It started with a prickle down Hemlocke’s spine. Nothing much, but enough to cause the faintest spark of awareness in her sleeping mind. Something was not right.
Out of all her kind, she was the one who’d been created and empowered to act as a sentinel, exquisitely sensitive to the continent the humans called Haelos and to all its living creatures, aware even in the deepest of restorative slumbers when a threat stirred.
Slowly, slowly, blood began to seep through her veins, bringing a hint of warmth to her curled body and the beginning of thought to her dreamless mind. She’d been asleep a long time in her dark, watery lair. Her injuries at the hands of the Kothite invaders had been serious, and full healing could be measured in centuries. Her body might be nearly whole, but her spirit was still weak.
Not so weak, though, that she could not protect Haelos from its enemies. She waited patiently for her mind to come to sharp alertness, her claws to regain their deadly strength, her massive, scaled body to come to a fully active state, her great wings to unfurl. And when they did . . .
Then she would fly.
* * *
“Madness! Unthinkable! Absolutely not!”
Raina gazed sympathetically at the sputtering Heart patriarch and his equally agitated fellow matriarchs and patriarchs. Outrageous though it surely was, nonetheless, she had been raised to the rank of emissary in the White Heart by Lord Goldeneye, leader of the great Dominion colony of changelings in the north of Haelos. He had no authority to do so, of course, but that had not stopped him.
High Matriarch Lenora had called this conclave of Heart leaders from across the settled lands of Haelos to discuss the matter, but the truth of it was that, no matter how much they blustered, their hands were tied. They needed the entrée to the heretofore impenetrable Dominion; hence they had no choice but to recognize her rank in the offshoot branch of the healer’s guild, no matter how unorthodox it might be.
“She’s a child!” a matriarch down the table spat in disgust. “The girl’s hardly fit to be a White Heart initiate, let alone an emissary equal in rank to one of us.”
The girl was sitting right here, hearing every word of their tirade. And she’d done a decent job of being a White Heart initiate, thank you very much. It hadn’t always been easy, by the Lady. Even if she wouldn’t be eighteen until springtime, age was not only measured in years but also in experience.
The Heart had three branches. The regular Heart to which most healers belonged. Then there was the White Heart, the pacifist branch of healers sworn to defend all life, to which Raina belonged, for better or worse. Lastly, there was the Royal Order of the Sun, the militaristic arm of the Heart, responsible for defending Heart chapters, their members, and the all-important resurrection Heartstones.
To Raina’s vast relief, the Royal Order also took responsibility for protecting White Heart members from harm, since she and her brethren were unable to protect themselves. Most of the Dominion’s warriors had expressed a strong desire to kill her for being weak and spineless during her recent stint as a prisoner of that aggressive changeling army. They’d taught her to be abjectly grateful for the swords and shields that had hovered over her protectively since her return to Dupree.
At tonight’s meeting, the Royal Order of the Sun was represented by Lord Justinius, knight commander of the entire order in Haelos. So far, he’d sat tense and taciturn at Lenora’s right hand and not participated in the discussion. Raina suspected he saw the strategic necessity of letting her new rank stand and furthermore saw the advantage of finally having an emissary to the Dominion, her tender age notwithstanding.
Lenora patiently let the matriarchs and patriarchs bellyache their fill, which took a while. Raina had taken just about as many insults to her age, intelligence, training, and skills as she could tolerate before their complaints finally wound down to a trickle and then ceased.
The high matriarch said with admirable calm from beside Raina, “Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your candor, but here’s the thing. Never in the history of the Heart has any Dominion settlement, anywhere, allowed a member of the Heart to act as an envoy to it. We simply cannot turn down this opportunity.”
“Agreed!” the sputtering patriarch from before exclaimed. “Let us send a more seasoned Heart member to Goldeneye with all due haste.”
It was all Raina could do not to call him a fool for even suggesting such a thing. Lord Goldeneye would not stand for a substitute. They would be lucky to get their replacement emissary back alive, let alone with his or her mind intact.
She opened her mouth to tell the man so, but Lord Justinius sent her a brief, quelling look and a small shake of his head.
The big knight leaned forward ponderously, leather gambeson creaking under his chain mail, to weigh in at last. “Ladies and gentlemen. We are in full agreement that we have been presented with a rare opportunity, and we cannot turn away from it. However, I have met Lord Goldeneye, and he is not the sort to be trifled with. If this young lady is the one he chose, I guarantee you, he will accept no other. I shall send one of my most experienced knights to guard her, and he will be fully capable of advising her should she need guidance.”
She studied Justinius while the others buzzed and Lenora tried unsuccessfully to quiet them. What was his game? Did Lord Justinius wish merely to plant an observer in his enemy’s stronghold, perhaps co-opting control of her mission for his order?
Or did he aim higher? Did he dare hope for a rapprochement between the Royal Order of the Sun and the Dominion itself? The idea skirted perilously near treason. The Dominion’s leaders openly declared themselves sworn enemies of Koth, nearly as openly as they declared their intent to conquer all the lands of Urth for themselves.
“The enemy of my enemy?” she murmured under the hubbub for Justinius’s ears only.
“Silence!” he hissed in alarm.
Lord Justinius didn’t deny her implication. But he did push abruptly to his feet, towering over them all in his armor and weapons while she stared at him in shock.
The others fell mostly silent, and his voice cut across the last few protests. “It is settled. I will send Sir Lakanos to Dupree to accompany her. He is a skilled warrior who will earn the respect of the Dominion and is subtle enough to help Raina manage the nuances of this assignment. When do you leave for the Great Den, Emissary?”
“Lord Goldeneye told me to return in the summer.”
“Very well. When the days lengthen and the wheat ripens, look for my knight.”
She bowed her head respectfully. “Yes, my lord.”