Princess of Trimaria - Part 3

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Princess of Trimaria – Part Three

By Scott Ramsey

CHAPTER 36

"Mother, what's happened?" Aliana demanded, gripping Keri's arm with both hands. "Where is Poppa?"

"We were attacked by raiders between Thorngil and Sangre," Grand Mistress Elena said, struggling to control her emotions. "Your father … your father was hurt … badly."

"But he's going to be all right, isn't he?" Aliana asked.

"I don't know, Ali," her mother answered as she reached out and caressed Ali's face with her hand. "I know you have questions, but I need you to be strong for now. I must speak to the Princess." Her gaze shifted to Keri as she added, "Her Highness is in great danger, Sir Marcan."

"She's up there," Keri said, her own mind reeling with shock as she turned towards the dais. To her shock it was empty and she turned back to Aliana.

"She left about ten minutes ago," Ali said, her voice flat. "She insisted we have a dance … she's with her guards and I didn't think there was any harm."

"We have to find her quickly," Elena said. "An assassin is stalking her – I'll explain on the way."

Keri nodded and urged Aliana and her mother towards the dais, her face growing warm. She wasn't angry with Ali, but she was furious with Marc. If she had left without letting him know, he would have never let her hear the end of it, no matter how well escorted she was.

"I'm sorry, I should have told you," Ali said as she retrieved her cloak from where it was hanging near the rear entrance.

"It's all right," Keri said. She would have a little chat with the 'Princess' when she caught up to him.

At least the Regent apparently hadn't noticed the empty dais – but then Keri hadn't actually seen her aunt all night. There was no way she could have slipped in quietly -- her arrival would have been announced and she would have paid her respects to the 'Princess'. Her aunt's absence, after making such an issue of Keri attending, was very unusual.

There was no time to ponder the issue, however. Keri took the cloak from Aliana and slipped it on her, gently squeezing her shoulders as she did. Ali's face was ashen, her bottom lip trembling as she fought to control herself. The Princess desperately wanted to hold her and let her shed the tears that she held tightly in check, but there just wasn't time.

They slipped out the back entrance into the cool autumn night and started towards the city. Grand Mistress Elena explained how she had learned of the assassination plot and their fears that any message of warning might be intercepted. Then she told them of the raider attack and how Odon had been wounded while buying time for his wife and her apprentices to escape.

"When we reached Sangre, I told the militia what had happened and they sent riders out," she said. "They encountered Keevan on the way to the scene and some of the men escorted him to the village. He was barely conscious, but he was able to tell us what happened after we escaped."

"And Poppa?" Aliana asked.

"He was unconscious when they brought him to the village," Elena sighed. "They couldn't find any trace of Shamis. Sangre doesn't have a healer-mage, just a journeyman physician, so they sent for one from Portsmyth."

The seamstress paused, her arm slipping around Ali's shoulders as they walked, pulling her daughter close.

"You're father was still alive when I left," she said. "I wanted to stay, Ali, you know I did, but they were going to shut down the spire for the night and I had to get here."

"I understand, Momma," Ali said. "Poppa is strong … I know he'll be all right."

"Mistress, if you left Sangre yesterday evening you should have been able to get here by late this afternoon," Keri said. "Did something else happen?"

"Our mad flight from the orcs was too much for the coach," Elena said. "One of the wheels was damaged and we were forced to stop at Amurga so their wainwright could make repairs. It delayed us several hours. I should have sent Weslin ahead on horseback, but because of the attack on the Princess I was afraid there might be orcs still in the area."

"No, you were right to be cautious," Keri said. "You've already risked far too much on…."

Her words were cut off as the entire city was plunged into darkness. In the distance they heard a scream of terror and Keri turned to look at Ali, her face torn with indecision.

"Go!" Ali cried. "We'll never keep up in these fragging court shoes!"

Keri nodded and took off at a run as Ali and her mother followed as fast as they could. As they walked, Ali slipped her hands into the concealed slits on each side of her skirt and drew a pair of long daggers from the sheaths on her thighs.

"I was expecting to find that you were Keri," her mother said, stunning Ali with her words. "When your father and I heard the Princess had the amulet … well, you know I love Keri but I'm glad the two of you didn't exchange bodies."

"We were going to," Ali said. "Marc interrupted the ritual. That was Keri that just left, Momma."

Her mother stopped in her tracks, her mouth hanging open. Ali slipped the dagger in her right hand back into its sheath and grasped her mother by the wrist, tugging her along.

"That was Keri?" Elena asked. "I would never have guessed."

"You didn't see her fawning over my gown last night," Ali said with a snicker.

*****

Keri quickly outdistanced the two women and had just reached the first line of buildings when she was nearly overcome by a wave of rage tinged with agonizing grief. Then she felt an echo through the aether and knew that Marc had just channeled a great deal of power. It wasn't enough to damage him, but it was almost certainly fatal to whoever was its target – and quite possibly anyone else in the immediate area.

She fought the urge to push herself harder, knowing that she would be of no use if she arrived too winded to fight. By the time she reached the scene of the attack, she already knew it was over; she could no longer feel Marc's emotions so she knew he was in no immediate peril. The street lamps flickered back to life and Keri came to a stop, surveying the scene in dismay.

The two Royal Guardsmen lay dead in the center of the street, their swords still in their sheaths. A short distance from them she saw Lessanna sitting in the street, cradling Garith's head in her lap as she held a bandage to it. The serjeant was stirring slightly and didn't seem to be in immediate danger.

She saw Wynetta huddling on the sidewalk, her arms wrapped about her knees as she rocked back and forth. The girl didn't appear to be hurt, just terrified, and no doubt she had good reason. Then her eyes settled on the still form a few feet away and a groan of sorrow escaped her lips.

She rushed to Stilnar's side and knelt beside him, gently laying her hand on his chest. Keri closed her eyes, reaching out for the aether and knowing it was already too late. All she needed was the slightest sign that Stilnar's spirit still lingered, but there was nothing.

The clacking of heels on stone told her that Ali and her mother had caught up, and Keri turned to face them. She shook her head slowly in answer to the unspoken question in Ali's eyes.

"Oh Stil … no," Ali whispered.

"He fought very bravely," Lessanna said. "He gave his life to save … the Princess."

Keri's eyes met those of the handmaiden and she knew that Lessanna was aware of who she really was. She may have been the youngest of the Princess's attendants, but she was very shrewd. The girl forced a grim smile and nodded, letting Keri know the secret was safe with her.

The Princess rose and walked over to where Lessana sat with Garith. She reached out and cupped the girl's chin in her hand, turning her face so she could examine her bruised and swollen cheek.

"He's not the only one who fought it appears," Keri said. "Are you all right?"

"I'll be fine," the girl said. "Wynetta wasn't hurt, she's just frightened, but Serjeant Garith took a nasty blow to the back of his head."

"Just gimme a minute ta rest," Garith mumbled.

Keri touched his head and closed her eyes, calling on the aether to probe the serjeant's injury. She could sense the healing spell Marc had used and knew there was nothing more she could do. Garith would be all right but he would need rest to fully recover.

"Believe it or not they cracked that hard skull of yours," she told him. "You'll be fine in a day or two." She turned her attention back to Lessanna and asked, "Where is the Princess?"

"One of the assassins escaped and she followed," the handmaiden said. "He was the leader I think. She said his name was Kragin and to tell you he has the amulet and the key. He was heading towards the spires. Lady Enara and Lady Elyssa got here just before you did and they went after her."

"Kragin?" Keri muttered. The name was vaguely familiar to her, but it was Marc's memories that helped her recall it in detail.

"She seemed to know who he was," Lessanna said.

"So do I," Keri said, her eyes meeting Garith's.

"Aye," the serjeant agreed, "traitorous bastard."

The sounds of alarm bells began to echo through the city and in the distance they could hear shouting voices. Garith reached out and gripped Keri's arm tightly.

"Ya got ta go, now," the serjeant said. "They'll shut down the spires once they know the Princess is gone, and the Regent will have ya arrested on sight."

Keri nodded, turning to look at the bodies of the fallen guards and Stilnar.

"Take care of them," she said, her voice cracking slightly. "Take care of Stil."

"I'll see to it they get the honor they deserve," Garith assured her. "Now get outta here!"

Keri rose, walking over to Aliana and her mother.

"I've got to go," she said.

"Not alone you don't," Ali told her, holding up her hand to silence any protest. "The only way you'll stop me is to knock me out." She turned to her mother and hugged her tightly.

"I love you, Momma, but I have to go."

"I know dear," Elena said. As she held her daughter tight she looked into Keri's eyes.

"I'll take care of her," the Princess said.

Ali actually laughed and said, "That will definitely be a change."

"Our coach is by the spires," Elena told them. "You should be able to find clothes more suitable in it. Take whatever you need."

"Thank you, Mistress," Keri said.

They started towards the spires but paused for a moment on the opposite side of the street. The bodies of the two assassins Marc struck down lay there, the stench of their charred corpses nauseating. Keri turned to look back at the spot where Garith was rising with Lessanna's assistance, calculating that the serjeant would have been within the arc of Marc's vision when he struck the assassins. Ali noticed the same thing and smiled grimly.

"Marc didn't lose control completely," she said. "If he had Garith would have at least been singed, but he wasn't touched."

"It still wasn't perfect," Keri said, her voice hard. "If I had done it they'd be nothing but ashes."

They started towards the spires again and Keri quickly began to pull ahead of Aliana. The Maid-of-Honor was quite used to wearing court shoes, but even so she could only move so fast in her five-inch heels.

"Shard it, Keri, slow down!" she finally called. "You know I can't run very well in these shoes!"

The Princess turned and without a word lifted Aliana and threw her over her shoulder. She resumed running towards the spires and Ali was treated to a bouncing view of the alley behind them.

"Oh this is much better," she said.

CHAPTER 37

"We need to get away from this clearing, Highness," Valin said, his right hand on the hilt of his sword as he grasped Marc's arm with his left.

"Kragin went that way," Marc protested, pointing towards the southeast as Valin began pulling him to the southwest. He yanked his arm free and glared defiantly at the young nobleman.

"All the more reason not to go that way. Do you think he's out for a leisurely ride? It's likely he intends to meet with more allies."

"He must be heading for the Istan Peninsula," Marc said. "We have to catch him."

"He's mounted, we're not," Valin said, grabbing Marc's arm again and pulling him along. "The tree line is closer in this direction. There are sure to be patrols in this area and the sooner we get to cover the better."

"Will you stop dragging me like some tavern wench!" Marc shouted, yanking his arm free once more.

"I will if you'll move," Valin hissed, "and keep your voice down!"

Without waiting to see if Marc followed, Valin started off towards the tree line to the southwest. Marc stared at him for a moment and then turned and started towards the southeast after Kragin. By the time Valin realized the 'Princess' wasn't following him, Marc was already well past the spires. The nobleman looked towards the sky and shook his head before turning to follow.

"Women!"

Marc smiled as he heard Valin rushing to catch up with him. Unbidden the thought of Valin's hand on his arm came to him, and Marc wondered what it would feel like to have those strong arms around him, holding him tightly, what it would be like to feel his lips….

~ Stop that! ~

He had avoided thinking about what the loss of the ring meant, but there was no way he could deny the desire that was now unrestrained in him. Worst of all he knew there was no real affection behind them. It was true he had felt a physical attraction to Valin even with the ring, but he barely knew the young nobleman. He understood now why Keri had been so afraid to take off the ring, because he knew that if Valin were to make even a half-hearted attempt to seduce him he would be hard pressed to resist.

Fortunately their current situation made it unlikely that Valin would attempt such a thing, and hopefully Marc could focus his attention on getting the amulet and ring back. The ring was a secondary concern – Keri could easily have another just like it made – but he had to retrieve the amulet. The next full moon was only eleven days away, and he still had to find Kragin.

"You are without doubt the most stubborn girl I have ever met," Valin said as he caught up to Marc. "Why is it so important to follow this Kragin? I know he tried to kill you, but it would have been wiser to wait and muster your guards."

"There wasn't time," Marc said. "I can't explain in detail, but he took something from me, an amulet that has great power. I have to get it back."

"You're after him because he took your jewelry?" Valin asked. "I find it hard to believe you'd be so reckless over a few baubles you could easily replace."

"What he took was no bauble!" Marc snapped. "It's a powerful talisman and it is vital that I retrieve it."

"There's still something you're not telling me. Who is Kragin?"

Marc sighed before saying, "He was a knight under King Toranon, the deputy commander of his Royal Guard. He was with the King and Queen when they were ambushed and murdered, and he should have died with everyone else. That he's alive can only mean one thing – he betrayed them."

"All right, we follow Kragin" Valin said after a moment. "This is against my better judgment though."

As they started off again, Marc couldn't help thinking how Valin's words had struck a nerve. He was being reckless. They were alone with no spire key, hundreds of miles from friendly forces. Following Kragin through the spires had been beyond reckless – just the sort of thing he would have berated Keri for.

~ It hasn't been an hour since I lost the amulet and already I'm starting to act like her. ~

Of course he knew it wasn't that; it would take days, perhaps weeks for their spirits to adapt to their bodies without the amulet. Even then he wouldn't adopt Keri's personality, at least not completely. The main effect would be that he would no longer feel like a man in a woman's body – he would no longer think of himself as male. Like it or not he had no one to blame but himself. He had been driven by rage, grief and the thought that he had to get the amulet back at all costs.

Valin set a fast pace and Marc was hard pressed to keep up with him. The heels of the court shoes he wore weren't as high or narrow as those worn by most women, but they weren't intended for walking on such uneven terrain. He had to place each foot carefully to avoid turning an ankle.

Marc was no tracker but even he had no problem detecting the trail left by Kragin and his companion. The elvish eyes of Keri's body were not just keen in the day – though Kessil was barely more than a sliver in the night sky the ever present glow from Andarel's Belt provided more than enough light for him to see clearly. More than that, he could see every broken branch and blade of grass bent by the passage of the horses. The bruised foliage glowed with a faint light, and Marc wondered if he was actually seeing the plants as they healed the damage.

As they made their way through the increasingly dense foliage, Valin moved with a degree of stealth that impressed Marc, who found it impossible not to make noise. The hem of his dress kept snagging on every possible obstruction, causing him to stumble several times.

"I thought elves were supposed to be naturally fleet-footed," Valin remarked in a hushed voice.

"You try sneaking about in a hoop skirt!" Marc hissed back. "How far ahead do you think Kragin is?"

"At least a league by now. They can move faster than we can."

"They have to stop sometime," Marc said.

"So do we, Princess," Valin told him. "The only chance we have is to get horses of our own, and you need clothing better suited to the task."

"We're not likely to find either out here."

"We could," Valin said. "Lake Flastrom is about six leagues west of here."

"And what would we accomplish by going there?" Marc asked. He was well aware of the location of the lake – he had nearly died there thirteen years ago

"There's a village there called Falmere," Valin explained.

Marc rushed ahead and stopped as he turned to face Valin. He knew there had been a village called Falmere – it had grown out of the supply base at the lake that had supported the construction of the spires. That had been ten years ago, however.

"I grew up here if you recall," Valin explained, noting the suspicion in the 'Princess's' eyes. "This area was part of Talmere shire."

"But there's been no one here for almost ten years."

"Not everyone was willing to abandon their homes when Trimaria's army withdrew, Highness," Valin said. "Many families were unwilling to leave the homes they had built. For the first three years after army withdrew it was relatively peaceful. Even after your parents were killed it wasn't too bad – the villagers simply had to contend with the occasional demand for supplies from units on their way to the frontier."

"What about the orcs?"

"They were a nuisance after the withdrawal to be sure. When the hostilities, resumed they mostly moved to the frontier. There are occasional raids, but the villages have learned to defend themselves."

"That doesn't explain how you know all this," Marc said.

Valin sighed. "Most of my family remained after the withdrawal, but some returned to Trimaria. After the ambush of your parents, I was sent to live with my uncle, but I have had contact with my family. It's not frequent or easy to maintain, but it has kept me abreast of conditions here."

"Did … did my parents know of this?"

Valin nodded. "As far as I know they did. Many of the men who remained were soldiers, and they stayed with King Toranon's blessing."

Marc's shoulders slumped and he nodded. "Of course. If Toranon's dream had been realized, Camron would have become a joint protectorate of Trimaria and Merdia. We would have cleansed the region of orcs just as Riala did in Trimaria."

"It was a worthy dream," Valin said, laying a hand on Marc's shoulder. "I've no doubt that one day you will see it realized."

For a moment Marc thought the nobleman was going to pull him into an embrace – and for a moment he wanted that. He fought the desire, however, and turned to the west.

"We'd best be going then," he said. "The sooner we get back on Kragin's trail the better."

Valin took the lead once more and they started towards the lake. It was slow going as the forest was dense and there was no trail. Marc was amazed that Valin was able to navigate – the sky was obscured by the dense canopy overhead – but he moved with certainty, only pausing occasionally to get his bearings. After about a half hour they reached a small hollow with a narrow brook running through it. They took a moment to slake their thirst, but once that was accomplished Valin seemed in no hurry to move on.

"What are we waiting for?" Marc asked impatiently.

"My men," Valin said. "Unless I'm mistaken they're watching us from the tree line right now."

Marc's hand flashed to his sword, drawing the blade and leveling it at Valin's chest. His eyes narrowed as the sound of stealthy footfalls reached his ears. He couldn't be certain, but he judged that there were at least six men approaching from several directions.

"Who are you?"

"Exactly who I claim to be, Valin of Talmere."

"If you think I won't kill you, you're mistaken," Marc said. "I want the truth."

"I saw what you did to those two assassins," Valin said. "I know you're quite capable of killing me in a number of ways. I swear you have nothing to fear from me – I have no desire to harm you. My men, however, might act hastily under these circumstances. Please, lower your sword."

Shadowy figures emerged from the forest around them and Marc could see that they were armed with bolt-casters. He let the tip of his sword drop to the ground and released his grip on the weapon. Valin was watching him warily, no doubt fearing a repeat of what had happened to the two assassins. Marc knew that was unlikely; then he had been overcome by rage and anguish, and the result had been from a loss of control. He had no idea how to do such a thing intentionally. With enough time he could find an appropriate spell in Keri's memory, but there was no guarantee he could make use of it.

Valin turned to one of the men and raised his hand in greeting as he said, "Hail, Ren, I suspect you're surprised to see me."

"You could say that, brother," the man said. He shared a familial resemblance to Valin, and Marc suspected that the two were indeed siblings. "When the spire activated we certainly weren't expecting you to come through."

"The man that came through before us?" Valin asked

"Four men are tracking him and his friend. Who's the pretty maiden? Some trollop you picked up at the ball?"

Valin grinned and said, "This, my brother, is Her Royal Highness, Princess Kerialla."

The six men immediately lowered their weapons and dropped to their knees. The one called Ren bowed his head low as he spoke.

"Forgive my disrespect, Your Highness."

Marc turned to Valin and said, "Now I'm really confused."

CHAPTER 38

When Keri and Aliana reached the transport spires in Wallkeep they found Enara and Elyssa already there. The young women had arrived after the spires had powered down and had not seen Marc go through, but the parking green next to the spires was crowded with coaches and horses, and after questioning several of the attendants they learned that the 'Princess' had gone through the spires in the company of a young nobleman.

"From the description it appears she was with Lord Valin," Elyssa said. "She apparently went willingly, though the Fragment only knows why she would do such a thing."

"She had her reasons," Keri said. She gave them a quick recounting of what Ali's mother had told them and then went to examine the control spire to determine where Marc had gone.

"Are you all right?" Enara asked Aliana.

"Not really," Ali replied. "I'll manage though."

Keri returned, a grim look on her face as she said, "The spires are set for Camron."

"I thought the Camron spires were deactivated when the army withdrew?" Aliana said.

"They were," Keri said. "Kragin has a master key, he could have reactivated them."

"Who is this Kragin and how did he get his hands on a master key?" Elyssa asked.

"Kragin was a knight, the deputy commander of King Toranon's Royal Guard," Keri explained. "He should have died with every one else. The fact that he's alive means he betrayed the King and Queen – and that's how he got the key."

"He must be going to the Merdian base on the peninsula," Elyssa suggested. "If I remember right, the peninsula is about two days' hard ride from the spires."

"He's going to warn them of the invasion," Keri said.

Aliana nodded in agreement and said, "That means the fleet will launch soon."

"Shards!" Keri swore. "The fleet left tonight."

"How can you be sure of that, Sir Marcan?" Elyssa asked.

Keri hesitated, turning to look at Enara. Her friend smiled and nodded, understanding the unspoken question in the Princess's eyes.

"Before I can explain that, there's something you need to know."

Keri quickly explained to the incredulous young woman who she really was and how she had come to be in Marc's body. Elyssa looked to Enara for confirmation and her lover assured her it was all true. She shook her head in wonder.

"It all makes sense now," Keri continued. "The Regent wasn't at the ball tonight, even though she traveled here supposedly to attend, and none of the War Council are here. This whole farce of me entertaining suitors was just to keep me occupied while the invasion fleet launched. The Palace is probably buzzing with activity and she knew I'd notice. She's probably been monitoring the progress from the Baronial Manor."

"Do we warn the Regent?" Elyssa asked.

Keri shook her head. "She'll have me arrested on sight, and I doubt she'll listen to anything I have to say. Besides she's been close to Lornis for six years – we can't trust her."

"Do you think he's controlling her somehow with magic?" Enara asked.

"It’s possible," Aliana said. "Lornis is a very powerful mage."

"That kind of control is difficult, especially with someone as strong-willed as Aunt Rayna," Keri said. "He'd need an enchanted artifact, something that binds her to him."

"Like their wedding rings?" Ali suggested.

"Of course!" Keri said. "The rings would be the perfect thing."

"And this Lornis … he knew of the amulet?" Elyssa asked.

"Apparently so," Keri said. "He must have been spying on my chambers in the palace somehow. That's the only way he could have learned I had it and planned to use it. When the orcs failed to kill me at Amurga he must have arranged this attempt."

"But he thinks I'm in Keri's body," Ali said. "That's why he told Kragin to take the amulet. Once it was removed the spiritual anchor was severed. He intended to kill me and trap Keri in my body."

"He wants me to live to see whatever he has planned for the kingdom," Keri explained. "It would be his ultimate revenge against Riala."

"How could Terlen be Lornis though?" Enara asked. "His family has managed Northkeep and overseen the western baronies for centuries; his identity is well established."

It was true that Duke Terlen came from an influential and well known family. Trimaria was divided into three administrative areas; the baronies of the southern reaches under Earl Lohan, the Central Valley which was directly administered by her own house and the western reaches under Duke Terlen.

"Lornis could have assumed the Duke's identity through," Aliana said.

"A spell?" Enara asked.

"There are spells that can be used to alter one's appearance," Keri said. "They don't last very long though, no more than a few hours. No, I suspect he's using some kind of enchanted item for that too. The real duke is probably long dead."

"We can talk about all this later," Ali said. "Right now we have to decide what we're going to do."

"There's no choice," Keri said. "I'm following Marc to Camron." She turned to face Enara and Elyssa and added, "I know Ali will come with me, but I can't ask you two to take the same risk."

"You don't have to ask us, sister," Enara said.

"You'll need my help tracking … the Princess," Elyssa said with a grin.

"All right then," Keri said, looking towards the parking area nearby. The coach belonging to Ali's parents was there along with several others, as well as a dozen or so horses.

"Ali, Nara, find some clothes in the coach. Take anything else that might be of use, especially food and water. Elyssa, we'll need horses."

As Keri and Elyssa moved to their tasks, Aliana and Enara went to the coach to gather what they could. Odon's journeyman, Weslin, was standing watch, and Aliana gave him a quick hug before explaining what was going on.

With Weslin's assistance they were able to quickly locate clothing more suitable for the task ahead. They had to improvise – the female clothing available was no more practical than their ball gowns, and much of the male clothing was far too large. In the end they settled upon a solution that was elegant – if a bit unconventional.

They could find no trousers sufficiently small, so they each chose thick tights of shimmering black velvet, commonly worn by older boys for formal occasions. The simple white shirts they selected were also boys' garments, and over these they wore the dragon hide insets from their ball gowns. The skirts were scandalously short for outer wear, barely reaching their knees, but were long enough to cover the shirts. For footwear they chose soft, calf-high leather boots with flat soles, also intended for boys. They were still a bit large but they were able to lace them up tightly enough to compensate. The final pieces of their garb were stout leather belts with pouches.

Before they returned to the spires, Ali turned to Weslin and said, "When we've gone, you have to find Serjeant Garith and tell him that we've followed the Princess to Camron. If anyone else asks, you have no idea where we went."

"You can count on me, Miss Ali," the journeyman assured her. "I'll look after your mother too, don't you worry."

Ali managed a weak smile and gave him another hug, then she and Enara ran back to the spires.

"Ali, Nara, those outfits are adorable!" Keri exclaimed when she saw them, in a manner very incongruous with the body she wore. "When this is over I'll have to have your mother design something like that for riding – it's so much cuter than tunics and trousers."

"Obviously you're still in touch with your femininity," Aliana laughed as she slipped her daggers into her boots. "We emptied out some packs and filled them with supplies. We should have enough food and water for about two days if we're careful, though there won't be much variety. I'm afraid Mother's customers are going to be unhappy about the way we treated their goods."

"Pile everything in the center of the spires," Keri said. "The spires are ready to activate and we need to get moving. The guards could be here any minute."

Keri returned to the control spire and turned the key from the activation setting to the Camron mark. The spires began to hum loudly and she removed the key, slipping it back into her pouch as she walked to the center of the spires. Elyssa joined them, leading four war horses clad in the colors of Southkeep.

"I told the Earl's man they were being commandeered by order of the Royal Guard," Elyssa said.

"True enough," Keri said. She stood next to Aliana and laid a hand gently on her shoulder.

"All I want to do is hold you right now."

"We don't have time," Ali told her. "I'll cry for my father later."

"Odon is a strong man," Keri said. "Don't give up hope, love."

Ali put on a brave face and nodded, gripping Keri's arm tightly. Then the spires flashed and a glowing sphere filled the space between them. In a flash the stones were empty. The city guard arrived a few minutes later, but by then the spires had powered down once more.

CHAPTER 39

Valin's men only had one spare horse, the mount of one of their fellows that had fallen in a recent skirmish with orcs, so Marc was forced to ride with the nobleman. He had removed the hoop skirt beneath his gown but it was still impossible for him to sit astride, so instead he rode literally in Valin's lap, clinging to the handsome young man's neck as Valin's strong arms encircled him. It was far more intimate than when they had danced, and with the chastity ring gone Marc was beginning to feel the full effects of Keri's elvin nature. He had to do something to keep his mind off the increasingly strong awareness of Valin's raw masculinity.

"Are you going to explain all this to me?" he asked. "Please don't insult me by lying – you're appearance at the festival was all too convenient in light of what's happened."

"I had no idea someone was going to make an attempt on your life," Valin assured him. "If I had, I would have never let you leave the ball without me. I was sent to contact you, however, and that's why I followed when I noticed you had left."

"So what, you planned to slip into my chamber and seduce me?"

"Would that have worked?" Valin asked.

Marc almost said yes. It was far too soon for his spirit to even begin to conform to his body, but that was likely only making things worse. His still quite male psyche was completely unequipped to deal with what his body was doing to him. He settled for silence and what he hoped was a stony glare.

Valin laughed and said, "No, I simply planned to ask to speak to you. As your champion I was fairly certain I would gain admittance."

"And who sent you?"

"That, Princess, is a question best left for later," Valin said. "We don't have far to travel, and I assure you, you're in no danger from me or my men. Every one of us would die to keep you safe – we are loyal Trimarians."

"My father abandoned you and your families, and you expect me to believe you don't resent me for that?"

For the first time Valin looked at him with irritation. "You're father chose peace, but he knew the Merdians wouldn't accept any overture from him unless he made the first gesture. His actions were those of a true king, and his daughter would do well to learn from his example."

Marc felt truly ashamed for his words as he said, "I'm sorry, Lord Valin. I do respect what my father did. It's my intention to bring an end to this war when I take the throne. I've already informed my aunt that I intend to do so in three months."

"Then perhaps that explains the attempt on your life," Valin said.

Now Marc became angry, his eyes flashing as he said, "Duchess Rayna had nothing to do with that! There are other forces at work here."

"After all she has done you still have faith in her," Valin said.

"I love her," Marc told him, fully aware of the double meaning behind those words.

"Then I apologize for my implications," Valin said. "I hope you're right. What are these other forces you speak of?"

"You have your secrets and I have mine, My Lord," Marc said. Despite himself he tightened his grip on Valin and leaned his head against his chest. "We'll see who reveals their secrets first."

The next thing Marc knew he was being lowered into the arms of one of Valin's men. He hadn't intended to fall asleep, but the day's activities had taken more out of him than he had realized. The man smiled as he lowered Marc to his feet, and despite himself Marc smiled back.

As he looked around Marc saw that they were inside what appeared to be a large, natural cavern. Glows along the walls provided a low level of light, and at one end there was a heavy black curtain that was obviously drawn across the opening. Marc noted that there were only two others with them; the one called Ren and the other three were nowhere to be seen.

As Valin climbed down from the saddle and took him gently by the arm Marc felt a jolt through his entire body. He knew at that moment he would have done anything the nobleman asked him to, at least anything relating to intimacy, and he was very glad that no such request was made.

Valin led him to the back of the cavern and took a small green crystal from his belt pouch. He held the crystal before him and a section of the cavern wall slid aside revealing a dimly lit passage beyond.

The corridor was like none Marc had ever seen; the walls, ceiling and floor were stone polished to a mirrored finish, and there were no seams visible. It was as though the passage had been formed by some great heat, melting the stone into a glass-like finish.

They reached the end of the passage and passed through a door made of thick steel into a large chamber. There were several people present, both men and women, and when Valin formally announced Marc as the 'Princess' they all bowed low. Then an older woman with black hair streaked with grey hurried forward and curtsied.

"We are honored to meet you, Highness," she said. "I am called Temina, the headwoman here. Is there anything I can get you … some food and drink perhaps?"

"Thank you, Temina," Marc said. "I am a bit thirsty, but most of all I'd like to get into something more comfortable than this gown … I've been wearing it for hours."

"I'm afraid we don't have any dresses fitting for Your Highness," Temina said tentatively.

"I very much enjoy simple clothes when the situation permits," Marc said, knowing it was true of Keri. "Anything you might have will do. Otherwise I'm going to have to unlace this bodice and that might be a bit unseemly."

Temina grinned wryly and said, "We'll get you something straight away, and food and drink too. I've got a lovely venison stew in the hearth."

Marc inhaled deeply and said, "It smells delicious. Thank you for your kindness, Temina."

The older woman looked at Valin and said, "She's her mother's daughter, that's for certain."

Before Marc could ask if the woman had known Queen Mistara she had curtsied again and hurried away. Valin led him to a long table and pulled a chair out for him to sit.

"Please excuse me, Highness," Valin said as he was settled. "I'll return shortly. Temina will see to any needs you have."

Marc nodded and tried to ignore the stares of the others in the hall. Temina returned a moment later with a young girl of no more than sixteen, whom she introduced as her niece Krysal. She was a very pretty girl with flame red hair and a freckled face that only added to her charm. She carried with her a selection of simple dresses for the 'Princess's' approval, and Marc selected one made of a deep blue material. He then accompanied Krysal to a side room where the girl helped him out of the gown.

"Is this Falmere?" Marc asked.

"Not exactly, Highness," Krysal said. "The village is about a league from here, but it was burned to the ground by orcs years ago. We took refuge in these caverns."

Marc looked around the room, noting it was just like the passage and the hall outside. He could only assume that magic had been used to hollow out the rooms and passages, but even Keri's memories held no clue as to what spell could have done it. He knew of magically powered tunneling machines; Highkeep had a labyrinth of passages and store rooms that had been cut into the mountains by such machines, but while they left very even passages the surface was still textured, not the glassy smoothness of these halls.

Once he was clad in the dress Marc fastened his sword belt about his waist and reached for his weapons to insert them in their frogs. He saw the curious look on the girl's face though and paused, extending the sword and dagger to her. It went against everything his rational mind told him, but he felt safe in this place.

"Would you see that these are taken care of for me?" he asked.

"Of course, Highness," Krysal said. "I'll make sure they're right where you can get them if you need to."

By the time he returned to the hall there was a bowl of steaming stew awaiting him and a goblet of mulled wine along with a loaf of dark bread. He hadn't realized how famished he was until he tasted the first spoonful of stew and he enthusiastically finished the whole bowl and half the loaf. The warmth of the stew and the wine produced a pleasant lethargy in his weary body, and he had to struggle to keep from nodding of as he waited for Valin to return.

He didn’t have to wait long. Valin entered the hall along with two other men dressed in military style doublets of red and black. Marc immediately recognized the uniform of the Merdian army and he stood so quickly that his chair was knocked over, clattering to the floor. The noise drew the attention of the three men and Valin smiled.

"Princess, I have someone here who wishes to speak to you."

Marc looked about wildly and spied the table where Krysal had placed his weapons. He rushed over to it, drawing the side-sword and spinning about. He held the blade before him defensively as the three approached and frantically searched Keri's memories for a spell that he might be able to use.

"We mean you no harm, Princess," one of the Merdians said. His shoulder braids were those of a high ranking officer.

The words of an offensive spell flowed from Marc's lips and a ball of flickering blue flame began to materialize, engulfing his left hand. He felt the power quickly building and drew his arm back to hurl the magical missile at the approaching enemies.

"Keri, no!"

The familiar voice distracted Marc and he turned towards the speaker. His mouth dropped open in shock as he saw golden hair like that which flowed about the shoulders of the body he inhabited. The face was similar to the one he wore but different – not so much older but wiser and more mature.

The power of the missile was building dangerously and Marc turned from the impossible apparition towards the hearth at the far end of the hall. He screamed for the women standing near it to move, and once they were clear, hurled the pulsating ball of energy into the stone enclosure. It exploded against the back of the hearth harmlessly for the most part, but the remainder of Temina's stew was vaporized as the iron kettle it was simmering in glowed red hot.

Marc turned back to the woman who had spoken, completely forgetting about Valin and the Merdians. He shook his head, unable to believe what his eyes told him.

"You're not seeing things, my darling, it's really me," Queen Mistara said.

It was just too much for Marc's weary mind to handle. The sword fell from his nerveless fingers and clattered to the floor. The hall seemed to spin about him and he heard voices shouting as if from a great distance. Then everything went black as he fainted.

CHAPTER 40

An eerie sense of familiarity mixed with dread gripped Keri as they arrived at the spires deep in Camron. She had never been there, but Marc had, and even though his memories were ten-years-old they were crisp and clear. He had liked the land, and she was surprised to find he had even thought about settling in Camron one day.

Her own memories were not from direct experience, but they were infinitely more painful. Her parents had died in Camron – it was far from where she stood now, but that didn't make it any less poignant.

While Elyssa set out to search for tracks, Keri used the master key to reset the mechanism on the control spire, which also reset the spires in Wallkeep, making it more difficult for anyone to follow. There were six spires within reach of Wallkeep, but since no one knew the Carmron spires had been reactivated pursuit was unlikely. Ali and Enara began making the horses ready for travel - the bags they had were better suited to coach travel, but with the aid of some rope they were able to secure them to the well enough.

"I found the tracks of two horses at the hitching rail," Elyssa said as she rejoined them. "They rode southeast – Sir Marcan and Lord Valin followed."

"Then we follow too," Keri said.

Elyssa took the lead on foot while the others followed several lengths behind, Keri leading the empty mount. They hadn't gone very far before the track split; Kragin and his companion continuing southeast while Marc and Valin turned west.

"Do we follow the amulet or Sir Marcan?" Elyssa asked.

"My only concern right now is Marc," Keri said, "and it has nothing to do with the fact that if he dies in my body I'll be stuck in his. By blood or by spirit he's family, and even without that I love him dearly. It's my fault he's in this predicament, and I won't sacrifice him no matter what. Once we find him and ensure he's safe we can go after Kragin."

"I think we all feel the same way," Enara said.

Elyssa took the lead again, their progress agonizingly slow because the darkness made tracking two people on foot very difficult. Marc and Valin had a lead of perhaps a half-hour, but as long as they remained afoot they wouldn't draw farther ahead. Once the sun had risen they could pick up their pace and hopefully overtake them before they got into any trouble.

"Could the raiders have used the spires to enter Trimaria?" Enara asked in a hushed tone.

"Not likely," Keri said. "The only spire that can be reached from here is Wallkeep. Orcs appearing there would surely be noticed."

"I'm surprised the Merdians don't have forces encamped at the spires," Ali said. "What if they decided to send troops through in force?"

"These spires and those in Wallkeep were designed to move troops quickly in battalion strength" Keri said. "Even that wouldn't have been enough with the Wallkeep garrison at full strength though."

"But the garrison isn't at full strength now," Ali said.

Keri nodded, her face showing the concern she felt. The two divisions assigned to Wallkeep were intended to provide the capability to place one man along every five feet of the Wall, while still keeping a full division in reserve. Of course the Wall was generally not manned to that level; the frontier was two hundred miles away and a Merdian army would first have to break through the Trimarian lines and then march for days to mount an assault. Even if they accomplished that, they would have to concentrate on one section to bring enough troops to bear against the defenses.

At the current strength of the garrison, however, they would need every man of the two regiments to cover the wall, and they would be spaced out twice as far. There was no reserve to bring up to plug any breach, and no troops to send against a force coming through the spires. With a well coordinated attack, the enemy could capture the city with relative ease. Once Wallkeep was in their hands they would have a direct route into western Trimaria.

~ They still have to break through the frontier though, and our reports show they don't have enough troops in Camron to do that. ~

A half-hour of travel brought them to the hollow and as they reached the stream Elyssa was examining the ground intently. When she walked over to join them, her face was grim.

"They were met here," Elyssa said. "Six men at least with horses. There's no indication of a struggle – it appears Sir Marcan went with them willingly."

"If they were men they had to be Merdians," Keri said. "Marc would have never surrendered without a fight."

"Yes, he would," Ali said. "He's protecting your body."

"You're right," Keri agreed. "Of course he could have thought of that before he ran off after Kragin."

"You know he was overcome by grief," Ali said, her voice pained. "He'd just seen Stil killed before his eyes. You or I would have done the same thing."

Keri closed her eyes and nodded. She felt anguish on multiple levels; she felt the pain Marc would for his cousin and the hurt that was still raw in Aliana over her father.

"Can you feel him?" Enara asked. Keri shook her head.

"Then he must not feel in danger," Enara continued. "If he was afraid you should know it."

"We don't know enough about this empathic connection," Keri said. "It may be because of my magical affinity, but the amulet could still be part of it. Maybe when it was removed the link was broken."

"They'll be able to outdistance us now," Elyssa said. "They know where they're going and can travel faster, but we're still limited to a slow pace to keep the trail."

"They'll have to stop eventually," Keri said.

"Keri, you've been here before, or Marc has," Aliana said. "It was near here that he saved your father. Can you remember anything about the area?"

"The lake, Lake Falstrom," Keri said after a moment's thought. "It's in this direction if I recall correctly. The Merdians could have a supply base there. It's no more than five or six leagues from the spires."

"We'd best proceed as we have been," Elyssa said. "If the lake is their destination we'll catch up soon enough. If it's not, we don't want to miss a shift in the trail – we might never pick it up again."

Keri nodded and signaled for Elyssa to proceed. She felt uncomfortable in the position of leader – Elyssa had far more experience than she did – but everyone looked to her for direction. She found herself relying more and more on Marc's memories, and she tried to consciously force the discomfort aside and let his natural talent for leadership through.

An hour later Elyssa stopped again. The tracks had split off in three directions, either in an attempt to confuse their trail or ensure that they weren't being followed. Three horses continued along the original course, more-or-less, and Elyssa was ale to determine that one seemed to be carrying two people. She estimated they were now over an hour behind Marc and the riders, and as they continued Keri dropped back a bit in case they were being followed.

Another half-hour of tracking brought them to a wide path through the forest. Keri guessed from Marc's memories that it was one of the many supply roads that had been constructed during the earlier conflict with Merdia, and the evidence of regular usage indicated the Merdians were still making use of it. The signs showed the men with Marc had not crossed the road, instead turning to follow it almost due south, their tracks mingling with the others.

"A wagon passed here very recently," Elyssa said. "There are also more tracks of mounted men, four I think, but it’s difficult to tell for certain. I don't think it was an escort though."

"This is well behind the frontier," Keri said. "The Merdians probably feel secure enough to send wagons unescorted."

"I'm confused about something," Enara said. "Why didn't the Merdians have troops guarding the spires? Wouldn't they be worried we might use them?"

"Not likely," Keri said. "Once deactivated the spires can only be restored to use locally with a master key. We had no idea the spires here had been reactivated, so we never even thought to try them. Even if someone had suggested it, Lornis was in a position to discourage such a plan."

"We can move faster now at least," Elyssa said, taking the reigns of her mount from Keri and climbing into the saddle. "The road is narrow enough that I'll be able to see if our quarry has left it."

They had only been following the road a short time when it curved sharply to the east. They could hear sounds from around the bend – one pleading voice and several others laughing harshly. Keri motioned for them to get off the road and once they far enough off to remain concealed they dismounted. While Enara stayed with the horses, Keri, Ali and Elyssa made their way towards the commotion as quietly as possible.

From their vantage point just within the trees they were able to see the source of the noise. A wagon was stopped in the middle of the road as four men in the livery of Merdian soldiers rifled through the goods it carried. The driver, a rather portly man with a balding head was pleading quite loudly for them to stop but they ignored him.

"We probably shouldn't get involved," Ali whispered. She saw the look on Keri's face, however, and shook her head. "But you're going to anyway."

"We need information," Keri replied. "That driver must know this area."

"What's a merchant doing out here anyway?" Ali wondered.

"We'll ask him once we deal with the soldiers," Keri said, drawing her swords. She offered the shorter blade to Ali but the Maid-of-Honor shook her head and drew the two long daggers from her boots.

"We need to take them by surprise," Elyssa said. "Shards, I wish I had my bow.

"Let me go first," Aliana said. "I can get close without arousing too much suspicion."

"And just how will you do that?" Keri asked.

Ali grinned and slipped the daggers into her belt at her back. Then she opened up the front of her shirt and adjusted her breasts beneath her bustier until she was displaying a generous amount of cleavage.

"Do you really think they won't find it odd that a woman is wandering around out here alone?"

Ali shrugged and said, "They're men; they won't be thinking with their big heads."

"Wait until I work my way down a bit," Elyssa said. "That will put me behind them once their attention is on you."

Keri nodded. "When Ali makes her move I'll reveal myself to make sure we have their attention."

"They have bolt-casters, Highness," Elyssa warned.

"And I have magic. I can handle them."

Elyssa smiled and faded back into the brush. Ali ruffled her hands through her hair, creating a wild mess, and then turned a worried look towards the Princess.

"You know you're not exactly at your best when it comes to magic."

"I've been practicing, don't worry."

"Just make sure you don't trip over those big feet of yours," Ali said with a grin.

Ignoring the glare Keri gave her, the Maid-of-Honor moved a short distance away so she wouldn't be appearing from Keri's position. Then she rubbed her hands in the dirt and smeared some on her face before crashing loudly from cover and onto the road.

"Oh thank the Shard!" she cried to the men. "Please … can you help me?"

The four soldiers stopped their pillaging and leered at her. The two in the wagon jumped to the ground, their eyes boring into her hungrily as the nearest one walked towards her.

"What have we here?" he said. "Didja get lost little girl?"

'Yes, please help me," Aliana pleaded, tears streaming down her face as she stumbled forward. "I've been wandering for hours."

She literally fell into the man's arms as she pretended to swoon, and after turning to grin wolfishly at his comrades he placed a hand on her right breast and squeezed as he laughed. Ali pressed her body close to him and then brought her right knee up, under his mail shirt. He wore mail chausses as well, but as with most such protection they were open at the crotch and his privates were covered only by linen breeches. Ali's strike was well aimed, her knee driving up into his unprotected genitals.

The man's eyes crossed as he tried to scream and suck in breath at the same time. The end result was a long, pain-filled hiss as his hands dropped to clasp his privates and he sank to his knees. Ali yanked him around before his knees hit the ground, her right hand snatching one of the daggers from her belt and bringing it around to his throat.

"Drop your weapons or I'll open his throat like a fish!"

The other three soldiers were surprised but didn't seem overly concerned. One began to edge slowly towards a bolt-caster propped against the wagon while the other two began to circle to get on either side of Aliana.

"I suggest you do as she says," Keri said as she emerged from the trees. She had sheathed her shorter blade but the longsword was still in her right hand as she stepped onto the road.

Her appearance caused the three soldiers to adjust their demeanor. They no doubt recognized her attire as that of a Trimarian knight even if they didn't know that the crest on her left breast was that of the Royal Guard. For all they knew they were surrounded by Trimarian infantry. The timely neighing of a horse from treeline only seemed to confirm that belief and Keri had no doubt that it was not accidental.

She wanted to end this quickly and without bloodshed if possible, but the soldier nearest the wagon forced her hand. He made a quick move towards the bolt-caster and Keri's left arm shot forward, a bolt of blue-white energy streaking from it. She had begun casting the spell as soon as she revealed herself, and her preparation proved justified.

The bolt struck the soldier squarely in the chest and though there was no apparent damage his eyes bulged wide and he dropped to the ground, instantly dead. The Princess could have used a less powerful attack to stun him, but if her aim had been slightly off he could still have posed a threat. She swallowed the bile that threatened to rise in her throat – she had killed orcs at the Star Stones but this was different; she had taken the life of a man.

The soldier before Ali chose that moment to act. Despite the pain that still prevented him from rising he snapped body back, throwing Aliana off balance. The blade of the dagger left his throat but Ali was able to bring the pommel down behind his right ear as she backpedaled to regain her footing. The man crumpled to the road as Ali drew her second dagger and continued to back away from the other two.

Keri couldn't fire another spell; the angles were too close to Ali and once loosed the bolt would kill friend or foe alike. She ceased her subvocal chanting and drew her short sword, advancing to engage the soldiers. They turned their full attention to her, perceiving her as the greater threat. The Princess nearly knocked Aliana down as she moved to place her own body between her friend and the two soldiers as they attacked.

Keri blocked the thrust of one with her shortsword and swung her long blade at the other, forcing him to back away hastily. Instead of coming back at her he turned to go for the bolt-caster, but before he could reach it Elyssa leapt from the trees and attacked. She easily parried a wild sword thrust with her dagger and then plunged her side-sword into the soldier's abdomen. The keen point of the thin blade slipped through the rings of his mail shirt, the force behind the thrust splitting them apart. The Merdian's own momentum carried him forward, impaling himself on the blade. The shield maiden ended his suffering with a quick thrust of her dagger under the chin.

As Marc had done at the Grand Ball during the valse, Keri forced herself aside and let his body act and react as it had been trained to. As the soldier Ali had clubbed struggled to rise she kicked him in the face, spinning around as she leapt over his prostrate form, her blades slicing the air to keep the last man off balance. The soldier parried several of her attacks but they had only been intended to keep him on the defensive. Keri brought her longsword in low, forcing the man to drop his own blade to parry, and then she thrust her shortsword into his chest, the enchanted blade slicing through the mail with ease.

Fighting the queasy feeling in her stomach, Keri turned to the last enemy to find that he was face down on the road with Ali's knee firmly planted in his back. She held the point of one dagger behind his right ear, a trickle of blood running down his cheek.

"Find something to tie that one with," Keri told Elyssa, gesturing to the man Ali held at bay.

"What the frag was that all about?" Ali asked, glaring at Keri.

The Princess looked at her in confusion and said, "What?"

"Shoving me out of the way like that. In case you've forgotten I can take care of myself."

"I didn't … I mean I don't know…." Keri stammered. Her confusion turned to dismay as she realized she had acted just as Marc would have – like a man.

Ali's expression softened and she said, "It's all right … just don't do it again. I had the situation under control."

Keri nodded and turned her attention to the man from the wagon. He backed away from her hastily until he ran into his wagon. His eyes were wide with fear as he raised his hands, his body trembling.

"Please don't kill me!" he cried. "Take anything you want!"

"We're not going to hurt you or rob you," Keri said, lowering her weapons. She sheathed her longsword and then dropped to her knees beside the body of the man she had just slain, wiping the blood from her shortsword on his tabard before sheathing it as well.

"Who are you and what are you doing here?" she asked as she rose to her feet.

"My … my name is Dermit," the man said. "I'm a traveling tinkerer."

"You're Merdian?"

Dermit seemed confused by the question, his eyes darting to the crest on Keris doublet. A look of wonder crossed his face and he smiled.

"You really are Trimarian," he said. "I'm not Merdian I assure you. I make the rounds of the villages in this area, trading my skills for food and shelter."

"What villages?" Keri demanded. "Camron was evacuated years ago."

"Not by all," Dermit said. "Some people stayed. There's Uthcom three leagues west of here, and Dunbarrow about four leagues to the west."

"You were traveling south," Keri said. "What lies that way?"

The man's fear turned to evasion and he stuttered, "Well, nothing … not anymore. There was Falmere on the lake, but orcs sacked it three years ago. The soldiers mostly leave us alone, but the orcs are a constant menace. Fortunately they've mostly moved north to the frontier."

He was obviously hiding something. Keri was about to press him further when Enara emerged from the forest. She looked frightened, and a moment later Keri knew why. A man on horseback emerged behind her, a bolt-caster aimed at the young woman's back.

"I have more men in the trees," he said. "Drop your weapons and yield or your friend dies. I have no wish to kill such a lovely lady, but I will if you force me to."

Even if the man were lying about his comrades, there was no choice left to them. Before Keri could get off a spell he could easily kill Enara. She slowly reached to her weapons, pulling them scabbard and all from her belt frogs and dropping them to the road. Elyssa and Ali did the same, and then moved over to stand near Keri. Three more men emerged from the woods and gathered their blades.

The leader slipped his bolt-caster into a holster on his saddle and then dismounted. There was something familiar about his appearance, though Keri was certain she had never met him before. He walked over to them, examined the crest on Keri's doublet and the arms of Highkeep on Elyssa's and smirked.

"Who are you?" he asked Keri.

"Knight-Captain Marcan Demoss of the Trimarian Royal Guard," Keri said, feeling very much like a child playing make-believe games.

"They saved me from those ruffians, Lord Ren," Dermit said. "I think they really are Trimarian."

"No doubt they are," Ren said with a grin, his eyes never leaving Keri's. "Looking for your wayward Princess no doubt. You're in luck - we can take you to her."

"The Princess is your Prisoner?"

"Her Highness is our guest, as are you," Ren replied. He turned to his men and ordered, "Get their horses, and give them their weapons."

Their weapons were returned and the horses brought from the woods. Then they helped Dermit gather up his scattered wares and put them back in the wagon. The tinkerer thanked them profusely before urging his team forward. Once he was away they mounted and Keri turned to look at the bodies of the three slain soldiers and the bound form of the fourth.

"What of the Merdians?" she asked Ren.

"My men will take care of them," He said, his grim expression leaving no doubt as to the fate of the survivor. "Oh, and despite the tabards they wear, they're not Merdians."

CHAPTER 41

"The Regent has returned to the Palace?" Baroness Gisella asked.

"Yes," Duke Terlen answered. "She wishes to coordinate the search for Her Highness from there. I'll be following shortly. I take it your accomplice has been silenced?"

"Permanently," Gisella said. "He did his part in blacking out the city; a pity your man Kragin failed. Have you heard from the imbecile yet? Why would he kidnap the Princess instead of killing her as planned?"

"It will be another day before he reaches the observation post on the peninsula," the Duke told her. "I suspect he didn't take Her Highness, but rather she is pursuing him."

"What madness would possess her to do that?" Gisella laughed. "The girl is capricious but she's not stupid."

"Kragin was supposed to take something from her before he killed her, an artifact of great power. The Princess will do whatever she must to recover it."

"Or she could return at any time," Gisella said. "If she does she'll take the throne immediately and recall our troops."

"They won't get back in time to stop us," Terlen assured her. "Once Kragin verifies that the Trimarian forces have landed, our plan will be set in motion. Within a week's time our allies will control western Trimaria."

"It will all mean nothing if Darsia is not made queen!" Gisella spat. "You have no control over the Princess – she'll the troops to fight."

"You are aware of the Test?"

"The Royal Scepter?" Gisella asked. "Of course I'm aware of it. It hasn't been used in centuries."

"But any council member can demand it," Terlen said. "The heir must hold the scepter and invoke the test, and if the gem in the head doesn't light, their claim to the throne is forfeit."

"Kerialla is of the Royal bloodline, she'll pass the test easily … or do you know something about her I don't?"

"The test measures more than blood, it verifies the spirit as well," Terlen said. "There is something you need to know about the artifact Kragin took, and why the Princess wants it back so badly."

*****

Baron Iefan had been loath to return to Highkeep when he learned both his daughter and future daughter-in-law were missing along with the Princess. He had finally agreed to do so at the urging of Serjeant Garith, though the revelation that the Princess had likely traveled to the spires in Camron was not at all comforting. The serjeant had been quite insistent that he needed to see to the defenses of Highkeep, and that he should prepare for the worst.

"I want all the outlying farmsteads evacuated and our troops a field recalled," he told Knight-Commander Cernan. "Have every bit of food from the farmsteads brought in – I want the city prepared for a long siege."

"Do you really think it will come to that?" Cernan asked.

"Someone has attempted to kill the Princess twice now," the Baron replied. "Whatever is afoot here, Highkeep will stand against it. Start arming the militia as well."

"At once, Excellency."

When he was alone the Baron walked over to the hearth, gazing up at the portrait of his late wife. She had the same light skin and blue hair of their daughter, though she had been much slighter of stature. He reached out to touch the frame, his eyes glistening as he spoke.

"Our daughter has gone beyond my protection, Esmeara," he whispered. "Watch over her my love. Keep her safe."

*****

Garith had seen many comrades fall in his twenty-five years as a warrior, but never had he felt such a keen sense of loss. Stilnar looked so peaceful as he lay in the simple wooden coffin, his handsome face serene, as though he were merely sleeping. The mages had already performed the preservation rituals and the squire was dressed in his armor, his sword resting atop him as he grasped it in eternal vigilance.

"Ya done well, lad," the serjeant whispered. "Ya done us all proud."

He spent another moment in silent farewell and then turned and left the room where his friend lay with the other two guards that had fallen. Their bodies would be transported back to Lockeshire in the morning, to join their comrades slain during the attack near Amurga. The Royal Guard had paid a heavy price on this Royal Progress, thirty-two dead and more than twice that number wounded. Many of the wounded were back on duty but the Guard was still down a full troop in strength, and Garith knew that they would likely see more bloodshed, and soon.

The mood of the men was somber, but that was to be expected. Stilnar had been well liked, and his loss was a bitter blow. Worse than that, the Princess, the very person the Guard existed to defend, was missing. Morale was low, Garith could see that in their eyes as he passed through the barracks on his way to speak with Sir Alwin, who was temporarily in command in the Captain's absence.

As he entered the common room of the barracks complex he saw Master Talisin waiting for him. The sage smiled and nodded as he rose from his chair and joined the serjeant. Together they made their way to the commander's office.

"I've just received orders from the Regent," Alwin told them as they entered. "The Royal Guard is to stand down – we're not to be allowed to help in the search for the Princess."

"It doesn't matter," Garith said. "I know where Her Highness has gone. She followed a traitor through the spires to Camron."

"Followed? I was under the impression the Princess was abducted. Who is this traitor and how could he have gone to Camron?"

"It's Kragin," Garith said. "He's alive and he has Toranon's key. That's how the orcs have been able to move about the kingdom undetected. The Captain sent word to me of this last night before he followed Her Highness."

"Why haven't you informed the Regent of this?"

"Because we fear the Regent cannot be trusted," Master Talisin said. "We also have evidence that Duke Terlen is involved in the attempt to kill the Princess."

"What evidence?"

"There's no time ta get into details," Garith said. "We have to get the men ready ta move."

"We need a master key to access the spires in Camron," Alwin said.

"You'll have one," Talisin informed him. "Mistress Sybilla is at this very moment enchanting one for us. It will take some time, but she assures me it will be in your hands by tomorrow morning."

"If we muster it will be in direct defiance of the Regent's order."

"The Princess needs us, Sir Alwin," Garith said. "Stilnar, Jorin and Holwyn lay dead not a hundred feet from here. Are we ta disgrace their memories by sittin' here while Her Highness is in peril?"

The knight's eyes flashed angrily but his voice was low and controlled as he said, "No, we're not. Pass the word to the men – we ride at."

"Aye, Captain," Garith said with a grin.

"The Baroness has the spires locked down and men guarding them," Talisin pointed out.

"Yes, I believe she has a dozen men watching them," Alwin said. "I'm confident we can convince them to stand down."

CHAPTER 42

When Keri and the others were escorted into the underground hall near Lake Falstrom they were overjoyed to see Marc there. There were embraces in greeting and tears of joy, then Keri took him by the shoulders, as he had done with her so many times, and shook him gently.

"I should turn you over my knee for pulling a stunt like this," she said.

"I'd deserve it," Marc admitted, leaning his head on Keri's shoulder.

"I'm so sorry about Stilnar," the Princess whispered.

"He fought well, like a true knight," Marc told her. He brushed a tear from his cheek and pulled back so he could look at all of them.

"There's so much to tell you all, but first there's someone that wants to see Sir Marcan," he said.

Keri allowed Marc to lead her by the hand across the hall to a side room. He opened the door and gestured for Keri to proceed him, then followed the Princess into the smaller room.

Keri froze as soon as she saw her mother standing at the other end of the room. She looked down at Marc, his eyes beaming as he nodded his head.

"It's really true," he said. "I've told Her Majesty everything about us." He stood on his toes to kiss Keri on the cheek and then said, "I'll leave you two alone."

The Princess turned back to Mistara as Marc left the room, closing the door behind him. She was afraid to move, afraid to say anything lest she break the spell that had made this moment possible.

"Is it really you?" she asked at last.

"Yes, love, it's really me," Mistara said, holding her arms open wide.

Keri rushed to her mother and embraced her tightly. Any semblance of emotional control was shattered by the joy she felt, and she wept openly, her great body shaking. Mistara cried as well and it was a long time before either of them was able to find their voices. When Keri finally did, she asked a question that her heart already knew the answer to.

"Father?"

Mistara shook her head. "He died as he would have wanted, with a sword in his hand."

Keri nodded and the Queen led her to a couch. They sat down and for several minutes Keri could only stare at her mother.

"I know you have a lot of questions," Mistara said.

"Why?" Keri asked. "Why didn't you let me know you were alive?"

"We were taken by surprise," the Queen told her. "Kragin was scouting ahead with a small detachment but they gave no warning of the ambush."

"Kragin!" Keri hissed. "That bastard led you into the trap. He's alive, Mother!"

"I know," Mistara said. "We saw him directing the orcs as they fell on us. There were so many of them … I tried to open a hole in their ranks but I over reached myself … I touched the aether too deeply and it overcame me. I was still aware but my mind had become trapped in my body and I was helpless.

"I did manage to open a small hole, and your father ordered several men to escape with me. The last I saw of him, he and the men around him had cut their way through to Kragin. Your father struck him down, but obviously he lived, and then the orcs swarmed over them."

"But you escaped," Keri said. "What of the men with you?"

Tears flowed from the Queen's eyes as she recalled the painful memory.

"One by one they fell, each one buying more time for me to get farther away. Finally there was only young Cedwin, squire to one of your father's knights. He was badly wounded, but he never left me. He abandoned our mounts and sent them off to lead the orcs away, and somehow we eluded them, Cedwin leading me like a child despite his wounds. He found a cave to shelter us, and then I watched his life fade; I couldn't even move or speak."

The Queen took a moment to dry her eyes before continuing her tale. Keri could only imagine how much those memories had haunted her mother over the past six years.

"I was found the next morning," Mistara continued. "Not by orcs but by a handsome young man who used that cave as a hunting lodge, Lord Valin of Talmere. He brought me here, and his people took care of me; they fed me and cleaned me while I lay, trapped within my own body, for two years. Finally I began to regain the use of my body, but I was very weak and confused. Even though I had witnessed everything, it was another year before I was able to make sense of the memories. I didn't even know who I was."

"But Valin and his people did," Keri said. "I didn't even know anyone had stayed in Camron."

"There were many who would rather risk staying here unprotected than abandon their homes," the Queen said. "They faced the same dangers the original settlers here in Camron did."

"But when you recovered, why didn't you send word?"

"I was afraid for you," her mother answered. "If Kragin, a knight of the Royal Guard could betray us, then anyone could be suspect. If I let you know I was alive, they might have harmed you or used you to force me to reveal myself. I wanted to find out who was behind it all."

"It's Lornis," Keri told her.

"Marc told me," the Queen said. "Honestly I had never even considered him; everyone thought he was long dead. But Lornis is not alone in this – in fact he may be as much a pawn as those he has manipulated."

"Then who…?"

"It would be best to explain what we've learned to everyone," Mistara said, pausing to reach up and stroke the close-cropped hair on Keri's head. "There will be others there, including Valin, so you'll need to maintain your guise. Marc was very insistent that Valin not find out about your exchange. I think he's rather smitten by my handsome young savior."

"You should have seen him flirting at the ball," Keri laughed. "At least he's got my ring…."

The Princess saw the look in her mother's eyes and felt sick. She realized that Marc hadn't been wearing any of her jewelry when she saw him in the hall.

"Kragin took it all, didn't he?" Keri asked. The Queen nodded in confirmation. "Oh poor Marc … the things he's feeling now are nothing like what he's dealt with the last two weeks. I've made such a mess of things."

Queen Mistara smiled and said, "We all make mistakes love. Sometimes they even turn out to be blessings in disguise. One day I'll have to tell you how I accidentally got your father pregnant."

For the next hour Keri shared as much as she could about her life over the past six years. She tried to gloss over the difficulties between her and her aunt but it wasn't possible to hide everything. At least now she knew there was a strong possibility that her aunt was being influenced – which only made her hate Lornis that much more.

There wasn't enough time for either of them to say all they wanted, but at least there was the future to look forward to. As the Queen had said, there was much to talk about with everyone involved, but they took a few minutes to bring Marc and the others in first.

As soon as Aliana saw Mistara she burst into tears and ran to hug the Queen. Marc had prepared her for the reunion, but hearing the words and actually seeing the miracle for herself were two different things.

"Thank you for taking care of Keri for me, Ali," Mistara told her.

"It's been a chore, but I do love her so," Ali sighed.

Keri put her arm around Enara, feeling a bit awkward as she said, "Mother, this is Honorable Lady Enara, my Lady-in-Waiting and adopted sister."

The Queen extended her hands and Enara tried to curtsey and take her hands at the same time, which nearly ended with both of them on the floor. Keri stepped in to prevent a catastrophe, and when Enara started apologizing profusely the Queen silenced her with a smile.

"It's all right, dear," she said as she pulled the young woman into an embrace. "I once stepped on Riala's train going into court and took her and three handmaidens to the carpet. Keri has told me a lot about you, and I am so pleased to meet you."

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Enara said, unable to hide her sobs.

"Now dear, there's nothing to fret about," Mistara assured her.

"Oh no, ma'am, it's not that," Enara told her. "I'm just so happy for Keri."

The Queen hugged her again and said, "My daughter has adopted you as sister, and I'd be very honored if you'd think of me as your mother too. I know you have your own parents…."

"They've made it plain they want nothing to do with me," Enara said. "I would be proud to call you Mother."

"Thank you, daughter," the Queen said. "Just do me a favor and don't give up on your parents. People can change."

Enara nodded and the Queen smiled again before turning to the others.

"Now there is much we have to share, so Keri and Marc need to get into character," she said. "Ali, would you ask Lord Valin and the others to join us?"

CHAPTER 43

Marc tried not to smile as Valin entered the room but failed. He had spent several hours with the handsome nobleman during the morning, and not because Valin was constantly at his elbow. If anything, the opposite was true – somehow every time Valin had left him, Marc had found some reason to seek him out, and despite knowing how transparent he must seem he simply could not stop himself.

~ Oh get over it … he's not that handsome! ~

The smile disappeared when Valin's companions entered the chamber. When Marc had awakened after his embarrassing fainting spell, Mistara had assured him that the Merdian officers were allies. He was too overjoyed at finding the Queen alive to press her for an explanation, and once he had revealed that he was not Keri, he understood Mistara's desire to wait until her daughter was present before going into details.

He trusted the Queen, but he was barely able to tolerate their presence in the room. Trimaria had been in conflict with Merdia since before he was born, and much of his adult life had been spent on the opposite side of battle with men just like these. Years of animosity could not be easily set aside.

"Let me first make introductions," Queen Riala said. "These gentlemen are Colonel Treymar Corvis and Captain Ivon Dazov of the Merdian army."

As the Queen introduced the others at the table to the two officers Marc tried to equate their ranks to the Trimarian military. While the Merdians had their knights just as Trimaria did, theirs was strictly a societal rank and had no bearing on military matters. A captain was roughly equal to Marc's own rank, but there was no Trimarian equivalent to a colonel. His rank fell somewhere in between a knight-commander and a knight-general.

The Queen introduced Marc last, as her daughter the Princess of course, and the two officers bowed showing proper respect. Marc acknowledged each with a nod and then turned his attention back to the Queen.

"There is one thing that must be made perfectly clear before we proceed," Mistara said. "I am but the Queen-Mother. It's my daughter who holds authority here, and if we are to accomplish anything it is her trust you must earn." Mistara turned to Marc and added, "I am already convinced that what you are about to hear is true, but ultimately it is in your hands to decide."

"Thank you, Mother," Marc said. His own mother had died giving birth to him, and Mistara had been the only woman he had ever seen as such, but to actually call her that felt both odd and comforting.

"I'll hear what you have to say," he told the officers. "After that, I'll confer with my mother and friends before making any decision."

"I should provide a bit of background," Mistara said. "Once I had recovered sufficiently to be of use, I began working to uncover the truth behind the attack that killed my husband and so many brave warriors and friends. Lord Valin became my eyes and ears in Trimaria; he had relatives who had evacuated when our forces withdrew, so it was easy enough for him to integrate himself into Trimarian society. That also helped get him into the tourney so that he could make contact with you."

"You must have been confident in your abilities," Marc said.

"I was, but we were nearly undone by Lady Elyssa," Valin said with a wry grin. "I am not at all certain the results would be the same if we met on the field again."

Elyssa returned his smile but said nothing.

"Why didn't you just submit a patent as a potential suitor?" Marc asked.

"Because I knew those documents would be subjected to much more scrutiny than what was required to enter the tourney," Valin explained. "Though my patents are legitimate any half-competent herald would have discovered that I remained in Camron after the evacuation."

"Your father and I were aware of those that refused to leave," Mistara said. "We had rolls made listing all the names we could, and we did maintain communications with the nobility here until we left to sign the treaty."

Marc looked to Keri who shook her head ever so slightly, confirming what her memories told him already.

"The Regent never made any mention of contact with our people here," he said. "If I had known…."

"We know, Highness," Valin said. "The Queen has always assured us that you would never have abandoned us."

"Perhaps you should tell us about life here after the evacuation, Valin," Mistara said.

"In truth, it was much better than it was before," Valin said. "When the King withdrew our forces, the Merdians withdrew theirs as well. The orcs were still a nuisance as they had always been, but there weren't many of them, and Toranon had left us with ample stockpiles of weapons to defend ourselves. A number of those who remained behind were warriors who had made homes here in Camron."

"Your Highness, if I may?" Colonel Corvis asked. Marc nodded and the officer continued.

"I'm sure you're aware that the orcs were a nuisance to both sides during the war. We find the creatures to be as repulsive as you do, and the Merdian army has never employed them, not even as scouts."

Marc bit back an acerbic response, determined to hear everything before he made any kind of judgment. It was hard though; everything he had been led to believe for the last six years told him that the Merdians had been employing orcs on a massive scale, and the creatures had accounted for thousands of Trimarian dead and wounded.

"After the attack on the Royal entourage, everything changed," Vallin said. "The orcs seemed to multiply over night. Most were to the east, engaging the forces of Trimaria as they began advancing into Camron again, but enough roamed freely to cause problems here. My parents were killed when they sacked Falmere, and that's how I came to lead these people here."

"That trader we met, Dermot," Marc said. "He spoke of other villages. How have they escaped intact?"

"The orcs here in central Camron are not well organized – mostly deserters who have turned to brigandage," Mistara said. "In Falmere's case … our enemies learned that the villagers were sheltering me. I had never actually been to the village; Valin brought me straight to these halls when he found me, but when the people at the village refused to divulge my location, orcs were sent to raze Falmere."

"I found out who was responsible," Valin said, his face grim. "Fortunately he never knew the location of this place – my family kept it a closely guarded secret for just such a possibility. I can promise you he will never betray anyone again. Some of the villagers did manage to escape, and they've sheltered here for the last three years."

"As our reconnaissance began in earnest, we began to note some unusual things," Mistara said as she took up the story again. "It took time to gather all the pieces, and we had to build a network of operatives throughout Camron. Dermit, the tinkerer you met, is one of the best. The first clue came from him, when he observed evidence that the enemy was landing large contingents of orcs along the western shores of Camron."

"By itself that wasn't much," Valin said. "Transporting them by ship from Merdia would be faster than marching them up through Camron after all. It was always troubling, however, that the enemy was employing so many orcs; roughly five times the number of men in the field. Then we started hearing reports of Merdians overheard speaking in a strange tongue."

"Inglis is the common language of both kingdoms," Keri said.

Mistara nodded, smiling as she said, "Precisely, Sir Marcan. The final clue came when we expanded our network to the south. We were quite shocked to learn that Merdia was engaged in a bitter struggle along their northern border with forces that appeared to be Trimarian."

"That doesn't make sense," Marc said. "Our troops are eight hundred miles from the Merdian border."

"It makes sense if we're both fighting the same enemy," Keri said.

"That was what we concluded," Mistara said. "Our two kingdoms are at war, but not with each other. I knew something had to be done, but it was far too dangerous for me to contact Trimaria, so I turned to Merdia."

"We were naturally hesitant at first when the Queen made contact," Colonel Corvis said. "We believed she had been killed, and many thought this was some kind of ruse. King Cristof, however, wanted to believe, so we established a dialogue and began sharing information. It seems obvious now that the forces we have both been fighting for six years are from Glennar."

The so-called Empire of Glennar occupied the western portion of the continent of Noraster, of which both Trimaria and Merdia were a part. In land mass it was larger than both kingdoms combined, but its population was in widely scattered principalities, several of which were entirely populated by orcs. They had attempted to invade Trimaria in the distant past by sea, but they had been driven off easily thanks to Trimaria's superiority in magical weapons. They had also launched a disastrous land assault on Merdia, but it too had failed, largely due to the imposing range of snow capped mountains called Fiacla dar Dragan, or the Dragon's Teeth.

"Just a minute now," Keri said. "What about prisoners? Certainly both sides have taken captives? None of them revealed that they weren't who they appeared to be?"

"Yes, we have taken prisoners, but very few," Corvis said. "As I'm sure you know from experience, Sir Marcan, orcs rarely break under interrogation, and those that did simply confirmed what we already believed -- that they were mercenaries employed by Trimaria. As for the men, none of them have ever divulged anything useful."

"And if any we've captured did, the information was suppressed," Marc said. "Lornis has to have some hold over the Regent – he's been playing her like a puppet."

"The question is why do they want us at each other's throats?" Captain Dazov said. He was a handsome warrior, much younger than the colonel though he conveyed an air of authority. His name was also familiar, but it took a moment for Marc to place it.

"Dazov," Marc said. "Are you related to the royal family of Merdia?"

"The captain's father is King Cristof," Mistara said. "Ivon is the Crown Prince of Merdia."

"My father greatly admired yours, Highness," the Prince said. "Both as a warrior and a peacemaker. When we were contacted by agents from your mother, I asked to be allowed to come here to meet with her. It is my great privilege to be able to meet you as well. I have heard many tales of the beauty of the Princess of Trimaria, but they all fall far short of the truth."

Marc felt his heart thumping, and the room seemed to grow suddenly warmer. He had to resist the urge to squirm in his chair, and when he saw that Valin seemed to be irritated by the Prince's attention, he found himself oddly pleased.

"What about the Merdian … well the Glennaran ports on the Istan Peninsula?" Keri asked, thankfully pulling his attention back to the matter at hand.

Mistara turned to Valin, a confused look on her face. "We have no information regarding any ports there."

"All their ports are on the northwest coast," Valin said. "That's how they've been infiltrating orcs into Trimaria."

"I was afraid of that," Keri said. "The Regent has been convinced that there are ports on the peninsula, and that they're the source of the raiders that have been striking deep into Trimaria. She's prepared a massive sea assault, combined with a land push from the frontier. Virtually all of our forces will be involved, except for a token garrison on the Wall and the forces of Highkeep that Baron Iefan recalled."

"When is this attack supposed to begin?" Mistara asked.

"I believe it's already begun," Keri answered. "The Regent wasn't at the ball – she must have been monitoring the invasion. The peninsula is too far for direct communication via orbs, but they could be using some of the ships to relay reports. If I'm right, the Glennarans plan to invade, and Trimaria is virtually defenseless."

"But your people, surely they will fight," Prince Ivon said. "The forces that remain could hold out until relief came."

"Not if they're ordered to surrender," Keri said, her eyes settling on Marc. "That's why they wanted the Princess dead."

"If this Lornis is controlling the Regent, why wouldn't he simply do the same with the Princess?" Corvis asked. "It would seem much simpler than such an elaborate plot."

"Because he couldn't," Mistara answered. "My daughter is the most powerful mage our kingdom has ever seen. Even she isn't aware of her full potential. Lornis might have been able to exert some limited control at first, but her innate magical abilities would have quickly broken it. He needs someone on the throne that can be easily controlled."

"Darsia," Marc said. "He intends to make her Queen, but he'll be the one who's really in charge."

CHAPTER 44

It had all gone so horribly wrong, and Duchess Rayna was not certain how or why. All she had wanted was to provide a secure kingdom for her niece and make the Merdians pay for the murder of her sister. She would still accomplish the latter, but her husband was right, she had to accept the fact that Keri was most likely dead.

She wished Terlen were with her, but he hadn't returned from Wallkeep yet. He always knew what to do when she didn't, and he always managed to drive away the headaches that constantly plagued her when he wasn't near.

A knock at her sitting room door broke her chain of thoughts, causing her to jump. One of her attendants opened the door and stuck her head into the room, telling her that Lady Darsia was there to see her. For an instant she couldn't recall why she had summoned her. Then she remembered – Keri was dead and that made Darsia the heir. She motioned for her handmaiden to admit the girl.

"Please sit down, Lady Darsia," the Regent said, gesturing to the spot on the couch next to her.

"I should say Princess," the Regent continued. Darsia gave her a confused look and the Duchess explained. "Keri is gone, Darsia. She was taken from Wallkeep and murdered."

"Oh no!" Darsia cried, her hand rising to her mouth.

"I'm sure you're as devastated as I am," the Regent soothed, "but we don't have time to think of ourselves; the kingdom needs us."

"I understand, Regent," Darsia said, sucking in a deep breath.

"After consultation with my husband and some of the Barons, I've decided that Trimaria needs a sovereign as quickly as possible. Once the news spreads, the people will be heartbroken. We must restore their faith in the monarchy, and let them know that House Lockeleigh is still strong."

Darsia nodded her head like a floppy doll, her eyes wide. She was certainly no Keri, but at least she would be amenable to guidance.

"I've summoned the Councils of Barons and Guilds to the Palace," the Regent continued. "They will be assembled here in three days and the process of naming you heir will begin. As soon as that formality is taken care of, you will be crowned Queen."

The Duchess wasn't sure what she expected from the girl – elation, denial, perhaps tears. What she got was a blank, wide-eyed stare.

"Do you understand what I just said, Darsia?"

Darsia nodded slowly. "It's just … I just never expected this to happen."

"None of us did." The Regent said. "Duke Terlen and I will be here to help you, my dear. You have nothing to fear."

"All … all right, Regent. If this is what you think is best."

"Best, no," the Regent said, "but it must be done. I've made an appointment for you with a very good dress maker; you'll need a gown for the coronation. She and her apprentices will meet you in your quarters."

"Thank you, Regent," Darsia said as she rose. "I … I'm very sorry about Keri."

The Regent bit back a sob and nodded, unable to speak. Darsia quietly left the chamber and made her way back to her own quarters.

"Where have you been?" her mother demanded. "We were supposed to go for a ride."

"We already did that, Mother," Darsia said. "I had to see the Regent. I … I'm going to be Queen."

"What nonsense!" her mother said. "You're not the heir, Mistara's daughter is … what's her name?"

"Keri," Darsia said, feeling as though she was in a dream. "She's gone, Mother, she was killed at Wallkeep."

Viscountess Alicia gasped, her hand rising to her mouth. "Not her too. Just like her mother, it's so tragic. I tell you this house is cursed…."

Darsia let her mother babble on as she slipped into her bedchamber, idly fingering the ring on her right hand. Duke Terlen had given it to her on her eighteenth birthday, and she had treasured it ever since. He was so nice to her, always lending a sympathetic ear when she needed to complain about all the special treatment her cousin got.

It wasn't that she didn't like Keri; she really did. But she was of the Royal Blood too, yet no one ever paid any attention to her. No one but Duke Terlen – he'd always said she could be as good a Queen as Keri.

With a giggle of childish delight Darsia twirled in front of her mirror, imagining herself in a beautiful gown, prettier than any Keri ever wore, with the glittering crown of Trimaria on her head. Then with a squeal of glee she leapt onto her bed and rolled over to stare at the ceiling.

"I'm going to be Queen!"

*****

An hour after the meeting with Sir Alwin a messenger found Master Talisin and informed him that Baroness Gisells wished to see him. He was escorted to her private chamber, and after the sage was seated she passed a parchment to the sage. He felt his face flush with heat as he read the announcement but he managed to keep his hand from trembling with anger.

"You don't seriously believe you can get away with this?" he asked.

Baroness Gisella regarded the sage calmly, affecting a look of pure innocence.

"I have nothing to do with this," she said. "The Regent has called for the Councils, as is her duty under the law once a vacancy in the line of succession occurs."

"There's no evidence the Princess is dead!"

"And none that she is alive either," the Baroness said, "unless you have something to offer. Do you know where Her Highness is?"

"I know as much as you," the sage lied. At best admitting he knew the Princess had followed Kragin to Camron would get him arrested. He was quite certain that the Baroness had been behind the convenient blackout during the attack on the Princess, but since the mage responsible for interrupting the city's lights had been found dead there was no way to prove it.

"Then there's nothing either of us can do," Gisella told him.

"The guilds will not support placing Darsia on the throne," Talisin warned. "Not without irrefutable proof that Princess Kerialla is dead."

"You know as well as I do that your endorsement is not required. At this moment there is a vacancy in the line of succession, and that cannot be permitted to continue."

"And once Darsia is named heir the Regent will have her take the throne," Talisin fumed. "What will you do if Keri resurfaces after that?"

"I can't speak for the entire Baronial council," Gisella said, "but I imagine our position would be to support the sitting Queen. Of course Kerialla could choose to challenge, if she were to resurface, and then it would be a matter of who could draw the support of the most troops."

Talisin stared at the woman in horror, unable to believe she was actually proposing that Keri plunge the country into civil war. He quickly realized there was more going on than he was aware of. Gisella was confident it wouldn't matter if Keri returned after Darsia was crowned, and it wasn't because she thought that vapid girl could draw enough support to hold on to the throne.

"This is far from over," he warned as he turned to leave the office. He paused at the door and turned back, casting a steely glare at the baroness.

"Those who cast their lots with evil often find they quickly outlive their usefulness rather suddenly, Baroness. For your sake, you had best consider your next roll carefully."

CHAPTER 45

The meeting stretched well into the morning as various options were discussed. Valin and the Merdian officers were obviously growing a bit frustrated - they were not privy to all that was going on, so none they didn't understand why their proposals were not acceptable. Finally Marc thanked them for their input and asked them to leave while he conferred with his de facto advisors. Valin in particular looked hurt and perplexed that he wasn't to be included, but he didn't object.

"Okay, there's something I don't understand," Enara said once they were gone. "If the Glennarans want Trimaria, why doesn't Terlen just have the Regent order the surrender when their forces arrive?"

"Because having a Lockeleigh on the throne, even Darsia, gives the illusion of legitimacy," Keri told her. "As much as I hate to admit it, some people in the kingdom, a great many possibly, will buy into it."

"The people are tired of war," Marc said. "Without a strong voice to rally them, they might well fold." He saw the pained look that came to Keri's face and added, "No recriminations – this is not your fault."

"If only I had been able to send Valin to contact you sooner," Mistara said. "You were kept so close to the Palace it was impossible for us to risk it until the Festival."

Now it was Marc that looked stricken and Keri shook her head. "The same applies to you – no recriminations."

"So what do we do?" Ali asked. "I guess that depends on what we think the Regent, or rather Lornis, will do."

"Aunt Rayna will declare the succession at risk," Keri said. "Really she has no choice. Matters will proceed automatically from that. The councils will assemble at the palace and name Darsia heir. After that, she could take the throne at any time."

"No, they have to crown her immediately," Mistara said. "They have a timeline – as soon as word of the Glennaran invasion reaches the troops here in Camron they'll return to Trimaria with or without orders. They have to have Darsia on the throne before that happens."

"It will take at least two or three days to assemble the councils," Keri said. "The guild masters will try to fight the move but if the barons support it, Darsia will become heir."

"We can return to the spires and be back in Trimaria by morning," Elyssa suggested.

"No we have to get the amulet back," Marc said. "Kragin was heading in the direction of the peninsula when I last saw him."

"He must be going there to observe the invasion," Keri said. "The Glennarans won't want to commit their forces until they're certain those troops are committed."

"They have established a network of orb stations throughout Camron," Mistara said. "He could easily communicate across the region. How many troops remain in Trimaria?"

Marc considered a moment before answering, "Two, maybe three divisions worth, but they're scattered throughout the kingdom in battalion and regiment size. The largest single unit is the division at Highkeep."

"When the invasion troops find no port, won't they return?" Enara asked.

Keri shook her head. "No, they'll carry on with the rest of their mission, cutting across the supply lines and then turning east towards Trimaria. Our forces at the frontier will push forward as the Glennaran troops fall back…." Keri's eyes widened as she realized the true extent of the plan.

"They'll fall right back towards the spires. With the master key they can pour troops into Wallkeep, and their ships can land troops close enough to assault the city from behind the wall. The two brigades there will be overwhelmed, especially since the defenses are all aimed at an attack from Camron."

"Then you, Marc and Enara should return to Trimaria," Elyssa suggested. "Aliana and I can pursue Kragin, with help from Valin and his men."

"No, but your close," Keri said. "You and Enara have to go back. You have to get to your father and tell him what we fear. He has the only troops close enough to send aid to Wallkeep."

"Keri, we can't use your key," Enara said.

"You can if Marc attunes it to you," Keri said. "I can show him how."

"Even the troops at my father's disposal can't hold Wallkeep long against an attack from behind the wall," Elyssa said, "not if it's in the strength we suspect it will be."

"That's why Marc and I have to stay," Keri said. "We have to get to the invasion force."

"Keri I don't see…." Ali started.

"They won't abandon their orders for the Captain of the Royal Guard, or the Heir to Highkeep," Keri interrupted. Her eyes shifted to Marc and she concluded, "They will for the Princess of Trimaria though."

"She's right, it has to be the two of us," Marc said.

"Excuse me but there's three of us," Ali said. "You know you two need me."

"Always," Keri told her with a smile.

"But how will you get back with the troops?" Enara asked. "You won't have a key."

"Yes we will," Marc said. "We'll have the one we take from Kragin."

"If you can find him," Elyssa said. "He could be anywhere by now."

"Four of Valin's men followed him from the spires," Marc said. "We will find him."

The fierce determination in his eyes made it clear he considered failure unthinkable. They all knew it had nothing to do with returning to his body either – his sole concern was restoring the Princess to her rightful place.

"Before we do anything, you all need rest," Mistara said. "It's nearly mid-day and you've all been through much over the last day. You'll need all your strength for what is ahead."

"Come on, Princess," Aliana told Marc as she rose. "You look like I feel, so I know you're tired."

"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to get a little rest," Marc said as Ali practically dragged him to his feet.

"I can barely keep my eyes open," Enara said as she stifled a yawn. Elyssa smiled and nodded, and they rose and moved towards the door.

Keri hesitated, her face torn with indecision. Mistara smiled and placed a hand gently on her daughter's arm.

"I don't want this to end either, but you'll do no one any good if you're exhausted."

"I'm just afraid," Keri said. "I'm afraid if I go to sleep I'll wake up and find this has all been a dream. I'm so sorry for all that I've put Marc through, but finding you alive it…."

"I wouldn't change a thing either, Keri," Marc assured her. "This has been a wonderful, joyous morning, but your mother is right, we need to be well rested for what lies ahead."

"You're right of course," Keri said. She rose and walked towards the door, pausing for a moment to lean down and embrace her mother. Mistara kissed her on the cheek and then chuckled.

"I knew you'd be so different after six years," she told her daughter. "I never expected you to have stubble though!"

CHAPTER 46

The first rays of the sun were just breaking over the horizon as they Royal Guard materialized in Camron and immediately spread out into a defensive perimeter around the spires. Because the spires at Wallkeep and the Black Forest had been built specifically for troop movements, they were easily capable of transporting two full companies of infantry or a single company of cavalry. With their casualties the Guard was down to just five troops and had brought only a single troop of archers, allowing them to make the transfer in a single trip. Oddly enough, the dozen troops from Wallkeep guarding the spires there had stepped aside without a fuss when Sir Alwin asked them to.

They were expecting a fight, and were surprised to find the area around the spires apparently devoid of any hostile presence. Sir Alwin dispatched patrols to scout the area around the clearing. Their plan was simple – they would secure the spires and probe for signs of the Princess. Once they had an idea of where she had gone, Garith would take a troop of cavalry to render assistance while the remainder of the Guard held the spires.

"Not the best ground as far as defenses go," Garith remarked as he looked about the clearing, "but at least we'll see 'em coming."

"That we will," Sir Alwin agreed. "You'd best get a troop working on some defenses for us. Even a crude palisade will help if we're attacked."

"Aye, Sir," Garith said.

The serjeant wheeled his horse and began barking orders. One troop of Guardsmen left their positions and headed towards the trees to begin gathering materials for a hasty fortification.

"All we need now is a little time, and a lot of luck," Sir Alwin muttered.

*****

The Regent flew into a fury when she received the news that the Royal Guard had defied her orders. She immediately sent word throughout the kingdom that they were to be challenged on sight, and if they resisted force was to be used. Whether those orders would do any good she had no idea – man-for-man the Royal Guard was equal to a force several times their numbers and few units would willingly attempt to oppose them.

"Do you think Keri could still be alive?" she asked her husband.

"I don't believe so, my dear," Terlen replied. "It's likely the assassins spirited her away to create confusion, but if she were still alive we would have received some kind of ransom demand."

"Of course," the Regent said, her shoulders slumped in defeat. She hasn't slept since returning from Wallkeep, and her face was haggard and pale. She turned to Knight-Commander Jaris and asked, "Is there any word of Sir Marcan?"

"None, Excellency," Jaris replied, hesitating before continuing. "It's possible the Guard has gone to some pre-arranged meeting. This could all have been some plot on the part of Demos. He wasn't with the Princess when she was abducted."

"I'm afraid I have to agree with Sir Jaris," Terlen said, toying with his wedding ring as he spoke. "Sir Marcan must be considered a traitor."

The Regent squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, a hard glint replacing the look of despair in her eyes. She took a sheet of parchment from her desk and quickly scribbled her signature on the line at the bottom, then pressed her signet ring into the paper, burning in the royal seal. She handed the document to Jaris once the ink had dried.

"This is an order declaring Sir Marcan Demos an enemy of the state," she said. "He is to be taken into custody on sight, and if he offers the slightest resistance, I want him killed without hesitation."

*****

Master Talisin was tired – he was far too old for so much intrigue and rushing about, but as the senior member of the Council of Guilds he had too much to do. Fortunately all the guild leaders were still in Wallkeep, and after he and Mistress Sybilla had informed them of what they knew, the gathered guild masters and mistresses were suitably shocked.

"Do you believe the entire baronial council is in league with Lornis and the Regent?" Master Otellan of the herald's guild asked. "It seems rather hard to accept."

"I think it more likely that none of them, or at least very few, know that Terlen is in fact Lornis," Talisin said. "We know, too, that Baron Iefan is loyal to the Princess, and no doubt there are others as well."

"But what does he hope to accomplish?" Mistress Corina of the clothier's guild wondered.

"At the very least he desires to have someone more controllable on the throne," Mistress Sybilla said. "Beyond that, who can say?"

"There's more to it than that I fear."

All eyes turned to a stunningly beautiful woman with fiery red hair. The was dressed in a shimmering gown of emerald green that clung to her curvaceous body like liquid, accentuating every movement. Mistress Alvina, principal of the courtesan's guild, rarely ever spoke in council meetings, but when she did, no one ignored her.

"We have to consider the state the war has left the kingdom in," the courtesan said, her voice soft and melodious. "The kingdom is virtually defenseless – less than ten percent of our army is in a position to impose any aggression against Trimaria. The only significant force remaining is the division at Highkeep."

"What of the troops assembled in Westkeep?" Talisin asked.

"The second wave sailed three days ago," Alvina informed him.

"By the Shard why didn't you inform us?" Otellan roared.

"That tone is uncalled for, Otellan," Talisin scolded. "Mistress Alvina is not responsible for reporting to us the activities of our own military. If anyone is to blame it is me – I should have consulted her when I learned that Lornis was alive."

"There's nothing we can do about the fleet," Mistress Sybilla said. "The question is, can we stop Darsia being named heir?"

"Stop it, no," Otellan said, "but there are ways we can delay the process. I can prepare a list of challenges, but in the end, even if we vote against the confirmation, the baronial council will likely vote in favor and the Regent will hold the tie breaking vote. I'm sure we can stretch the matter well into the evening though."

"Excellent," Talisin said. "Hopefully, Her Highness will be back before that is required, but if necessary we must stall for every moment we can. I will not see this kingdom fall into Lornis' hands without a fight."

CHAPTER 47

Colonel Corvis and Captain Dazov departed at sunset to rendezvous with the frigate that had brought them to Camron. Once they reached their own territory, they would communicate what they had learned to King Cristof and recommend an immediate offensive push against the enemy on their border. It was hoped that by applying pressure to the Glennarans they could tie up forces that might otherwise be sent north to counter the Trimarian offensive.

Marc was impatient to leave as well, but Valin and Mistara argued that it would be best to wait until morning, and when Keri gave him the same counsel Marc reluctantly agreed. He had already made one impulsive mistake by following Kragin through the spires and didn't want to repeat that.

Sleep was elusive that night – he had slept for several hours during the day and that, combined with the increasingly carnal desires of his body caused him to toss and turn repeatedly. He eventually accepted the fact that there was only one way he was going to get to sleep. It wasn't the first time he had explored the body he was in – when Keri and Ali were making love the empathic connection had been enough to drive him to it even with the chastity ring – but this was the first time he had indulged his desire without it. The result was exponentially greater and when he was finished he felt his face grow warm with embarrassment, certain that the entire hall had heard his cries. At least it achieved the desired effect and he was able to slip into a deep sleep.

He was aroused from a deep sleep by Ali's gentle shaking, and the knowing smile on her pretty face told him that she at least had heard him the night before. He shook his head to clear the sleep from it, the feeling of hair on his shoulders dispelling any thought that he had been dreaming.

"What time is it?"

"About two hours before dawn," the Maid-of-Honor told him.

"I hadn't realized just how tired I was," Marc said.

"You barely even woke up last night when I brought you dinner," Ali said. "I was pretty exhausted myself."

"You've taken such good care of me, Ali. I really do appreciate it."

Ali shrugged and said, "It's my duty."

Marc cocked his head and looked at her, a smile of understanding spreading across his face.

"We both know there's more to what we do than duty."

"True, but right now it's my duty to get your royal ass moving. Keri wants to leave before sunup."

She turned and lifted the tray of food she had set on a nearby table and placed it on the bed once Marc was sitting up. Breakfast wasn't elaborate; some bread, sausage and cheese with water to wash it down. It may have lacked in diversity but there was plenty of it, and they both ate heartily, knowing there would likely be little time for such luxury ahead.

"How are you handling … things?" Ali asked as they ate.

"You mean how am I dealing with the fact that every part of this body wants to bed Valin? I'm trying very hard not to think about it."

"Fortunately there have been other things to keep you busy."

"The worst part is I don't feel anything for him," Marc said with frustration. "I mean it's true he's handsome, but I hardly know him. It's all purely physical desire. Shard it, I even feel it now with you so close."

"That's why Keri's been so afraid to take of the ring," Ali told him. "She's a romantic at heart, and when she does give herself to someone she wants to be sure it's out of love."

"You don't sound like you're convinced she's right."

Ali shrugged as she nibbled on a piece of sausage. "I was trained by Mistress Alvina, remember. There's love and there's sex, and while sex should always be a part of love, love doesn't have to be a part of all sex. Sometimes you just have to let yourself enjoy someone else's company without any ties getting in the way."

Marc blushed and said, "Well, Keri certainly has learned by now that I haven't led a life of celibacy."

"Oh I can vouch for that," Ali said with a mischievous grin.

"Stop!" Marc giggled. "I don't need you putting any thoughts like that in my head!"

They finished their meal and Ali set the tray aside and then retrieved a garment from the hanger next to the door. It wasn't a dress but rather a suit of soft, supple leather. It was obviously cut for a female figure, and after examining it Marc gave Ali a questioning look.

"It's the underlay for your armor," she explained.

She removed the robe that she wore, revealing that she was clad in a similar suit. The leggings were tight fitting and even covered the feet, with lacings along the outside of the legs from the waist to the ankles. The tunic was a bit looser, except in the bust where it was thicker, forming a tightly laced bustier.

"We'll get you trussed up in this in no time," Ali told him. "Wait until you see the rest of it."

In short order Marc was clad in the leather underlay, marveling at how soft it felt against his skin. The inside was lined with a silken material to prevent chafing, and it also seemed to have a cooling effect. Despite the tightness of the garment he found it didn't restrict movement in any way.

They left the bedchamber and Ali led him through a labyrinth of passages to a large room that was filled with armor and weapons. Keri was already there, and Marc gasped as he saw her. She was clad in black mail, the rings so finely woven it looked like fabric and every muscle of the body she was in seemed to ripple beneath the close fitting armor as she moved.

"I've never seen mail so fine," Marc said.

"It's of elvish crafting unless I'm mistaken," Keri said. "I can feel the magic woven into it too."

"This is what Valin selected for you, Princess," Ali said, gesturing to a nearby stand.

Keri's armor was impressive, but it paled in comparison to the work of art before Marc. The suit was of glittering gold and consisted of small, overlapping leaf-shaped scales on a backing of mail as finely woven as that which Keri wore.

"This is leaf mail," Marc said. The traditional armor of the elves hadn't been seen in Trimaria for over a thousand years, though stories of it's beauty and durability were abundant.

"I'll leave you two to get ready," Keri said. "Nara and Lyssa are already waiting for us in the main hall."

Marc only nodded, still awestruck by the incredible beauty of the armor. With Ali's assistance he began getting ready, donning first a gorget of gold splints with a mantle of chain that draped across his shoulders. The splints of the gorget were so finely joined that he was able to move his neck quite well, and a backing of soft leather assured there would be no pinching.

Next came the chausses which were secured about his waist with by a stout belt. The mail seemed a bit loose at first, but once it was secured Marc actually felt it constrict about his legs until it fitted perfectly. He moved experimentally and was amazed not only by its lightness, but by the fact that there was no tell-tale jingle of the metal scales. Curious, he examined the hauberk still on the rack closely and found that each leaf had a backing of leather. The mail backing was so fine that it would be nearly impossible for a blade to slip under the scales and pierce the rings.

Like the chausses, the hauberk fit loosely at first, but once Ali had fastened the last buckle it adjust to fit Marc's body, molding itself to every curve. The same was true of the gauntlets and boots, and once the entire suit was on, Marc hardly felt like he was wearing armor at all.

"That body was made to wear this," Ali said as she stepped back in admiration. "You look like the picture of an elven princess from one of the old tales."

"It's stunning," Marc agreed.

Ali's armor was of similar design, but like Keri's it was all black. As Marc assisted her he did notice one problem – his hair. Ali's hair was already arranged in a thick braid but his was loose and it kept catching on the scales of his armor.

"I'll braid your hair for you when we get out with the others," Ali told him after a particularly un-ladylike oath.

The final pieces of their armor were wide girdles of leather – Ali's in black and Marcs glittering gold. The sword and dagger Elyssa had presented to him were already in the frogs on the belt, and after Ali had her belt on she went to a rack of weapons and selected a pair of matching short swords. After slipping them into the frogs, she drew one and showed it to Marc. The blade was etched with intricate script in the long-lost language of the elves, the runes glowing with a faint blue light. After sheathing the sword Ali slipped her own daggers into sheaths that were built into her boots and then added to her armaments four throwing daggers, which she slipped into hidden sheaths beneath the cuffs of her gauntlets.

"You're certainly prepared," Marc said with a grin.

Ali smiled in return but there was a hard glint in her eyes as she said, "Kragin is not going to get away this time – he's caused too much pain to people I love. When we catch up to him, I will kill him."

"Only if you get to him before I do."

They left the armory and made their way through the corridors to the main hall. Vain was there, clad in mail similar to Keri's, while Enara and Elyssa both wore silver leaf-mail. Elyssa was armed with her own sword and dagger but also an ornate recurve bow and a quiver of arrows. Enara had only a single short sword and a small utility dagger, and she looked more than a bit uncomfortable. Marc felt certain it was more mental than physical – she had never worn armor before and had no training in combat.

"You look stunning, sister," Marc told her as Ali started braiding his hair. He turned his attention to Valin and added, "Thank you for the armor. It’s an exceedingly generous gift. Might I ask how you came by such a treasure?"

"It was here when these halls were discovered," Valin explained.

"So the elves constructed this place?"

Valin shook his head. "No, it's much older than that."

"This was a refuge of the Old Ones," Mistara said as she joined them. "They rode out the chaos after the shattering of Manthra in these halls. You've only seen a very small part of them. There's room here for a thousand people, with vast chambers for crops and livestock, and a subterranean river for water."

"How could they grow crops underground?" Enara asked.

"The Old Ones had lights powered by some unknown means," Mistara said. "When the elves occupied these halls they replaced them with glows that give off light like the sun. They even follow the sun, lighting as it rises and dimming as it sets."

"It's amazing," Keri said, looking around at the smooth walls of the hall. "The Old Ones did all this without the aid of magic."

"They had their own magic it would seem," Mistara said. "I've spent many hours studying the tomes that were in the library here. Many of the words are unfamiliar, but the language is basically the same as ours. They had great machines that could literally melt rock."

Ali finished braiding Marc's hair and then slipped a leather sleeve over the lower half of the braid, lacing it tightly in place. Marc turned his head several times to ensure the braid didn't catch on the scales and then thanked Ali.

Valin left to make sure the horses were ready, and while he was gone Keri talked Marc through the process of attuning the master key to enable Enara and Elyssa to use it. It wasn't a complex process but as Marc was in the body that the key had been initially made for, only he could attune others to it.

"I know your father is a perfectly capable leader," Keri told Elyssa after the procedure was done, "but there's something I want you to make clear to him. If the situation is hopeless he must ensure the survival of the men under his command and retreat to the safety of Highkeep. We'll be coming with the troops from the invasion force as quickly as possible."

"I understand," Elyssa said.

Keri turned to Mistara, her voice low as she said, "Mother, I need you to be ready to leave at a moment's notice. If you can convince these people to evacuate do so, but I want you back in Trimaria."

"We've known this day would come for some time," Mistara told her. "Messengers have already gone out to the other villages, and the people are making ready to leave. Camron is no longer safe for them."

"As soon as we can we'll send troops to escort you," Keri said. "I wish … I wish we had more time."

"So do I, sweetheart," Mistara said. "We'll have all the time in the world when this is over."

The Queen embraced them all warmly, before they left to join Valin. As she watched her daughter and the man she loved like he was her own son leave, each in the other's body, she felt a tremor run through her body and with it a sense of foreboding. Her premonitions were ethereal at best, but she had long ago learned to distinguish genuine foresight from simple worry.

This one didn't have the same sense of soul rending doom like the premonition she'd had before she and Toranon left for Camron – the one that had plagued her until she finally convinced her husband they should leave Keri behind – and yet it was no less intense. She knew, without knowing exactly what or how, that there were dark times ahead, and though she was certain she would see her daughter again she was just as certain that someone she loved was going to die.

CHAPTER 48

While Enara and Elyssa rode for the spires in the company of Ren and two other men, Valin led Keri, Marc and Ali towards the Istan peninsula. Keri was surprised they were not going to pick up the trail from the spires, but the nobleman explained that they had hidden outposts scattered throughout the area, and they were making for one near the river Tolka, roughly twelve leagues from the underground refuge. The outpost would hopefully have word from the men trailing Kragin, and would also be able to provide them with fresh mounts.

After more than four hours of riding they reached the outpost, situated in a well hidden quarry that had been one of the sites where the stones used to build the spires had been mined. Keri could feel the aether all around them as they rode in; the stone walls were rich with manthracite which was why the quarry had been established.

No one was in sight as they entered the quarry and approached a stable in a grotto carved into one wall, but Keri was certain they were being watched. Her suspicion was confirmed when several men emerged from hiding places in the high walls. They were all armed with bolt casters, which seemed to be the preferred ranged weapon of the men of Camron. Keri had noted they looked different from orc weapons she had seen, and when they had dismounted she asked Valin about them.

"We manufacture them ourselves," he explained, pulling his from the holster on his saddle. He extended it to Keri and she examined the weapon carefully.

"It doesn't have the powder reservoirs like orc casters," she said. She could feel a faint vibration in the aether as she held the weapon. "The bolts are magically propelled?"

Valin nodded. "They're smaller versions of the projectiles fired by calliopes. They're not as quiet as a bow, but they make much less noise than an orc caster and they don't give away your position with clouds of smoke."

"Now why haven't we thought of that?" Keri wondered aloud.

"We were motivated by necessity," Valin said. "It takes time to become proficient with a bow, but a man, or woman, can learn to use a bolt caster very quickly. They're quite effective in ambushes as well; half a dozen men can decimate an entire squad before the enemy can react."

Valin left to confer with the men of the outpost and a moment later one approached Marc, bowing hastily before offering to escort him into a sheltered area to rest while fresh mounts were readied for them. The shelter was a modest alcove carved into the quarry wall and once Marc and Ali were seated at a small table one of the men brought them some watered wine and cheese.

"Are you all right, Princess," Keri asked Marc.

"I'd be much worse if I hadn't insisted on riding horseback as much as possible on the progress," Marc told her with a rueful grin at the irony, since he had been the one that wanted Keri to stay in the safety of her coach.

Valin joined them a moment later and informed them that the horses would be saddled and ready shortly.

"Kragin and his companion crossed the river just after dawn yesterday. They rested for a few hours about a league from here and then continued towards the southwest. They weren't moving at a hard pace, but they could easily reach the coast by this afternoon. If they didn't stop for the night they could have reached it hours ago."

"We need to get moving," Marc said impatiently. "We know the location of the suspected port on the peninsula so we should head for it. Kragin will be somewhere nearby. Do you know how we can make contact with your men, Lord Valin?"

"We don't have an outpost in that area, but we do have a hidden supply cache. They'll use that as a base."

"Then we best get started," Keri said.

They left the shelter and mounted fresh horses, Keri noting that Marc appeared to be anxious. She couldn't really blame him, but she was worried that he was too focused on retrieving the amulet. She wanted it too, but her utmost concern was the safety of her kingdom.

Valin attempted to assist Marc as he climbed into the saddle, but the 'Princess' yanked her arm free and snapped at the nobleman angrily. Keri realized it was more than just the amulet that occupied Marc's thoughts and she smiled ever so slightly. Hopefully they could retrieve her ring as well, or else Marc was going to learn more about be a woman than he wanted to know before they could swap back.

*****

When Garith saw a squad of Guardsmen approaching escorting two figures that were obviously female his heart soared. He had begun to despair that they would find any trace of the Princess, and though she wasn't with Enara and Elyssa it was obvious from the armor the two young women wore that they had encountered allies of some sort.

The women were brought to Sir Alwin and Garith and they hastily told them what had happened since they arrived in Camron. The news that the Princess was safe, relatively, was reason enough for jubilation, but when Garith heard that Queen Mistara was alive and well he had to fight to contain his emotions.

"We must return to Trimaria to warn my father of the invasion," Elyssa said.

"We'll send a squad with you," Sir Alwin said. "You might encounter difficulties when you appear in Wallkeep."

Garith turned to the men that had accompanied the young women and asked, "Can ya lead a squad ta this refuge of yers? They can provide an escort for the Queen and the rest of yer people ta the spires."

"Of course," the one called Ren told him. "I can lead you to our outpost as well if you wish to follow Her Highness."

"That I do," Garith said, turning to Sir Alwin who nodded in affirmation.

Less than a half-hour later Garith rode at the head of fifty Guardsmen as they set off in pursuit of the Princess. They reached the outpost by early afternoon to find that they were three hours too late. They had ridden hard in hopes of overtaking the Princess and time was lost as they rested their mounts, but they had no choice.

Once the horses were sufficiently rested they set out once more. It was well into the afternoon, and they had only a few hours of light left, but they would ride on into the night. The sound of their horses' hooves echoed from the walls of the quarry like thunder as they set forth at a gallop, each man's face a mask of grim determination.

CHAPTER 49

The first members of the councils began arriving in Lockeshire late in the afternoon. All other spire traffic had been halted to facilitate the movement of the delegates. The combined session was not scheduled to begin until the third of Tober, two days away, but the Regent wanted no one to be able to use congestion at the spires as a delaying tactic.

Duchess Rayna was reviewing the order of business for the session with her personal herald when Jaris arrived with urgent news of the invasion. She dismissed the herald and waited for her guard commander to give her the report.

"The troops have reached their objective but they can find no port," Jaris told her.

"Did the Merdians abandon it?"

"No, Your Grace, there's no evidence that there ever was a facility there. Apparently our intelligence was in error."

"That's nothing new," the Duchess sighed. "Very well, instruct Marshall Teagan to continue with his mission and start north at first light. Inform Earl-Marshall Stanwyth that the timetable for the advance from the frontier will need to be adjusted accordingly."

"At once, Your Grace."

Jaris left and Rayna dropped into her chair, rubbing her temples. She heard Terlen enter the chamber and smiled contentedly as he began gently moved her hands aside and started massaging the pain away.

"My poor, sweet Rayna," he said soothingly. "This has been so very hard on you."

"I wouldn't be able to endure it without you, my love."

"I saw Jaris in the hall and he informed me of the developments in Camron."

"It doesn't matter," the Regent said. "It just means our ultimate objective will be accomplished that much sooner. Have you … have you started making arrangements for Keri's … for the …."

The Regent broke down and started weeping as Terlen knelt beside her and wrapped his arms around her.

"Yes, the memorial will take place the day after Darsia is crowned. It will be her first official act as Queen."

"I was so hard on Keri. Do you think she knows I loved her?"

"Of course she does, my dear," Terlen assured her. "Now, I want you to rest. You're exhausted and you need your wits about you for what is to come."

The Duchess started to protest, but suddenly realized she was very tired and could barely keep her eyes open. Terlen escorted her to her bedchamber and instructed her attendant to not allow anyone to disturb her until morning.

Once he had left her he returned to his private office, where Jaris was waiting for him. He settled into his chair, a cold smile on his face.

"Kragin has sent word to our allies by now," he said.

"Yes, Your Grace," Jaris said. "The Glennaran fleet will arrive off the northwest shore near Wallkeep just after noon on the third."

"Excellent. While the Regent and the councils are busy fighting over the succession, the invasion of Trimaria will begin."

CHAPTER 50

When they reached the hidden cache, they found two of Valin's men resting there. They reported that their comrades were watching the small outpost that had been Kragin's destination, perched atop a high cliff that afforded it an excellent view of the Trimarian encampment. Marc insisted that they set out for the location immediately, and since he was the 'Princess', Keri acquiesced, though she would have preferred taking some time to rest after their hard ride.

It proved to be fortunate that they had done as Marc wanted, for they had only been riding a short time when they saw four mounted men heading towards them. Marc spurred his mount to a full gallop, catching the others off guard and pulling several lengths ahead.

"Shard's, that must be Kragin," Keri swore, urging her own horse ahead.

"How can she tell," Valin wondered, straining to make out the figures as his mount surged forward.

"She's an elf!" Ali shouted. She started to follow as well, but then pulled her mount around to a slightly different course and dug her spurs into its flanks.

The men saw the riders approaching them and while three split off to deal with the threat, Kragin continued on his course, frantically whipping his mount. Marc drew the sword at his right hip and charged straight at the approaching riders. Part of him screamed internally that he was being brash and risking the life of the Princess, but it was overridden by his desire to catch Kragin and end the turmoil between his body and spirit.

With dizzying speed the riders drew near. There was no way Marc could go around them, not if he hoped to catch Kragin, but he couldn't afford to get tangled in a fight either. He searched Keri's memories for a spell that could neutralize them and found one, but when he tried to cast it he fumbled the incantation in his haste.

He was almost upon the three riders when Keri and Valin pulled up on either side of him. The two forces met with a clash of steel and were soon locked in battle. Marc parried a thrust from one of the riders and countered as he wheeled his mount, but the man blocked his attack and then urged his horse forward into Marc's. The impact sent him flying from the saddle but he somehow managed to maintain his grip on his sword. He picked himself up and turned to face his adversary, barely managing to duck beneath a swing that would have decapitated him.

Keri saw Marc go down but had her own opponent to deal with. She batted his sword aside with a powerful swing and then launched herself from the saddle, taking her opponent down to the ground with her. The force of her body landing atop him stunned the man, and before he could recover Keri's gauntleted fist punched forward, pummeling him into unconsciousness.

The Princess leapt to her feet, noting as she rose that Valin had dispatched his opponent, but their fight had drawn him away. The last rider was charging towards Marc, his sword extended forward to deliver an impaling thrust.

There was no time for a spell; instead Keri cocked her right arm back and hurled Marc's longsword with all her might. The enchanted blade tumbled through the air, arcing around to strike the man's chest point first. The force of the throw and the rider's own momentum combined to knock him from the saddle as the blade pierced his chest up to the hilt. The charging horse missed Marc by inches as it sped past.

Keri rushed towards Marc and grabbed him by the shoulders, shaking him angrily as she shouted at him.

"Of all the fragging fool things to do! Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

Marc ignored her words and looked about wildly.

"Where is Kragin?"

"He went north," Keri said. She looked around too and fear replaced anger in her eyes/

"Where's Ali?"

*****

Kragin looked back over his shoulder, smiling when he saw no pursuit in sight. He didn't slow down however, instead trying to coax more speed from his mount. He was just coming around a rocky outcrop when a rider appeared in front of him, her right arm arcing forward. Aliana's throwing dagger missed her target but struck Kragin's horse on the right flank. The mount reared in fright and pain and Kragin was thrown from the saddle.

Ali reigned her horse in and slid from the saddle, drawing her short swords as she strode towards the downed man. Kragin was up quickly, his own sword in hand as a wicked smile crossed his face.

"You're a feisty one, Princess," he laughed. "I was supposed to kill your body and leave you trapped, but killing you will do. That tart of a handmaiden won't pass the Test, and you’re not even close to her as a fighter."

"That tart is right here," Ali told him as she twirled her blades. "I never swapped with the Princess."

"No matter," Kragin said. "I'm going to enjoy carving you up. A pity there isn’t time to sample your other skills first."

Ali didn’t engage him further in conversation. She knew Kragin was by far the most dangerous opponent she had ever faced – a highly skilled knight with a longsword that had the advantage of length over her shorter blades. The two opponents circled each other, each waiting for the right moment to strike.

Kragin made the first move, a thrust that Ali parried with her left blade. She countered with the sword in her right hand, but Kragin was just out of reach and easily avoided the swing, reposting with a sideswipe that forced Ali to leap backwards.

The disgraced knight seized the advantage and closed in, his sword a blur as he launched a series of swift attacks. Ali's blades were just as fast, parrying each blow as she inched closer. When she blocked one swing, Kragin quickly reversed his attack but Ali had anticipated him. As he came around she had already sidestepped to his right, her right hand blade slicing upward. Kragin moved back but not fast enough to dodge completely. The tip of Ali's blade sliced up the right side of his face, narrowly missing his eye.

"There, now you match," she jibed as he howled in pain.

"You'll pay for that, whore!"

With a roar of fury Kragin renewed his attack, and now Ali found herself hard pressed to counter his flurry of swings and thrusts. As he attacked he steadily advanced, forcing Ali back towards the edge of the cliff behind her. She tried to sidestep and get around him but each time he cut her off, forcing her further back. Then she at lat stepped back but there was nothing beneath her foot but air. She felt her balance go and cast her blades to the ground, her hands reaching frantically for the rocky edge as she fell. Her fingers managed to find purchase, barely, but she knew it was only a brief reprieve as Kragin stepped triumphantly to the edge.

"Well, you seem to be in a bit of a bind," he said as he knelt down, the tip of his blade inches from her throat.

"Time to die, little bitch."

He drew back his sword but paused at the sound of thundering hooves. His head snapped to his left and his eyes flew wide as he saw Keri charging towards him. He rose and tried to turn but there was no time – Keri leapt from her saddle and crashed into him, their bodies tumbling along the cliff edge. Keri managed to stop herself short of going over but Kragin wasn't so lucky. He rolled over the edge, his hands scrabbling to arrest his fall. He caught an outcrop of rock which immediately began to crumble.

Ali tried to pull herself up but slipped and barely managed to catch herself. Despite the lightness of her elvin armor its weight was still pulling at her, and her fingers were straining with the effort of maintaining her grip.

"Keri .. I can't hold on!" she cried reflexively. Kragin heard the words and grinned triumphantly.

"So you're the little princess," he laughed. "And that means that upstart Demos is in your body. It seems you have a choice, Your Highness, save the whore or save me and the Amulet of Kessil."

The former knight found a tenuous foothold and reached beneath his tunic with his left hand, withdrawing the amulet so Keri could see it. He was too far away for her to snatch it from him, and the crumbling outcrop wouldn't last more than a few seconds.

"I have your life and your throne here in my hands, Princess."

Keri said nothing; she just rushed to Ali and grabbed her by the wrists. With one mighty heave she lifted her to safety, setting her down on the ground a safe distance away from the edge before turning to Kragin.

The spur of rock gave way and for an instant Keri's eyes met those of the traitor. What she saw there was confusion – then fear as he began to fall. He screamed in terror as his body plummeted to the ocean, three hundred feet below. Kragin hit the water and his body disappeared beneath the waves, taking the Amulet of Kessil with him to the depths.

"NO!"

Marc's piercing scream cut through the distant sound of the surf as he brought his horse to a stop. He slid from the saddle and rushed headlong towards the spot where Kragin had fallen but Keri caught him before he reached the edge, wrapping her arms tightly around him.

"I'm sorry, Marc, I had no choice," Keri told him. She saw Valin climbing down from his horse, a confused look on his face.

"We have to go down there!" Marc cried. "We have to find the amulet!"

"Princess, there is no way down for miles," Valin said.

"I'm not the Princess!" Marc screamed, sagging against Keri as she held him. "I'm not … I can't be … Keri, it's supposed to be you!"

There were tears in Keri's eyes as she said, "Marc, it's gone … there's nothing we can do."

"But I can't be you, Keri, it’s not right," Marc pleaded, his body shaking as he sobbed. She lowered him gently to the ground and continued to hold him tightly, afraid he might hurt himself in his hysterical state.

"It's not right," he repeated. "I'm supposed to protect you."

Ali walked over and knelt beside them, placing her arms around Marc as well. Valin was completely confused and could only stand and stare at the spectacle before him.

"Please, Keri, you have to be Queen," Marc whispered, his sobs finally subsiding as he cried himself out.

"Marc, listen to me," Keri said, her voice low and gentle. "What is it you always say to me when I ask you to do something?"

Marc looked up at her in confusion for an instant and then said, "I live to serve."

"And you always have," Keri said. "I know you'd give your life to protect me and Trimaria, and that's what I'm asking you to do now."

"I … I don't understand."

"I need you to give me your life," Keri said, "and I need you to accept mine. The kingdom needs a queen now, and you have to be that queen."

"I can't," Marc said, shaking his head.

"Yes you can, Marc. You’re strong, so much stronger than I've ever been, and I need you to be strong now. I need you to be me."

Marc sagged against her, burying his face against her chest. He didn’t speak for a long time, and when he finally looked back up at her his eyes were those of a frightened child.

"I'll try, Keri."

"Of course you will, and you'll succeed," Keri told him. "You'll be a great queen."

"And we'll always be right there beside you," Ali added. "You’re not alone, Marc. We love you."

"Would someone please tell me what is going on here?" Valin demanded.

"That is a long story," Keri told him. She started to explain but stopped as they all heard the sound of many riders approaching.

For a moment Keri couldn't believe her eyes, but it really was a troop of Royal Guardsmen approaching with Garith in the lead. The serjeant raised his hand to signal a halt a short distance away, and then rode forward, stopping just short of Keri.

"Garith, I don't know how you got here, but thank the shard you did!"

"It's good ta see you too, lad," the serjeant said. He looked down at Marc and asked, "Is Her Highness injured?"

"I'm fine, Garith," Marc said as Keri helped him to his feet.

"Did ya find that bastard, Kragin?"

Keri nodded, gesturing towards the cliff. "He's gone, Garith. He fell … with the amulet."

"Fragment preserve us," Garith muttered.

Keri realized the significance of the Guard's presence and said, "You have a spire key. We have to get to the invasion force. Their encampment is less than a league from here."

"Ya know they'll likely clap ya in chains if ya show yer face there."

"They'll do nothing of the sort," Marc said. He pulled one of his gauntlets off and wiped at the tears on his face and then walked to his horse, climbing into the saddle. For a moment the look of fear returned, but he shook it off.

"It's time to move," he said. "We have a kingdom to save."

CHAPTER 51

The clearing around the spires in the Black Forest had become a sea of pavilions by the Royal Guard's third day in Camron. Over five hundred refugees from the nearby villages had arrived over the past two days, including Her Majesty, Queen Mistara. Their arrival presented Sir Alwin with the added responsibility of providing for their security, but they also brought abundant quantities of food that were a welcome relief from field rations. The addition of so many strong hands and backs had sped up the construction of their palisade as well and allowed them to construct a second perimeter even further out from the spires.

In truth the people of the Black Forest conducted themselves more like a military unit than refugees. Their encampment was well ordered and they had required only minimal assistance from the Guard, for which Alwin was grateful. The men were already stretched thinly enough, and they were all too aware that, despite the peaceful beauty that surrounded them, they were deep in enemy territory.

The knight saw Queen Mistara approaching and climbed down from his mount to greet her, bowing low as she drew near. Her presence in the camp was a source of awe for most of the Guard, Alwin included. Her survival was miraculous, like something from a tale told to children, and just like in such tales, all hoped it was an omen of good fortune.

"Is there any news of my daughter?"

"Not since the messenger Garith sent from the outpost," Alwin informed the Queen.

The Queen sighed and nodded. That messenger had arrived over a day ago with word that Garith and his troop had reached the outpost and were following the Princess to the coast. Alwin wasn't overly concerned by the lack of news since then as he knew the serjeant – Garith would be driving the men hard to overtake the Princess.

"Ma'am, I believe it would be prudent to begin organizing the civilians into groups for transport through the spires."

"It's already being done, Sir Alwin," Mistara said. "If necessary we're prepared to abandon the wagons so we can send larger groups."

"Excellent. I have a squad of Guardsmen standing by to escort you with the first group."

The Queen shook her head and said, "I won't leave Camron without my daughter."

"But Majesty, if you return it might be enough to prevent the Regent from naming Darsia heir."

"I'm just the Queen Consort, Sir Alwin. It's true that had I not accompanied the King, I would have been named Regent after his death, but that won't matter now. My sister is the legal authority in Trimaria and at this point the only person that can challenge her is Keri."

Alwin wasn't ready to concede to the Queen, but before he could argue further he was distracted by the sound of shouting voices announcing the approach of one of his patrols. The ten-man squad was riding hard for the palisade and that was not a good sign. The men at the entrance in the outer perimeter hastily moved the barricade aside to admit the patrol. After passing through the inner palisade the squad leader galloped over to where Alwin and Mistara stood.

"Orcs to the northwest, at least company strength," the man reported. "I don't think they saw us, not that it'll matter. They're heading straight for us, and I'd judge they're probing for a larger force, though why they feel the need for such a large scouting force in their own territory escapes me."

Alwin gave the trooper an annoyed look and said, "Orcs can't see that well in the day and they don't like dense forest."

"They have reason to fear the Black Forest especially," Mistara said with a grim smile. "We've avoided engaging them on a large scale, but they know better than to travel here in small groups."

"How soon will they reach us?" Alwin asked the trooper.

"Two hours I'd say. They were on foot and weren't moving fast."

"All right, good job Denil. Have your squad report to your troop leader, and send Serjeant Benis to me."

The trooper saluted and wheeled his mount and then galloped off to join his squad. Alwin pondered the news, a concerned look on his face.

"Your Majesty, a scouting force that size has at least a regiment behind it."

"I'll see that the people start moving to the spires immediately," Mistara said.

Alwin saluted crisply and then turned and began shouting orders. Serjeant Benis joined him a moment later and they discussed their options. There really was only one – they had to wait for the orcs to come to them. There were still three other patrols out, but if they returned on schedule they should be back before the orcs arrived.

Twenty minutes later, the evacuation of the civilians was well underway, though the Queen stubbornly refused to leave. Alwin didn't have time to argue, as the news had gotten much worse. A second patrol had returned and reported more orcs to the southwest. The Guard was now between at least two regiments, possibly more, outnumbered by at least fifty-to-one. It would undoubtedly take several hours for the orcs to bring their full numbers into action; forces of such size tended to stretch out for miles, especially in terrain like the Black Forest, but they likely wouldn't wait until their entire force had arrived to attack.

"The last group is passing through the spires now," the Queen reported. "Fifty gunners have volunteered to remain behind and assist with the defense."

"They're welcome, but it won't matter in the end," Alwin said. "We can't hope to hold this position for long."

"Perhaps it would be best for you to begin withdrawing your men as well."

Alwin knew how difficult it must have been for the Queen to say those words. The knight looked into her eyes and shook his head slowly.

"The Royal Guard will hold this ground as long as there is breath left in us. We will not abandon the Princess."

CHAPTER 52

As relieved as Baron Iefan was to have his daughter and Enara back safely there was no time for jubilation. He had already delayed his departure for the Palace too long – the joint council assembly was too important for him to miss despite the threat of a potential invasion. He had left the defense of Highkeep in the capable hands of Elyssa and Knight-Commander Cernan, while he and Enara made the long journey to the Palace.

By the time they reached Lockeshire the council had been in session for several hours. As they entered the council chamber the look of furious impatience on the Regent's face told the Baron that Master Otellan's procedural delays had been quite effective. He hoped his own impromptu plan would work as well.

"Are you ready to play your part, child?" he whispered to Enara.

"Yes I am, Excellency," she replied. She was trembling but her eyes shone with determination.

"Baron Iefan, you know this is a closed session!" the Regent snapped when she caught sight of them. "That girl has no business in this chamber."

"I beg to differ, Your Grace," the Baron replied. "Honorable Lady Enara has news that is vital to these proceedings. I insist that she be allowed to present it."

"Regent, I protest!" Baroness Gisella said, rising to her feet. "Lady Enara and the Baron's daughter violated the lock placed on the transit spires in Wallkeep, a feat they could only have accomplished through the use of an illegally obtained master key. She should be bound for questioning."

Enara started to protest but the Baron silenced her with a hand on her arm. He glared stonily at the Baroness of Wallkeep for a moment before speaking, his rage barely contained.

"Baroness Gisella, I suggest you consider carefully before you make unfounded accusations against my daughter and her future bond-mate. They were duly authorized to use the key in their possession."

"And who exactly gave you this authorization, Lady Enara?" the Regent asked.

Enara lifted her chin and met the Regent's glare as she said, "Her Royal Highness, Princess Kerialla. She bid me bring word to this assembly that she is returning swiftly to Trimaria, and she brings with her the forces which were sent by sea to the Istan Peninsula."

The council chamber erupted in chaos as both sides of the debate began shouting to be heard. The Regent was visibly shaken by the words Enara uttered – until Duke Terlen whispered something into her ear. Her demeanor changed instantly, and she began banging her gavel on the sound block before her to restore order.

"We will hear this testimony," she said, her eyes fixed on Enara like a cat eying a mouse. "But I warn you, if this is nothing more than an attempt to delay these proceedings further there will be dire consequences."

Enara was escorted to the chamber's witness-box and sat down. As she looked up at the faces of the assembled barons and guild masters she caught sight of Master Talisin. The old sage smiled at her and nodded, and she drew strength from his presence. She drew a deep breath and then began to relate the events of the past few days.

*****

Elyssa returned from a patrol with the Rangers to find Highkeep a buzz with activity. She went immediately to her father's office where she found Knight-Commander Cernan and his officers. The worried look on Cernan's face told her all she needed to know.

"Ships have been sighted in a cove eleven leagues north of Wallkeep," he told her.

"How many?"

"At least two hundred," Cernan said. "We estimate they could carry between eight and ten divisions. Our naval forces in the area are moving to engage them, but…."

Elyssa nodded, understanding too well what the knight left unspoken. Despite being bounded on three sides by sea, Trimaria had a small navy. The vessels were designed more to deal with smugglers than for pitched battle against heavily armed vessels. They were fast and agile, but lightly gunned and there was little doubt the Glennaran fleet outmatched them heavily.

"What are your plans?"

"Obviously we can't hope to hold Wallkeep against so many," Cernan said. "I've already spoken with Sir Patrice – the population will evacuate overland to Highkeep to keep the spires open. I'll take our troops through and we'll delay the Glennarans as we fall back towards the spires. We'll hold them as long as we can before withdrawing."

"I'll get the Rangers ready to ride," Elyssa said.

"My Lady, you know I have great admiration for the Rangers, but they were never intended for this."

"I know, but we can be of service," Elyssa said. "However I will bow to your judgment."

Cernan's first impulse was to order the Rangers to remain, but he knew that would be a crushing blow to Elyssa. She had a warrior's heart, as strong as any man he had ever known, and the women she had trained were no less driven.

"You can join us, My Lady," Cernan said, "but the Rangers will remain in reserve with my command group. You will only engage the enemy under my direct command."

Elyssa snapped to attention and saluted smartly. "I understand, Commander."

Cernan couldn't suppress a grin as the heir to Highkeep turned on her heel and strode from the room. Then he turned to his officers and continued with their planning.

*****

In Wallkeep, the scene was one of controlled chaos as the people hurried to load those possessions they could onto wagons and carts. The invaders were at least three hours away, and word quickly spread that Highkeep was coming to their aid. The reduced garrison in the city was hard pressed to manage the evacuation and prepare to defend against an attack from a direction which had never been anticipated. The city had defensive weaponry as advanced as any in the kingdom, but the vast majority of the artillery was on the wall and there was simply no time to move even a single piece.

At the Palace, Enara was in the middle of a determined interrogation by the Regent and several members of the Baronial Council when news of the invasion arrived. The chaos Enara's arrival had caused was nothing compared to what ensued as the news was delivered. The Regent hastily called a recess and then left to consult with the War Council.

Enara stepped down from the witness box and nearly collapsed as a wave of dizziness washed over her. Fortunately Baron Iefan was there and caught her as she swooned, lifting her into his arms and carrying her out of the chamber. She barely noticed where they were going, and when he gently deposited her onto a couch she saw they were in the Princess's sitting room. Master Talisin was there, and as she started to speak he held a finger to his lips and took a small crystal from his belt pouch. He whispered a command word and the crystal began to glow with a bright red light.

"This will ensure no one eavesdrops on us," he said as he set the crystal on the mantle.

"I'm sorry I fainted," Enara said. "It was just…."

"The Regent pressed you hard, but you didn't waver for an instant," the Baron told her. "I'm very proud of you."

Master Talisin echoed the Baron's praise and Enara smiled weakly. It faded quickly as she recalled what had brought an end to her interrogation.

"So it's started," she said.

"Yes, it has," Talisin agreed. "The fate of the kingdom rests with the Princess now."

CHAPTER 53

The Royal Guard had turned the first to attacks with relative ease, but they had been poorly coordinated and not in sufficient numbers to pose a real threat. The third attack was much more determined – enough orcs had massed to encircle the spires, raining down bolts on the defenders from the cover of the trees. The clearing was small so there was no place within the perimeter that was safe from the deadly rain.

There was nothing to do but stay down and weather the storm. Eventually the orcs grew impatient and charged, at least a thousand strong rushing headlong from the northwest across the open ground.

Alwin was ready for the charge and at his command the archers unleashed a hail of arrows into the orcs. As the beasts drew nearer, the knight employed the Camron gunners to devastating effect. They rose in three ranks, the first rank leveling their blot-casters and firing. Then they dropped to their knees and advanced the rotating barrels of their weapons as the second rank fired. The process was emulated by the third rank before beginning again, sending volley after volley of bolts into the orcs until the gunners exhausted the ammunition in their weapons.

The gunners and archers withdrew to the inner palisade as the remaining orcs crashed into the outer barricade. Their numbers had been significantly reduced but there were still too many for the Guard to hold – Alwin couldn't bring his full numbers against the orcs without weakening the rest of the perimeter. Casualties began to mount and the knight gave the order to fall back to the inner barricade.

The archers and gunners provided support as the guardsmen fell back, extracting an even heavier toll on the orcs as they struggled to climb over the palisade. It was too much for the orcs and they began to withdraw, but the Guard no longer had sufficient numbers to reclaim the outer barricade.

"Send men to bring the dead and wounded to the inner palisade," Alwin ordered Serjeant Benis. Then the knight went to the center of the spires, where he found Queen Mistara tending to the wounds of one of the Guardsmen assigned to protect her.

She looked up as the knight approached and said, "It's time."

"Yes, Majesty. The next attack will be even larger and likely from all sides. You must evacuate to Trimaria. We'll send the wounded through with you and the Camron contingent."

Mistara knew it was pointless to try and persuade the knight to withdraw. Each member of the Royal Guard had sworn to live and die for her daughter. Beyond that they all felt a stain on the honor because of the betrayal of Kragin and if need be they would wash that stain clean with their blood.

"Very well, start the spire sequence," the Queen said.

Alwin was turning towards the control spire when the sound of trumpets echoed from the south. The Guardsmen readied themselves as orcs began to pour from the forest but the beasts made no attempt to attack the spires, instead spilling around the perimeter in near panic.

The cause of their flight was quickly revealed as Trimarian heavy cavalry broke into the clearing like crashing waves. A cheer rose up from the Guard as they saw Garith's troop at the head of the charge and leading them, her golden armor glittering in the rays of the setting sun, was the Princess.

While the heavy cavalry pursued the orcs across the clearing the troop of Guardsmen dropped back and rode into the palisade. Garith immediately began directing his troopers to assist with the defense while Keri, Ali, Marc and Valin rode to the spires and dismounted.

Marc immediately rushed to the Queen and embraced her tightly, Aliana just a few steps behind. The three engaged in a hushed conversation while Keri turned to Alwin.

"Report."

"The orcs hit us three times," Alwin said. "We estimate their numbers as close to division strength. Our casualties are eighteen dead and forty-two wounded. The civilians were evacuated before the first attack and we were preparing to evacuate Her Majesty and the wounded when you arrived."

"All right we'll proceed with that. Gather the dead as well – no one gets left behind. We've driven the orcs back for the moment, but they have surely have reinforcements on the way. The first infantry unites are about an hour behind us. As soon as Marshall Teagan has a perimeter established around the clearing we'll begin sending troops through the spires, starting with the Guard and Her Highness."

"They'll need one of us to operate the spires" Alwin said. "I'll stay to take care of that if you wish."

"Yes, set them to a repeating cycle. That will allow two-way traffic between here and Wallkeep so we can maintain communication."

"Is the Princess all right?"

Keri looked to where Marc stood with her mother, sobbing as the Queen comforted him. She didn't really know how to answer Alwin's question. Over their two day march from the peninsula Marc's mood had fluctuated greatly, but for the most part he had maintained control. Seeing the Queen had unleashed a flood of still raw emotion, however, which was understandable.

"She's been through an ordeal, but she'll be fine," Keri said at last. "Send a troop through with the Queen for security and have the troop leader get me a report from Wallkeep."

Alwin left to carry out his orders and Keri turned to Valin. The nobleman was fully aware of who she was now, and she had to admit he had taken the news rather well – considering his obvious attraction for the 'Princess'.

"Lord Valin, I think it would be best if you went through with the first group," Keri said. "Your people will need you."

Valin nodded, his eyes never leaving Marc. He realized he was staring and shook his head.

"Where will we go?"

"For now, make for Highkeep," Keri said. "The Baron will see that your people are taken care of. What you've done for the kingdom, and for … the Princess, won't be forgotten, I promise you that."

"And what will you do?"

"My duty," Keri said, her eyes drifting to where Marc stood. "I had a good teacher."

Valin left to check on the contingent of gunners and Keri walked over to her mother. Marc had gotten control of his emotions though he still stood close to the Queen, clinging to her. For an instant Keri felt a twinge of remorse and jealousy – her mother had been miraculously returned to her only to be snatched away once more. They would still have each other, but it would never be the same. Ali saw the sadness in her eyes and reached out to touch her arm.

Mistara smiled at her daughter, a sad smile that echoed what Keri felt. They didn't touch – it wouldn't have been proper – and there eyes spoke the words they couldn't say aloud.

"Alwin is assembling an escort for you," Keri said. "They should be ready in a few minutes."

"You've all done so well," Mistara said. "I'm very proud of you."

"It's not over yet," Marc said. "Enara's appearance at the council session should have been enough to stop Darsia being named heir, but we still have the threat of invasion to deal with."

"We're going to open the spires for two-way transit," Keri said. "It will take a bit longer to send all the troops through but we need to know what's going on in Trimaria."

The escort troop arrived along with Valin and the Camron contingent. Marc and Ali gave the Queen a final goodbye embrace and then they moved with Keri out of the spires. The monolith's hummed with power and then the Queen was safely away.

With the arrival of the reinforcements and the evacuation of the Queen and the wounded, activity around the spires settled to a level of relaxed urgency. The orcs had been driven back and with every passing minute more and more Trimarian forces reached the clearing, strengthening their defensive position. No one was foolish enough to think they were out of danger – even if the Merdians came through and applied pressure to the enemy forces to the south the Glennarans could have landed more than enough troops along the northwest coast to overwhelm them.

Once enough infantry had arrived to form a perimeter around the clearing and replace the Royal Guard in the palisade, Keri had Garith assemble the men for transport. They had started the Royal Progress with three hundred and now less than two-thirds that number remained. The majority of the casualties were the wounded, but the dead weighed heavy on Keri's mind as she watched the Guard assemble.

~ How many more will die? ~

The spires flared, signaling that someone was coming from Wallkeep. Set as they were, the spires cycled regularly between sending and receiving, a capability that was used to facilitate the transfer of large numbers of troops.

One of the Guardsmen that had accompanied the Queen through appeared and with him a knight wearing the colors of Highkeep. Keri entered the command pavilion and told Marc informed Marc that a courier had arrived from Trimaria and they waited for the men. They entered the pavilion a moment later, and the knight was introduced as Sir Thuron of Highkeep. He gave them a brief synopsis of the events unfolding in Trimaria and then unrolled a map on the table.

"The Glennaran's have landed here," he said, pointing to a cove north of Wallkeep. "They're marshalling their forces at the moment, but they could be ready to march on the city at any time. Knight-Commander Cernan has arrayed our forces a league to the south. His intention is to oppose their advance, without becoming decisively engaged, to buy as much time as possible for the city to be evacuated."

"Even that is going to be difficult," Marc said. "They have more than enough troops to surround our forces."

Keri studied the troop dispositions marked on the map and said, "Cernan will have to be careful, but he's deployed well. His left flank is anchored to the coastline which will limit the Glennarans – they can only flank by looping around the right."

Marc sighed. "Even with the forces we have here we can't hope to hold the city against so many. The defenses are all aimed at Camron."

"We've deployed our mobile artillery at the edge of the city," Thuron said. "We also have civilian volunteers working to construct a barricade half a league north of the artillery line."

"Do you have any news from the palace?" Marc asked.

"Aye, Highness. The Baron sent word that Lady Enara's arrival caused quite a stir, and when word of the invasion reached the Regent she called a recess. After consulting with the war council she issued orders … orders to not oppose the invasion. She's ordered all forces to withdraw to the Palace."

"That's insane!" Keri roared. "She's handing them all of western Trimaria! She should be sending every available unit to Highkeep."

"Is the Wallkeep garrison following those orders?" Marc asked.

"Sir Cernan is arguing the matter with their commander as we speak. He appears to be inclined to obey the Regent, however."

"It seems it's time I got back to my kingdom then," Marc said. "We may lose Wallkeep, but it won't be without a fight."

"Princess, we can't let the city fall into their hands intact," Keri said, a sense of urgency in her tone. "If we do, our forces at the frontier will be faced with assaulting the Wall."

"We can use the invasion fleet to evacuate them," Marc suggested. "Sail them back to Westkeep."

Keri shook her head vigorously and said, "No, we mustn't do that; it will give the Glennarans a clear road to bring in reinforcements. They'll sweep through western Trimaria and into the central valley in a matter of months."

"What good will razing the city do?" Marc asked. "The Wall will still be there. Even a division of battle mages couldn't bring it down, and we barely have a company's worth."

"That's true," Keri said, her gaze shifting to the pavilion entrance and the spires beyond. "There is another way though."

CHAPTER 54

When the Glennaran advance commenced, it was frighteningly fast and coordinated. There was no doubt in Cernan's mind that the empire across the Gulf of Glennar had long prepared for this day, and in hindsight, their isolationist policy after their previous attempt to invade should have been an ominous sign.

First blood, however, went to the forces of Trimaria. Mounted archers exacted a punishing toll on the enemy's spearhead and then quickly withdrew. Though their bows were slower to fire than the bolt-casters of the Glennaran gunners, their range was much greater and their light, fast mounts were easily able to keep ahead of the heavy cavalry the enemy sent at them. For more than an hour the archers played a deadly game of hit-and-run with the enemy – but the Glennarans had men to spare and showed no compunction against sacrificing them.

Inevitably the enemy sent cavalry to the right to flank the archers, backed by a strong element of infantry, and Cernan was compelled to send in his own heavy horse to counter the move. A smaller element of archers rode ahead of the cavalry to inflict as much damage as possible before dropping back to let their heavily armored comrades through.

Each of the Glennaran riders was armed with a bolt-caster, and as the Trimarian heavy horse closed they unleashed a thunderous volley. The thick shields of the cavalrymen stopped most of the bolts, but Cernan cringed as he saw men go down nonetheless. Then the two forces met, lances piercing steel and flesh on both sides. The infantry continued to advance to engage his men, and they had no such support as Cernan had been obliged to hold his own infantry back because they couldn't maneuver quickly enough for this type of engagement.

It quickly became obvious that the Trimarian cavalry wouldn't be able to disengage before the infantry closed, and once that happened there would be a massacre. The knight needed a fast, agile unit that could flank the enemy and strike on the move, and there was only one such unit at his disposal. Reluctantly he turned to his right, where Lady Elyssa sat watching the engagement next to him.

"I need your Rangers, My Lady," Cernan said.

Elyssa nodded and spurred her horse forward, signaling for the Rangers to form up on her. They urged their light, unarmored mounts on, quickly sweeping around the Glennaran flank. As they approached the infantry they drew readied their bows, which were significantly smaller than the weapons of the regular archers.

Guiding their mounts with only the pressure from their legs, the women of the Rangers formed into a single line and passed behind the ranks of infantry. They didn't stop or even slow as they fired – Elyssa had drilled them vigorously in firing while moving – and though they were well within bolt range by the time the infantry had turned the Rangers had sped past, leaving several score dead and wounded in their wake.

The infantry had turned to face the women, but Elyssa led her riders through a gap between the flanking force and their main line and brought them around for a second pass. The footmen were quicker to react this time and their fire was more effective. As the Rangers completed the pass Elyssa wheeled around again and caught sight of several riderless horses galloping away.

She fought back the tears that threatened to form in her eyes and brought the Rangers around again. They continued to harass the infantry, circling them and not giving them a chance to advance on the cavalry battle, until the main line started to shift to close the gap and a company of light cavalry was dispatched to drive them off. Elyssa gave the signal to retreat, but the Rangers weren't running away by any means.

The light cavalry continued to pursue, closin as the Rangers fanned out into a long, horizontal line. Then the women turned in their saddles and unleashed repeated volleys into their enemy. Several times a single hit caused multiple riders to go down in a tangle of limbs. The punishing barrage demoralized the Glennarans and they broke off their pursuit, returning to their lines with their numbers seriously reduced.

Elyssa wheeled the Rangers about, intending to go back and see if any of her fallen riders still lived, but saw that the Trimarian heavy horse had been able to disengage because the Glennaran riders were charging directly for the women. The infantry was falling back and she knew the battle was only just beginning, so reluctantly she turned her ladies towards the Trimarian lines. She led them in an arc that brought them close enough to the enemy's heavy cavalry to unleash a volley in passing, which was enough to convince them to give up thoughts of revenge for the moment.

The Rangers returned to their position behind the main lines and after receiving a head count from her deputy, Gemma, she rejoined Sir Cernan. The knight gave her a curt nod as she pulled beside him, but his eyes were sparkling with pride.

"Well done, My Lady," he told her. "You made the difference."

Elyssa only nodded, afraid to speak lest her voice betray her. She looked out on the field were eight of her sisters had fallen as a single tear escaped her left eye and trailed down her cheek.

"They died well, Elyssa."

Elyssa nodded again and looked at the knight.

"Does it get any easier?"

Cernan shook his head sadly and said, "No, it hurts just as much every time."

Elyssa drew in a deep breath and then said, "It appears they're withdrawing."

"Aye," Cernan said with a nod. "They were just testing us. They've still got troops coming ashore, and it'll be dark soon. We'll have to keep a careful watch, but I don't expect them to come at us again before morning."

A trumpet call to the rear drew their attention, and their hearts were lifted as they saw the Princess and the Royal Guard approaching at the head of a battalion of heavy cavalry. They galloped back to greet them, and as the reinforcements began deploying they rode to the command area where they were joined by Knight-Marshal Teagan. Cernan reported on the results of their first engagement, lavishing praise on Elyssa and the Rangers for their decisive part in the brief battle.

"You've done well, Cernan," the elder knight said. "Unfortunately even with my forces we can't hope to defend Wallkeep from this side. Her Highness, however, has devised a plan to deal with the situation."

Marc smiled and turned to Elyssa. "You have my spire key?"

"Yes, Highness," Elyssa said, pulling the key from beneath her armor and passing it to the Marc.

"Our plan is this," Marc said as he took the key. "Reinforcements will continue to come forward until well after dark. That should discourage the Glennarans from attacking in the darkness – they won't want to engage us until they're certain of our disposition and we want them to believe we intend to make a stand in the morning."

"Excuse me, Princess, but are you saying we don't intend that?" Cernan asked.

"Exactly. At midnight we'll begin withdrawing units quietly back to the city. Once there, they'll march overland to Highkeep. By dawn we'll have only one division on the line – three regiments of infantry with their field artillery and one of cavalry."

"Princess, that's as good as asking those men to commit suicide!" Cernan protested.

"Hopefully it won't come to that, Knight-Commander," Marc said. "As soon as the Glennarans notice our numbers they will likely attack, but regardless, at first light we will fall back to the spires. Before I evacuate to Highkeep, I'll set the spires so they overload."

"I didn't even know that was possible," Elyssa said, her eyes shifting to Keri.

"It's not common knowledge," Keri told her. "It can't be done by any master key either, it has to be the Royal key and only the Princess can initiate it. Once it's started it can't be stopped without the key, and after five minutes the spires will build up so much aether that they'll explode. Everything … and I mean everything … within a mile radius will be leveled."

"It will destroy Wallkeep and blast a hole more than a mile wide in the Wall," Marc said. "It should also inflict significant casualties on the invaders, depending on how many we can draw into range. It will also disrupt the aether for hundreds of miles in every direction, making it impossible to communicate via orb."

"The remaining Glennaran forces will have to devote a large number of men to secure the breech," Marshall Teagan said. "If they don't, they face attack from our forces in Camron."

"The Regent has ordered them to pull back?" Elyssa asked.

"No, I did," Marc said. "I sent word to Marshal Yarrow as soon as I arrived in Wallkeep, with Marshal Teagan's endorsement. Legally, I can't give orders to the army yet, so I gave them an illegal one. Enough troops will remain to hold the frontier and make an orderly withdrawal, but the bulk of the force is already marching hard for Trimaria."

Cernan and Elyssa shared a look, the same look Marshall Teagan had when he had been told of the plan. The plan was certainly audacious and would undoubtedly take the Glennarans by surprise, but the cost would be staggering. It would take over a year to rebuild the spires, to say nothing of the Wall and the city, and before any of that was possible they would still have to defeat whatever enemy forces remained.

"Highness," Cernan said hesitantly, "there must be another way. With the reinforcements you've brought, we might be able to hold the city long enough for the troops from the frontier to reach us. The remaining forces within the kingdom could be mobilized as well and brought to assist us by spire."

Marc shook his head emphatically. "I've considered that. At best the troops from the frontier can't reach us for five days. If we strip the rest of the units in the kingdom, we leave every city in Trimaris open to attack from the sea. The Glennarans have ample men to occupy us here and still send a sizeable force around the north coast, and we can't discount the possibility that they have additional ships en route with reinforcements."

"We can't send an entire division through to Highkeep in so short a time," Cernan said. "The spires there aren't large enough to accommodate more than two companies at once."

"I know," Marc said, his voice pained. "I must take the spires once I've started the overload because I have to get back to the Palace, but the remainder of the force will have to flee overland. We'll leave sufficient horses to carry all of the infantry, and the remaining troops will ride southeast as fast as their mounts can carry them. There's a ridge line about a half-league from the city that will shelter them from the blast wave."

"I'm familiar with the area," Elyssa said. "The ground isn't the best for such a race but it can be done. It won't be an orderly withdrawal though."

"It doesn't need to be," Marc said. "If the Glennarans believe they've routed us so much the better – it may make them reckless."

"With your permission, Highness, I'll remain with one of my divisions," Cernan said. "My men are familiar with the terrain and our field artillery can be moved into position more readily than any of the incoming units."

"Thank you, Sir Cernan," Marc said, hesitating before continuing. "There is one other task needed to make this work. We have to keep the Glennarans off balance during the night to make certain they don't probe our lines. That means raiding their encampment, and there is only one unit that is well suited to that task."

Elyssa looked into Marc's eyes and smiled. "The Rangers would consider it an honor, Princess."

CHAPTER 55

The council chamber was buzzing with hushed conversation as the barons and guild masters reassembled after an emergency summons from the Regent. She had spent the evening in consultation with the War Council and rumors were rampant, thanks largely to a lack of reliable reports from Wallkeep. Some claimed that the troops there had been decimated and the Glennarans would march on Highkeep come morning, while others boasted that the outnumbered Trimarians were driving the invaders back into the sea.

Silence fell over the chamber as the Regent, with Duke Terlen and Earl-Marshal Stanwyth at her side, entered the chamber. The look on Duchess Rayna's face was one of utter defeat, and after taking her seat behind the table at the head of the chamber she looked out on the council for a long time before speaking.

"The situation before us is grave," she said. "The enemy forces have established a strong beachhead, and there is no possibility that we can repel them. Therefore I have sent orders to our troops in Wallkeep instructing them not to resist. They will withdraw to Highkeep under the cover of darkness, and we will send an emissary to the Glennarans to seek terms for surrender."

The council chamber erupted into chaos as she finished. The loudest cries came from some of the members of the baronial council, who had up until then been staunch supporters of the Regent. All knew that any terms offered by the enemy would be at best distasteful.

"We have no choice!" the Regent shouted as she banged her gavel for order. "If we pull troops from the frontier we will not be able to hold it against the Merdians and their orc mercenaries, and there are insufficient forces within the kingdom to counter the invasion."

Master Talisin rose, staring down his long nose at the Regent as he said, "Your Grace, by law you do not have the authority to surrender the kingdom without the endorsement of the Princess."

"That is why I intend to proceed with naming Lady Darsia the Royal Heir," The Duchess said. "I have already consulted with her, and she is prepared to sign a formal declaration of surrender with me."

Baron Iefan leapt to his feet, pointing angrily at the Regent as he cried, "We all heard the testimony of Honorable Lady Enara that the Princess lives! She could be in Wallkeep at this very moment!"

"Then why has she not sent word?" the Regent asked. "It is the opinion of myself and my advisors that Lady Enara's testimony is suspect. She was evasive under questioning and refused to provide an adequate explanation as to why the Princess had willingly traveled to Camron. I have no choice but to discount her statement that the Princess lives."

"As much as it pains me to, I must agree with the Regent," Baroness Gisella said. "I do not wish to see my own city fall into enemy hands, but if we resist the invaders will overwhelm our forces and sweep through the kingdom virtually unopposed. We must sue for peace, and we must have an heir to do that."

The debate dragged on for over two hours as both sides plead their case. It became quickly apparent that while some of the baronial council had abandoned the Regent, she still had a strong base of support. Finally the Regent called for order once more and demanded a vote. The members of each council cast their ballots which were then counted by their principals, after which Master Talisin and Earl Lohan approached the front of the chamber.

"The Council of Guild Masters votes no," the elder sage said. The tone of his voice and the flushed, angry expression he wore were ample indication that the vote had not been unanimous.

Earl Lohan's voice was barely audible as he said, "The Council of Barons votes yes."

Duchess Rayna rose and banged her gavel once to silence the chamber before saying, "I vote yes." She turned to Knight-Commander Jaris and told him to escort Lady Darsia into the council chamber. Once she was there, the Regent gestured for her to come up onto the dais and stand beside her.

"Lady Darsia, by vote of the councils and myself you are named the Royal Heir to the throne of Trimaria," the Regent said. "From this moment forth you are Her Royal Highness, Princess Darsia Desterella Lockeleigh."

A herald stepped forward, his face dejected as he proclaimed, "Long live the Princess!"

The response from within the council chamber was less than enthusiastic, despite the glare from the Regent. Darsia seemed not to notice, lost in her own shocked glee as the Regent placed a coronet upon her head.

"Highkeep will not surrender!" Baron Iefan shouted, rising to his feet once more. "We will resist as long as there is breath in our bodies!"

He turned to storm from the chamber, but before he reached the doors guards intercepted him at Jaris' signal. They took the Baron by the arms and held him, hands on the hilts of their swords.

"Baron Iefan is under arrest for defying the will of the council," the Regent said. "Escort him to his quarters and keep him there under guard." Her eyes burned as she glared at the rest of the council. "Does anyone else wish to join him?"

Talisin started to speak but Sybilla stilled him with a hand on his arm.

"You can't do anyone any good if you're under arrest," she whispered.

Reluctantly Talisin held his tongue and settled into his seat. After allowing himself a moment to calm down he rose and addressed the Regent in a calm voice.

"Who do you intend to send to the Glennarans as emissary, Your Grace?"

"My husband, Grand Duke Terlen will speak for Her Highness and myself."

The sage burned with the desire to renounce the Duke, but he knew there was no evidence to support him. Fenril's word alone of what he had overheard would not be nearly enough, and revealing it would only serve to let Lornis know that he had been found out. The sage merely nodded and sat back down.

"As the situation is critical, we must move quickly," Duchess Rayna told the council. "Princess Darsia must be crowned immediately."

Master Otellan stood up with amazing speed for someone so large and said, "Your Grace, the law is clear that a coronation must be preceded by an announcement to the populous."

"And just how long will it take to disseminate such an announcement?" the Regent asked. "I warn you, Master Otellan, I'll stand for no unnecessary delays."

The herald considered for a moment before answering, "The proclamation must be properly scribed, which will take several hours at least. Then it must be transmitted via orb throughout the kingdom and announced at each barony and the major shires. That will require at least a day."

"Then I suggest the scribes guild set to work immediately to prepare the proclamation," the Regent said. "In two days time, on the fifth day of Tober, Princess Darsia will be crowned the Queen of Trimaria."

*****

Enara was very tired as she returned to the Palace late that night. She had spent the evening with Aliana's parents, relieved that Odon would recover from his wound. He was still deep in a healing slumber, but the healers had assured them that he was out of danger, and Enara longed to be able to tell her friend the good news. That was impossible under the current state of the kingdom, but she couldn't wait until her friends returned to Lockeshire.

She entered the Palace through the eastern doors and made her way down the main corridor towards the Grand Hall. As she neared an intersection of two corridors she heard voices approaching, and when she recognized them as Duke Terlen and Knight-Commander Jaris she slipped into an alcove and squeezed past a pedestal that held a large vase, pressing herself into the shadows. As they drew nearer she could clearly hear what they were saying.

"I'll be leaving within the hour," the man masquerading as Duke Terlen said. "I need you to keep a close watch on Talisin. I'm certain he's going to try something to delay Darsia's coronation."

"If the Princess returns it won't matter," Jaris said.

"I've already seen to that. The Princess and her escort will travel by spire to Sangre, but from there they must travel overland to Thorngil. By morning a battalion of Glennaran cavalry will be waiting for them."

Enara had to clamp her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp as the two passed by, Jaris laughing harshly. She waited until they were well away around another corner and then slipped out of the alcove. As she did, her foot caught the pedestal and before she could react the vase crashed loudly to the floor.

Stifling another cry as she heard the sound of booted feet quickly approaching, Enara ran around the corner and ran towards the back hallway. She made her way to the doors leading to the Grand Hall, and after checking to make certain no one was about she slipped across the cavernous chamber and into the west wing. It would have been faster to take the main staircase, but she didn't dare as it would be too easy for her pursuer, Jaris most likely, to see her as she fled.

Instead she made her way down the back corridor of the west wing to the service stairs, and from there to the Royal Residence on the third floor. Her heart began to slow as she checked frequently over her shoulder and saw no one behind her. When she reached a side passage that would take her to the front hallway she sighed with relief.

She reached the front corridor and as she rounded the corner towards her chambers she nearly ran right into Jaris. She tried to scream but the knight clamped a hand over her mouth and shoved her roughly against the wall, an evil grin on his face.

Enara didn't see the dagger in his right hand, but she felt it as he plunged it into her abdomen. She screamed in pain and fear but the hand over her mouth muffled her cries, and with the Princess away the residence was virtually deserted anyway. There was no one to come to her aid.

It was the look in the traitorous knight's eyes that did it – a look of smug satisfaction that infuriated her even as she felt her strength draining away. Her magical training had not even gotten close to the study of offensive or defensive spells, focusing rather on teaching her to control her abilities. She discarded all of that teaching, letting her anger and fear meld with her innate magic. She felt the aether coursing through her, and she unleashed it at Jaris, the magical force slamming him across the passage and into the opposite wall, the dagger clattering away. The impact was sufficient to render him unconscious and he crumpled to the floor.

Enara clamped her hands to the wound in her abdomen, shocked by the amount of blood. She knew she didn't have much time and her one thought was that she had to find someone and warn them of the threat to the Princess. She stumbled down the hall and out onto the mezzanine, nearly collapsing from the effort required to open the heavy doors.

Leaning heavily on the rail for support, she staggered to the main stairs. She felt lightheaded as she began making her way carefully down the stairs, the need for haste mitigated by the danger of falling and finishing the job Jaris had started.

She was nearly to the bottom when her strength gave out and she collapsed, tumbling down the last three steps and sprawling across the polished floor. She tried to call out for help but all she could manage was a weak whisper. Tears flowed from her eyes, dripping to mingle with the blood on the floor. She felt a profound sense of remorse – she had failed her friends.

She thought of the love she had been shown these last months. She would miss being Elyssa's bond-mate, and she would miss her sisters terribly. She hoped they would be all right, and that they wouldn't grieve for her too much. She wished she could see them all one more time – to tell Elyssa how much she loved her, and Keri and Ali and Marc how much she appreciated their love and support. Her last thoughts, as the darkness closed about her, were that it had been lovely to have a real family, even for a little while.

CHAPTER 56

The Glennaran encampment was a vast sea of pavilions with numerous fires burning throughout to fend off the darkness. Kessil was at three-quarters, high in the night sky and casting far too much light to suit Elyssa, but there was nothing that could be done about it. From their vantage point on a low rise to the northeast of the encampment she could see that there was little activity – they had ridden wide around the Glennaran position, avoiding their pickets as they worked their way to the enemy's rear.

After a final check to make sure her Rangers were ready, Elyssa readied her lance in her left hand and drew her sword with her right. She spurred her horse forward and the Rangers followed an instant later, staying at a trot to keep the noise of their approach down. She fought down the fear that threatened to engulf her and set her sights on the nearest pavilion.

A cry arose from a sentry as they were spotted and Elyssa dug her spurs into her mount's flank, usrging the mare into a full gallop. She didn't turn to see if her comrades followed – she knew they would be on her heels with their own targets lined up.

The sentry rushed forward and Elyssa's sword flashed, hacking him down as she barreled past. Then she lowered her lance, leaning low to her left as she expertly snagged the peg of one of the pavilions support lines. Her horses legs yanked two more free as she charged past and the pavilion collapsed on the men rousing from sleep within.

Other Rangers were armed with small metal spheres filled with a magical incendiary compound. They uttered a command word and threw the spheres at whatever target was near. The globes exploded on contact, spreading burning liquid in a small radius. Pavilions and supply wagons began to burn, and when the Glennarns attempted to douse them with water it only succeeded in making the flames grow larger.

In a matter of seconds the Rangers had passed through the stunned camp and disappeared in the darkness. Speed was of the essence in such a raid, and Elyssa had stressed to each of the women that if someone fell they had to be left behind. Fortunately they had taken the enemy completely by surprise and suffered no casualties. By the time the Glennarans mustered a force to pursue them, they were long gone, utilizing their superior knowledge of the terrain to slip away unscathed. They rendezvoused at a predetermined location and reformed, taking time to rest and for those that had lost their lances to gather new ones from the stockpile there.

"We'll give them a little while to settle down and then hit them again," Elyssa told Gemma.

"How long do we keep this up?" her deputy asked.

"As long as we can," Elyssa replied. "The less sleep they get tonight the better. Make sure we have sentries posted and have the girls water their mounts."

Gemma saluted and left to carry out her orders. Elyssa knew they had been lucky this time – the Glennarans had not been expecting them. The next time they would have more sentries posted, and likely light cavalry at the ready to give pursuit. She wondered how long it would be before their luck ran out.

*****

Marc tried to sleep but it was impossible – knowing that Elyssa and the Rangers were in harm's way at his command kept him in a constant state of worry. He hoped the others were getting some rest – the Royal Guard had been riding hard for days with little sleep and both man and beast were nearing their limits. At least the horses could be remedied – there would be fresh mounts waiting for them at Highkeep in the morning.

His body wasn't helping matters either. He had always thought that the talk of elf women and their highly sexual nature was just a myth, but now he knew it was all too real. Even on the eve of battle he found his thoughts turning to sex no matter how hard he tried to think of something else, and he actually wished that Valin had not gone to Highkeep to be with his people. There was no way he was going to do anything about it, however – the whole encampment would hear him if he pleasured himself.

He was about to extinguish his glow and try once more to get some rest when his – they really were his now – elven ears detected someone approaching. He didn't even need to hear the voice to know it was Keri – his old bodied was by nature heavy footed.

"Princess, may we enter?"

"Yes, Sir Marcan, come in."

Keri moved the flap aside and held it as Aliana came into the sleeping chamber of the pavilion. Once they were both inside the Princess muttered an incantation, placing a privacy barrier around them so they could talk freely.

"You're getting better with your magic, I see," Marc said as they sat down.

"I still have to actually say the incantations," Keri said with a rueful grin. "In time that shouldn't be a problem though."

"We both have a lot of time now," Marc sighed.

"Marc … I'm sorry," Keri said. "I should have tried…."

"You should have done exactly what you did," Marc cut her off. "You had to save Ali and I would have done the same thing."

Even as he said it, he wondered if it was true. He loved Aliana deeply but at the same time he had been obsessed with getting the amulet back, not because of a desire to get his own life back, but because he wanted Keri to have hers. His entire adult life had been devoted to protecting the Princess – now he was the Princess.

"How are you holding up?" Ali asked him as she squeezed his hand.

"I'm more terrified than I've ever been in my life," Marc admitted. He looked at Keri and shook his head. "Now I understand what you felt all these years. The responsibility is crushing."

"I should have taken the throne when I turned eighteen," Keri said. "If I had … we wouldn't be here now."

"And we wouldn't know about Lornis," Marc said. "If I hadn't hurt Rayna so, things might have been different as well. What's done is done, Keri, now we have to look to the future."

"Speaking of that, what are we going to do?" Ali asked, leaning over on the couch to lay her head on Keri's shoulder.

"As far as I'm concerned, the two of you are free to pursue whatever relationship you desire," Marc told them. "There's no sense in sneaking about anymore – if you decide you want to formalize things and marry, you have my blessing."

"What about you, Marc?" Keri asked. "You're the Princess, and soon you'll be Queen."

"And I'll be responsible for providing an heir, I know," Marc said, sighing again.

"It doesn't mean you have to marry," Ali pointed out. "Riala never did. In fact if you wanted … I mean when you're ready … well I wouldn't have any objection if you wanted Keri to father your first child."

Keri and Marc were both too shocked by her suggestion to speak. They stared at Ali, and she just shook her head and laughed.

"Think about it. You both have ties to the Royal line. If you have a child together, it would be a way of restoring the rift that was caused when the amulet was used by Tishia to usurp the throne. The House of Lockeleigh would be whole again."

They had to admit there was a certain logic to what she said, but neither was ready to seriously contemplate such a union.

"You really should get some rest," Keri told him.

"I'm afraid that's not going to happen," Marc said, biting back a sob. "Shard it, I'll be glad when I can have another ring made!"

Aliana looked at Keri, who nodded and rose, moving towards the pavilion flap. She dropped the privacy spell and Ali immediately put up one of her own.

"What are you doing?" Marc asked Keri as she moved to leave the pavilion.

"She is going to get some rest in her tent," Ali said, "and I am going to help you get through the night."

The Maid-of-Honor rose as well, kissing Keri on the lips and whispering, "I love you," before turning back to a stunned Marc.

"Ali … I ... we can't!" Marc protested after Keri was gone.

"Yes we can," Ali told him as she settled onto the bed next to him. "If you prefer, I can try to coach you through putting up your own barrier, but it does require a bit of maintenance and you'd probably couldn't keep it up and pleasure yourself. Besides, being with someone will accomplish far more than you can by yourself, ad you need to have your wits about you in the next few days."

It was too hard for Marc to resist – Keri had always wanted to be with Ali, and those memories combined with the physical need of his body was more than he could handle. He closed his eyes and nodded his head in agreement.

"What do I do?"

"Just lay back and try to relax, love," Ali said with a grin. "You'll catch on fast enough."

*****

It was an hour before dawn when the Rangers made ready for their third raid on the Glennaran encampment. The enemy had reacted more quickly during the second raid, but they had obviously not expected the Rangers to repeat their performance, much less approach from the same direction. The women had again escaped without any serious casualties though a few had been bloodied.

Elyssa knew they were pressing their luck, but a final pass through the camp just before sunrise could delay the inevitable attack. This time they would approach from along the beach, relying on the sound of the surf to mask their approach until they were on top of the enemy. They would also abandon tent pegging and each woman would carry several incendiary spheres. Their objective was the Glennaran field artillery – if they could destroy enough of the mobile ballistae and calliopes it would seriously hamper the enemy's assault.

Thankfully Kessil had dipped below the horizon, though the ever present Andarel's Belt still gave off a dim glow. Soon the first rays of sunlight would brighten the eastern horizon, but by then the Rangers would be on their way back to the Trimarian lines if all went well.

They used the surf to their advantage, speeding to a gallop much sooner than on their previous attacks. The camp was still unaware of their approach when they fired a volley of arrows, the missiles coated with the same incendiary potion that filled the spheres. They weren't aimed with any particular precision but rather to provide a diversion as they rained down on the far side of the encampment and ignited.

The diversion worked – the Glennarans rushed men to that side of the camp as the Rangers charged in from the beach. Elyssa actually laughed at the chaos that ensued and then threw her spheres, setting two ballistae and a calliope ablaze. The Rangers tore through the camp leaving havoc in their wake.

They were nearly clear of the outer perimeter when a group of gunners rose from concealment and fired a volley. Elyssa heard cries from her Rangers but after a quick look back she didn't see anyone fall. Then a second volley thundered out and she watched as Gemma went down as a bolt struck the shoulder of her mount.

Despite her own orders Elyssa reigned in her horse and wheeled about, her mount leaping forward as she dug in her spurs. More bolts struck the ground around her and she could see cavalry riding for them hard, but Elyssa concentrated on her friend, leaning over and extending her right hand. Gemma grabbed the outstretched arm and swung up behind Elyssa.

"I thought you said no going back," Gemma called as they galloped to catch up with the Rangers.

"One of the advantages to giving the orders is you can choose to disobey them," Elyssa replied. "Besides, I couldn't very well let my senior bridesmaid get killed."

CHAPTER 57

Knight-Commander Cernan was relieved that the Princess had acquiesced to his suggestion that she and the Royal Guard withdraw to the city just before dawn. Fortunately Sir Marcan had agreed with him and argued, quite logically, that if something happened to Her Highness, their plan was doomed.

The Rangers had done their job well, which was no surprise to Cernan, and the enemy had been too preoccupied by their raids to seriously probe the Trimarian lines. Under cover of darkness the field artillery had been moved to the front line and, rather than wait for the enemy to make the first move, Cernan had suggested they launch a preemptive bombardment. Marshal Teagen and the Princess had agreed, and as the first rays of sunlight brightened the eastern sky the battle mages cast their spells on the projectiles and the calliopes opened fire.

The multi-barreled weapons were surprisingly quiet as the projectiles left the tubes. They only had twenty-four calliopes and worse, only six mages to service them, but in a matter of seconds they had sent over three-hundred missiles skyward. The field pieces were smaller than those used in fixed emplacements, firing cylindrical shells three-inches in diameter filled with steel balls and a core of pure manthracite. Depending on what enchantment the mage placed on them, they would explode on contact or, in this case, in the air above their target.

While the launching of the missiles was relatively unimpressive, their detonation over the Glennaran camp was spectacular. The enemy camp was blanketed by a brilliant blue-white light as thousands of half-inch steel balls rained down to devastating effect. Cernan had timed the bombardment well, rightly gauging that the Glennarans would be preparing for a daylight attack, and had directed the fire onto the enemy's forward line.

Despite the surprise the Glennarans were quick to respond, sending their own salvo streaking towards the Trimarian lines. The battle mages cast a defensive shield but the sheer volume of the incoming projectiles, at least ten times that of the Trimarian artillery, overwhelmed the barrier. The men were well protected in trenches with overhead cover, but even that was not enough to completely shield against the bombardment. Screams erupted along the line as armor and flesh was pierced and when the deadly rain at last ceased Cernan had lost four calliopes and an unknown number of men.

For the next half-hour the two sides exchanged fire. In the lulls between bombardments Cernan had the wounded evacuated to the spires for immediate transport to Highkeep. The dead would remain where they lay, as much as the knight hated it they could not spare the man-power to tend to them.

Finally the Glennarans commenced their main assault, and from the massive wave of infantry that appeared in the distance it seemed as though they had suffered no hurt from the Trimarian bombardment. Cernan wasn't surprised that he saw no cavalry; they were too vulnerable in a charge against a prepared position and would be better employed by flanking the line. He ordered his own cavalry to move into a screening position to their right. If all went well, they wouldn't have to engage the Glennaran heavy horse, but each man knew they might be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. If necessary, they had orders to flee away from Wallkeep in whatever direction was fastest on the signal to withdraw.

As the enemy came into range Cernan ordered his archers into action. Arrows rained down on the enemy infantry, but each man was protected by a rectangular shield nearly as tall as he was and the effect was minimal. The infantry continued their steady march undeterred.

Cernan turned to the herald at his side and said, "Send the signal to bring the horses forward and prepare to sound withdrawal."

*****

To the right of the Trimarian line Elyssa and the Rangers rode with the heavy cavalry as they moved to deflect the Glennaran flanking maneuver. As soon as the enemy cavalry was sighted the Rangers charged forward and unleashed a volley of arrows, quickly withdrawing from the slower heavy horse. Once more they played a deadly game of tag with the enemy, their short bows requiring them to close to within bolt-caster range for effect. This was different from the previous day's engagement, however; the Glennarans were determined to break through and the Rangers were all tired after their long night of raiding. Casualties began to mount, but Elyssa and her ladies were no less determined than their enemy.

Their continued harassment succeeded in goading the enemy cavalry to turn from their objective to deal with the Rangers. When they did, the Trimarian heavy horse charged their flank and the two forces met with a thunderous clash of steel. The Trimarian cavalry didn't allow themselves to become decisively engaged and instead plowed through the enemy ranks. Once they were clear the Rangers unleashed another hail of arrows.

As the arrows fell, trumpets echoed from the line sounding the order to withdraw. Elyssa quickly calculated their position and determined that they were too far from Wallkeep – they could never reach the ridgeline in time, but if they fled to the east they should be able to outdistance the explosion. She raised her hand and signaled the Rangers to follow and then spurred her horse forward.

*****

Marc waited anxiously by the control spire in Wallkeep as the Trimarian forces passed by. He wanted to give the withdrawing forces as much time as possible – a thouroughbred could make the mile-and-a-half distance easily in five minutes, but many of the men rode heavier warhorses with full barding, and even those that didn't were in full armor, greatly increasing the burden of their mounts.

"Your Highness, it's time," Keri finally told him, mindful of the Guardsmen nearby. "We don't have any word of the Rangers or the cavalry screen but we can't afford to wait any longer."

Marc sighed and nodded. He was about to unleash destruction on a scale he hadn't even known possible, but there was simply no other choice. He silently hoped that the Rangers and the cavalry screen had heard the order to withdraw and then turned his key to direct the spires to Highkeep. Once they began to hum with power he turned the key again, this time to a setting marked with a red starburst. Then he withdrew the key and joined the Royal Guard at the center of the spires.

"Elyssa will be all right, Highness," Ali assured him as he stopped by her side. She reached over and squeezed his hand and Marc drew comfort from her touch.

The spires flashed brilliantly and then they were plunged into utter darkness. An instant later the world returned and they were at the Highkeep spires. The Royal Guard immediately moved off the stone surface and escorted Marc beyond the perimeter of troops circling the spires – there was a chance that some of the Glennaran forces would be able to make it through the spires before the transport cycle ended and the troops were there to ensure they didn't leave the circle.

Marc turned his eyes to the west, focusing on the horizon in the direction of Wallkeep. He barely felt the touch of both Aliana and Keri as they gripped his hands in support. The wait seemed like an eternity, but then a brilliant blue-white light blossomed on the horizon, easily visible despite being almost a hundred miles away. Marc closed his eyes as tears began to trace a path down his cheeks.

"You did what you had to," Keri said, gripping his hand tighter. Marc opened his eyes and looked into the face that had once been his and saw tears there as well.

"I know, but that doesn't make it any easier," he said.

Keri reached over and squeezed his shoulder and then rode off to where Garith waited nearby. The two conversed for a moment and then the serjeant began barking orders. As they spires cycled down, Knight-Marshal Tegan rode over to join Marc. He paused for a moment to gaze at the fading light to the west and then turned to speak to the 'Princess'.

"Your remounts are being brought up, Highness. I do wish you'd allow me to send additional troops to escort you."

"You're going to need every man, especially your cavalry," Marc told him. "I'd estimate no more than a third of the Glennaran force was caught when the spires exploded. They still have at least double your numbers, and if their commander has any sense he'll immediately send a force to besiege Highkeep. If we're to make a stand here you must hold these spires."

"We won't fail … Your Majesty," Teagan said.

Marc shot the knight a startled look, shaking his head as he saw the grin on Teagan's face.

"I'm not the Queen yet."

"That is merely a technicality," Teagan said. "The men you've led these past days have no doubt who rules Trimaria, nor do I."

"Thank you, Marshal Teagan," Marc said sincerely.

A Guardsman approached leading fresh mounts and he and Aliana switched horses. To Marc's embarrassment he had to be assisted into the saddle of his fresh horse when his stiff and sore legs simply refused to lift him. He was no stranger to long hours riding in full armor – not in his old body – but Keri's frame didn't have close to that endurance, and the last three days of hard riding had taken their toll. He at least got some satisfaction seeing that Aliana needed help as well and the Maid-of-Honor gave him a tired grin after she was settled.

Keri joined Marc and Ali once again and informed them the men were ready to move. Marc gave the spire key to Keri so she could activate the spires. He shook his head slightly as he watched her ride away in the body that had once been his. It had only been four days since he had lost the amulet, but already it was getting hard to think of Keri as female anymore, and more frightening it was becoming difficult to remember what it had felt like to be male. He was far from ready to just let go of his old self, however.

The first part of the journey was easy – the spires took them first to Amurga and then Sangre in barely ten minutes time. Once they appeared at the Sangre spires Keri dispatched outriders to scout ahead and watch their flanks and then they set off for Thorngil.

Marc could almost feel Aliana grow tense as they set out at a canter. They were not far from the scene of the attack on her parents, and he knew she was still worried about her father. He had offered to send and inquiry about his condition to Lockeshire but Ali had declined, understanding that it was vital to keep the news of the 'Princess's' return within the realm of rumor for the present.

They kept to a fast pace, slowing to a walk for a time each hour to allow the horses to cool off. Keri called a brief halt half-way to Thorngil and Marc was grateful for the chance to dismount and stretch his legs. The respite was all too brief – just long enough to water the horses and adjust their saddles and allow everyone time to refresh themselves with food and drink. Then they were back in the saddle and on their way once more. Once they reached Thorngil they would take the spires to Briarwood and then Greenbow where they would again have fresh mounts waiting for the long ride to Fennelmere. From there it was just two more spire jumps to Lockeshire. If all went well they would reach the Palace about an hour after sunset.

"Shards I can't even feel my butt anymore," Aliana sighed two hours later. They were close to Thorngil now – no more than a half-hour from the spires which were about two leagues from the shire.

"At least not the soft parts of it," Marc agreed. "My tailbone hurts so bad I don't think I'll want to sit down for a week."

Aliana laughed, and for a time the two chatted about mundane matters and the preparations that would have to be made for the coronation. Despite his unease with taking on the life that by rights belonged to Keri, Marc felt a sense of excitement. In a few short days he would be the Queen of Trimaria, a prospect that was as exhilarating as it was frightening.

"You're going to be a wonderful Queen," Ali told him, sensing his mixed emotions.

Marc smiled in thanks, hoping she was right. Then he heard Garith's gruff voice bellowing an order to halt and as the column came to a stop he and Ali spurred their mounts forward to see what the problem was. As he scanned ahead his keen eyes detected smoke rising into the sky from beyond a low rise – in the general direction of Thorngil.

When they reached the front of the column they found Keri talking with Garith and Sir Alwin. She turned as Marc and Ali approached, a grim look on her face.

"You saw the smoke?"

Marc nodded. "Have the scouts ahead reported anything?"

"No and that's the problem," Garith said. "The lads were scoutin' well ahead. They shoulda seen the smoke long before us and had time ta investigate and report by now."

"That's a lot of smoke," Marc said after looking off in the distance. "It must be Thorngil. Orcs perhaps?"

"Possible," Keri said. "The remaining raiders in the kingdom may have orders to cause as much havoc as possible. Thorngil has a strong stockade but it's wood – it wouldn't take much to set fire to it. I'm worried that our forward scouts haven't reported though."

"Wouldn't they have fired a flare if they ran into trouble?" Ali asked.

"Aye, if they weren't set upon by surprise," Garith said.

They spent several minutes discussing options. If Thorngil had been attacked they had to investigate and try to render what aid they could, but Garith was concerned that it might be a ruse to draw them in to a trap. Marc silently agreed with the serjeant and knew that if he were in his proper place he would council the Princess to make for the spires with all haste. He also knew what Keri would do – she would go to the aid of her people. He was about to say as much when a report was passed from the rear of the column that their trailing outriders were approaching at a gallop.

"Heavy cavalry to our rear," one of the men shouted as they neared the front of the column. "Company strength – they didn't charge so I don't think they saw us, but they'll be on us soon."

The words were barely out of his mouth when reports came from both flanks that the other outriders were coming in fast. The news they brought was the same – a company of cavalry to their right and left.

"Get the column moving." Keri ordered Alwin. She turned to Marc and Ali and said, "The two of you get to the center. Garith, bring a squad and follow me."

The column began moving as Keri rode ahead with Garith and a squad of Guardsmen. They urged their mounts to a gallop and quickly pulled far ahead of the column. Before they reached the top of the distant rise Keri ordered a halt and she and Garith dismounted, moving to the top on foot.

In the valley below they could see the transport spires, and between them a company of heavy cavalry. If they tried to go around they would surely be seen, and with the enemy closing in from all sides they would soon be hopelessly outnumbered.

"If it hadn't been for that fire we would have ridden right into them," Keri muttered.

Garith nodded in agreement. "Looks like there's only one way ta go, Captain. It would sure help if we had us a battle mage ta blast a hole in that line though."

"We do," Keri said. "We have two in fact."

CHAPTER 58

The Royal Guard topped the rise at a gallop, the thundering of their horses' hooves announcing their approach to the enemy below. It didn't matter – there was no hope of a stealthy approach over the open terrain. As they started down the slope two troops split off to the right and left while the remaining three charged straight at the enemy's center. Star shells arced up from the enemy line, no doubt a signal to the companies surrounding the Guard to close in.

For now they were on nearly even terms – the enemy had a slight advantage in numbers as the Guard was down a troop due to casualties, but the Glennarans were spread in a long rank to cover the approach to the spires. The three troops of Guardsmen charging towards the shifted into an arrow shaped formation with two troops in front and the third slightly to the rear as the other two troops swung wide in an attempt to pass around the ends of the enemy's line.

The Glennaran commander responded, sending two of his troops to counter the flanking units and massing the remainder to meet the larger group of Guardsmen, where his training told him his primary target, the Princess, would be. Their slight advantage in numbers was multiplied by the heavier armor of man and horse and the fact that each cavalryman was armed with a bolt-caster. They readied their rifles as the Royal Guard charged with lances leveled.

As they closed to within bolt-caster range the three troops of Guardsmen spread out from their tight formations to make them less susceptible to incoming fire. A cloud of smoke erupted along the enemy line and the thunderous reports rolled across the open ground but the bolts rained harmlessly behind the fast moving Guardsmen. The gunners adjusted their aim and the second volley was on target, the deadly missiles raining down on the formation. At least a dozen riders went down, but the loose formation succeeded in mitigating the effectiveness of the volley.

The Guard couldn't maintain such spacing if they hoped to break through, however, and so the three troops closed ranks as they were almost upon the enemy. Another volley thundered from the Glennarans, and this time the range was so short that the bolts struck with devastating effect. Despite taking heavy casualties the Guard didn't waver, and seconds later they crashed into the enemy. Men on both sides went down as lances pierced armor and flesh and horses collided.

On the far left Marc and Ali rode with one of the flanking troops just behind Garith. As they closed on the Glennaran unit sent to counter them, the serjeant moved to the side and Marc surged forward, his right hand extended as he repeated the incantation Keri had coached him in as they moved into position. He fumbled the unfamiliar words the first time and had to start over, even as a brilliant ball of blue-white flame crashed into the enemy ranks on the far right - Keri had gotten her spell off on the first try though he couldn't tell to what effect.

Marc stopped thinking about the incantation and instead let Keri's body just say the words, just as he had let it dance the valse at the Grand Ball. They rolled of his tongue like music and his hand began to glow with power. The sensation that coursed through him was unlike anything he had ever felt – it wasn't like the wild burst of power he had unleashed in Wallkeep, but rather controlled, confined and far more deadly. The ball of magical energy flashed from his hand and unerringly flew to the point where his eyes were focused, right in the center of the enemy troop.

The effect was startling. He had seen what the spell could do before, both at the hands of seasoned battle mages and from Keri herself in practice, but to know that it had come from him was truly awe-inspiring. The ball expanded as it flew and by the time it struck the enemy it was fifty-feet in diameter. Then it exploded and Marc barely remembered to avert his eyes. Men and horses were sent flying and the entire troop virtually disintegrated. Those that weren't killed or wounded in the initial blast were momentarily stunned by the brilliance of the magical blast.

Marc drew his sword and the Guardsmen with him leveled their lances. They tore through the battered and stunned remnants of the enemy unit, cutting down any that stood in their path. Once they were through they didn't stop, not even when they reached the spires. The rest of the Glennaran battalion was already in sight, charging hard towards them and there was simply no time to power the spires.

As they passed the stone monoliths Marc spared a glance over his shoulder. Keri and her troop were forming up with them, but the other three troops were still engaged with the enemy. Sir Alwin and the hundred-fifty men with him had little chance of breaking free before the rest of the battalion overwhelmed them - but of course they had known that.

"There's nothing ta be done for them lad," Garith shouted, forgetting himself in the heat of the moment. None of the Guardsmen could have heard his slip amidst the thundering of hooves however.

Marc turned and looked at the serjeant, unashamed at the tears that fell from his eyes only to be whisked away by the wind. As they galloped away several enemy units set out in pursuit but they were too far behind to overtake their quarry. Now the heavier armor of the horses and men was a disadvantage and the remnants of the Royal Guard soon were well out of sight. They pushed their mounts as far as they dared, mindful that they needed to conserver their strength, and finally slowed to a trot when they were over a mile from the spires. Briarwood was almost fifty miles away, at least another five hours of riding, and they had to assume that there were more enemy forces in the area.

Keri split one of the remaining troops into squads, sending one to scout ahead and two more to the left and right while the remaining two dropped back to cover their rear. They settled into an uneasy march and Marc was filled with conflicting emotions. He was proud of the men he had recruited and trained, but though he had always been prepared for the possibility he might have to order them to their deaths to protect the Princess, he had never expected to be the one they gave their lives for.

Keri dropped back and pulled alongside him, and Marc was shocked at the way she looked. Her skin was pale and she was sweating heavily despite the cool autumn day. She seemed to be having a great deal of difficulty staying up in the saddle.

"You're hurt!" Marc exclaimed. "Why didn't you say something sooner?"

"I'm not wounded," Keri said, "just a little tired."

Marc's eyes narrowed and he stared hard at the body that had once been his. They had all been pushing themselves, but he knew he wouldn't have looked as exhausted as Keri did, especially when she had been perfectly fine before the skirmish at the spires.

"The spell," he said as understanding dawned on him.

His body was not nearly as conditioned to channeling the kind of energies the Princess's could. He had been so concerned about learning the spell he hadn't delved further into Keri's memories. Anger rose within him as he realized what a risk she had taken.

"You could have been killed. Why didn't you warn me?"

"You know why," Keri said.

Of course she was right - she hadn't told him because it didn't matter. Keri had done exactly what he would have done in her place - what had to be done.

"Marc, I'm sorry," Keri said, her voice low. "If there had been any other way…."

"You did what had to be done, Sir Marcan," Marc said, his voice strong and loud. "I'm proud to have such brave and noble men at my side and I promise you the deeds of this day will be remembered."

Keri nodded, her face drawn and Marc knew it was more than fatigue. There had been much brave blood spilled, and he silently swore that every drop would be avenged.

"We're not going to make it to Lockeshire today," Marc said after a moment.

"No, we're not," Keri agreed. "It'll be sunset before we reach the spires to Greenbow. The men will need rest and we can't risk the journey overland to Fenelmere in the dark."

"If the Glennarans follow us we may have no choice," Marc said.

"If we make it to Briarwood, and there aren't more enemies waiting for us, we'll be fine. Once we take the spires there to Greenbow, we'll be hours ahead of any pursuit."

"Provided there are no more ambushes waiting for us," Ali said. "How could the Glennarans have gotten a whole battalion to Thorngil ahead of us?"

"Lornis most likely," Marc said. "He must have gotten word to them - it wouldn't be hard to figure out that we'd be making for Lockeshire as quickly as possible. If those troops left soon after they landed yesterday and rode through the night they could have done it."

"If that's the case they won't be in any shape for a determined pursuit," Keri said.

"That's good because we're in no shape for a hard flight," Ali sighed.

The Glennarans did follow for a time, making several attempts to overtake them. Their mounts were much more heavily encumbered though, and the Trimarian force was easily able to stay well ahead of them. It was after dark when they finally appeared at the spires near Greenbow. Originally they had planned to travel to the shire and exchange their mounts but Keri decided it was safer to send a squad to bring back the horses along with as many blankets as they could. They had brought no shelter as they had expected to be in Lockeshire shortly after sunset.

An exhausted Marc and Aliana helped each other out of their armor, leaving their underlays on for added warmth as they curled up together under several blankets near a roaring fire. Marc didn't object to Ali's presence – he was so tired that his amorous nature was completely subdued and the added warmth was quite pleasant.

Despite his exhaustion, sleep didn't come easily. Along the road they had encountered a large group of people – refugees from Thorngil. To Marc's amazement and pride, the seneschal had told him that when they had learned of the Glennaran force guarding the spires, the shire folk had set their own homes ablaze in hopes of warning friendly forces and to deny the enemy their stocks of food. Marc had assured them that their sacrifice would be remembered.

"The Glennarans are fools," he muttered.

"What was that?" Ali asked as she stifled a yawn.

"I said the Glennarans are fools," he repeated. "Even if their plan succeeded, the people of Trimaria would never surrender, not even if Darsia commanded them to. They'd make them pay for every minute they spent on Trimarian soil."

"Of course they would," Ali said as she yawned again. "Now hush and go to sleep."

CHAPTER 59

The scene in the sitting room of Baroness Gisella's guest quarters was tense, but controlled. At least the Baroness and Sir Jaris were controlled; Earl-Marshal Stanwyth was on the verge of panic. It was he who had been directly responsible for obscuring the truth of the situation in Camron - the commanders on the frontier, Marshal Yarrow in particular, were not fools and it had been inevitable that they would notice peculiarities in the activities of the enemy. Whenever reports reached the Palace, Stanywyth had dismissed them, or if that was not possible simply buried them.

"Stanwyth, you simply must calm down," Gisella said with a look of exasperation. "That look on your face is enough to make anyone wonder what you're guilty of."

"That is easy for you to say," the rotund knight replied. "If this plan Duke Terlen devised is undone, I could face execution!"

"Nonsense; Trimaria hasn't executed anyone for centuries."

"No one has tried to subvert the throne for centuries!"

"There is nothing to fear," Jaris said. "By now the Princess is dead - even the Royal Guard couldn't prevail against an entire battalion."

"She's managed to escape two attempts on her life already!" Stanwyth said. "She was also able to bring the entire invasion force from Camron in a matter of hours, and since then we've had no word from Wallkeep. If the Glennarans had occupied the city we should have heard something!"

"All communications to the western reaches are out," Jaris said. "The adepts at the orb station tell me that something has disrupted the aether making it impossible to send or receive messages from that region."

"Such disruptions have happened before," the Baroness said. "It should clear in a day, and then we will find that our allies have secured the Wall and have Highkeep besieged. When the reinforcements arrive in a few days, they'll have enough to begin assaulting the city. Our new Queen will have no choice but to accept whatever terms they offer, and we will be the most influential people in Trimaria."

That seemed to mollify Stanwyth some. He still stung from the news Toranon had given him before leaving for Camron to sign the peace treaty - that once the war was ended he intended to replace the Earl-Marshal. The two had rarely seen eye-to-eye on military matters - the king thought Stanwyth was lazy and accused him of relying too much on brute force and numbers without regard for casualties and collateral damage. Terlen had used that resentment to recruit the knight, along with the promise of a large land grant once the new principality of Camron was established.

Gisella doubted Terlen had any intention of fulfilling his promise to the knight. She suspected he would eventually try to betray her in some way, but she had taken steps to insure he didn't. One was the Wall - as Baroness she had access to the wards that secured the Great Gate, and before leaving for the Palace she had changed the pass codes. The infrastructure that maintained the city was also under her control - the Glennarans would soon find Wallkeep uninhabitable when the sanitation network ceased to function. As long as she controlled Wallkeep, she was untouchable.

"What of the Regent?" Stanwyth asked, jarring her from her contemplations. "With the Duke away, his control over her weakens."

"He'll be back before she becomes unmanageable," Jaris said. "If there are any problems he left me ample … medication … for her headaches."

"And Darsia?"

Jaris laughed and said, "He hardly needs a ring to manipulate her. She'll do as we wish - by this afternoon we'll control the Queen of Trimaria."

"As long as the Princess doesn't escape again," Stanwyth said, the worry returning to his face.

"Stop worrying, Stanwyth," Gisella said. "The coronation takes place at ten, that's less than an hour away."

*****

'The Princess' arrived in Lockeshire at nine-thirty that morning. They had left Fennelmere before dawn after a much needed night's rest, and their appearance at the spires within the city walls attracted little attention. The streets were largely empty as most of the people were gathered on the Palace's parade ground waiting to greet their new queen.

They had learned of the impending coronation while they were in Fennlemere, but even though time was short there were other matters that required their attention. They made a stop first at Aliana's parents' home, where she received the happy news that Odon would recover fully from his injuries. He was still weak, but not so much that he couldn't give his daughter a hug.

"There's something else you need to know," Mistress Elena said after they left Odon to rest. "Enara was stabbed the night before last. She's alive, but she's been kept unconscious since the attack. No one saw what happened - she was found at the foot of the Grand Staircase, barely alive."

There was no time for questions, but Marc recognized the look of angry determination on Keri's face - he had worn it many times. She would find out who had attacked her friend, of that he had no doubt.

Upon reaching the main gates of the Palace curtain wall, they did draw attention. People were still passing through the gates on their way to the parade ground and the sound of a hundred horses galloping up the stone paved road reached the ears of the guards long before they came into view. They moved to bar the way, but upon recognizing who it was that rode at the head of the column they quickly fell back in shocked amazement.

The Royal Guard immediately fanned out to secure every entrance of the Palace and ensure that no one would enter or leave. Keri and Marc dismounted at the main entrance and along with Aliana, Garith and a squad of Guardsmen they entered the Palace. They went first to the Royal Quarters to check on Enara.

When they entered her bed chamber they found Baron Iefan seated at her bedside, her hand in his. Enara was awake and she smiled weakly as she saw them. A healer-mage stood nearby and glared disapprovingly at their intrusion until she realized who she was glaring at.

"I knew you weren't dead," she said in a small voice. "I knew you'd come."

Keri rushed to the bed and knelt down, taking Enara's other hand in hers.

"It's all right, Nara, we're here now," she said. "Who did this to you?"

"Jaris," Enara said. "I overheard him talking with Lornis about an ambush. I tried to find someone … to warn you but…."

"Shhh, don't fret, love," Keri said, not caring that others were near.

"Please, she needs to rest," the healer said. "I only woke her so she could take some broth, but she refused to let me put her back to sleep - she said she had to speak to Her Highness."

"I knew you were coming," Enara said. "I don't know how … I just felt it."

Marc stepped forward and said, "You did fine, sister, but now you must rest. We'll take care of Jaris and Lornis."

They left the bed chamber, the Baron following as the healer began the incantation to place Enara in a healing slumber. Once they were out in the sitting room he told them that Lornis had been sent to meet with the Glennarans.

"Shards!" Marc swore. "Well, he may have slipped away but Jaris will answer for this."

"Highness, is there any news of my daughter? We haven't heard from Highkeep in over a day. Enara insists that she's all right but I'm worried."

"I wish I could offer some comfort, Excellency," Marc said. "Elyssa and the Rangers were with our cavalry screen and were to escape to the east, but there was no time to wait for a report."

"Trust what Enara tells you, Baron," Keri said. "If she says Elyssa is safe, I believe her."

"I wish we had more time to explain, but I have a coronation to stop," Marc said.

The Baron looked torn, until Marc placed a hand gently on his arm and said, "Your place is here, with Enara."

Iefan nodded, and on impulse Marc kissed him on the cheek. Then he turned and left, Keri and Ali on his heels. His guards fell in place in front and behind and as they neared the doors to the throne room Garith reached over his shoulder and drew his poll-axe.

"Stand aside, lads," he ordered the men guarding the doors. Their eyes grew wide as they beheld Marc and the glittering golden armor he wore.

"The … the door is barred, Highness," one of the men stuttered.

Marc closed his eyes for an instant and drew upon Keri's memories. When he opened them he thrust his hands forward and said, "Patefacio simsim!" The magical ward sealing the doors released and they flew open, crashing loudly against the walls on either side.

All eyes in the throne room turned and Marc froze as a cold knot of fear swelled in his stomach. Then he felt Keri's hand on his shoulder, giving him a reassuring squeeze as he had done for her so many times in the past. He had never realized just how much comfort she drew from those gestures until this moment, and the fear was vanquished.

The assembled onlookers began murmuring in hushed tones as Marc strode down the aisle. Darsia stared at him from the dais, her look of stunned amazement echoed by the Regent and Sir Jaris. When Marc saw the knight standing there next to Duchess Rayna his eyes narrowed and anger burned within him.

Mounting the steps to the dais, Marc walked up to Darsia and gave her a cold stare before turning to the Regent. In her hands she held the Crown, which she had been about to place on Darsia's head.

"I believe that belongs to me, Regent," Marc said.

"Keri …." The Regent stammered. "They told me … I thought … they said you were dead."

"Who told you that?" Marc asked, his gaze shifting to Knight-Commander Jaris.

"Well, it was Terlen," the Regent said, "and Earl Stanwyth. I … I didn't want to believe it."

"They lied, Aunt Rayna," Marc said. "Duke Terlen is not who he claims to be. His true name is Lornis; Queen Riala's banished son."

"That can't be," Rayna said, placing the Crown on the stand before her and lifting her hands to her face. Her eyes squinted as though she was in pain and she shook her head.

Marc could see that she was struggling, and now that he was aware of it, he could sense the ring on her left hand exerting a dark, malevolent force. Enraged, he grabbed her hand and pulled at the ring. At first it didn't want to move, as though some force were holding it in place. Then suddenly it came free and the Regent cried out in agony, shoving Marc away. As Marc struggled to maintain his footing Rayna backed up until she bumped into Jaris.

The Regent's eyes narrowed, her mind now free of the cloud the ring had woven about it. She remembered everything - all the times the knight and her husband had conversed about their plans, unconcerned by her presence because they knew she was powerless. Realizing he was undone, Jaris grabbed her by the throat with his right hand as he drew his dagger. He pulled the Regent tightly to his body and pressed the tip of the blade to her breast.

Marc regained his balance and raised his hands slowly. Even if he had Keri's control of magic, it would have been far too dangerous with the two so close together. Jaris was no doubt aware of this, and moved to keep Rayna between himself and Marc.

"You can't escape, Jaris," Marc said. "Even if you get out of this room, the Royal Guard is at every exit from the Palace."

"Then you'll order them to let me pass," Jaris said, a wild look in his eyes.

Marc turned to Keri and saw his own fear mirrored in her eyes. She had stepped onto the dais but was unable to do anything more than give Jaris another person to worry about. Marc knew the Princess was as loathe as he to let the traitor go, but neither of them were willing to risk Rayna's life.

The Regent took the decision from them. She met Marc's eyes, and he saw the Rayna of years past, the kind, gentle woman he had fallen in love with. Beyond that he saw the pain, the shame, of knowing what she had been part of, however unwillingly. Too late Marc realized what she was doing as her hands rose, closing over the pommel of the dagger and pulling it sharply towards her. Taken completely by surprise, Jaris could do nothing to stop her.

Grand Duchess Rayna Binara Ethelwyn didn't utter a sound as the dagger bit deep, slipping between two ribs and piercing her heart. She looked into the eyes of the person she believed to be her niece and smiled before collapsing to the floor.

Marc and Keri reacted as one, totally on instinct driven by the bodies they now inhabited. Marc's right hand stabbed forward, a bolt of blue-white energy flashing from it and striking Jaris in the chest. Simultaneously Keri drew her sword, the enchanted blade a blur as it whistled through the air, slicing through bone and sinew to separate Jaris's head from his body.

Before the traitor's body fell to the dais, Marc and Keri were kneeling beside Rayna. Garith and the squad of Guardsmen quickly surrounded the dais, blocking Jaris's men and several onlookers that tried to rush forward.

"Someone get the healer, quickly!" Marc cried when he saw that Rayna was still breathing.

Without waiting to see if anyone complied he turned his attention back to the Regent, cradling her head in his lap. He tried to use the aether to determine the extent of the wound while searching Keri's knowledge of magic for the proper healing spell to sustain Rayna until a real healer arrived.

"This is beyond your abilities, Princess," Keri said.

"There must be something I can do, we can do!"

Keri shook her head sadly. "The blade is in her heart; you can't heal even begin to heal the wound with it there. If we remove it…."

There was no need for her to explain further. Marc knew that even magic had its limits, and Keri's healing abilities, though quite impressive by non-magical standards, amounted to little more than bandaging a wound compared to a true healer. Without the proper knowledge of anatomy he could do more harm than good.

"I'm so sorry, Keri," Rayna whispered as her eyes fluttered open. "I was a fool."

"It's not your fault, Aunt Rayna," Marc said, playing his role and hating it. "Lornis used you."

"I should have fought harder," the Regent said. Her eyes shifted to Keri and the sadness in them as she gazed at the face of her former lover's body was wrenching.

"He used my … my anger at you, Marc. He twisted it into hatred … but inside I never stopped loving you. Please tell me you forgive me."

"I do forgive you, Rayna," Keri told her aunt. She knew in her heart the words were what Marc would say if he were in his rightful place. "I love you, and I always will."

Rayna smiled, then reached up and gently touched Keri's face. With a final sigh she closed her eyes and was still.

For a long time the throne room was quiet, the silence only broken by Marc's sobs as he held Rayna in his lap. He felt Aliana kneel beside him and place her arm around his shoulder as he stroked Rayna's lovely red hair. The pain was almost overwhelming - felt from two different perspectives, both equally filled with regret over what could have, what should have been. He knew Keri had to be feeling the same thing, but her face was impassive - only her eyes gave any hint to the agony within.

Finally voices began to stir amongst the assembled nobles and with a resigned sigh he gently lowered Rayna's head to the dais and stood up. He turned and looked out across the packed room and drew in a deep breath before speaking.

"You will all be escorted to the feast hall, and the kitchen staff will attend to your needs. Anyone attempting to leave the Palace without authorization from myself or Sir Marcan will be arrested and thrown in a cell until I have time to deal with them."

Baroness Gisella stepped forward, giving Marc a look that was measured but challenging.

"Your Highness, we all grieve for your loss, but the councils have much to discuss. The matter of the invaders must be dealt with and until such time as a new Regent can be appointed, by law the Baronial Council has command of our military forces."

"There will be no new Regent," Marc said, his voice cold. "I am assuming full control of the kingdom and relieving the Councils of their advisory capacity."

Outraged cries rose from the nobles, loudest from the barons but some from the guild masters as well. Marc silenced them with an angry gesture as an unnatural wind filled the throne room.

"The Royal Guard controls the Palace, and thanks to your mad prosecution of this war they are the only significant fighting force within days of Lockeshire. The city militia answers to me as well. If you wish to challenge me, Gisella, you'll find yourself in the dungeon."

"I am the Baroness of Wallkeep and I will not be addressed…."

"Wallkeep is gone!" Marc shouted. "You are Baroness of a smoldering pile of rubble, and you won't even be that for long if I learn you have had any part in the attempt to subvert the throne. For now you would be wise to get out of my sight!"

Marc turned to Keri, who nodded and then gestured for Garith to clear the room. The serjeant had two of the Guardsmen take the Trimarian banner from the back wall and cover the body of the Regent while the rest of the squad ushered the people out of the room. Master Talisin remained behind at Marc's request, and once they were alone in the throne room the sage was given an abbreviated report of all that had transpired since they last were together.

"I know I may have overstepped my bounds here but I really don't care," Marc concluded.

"In light of the plot against the Crown and the invasion, you're well within your rights as the heir," the sage assured him. "For all intents and purpose, you are now the Queen. It would be best to hold a coronation as quickly as is practical, however."

"Not like this," Marc said, "not in a sealed room with only the nobility present. Please have Master Otellan and the scribes begin working on a new announcement. I will take the throne one month from today - if there's still a kingdom to rule."

"There will be, Keri," the sage said. Marc stiffened at the name but Talisin smiled, only his eyes revealing a hint of sadness.

"It's your name now."

Keri gripped his shoulder and said, "Master Talisin is right, Princess."

Marc sighed and nodded. He felt exhaustion such as he had never known, but there was still much to do before he could rest. His kingdom needed him, and to serve it, as he always had, meant letting go of his old life for good.

CHAPTER 60

The fifth of Noember dawned clear and cold, but even the chill air and the light snowfall throughout the Central Valley overnight was not enough to prevent the people from turning out for the coronation. The Palace Parade Ground was filled to capacity, and there were more people overflowing beyond the wall. To ensure all were able to see the proceedings the coronation would take place atop the barbican built around the east gate.

Marc was pacing nervously in his sitting room, forcing Lessanna to constantly adjust the long train of the shimmering silver gown he wore. She finally gave up chasing it around and simply lifted the hem and followed him as he paced.

"You're going to make yourself sick if you don't calm down," Mistara told him with a smile.

"I'm trying to calm down!" Marc snapped. His expression immediately softened and he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mother, I'm just worried about the Test. I should have stripped that harpy, Gisella, of her title."

"There's no evidence to tie her to the plot against you," Talisin said. "The only person who could have done that was Stanwyth."

Marc nodded and sighed. The overweight Earl-Marshal had been found dead in his chamber the morning after they had returned to the Palace. After a thorough examination, his death had been pronounced natural, but it was far too convenient for comfort. They all knew that Gisella had been involved - her demand that the 'Princess' submit to the Test was proof that she suspected that Marc was not the true heir.

"You will pass the Test, dear," Mistara said. "You have the blood of House Lockeleigh and a spiritual connection through King Alanon as Tishia. The Scepter will recognize you."

Marc wished he was as certain as Mistara. If he couldn't pass the Test, if the gem in the head of the Scepter of State didn't shine at his command, Darsia would end up as Queen, and Marc and his friends could well spend the rest of their lives locked away. At least he'd had the satisfaction of seeing the doubt in Gisella's eyes when he told her he would submit to the Test during the coronation, not privately before hand as she had suggested.

At least there was good news from the western reaches. The Glennarans had landed reinforcements, but they had so far been unable to advance beyond the area around the ruins of Wallkeep. As hoped, the arrival of the troops from the frontier had compelled them to split their forces, preventing an advance deeper into the kingdom. Baron Iefan had returned to Highkeep to oversee the defense of that city and after a call for volunteers his forces had been bolstered tremendously.

Their Merdian allies were doing their part as well, applying pressure to the forces on their border and pushing them into Camron. They now had a secure line of communications with the Merdians thanks to a series of orb-equipped ships in the Gulf of Camron. The pressure they were applying prevented the orcs from concentrating on the remaining Trimarian forces along the frontier.

There was a knock on the door and a moment later Enara entered, dressed in a gown no less resplendent than Marc's. He smiled at her, glad that she had recovered so well from her injuries. He was looking forward to her upcoming bonding to Elyssa, just a week away.

"Your visitors are here, Highness," Enara said.

"Please show them in, Lady Enara."

Enara left and returned a moment later with two women of astonishing stature. Marc walked immediately to the tallest of the two, a sun-bleached blonde with deeply tanned skin, and embraced her warmly.

"Your dragon hide saved my life, Brynmara," he told the merchant. "If it hadn't prevented the dart that struck me from fully penetrating and delivering its poison, I would have been completely incapacitated."

"The Weave surely guided you to my stall that day, Highness," Brynmara said. "May I present Hertess Gwynlynn, emissary of Queen Hywetta."

"I am honored to meet you, Your Grace," Marc said.

"The honor is mine," Gwynlynn said, bowing low. She was slightly shorter than Brynmara but no less muscular, and her eyes had a wizened gleam.

"I know you have much before you this day, Highness, but I was sent to convey an urgent message from our Queen. Long have our two kingdoms been friends, and Artemisia stands ready to aid Trimaria in her time of need. Queen Hywetta is prepared to dispatch a force of four divisions - they are yours to command if you wish it."

"How soon could they reach Camron?"

"Three days after they set sail," Gwynlynn said, smiling as she saw the look of surprise on Marc's face. "Our ships are quite fast. You have the oath of Queen Hywetta, and myself, that they will stay not one minute longer than they are needed."

"I need no such oath from friends," Marc said. "My father once told me that an Artemisian sword was worth ten of any other kingdom."

"If only that were true," Gwynlynn said with a chuckle.

"Nevertheless your aid is welcome and appreciated," Marc said. "Sir Marcan Demoss will be assuming the position of Earl-Marshal after my coronation, and will confer with your commander as to the best way to utilize your troops. Trimaria will not forget this, Your Grace."

They exchanged a few pleasantries and then Aliana arrived and informed Marc it was time. They left the sitting room, the full complement of handmaidens falling in behind him as they started through the Palace. Aliana squeezed his hand in support, and Marc smiled, wondering if she had any idea that he and Keri had something planned for her as well. His first official act as Queen would be to grant her the title of Baroness of the Royal Court, and name her seneschal of the House of Lockeleigh, a post which had been vacant since the death of Toranon. This would be the last time she acted as a servant to anyone.

There would be some discontent amongst the nobles over the award, but Marc was finding he had developed Keri's delight at causing a stir. The chivalry had protested loudly when he had named Keri acting Earl-Marshal, and that too would be formalized after the coronation. There was no one else he would trust with the responsibility, and what she lacked in experience she more than made up with her inherent grasp of strategy.

As he shifted his gaze to her walking before him, resplendent in fine dress armor, he felt a moment of sadness that she wouldn't be in command of his personal guard after today. Sir Killian, the senior surviving knight of the Royal Guard would be filling that post, and Marc had complete confidence in him. He had wanted to elevate Garith to the Chivalry, but the grizzled serjeant wouldn't hear of it.

There had been much sadness over the last month. He missed Stilnar, and presiding over his memorial service, along with the other fallen Guardsmen, had been terribly emotional. Stil had been posthumously elevated to knighthood in recognition of his sacrifice, and the tale of how he had shielded his Princess with his own body had already spread throughout the kingdom. Rayna's service had followed the next day, and was no less emotional. Marc knew he would always carry a terrible guilt for breaking off their engagement and leaving her vulnerable to Lornis.

They reached the doors leading to the Parade Ground and paused, waiting for the trumpets to announce their arrival. After the fanfare ended the guards opened the doors and Keri started forward.

~ Only that's not Keri … that's soon-to-be Earl-Marshal Marcan Demoss. I'm Keri now. ~

Giving Aliana's hand a final squeeze, the Princess stepped out into the crisp morning air. She was greeted by the thunderous accolades of her people, and the cheering did not diminish as they made the long walk across the Parade Ground to the East Gate. They entered the barbican and climbed the steps to the roof, and as her attendants took their places, the Princess stepped onto the dais and stood before the orb-talker that would carry her words across the assembled masses.

The calliopes that were usually mounted atop the barbican had been moved to make room for the Baronial and Guild Councils. Master Talisin took the Scepter of State and stood before the Princess, smiling broadly as he spoke.

"Do you swear before these witnesses that you are the one true heir to the House of Lockeleigh and the Throne of Trimaria?"

"I so swear," the Princess replied.

"Then take this Scepter and call forth the Light, that all may know your claim is true."

Princess Kerialla grasped the scepter and lifted it high above her head as she said, "I claim this symbol as the daughter of Toranon, King of Trimaria."

A hush fell over the crowd, until the crystal in the head of the scepter exploded with a brilliant white light. It shone so brightly that even those on the ground below had to shield their eyes. Keri held it aloft and turned in a circle, brandishing the scepter for all to see. As the light began to fade the crowd roared in approval.

When the cheering subsided Master Talisin moved aside and Mistara stepped on to the platform, Aliana at her side as she held the cushion on which rested the crown. The Queen Mother stood before her daughter, her face impassive but her eyes twinkling with delight.

"Do you solemnly promise and swear to govern this Kingdom of Trimaria, and the dominions belonging thereto, according to the statutes laid out in the Book of Laws?"

"I solemnly promise so to do."

"Will you by your power cause justice and mercy to be executed in all your judgments?"

"I solemnly promise this I will do."

"Will you, to the utmost of your power, ensure the security and prosperity of the people of Trimaria, without regard to rank or title, and will you preserve unto your people all such rights and privileges as by law shall apply to them?"

"All this I promise to do."

"Then I charge you to look out upon your people and remember well these words - the duty of the Sovereign is first and foremost that of a servant. Never forget that the heart of Trimaria is not in land or in riches but in her people, for without them, there is no kingdom to rule. If you are prepared to bear this most heavy of burdens, then kneel and swear unto them your Oath of Fealty, before you accept theirs."

Kerialla knelt before her mother and her people, bowing her head as Sir Marcan stepped before her. In his hands he held the Sword of State, and as he lowered the tip to rest upon the dais, the Princess reached out and grasped the blade with both hands.

"I, Kerialla Astriala Lockeleigh, daughter of Toranon and Mistara, do swear that from this hour forth I will be faithful and true to the people of Trimaria, governing with justice and equality, mindful always of the faith with which they grace me, and holding them in my heart with love all the days of my life."

Sir Marcan stepped aside as the Princess released the sword, and the Queen Mother took the crown from the cushion in Aliana's hands. She held it for a moment over her daughter's head, then lowered it slowly, her voice rolling across the crowd.

"I name you Her Royal Majesty, Kerialla, Queen of Trimaria."

The response as Queen Kerialla rose to greet her people was beyond thunderous. For six years there had been no one upon the Triskele Throne, and they took her coronation as a sign of good things to come. The new queen was not so confident -- for the first time in centuries, foreign forces occupied Trimarian soil, and despite the blow they had taken when the spires were destroyed they showed no signs of withdrawing.

After the applause at last subsided, the Queen called forward the Baronial and Guild councils to swear their fealty. As the nobles knelt before her and gave their oath, she was struck by the irony -- to those for whom such words truly mattered, no oath was necessary, and for the rest, no promise would ensure their loyalty. As the oath was finished she looked down at them for a moment before settling her gaze on Baroness Gisella.

"As you have pledged, so do I promise to reward that which is given in kind: fealty with love, service with honor and oath-breaking with justice."

Various other nobles and representatives came forward over the next hour to pledge their fealty. Marshal Teagan gave the oath for the Chivalry, and then the Queen accepted personal oaths from her retainers, saving those she loved most for last. First came Honorable Lady Enara, then Aliana knelt before her, and finally Knight-Captain Marcan. As he looked up into her eyes, his oath was the shortest, and the one she held most dear.

"I live to serve."

The future was far from certain; enemy forces occupied Trimarian soil and Lornis had managed to escape, but the Queen felt a sense of confidence she wouldn't have thought possible. She had the support of loving friends and family, and together they would face the uncertainty. The doubt and fear over the life that lay before her was still there, but she knew in her heart that she would adapt, just as Marc would to his new life. Moreover, the House of Lockeleigh, which she had spent her life serving and protecting, would prosper, and Trimaria would prevail.

The End

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Satisfying Read

Thanks for that. Given its length, it took me quite a long time to finish reading it but it was worth it. :)

I love the setting of this world. You really brought it to life and made it feel realistic. The characters were very nice too. Keri's last line (as Marc) brought a tear to my eye. *sniff*

In spite of some niggling typos, I thought this story was very professional. Have you been published yet? If not, you soon will be if you keep it up.

Hugs

- Terry

Had to say!

Hello Scott!
I commented once over at Topshelf but this tale is so good it deserves another mention. It is beyond me why this hasn't gotten more attention but that is the way it is some times. The background is very well thought out and the characters are very vivid. Your villains are very 3 dimensional and ones you're just waiting for justice to catch up with them. As a long time reader of adventure Sci-fi/Fantasy this ranks as good as or better than most works in print. Well done Scott! Well done!
grover

Plan? Ain't got no Plan!
"Beyond Thunder Dome"

Scott you amaze

with your stories. You are one of the best writers about even though you do not publish a lot. That which you do is superb. I have always liked the longer stories. Thank you.
Hugs

Leia Marie

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds

Leia Marie

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.