of fancy may be, there are some very serious questions to be considered here."
Jedrak let his head droop for a short nap while the other lords argued. He surfaced when the voices grew too loud and acrimonious to tune out.
"What's all this, then?" he murmured to Lord Coman, seated next to him. But he misjudged his volume or his moment, and everyone heard his question.
"How can you believe him when there's no proof?" Caineron thundered. "He doesn't have the ring, or the sword, or any token at all to show he is what he claims."
"He's a Knorth -- isn't that good enough?" Danior countered.
"And what of the other half of his bloodline?" Randir said. "A mysterious lady who claimed to be a Knorth, appearing out of nowhere? What was the marriage contract? Does the boy even have the full rights of an heir?"
"Oh, pish!" said Jedrak loudly, ignoring the wavering of his voice. "The proof is right there on Ganth's chair. Have him put on the Kenthiar!"
Everyone looked startled.
"The Kenthiar is hardly proof," said Brandan slowly. "We don't even know where it comes from."
"Of course we do!" Jedrak retorted, in his element on any point of scholarly debate. "Have none of you read your history? It was an artifact of the Builders, left behind when they prepared this world for our retreat. Now, the original purpose of the thing, that's a matter of great dispute. But it's been worn by Highlords -- and none but Highlords -- for generations."
"It's not a reliable indicator," said Caineron, but the others around the table seemed intrigued by the possibility.
"In recorded history, the Kenthiar has never suffered a pretender," Jedrak averred. "As the Lords Edirr well know." He waved to the twins who jointly headed that house. "It was their cousin who tried the thing on a bet and was decapitated for his hubris!"
"But haven't there been --" said Essien.
"Three Highlords --" said his brother Essiar.
"Who were also decapitated, even though --"
"Their claims were legitimate?" Essiar finished.
"Legitimate, but perhaps not the best possible choice," Jedrak said. "In each case, there was dispute about who should be the heir, and the Council's first choice died. The second choice -- succeeding to power, you understand -- proved a good and honorable leader, each time. Here there's no jostling between candidates because there's only one to choose from, yes or no."
Jedrak's eyes were not what they once were, but still good enough to pick out the scheming looks on the faces around the table. Caineron, at the very least, was thinking the Kenthiar might relieve him of an irritant. Ardeth was plainly alarmed, Brandan thoughtful, Danior excited. And the boy himself, the Knorth, looked sharp, jubilant, fey.
"I'm not certain this is a good idea," said Ardeth slowly. "Highlord or not, Torisen is the only surviving member of his house. To risk the last of the Knorth bloodline in such a way --"
"I'll do it," said Torisen, standing straight before them all. "If everyone agrees to acknowledge me when I survive, I'll wear the Kenthiar."
Gothregor, 1st of Summer, Year One in the Reign of Torisen Black Lord
The first time Torisen put on the Highlord's torc was the moment he took his life and fate into his own hands at last.
Tori stepped into the Great Hall to find it full of people: Kendar lining the walls and loading the overhead gallery to groaning, Highborn men and masked ladies thronging the center. Even in the absence of a Highlord, Gothregor was still a seat of power and politics, with representatives of all the major and most of the minor houses of the Kencyrath living and working here. Rumors must have gone out quickly about the reason the commander of the Southern Host had come here and requested to meet with the High Council in full. Everyone was watching Tori as he descended the stairs from the Council chamber.
The Kenthiar waited for him upon his father's chair, in an iron box. Tori stepped up to the dais and lifted the box from the seat, then turned to the face the assembled Kencyrs, as the members of the High Council fanned out in a half-circle around him. "My name is Torisen of Knorth," he announced, and a sigh went around the room. "I am the son and heir of Ganth Grey Lord, come to claim my position as lord of the house of Knorth and Highlord of the Kencyrath."
Tori opened the box and found inside a narrow silver collar with curious runes engraved upon it and one jewel pulsing with strange light in the center. It was nestled in a bed of white silk: the scarf of the Edirr randon who had retrieved the torc from the neck of his slain master. There was no blood; apparently it cauterized as it killed. The thing was surprisingly delicate for an object that carried such a weight of history and death.
Tori hesitated. He had already considered and rejected the idea of having Adric place the Kenthiar around his neck; it would be attributing even more power to a house to which he already owed an enormous debt -- and he hoped to be a just lord to all Kencyrs, not just the house of Ardeth. But if he put the thing on himself, there would be the inevitable awkwardness of trying to manage a clasp he couldn't see.
He glanced up and found his eyes immediately drawn to a face at the side of the hall: Burr, who was now truly Tori's servant, having taken oath to him just hours before.
Earlier in the day, Adric, who had been out doing some last-minute politicking on Tori's behalf, had been one of the last lords to arrive at Gothregor for the Council meeting. He had closeted himself first with Burr, which jangled Tori's stretched nerves. He imagined Burr delivering the tale of his flight into the Waste and his incapacitation.
Tori still didn't know how much Burr had grasped of the dream which sent him fleeing. Apparently both Harn and Burr had gathered that it involved the attack upon the keep and Ganth's death. What they didn't seem to realize was that the attack had not happened before he left the Riverland. In the face of Ganth's deepening paranoia, Tori had run away without the permission of his lord and father -- but with the consent of every Kendar in the keep, which the scrollsman had said could outweigh a lord's word.
In his darker moments, Tori feared that the scrollsman had been wrong, or perhaps even had lied and smirched his own honor to save Tori's life. Thus the dream: a phantasm born of Tori's fear that he had deserted his lord and his honor, and his frustration at the impossibility of claiming the Highlord's seat while his father yet lived. It was only a dream.
And yet . . . he believed it. It was too vivid not to be real. Only Shanir had true dreams, and Tori was no child of darkness -- but for an event as momentous as the death of his father and the breaking of whatever tattered bond might remain between them, perhaps even a non-Shanir could dream true. Or partially true. Tori had to believe that his father had not actually disowned him; that part of it must have been his own imagining. But he felt the truth of Ganth's death strongly enough to give up command of the Southern Host and come here to claim his birthright.
And so, pondering on dreams, he paced outside of Adric's chambers and wondered what Burr was reporting about him. Then he was called in himself and told Adric what the old lord must have guessed already: Tori was ready to take power in his own name, with acknowledgement to the help that Ardeth had given him. And it seemed that whatever Burr reported about Tori's dreams had not convinced Adric he was unfit for command; Ardeth pledged his full support.
After that conversation, when Tori went to prepare for the Council meeting in his own room -- a guest room in the Ardeth complex, where he would never sleep again -- he found Burr waiting for him. "What will you do now?" he asked the Kendar who had been his constant companion for nearly twelve years.
"Lord, I hoped to serve you here at Gothregor," said Burr, strangely stiff and formal. It was the first time he or anyone had used the title, and it gave Tori pause.
"Does my lord Ardeth still need someone to spy on me?" he asked, thinking bitterly of being left to pace while Burr saw Adric first.
Burr swallowed. "Lord . . . I broke with Ardeth this morning."
Tori looked more closely and saw how pale Burr was, the tremor in those strong hands that had soothed and steadied him through wound-fevers and battle rages and hells of nightmare. "I see. You never were much good at planning for retreats, were you?" he said gently.
Despite Burr's courtesy, Tori was not a lord yet, of the house of Knorth or of the Kencyrath. But he could bind Kendar as a Highborn in his own right.
"Well then, I suppose you'd better swear to me," Tori said at last, holding out his hands, and was surprised at how eagerly Burr fell to his knees, and the hint of moisture in the Kendar's eyes as he said the words of binding.
It felt . . . right. Proper and natural, to accept Burr's oath of obedience and return it with his own vows of honor and justice. However he might regret their god's warping of the Kendar into a people who needed to serve a lord's authority, Tori was planning to make use of that need -- and to let it fill a hole inside himself, as well.
He met Burr's eyes now, inside the Great Hall with several hundred pairs of eyes upon him, and smiled. The Kendar -- Burr and Harn and others who had served with Tori, as well as all those in the keep where he'd grown up -- were just as responsible for his presence here as Lord Ardeth was. And it was only proper for a Highborn's servant help him dress, wasn't it?
A gesture brought Burr to the foot of the dais, holding out his hands for the iron box. Instead, Tori lifted the Kenthiar from its silk bedding and placed it on Burr's palms. "Help me put this on, will you?" he said, casually but clearly enough to be heard around the hall.
Burr went white. Tori could see he was envisioning a gory scene, and being responsible for his lord's decapitation. And Tori couldn't swear it wouldn't happen; there was that dream of being disowned by his father, after all. He smiled firmly, unworried -- if it did turn out that way, Tori wouldn't have to deal with the aftermath -- and waved Burr to step up behind him. At least for Burr he didn't have to stoop, he reflected as he pulled his shirt collar aside.
Tori faced the assembled Kencyrs -- Kendar and Highborn, councilors and ladies, randons and artisans -- with his head high and his feet on the road to destiny.