The warrior Sulien ap Gwien and her lord King Urdo have finally united the land of Tir Tanagiri into a kingdom ruled by justice under a single code of law. But where many see a hopeful future for the land, others believe they sense the seeds of a new tyranny. Soon Tir Tanagiri faces the blight of civil war, and Sulien ap Gwien must take up arms against former comrades and loved ones, fighting harder and harder to hold on to Urdo’s shining dream.
Continuing the epic begun in The King’s Peace, this new novel brings the story of Sulien ap Gwien to a rousing and moving conclusion.
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Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer on publication of her debut novel The King's Peace. Her novel Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award. A native of Wales, she lives in Montreal.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The swallows fly low tonight,
swooping and soaring,
soon the rain come.
I trudge uphill to the dun,
children run past me.
My breath comes slowly.
They all held me mighty, then,
blood on the spearblade,
death in bright sunlight.
Better the spear had caught me,
in my youth, my pride.
Before my defeat.
It brings me grief, not comfort,
he died long ago
upright, like a man.
Very few care for me now.
Rain makes my bones ache.
My deeds forgotten.
The swallows recall to mind
time gone, chances missed,
and my only son.
--"The Lament of Atha ap Gren"
The first I knew about the civil war was when my sister Aurien poisoned me.
* * *
I was in her hall in Magor. I spent most of my time at Derwen, but half the ala were stationed a day's ride away at Magor and I rode down to see them and exchange troops quite regularly. I enjoyed going, it made a break in my routine. I had nothing to do there but the work of a praefecto. Aurien needed no help running Magor. She was always cool and polite toward me but never more. Her boys, however, were always pleased to see me. She did have the decency to wait until they had gone to bed before poisoning me, which probably saved my life. It meant she had to put it into the cider, not the food, where anyone would have just thought she had been heavy-handed with the spices. It was the very end of spring, never a good time for meat, and she four extra mouths to feet.
I had brought Conal Fishface and Emlin with me and Emer was there, too, on her way back from a visit to Caer Tanaga. As soon as I saw her there I thought that Conal had known she would be and felt angry with him for using me like that. He did not eat with us, of course, but he joined us in the eating alcove afterward. I was saying good night to the boys. Galbian, the fifteen-year-old Duke of Magor, bowed like the adult he almost was. Thirteen-year-old Gwien, the heir to Derwen, was still young enough to go off reluctantly, begging for rides and stories tomorrow. Aurien over-protected them. If I said anything to her about it she would reply by saying she would bear in mind all my experience of childrearing But the consequence of her fussing was that they ran off to the barracks when they Galbian would be in the ala next year; both the discipline and the training would do him good. Aurien set her lips and said nothing when they talked about winning glory at war.
Conal sat down beside me, and Aurien poured out the cider. She had brought out a board set with beakers and a heavy stone jug. She poured for Emer first, then for me, then Emlin, Conal, and for herself last. None of her people were sitting with us that night, not even Father Cinwil who was usually her constant companion. She raised her beaker to me, and drank. I drank in return. I noticed the bitterness almost at once, but I had still in politeness drained almost half the cup before I set it down. I could feel my tongue thickening in my mouth.
"What news from Caer Tanaga?" Aurien asked Emer.
"Very little," Emer said. "Some of the allied kings are late sending their taxes this year, it seems."
"And how are Undo and your sister?" Aurien asked.
I learned forward to pick up my beaker to drink some more and see if it would clear the strangeness in my mouth and throat. As I did so I realized that my body wasn't responding the way it should. "I don't feel well--" I began, but the words came out slurred.
"I think the cider has been too much for Sulien," Aurien said, and laughed. "She went off drinking with the armigers before dinner, and that cup has set her over the edge."
I tried to protest that I had taken no strong drink since the night before, but instead I slid down toward the table. My eyes were half open. I could see, but I had lost control of my body. Conal leaned toward me and deftly sniffed at my cup while his body shielded him from Aurien. He lifted me so I was sitting up again. "It wasn't with the armigers she was drinking but with me," he said. "We were having a contest and it seems I have won." again I tried to protest that there wasn't a word of truth in it, but my mouth wouldn't obey me. My mind was working slowly, because it was only now I knew I'd been poisoned. Being poisoned at meat at my own sister's table was something that I had never feared.
"These soldiers, I don't know how they put up with each other," Aurien said to Emer. Emer laughed politely. I couldn't see her. She must have known Conal was lying. "I'll call for some water," Aurien went on.
"I think, as it is my fault she's in this condition, I'd better take the praefecto to bed," Conal said, heaving me to my feet. "She can walk, the legs are always the last to go. Perhaps you'll give me a hand, ap Trivan?"
"Just put her straight to bed, she'll be all right," Aurien said. "She often does this, and it always passes off by morning."
I couldn't speak to deny this. I felt Emlin heave up my other shoulder, but I couldn't feel my legs at all. "My apologies, Lady," he said to Aurien.
"Really, it isn't you who needs to apologize," she said. "No doubt I'll hear enough excuses from my sister in the morning. I'll send some water to her room, but I don't expect she'll recover consciousness tonight now; she never does."
"It must be very hard on her to drink so much," Emer was saying as Conal and Emlin half carried and half dragged me out of the hall. As soon as we were outside I felt as if I was being pulled in half.
"It's this way," Emlin said
"The midden first," Conal said. "She has to be sick."
"If she's had that much to drink--" Emilin began, when Conal interrupted him in a savage whisper.
"She hasn't had anything beyond that half cup. I was lying to give myself a reason to take charge of her in time. She's been poisoned and we need to get it out of her."
"Poisoned?" Emlin echoed. "Poisoned? Why?" They started to drag me again, this time out toward the midden. It was twilight outside. A chill wind was blowing. I tried to breathe deeply but couldn't even manage that. I wasn't sure if I was breathing at all, I couldn't feel it.
"Why, I can't think; it's ridiculous to poison someone at your own table but I know who, and what. It was henbane. I could smell it. From the look of her it was a strong dose--it doesn't usually act quite that fast. Water given after that would finish her off; it would take it right through her system, and she was twice offered it." My head lolled back against my shoulder. I wondered how Conal had come to know so much about poison.
"But why would Galba's lady poison her won sister?" Emiln asked.
"Because she wants her dead for some good reason," Conal suggested.
"Why should I trust you?" Emlin asked.
"What is the worst that can happen if you do?" Conal asked. He sounded furious. "Your praefecto, with a sore head, will be angry you did too much. Have you ever seen her in this condition, by the way? I thought not. If you don't, well, she'll be dead. She'll also be disgraced. Dead of drinking is no fit end for a hero's story." We had reached the midden. I could barely smell it. "Now, stick your finger down her throat."
"Why me?" Emlin asked, but he took hold of my jaw and did as Conal told him. As his finger went down I retched and the cider came back out, and my dinner with it, splashing Emlin's boots.
"That's why," Conal said, holding me as far forward as he could. As I retched I began to feel a little better.
"Do it again," I said, but it came out as gargle.
"What's that?" Emlin asked eagerly. I tried again, but nothing happened.
"See if there's any more that can come out," Conal suggested. Emlin did, and I managed to empty myself. Then Conal wiped my face with his sleeve and pinched my cheek, frowning. I could see his hand but I could barely feel the touch. "We'd better get her out of here," he said.
"Why?" Emlin asked. "How would that help?"
"Partly because the lady of Magor may well try again," Conal said. "And partly because Sulien may yet die of this if it spreads so she stops breathing. Worse, she could live but like this, paralyzed or part paralyzed." I jerked and twitched in his hands, trying desperately to move. He was right, I had rather be dead. "We need to get her home to Derwen. The land will help her there."
"How can we do that?" Emlin asked. "She's in no state to ride."
"Tie her on the horse like a sack of meal," Conal suggested. "I know. I'll take her room, in case anyone comes checking. You saddle up horses for you and for her, and bring them around under the window. I'll lower her down to you when I hear you coming, then you can ride for Derwen."
"I--" Emlin hesitated. He looked at me. "Praefecto?"
I tried to speak, to tell him to do what Conal said, but I couldn't say anything but inarticulate grunts. With all the strength I had I concentrated on my right hand, and managed to make the ala hand signal to tell Emlin he should take Conal's orders. It was the best I could do.
"Understood," he said. He looked worried. As he went out of sight he was chewing on his beard.
Conal lifted me over his shoulder and went back through the house toward my room. We passed some servants who looked baffled but said nothing. When we got inside Conal propped me against the wall in a slumped position. "Breathe as deep as you can," he said. "Water wouldn't be a good idea yet." I sat and breathed. He took my armor off the armor stand by the bed. "I'm going to see if I can get this on you," he said. "It's more sensible for riding, and safer in case of arrows. I wish I knew what was happening; she can't have hoped to get away with that. There must be something going on."
I grunted agreement. Conal hauled me up and unwound my drape, dropping it on the floor. He put one of my arms into the armor and stared confused at the breast strapping. I would have liked to laugh; but I would have liked to be able to move my arms even more. Just then there came a tap at the door. In one swift movement Conal picked me up, dropped me on the bed, and dropped my cloak on top of me. I couldn't turn my head, so I could see nothing but my armor stand and beyond it the arched Vincan window and, outside, the darkening sky and one branch of a sycamore, the trefoil leaves very dark against the twilight blue.
"Yes?" Conal said, somewhere I couldn't see him. "My lady?" I wished I felt more confident in his ability to stop Aurien from politely poisoning me again. I couldn't think what I had done to her recently to make her hate me so much. It was twelve years since I had brought Galba home after Foreth.
"It's me," Emer's voice said. I heard the door open and someone come in. "What game are you two playing?" she asked, and then, "Conal!"
Conal laughed, and shut the door, still laughing. "Do you doubt me so much?" he gasped, between gales of merriment. "No, I am not sneaking off to betray you with Sulien ap Gwien, dreadful as it seems to see me alone here in her room and her drape thrown on the floor."
"What then?" Emer sounded impatient. "Sulien?"
"She can't talk," Conal said. I flopped my head a little and made a noise that was supposed to be agreement. I was drooling; it disgusted me to feel it. "She's been poisoned. Ap Trivan and I are going to get her out of here. You can help me get her into her armor. You probably have a better idea of how the confounded fastenings work."
At that Emer gurgled with laughter, and came around into my field of vision. She was carrying a jug of water. She set it down on the floor and pulled down the cloak, and she and Conal began to dress me. I felt terrible, and worse, I felt sleepy. I knew if I slept, the drug would take me. "Where are you going to take her?" Emer asked.
"Ap Trivan's going to take her home to Derwen," Conal said.
"Ah, yes. The land will help," Emer said, fastening the straps. I felt like a large, ungainly baby as she forced my legs in.
"You don't seem surprised that the lady of Magor would do such a thing," Conal said.
Emer glanced at me, sighed, then looked up at him. "I have quarreled with my sister. She knows about you, and she has cast me off. A red-cloak came to Aurien this morning with letters."
Conal drew in his breath sharply. "That's nonsense," he said, very gently. He took one of Emer's hands and held it for a moment. "Elenn may well wish you dead, and certainly me, but why Sulien? She was her champion. She is Urdo's friend, and his praefecto and the mother of his son. Death is disgrace would not serve the High King."
"Elenn is not Urdo," Emer said, still looking up at him. "Elenn is an Isarnagan and a woman. Poison is a woman's weapon."
"Aurien is a woman," Conal said. "If Elenn wanted anyone dead it would include me, and probably you as well if she knows. It would be too good a chance for her to miss when we were all together, but none of the other cups were touched. In any case Aurien is no particular friend to Elenn that I have ever heard. Who are her friends?"
"Thansethan," Emer said, unhesitatingly. "That could mean Elenn. Kerys ap Uthbad and her brother Cinvar, the lord of Tathal. Veniva and the people of Derwen, but why would any of them want Sulien dead? Beyond that I do not know."
"Thansethan could mean more than Elenn," Conal said. I was dressed; he walked over to the window and looked out. "But it is not a thing the Pale often do, poisoning their families. I know the White God gives a shield against a great many dangers, but surely not against kin-murder?"
Emer turned to look at him. A strand of her hair was straggling loose down her back. "I think it gives a shield against any perils encountered in their cause," she said. "And they have never been friends to Sulien."
I tried to speak, but it was pointless. I found it hard to imagine Father Gerthmol poisoning me. It would be an act of war against Derwen, and that would break Urdo's Peace. Whoever killed me he would avenge me, and so would Darien. Darien was a signifer now. I was more inclined to believe that Aurien had done it to stop Gwien coming to Derwen to spend the summer with me. It was disproportionate, but it was a comprehensible reason.
They both turned to me. "What is it?" Emer asked. She looked at Conal. He raised his eyebrows.
"Do you know why Aurien did it? Do you think Thansethan would poison you?" he asked. I rolled my eyes; it was about all I could manage. Conal snorted. "I don't think so either."
"What are we going to do in the morning when she's gone?" Emer asked, practically.
"Assume she's eloped with ap Trivan and sympathize with Aurien for the scandal of having a sister who drinks so much and shares blankets with her subordinates," Conal said. I rolled my eyes again.
"Should we leave tonight as well?" Emer asked. "Are we in danger here? If she wanted to poison us she's missed her best chance."
"Not if she wanted to get away with it. That story about drinking too much could easily have worked if she'd died in the night. An ignominious end for Urdo's praefecto, but not incredible. Less convincing if it was all three of us, don't you think?"
"It wouldn't have worked on Veniva," Emer said. "Veniva knows how much Sulien drinks, who better? It wouldn't have worked on Urdo either, though Aurien might have thought it would. I suppose if she suspected m...
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