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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 2: Leaving Home

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

Before the sun had risen, Katy O’Banion grabbed the edge of Cora’s blankets, and with a grunt peeled them violently off the bed and onto the floor. Cora awoke with a shock as the cold morning air washed over her, and she curled into a ball.

“Mother!” she hissed.

“I have told you several times to wake up, young lady,” Katy scolded. “Now, do you want this interview with Rhynn or not?”

Cora nodded her head obligingly.

“Well, then…I suspect you had best be getting up!” Katy lit an oil lamp, brightening the room significantly.

Cora rubbed her eyes and frowned at the dull embers in her fireplace. “It’s cold in here.” She glanced at the window. “Mother, it’s still dark outside! It’s too early. Devin Rhynn was supposed to meet me after breakfast.”

“True. He has breakfast before the sun rises; so then, you will too. Now, get dressed.” Katy pointed to a dark blue ruffled dress hanging on the changing partition. “In the clothes I laid out for you.” Then marched for the door. As she closed it, Katy turned back and stared at Cora for a moment, one eyebrow cocked slightly upward.

“What?” Cora asked with some irritation.

“Get. Up.” With that, Cora’s mother closed the door.

Cora sighed long and loud. She had gained precious little sleep, and now she was freezing cold and clutching her pillow. She stuck her tongue out at the door and simmered for a moment. Cora loved her mother, but the woman could drive a girl crazy with her rules. Go to bed, eat your peas, don’t stay out late, get up, clean your room. I’m nearly nineteen and old enough to take care of myself. Most certainly old enough that I don’t need to be “mothered.”

“Stupid Devin Rhynn,” she mumbled to the air, tossing her pillow aside, “Why can’t you eat breakfast when everyone else does?”

In the chill air, Cora wrapped a plush robe around her and slid her feet into a pair of fur-lined slippers. The house was dark and quiet, so she took the lamp and tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen. The homey sounds of bacon frying and water steaming in a teakettle warmed Cora’s sour attitude. A cup of hot tea would be perfect.

At the base of the stairs, Katy met her with a smile. “You’ll be fine, dear. Mind your manners and I have no doubts that Mr. Rhynn will be thoroughly impressed. Now, I’ve prepared your favorite omelet with a side of bacon and toast. That should get your day started off right.”

Cora sighed contentedly. Well, sometimes a girl needs to be mothered.

When breakfast was finished, Cora returned upstairs to don the blue dress, the wide frilly collar resting delicately on her freckled shoulders. She stopped briefly in the powder room to brush her hair, adorn it with an amethyst pin, and apply a few simple cosmetics. A few minutes later, she emerged again, looking rather regal. In the family room, she captured her parents’ attention with a twirl and a curtsey. “How do I look?”

Bain let out a low whistle. “Ye be absolutely stunnin’, Lass.” Further words failed him, as he realized that his daughter Cora looked exactly like his mother Cora. The same bright green eyes, the same fiery scarlet red hair, the freckles on the cheeks and nose. A softer version perhaps, not tempered by a life of indentured servitude and years of tromping about seeking adventure. No, Cora the Younger was more refined, and Lord Bain was pleased with that.

Katy arose from her chair by the grand fireplace with moistened eyes. “My, my…look at you. My baby Cora…going to meet the great Devin Rhynn.” She sniffed and wiped a tear from her cheek. “You make us proud, Cora. Gramma Cora would be honored to see you now, to know what you’ve done.”

Bain reached into his pocket and pulled out a small gray box. With a slightly trembling hand, he held it out to his little girl.

Cora gave her father a puzzled look and took the box. She opened the lid and gasped. Inside was an emerald ring, the exact shade of her eyes. With a joyous leap, Cora threw her arms around her father’s neck.

When the embrace was finished, she asked, “What’s it for?”

“An early birthday present,” Bain said. “A woman needs to look her best for the public.” The emphasis couldn’t have been clearer. This gift signified that her parents now viewed her as an adult.

Cora chuckled inwardly and slipped the ring on her left index finger. Perhaps the rules will be slackened now, or lifted altogether. Maybe mother had just been getting in one last power trip.

Two hours later Cora sat in The Roundhouse, a circular tavern near the shore of The Deepening and a popular hangout with the students of O’Banion’s School. The sun had risen, melting off the snowfall of the early morning. Still no Devin Rhynn. Scores of patrons had come into The Roundhouse, and nearly as many had left again, having filled their bellies with a hearty breakfast. Lorenvale was awake, the farmers had milked their cows and goats, the fishermen were setting sail on the frigid waters of the lake, and many businesses were beginning to open, but no Devin Rhynn.

Big Risa, owner and bartender extraordinaire, huffed as she waddled over to the booth where Cora sat. “Honey, ya shore a old man was gwinna meet ya here?” Big Risa was aptly named, being taller than most men, and far heavier than anyone. Rolls of fat jiggled under her oversized clothing with her every movement, and her triple chin jostled as she talked. But a kinder woman one would be hard pressed to find, and no one could best her in the kitchen. Without question, she enjoyed her line of work.

Cora nodded and thanked her for checking, but with each passing moment she was growing less sure. What if he had grown tired of waiting for me? Or…what if he had finally died? Cora shuddered at the thought and scanned the tavern again. After another hour passed, she gave up in despair and approached the bar to pay her tab.

Risa shook her head in sympathy. “I’s sorry ya done been stood up, hon. But hey, you was fan-tastic last night. I jis thought ya’d like t’know.” Cora smiled half-heartedly at her and turned for the door.

As she left the bar, feeling rather dejected, the thought occurred to Cora that she needed to return to her booth. It was the oddest thought, originating out of nowhere it seemed, but it was a pressing thought she could not shake. That, and she positively didn’t need to say anything to Risa…except…

“Risa,” Cora announced with a twinge of confusion in her voice, “could I get you to bring me—no, her—a pint of…uh…warm mead over to…where? My booth? Ok…bring it to my booth. Please?”

Big Risa placed her hands on her large hips and shook her large head sadly. “Ain’t no use drownin’ yer sorrows, Cora. ‘Specially not this early!” Risa poured the mug of mead anyway and set it on the stove to warm.

With the feeling that a dense fog had settled in her brain, Cora returned to her booth and waited until the drink arrived.

Moments later, Risa walked up with the mead. “Anything else?”

“I think…maybe that’s all?” Cora said, her emerald eyes scanning the common room. “Yes, thank you, Risa. That’s all. I’ll just sit here and wait.”

Just as Risa entered the kitchen, a middle-aged woman swung around and slipped into the booth in front of Cora. She wore a cowl over her long, dark hair that shrouded her dark eyes, but her full lips and rosy cheeks seemed to give a glow to her countenance.

“Who…are…you?” Cora managed to ask, as if she had to pull the words through a thick syrupy sludge.

“My name is not important, see,” the woman said softly, “but you will call me Ainsley.”

“Of course, Ainsley,” Cora answered with a nod. Something is not right here.

The woman grimaced slightly as if considering her next move, studying Cora’s vapid expression. “We should go somewhere less…observable, no?” She took a long draught from the mead. “Mmm, this is good. So, where should we go?”

“The school is closed for winter,” Cora stated with some effort, “but I have a key.”

The woman drained the remaining mead. “That will do fine. Fetch the key. At the school, then, you will meet me.” Ainsley stood up, placed a gold coin on the table, and hastily exited the tavern.

With surprising resolve, Cora dashed home, grabbed her key and made the long walk back across town to the school. Her mind was a morass of conflicting thoughts, a mixture of confusion and determined purpose. In her room, Cora stopped and stared, suddenly unsure why she was there or what she was supposed to be doing. But the urge to grab the school key returned with sharp clarity, purging all conflicting thoughts. Cora nodded, scooped up the key, and made haste across town to the school.

In the shadow of the porch the woman stood, singing softly to herself. Cora startled when she saw the woman. Do I know you? But before she could ponder long, clarity cleansed her mind, and she unlocked the door and stepped inside, with Ainsley closely behind her.

When she had relocked the door behind them, she motioned for Ainsley to follow her to the prep room. Carefully feeling their way down darkened halls, Cora found the dressing area behind the main stage and lit an oil lamp.

As she turned back around, an old man was standing where Ainsley once stood. He was stooped over feebly, his feet slowly scuffling across the floor. Long gray eyebrows hung over his eyes, and several hairs grew from the bridge of his nose. Not an inch of his skin escaped wrinkles, blotches, and a certain amount of translucency.

Cora furrowed her brow. Something seemed out of place, as if she were trapped in a strange dream, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. I seem to recall there being a woman here…perhaps?

In a rickety voice that sounded like chairs scraping across a metal grating, the old man addressed Cora in a thick Carolene accent as he sat wearily in a nearby chair. “There now, lassie, don’t ye be afraid. It’s me this time. As soon as I be a-releasin’ ye, all will be fine.”

And suddenly Cora had a lucid and shockingly disturbing thought. I have no idea how I got here! “What the—!” she blurted, “What in the blazes did you do to me, old man? Are…are you…you are Devin Rhynn…right?”

The old man nodded and smiled cunningly, displaying several missing teeth. A faint gleam appeared in his dim, clouded eyes. “Ye were subjugated by magic, Cora. It was for my own good. But we’re alone, and it’s gone. Now we can talk as we should.”

Cora seethed with indignation at the frail man hunched over in the chair. She wanted to slap his face, but she feared even a soft blow might kill him. A zephyr could have knocked him clean over. “How dare you! That’s mental rape, you know!”

Devin simply looked up blankly at Cora. His face registered neither concern nor guilt. “It’s no such thing; don’t be a daft fool. It’s a songsage’s most versatile tool.”

Cora tossed her arms in the air. “Why not just have a normal conversation with me instead of pretending to be that Ainsley woman.”

“Ach, Cora lass. Use yer head; everyone in the world thinks I’m dead.”

Cora put her hands on her hips and sighed with exasperation. “But you’re not.”

Devin breathed in deeply as if it were a difficult and painful task. “Nay, I’m quite alive, but that only barely. I was not a-goin’ to die afore I had squarely set me eyes on ye…” he breathed, “and yer pretty face. It seems I have come at last to the right place.”

Cora opened her mouth to reply, but paused, her mouth slightly agape. She squinted at the old man, studying him. “Are…” This is going to sound stupid. “Are you…rhyming?”

The old songsage chuckled. “After a hundred years of rhythm and rhyme, it just seems to come out, well…” he paused, his eyes twinkling.

“All the time,” Cora finished for him, a wry grin forming as she rolled her eyes. Though still on her guard, the light moment allayed her worst fears as she sat across from him. “All right, I suppose I’ll stick around if…you promise to stay clear of my mind.”

Devin nodded warmly, almost apologetically.

“But I have to know,” Cora said, leaning forward, “Why the ruse? Why are you pretending to be dead? I mean…and please take this in the best possible way…you should be dead.”

The old songsage smiled again, but it was not genuine, as if trickery were all he knew anymore. The pain behind it was evident. “A songsage’s life is filled with jokes; so it seemed a-fittin’ I would end with a hoax.”

“I guess…” Cora said with an unsatisfied stare.

Devin sighed heavily. “I was tired and longed to be free, but I bargained for life so ye I could see. When I heard ye was born I made it my goal to see ye raised up, if it cost me my soul. I watched as ye grew into quite the exact match of yer Gramma, as a matter of fact. And now at the end as ye’ve come of age, I’m ready to teach ye to be a songsage.”

Cora sat quietly for several minutes, watching the old man fiddle with his eyebrows and gum his tongue. I suppose it’s sweet that he prolonged his life just so he could watch me grow up, so he could teach me his craft. But my parents want me to be a professional musician and to play in the courts of nobles. They have no interest in me living a wandering life like Gramma Cora…

Suddenly, Cora leaned forward with eagerness. “Please, Master Rhynn, tell me about Gramma Cora.”

For the next several hours, Devin Rhynn recounted many tales about Cora the Elder, pausing often to catch his thin breath. Cora grew increasingly sympathetic toward the old man’s frailty, but in light of his physical condition, his sharp wit and incessant ability to rhyme everything he said thoroughly impressed her. As the minutes marched by, she sat enthralled by the master songsage—a link to her past and namesake—interrupting only seldom to inquire about specific details. He told of the shipwreck before the elder Cora’s adventures had even begun, of their daring escape from an island of cannibals, and of their meeting with Bruce McNeal, the pirate who eventually sired Cora’s father. He told of her journeys through the Kingdom of Lothania and southward into Trelini, culminating in a battle with an ancient red dragon in the crags of the Spindles of northern Yilasa. And there was the Sword of the Coast…

Cora slid forward in her chair as excited prickles crawled up her spine. “The Sword of the Coast! Where is it? Father doesn’t know what happened to it.”

Devin shrugged as his head hung a bit lower. “Cora put it somewhere, but by the Temple of Might, I donna know if it’s in Cer Halcyon, Cer Vedrys, or Cer Breite. Could be anywhere on this sphere of earth. ‘Twas a simple sword, but to her it held much worth.”

Cora was just about to excuse herself to return home when Devin reached up and touched her arm. “I be a-needin’ to leave ye soon, but not afore we’ve played a tune. I’d like to hear Tanasha’s Keep. ‘Tis a tune to make a dragonspawn weep. And while ye sing and play yer song, would ye mind if I played along?”

Cora nearly swooned. Would I! She gladly obliged the master songsage an opportunity to accompany her, though she doubted he would be very proficient at his age and condition. She motioned to a nearby closet where the school kept some instruments, but before any words had left her mouth, Devin Rhynn twiddled his fingers and spoke an arcane syllable. To Cora’s utter amazement, a finely crafted and lavishly gilded and tasseled lute appeared in the old songsage’s hand. With but another syllable, it self-tuned to perfect pitch. Cora could only gape. He knows so much beyond what they taught in school.

Cora grabbed up the lamp and carried it onto the stage. As she suspected, no one had moved the harp since her performance. Devin shuffled in behind her, humming softly from memory the refrain from the ballad. There probably wasn’t a song in the world he didn’t know. After cracking a few knuckles, Cora settled into the performer’s chair, drew in a long breath and closed her eyes. With Devin’s soft humming behind her, she quickly found her inner peace, and expertly stroked the opening chords.

Every chance she could find for the next six weeks, Cora met with the old songsage, who seemed to have a different disguise each time. It was a necessary ruse to maintain anonymity, for only Cora and her parents knew Devin’s secret.

Devin taught her many of the “old” songs, most of them the type that would curl her mother’s toenails. Usually, Cora enjoyed these rowdy, boisterous tunes filled with taboo material. But many days she rather preferred the quiet solemnity and contemplativeness of the “higher” songs she had learned in school. Devin admitted to not knowing as many of those—he had never been formally educated and wasn’t sure he approved of the idea. Most songsages ended up playing the taverns anyway.

One night they carried on until the early hours of the morning. When Cora realized how late it was, she flew home in a panic. She quietly closed the front door behind her, and was surprised to find her parents still awake. Their voices reverberated down the darkened stairs, echoes of a heated dispute. Dread washed over Cora as she crept toward the fireplace to warm herself before retiring to bed. She could not recall the last time her parents had raised their voices, let alone engaged in full-blown argument. The sound was unsettling.

In the dim light of a dwindling fireplace, Cora noticed an elaborate envelope with gold filigree on the coffee table. It was addressed to “Cora’s family,” which struck her as somewhat disrespectful toward the Lord of Lorenvale. But it did give her the right to read it.

With inexplicable tension, Cora took it from the table. This is fancy; somebody’s wealthy. It had been opened, and the sender’s name was clearly marked across the back: “Durk Huxel.” Who’s that? Cora slid the letter out and scanned the page. It was a simple, flowing script, and she began to read. Halfway though, she released a small gasp and placed her hand to her lips.

Lord Bain O’Banion and family,

I hope this letter finds you well. It has been a long time since I have seen you, but be confident that I have often thought of you. My name is Durk Huxel, and I was page to your mother Cora for many years. I accompanied her on most of her travels across the southern lands of Trelini, and witnessed her adventuring party slay the great red dragon, Vaerodarrath. I myself had no part in this slaying, of course, being but a page. I remained in Cora’s employ until the day she left Carolan, at which time she gave me several costly items.

Most of these items were mine to keep, and I have been especially blessed by her generosity. However, one of those items I was charged to preserve until such day that certain criteria were met. I have never used this item, nor could I if I had wanted to. I have in my possession the Sword of the Coast, and I believe the time is soon that I will let it go.

I have heard some rumors that your daughter has recently graduated from Cora’s school, and is now making a name for herself locally. I have no doubt that she will excel at following her grandmother’s footsteps and thereby claim her heritage, honoring both you and her namesake.

When she is ready, I may be reached at the Little Red Flagon in Cer Halcyon.


Durk Huxel, Esquire

“The Sword of the Coast!” Cora whispered excitedly to the empty room. Forgetting her earlier concerns, she quickly bounded for the stairs, intent on sharing the good news with her parents.

Voices still echoed down the stairs, and Cora paused as anxiety surged anew. I wonder if they’re arguing over this? But why? That’s the sword Father thought was lost, the one from Gramma’s legends. Of course…Huxel implied that he expected I would pursue adventure, like Gramma Cora. That probably went over like a—

A door opened upstairs, and Katy O’Banion suddenly appeared at the top of the stairs. Upon seeing Cora standing near the bottom, Katy froze in her hurried descent, a look of confusion and concern lining her eyes. “What…I thought you were in bed. What are you doing up at this time of ni—” Then she noticed Cora’s clothing. “Young lady, have you been out all night?”

The household curfew rules were simple and well-known. Cora released a resigned sigh. Cripe. I’m grounded for a month.

“Has it really been all night?” she asked with a small chuckle. Maybe Mother’ll buy it.

Katy saw right through the feigned innocence. “Don’t be coy with me, Cora. Your meeting with Master Rhynn should have ended at nightfall. You’ve got exactly one chance to tell me what you’ve been doing since.”

The truth was Cora was having such a wonderful time listening to the master songsage’s storytelling that she completely forgot to go home at a reasonable hour. But the implication in her mother’s tone was that something ignoble might have been happening, something that might bring shame upon the O’Banion house. In a small town like Lorenvale, word spread quickly. Juicy gossip like wildfire.

Annoyance welled up in Cora’s mind, irritation that her parents still didn’t trust her. I thought they saw me as a woman… “I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Cora replied before she could check herself.

Her mother’s eyes narrowed, and Cora wished she could capture those words and stuff them back down her throat. Coming from a long line of fishermen as Katy did, she could be short of patience and long of tongue. “That’s your answer? I give you exactly one chance, and that is what you choose to say? I’ll be the judge of whether or not you were doing anything wrong, young lady. I don’t need you wiping your slate clean until I’ve had a good look at it. Do you really think you can sugar-coat your actions? Do you think I don’t know what’s going on? Your father is the Lord of Lorenvale, Cora, and that means I hear everything. Or did you think I wouldn’t find out that Daley Morehouse has his eyes on you?”

“What?” Cora interjected without effect.

“And that had better be all he has on you, Cora! I swear on the Maker of Light that if you two have gone so far as to hold hands, I’ll swoop down on the Morehouse clan like a falcon on a field mouse.”


“Don’t you ‘mother’ me, Cora Eileen O’Banion! I’ve got half a mind to go over there right now and give Daley—and his drunk father—a piece of my mind. If he thinks he can court you without my permission, if he thinks for one moment that he can keep you up at all hours… What was he doing anyway? Talking? Hah, I haven’t heard that squit say two words’ worth of sense in seven years. So I can promise he wasn’t talking to you. No, there’s only two things—three things—a Morehouse wants to do with his mouth: eat, spit, and kiss. And he won’t be doing any of those things with you!”

“Mother!” Cora growled.

“Kathryn?” Lord Bain said with a puzzled frown as he entered the landing from the master bedroom. “Keep yer voice down. What’s this fussin’ all about?”

“Your daughter was out all night with Daley Morehouse doing who-knows-what and likely bringing shame upon us. I’ve a mind to throttle that lad!”

It was never lost on Lord Bain that when Cora or Richard were in trouble, they were suddenly his children. He might have laughed, but the implications of this scene were no laughing matter. “Cora, have ye been out with the young Morehouse lad?”

“No!” Cora barked with an especially icy glare at her mother. “As you know, I was with Devin Rhynn, and he was telling me about Gramma Cora and Blair deBruce and Loren McBailey, and we were singing ballads, tavern songs, courtly duets, and sea shanties, and he even taught me a few spellsongs that are useful to any accomplished songsage, and I simply lost track of the rinkin time! I’m sorry!”

“Watch your mouth, Cora,” Katy scolded.

“Well…I wasn’t kissing Daley at any rate, nor would I want to. He’s a fink. And I’m sorry about the language, but can you give me some benefit of the doubt? I truly didn’t realize how late it was. Devin leaves in a couple of days, and he’s trying to teach me as much as possible. There’s just so much to learn if I’m going to be a songsage.”

The pause that followed was prolonged far past anyone’s comfort.

Cora’s concern grew with the waiting. I really shouldn’t have said that.

“Me dear lassie…” Bain began, and Cora knew she wouldn’t like whatever was to follow. Lord Bain glanced quickly at his wife. “We be a-thinkin’ your talents be better suited as a concert performer. Isn’t that what ye be in school fer?”

“Yes, that’s what you had me in school for, Father. And I likely would’ve done it, too. But I met Devin Rhynn, the legendary songsage of all Arelatha, who also happened to accompany Gramma Cora on some of her journeys. He came all this way to see me. He showed me another side of performance: the magical side. The side that makes kings cry, warriors lay down their swords, and dragons sleep. The side that holds audiences captive for days, that sways masses—”

Katy tossed her arms into the air and spun on her heels with a loud harrumph. “This is what I was talking about, Lord Bain!”

The bedroom door slammed behind her, leaving Bain staring uncomfortably at his daughter. “Cora, go sit yerself at the dinin’ room table. We’ll be a-comin’ down in a moment.”

Cora didn’t have to wait long. Her parents descended the stairs together, doubtless to portray that they were in one accord, and took seats opposite her. Her mother’s eyebrows were angled ever so slightly downward in an endless struggle between relaxing and furrowing into a full glare. Cora knew that whatever was roiling around in the woman’s mind would come spilling out of her mouth with the slightest provocation.

Lord Bain sagged from exhaustion: it was extremely late and the two women he loved most were at odds with each other. Again. He had to broker peace, keep the discussions civil, and hopefully reach agreement before the sun rose. Which was going to happen in a couple of hours. Toss in his own thoughts on the matter and the need to protect his station and reputation as lord, and Bain O’Banion truly had a tough negotiation to handle.

“Father…” Cora began, but Bain held up his hand.

“Cora, me lass,” Lord Bain said with a quick glance at his wife. “We know how much music be a-meanin’ to ye, and yer right good at it, too. Better ‘an most. ‘Twould be a shame to spoil such talent fer a life outside o’ music. We see that the Maker be a-blessin’ ye with these gifts, and that means ye need to use them. No more o’ this talk ‘bout songsagin’. Ye need to be a-settlin’ down and makin’ a good life, an’ bein’ a musician…well…that’s somethin’.”

Cora bit her tongue. Musician, my arse. “Devin Rhynn says I’ve got even more talent with spellsongs. He says I’m a quick study…” With a rapid note and flash of her fingers, Cora produced a shimmering mote of light in the palm of her hand. Her parents’ faces glowed in the radiance and shadows danced on the walls behind them.

Katy fidgeted in her seat, clearly wanting to liberate a torrent of words crashing at the gates of her lips.

Lord Bain smiled weakly. “We be a-thinkin’ ye ought not be a-seein’ Devin Rhynn no more.”

Cora extinguished the light, throwing the room into darkness and hiding the anguish that flashed across her face. “But he leaves in two days,” she pleaded. “There’s so much to learn! It wouldn’t be fair to—”

“No, Cora,” Katy interjected with as much composure as she could manage. “No. He has taught you enough.”

“But…but you were excited when he first arrived, and happy that I got to speak with him.”

“That was before he started filling your head with all that nonsense.”

Cora glared. “It’s not nonsense, Mother. Being a songsage is a very worthwhile pursuit.”

“Not for you!”

“How can you say that?” Cora objected, “Gramma Cora was a songsage, and I’m named after her. Nine Hells, the school is named after her. And now…” Cora pulled Huxel’s letter from her lap—she had crinkled it in a tightening grip—and tossed it onto the table as if it were the last king in her hand of Knights. “…this letter says I’m to follow in her footsteps and claim the Sword of the Coast!”

Cora’s parents stared at the letter as it tried to unfold from its crumpled state. Katy made a noise under her breath that sounded like she had swallowed a fly.

“Well?” Cora insisted, “don’t you want me to follow my namesake?”

Katy nearly came out of her chair. “What, and break your father’s heart again?!”

Cora felt the words pound her into submission.

Lord Bain placed a hand on Katy’s shoulder and looked up slowly while his wife continued to mutter angrily to herself. In the candlelight, it was difficult for Cora to tell whether his eyes registered sympathy or severity. “Me mother died bein’ a songsage.”

“I thought she retired here,” Cora said softly.

Bain sighed. “Aye, she did, but her enemies were not content to leave her be. They pursued her, and they killed her. So no, I donna want ye to follow her in this path.”

The room fell silent for several minutes.

Cora contemplated everything that had brought them to this point. Her name, Devin’s visits and instruction, the letter, the sword—it all seemed like a good omen, like the Bones had rolled skulls for her. The sword was an especially good bonus, an answer to a lifelong question.

“Father, you’ve been looking for the Sword of the Coast your whole life. Don’t you want me to get it for you?”

“Not if it means I be a-losin’ ye.”

Whether her father intended it or not, the words smacked Cora squarely between the eyes. I could die just like she did. It’s a risky life, to be sure. Like Gramma Cora, I could wander and roam, seeking adventure where it may be found, or…I could team up with professional mercenaries for a legal commission, going with purpose and a goal. Either way, Cora realized taming the wild places involved facing real dangers, from roving bands of marauders to the loathsome dragonkin, the twisted, feral corruptions of Creation. There was ultimate freedom in the pure adventure, but commissioned freeblading had its rewards, too. Besides immediate fame and riches, there was immortality to be gained in the annals of kings, the hearts of a grateful people, and the verse of troubadours for ages to come. In Cora’s view, there was no higher prize.

“Maybe I can acquire the sword for you without being a songsage. Let me go meet this Huxel and at least see what is required.” That’s a reasonable compromise.

Lady Kathryn clearly wasn’t giving in, but Lord Bain nodded. “I be considerin’ that. Now, it be high time we all be a-gettin’ in bed.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Cuauhtérroc opened his eyes slowly and looked about him. He was on a bed inside a small room. In the distance, he heard the sounds of ocean waves and squawking gulls. And the room seemed to be moving. There were voices, muffled as if coming from another room nearby. It was dark except for dim moonlight shining through a window. He tried to sit up, but a searing pain shot through his side and he collapsed…

He awoke once more to bright light. There were voices again, and he listened intently. It was a language he didn’t understand, though he had heard it before. It sounded like the language of the fair-skinned folk who occupied Mazachtitlán, but through the walls he could not be certain. As he listened, he noticed that his left arm was wrapped and held fast to his torso with binding and that he was covered with a linen sheet. He remembered the pain in his side, and tried gingerly to arise, but he could not. He looked about the room and saw a bed similar to his on his right, just under a small round window. To his left against the wall there was a large wooden box as tall as a man, with a door on its front side. Between that and the door leading out of the room stood a small table holding a pitcher full of water and some white folded towels.

He tried listening to the voices again, but they were too muted. The sea gulls continued their incessant banter overhead, and the waves…he strained to hear the waves. There was something odd about the sound of the waves, like they were crashing against the side of the room rather than the shore.

Thoughts of the war began to return to Cuauhtérroc. He recalled the warrior women from the Amurrak tribes that weren’t supposed to exist. He remembered the great lizard and the rider he slayed with a spear. He remembered fleeing to safety where Cuauhéntax, the son of the Elder, told him to gather an army from Mazachtitlán. The army! By the Great Father, I still have to gather the army!

Cuauhtérroc pushed through the stabbing pain and sat up. His torso was wrapped in white linens, but on the right side a steadily growing spot of red was forming. His right thigh and his left shin also had been bandaged, and to his amazement, he found many of his lesser wounds had already scabbed over. I have been here many days! I must get to the battle. He stood, but his legs buckled, and the panther warrior collapsed on the floor.

An hour later Cuauhtérroc lay facing the ceiling of the little room. Someone had returned him to his bed. His side hurt tremendously, and there were fresh wrappings around him. He sighed, frustrated, and tried to sit up.

“Please lie down,” a voice said in Cuauhtérroc’s language. On the bed by the little round window sat a fair-skinned man with black hair in a rim-cut around the crown of his head. He wore loose-fitting clothing of a medium gray, edged with white. Intricate patterns in the same color surrounded a single longsword embroidered on the man’s vest, which overlaid a kite shield, together emphasizing both the offensive and defensive sides of battle. Cuauhtérroc had seen the symbol before; this was a holy man of one of the religions of the fair-skinned folk.

They seemed to have many gods, and this one was called the Best Chun. These holy men from across the sea were kind and had helped Cuauhtérroc’s people for years. They were also determined to make him and his people deny their ancestors to worship this Best Chun of the sword and shield. But to deny one’s ancestors was to deny life itself, which was given from the Great Father of the Fire Mountains. A panther warrior may as well jump into the Venomous Lake or drink the milk of the cahrato as deny his lineage.

“I have to get the army,” Cuauhtérroc explained.

“You are sick and hurt. Lie on bed.” The holy man arose and approached Cuauhtérroc. “Two days, panther warrior, and you try walk.” His mastery of the Audrian language needed some work.

“Where is the pelt?” Cuauhtérroc asked in a sudden panic. Losing that meant being disgraced before his whole tribe and having to begin anew his tests of manhood.

“In…clothes-room,” Myrick said, pointing to the tall box. “How are you named?”

“Cuauhtérroc, son of Cuauhtoolah.”

“I am called Alton Myrick, of the Bastion of Faith. I am watch care you so you get well.”

Cuauhtérroc furrowed his brow and stared at the holy man. “You are trying to heal me?”

Myrick nodded.

“Does your god have healing magic, Alton Myrick?”

“Yes, he helps me to heal. But you have poison, and I…how do I say…I no learn to heal for poison. I need more time with the Bastion.”

Cuauhtérroc shook his head in dismay. Any village shaman could cure poisons; clearly this Best Chun isn’t very powerful.

“Where am I?” he asked, looking around at the wooden walls and ceiling and the curious little round window. Cuauhtérroc had been to Mazachtitlán a number of times, but he remembered all the buildings being made of stone, and the windows were square.

“This boat is called Queen Ahlinda, from Elandra,” Myrick said. “Do not fear. We not at Elandra. We are at Mazachtitlán…on the boat. It is cleaner here for the healing you.”

The panther warrior growled. “How long have I been here?”

“This is the second day, Cuauhtérroc. We find you on outside of city walls and bring you here. You say ‘army’ many times, and ‘Amurrak.’ You lose much blood and are weak. But you heal more in two days.”

Cuauhtérroc frowned at the wooden cabinet. “Give me the pelt.” The whole affair frustrated Cuauhtérroc to no end. Feeling helpless—being helpless—was a sign of weakness, and panther warriors were not weak. Many of his kin were valiantly defending their village and some were dying while he sat idly waiting for this accursed Amurrak poison to leave him. They were going to pay for this.

Later that evening, Cuauhtérroc awoke in a cold sweat to the sound of commotion on the ship. It sounded like many people were running around and shouting on the deck. He snarled at the ceiling. He understood so little of their language, and with several voices shouting at once, he could make out nothing of what was being said. “Maltok!” he roared.

A familiar and alarming scent reached the panther warrior’s nose, and Cuauhtérroc froze in dread. Smoke. A haze of light gray seeped through the open door to his room. In his condition, if the ship burned and sank, he would certainly not survive.

The warrior spirit in him enlivened. He was able to sit without reopening his wounds, and his focus drove him to ignore both pain and queasiness. He took up his pelt and draped it carefully about his shoulders, fastening the clasp at his chest. If he sank with the ship, he would go down a panther warrior to the end. He struggled to his feet and reached out for something to steady himself. Gingerly, painfully, he shuffled to the door, and growled when he saw a steep flight of steps leading to the main deck above. It was going to be pure torture going up those.

From somewhere within the ship a loud rasping of metal on metal began, a rapid clink-clink-clink-clink, accompanied by a vibration he could feel on the steps and in the handrail. When the rasping and vibration ceased with a final thunk, Cuauhtérroc reached the top step. He looked around at all the scurrying people, most of them shirtless and sun-bronzed, but several dressed in various shades of gray and white. He wondered why, with this thick smoke, he didn’t feel any warmth or see any glow from the fire.

With all his remaining energy, Cuauhtérroc hobbled out onto the deck, and he cried out, not in pain but in anguish and rage, his eyes wide in horror.

Mazachtitlán was burning.

The forest behind the city was burning.

Cuauhtérroc’s entire world was in flames.

All around the city people were fleeing for their lives, and all of them were being chased by women clad in leather armor, a few of which were riding great lizards. His village was already lost. All his kin were dead or dying or fighting for their lives. The women, the children, the Elder. All had died to these foul Amurrak women because he had failed to raise an army. He had shown weakness at the city walls and had remained in the comforting care of fair-skinned folk while his people were being slaughtered and burned.

Cuauhtérroc, son of Cuauhtoolah and panther warrior of the Great Father, filled his lungs and bellowed a cry of grief, shame, and seething hatred.

Suddenly, to his right and left, huge cream-colored canvasses dropped as sailors quickly stretched taut the ropes that held their bottom corners and tied them off along the rails. Seconds later, the sails filled with air, and the ship lurched forward with a series of creaks and groans that sounded as if it might break apart. Cuauhtérroc held fast to the rail, his eyes locked onto the mortifying scene along the coastline of his homeland. His people were dying in there. His lands were being defiled. Thousands of emotions raced through him, but rising above all was despair.

The Queen Ahlinda quickly departed the docks of the burning city that would be the grave of a thousand people by morning. Cuauhtérroc forgot his pain and stood transfixed on that morbid scene, his resolve hardening into obsidian.

He would gather the army, just as Cuauhéntax had commanded. But he would not save his people; instead, he would return to exact a mighty and terrible vengeance.

As they sailed away, Cuauhtérroc watched Mazachtitlán burn until it was but an orange speck on the dark horizon.

For two weeks they sailed open waters, but were held up by a naval blockade just south of Wyverncliff Isle in the Pirate Crags. During those weeks Cuauhtérroc recovered from his war wounds, but the wounds of his soul festered, gnawing at him until he became sullen and unresponsive. Somewhere on the ocean, his obsidian resolve had cracked.

Three days the ship harbored at Wyverncliff Isle, waiting approval from the blockade to pass northward to the mainland. While they waited out the blockade, Cuauhtérroc’s countenance darkened until a palatable gloom clouded his cabin. Myrick visited the panther warrior regularly, as was his custom. But this time he never mentioned the Bastion, justice, or even revenge. Instead, he stormed into the room, slammed the door shut, and stood hovering over Cuauhtérroc. With fierceness never before displayed, he addressed the savage where it mattered. “Look at you, Cuauhtérroc!” he yelled. “You are a warrior, a panther warrior. I not know many things about your people, but I know no panther warrior sits like this! Get up, or you will die.”

Cuauhtérroc raised his downcast eyes to face the cassock—a first since the fall of Mazachtitlán—and Myrick’s courage quavered. Cuauhtérroc stood to face Myrick, rising to his full height, nearly a foot taller than the cassock.

“I failed my people!” he shouted in return. “I am not worthy of this pelt! I am not a warrior! You do not understand; you cannot understand. You know Best Chun. You do not know our ways. I have brought disgrace upon my people and shame upon my own head. I am not a panther warrior!”

Though shorter of stature, Myrick reached deep from his faith in the Maker to tower over the savage. “Cuauhtérroc, you not kill your people. The Amurraks kill your people. You not burn your lands. The Amurraks burn your lands. No feel shame for things you did. The Amurraks did this! I not understand all your ways, but do you understand me? The Amurraks did this, not you! You are brave. You are strong. You are a panther warrior!

Cuauhtérroc remained silent, glowering at Myrick. The cassock glared right back at him. Slowly, Cuauhtérroc realized Alton Myrick had it right.

In response, the panther warrior redirected his pent-up rage upon a wicker chair until it was a pile of kindling. Then he got back in Myrick’s face, and the cassock braced for impact. “What can I do?” Cuauhtérroc roared. “I am the only one of my people, and here I sit on this cursed ship. I need an army of warriors to destroy the Amurraks, but you take me to the lands of the pale people.”

The cassock hardly backed down, though beads of nervous sweat began to trickle down his forehead. “You want army, Cuauhtérroc? Get one! Become great warrior in the lands we go, and make you an army.”

Cuauhtérroc growled fiercely into Myrick’s face and saw nothing but the strength of ironwood trees in the cassock’s return glare. In resignation, he collapsed on the edge of his bed. “Maltok! I cannot even speak the language.” To illustrate, the savage added in the cassock’s tongue, “Me no talk good. No make war-men.”

Myrick sat beside him, and replied in the common language of the mainland, “I will teach you. And I will teach you about war in my lands. I serve in the Bastion of Faith, which teaches above all that we must defend the faith, the helpless, and the weak. We stand in defense of all the Maker has given us, and we train the world’s elite warriors for battle. I am also a warrior. I will teach you everything you need to know, but you must be willing to learn it. And when you have become a great warrior in the mainland, you just might find a way to bring an army back to your lands and destroy these Amurraks.”

Though Cuauhtérroc caught almost nothing Myrick said, he understood the earnestness and sincerity with which he spoke. The cassock was done cajoling; he had withstood Cuauhtérroc to his face without fear. Cuauhtérroc knew a warrior when he saw one, and Myrick had a warrior’s heart, even if he was fair of skin. Very well then, I will listen to this man.

On the fourth day of their layover at Wyverncliff Isle, the Queen Ahlinda was finally released to continue its journey north to the mainland. As the days marched along, Cuauhtérroc learned much under Myrick’s tutelage, growing in his mastery of the common mainland tongue, and gaining a basic understanding of how “civilized” countries conducted their affairs. He asked a great many questions about their military capabilities, and Myrick, as a cassock of the Bastion, was a capable teacher.

The Bastion of Faith, Myrick explained, trained its holy men—cassocks—to do many mighty and powerful things, but engaging in valorous war was their specialty. “Perhaps, with study and devotion,” the cassock coaxed, “you could become a servant of The Bastion and fight in the Maker’s might.”

Cuauhtérroc shook his head emphatically. He would make war; there was no doubt about that, but it would be for the Great Father of the Fire Mountains, for his ancestors, and for his people, not a god of the fair folk, no matter how warlike he was.

When the southern shores of Valmoor Bay first came into view, Cuauhtérroc felt an eager anticipation swell in his chest. From here forward, everything would be new and strange, and he would be a stranger. Later that day, Cuauhtérroc stood in speechless awe as the ship entered the mouth of the Dragontail Canal. And Myrick struggled mightily to quantify a man-made channel nearly a quarter-mile wide that connected Valmoor Bay to The Deepening over a hundred miles farther north.

Several small villages flanked either side of the canal, with lookouts, fishmongers’ wharves, and quaint buildings dotting the landscape. Cuauhtérroc fell silent with amazement upon seeing the massive pair of iron walls that interrupted the lazy flow of water every twenty miles, locks that gradually changed the canal’s level and gave ship traffic a controlled way to ascend the elevation from the bay to the lake.

Myrick realized some things are best left unspoken and let the savage simply be amazed.But as their destination drew near, Myrick began to expound upon these “civilized” lands where the fair-skinned people lived, a land called Arelatha, a place of staggering richness, diversity, and activity.It overwhelmed the young warrior, but it also inspired him.If there was a way to destroy the Amurraks, he would find it here.If he was to amass an army, it would come from these countless peoples, numbering into figures he had never even imagined.

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