The Return of Tachlanad, Book 1, Sword of Names
Once upon a time in the beleaguered land of Lothria… A princess under a magical aura, her absent-minded sorcerer grandfather; a conflicted warrior prince; a young ne’er-do-well who finds an unlikely friend while on an impossible quest; an imprisoned queen, her betrayed king, their enchanted son and his beautiful enchantress; half-human man-eating rebel slaves; a band of blood-thirsty assassins…and Tachlanad, the legendary Sword of Names, missing for generations…
When the queen receives an omen, it can mean only one thing: the fate of all she loves hangs in the balance. The land and its people will topple into chaos if a tenuous alliance cannot be preserved. Her husband misled by sinister forces, her son gone missing, she sends her daughter and father on a journey far to the west to reach the impregnable stronghold of “the True King in Hiding.” There they will seal the truce with her marriage to the old king’s unwilling son and unite against the evil power that seeks to subjugate them. Unless the Imperon has his way.
An epic fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers, The Return of Tachlanad is the first book in the “Sword of Names” series.
With a shiver of dread, the Queen of Lothria clenched her hands on top of the tower wall and turned her gaze to the east. Far in the distance—beyond steep, rocky cliffs, beyond the basin of a harbor below—sky and sea retained a dark oneness. The stillness in the air enveloped her like the cool mist clinging to her skin. Then slowly, an orange orb crowned the horizon. A swath of luminous red crystals danced on the water in its wake, and dawn spread like flaming tendrils across the receding darkness. Her breath caught in her throat as night surrendered its hold. The fine hairs on her arms prickled.
Rivers will burn.
“We have been undone.” Her voice rasped on a whisper. “All is as I saw in my dream.”
The old man at her side laid a warm hand on her shoulder. His silence told her he had seen the omen as well, and yet he remained soundless, watching.
She looked up at the black outline of her father’s face in the brightening morning. “You must take my daughter now and do as we discussed.”
“Lysienthe…!” The disbelief in his sighed reply sent a wave of panic coiling into her very center. “The king…?” His voice hoarse with urgency, he tightened his grip on her. “Did you not warn the king?”
Hot tears surprised her with the harshness of their sting and suddenness. Where cold fear had restrained her as if in shackles, a pang, deep and long, now rippled. “I could say nothing to convince him.” She turned away lest he see the weakness overcoming her in a debilitating wave. She shivered in her shift, hugging herself against the chill.
The memory of her husband’s breath on her neck yet clung on her senses, its warmth rustling the loosened hair from the braid that fell over her shoulder. His words, with their sincerity and single-minded resolve, resonated still on her aching heart. His smile, forever seared in her mind’s eye, moved her with its tinge of sadness mixed with resolve. The sweet taste of his kiss lingered on her lips.
“Wolthar says he has no reason to fear deception.” She labored for calm and closed her eyes, fighting back images in her mind. “He said his course is set. He said no price is too high for our chance at a lasting peace.”
“Oh, my dear child….” The old man gently turned her around and opened his arms to her, the trace of his expression reflecting the anguish in his voice. Pressing her cheek to his chest, Lysienthe succumbed to her father’s embrace. For a long, silent moment, he held her close, warming her with his dark cloak and his hands on her back. “Many years have come and gone,” he said in a quiet voice, “since you placed such faith in your gifts.” He took a step back, holding her at arms’ length, his large hands strong on her arms. “Why now?”
Fighting the panic that seized her, she shuddered. “It was fear for my children. Fear made the denanth strong in me…my gift…my curse….”
The light of the red sky cast his face in shadows. His jaw tensed, then relaxed, and his eyes shone black as fenstones. “It has always been strong in you, my daughter. True and wondrous gifts you have been blessed with and not a curse at all.”
Lysienthe breathed deeply of morning’s raw chill and, with its release, all fear and panic melted away, leaving her with a clarity of thought she had never known. She had foreseen all that had come to pass, and that which had yet to occur. But she had no power to prevent the events from unfolding; she had not been blessed with that particular gift.
“Then I beg you to trust me.” She raised her head and squared her shoulders. “Soon it will be light. Take Elthwen to my sister, by any means you see fit. I will distract her maid.”
“To Morolath…?” Her father backed away. “The girl will go kicking and screaming if she goes at all. I told you, if the plan was to see her to the fortress at Elyndrus, I would take her there.”
“The Imperon will expect that. I fear he and his lackeys will stop at nothing to prevent our alliance with Elyndrus.” She grasped his hand in her two. “See her safely to Morolath Island. That is all I ask. Protect my daughter…”
“You needn’t worry on that count. I would die before I let anything happen—”
“…by any means you see fit.”
He stared back, eyes glinting shards of light. “Of course you do not mean—”
“By any means.”
He drew in a slow breath and expelled it in a short burst. “I have taken an oath to the king, as have you.”
“Oaths, it seems, can be broken. You must awaken your crystal. As your queen…. No….” She hesitated, reluctant but compelled to continue. “As a ghathwen…I…I command you.”
“If you put it like that, I have no choice but to….” Her father fell silent, head bowed in contemplation. “The use of such power has been outlawed. Surely, you—”
She tugged on his hand. “I know what is at stake! You know it as well. As soon as Elthwen is safe at Morolath, you will go to Elyndrus and plead our cause to the old king. He will listen to you. You are Nochlan, Eryth Rhanthir, a man of great gifts.” She added softly, “At least you were…once.”
“That was long ago,” he said with a slow shake of his head. “Now I am known as Old Nochlan, the queen’s doddering father. I hardly remember how to….” He sighed and then spoke with resignation in his voice. “And what of you?” He found her eyes with his shadowed gaze.
“No harm will befall me.”
“But your place—”
“My place is here. My son needs—”
“Elthric is lost.” He flapped a hand in the air to punctuate his words. “His uncle has twisted him. You said so yourself.”
She paused and said in a measured voice, “Then I mean to untwist him.”
Nochlan, Eryth Rhanthir, raised his head and opened his mouth, as if he would protest. Instead he simply nodded with a forced sense of duty. “As you wish.” He set his jaw. “My duty is to abide by the old laws.”
He made a move to turn, but she could not bring herself to release his hand. “No, Father…I beg you, not as your queen, not as a priestess of Morolath, but as your daughter….” She ached to tell him of her fear. For herself and her husband, for her children. For everyone. The anguish deep inside cried out to him, of the hopelessness and the darkness to come, all she had foreseen. She held her breath at the hope of comfort in the words she longed to hear. But the moment of weakness dissipated before she could give voice to her thoughts.
His hand slipped from hers. For an instant, he lingered as if sensing the unspoken turmoil churning inside her, waiting for her to speak, and then he hurried off, leaving her utterly alone and shivering.
From high in her tower, Lysienthe gazed out over the brightening harbor where the rising fog revealed shrouded forms of longships moored along the quays. Dark forms scurried to and fro among them. “My dearest husband, my love, my lord,” she said softly, “may Nirmanath, Mother of All Things, watch over you.”
* * *
Lysienthe could not bring herself to protest such an inappropriate display of merriment. For days prior to the king’s departure, tensions ran high in both the household and garrison. The unexpected arrival the previous day of an envoy from the Imperon of Nortlunde and his entourage added to the stress with their demands, their coarseness, and their arrogance.
Yet none of her attendants—not even her captain of the guard—had reason to question a feast in honor of the truce to come that would mark an end to the rebellion in the north, even if, in her mind, all seemed more than a little premature. A bit of levity, her own women agreed, was long overdue; she could not argue that point. Yet she sensed a more sinister undertone. Othreld, her husband’s brother, showed none of the self-control, which now in retrospect screamed of his deception.
The longships had barely cleared the stone jetties at the mouth of the harbor when he announced his plan for a celebration. The last of the vessels had yet to disappear over the horizon, its square sail emblazoned with the blood-red dragon of Wolthar their king. A hundred oars dipped in unison into a dead calm sea, the polished bronze of her crew’s shields and ornaments gleaming in the windless morning, until they vanished into the place where sky meets sea. But to Othreld, they were long gone. To what fate, even her gifts could not tell her.
Evening dragged on before night settled at last over the great hall. By flickering light of the torches along the walls and braziers’ red glowing coals, the revelry continued unabated. Sitting at her customary place at Wolthar’s table, the queen fingered the stem of her silver goblet and watched the blur of light shimmer in its contents. Voices hummed in conversation and in raucous song, punctuated by peals of laughter. By the sounds and sights in the great hall that night, all was as it seemed—nothing more than a celebration in a time of little cheer for the hope to come. More than once she caught Othreld’s furtive glance. More than once she observed him in conversation with this man or with that, and even as he appeared at ease, his eyes smoldered with dark thoughts. Guilt perhaps? Second guesses?
How long before he assumes his brother’s throne? How long before he reveals his treachery?
Despite her sharpened senses and renewed vigilance, not a hint of insidiousness intruded on the festivities. No messenger had burst through the door, short of breath and ashen-faced, his clothes stained with sweat and blood, to announce…what? A mutinous riot at sea. The king is dead. If she concentrated with all her mind, she could almost see the scene unfolding. Almost. Not quite with the clearness of vision she craved. Almost, as if from afar.
Fire on water.
The queen clenched her eyes shut and, resting her head against the ornately carved high back of her chair, allowed the strains of nearby harp music to wash over her nerves. The tune, an old Lothrian ballad from days long forgotten, sweet in its melody and idyllic of word, swelled above the surrounding confusion.
At the very least, Elthwen is safe.
But what of Elthric?
She could not discount Othreld’s influence over her son. During the ten years abroad under his uncle’s fostering and tutelage, Elthric naturally developed affection for the man he had come to regard as more than an uncle. Othreld had witnessed her son’s growth into manhood in Nortlunde, the land of his father’s father’s people, teaching him the ways of their lords and warriors.
Nothing in her heart would allow her to believe that Elthric had knowingly involved himself in a plot against his father’s life and throne. It was no secret that the Imperon had grown displeased with a host of events that continued to rattle his empire, not the least of which concerned Wolthar’s hereditary rule in Lothria. Such displeasure surely had some influence on Othreld and Othreld on her son, but not to the extent that Elthric would….
Othreld owed his kinsman, the Imperon, more than just his lands and fealty. Perhaps his life, as well, hung in the balance. For the Imperon had never displayed any reluctance when doing away with even his most trusted retainers, which he did on a regular basis, with unthinkable cruelty and enjoyment.
Earlier in the evening she had observed her son dancing. The youngest of her women, all clamoring for his attention, took their turns with him, never quite as graceful or as agile as he, never quite as exuberant. She marveled at Elthric’s confidence, his casual assurance, the joy in his eyes. How like his father he had grown in face and form, with his father’s full, soft mouth and his mother’s golden hair and eyes. No longer the fragile, sickly child who had shared her womb with his sister, he had long since surpassed Elthwen in height and strength. She shuddered when, more than once, he sought out Othreld with his gaze, as if for approval.
“I hope my mother is not bored.”
The voice startled her from her thoughts. “Elthric!” She could not help smiling at the sight of him standing at her side, an easy smile on his handsome, beardless face. “Come. Sit by me.” She patted the seat of her husband’s chair.
Elthric pulled out the king’s high-backed chair and dropped into it with a carelessness that, had she not been so absorbed in premonitions of disaster, would have caused her to laugh out loud.
“I saw you sitting here alone with no one to amuse you.” His flushed face glistened under a sheen of perspiration, the sweet, heady scent of sithleberry wine on his breath. “I thought you might be—”
“Not bored.” Coercing a smile, she lifted her goblet and swirled its contents. “Only a little tired.”
“It has been a day of excitement…for everyone.”
Rather than speak her mind, she sipped her wine.
“You look pensive,” he said in a playful tone, his leg draped over the arm of the chair, his words softly slurred. “Shall I tell you what you are thinking?”
She shuddered at the prospect. “What would be gained by that?”
Elthric shrugged and said with a lopsided smile, “If you are thinking boring thoughts, my efforts will be wasted.” He leaned close. “By my denanth I sense sadness in your heart.”
She forced a laugh that felt as hollow as it sounded. “You were not given your gifts to use so lightly.”
He leaned closer still. “’Tis plain to see, Lady Mother, and not a misuse of my…gifts. I thought only to make you smile, and I’ve succeeded.” He sat back in the chair, hands folded in his lap.
She lowered her gaze into her cup. “’Tis no secret that I did not approve of your father’s mission.”
The chair grated on the flagstone floor as Elthric dragged it closer. “You fear for him, and I tell you there is no cause.”
Lysienthe met her son’s steady gaze. “When he returns safely, I will have no cause to fear for his welfare.”
“Mother, I was there. I came back…and quite safely, too, I might add.” Confusion darkened his face.
Surely he sensed her disquiet in the same way he knew she had not been completely forthcoming. Both shared some of the same gifts, among them the ability to seek and read the thoughts of others. In deference to her husband, she had suppressed her denanth for over twenty years, and Elthric’s long tenure in Nortlunde, where such gifts were regarded with suspicion and misunderstood, had eroded his skills.
An anxious pang squeezed her heart as he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to the side, as if to take issue with her evasion. “How can I assure you that all will be well?” He laid a hand over hers on the table and gave it a gentle squeeze. “My uncle went through great pains to arrange this truce at the Imperon’s bidding.”
She shuddered. “Only a few short weeks ago a band of armed Skaddock rebels attacked two outposts along the northern border, killing and plundering. They were armed and aggressive, Elthric! Their aggression against us was unprovoked.”
“Now they will join with us in peace.” By the earnestness in his voice and innocence of his smile, he believed what he said.
“Yes…of course. We will be at peace with those monsters. And the Imperon will have his precious ore again to continue his wars and conquests in the East.”
His aspect lightened. “They were fierce, Mother, those armed Skaddock. But, after centuries of enslavement, who can blame them? I will admit that we all feared for our lives on more than one occasion, but they are not as savage as you would think. Clenmoc, their war lord, received us with kindness and honored us with gifts.” He lightly fingered the intricate silver pendant dangling from the black ribbon around her neck. “Their metal work is extraordinary, is it not? I was surprised to discover that, despite our differences, they are very much like us.”
“They are only part human, Elthric. Never forget that.”
“Why do you think they agreed to meet with my father?” His face grew more animated, his eyes large and shining, their golden hue deepening in the flickering light of wall sconces. “To allay our doubts! Clenmoc himself said it makes no sense to commit all their resources to warring when it is such a hardship for them to simply subsist in that inhospitable region. They can learn from us. Mother, I was there. I tell you there is no reason to fear.”
She took his face in her hands and planted a kiss on his forehead. “Then I shall sleep well tonight, my son.” She pushed herself out of her seat and stretched her arms. “I had not realized how late it is…and how tired I am.” She cast a glance at the table where her retinue, young and old, sat with a few of the male household, some chatting, some yawning. Inid, her personal attendant, nodded and began rousing the others.
Elthric rose quickly, grasping her hands. “You promised I would see my sister this night. Why has she not come? Not feeling ill, is she?” He glanced over his shoulder in Othreld’s direction. His uncle had been watching them at intervals from across the hall while appearing to listen to a group of Nortlunde officials arguing among themselves with a great deal of animation. In that instant, Lysienthe met his gaze. Othreld’s face quivered into an uneasy smile as he rubbed his ruddy, neatly trimmed beard.
“My uncle is vexed,” Elthric whispered with a laugh behind his hand. “He fears Elthwen and old Gamba have run off into the forest on one of their childish adventures.” He bent his head close to her ear, “I tried to tell him. But he does not know my sister as I do.” He let out a sigh. “I did so want her to come tonight. I was hoping to have a special dance played in her honor.”
A cold sticking sensation seized her heart as Othreld strode around the tables toward the dais, meeting her smile of controlled cordiality with a perfunctory nod.
“Not to alarm my lady,” he said softly, “but no doubt Elthric has expressed my concern that your daughter and the old man have disobeyed the king’s edict.”
She took a moment to study his face, probing his mind for a glimmer of his intent. In the wavering shadows and torch light his hooded eyes betrayed no hint of feeling, his mind a jumble of conflicting thoughts. “I am aware of no edict.”
“In my brother’s absence, no one is to leave the citadel. Conditions remain far too dangerous.”
“Are you telling me that Elthwen and my father—?”
“Your daughter’s maid informed me that my niece has not been seen since before daybreak.”
Lysienthe cast a glance at the women assembled near the stairway. Young Ildra dropped her gaze to the floor. “Ildra knows nothing. She was attending me this morning.”
“It would not be the first time old Gamba has become stricken with itchy feet,” Elthric chimed in with a laugh. “Is that not so, Mother?”
Othreld’s left cheek twitched. “I have been told of the old man’s penchant for…shall I say ‘mischief’?” With narrow eyes, he held her gaze. “Times as they are, no one is safe outside these walls.”
Her back stiffened. “My father would never allow harm to befall her. The king knows this.”
“My brother has long been infatuated with your kind and your ways. Still, he recognizes the danger.”
“We all recognize the danger…and where it resides.” She leveled her gaze on Othreld’s face.
His cheek a-twitch, Othreld met her eyes from under darkly knit brows. “Then, for the safety of all concerned, you must tell me where they have gone.”
She bristled. “Must? Until an edict from the king states that I am no longer queen, I will take my own counsel regarding what I must or must not do.”
Again he nodded. “Forgive me. I overstep my authority.”
In more ways than one. “Besides,” she added with more self-control than she felt, “I have no idea where they are. Have you looked for them in the herbarium?”
“We searched everywhere.”
She emitted a short breath of dismissal. “For what purpose I cannot imagine.”
“I will remind you that in his absence, I am sworn to uphold the king’s law. I intend to have them returned. At first light I will send out a search.” He turned to Elthric, who anticipated his uncle’s words with the eagerness of a puppy. “Elthric, you will accompany them.”
How could she not have foreseen this turn of events? A jolt of alarm constricted her heart. Elthric’s face beamed, and while she sensed the ripple of excitement that enlivened his otherwise carefree stance, he simply bowed to Othreld.
Lysienthe sighed. “We all must do as we see fit. I expect no less of my son.” Again she felt Othreld’s probing gaze and she met it fully. “I will take my leave. The hour is late.”
Elthric kissed her cheek. “Worry not, Lady Mother. We will bring Elthwen and our wayward grandfather home.”
She brushed away the shock of flaxen hair falling over his shining eyes, her hand lingering on the side of his brow. “My love for you is deep.” Then she added, “And so is my trust.”
Without a glance at Othreld, she took her leave, followed by Inid and the other women.