There was no answer, so the tall young man reached out a slender hand and placed it gently on the bark of the silver birch before him.
"Mother?" he said again.
The tree stirred under his hand, as if, newly awakened, it sighed and stretched. He stepped back and waited. Slowly, very slowly, his mother drew herself out of her tree.
She was tall, with ivory skin, silver hair, and eyes the green of new spring leaves. Her name was Milthra and she was the eldest of the Sisters of the Sacred Grove. She looked barely older than her son.
She opened her arms and he came into them, then she held him at arm's length and smiled.
"You have grown, Rael. You look more like your father every time I see you. "
He looked so much like his father that her heart ached with the memories. Not for many years had Raen, King of Ardhan, come to the Sacred Grove, and Milthra had to be content with seeing the man she loved in the face of their son. Raen would not come to her for reasons of his own. She could not go to him for a hamadryad dies away from her tree.
She hid a sigh from her too perceptive child and brushed a lock of blue-black hair off his face. "Are you well? Are you happy?"
"I'm both well and happy, Mother. " Rael returned her smile, his eyes lit from within by green fires. Immortal eyes in the face of mortal man.
Rael could no longer be content spending whole summers with only his mother, her sisters, and the forest for company-the king's court held more attractions for a young man of seventeen-but when he had time to spare, he spent it at the Grove. It was peaceful there and, unlike his father, his mother had time to listen. No courtiers or supplicants made demands on her, for no one found the circle of birches without her help.
Until Rael's birth the Grove had been legend only. But when the king of Ardhan showed his son to the people in the Great Square outside the palace gates, he named Milthra as the child's mother and placed the Grove firmly in the real world. It was fortunate the king was popular and well-liked, for many disbelieved and not a few muttered of insanity. It was also fortunate that the king was no fool and would not allow the acceptance of his son to rest on his own popularity. He called the six dukes and their households together and had them meet the infant's eyes.
Milthra had walked with the Mother-creator as She rested after birthing the world. A fraction of that glory she passed on to her child. It was enough.
"My aunts still won't wake to greet me?" Rael asked, sprawled on the velvet grass at the foot of his mother's tree. He dug into his pack for the food he'd cadged from a sympathetic kitchen maid.
Milthra shook her head and accepted a piece of honey cake. She had no need to eat-she drew nourishment from her tree-but did it to please her son as once she had done it to please his father. "It has been a long time since the Mother walked in the forest and we wakened. My sisters are tired and want only to sleep. "
Rael looked around at the trees he knew as beautiful women, women who had coddled him, fussed over him, and been as much a part of his childhood as his mother and father. He hadn't seen them since… his forehead creased as he tried to remember. Had it really been three years? He stretched out a long arm and tugged on a low-hanging branch from a neighboring tree. Leaves rustled but no hamadryad appeared.
"You're the oldest, can't you wake them? "
"Perhaps. But I will not try. "
"Why not? Aren't you lonely?" As much as Rael loved the Grove, he'd hate to be the only creature awake in its circle.
"No, for when you are not here I also sleep. My sisters have no ties to the world of men to wake them, that is the only difference between us. " If she ever regretted the ties that bound her, or acknowledged that they had brought her more sorrow than joy, it could not be heard in the music of her voice.
Rael scooped up his mother's hands and kissed them. "The only difference?" he teased. "I refuse to listen to such foolishness. What of your beauty? Your grace? Your wisdom? I could continue for hours… "
Milthra laughed and Rael laughed with her. He'd always felt his mother laughed too seldom. In later years, Rael would recall that afternoon and her laughter when his spirit needed soothing and the shadows needed lifting from his life.
He lay with his head in her lap and told her of the things he'd done since he'd been with her last-well most of the things; she was, after all, his mother-and he even told her of his feelings for the Duke of Belkar's blue-eyed daughter, something he had confided to no one else… particularly not the Duke of Belkar's blue-eyed daughter.
But he did not speak of why he had come to the Grove.
All too soon the thick, golden sunlight bathing the Grove began to pale. The shadows grew longer and the breezes grew chill. Rael rose lithely to his feet and extended a hand to the hamadryad. When she stood beside him, he kept her hand clasped tightly in his and stared at the ground, unsure of how to begin.
"I… I won't be back for some time. "
"There is to be war. "
He looked up and saw she gazed sadly at him.
"How did you know?"
"The breezes tell me. Even in sleep I hear them; they say men gather on the western border clutching steel in angry hands. "
Rael spread his own hands helplessly. "The King of Melac has a new and powerful counselor and the man plays the king's weaknesses and desires like, like a shepherd plays his pipes. He's driving the king to create an empire.
Father says they begin with us because Melac hates my father for something that happened when they were young.
"And my son will go to see they conquer no empire. "
"I have to do what I can. " He tried to keep the anticipation out of his voice and wasn't entirely successful. This war would be his chance to prove himself.
His skill with weapons was his father's heritage, but he moved with a strength and grace no man born of mere mortal could match. In his mind's eye he saw himself a hero, returning from battle not only accepted but adulated by the people he was destined to rule. In his heart, he only hoped he would not disgrace his training.
"And your father?"
His voice was gentle. "The king must ride at the head of his armies. "
"Yes. " War had brought the young king to her so many years before. He had staggered, lost and wounded, into the Grove, stinking of steel and violence, Lord Death close by his side. Against the advice of her sisters, for the Elder Races did not involve themselves with mortals, she had saved him.
Saved him and loved him, and Rael had come of it. Full dusk was upon them now.
"I must go, Mother. "
"Yes. " War took her son from her, replaced her loving child with this stern young man, so ready to do violence. If he survived he would be further changed, and who knew if he would return to the Grove where nothing changed at all. She held him. Held him tightly. And then she let him go because it was all she could do.
He turned; half in, half out of the Grove.
"Tell your father, I am always here. "
"He knows, Mother. " He waited but she said nothing more. "Mother?"
She shook her head, the brilliant immortal color of her eyes dimmed by a very mortal sorrow. She was the Eldest. She could not beg for the return of her love.
Accustomed to thinking of the hamadryad as his mother, and mothers as always strong, Rael had never noticed before how young Milthra looked, or how frail.
He suddenly wanted to protect her, to take her in his arms and tell her everything would be all right, but as he watched she faded and dissolved back into her tree. Only the breezes remained and he had never learned to hear what they said.
Although dark had fallen over Melac, the building of the counselor's tower continued. In the flickering light of torches, long lines of naked and sweating men struggled with block and tackle to lift massive slabs of marble into position. As each slab reached its zenith, a slave was removed from the coffle staked at the work site and placed beneath it. Some screamed, some sobbed, some lay limp and resigned, pushed beyond terror. The slab dropped, then the whole process was repeated for the next. The tower was to be the tallest in the city.
If the men who built it felt anything at all, it was, for the most part, relief that they were not beneath the stones themselves.
This night, as most nights, the king's counselor watched the construction from the wooden dais that gave him an unobstructed view of the work. This night, the king stood beside him, leaning into each death, his tongue protruding slightly, his breathing ragged and quick.
A new slave was unchained; a young man, well formed, who, in spite of lash marks striping his back from neck to knees, fought so viciously that four men were needed to escort him to the stone. He screamed, not in terror but in defiance.
The king started at the sound and actually saw the slave. His eyes widened and he clutched at the blue velvet of his counselor's sleeve.
"That looks to be Lord Elan's son. "
"It is. "
"But you can't… "
"He spoke against me, Majesty, and so spoke against you. To speak against the lawful king is treason. The penalty for treason is death. " The golden-haired man smiled and removed the king's hand from his arm. "At least this way his death serves a purpose. Life makes the strongest mortar. "
On the stone, Lord Elan's son strained against invisible bonds, muscles standing out in sharp relief. He threw back his head and howled as the slab above him fell.
On the dais, the king swayed and he moaned deep in his throat.
Rael stretched the two-hour ride home from the Grove to nearly four, dismounting to sit for a time in the moonlight. To his left, waited the shadow that was the forest. To his right, a ribbon of brown led to the distant lights of the town that spread like a skirt outside the palace walls. The Lady's Wood. King's Road, King's Town.
His horse nickered and lipped at his hair, more interested in returning to the comfort of stable and stall than in philosophy.
Grasping the gelding's mane, Rael pulled himself to his feet, mounted, and kicked the horse into a trot. He had always known that someday he would be king. He enjoyed the power and privilege, and even the responsibilities, of being prince and heir. But sometimes, in the moonlight, he wished he had a choice.
Hoofs thudded onto packed earth, and Rael turned up the King's Road.
The watch had just called midnight when Rael reached town. Because the King's City was so close to the center of Ardhan, miles from any invading army and surrounded on all sides by loyal subjects of the king, it had no wall. The scattered farms and cottages of the countryside merely moved closer together along the road until they gave way to the houses, shops and inns of the city.
At the Market Square-well lit even at this hour, for when business in booths and stalls shut down, business in taverns and wineshops began- Rael turned, avoiding the light, preferring to remain unseen in the residential neighborhoods where the inhabitants had long since sought their beds. He told himself he avoided the trouble that would arise if anyone recognized the young man tucked deep in the worn cloak as the prince and heir, riding alone, unescorted. He told himself he didn't need his pocket picked, an unprovoked fight, or an escort back to his father.
He had just passed silently through the merchants' quarters and crossed the invisible but nonetheless real line that separated their homes from the only slightly larger ones of the nobles, when the dark and quiet were snatched from around him.
"Bertram, aren't we home yet?"
"Very nearly, sir. "
"I'm sure it wasn't this far before. "
The whiny, self-indulgent voice belonged to a minor official of the court, one Diven of House Tannic. Rael had endured too many hours of petitions to mistake it, even distorted as it was by drink.
The torch-bearer rounded the corner first, followed by an overdressed man leaning heavily on the arm of his body servant. A City Guard, hired as evening's escort, brought up the rear.
Rael kept his horse walking. With luck they would be too interested in gaining their beds to pay any attention to him.
Luck was busy elsewhere.
"Awk, Bertram! Brigands!"
Bertram looked to the heavens, exasperation visible even to Rael, and patted his master comfortingly on the shoulder. "It's only a single rider, sir. "
"Oh. So it is. " Any other would have been content to leave it at that. Diven stepped forward, past the torch-bearer and directly into Rael's path. Drink made him determined to erase the embarrassment of his fright. "You there, state your business in this neighborhood. Speak up, or I'll call the patrol. "
Rael reined in. The torch-bearer grinned, obviously looking forward to telling his cronies of how the drunken noble had accosted one of his equally noble neighbors and threatened him with the patrol. Bertram, now up behind his master, was thinking much the same thing, but not with amusement. The guard looked bored.
"Well, boy, do you tell me your business or do I call the patrol. I will, you know, don't think I won't. "
Rael wondered how a voice could whine and be shrill at the same time. He had no doubt the idiot would do exactly as he said, and wake the neighborhood doing it. And that would be the end of the dark and quiet, no mere interruption. He sighed, made his smile as friendly as he was able, and pulled back his hood.
For a moment the smile held them-they began to return it-then the torchlight flared in his eyes.
The guard saluted and all four men began to back away.
Respectfully, and nervously, they backed away.
From the torch-bearer and the guard, it was almost understandable for they met the prince and heir for the first time. Bertram also; for all he served in a noble house he was not accustomed to facing royalty so closely and so informally. But Diven of Tannic saw the prince almost daily.
And still he backed away.
Rael held the smile until his horse carried him out of the circle of torchlight. Once he would have said something, tried to find the camaraderie his father seemed to share with every man, woman, and child in the kingdom.
Once. But all the words had been said and still the people moved away. Not rejecting, not exactly, but not accepting either.
Let them move if they will, he told himself wearily, replacing his hood. I have enough who stand by me. Then he moved back into the dark and quiet.
At the smaller of the palace gates, he allowed the guard to get a good look at him, and passed unchallenged through the outer wall. Except for a sleepy groom waiting to take his horse, and the men on watch, it appeared the palace slept.
It didn't, of course, for within its walls the palace was almost a city in itself and the work needed to keep it running smoothly continued day and night.
He walked quickly across the outer courtyard, slipped in a side door, and began to make his way silently through the maze of stone to the tower where he had his chambers. Once, he froze in shadow and an arguing pair of courtiers passed him by.
At the cross-corridor leading to the king's rooms, Rael noticed the royal standard still posted, the six swords on a field of green hanging limp and still against the wall. His father had not retired for the night. Wide awake himself, Rael turned toward the royal bedchamber, hoping the king would not be too busy to speak with him.
The guards saluted as he approached and moved aside to give him access to the door.
"Is he alone?" asked the prince.
"Aye, sir, he is, " replied the senior of the two.
Rael nodded his thanks and pushed the door open.
The king sat at his desk studying a large map, one hand holding down a curling edge, the other buried in his beard.
Rael was thinner than his father, his eyes an unworldly green, but aside from that the resemblance was astounding. Both were handsome men, although neither believed it. They shared the same high forehead over black slashes of brow, the same angular cheeks and proud arch of nose, even the determined set to their jaws and slightly mocking smiles matched. Those who had known the king as a young man said to look at the prince was to look at a piece of the past.
The people of Ardhan might wonder at the identity of his mother, and they did, but none could doubt that Rael was the king's son.
Raen looked up as the door opened and his face brightened when he saw who it was.
"Come in, lad, " he called. "And shut the damn door before it blows out my lamp. "
Rael did as he was bid and approached the desk, collapsing with a boneless, adolescent grace into the sturdy chair across from his father. "The Western Border?"
The king nodded. "And you'd best get familiar with it yourself. We march as soon as the armies are assembled. "
Rael leaned forward to study the map. "You're surely not assembling all six provinces here?" He wondered where they'd put everyone. The six dukes and their households jammed the palace to the rafters during seventh year festivals. The six dukes and their armies… !
"No, only Cei and Aliston will come here to Belkar. We'll join with Hale on the march. " He traced their route with a callused finger. "Lorn and Riven meet us on the battlefield. " His mouth twisted. "And it's to be hoped those two hotheads will concentrate on fighting the enemy instead of each other. I'm thankful you've no rival for your lady's hand. " Rael felt his ears redden.
"You can keep no secrets in this rabbit warren, lad.
It's a good match; her father and I both approve. You're lucky I've no need to join you to some foreign princess to tie a treaty. "
"Join?" Rael repeated weakly. He'd barely gotten beyond worshiping from a distance and his father spoke of joinings?
The older man laughed. "You're right, " he mocked, but kindly, "it's bad luck to talk of joining on the eve of war. " He turned again to the map. "And on the eve of war we are; I want the armies on the road in two weeks. "
"In two weeks? Father, it can't be done. " The Elite, the Palace Guard and the Ducal Guards that made up the standing army, yes, and, he supposed, most City Guards could adapt fast enough, but when Rael thought of the chaos involved in turning farmers and craftsmen into soldiers his head ached.
"It's going to have to be done, " the king said shortly. "We have no choice.
Melac's moving very fast; he wants those iron mines in Riven badly and has had plans to invade us for years. Though he's a fool if he thinks he's in charge, not that madman he has for a counselor. " He looked down at the map and shook his head. "Still, madman or not, he's a brilliant leader. I've never heard of anyone getting an army into the field so quickly. " Teeth gleamed for an instant in the lamplight. "If I didn't know all the wizards were dead…. "
The wizards had destroyed themselves before there was an Ardhan or a king to rule it. Their dying convulsions had reshaped the face of the world.
"Father! You don't think… ?"
"Don't be ridiculous, boy. I was joking. " Raen leaned back in his chair and looked fondly at his son. His expression hardened. "You're not wearing your sword. "
Rael's hand jerked to his belt and he flushed.
"I saw Mother today, to tell her I wouldn't be back to the Grove for some time. You know how steel upsets her. "
"Well, your guards were armed, I hope?" Rael looked at the cold hearth, the hunting tapestry on the wall, the great canopied bed, everywhere but at his father.
"You took no guards. " The king's voice was sharper than Rael's missing sword.
"The guards won't go into the Grove. " "The guards will go where I tell them.
" And then he thought of Milthra's reaction to heavily armed men tearing up her peace and reconsidered. Gods, he missed her. "Well, they can wait with your horse at the edge of the forest, then. They needn't go into the Grove. "
An uncomfortable silence fell as both considered another who would not go into the Grove.
"You'll take them with you next time, " Raen said finally. "I don't want a dead son. "
Rael turned the brilliant green of his eyes on the king. "Who would want to kill me, Father?"
"Balls of Chaos, boy, how should I know?" Raen looked away from the Lady's eyes. "Melac's men. Madmen. You're prince and heir, my only son. When you ride from now on, you ride with guards. " King's command, not father's. "I don't care where you're going. I will not lose you. "
"Yes, sir. " Suddenly, Rael made a decision. He was tired, he decided, of bouncing from the pain of one parent to the pain of the other and tired too of pretending he didn't see that pain because they both so obviously tried to keep it from him. He took his courage in both hands and asked what he'd never dared ask before. "Father? Why don't you go to the Grove?"
Raen stared at the map without seeing it. He remembered ivory and silver and green, green eyes and strong smooth limbs wrapped around him. He remembered a love so deep he could drown in it.
"How did your mother look when you left her this afternoon?" he asked hoarsely.
Rael thought about his last sight of the hamadryad as she merged back into her tree.
"As always, beautiful; but worried and sad, "
"And her age?"
"Her age?" He remembered how he'd wanted to protect her. "She seemed very young. "
"Now look at me. "
"LOOK AT ME!" Raen stood so suddenly that his chair overturned. His hands clenched to fists and his voice rose to a roar. "Once my hair was as thick and black as yours. You'll notice that what I have left, and there isn't much, is gray. There was a day I could defeat any man in Ardhan with my bare hands, but no longer. I used to be able to follow the flight of a hawk in the sun. Now I'm lucky if I can see the damned bird at all! I grew this beard to hide the lines of age!" He paused, drew a shuddering breath and his voice fell until it was almost a whisper. "Your mother hasn't changed, but I am growing old. She must not sec me like this. "
Rael was on his feet as well, staring at his father in astonishment. "You're not old!"
The king's smile was not reflected in his eyes. "Fifty-two years weigh heavily on a man, and your mother is ageless. " He raised a hand to stop the next protest. "I appreciate your denials, lad, but I know what I see. "
Unfortunately, there was nothing to deny. His father was a mortal man and his mother stood outside of time.
"Mother loves you. It wouldn't matter to her. "
"It would matter to me. Let her love me as I was. "
Rael ached with the pain in his father's voice that was a twin to the pain in his mother's.
"No, Rael. " Raen put his hands on his son's shoulders but avoided the leaf-green glow of his eyes. "There is nothing you can do. Go to bed. We have a busy time ahead of us. "
"Yes, sir. "
Is he too old for me to hold? Raen wondered, looking for his child and seeing only a young man.
Am I too old to be held? Rael asked the dignity of his seventeen years.
It comforted them both greatly.
If I can only get him to the Grove, Rael thought as he left his father's room.
If I can only get him to the Grove, everything will be all right.