Sword of Fire (The Justice War #1) - Katharine Kerr


UP IN A HIGH tower chamber, Alyssa vairc Sirra stood at a lectern and studied a massive book of ancient chronicles. A shaft of sunlight, pale from the encroaching fog, fell through the window onto the page. Now and then she looked away from the passage she was memorizing and glanced out at the view. She could see down to Aberwyn’s fine new harbor and the Southern Sea beyond, dark blue water, just flecked with white caps in the last light of the day. Soon, she realized, it would be too dark to read.

“Lyss! Lyss!” Gasping for breath, Mavva flung herself into the chamber. “You’ve got to come. Now!”

Alyssa looked up from the book. Mavva’s long dark hair had slipped from its clasp. It hung in tendrils around her face, normally so pale, now flushed and red.

“Why?” Alyssa said. “What’s so wrong? And you shouldn’t run up the stairs like that. No wonder you’re all out of breath.”

“You don’t understand. He’s dying. Cradoc the bard.”

Alyssa slammed the chronicle-book shut.

“Let me just get my surcoat. I’ll come with you!”

With their red students’ surcoats flapping over their skirts and tunics, the two women hurried down the long spiral staircase. They ran out into the main courtyard of the United Scholars’ Collegia in Aberwyn, where they were studying in residence. The news had spread as Mavva had passed by, it seemed, because some thirty other students, men and women both, were milling about on the grassy lawn near the front gates of the scholars’ preserve. A pair of chaperones, older women dressed in black, fluttered at the mob’s edge and called out cautions. A dark-haired lad with the pale orange surcoat of Wmm’s Scribal Collegium over his breeches and shirt hurried to join them.

“Here’s Alys!” Rhys, Mavva’s betrothed, called out. “What shall we do, go up to the dun?”

“That’s where I’m bound,” Alyssa called back. “If we want to see him fairly treated, we’d best all go.”

The pack followed her out of the gates into the streets of Aberwyn, dim with the early twilight of a damp spring day. Already the lamplighters were out working, one to steady a ladder while the other climbed up to light the wicks of the oil lanterns from his coil of smoking fuse. Shopkeepers stood yawning at their doors; townsfolk hurried home with baskets of food from the marketplace or trotted out on one last errand. Every now and then a fine coach and four clattered down the narrow streets and made the students jump back against the shopfronts.

As they panted up the last steep hill, other students and the merely curious joined them from taverns or public squares, calling out the news to those still behind them. No one could believe it, that Gwerbret Ladoic would go so far as this, to let a true bard starve himself to death before his gates.

“Every bard in Eldidd will be singing his shame in a fortnight,” Mavva said.

“If it takes that long,” Alyssa said. “The news will go out with the mail coaches, I’ll wager.”

The grand dun of the gwerbrets of Aberwyn stood on the highest hill in town, as befitted the dwelling of one of the most important noblemen in the land. A wall of worked tan stone set it off from the city, but its cluster of towers and brochs stood so tall that you could see them, pointing up like hands, over the wall. Some of the towers bore a conical roof, covered in slate tiles, in the new courtly style, and glass caught the setting sun in every window. A fortune, that dun had cost the Western Fox clan, and townsfolk grumbled that bribes from the gwerbret’s law courts had paid for it all.

Just outside the main gates huddled a crowd of some hundred persons, but they kept a respectful distance from Cradoc, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground and slumped against the wall. Under his dirty gray breeches and a shirt as loose as a shroud, he was so ghastly thin, all bone and skull’s grimace, his skeletal fingers clutched round his harp, that Alyssa wondered how he managed to hold his head upright. Kneeling beside him were his two young apprentices, both in tears, and the grim-faced journeyman who’d sworn to take his place when the end came.

“Not one sign of the gwerbret and his wretched heir,” Rhys muttered. “May the gods curse them!”

“Hush!” Alyssa snapped. “You’ll get yourself transported to the Desolation for saying things like that.”

Behind them the crowd