ARATHOR’S HEART THUNDERED AS HE SWUNG ASTRIDE HIS BLACK stallion and strained his eyes for any movement on the road in front of him. It was a moonless night, but he knew King Rahnak’s spies were watching him; he’d fought off three of them in Felonia. He couldn’t risk engaging anyone in a sword fight again. Speed and cunning were his only protection now.
Before leading his horse out of the ash grove, he unwrapped the bundle he’d fought so fiercely to protect the night before. Aiden was fast asleep, swaddled in a blue woolen blanket, completely unaware of the danger surrounding him.
“How can I give you up?” he whispered.
He clapped his heels to the horse’s flanks. Telegar’s strong, confident gait thundered beneath him as they sped towards the next town. Suddenly, his mount let out a shrill whinny, and the hair on Arathor’s neck bristled. He looked behind him, taking in the ground they’d just covered.
Five hooded riders, black cloaks flying behind them, were closing in on them.
Fighting his alarm, Arathor shouted the ancient words his father had taught him: “Kel-lema menan-dai kah-gish tehai.”
In a split second, a wall of searing red flames, twice Arathor’s height, sprang up behind him and engulfed his pursuers. Their tortured screams echoed in his ears as he urged the stallion forward.
Kale lit a candle on his way to answer the urgent knocking. Before he got to the door, his wife Elisa was beside him. When he opened the door, they both drew in a quick breath. Although the man’s face was hidden, Kale recognized him at once. No one else had Arathor’s commanding stature.
“What…?” Kale asked.
Arathor stamped the mud from his boots before handing Elisa a bundle. He sat at the table and pulled back his hood. The pale light couldn’t hide the concern in his face.
Elisa parted the wool blanket. Her eyes grew larger and she covered her mouth. “Is this…who I think it is?”
“He’s in danger,” Arathor said. “Will you raise him as your own?”
“Why us?” Kale asked.
Arathor looked at him, but his intense dark eyes were more than Kale could bear. “You’ve been my smith for many years now and I know I can trust you.”
Kale had always lived a quiet, sheltered life. Now Arathor was asking him to risk his security and Elisa’s to take in the boy. All the reasons for not doing this flew through his mind in a heartbeat. The only argument he could stammer was, “I’m sure there’s someone else more suited for the task.”
Arathor’s face tightened.
“Then I have no choice?” Kale asked.
Arathor rubbed his brow and his face took on the haggard features of a warrior too long in battle. “No, I’d never force this on you.” He shifted his weight. “But I need an answer now.”
Kale glanced at his wife. Elisa never asked for much, but her eyes were pleading with him now. The haunting sadness in her face extinguished his arguments.
“All right, we’ll do what you ask.”
Arathor glanced at the door, as if expecting someone to burst through it at any moment. “I have to warn you—if you take him in, you’ll be in as much danger as he is.”
Kale tried to stifle his mounting fear. “We’ll move away as soon as we can.”
Arathor smiled grimly and handed Kale a rolled parchment. “You can tell him he was adopted, but nothing more. When he’s twenty-one, give him this letter.” He pulled up his hood and put a hand on the smith’s shoulder. “Kale, I know you can do this.”
Arathor walked towards the door and then stopped. “There’s one more thing.” He pulled a battered scabbard out of his cloak. The flickering candle light danced on the sword’s hilt.
“After he reads the scroll, give him this. It may help him accept the truth.”
Grief lined his face as he put his hand on the child’s head and he kissed his brow. “Grow well, Aiden.” He bowed to the couple and went out into the night.
Elisa looked at her husband and smiled. “I never thought this day would come.”
“A son,” Kale said, half hearing his wife.
How will I be able to do this? he wondered.
Elisa moved closer to Kale and handed him the child. “Aiden.”
Kale put his fingers to her lips and lowered his voice. “We can never speak that word again.”
The boy needed a strong name, one that would give him the courage he needed to face his destiny, yet not reveal the nature of his birth. After a long silence Kale said, “His name will be Kieran.”
Twenty years later…
KIERAN WOKE UP, HIS HEART RACING AND HIS CLOTHES DRENCHED IN sweat. It wasn’t unusual for him to have strange dreams, but this one had been the most terrifying of all.
He’d been walking with his mother and father near the sea. Suddenly, a sword sprang from the waves and flew into his hand. Elisa’s face froze in horror and Kale stepped in to defend her. Before Kieran could stop himself, he’d killed both of them. Their blood covered the sword and his cries of despair woke him up.
Still shaken, Kieran walked to the kitchen and washed his face. Normally he would have eaten a quick breakfast, but the dream had stolen his appetite. Frustrated, he returned to his room, put on a clean shirt, and headed for town.
With his long stride, it took him only a few minutes to walk from his home near the shore to the smithy near the center of Pent. On his way, he passed several low-roofed cottages, each with a small garden plot and racks of drying whitefish. Turning to the left, he noticed the familiar odor of wet clay coming from Jelcahd’s pottery shop, and the mouth-watering aroma of fresh bread coming from Helgar’s bakery. The sun was just coming up as he jumped over the fence around the cooper’s yard and walked into his father’s smithy.
Kieran had learned his father’s trade quickly. By the time he was seventeen, people said he was the best smith in northern Teleria. While Kale forged the ordinary, Kieran preferred embellishing the ordinary and creating the extraordinary. When he walked through Pent, he could see his handiwork—ornate door handles, hinges with intricate flower motifs, and gates that looked like they could grace the castle at Korisan.
Today he had to settle for making ladles.
Walking past the racks of tools, he pulled off his shirt and was about to put on his leather tunic when he heard a disturbance. A cluster of unmarried women had gathered at the door. They came every day and tried to get his attention. Despite their obvious beauty, none of them caught his eye. There was only one woman for him. He just had to find her again.
Now Kieran turned his back on them and quickly put on his tunic.
When his father joined him, Kieran donned his leather apron and stoked the fire.
“Do you have that order ready for the cooper?” Kale asked.
“It’s over in the corner,” Kieran said, pointing to a pile of iron barrel hoops. “I made two extra for the children.”
Kieran loved having children in the shop. Kale was always worried that one of them might get hurt, but Kieran invited them in anyway. He enjoyed making things for them, and their favorite toys were the iron hoops. When the children raced the hoops in the street, Kieran always stopped to watch. This had been his favorite game as a child and the only game where he could beat his cousin.
As if on cue, his cousin entered the shop and stood to one side.
“I see your adoring throng is here today,” Gilrain said.
“I’m sure you’ll be happy to take them off my hands,” Kieran muttered.
“Maybe later. What are you working on today?”
“Are you offering to help?”
If Gilrain saw that Kieran was annoyed, he ignored it. “Hunting’s been slow this week. I thought you could use a hand.”
Gilrain was the best archer in the area, usually bringing home the largest deer and wild boar. Although he hadn’t taken up sword smithing like his father, he knew how to keep the fire going, and was an excellent striker. It was too bad he was so unreliable.
“I’m working on ladles, for Lord Destra’s cook.”
While Gilrain moved over to the fire, Kieran picked out an iron bar and brought it to the anvil. Using a hammer and chisel, he cut the bar to the proper length and then began the process of heating and hammering the metal, stretching out the handle, and forming a small bowl. When he’d finished shaping and smoothing it, he repeatedly plunged it into the slack tub to harden it.
Kieran looked up to ask Gilrain to get another tool. Gilrain was in the corner, flirting with a blonde who’d made it past the door.
Kale shook his head.
Kieran swore under his breath.
Gilrain’s careless attitude toward finishing his work was one of his least annoying traits. He charged headlong into fights without thinking, was openly affectionate with unmarried women, and gambled at dice and cards whenever he had the chance.
Still irritated, Kieran turned his attention to the next ladle and imagined it was Gilrain.
While he worked, a crowd started to gather inside the shop. It wasn’t unusual for people to meet in the smithy to discuss the latest news, and Kieran had learned to keep one ear on the banter while he worked. This afternoon they were heatedly discussing the way Lord Destra had treated a man who couldn’t pay his taxes.
“I heard he had the man and his whole family sent to the dungeon in Korisan.”
Gilrain abandoned the blonde and moved closer to the discussion.
“That’s the last time we’ll see Becknar.”
Gilrain looked over at Kieran. “Somebody should do something.”
Why was Gilrain looking at him that way? Kieran walked to the forge and waited for the bowl of the ladle to reheat.
His blood boiled every time he heard about the way Lord Destra mistreated the townspeople. It seemed the nobility felt it was their sole purpose in life to make everyone in Teleria miserable. They charged too much for taxes, demanded that the peasants produce superior products—despite the poor soil and scarcity of material—and when foreign marauders or gangs roamed through the towns, they did nothing to stop them, despite having legions of soldiers at their command.
Kieran had never spoken of rebellion himself; his father had taught him to avoid trouble. But if he were a lord or a king, he would use his position to help people. Then he’d remind himself that he was just a blacksmith, and all he wanted in life was to have his own smithy, marry, and have a dozen children.
“You know Rahnak set up all the liege lords in Teleria,” someone said. “If you cross them, you’re crossing him.”
“I think it’s about time someone crossed him.”
When Kieran returned to the anvil, Gilrain nudged his arm. “Are
you paying attention to this?” he asked.
“It’s nothing new.”
Gilrain took the hammer out of Kieran’s hand.
Kieran moved to take it back. “Some of us have work to do.”
Gilrain let go and lowered his voice. “You could do something.”
Kieran continued to pound at the metal. “If you want swords for a revolt, go talk to your father. I already have too much work to do.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Kieran stopped in mid-swing. “Then what did you mean?”
“They haven’t told you yet?”
Kieran grabbed Gilrain’s arm to take him outside. Gilrain tried to wrench himself away but Kieran persisted. When they were outside, Gilrain broke free of Kieran’s iron grip.
“What are you talking about?” Kieran asked.
Gilrain looked confused and then started to chuckle. “How ironic. All these years and they never told you who you really are.”
NOTHING COULD CALM THE TEMPEST SWIRLING IN KIERAN’S GUT. After trying and failing to get more information out of Gilrain, he’d returned to the smithy to finish Destra’s ladles. When he finished, all he had to show for his impatience were three ruined ladles. Disgusted with himself for wasting the metal, he threw them into the fire and grumbled all the way home.
When he reached the door, he noted that another of Teleria’s infamous storms was fast approaching. How fitting that the weather mirrored his mood. As much as he hated confrontation, he had to know the truth. He didn’t want to hurt his parents, but he couldn’t go on without having an answer to this riddle.
Kieran was just about to go inside when he saw Gilrain and his parents walking down the path.
How could he have forgotten? Today was his twentieth birthday, and his mother had planned a special celebration as she did every year. And she always invited Loric, Sorina, and Gilrain. Having them here would complicate things. If he were lucky, they would leave early, and he could talk with his father privately.
Family celebrations were usually happy times, and although Kieran didn’t share his mother’s opinion that birthdays were sacred occasions, he enjoyed spending time with his aunt and uncle. Loric always made the conversation livelier and Aunt Sorina always brought him an apple pie. Gilrain was usually on his best behavior. However, as the evening progressed, Kieran’s impatience was turning a pleasant evening into an impending shipwreck.
Just as he was thinking of a way to get them out of the house, he overheard words that grabbed his attention: “He looks more like Arathor every day.”
Kieran exploded from his chair, catching the edge of the table and sending his plate to the floor. His mother jumped and his aunt let out a gasp. Surprised by his own outburst, Kieran stooped to pick up the broken dishes. When he stood, he tried to keep his tone even. “What did you mean just now, Aunt Sorina?”
His aunt shot a worried look at Kieran’s parents. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
His father interrupted her. “No, Sorina. We should have told him sooner.”
“Told me what?”
Pale and tight-lipped, Kale walked across the room to Elisa’s cedar trunk. Kieran remembered watching his father buy the trunk in Felonia. It had cost him a month’s wages, but Kale had been so proud of himself for choosing just the right piece for his wife.
His father opened the trunk and removed the contents. Turning it over, he located a hidden drawer and pulled out a yellowed parchment. He handed it to Kieran.
“You’d better read this,” he said.
Kieran took the parchment and walked to the hearth. As he unrolled it a musty odor made him sneeze. The lettering was elegant, like none he’d ever seen before. At the bottom, there was a blue wax seal, imprinted with an eagle.
Kieran narrowed his eyes as he looked up at his father. “Did you write this?”
Kale leaned against the stone work and stared into the fire. “Just keep reading.”
Kieran looked at the parchment again.
"Now that you are twenty-one, it is time to tell you about the circumstances of your birth. Twenty-two years ago, when your mother Annalisa was with child, my chief steward usurped the throne and threatened your life. In order to protect you and your mother, we left Teleria and went to live on Ilich Island. When you were born, I brought you to Kale and Elisa. By right of birth, you are Aiden, prince of Teleria."
Kieran swallowed hard to fight the nausea churning in him and continued to read.
"You now have a choice, and it will take great courage to choose the right. From this moment on, you will be walking the path between who you are now and who you were born to be. All I am asking you to do is let yourself make the journey. Just remember that courage is not the lack of fear, but instead it is the decision that something else is more important than your fear."
“I am sure you will have many questions for me. When you are ready, you can find me in Koridoc. – Arathor."
Arathor was the name of the previous king. He’d ruled Teleria for only a few years before unexpectedly disappearing, leaving Rahnak to assume the throne. Telerians’ opinions regarding Arathor’s disappearance ranged from cowardice to outright abandonment. While some spoke of his return—always in hushed tones lest they be put in prison—others said they preferred Rahnak and Ciara.
Kieran rolled up the parchment and fixed his eyes on the man he’d called father for twenty years. “What’s going on?”
“You’d probably better sit down to hear this.”
Kieran crossed his arms and stayed on his feet.
His father ran his hand through his graying black hair. “We would have told you sooner, but Arathor said to wait until you were twenty-one.”
“Do you mean King Arathor?”
Kale nodded. Kieran felt as if a crashing wave had hit him full force. This couldn’t be happening.
He’d known since he was five that his parents had adopted him and it never bothered him. Once in a while, he wondered about his birth parents, but most of the time he was content to be the son of Kale the blacksmith.
When Kieran had regained his composure, he looked at his mother. “So you didn’t tell me because Arathor told you to wait?”
Elisa’s face was full of pain. “He must have had his reasons.”
“But you told them?” Kieran said, gesturing towards his aunt and uncle.
His father answered. “The day after we took you in, we started to pack up and when Loric asked why, I had to tell him.”
“And how did Gilrain find out?”
The question seemed to catch his parents by surprise. They looked at Aunt Sorina. Her face was red and Kieran knew from experience she was just as likely to defend herself as she was to run out of the room. Gilrain spoke before she could do either.
“She was angry about moving from Morigon, and when I asked her why, she told me everything.”
Kieran looked at all the faces in the room, faces of the people he trusted. Impossible as this story was, it seemed even more impossible that his family had intentionally lied to him.
Unless they’d all been fooled, and the man who abandoned him wasn’t really King Arathor. Or maybe someone had dropped him into one of his nightmares and he would wake up at any minute.
Whatever the answer was, he didn’t want to be anywhere near his family right now. He turned to walk out the door but his father stopped him.
“There was one more thing Arathor wanted you to have.” Kale left the room and when he returned, he laid a battered wooden scabbard on the table. “He hoped this would help you believe our story.”
Kieran picked up the scabbard and withdrew the sword.
The highly polished steel blade was half his height and bore intricate engravings. The gold hilt fit his hand perfectly. He held it up and sliced through the air, feeling its grace and balance. It felt like the sword a prince would use.
An uncomfortable feeling twisted in his gut. This was the sword from his dream. In revulsion, he threw it to the ground and went out to face the storm.
KALE WATCHED HIS SON RUSH OUT OF THE HOUSE. KIERAN USUALLY kept himself under control, but the look on his face when he’d left said he was ready to explode. Not that Kale could blame him. He probably would have reacted the same way if he’d been the one to learn he was a prince.
Still, Kale wondered again if he and Elisa should have told Kieran the truth sooner. If they had, maybe Kieran wouldn’t have been so angry right now.
Only once before in his twenty years as Kieran’s father had he seen his son this upset.
When Kieran was ten, he’d raced into the smithy, gasping for breath and yelling something about slave traders and rescuing a girl. On the one hand, Kale wanted to help, but on the other hand, he knew he couldn’t let Kieran pursue the girl; it could bring dangerous attention to the family.
As gently as he could, he told Kieran there was nothing they could do.
A mixture of anger and disappointment filled Kieran’s eyes. He beat his fists on Kale’s chest and pleaded with him to help. When Kale refused, Kieran ran off, presumably back to the forest. Kale hoped his son would see how foolish it was to go after the girl. He waited up all night for Kieran, and when he finally returned the next morning, Kale was more relieved than angry.
Before Kale could ask him where he’d been, Kieran speared Kale with a hurt look. His chin trembled when he said, “My real father would have gone after her.”
The words hit Kale like a sledge hammer.
After that day, they’d never spoken of it.
Kale picked up the sword. In all the years he’d kept it for Kieran, he’d never looked at it. Now he ran his fingers across the intricate leaf and vine pattern. Although swordsmithing was his brother’s specialty, Kale appreciated the fine craftsmanship that had gone into the weapon.
He suddenly drew in a quick breath.
This had to be Restamar, the sword from the stories his father had told him. Carefully, Kale returned the sword to its scabbard and put it in Kieran’s room. In the morning, Kieran might be more willing to listen to their story.
Elisa walked in behind him. “Did we do the wrong thing, holding back the truth from him?”
Kale sat on Kieran’s bed and Elisa sat next to him. He pushed a wisp of her hair behind her ear and stroked her cheek. Her clear green eyes sparkled and her honey-brown hair, now streaked with strands of silver, fell over her shoulders. She was as beautiful as the day he had proposed to her.
“It probably wasn’t the best way to tell him,” he said.
“Sorina feels awful.”
Kale exhaled slowly. Sorina was usually careful about what she said around Kieran. They all were. “No, it’s my fault. My instincts said to tell him when he was younger, but I wanted to honor Arathor.”
He ran his calloused fingers through his hair. “I shouldn’t have held him back.”
Elisa took his hand and traced the back of it with her delicate fingers. She smiled at him. “You were only trying to protect him.”
Kale shook his head. “By teaching him to avoid trouble, I haven’t prepared him at all.”
“Kale, we did the best we could. I know Arathor didn’t make a mistake in choosing you to be his father.” She leaned over and gave him a tender kiss. “And what’s done is done. Now he’s going to need your help to get through this.”
KIERAN STOOD ON THE SHORE AND PUT HIS HANDS ON HIS KNEES, panting for breath, ignoring the rain soaking into his clothes. He looked out over the churning waves. The light from the storm had turned them an unnatural shade of green. He’d seen storms like this before but had never felt like one was inside him.
This was his favorite place to come when the cares of life weighed him down. He could depend on the ocean to calm him and help him think. But now he couldn’t even depend on that. His world had been turned upside down. He didn’t know who he was, he wasn’t sure he could trust his parents, and if they were telling the truth, he didn’t want to believe their story. More agitated than ever, he anchored his feet and let the storm buffet him from all sides.
Whenever there was a problem no one else could solve, he solved it. When things were difficult he always found a way around them. How was he going to get himself out of this?
What if the man who had said he was Arathor had tried to deceive them for some reason? How could he test his parents’ story? He ran his hand across the back of his neck, trying to ease the tension creeping across his shoulders and into his head. What could he do? If he’d been Gilrain, he would have charged ahead and embraced the news. But he wasn’t Gilrain. He was Kieran—cautious to the end.
This dilemma would have to wait. The storm was getting stronger. His parents’ home was in danger and he knew he should go home to help. When he arrived, his uncle and father were boarding up the windows, and his mother and aunt were sand-bagging the foundation. Gilrain was in the barn, taking care of the livestock.
Kieran went to help Gilrain and saw that all the chickens had escaped. He called to his cousin and the two of them ran through the yard to catch the unruly fowl. Soon his uncle and father came to help.
Despite Kieran’s frustration with the recent news, he had to laugh. The bedraggled birds weren’t cooperating, darting here and there, squawking and fluttering about. When he thought he had one hen cornered, it flew into his face, making him land on his backside. Gilrain saw him and let out a loud guffaw. Kieran responded with his own chuckle when Gilrain lunged after one and slipped in the mud, falling flat on his face. His father and uncle weren’t doing much better. Although they each had two chickens, the birds wriggled free when they tried to put them in the barn.
Just as Gilrain caught the last one, Kieran’s mother and aunt showed up.
“You’d think four grown men could catch a handful of chickens,” his aunt said.
“I think they just enjoy playing in the mud.”
When the men walked towards the house, Kieran’s mother put up her hands. “If you think you’re going to come into my house, you’re wrong.”
Kieran looked down at his clothes. He was covered in mud, head to toe. His fellow chicken wranglers didn’t look much better.
“I think they need to spend the night in the barn,” his aunt said.
His father gave his mother a half pleading look. “Turned out of my own home,” he said.
With a flip of her skirt, Elisa turned toward the house. “We’ll see you in the morning, when you’ve dried out,” she said over her shoulder.
Inside the barn, Kieran’s father lit a lantern and hung it on a hook. Kieran made sure the chickens were settled and his uncle tried to calm the old draft horse. The two pigs slept, and the goat was happily chewing its cud.
A cold gust of air blew into the barn and made Kieran shiver. He rubbed his arms and blew warm air on his fingers. Gilrain closed the barn door.
“So what do we do now?” Gilrain asked.
“Wait until we’ve dried out,” Loric said.
“I can’t believe Aunt Elisa wouldn’t let us come in,” Gilrain said.
“Well, it is her house,” Kale said.
“I wouldn’t let my wife treat me like that,” Gilrain said.
Kieran hung his shirt over a rafter to dry and imagined Gilrain lording it over his wife—that is, if he could choose one from among the ever-widening circle of women who seemed to throw themselves at him.
The idea made him chuckle, until Gilrain interrupted his thoughts. “What will you do now that you know you’re a prince?”
Kieran jerked his head around to look at Gilrain. If this was going to turn into another challenge, Kieran didn’t want to argue with Gilrain here.
“You’re not going to do anything, are you?”
Kieran noted the obvious disdain in Gilrain’s voice and moved towards the door. And then stopped. Which would be worse—leaving the barn to face the storm outside or staying to face the storm in here? He knew his cousin. Gilrain could be like a hunting dog on the trail of its quarry. If Kieran didn’t settle this now, Gilrain would hound him until he did.
He turned around, all the while trying to sound as if none of this mattered. “I don’t know if any of this is true, so just let it go.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know if it’s true?” his father asked.
“How can you not believe it?” Gilrain asked. “You saw the letter and the sword. How do you explain those?”
“Maybe the man was just a beggar and the sword was stolen.” He looked at his father. “How did you know it was Arathor?”
“Arathor is built just like you, and despite the way he was dressed, there was no mistaking him.”
“So the sword training was all because of this?” Kieran asked.
His father shrugged. “I thought it would be good for you to know how to fight.”
Kieran shook his head and laughed. “Except for swords, you never let me fight. It was always, ‘Kieran, don’t draw attention to yourself’ or ‘Kieran, let someone else fight.’”
“I was doing what I thought was right. If you had stood out, Rahnak might have found you and then…” His voice trailed off.
Kieran pulled his damp shirt from the rafter and lifted it over his head, feeling the familiar hostility churning inside him. He knew that if the conversation continued, he’d say something he’d regret. As much as he resented Kale’s efforts to keep him safe, he didn’t want to hurt him or embarrass him, especially not in front of Gilrain and Loric.
He opened the door, then turned to Kale. “Father, I’m—”
“Sorry” is what he should have said, but he wasn’t exactly sorry. He wasn’t quite sure how he felt. “Let’s talk about this another time.”
A biting wind hit him in the face as he charged into the storm.
“WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THIS?” KIERAN MUTTERED.
The sword lay on a chair next to Kieran’s bed, right where he’d left it after sneaking into his bed last night. How could such a simple thing be so repulsive? And why had he dreamed of this sword?
He started to reach for it and then drew back.
“It’s a fine weapon.”
Kieran looked up to see his father. “I suppose it is.”
“Aren’t you going to look at it?”
“Why should I?”
“Because it belongs to you.”
“It belongs to Arathor,” Kieran said, stamping his foot into his boot.
“He gave it to you.”
Kieran pulled on a shirt, rolled up his sleeves, and tied back his hair with a leather strip. “I need to start repairs on the house.”
His father put a hand on his shoulder. “Why are you having such a hard time believing this?”
Because if I believe it, I have to give up the life I have now.
“What did the letter say?” Kale asked.
“Read it for yourself,” Kieran said as he brushed past him to go to the kitchen.
When he got there, his mother was ladling cornmeal into an earthen bowl for him. He added honey and cream, and moved to the table. This was his favorite breakfast and his favorite time of day. Early morning was the only time in his otherwise noisy life when he could enjoy a small measure of peace. He just hoped his parents wouldn’t interrupt it with pointless questions.
Downing a mug of pear cider, he was just rising to leave when his mother drew up a chair beside him and offered him a warm roll. How could he resist that? He took it and drizzled more honey over the top of it. His mother pulled her purple woolen shawl around her shoulders and carefully broke her own roll in half before eating it like a lady in the king’s court. How many times had he looked at her and not noticed how elegant she was?
“What have you decided?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you look at the sword?”
His father walked into the room and kissed his mother on the cheek. “He said he didn’t have time for it.”
Kieran shot his father a warning glance.
“How will you know the truth if you don’t look at it?” Elisa asked.
“Why would looking at the sword make any difference?”
“Because,” his father said, “it’s a special sword.”
Kieran took a bite from the roll. “What do you mean?”
“I’ll show you,” Kale said, gesturing towards Kieran’s room.
While Kieran leaned against the doorframe, Kale and Elisa sat on the bed.
“The sword you don’t have time to look at is called Restamar. The stories say that the great warrior Alardin used it to defeat an evil queen.”
“Do you mean the same Alardin who agreed to help Kieran the Valiant?”
Of all the stories Kale had told Kieran over the years, this was Kieran’s favorite.
An ancient people lived under the curse of a terrible queen. A man named Kieran decided something should be done, so he left his family to search for a great warrior who would help them. Kieran traveled hundreds of miles, across oceans and kingdoms, until he came to the kingdom of Benalia. It was in this kingdom he found a man named Alardin. Alardin was the third son of a king, and instead of waiting for an inheritance, he became a warrior. Now he was the leader of the Benalian army. When he heard Kieran’s story, Alardin and half the army agreed to go with Kieran to fight against the queen and her forces.
When they arrived in Kieran’s homeland, Alardin and Kieran fought side by side. Just before Alardin defeated the queen, her general dealt Kieran a death blow. During his funeral, the newly appointed King Alardin decreed that his comrade would always be known as Kieran the Valiant.
“I thought those were just stories,” Kieran said.
His father rubbed his stubbled chin. “So did I.”
“How do you know that this is Alardin’s sword?”
Kale took the weapon and gave it to Kieran. “Look at the design on the blade.”
Kieran ran his fingers over the cold metal. The pattern he’d seen last night was gold inlay. It was the most intricate work Kieran had ever seen.
“If I’m right, you should be able to see Alardin’s name on the other side.”
Kieran turned the blade over. The inscription was wearing away, as if someone had run their fingers across it many times. He could just make out the names Alardin, Dalamar, Jendric, Egron, Aeron, Duncan, and Arathor.
A chill went up Kieran’s back when he read the rest of the inscription.
“When the line of kings is broken, and an evil ruler takes the throne, a child will arise to end her reign; a child will arise to break her curse.”
“What does it say?” his mother asked.
Kieran was too dumbfounded to speak and handed it to her.
“I don’t see anything,” she said, and then gave it to Kale.
His face fell. “There’s nothing here,” he said. “I was sure this was Restamar.”
Kieran took it back. “There it is. Can’t you see it?”
His father’s face went pale. “Why can you see it when we can’t?”
“That doesn’t matter now,” his mother said. “What does it say?”
Kieran repeated the words. They were so unbelievable he almost thought someone else was saying them.
“I don’t understand,” his father said. “Rahnak must be the evil ruler, but what does it mean about ending her reign and breaking her curse?”
“Why would it matter?” Kieran burst out. “None of this is true.”
His parents looked up at him in apparent shock. Before they could say another word, he put the sword in its scabbard and left.
When Kieran reached the shore, he wished his mind were as clear as his surroundings. The rising sun had burned off the morning fog and now the sky was as blue as Kieran had ever seen it. The waves thundered against the rocks, and in the distance, flocks of gulls pestered the fishermen for scraps. Piles of rotting seaweed, swarming with black gnats, lay on the beach where the storm had thrown them. Shells of every color adorned the gray sand like jewels in a king’s raiment.
Kieran knelt down and scooped up a handful of tiny moon shells. As he stirred them around with his finger, he knew that if someone were to see a grown man kneeling in the sand, playing with sea shells, they would probably think it strange. He didn’t care; shells had always fascinated him.
He dropped the white shells and moved down the shore to see what other treasures the storm had brought. A purple glint caught his eye. He picked up the shell and rubbed the grit from it. He’d seen a shell like this before. When they’d lived in Ithil, his father took him to the shore when he was nine and he found two pieces of a purple and pink shell. His father said they were from an abalone.
They were a perfectly matched set of jewels from the sea—until the day he gave one away to the girl.
The first time Kieran had seen the girl, he was ten. He and Gilrain were setting rabbit snares in the forest and stopped by a stream to get a drink. As Kieran leaned down to scoop up some water, he sensed someone watching him. He cautiously stood and looked around. At first, he saw no one, but after scanning the trees, he noticed a girl, maybe eight years old. She sat in the branches of a gnarled oak tree.
Surrounded by black boulders, the tree was taller than fifteen men. Kieran and Gilrain had named it “The Old Man” because it looked like the oldest tree in the forest. A single trunk split into two parts; from these two smaller trunks, more branches than Kieran could number reached to the sky, like gnarled fingers trying to grab the clouds. The rough gray bark was perfect for helping them climb, and the two cousins clambered up the tree almost every day.
Kieran scrambled up in a flash and sat next to the trespasser. “My name is Kieran and that’s Gilrain,” he said, pointing to his cousin. “And this is our tree.”
She looked at him, unblinking. Kieran thought she might put up her fists at any moment.
“I come here all the time,” she said bluntly.
Kieran usually ignored girls, but this one had his attention. Her cinnamon-colored hair grew to her waist and her eyes were black. He’d never seen anyone with black eyes. They were mesmerizing—even to a ten-year-old boy. It took him a moment to give her an answer. “We’re older. It’s our tree.”
She moved closer to him and the pitch of her voice went up. “My family has lived here much longer than you have, so it is my tree.”
Kieran had never met a girl like this one. He was enjoying himself.
“The three of us could share,” he suggested.
Now she was in his face. “I do not share anything.”
“Maybe someone needs to teach you how.”
Gilrain tried to stifle a laugh. “How long are you two going to keep this up?”
The girl started to giggle and Kieran couldn’t help but laugh with her. Before they knew it, they were all on the ground, rolling with laughter. Tears streamed down their faces and Kieran’s sides ached. When they finally stopped, the girl looked at Kieran again.
“I still say it is my tree, but I will let you climb it.”
“Do you always get your way?” Kieran asked.
She was about to answer, but turned at the sound of someone calling her.
“I have to go,” she said, lowering her voice. “I am really not supposed to be talking to you.” But there was something in her eyes that said, “Let’s be friends.”
She’d almost disappeared into the forest when he felt the pieces of shell in his pocket. He called out to her to stop. When he reached her, he gave her one of the pieces. She took it and smiled.
“What’s your name?” he asked, a little breathless.
Her eyes sparkled with mischief and she leaned closer, cupping his ear with her hand. “Jessara,” she whispered.
Then she was gone.
Kieran put the shells in his pocket and pushed away the memory. It was time to do what he’d come here to do.
He sat on a boulder and unsheathed the sword. When he looked more closely at the inscription, he saw another name, more deeply etched than the others: Aiden. He lost his grip on the sword and dropped to his hands and knees, doubling over as a sea of nausea swirled around him.
HEAVY DROPS PELTED KIERAN’S FACE AS HE TRUDGED THROUGH THE muddy lanes of Pent. When he entered the smithy, he stamped the mud from his boots and moved next to the forge. Putting his stiff fingers near the coals, he looked around his father’s shop.
This was the only life he’d known. His father had put him to work from the time he was seven—chopping wood, making coal, stoking the fire, pumping the bellows, and cleaning out the forge. It was hard work, but Kieran relished every minute of it and longed for the day when he could be an apprentice. Even at seven, all he’d wanted was to be a smith, like his father.
Like my father.
For the last two months, he’d wrestled with the possibility that he had two fathers.
Kale was a good man, and although he and Kieran had their differences, Kieran was grateful for all his father had taught him. What he appreciated most was that his father had always been honest with him—until now.
Kieran blew out a frustrated breath. Was holding back part of the truth a lie, or just a way to protect him? Did it really matter? Either way, it left Kieran feeling used and betrayed. All he wanted to do was find the man claiming to be Arathor and expose him as a fraud.
What was he thinking? He couldn’t leave now. There was too much to do. Farmers needed their tools repaired before the harvest, Lord Destra needed a new gate, and Kieran and his father were making special items to sell at the summer festival in Felonia. No, finding Arathor would have to wait.
He pushed his tangled thoughts away and threw himself into his day’s work, a set of tools for his uncle. It was easy to lose himself while he focused on the steady rhythm of the hammer on the metal. If only it could take away the memory of last night’s dream.
Despite the horror of watching himself kill his family, he was learning to put the dreams aside and forget them. But he couldn’t ignore last night’s dream; it was the most terrifying he’d had yet. In last night’s dream, he killed Jessara. It was more terrifying than when he had actually lost her.
After his first encounter with Jessara, they’d met in the forest every day and spent their time building forts out of dead branches, making leaf boats to race down the stream, and climbing the tree. It continued that way for several months, and although he couldn’t explain it, the longer he knew her, the more he felt connected to her. No matter how hard his ten-year-old self tried to deny it, he thought he might love her. Only as a friend, of course, but it was something he’d never felt for anyone.
She was the first thing on his mind when he woke up and the last thing he thought about before falling asleep. And between waking and sleeping, he could hardly concentrate on his chores for thinking of her. He hoped they would remain friends forever.
All it took was one horrible event to shatter his hopes.
It started like any other day. Kieran reached the tree ahead of Jessara and while he waited, he sat on a lower branch and carved their names into the bark. After a few minutes, he heard her coming.
Just before she reached him, six of the dirtiest, most roughly-garbed men Kieran had ever seen came up behind her and tried to grab her. Kieran yelled for Jessara to climb up the tree, but she couldn’t reach it. Kieran jumped from the branch with the knife still in his hands. Jabbing at one of the men, he told Jessara to run home. The man hit Kieran across the face with a knotted fist and knocked him down. Kieran recovered and drove his knife into the man’s foot. The man dropped to the ground, screaming in agony, while another grabbed Kieran from behind and held him fast with arms like iron bands. Jessara screamed for help as two others chased after her.
A blond-headed boy ran towards her, yelling for the men to stop.
“Stefan,” she yelled. Before she could reach him, the two men caught her and dragged her by her hair back to the tree. Stefan ran after them, but a third man wrestled him down and drove a boot heel into his back.
When the slave traders reached their horses, they bound Jessara’s hands and feet, stuffed a rag in her mouth, and tied her to a saddle. Before joining their comrades, the men holding Kieran and Stefan let them go, warning them not to follow. Stefan ran one way and Kieran ran home.
And when he asked Kale for help, his father had done nothing. That was the night he started dreaming about her.
For Jessara to be in this dream, and to see himself killing her with the sword was unbearable. More than anything else that had happened, it made him want to get rid of the cursed thing.
Kieran threw himself into the day’s work, fighting against the guilt he felt not only for losing her, but for not being able to stop himself from killing her in the dream. He knew it didn’t make sense to blame himself for either one, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow responsible for all of it.
By late evening, a chill wind replaced the rain. Leaving his father’s shop, Kieran lowered his head and walked through Pent towards home. He was just coming to the western edge of town when he heard a cry for help. One of Destra’s soldiers was attacking a young woman.
Kieran looked around for help. Seeing he had no choice, he aproached the attacker from behind and threw him to the ground. Recovering from the shock, the soldier got up and charged at Kieran. Kieran met his attack and hit him in the ribs. A cracking noise echoed between the buildings.
In a drunken rage, the man hit Kieran in the jaw and briefly stunned him. Kieran shook his head and drove his fist into the man’s stomach. The blow sent the soldier flying into the stone wall. For a moment, the man’s face took on the appearance of one of Jessara’s abductors and Kieran found himself beating the soldier repeatedly. He stopped when the man fell limp to the ground.
Kieran spit the blood from his mouth and extended his hand to the woman.
“Thank you,” she said grimly.
“Are you all right?”
She looked up at Kieran. “I will be. But I think he’s dead.”
To Kieran’s surprise, the man lay in a pool of blood. What had he done? How could he have lost control so easily?
Suddenly, Kieran heard a crowd approaching.
“You’d better get out of here,” he said to the woman.
He watched her go and then ducked into the trees, running towards home. He was shaking when he went through the door. His mother looked up. Kieran studied her face. She looked so peaceful and content. How could he tell her he’d just killed a man?
Before he said anything, alarm was in her eyes. “What happened?”
Kieran paced the room, briefly explaining what he’d done. His mother pursed her lips. “You did the right thing.”
He had done the right thing. Why did he feel so guilty?
Just then his father walked in the door. When his mother told him what had happened, his face tightened and he looked at Kieran. “It seems circumstances have forced your hand.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Destra will put a price on your head and then he’ll have you sent to Korisan.”
“But the man was attacking an innocent woman.”
“Destra won’t care.”
“Where will I go?”
“Maybe you should go to Koridoc, to find Arathor.”
Suddenly, Kieran’s painstakingly ordered life was slipping from his grasp. How could he get out of this? “There’s too much work. You can’t do it alone.”
Kale gave him a grim smile. “I appreciate the concern, but I’m sure Loric can help.” He put his hand on Kieran’s shoulder. “I’ve protected you for as long as I can. I can’t protect you anymore.”