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|The Lord of Illusion|
|Book 3 of THE ELVEN LORDS|
| The link between the world of man and Elfhame had sundered long ago, the elven people and their magic fading to legend. Tall beings of extraordinary beauty, the fae preferred a world of peace. But seven elves--considered mad by their own people--longed for power and war. They stole sacred magical scepters, created their dragon-steeds, and opened the gate to the realm of man again and flew through.
Each elf carved a sovereign land within England, replacing the baronies that had so recently been formed by William the Conqueror. They acquired willing and unwilling slaves to serve in their palaces and till their lands. And fight their wars. Like mythical gods they set armies of humans against each other, battling for the right to win the king, who'd become nothing more than a trophy. They bred with their human slaves, producing children to become champions of their war games.
The elven lords maintained a unified pact, using the scepters in a united will to place a barrier around England, with only a few guarded borders open to commerce. Elven magic provided unique goods and the world turned a blind eye to the plight of the people, persuaded by greed to leave England to its own, as long as the elven did not seek to expand their rule into neighboring lands.
But many of the English people formed a secret rebellion to fight their oppressors. Some of the elven's children considered themselves human despite their foreign blood and joined the cause. And over the centuries these half-breeds became their only hope.
Drystan Hawkes woke in a cold sweat, still seeing visions of fire and blood and death. He blinked his eyes to dismiss them, but as usual, he had also been sent another image and he could never banish this last one so easily. A young woman, beautiful beyond his wildest imaginings, with the most startling multicolored eyes. Elven eyes.
Drystan untangled himself from his bed linens and raked back his pale hair, knowing he could not ignore the summons, for it was more than a dream or nightmare.
The three stolen scepters of the elven lords called to him.
His bare feet touched the cold flagstone floor and he suppressed a shiver, reaching for his stockings and boots, his own elven eyes quickly adjusting to the gloom of midnight.
"I would like to sleep through just one night," he muttered as he finished dressing, crossing the room of his bedchamber with nary a whisper from the soles ohis boots. He had learned to be quiet on his nightly excursions. His fellow orphans already thought him strange enough.
Drystan carefully opened his chamber door, causing only a slight squeak from the old hinges, and peered down the long hall of Carreg Cennen castle. One lone candle shone near the privy, but the rest of the passage lay shrouded in shadow, not even a mouse astir this late. He had taken this same route every night since he had ceased fighting the summons, so he strode confidently to the stairs, thinking he could now manage it with his eyes closed.
He found it easier to answer the call of the scepters at night, than to suffer the fits brought on by their visions during the day. He only wished he had conceded sooner. Perhaps then the other half-breed children would not have come to treat him like an
outcast. Because of the fits brought on by the visions, Drystan gained the reputation of being cursed, or mad, or at the very least, physically abnormal. And any offspring of the elven lords rarely suffered from lack of physical perfection.
Drystan never knew when the scepters would send him a vision. He would fight it until the world went black, and he would awake in the middle of the schoolroom-- a meal--the play yard--surrounded by horrified faces and children crossing themselves against evil.
Yes, when the scepters sent him a vision, it was better to answer the call and find out what they wanted. And as a man, he'd gained some control. But the damage had already been done, and Drystan lived his adult life almost as isolated as he had as a child.
Drystan shrugged, discarding his loneliness the same way he removed his greatcoat. He'd learned to be content with his own company, had even turned it to an advantage. And he had his books.
His stories transported him beyond the walls of this old castle. Novels where he became a hero who rescued the fair maid. Where he sailed the high seas, fought against the armies of the elven lords. Became a secret spy for the Rebellion. And inside his stories, he had many friends who did not fear him. Indeed, they admired his strength and cunning and bravery...
Drystan reached the last flight of the circular stairs and entered the kitchens at the bottom of it, slipping past the cook whose bed nestled up amongst the brick ovens, and silently made his way into the cellars. Past the barrels of corn and turnips, behind the wine racks, to the enormous oak door. He fished out his key from his left pocket and unlocked the chains, careful to keep
them from rattling.
Not many of the castle residents knew about this chamber, and Drystan had become privy to it only because of his...connection with the scepters. An old prime minister for the king, Sir Robert Walpole, created this storage place for the Rebellion years ago, when he began to smuggle the children who escaped from the trials of the elven lords to this old castle in
Wales. The once-leader of the Rebellion thought it safer to store records and enchanted artifacts beyond the barrier of magic that surrounded England. He thought they could be kept more safely here, where their magic would be inactive.
Sir Robert had been wrong, at least where the scepters of the elven lords were concerned. They may not have the power they would possess within England to enhance each elven lord's magic, but they still retained a certain amount of dangerous awareness.
Drystan made his way down the earthen stairs into the castle dungeon--which thankfully had been cleared of torture devices and heaped instead with crates and barrels holding artifacts and the private journals of spies, historical accounts of England, and secret correspondences between the leader of the Rebellion and his allies.
He strode past it all without a glance, straight for the small cell in the back of the room. Drystan withdrew another key and opened the door. Bare earthen walls, stone floor. Nothing to indicate the malignant treasure it harbored within.
Drystan collapsed on a square of stone in the center of the room and pounded it with his fist. "All right. I'm here. What the hell do you want?"
The air shivered. The hair rose on the back of his neck. When he had been a lad and the scepters first called to him, he thought it was God sending him a vision. How very wrong he had been.
Drystan pounded the ground again. Buried beneath the stone lay the stolen scepters of three of the elven
lords. The blue of the elven lord of Dewhame, Breden. The lavender of the elven lady La'laylia of Stonehame. The silver of Lan'dor, the elven lord of Bladehame. Drystan knew the story of the theft of the blue scepter, for the two who had stolen it, Giles Beaumont and his lady Cecily, lived in the castle of Wales.They had taken over the running of the sanctuary and the children who sheltered here. The two half-breed elven who had stolen the lavender scepter, General Samson Cavendish and Lady Joscelyn, had returned to Firehame to continue to aid the Rebellion. And Alexander and his warrior-lady, Wilhelmina, had returned to Firehame as well, after they delivered the silver scepter into the keeping of Carreg Cennen castle. Drystan did not know all of the details about their adventures in stealing the scepters, although he'd read about them, and more importantly, had seen glimpses of them in his dreams. Dreams he did not welcome.
Except for the lady in his visions. He could still see those rainbow-colored eyes staring at him with such loneliness, and hidden fury. Large faceted elven eyes that seemed to echo the very feelings within his soul. Those haunting eyes possessed all the colors of the scepters within them: lavender, silver, blue, and green, with flecks of brown and black and gold. As if her elven blood held a mix of all seven of the elven lords and their sovereignties. And perhaps each of those powers?
Drystan spread his fingers over the cold stone.
"Where is she?" he whispered. "I have searched and searched to find any record of her..."
The ground shivered. Another vision sprang into his head with enough force to make it pound in fury and Drystan clutched at his temples. Seven dragons flew in a maelstrom of color above the swirling blonde hair of a black-clothed woman. The air sundered with a violence that tore apart the very fabric of the universe and the lady watched it all with mouth agape in horror. Then blackness, and another scene. The same woman casting her hands over the head of a child, a flash of a symbol that Drystan could not quite make out branded onto the child's skin. And then a vision of another child, and another, each of them
passing along the birthmark.
"I have looked for any reference to the descendants of the white witch of Ashton house," he said to the
empty cell. "The records of the family disappear with the elven wars of the fifteenth century. The family was
captured and enslaved..."
Another vision assailed him. This time of an ivory-haired child that grew into the beautiful woman with the multicolored eyes. Her delicate face so pale. So vulnerable. She wore a dress of white that billowed around her thin frame, and she ran from something hidden in shadow. Something that threatened her.
And he knew he must save her. He held her only hope and salvation.
Her eyes kept him spellbound until the vision finally faded. And then the scepters spoke to him in words he could comprehend.
The descendant of Ashton House holds the key to the doorway to Elfhame. Find her.
Drystan jerked at the unholy voices in his head. Fire screamed through his every nerve, like knives shearing open each vein and filling it with acid. The agony grew until spasms racked his body, until anguish beat at his mind and misery filled his heart. Whatever awareness the scepters held, those alien thoughts were not meant for mankind to endure.
But they had spoken this message to him before, and Drystan managed to hold onto consciousness. A
grown man of five and twenty years now, he did not collapse into convulsions as he had done as a lad.
It took him some time to find his voice.
"I have tried."
Although it had not been for their sake. Not just because they tortured him night after night. Not
just because they would not let him sleep until he answered their summons. But for his own sake. For
the lady who spoke to his heart with those unusual eyes. For the sheer desire he had to protect her. To hold her in his arms.
He had barely looked at another woman since she began to haunt his visions.
"I will not stop trying until I find her."
Seemingly satisfied, the tug on Drystan eased, as if the compulsion that the scepters used upon him to draw him into this chamber relaxed enough to allow him his own free will.
He rose, a bit unsteadily, but with purpose. As he did every night, he locked the cell behind him and
made his way across the dungeon to the heavy oak table that served him as a desk. He lit the candles,
throwing a halo of light around him, casting eerie shadows beyond that circle. He opened the journal
that recorded the contents of the storage room and noticed a new entry, written in Giles's sweeping hand.
A shipment from Dreamhame, procured with the loss of life of one of the Rebellion's most precious spies.
Drystan felt a shiver of anticipation from the direction of the barred cell, although he hardly needed the inducement. He blinked his golden elven eyes, a testament to his ancestry from the elven lord Roden of the gold scepter, who ruled the sovereignty of Dreamhame with his magical gift of glamour and illusion. Outside of the barrier of magic, Drystan could not know the strength of his own powers within England, but he often wondered. He held the looks of the elven lord in abundance, from his white-blond hair to the extraordinary strength and grace in his limbs. Despite the disdain of the other orphans, Drystan fancied his powers would put the rest of them to shame.
And he often wondered how he managed to blend into the background at will. How he could charm
someone when he set his mind to it. These were instinctive gifts, surely, remnants of the power that
awaited him in England.
Not that he would ever know. Unless...
He stood and searched the room for the new shipment. There, next to the stack of journals from
Terrahame. A wooden crate that Giles had yet to open and catalogue. The master of Carreg Cennen
castle would not mind that his curator opened and recorded the contents. Indeed, only Giles and his lady Cecily knew of Drystan's connection to the scepters, and his search for the lost key to Elfhame. They kept his secrets and shielded him from the curiosity of the other castle residents.
Like most of the other orphans, Drystan considered Cecily and Giles his adoptive parents.
He dragged the crate over to his desk and pried off the lid. A small box sat on the top of mounds of
loose papers and books, and when Drystan openedit, a flash of gold winked in the candlelight. A slip of paper described the enchantment of the coin within: it would appear as several coins, fooling any merchant who possessed less than a healthy share of elven blood. Drystan duly recorded it in the catalog, despite the hum of anticipation he felt from the scepters.
This crate contained something important.
Something that would finally help him discover the whereabouts of the descendant of the white witch. Drystan knew it as surely as he knew that snow fell beyond the thick walls of the castle.
He'd felt the scepters' compulsion grow stronger over the years. Drystan was dismayed to think it meant he'd succumbed to their combined will. Perhaps it had only been because he was close to solving the mystery of the white witch?
He slowly removed the first stack of documents from the crate. He would not rush. He would not give them the satisfaction. But the thought of finding the lady in his dreams made his hands tremble.
He read the first packet of papers. Reports from a man named Mandeville to Lord North--the
current prime minister and leader of the Rebellion. North came to the position as a member of the King's Friends, George III's attempt to gather control of his government. A government which held little actual power.
The elven lords must be laughing at such antics.
They considered humans as little more than animals. Playthings to use in their elven war games, a pastime that cost the lives of thousands of Englishmen. Just to keep them entertained.
Drystan set aside the packet, recorded the contents, shrugging off the impotent rage that accompanied his thoughts. Despite all of the Rebellion's efforts, they still had not come any closer to freeing England from its slavery to the elven lords.
Although they managed to save countless children.
This was not the only castle in Wales that harbored orphaned fugitives. Lady Cassandra of Firehame discovered that the trials--the magical tests of power the elven lords put their half-breed children through--were a subterfuge for certain death. That the lords did not really send the children who showed exceptional magic to the fabled land of Elfhame. The tests were a ruse to weed out those who might possibly grow into enough power to threaten an elven lord's rule.
Most of the children weren't truly orphans, for most had families in England, but they all felt and
referred to each other that way. Drystan had parents in Herefordshire County, although he could no longer remember what they looked like. He occasionally received letters from them, and knew he had a brother who strongly resembled him, but apparently Duncan did not possess enough elven magic to be a threat to the elven lords.
Would he ever be united with his family?
Drystan rubbed at his eyes.
If this key truly existed...if this brand the white witch emblazoned on all of her offspring held a clue to opening the door to Elfhame... Would the Rebellion be able to send the elven lords back where they came from? Perhaps humans did not have the power, but by all accounts, the elven lords were considered mad bytheir very own people. If the door between the two worlds opened, would their kinsman come through and take the lords back home? Drystan did not know.
He only knew the scepters wanted to return to Elfhame, and this key might accomplish that.
It might be England's only hope.
Drystan squared his shoulders, feeling the weight of his task, wondering why he had been chosen for it.
And then remembered the girl and knew.
He felt he was the only man who could save her. Because he was the only man who knew her torture as his own.
Drystan picked up another sheath of papers and began to read. And then another, and another. Like
every night for the past decade, he read until he exhausted even the strength of his elven eyes, until
they burned and drooped and he could barely see the words on the page.
It lay at the bottom of the crate, of course.
He opened the leather journal, sighed when he realized it was just a household inventory of
Dreamhame Palace from years ago. But the quiver he felt from the direction of the cell made him squint to focus his eyes on the entries. Linens, silver, candles. Gold plate, crystal glasses, silk cloth. And then in the kitchens: caskets of gin, bottled wine, sacks of wheat, cooking pans.
And a scribbled note at the bottom of the entries: three scullery slaves: M. Shreves, A. Cobb, C. Ashton.
Drystan's eyes watered and he closed them, felt them throb in time to his heartbeat. How many times had he come across this name in various records? Hundreds. And each time it failed to lead him to the line of the white witch. His dreams of blood and death would become more violent, as if the scepters punished him for that failure.
Such an impossible task, since Ashton House had fallen in an elven war game between Dreamhame and Terrahame centuries ago, its inhabitants scattered across the seven realms when their ransom was not met.
Had some of them become enslaved in Dreamhame Palace?
He opened his eyes, stared at the entry. Blinked. Witch had been messily scrawled near the edge of the paper.
Had he indeed found the white witch of Ashton House?
"Yes!" screamed the scepters in his head, rocking Drystan backward in his chair, the journal falling with a thump upon his battered desk. And then he gracefully slumped forward, blackness
overwhelming him from that final blow to a mind exhausted by years of sleep deprivation.
A callused hand gently shook Drystan awake. "I'm sorry, lad. We have a very important visitor."
Drystan blinked up into the light of a lantern, and then farther upward into the face of the master of
Carreg Cennen castle. Drystan did not mind being called "lad" by Giles Beaumont, for the elven warrior was old, in his sixties at least, with a spattering of gray in his long blond hair and through his dark brows. Buthis elven blood gave him the carriage of a younger man, and Drystan knew from painful experience that Giles still wielded the battered blade at his side with the vigor of a human half his years.
"What time is it?" Drystan mumbled, sweeping his own white-blond hair away from his face. His hand came away with a smudge of ink on his fingertips, and the awareness that he had a crease across the skin of his cheek from where it had lain on the edge of the journal.
"'Tis early," replied Giles. "If we hurry, no one will notice you--us."
Drystan stood. He must look worse than he felt, if Giles sought to shield him from curious eyes. "That bad, eh?"
The other man smiled. "You look as if you've been up all night for the past ten years...which I suppose you have. It's sorry I am to wake you, but Lord North has arrived."
"The Prime Minister? Here?"
"Aye. I wouldn't have woken you otherwise." Giles studied him with the ordinary-shaped
human eyes that defied his otherwise elven looks. Concerned, worried eyes. "Sorry, lad. You look particularly hellish today."
Drystan straightened the sleeves of his coat, quickly buttoned the front of his shirt when he noticed it hanging open. He looked hellish because... Drystan glanced down at his desk, his heart giving a leap in his chest. Because he had finally found her. But the news that Lord North himself, the leader of the Rebellion, had traveled to Wales to see them personally gave him pause. "It's not good, is it?"
Giles shrugged. "Is it ever?"
Drystan picked up the journal. "No. Perhaps I can change that."
"What do you--you found her?"
Drystan nodded, feeling a tingle from the direction of the cell. He did not wonder that Giles did not feel the scepters' eager reaction. Apparently, only Drystan possessed that connection to them.
"Are you sure, lad? 'Tis like finding a needle in a bottle of hay."
"I am sure." Drystan glanced at the cell. "They are...eager."
Giles frowned. "For some reason that gives me little comfort. And yet, perhaps now they will leave you be. There are few men I know who would endure what you have without complaint. I wish we could reveal your work, but the safety of the Rebellion is in the secrecy of the whereabouts of the scepters, not to mention the rest of the contents of this room."
Drystan laid a hand on Giles's shoulder. "Do not apologize, Father. I'm well aware that you could not share my secrets with the others. I do not blame you for the shape of my life. The scepters chose me for this task, not you."
Giles let out a sigh. "Well, lad, it's over with, at least. We can give the information to Lord North and you can live a normal life from here on."
Surprise held Drystan speechless. Did the other man truly believe this meant the end of his task? Did Giles think he would give over the information and let some other fellow find the descendant of the white witch?
Perhaps Giles's reaction was Drystan's own fault. He had told Giles of the lady with the strange eyes, but had not confessed his feelings about her. He would have sounded like a fool. Yet now...
Now he would have to convince Giles, and Lord North, that he must be sent on this mission. A young
man with little training, and no experience as a spy. Who had spent most of his life doing nothing more than reading about the exploits of the Rebellion.
Giles turned and made his way back up to the cellar, and Drystan followed, stuffing the journal in
his coat pocket. Drystan felt surprised that Giles did not ask for further information about the witch. His foster father's gaze was turned inward, apparently too worried about the visit of Lord North and what his news might portend.
Giles locked the door behind them, and waited until the kitchen emptied before stepping within.
One of the maids entered from a door on the opposite side of the kitchen and let out a squeak, dropping a bowl of eggs at the sight of them. Another two maids appeared at the open kitchen door, a light dusting of snow drifting into the room. A bit broader, a bit taller, Giles should have commanded their attention. Instead all eyes went to Drystan, who quickly stiffened and tilted his chin slightly upward. Arrogance and indifference were his only weapons against their rudeness.
The lady who had dropped the eggs crossed herself, and the two in the doorway leaned their heads
together and passed a whisper, which made them both titter. Drystan had grown up with the two young women, and knew them to be particularly silly. Each resident of the castle took on the chores of what suitedtheir skills, and if they lacked any, usually were put to chopping wood or vegetables.
Drystan guessed them to be vegetable choppers.
But at their whispered exchange, Giles glanced over at him. "Perhaps you should wash a bit? We wouldn't want to concern Lady Cecily."
Drystan sighed, did as he'd been told while the girls continued to giggle. The older orphans filled in the younger about his odd fits, his screaming nightmares, and lurking about the castle corridors. He suspected the stories had grown with the telling, for the girl who had dropped the eggs actually appeared frightened of him. He gently apologized to her with enough enthusiasm to pink her cheeks before he left the room.
Perhaps if he had not been obsessed with finding the white witch's descendant, he might have been able to charm them all out of their foolishness. He had not wanted to waste the time.
As he followed Giles up the stairs to the second floor, Drystan's heart beat a bit faster. He had found her! The woman of his dreams. He would rush to her rescue and she would welcome him with open arms, and they would decipher the meaning of the brand on
her skin and save the world...
Giles strode past what had once been a guardroom and now served as a dining hall, the voices of the residents within growing silent as they passed. Drystan followed his lead, giving the room nary a glance, his attention focused on the button just above the skirt of Giles's coat.
He could not wait to leave Carreg Cennen castle.
They entered the formal withdrawing room, which had once been an armory and still displayed medieval weapons along the walls. The metal had been polished to a high sheen, reflecting the firelight in the large hearth, the myriad tables scattered about the room, the velvet-upholstered chairs and cushions. Giles's wife, Lady Cecily, had decorated this room, as she had renovated most of the castle, calling the enormous pile of stone her "little cottage by the sea." Drystan never understood what she meant, but her comment always made Giles smile with tenderness.
She sat near the fireplace now, a silver-laden tea service at her elbow, the gray in her hair made more obvious because of her black locks. Drystan always thought her one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen: with her large blue faceted elven eyes, her red lips, and heart-shaped
brow. The fine lines about the corners of her eyes and mouth served only to enhance her loveliness with character.
Those lines deepened as she turned to smile at her husband and Drystan. Giles beat him to her hand by a hairsbreadth.
"My love," he murmured, kissing the top of her lace glove. She smiled even wider, not in the least
embarrassed by her husband's display of affection in front of her guest. Once Giles rose, Drystan bent and kissed her cheek. She smelled divinely of lavender and mint tea.
Then they both turned and faced the man who sat in the chair across from her.
Lord North studied them in turn. He had come to Wales once before, when Giles reported of the strange connection Drystan had to the scepters. A large man with a cherubic face and a sharp wit. Drystan had immediately liked him. But wondered how such an affable soul had become the leader of the Rebellion.
Giles reminded him to never judge a man by his looks.
"Giles Beaumont! You still look half your age, damn that elven blood of yours. And Drystan Hawkes, is it not? You have grown since I've last seen you." The gaze within Lord North's protruding eyes sharpened. "Although I must say, lad, you look as if you could use a fortnight's sleep or more."
Drystan bowed. "It has been to good purpose, my lord." He would have blurted out his discovery right then and there, but Giles cleared his throat and when Drystan rose, Giles nodded at a leather chair next to Cecily. Drystan took his cue and sat, watching Giles take a seat next to the prime minister. So, he would have to wait and hear the other man's news first.
"What brings you back to Wales, Lord North?"
"Ah, Beaumont. Never one to mince about, eh?" Then his smile faded, and he glanced at Cecily. "I'm afraid it's dire news, my lady."
She met his gaze with aplomb. "I had no doubt of it, my lord. Despite your pleasantries over tea." She set down her cup with a rattle. "Please tell us the worst. My patience has been worn by the wait."
Lord North nodded, setting his white wig slightly askew. A novelty to Drystan, who lived amongst
those who possessed the natural color. Giles had explained that in England, humans imitated elven
locks by wearing the wigs. The prime minister had added a dash of silver sparkle to his hair as well, which Giles said the elven lords themselves possessed...and even some half-breeds. Drystan idly wondered what cosmetic Lord North used to copy it.
The prime minister settled back into his chair, calmly folded his hands in his lap, the lace of his sleeves falling across his knuckles as if artfully arranged on purpose. "A half-breed has killed the elven lord Mi'cal, and taken over the sovereignty of Verdanthame."
Giles sucked a breath through his teeth. "Is he one of ours?"
North shook his head. "No. We became aware of this half-breed--Dorian-- only recently, following
the rumor of a man the locals called 'the forest lord.' We sent Aurelia, one of our best assassins and a most skilled spy, to seek out the half-breed. She now stands at Dorian's side."
"Then we have an advantage," said Cecily.
"Perhaps. But of what use? The Rebellion did not plan this takeover. We wouldn't have. Too risky. And we were right. The elven lords have gathered together for the first time in our history. They suspected the theft of the scepters. They suspected that one of their own, Lord Mor'ded of Firehame, was in truth a half-breed. Now they know for certain."
Lady Cecily and Giles looked horrified. Drystan only felt confused. "Should we not be celebrating?
With half-breeds on the thrones of Firehame and Verdanthame, and the possession of the scepters of
Dewhame, Stonehame, and Bladehame here in Wales, only two scepters remain within the elven lords' hands. Surely the might of five will conquer the two?"
Lord North rose one heavy brow, and Giles quickly answered. "We wish it could be that simple, Drystan. But the Imperial Lords still retain their powers, even without the scepters. And we have only three half-breeds who can wield them."
"Four," murmured Cecily.
"I forbid it."
"Giles. If I am needed to wield it, then I must."
"You are too o--"
"Oh, you wouldn't dare say it!"
Giles lapsed into disgruntled silence.
Lord North cleared his throat. "I am afraid it may be our only option, Beaumont. The elven lords are gathering an army to lay siege to Verdanthame. Lord Mor'ded--or should I say, our half-breed
General Dominic Raikes, who has assumed the disguise of Lord Mor'ded--refused to join the war. His
neighbor, elven lord Breden, who lost whatever wits he might have had, has longed for an excuse to invade Firehame. With the elven lords' suspicions about Mor'ded confirmed, they have given their blessing. Since Firehame shares a border with Verdanthame, the eastern half of England is in chaos."
Drystan glanced at Cecily. Her skin looked as white as parchment. Breden of Dewhame was her
father, and he'd been rendered completely insane when Cecily had stolen his blue scepter. He knew
she did not regret it, but it crushed a part of her soul when the madman she hoped to love as a true father had tried to kill her, and forced her hand to retaliate against him.
Her voice did not betray her inner feelings. "What would you have me do?"
Lord North leaned forward. "Return with me to England. With the scepter."
Giles made a strangled noise.
"You can at least hold Breden of Dewhame at bay, for without the scepter his powers might not prevail with your use of it against him."
"I forbid it," said Giles once again, but this time without any hope in his deep voice.
"She should be safe," continued North, "with the scepters returned to Firehame."
"Until Verdanthame is overrun. Then there will be five elven lords who will march against the sovereignty."
Giles stood, unable to contain his agitation any longer. "Admit it, Lord North. Our tactics were
wrong. Stealing the scepters was not the way to free England. They do not hold as much power as we
hoped. We will lose this confrontation and set our efforts for freedom back a hundred years."
Drystan tried to keep up with the numbers the men threw about, then decided not to bother. This war would not be won by numbers and armies. It would be won with a key. He spoke into the heavy silence following Giles's prediction. "I must respectfully disagree, Father. The scepters hold more power than anyone could have guessed."
Giles strode over to the window, staring at the scattering of falling snow, his breath frosting the glass. "I do not have as much faith in your visions as you do."
Drystan frowned. So, that's why Giles did not question him about his discovery. After all these years, he had only been humoring him? Did he even believe that the scepters spoke to Drystan?
But apparently the leader of the Rebellion did, because he turned to Drystan and pierced him with
that intent gaze. "They still send you visions of this white witch?"
"Yes, my lord. And at last, they have helped me to find her." He pulled out the journal, opened it to the proper page, and showed it to North. "I believe this is her descendant, who carries the birthmark upon her skin."
Lord North took the book, staring intently at the entry. "A slave? Hmm. And this mark, you say it is
some sort of key to Elfhame?"
"My vision shows the white witch witnessing the arrival of the elven lords through the gateway between our worlds. And then she brands something on her child. Some clue to what she had seen. If there is a way to open that gate, I believe it exists in that birthmark passed down in the Ashton line. And I intend to find this woman."
Giles spun. "You? No. We need an experienced spy for such a task."
North ignored him. "Ever since Lord Thomas Althorp found the source of magic and the doorway to Elfhame, we have tried to find a way to open it. The elven lords' dragon-steeds have always referred to their masters as mad. They profess that the elven are generally a peaceful people. We hoped if we could open the door, we could send them back where they belong."
"Or release a scourge of them into our world to conquer the whole of it."
"Giles," interjected Cecily. "Must you anticipate doom with every breath?"
"It has kept my loved ones alive."
Drystan heard the scuffling of feet through the hall as background accompaniment to their words. He leaned forward, his attention focusing on the man who could grant his wish. "That is my same thought, Lord North. Based on my research--the thousands of records I've read long into the night, I believe the key to our freedom may lie within the opening of that doorway, and may rest upon the clue this girl can provide."
The leader of the Rebellion absentmindedly rubbed his chin, the lace of his sleeves waving to and fro, staring at Drystan as if truly seeing him for the first time. "You are a bookish lad. And you look as if a stiff wind could knock you off your feet."
"You aren't actually considering sending him to England?" said Giles. "The lad has barely slept in the past ten years! At last he has found what the scepters wanted, and now that he has an opportunity to finally lead a normal life--"
"Do you truly believe that?" interrupted Drystan. He spoke calmly, quietly, for despite Giles's protests, it appeared Lord North was seriously considering Drystan's proposal. "They will not allow me to rest. I can feel them even now, pushing me...prodding me to find this girl. And I swear to you all, I am the only one who will be able to manage her."
"What do you mean?" asked Cecily.
Drystan colored. "It is not just a matter of finding this brand and deciphering it. Indeed, the mark may mean nothing to us, and the girl may hold some clue to it. I can't... I can't explain any more than that. I do not understand it all myself, for the scepters have never made it clear. But I know I am the only one who will be able to reach her."
Cecily's faceted blue eyes probed Drystan until he had to resist the urge to squirm. "She is the girl of your dreams," she whispered, her words laden with understanding.
Drystan nodded abruptly.
She picked up the rose-patterned teacup and took a sip. "You must send Drystan, Lord North."
Giles looked ready to tear his hair out. "I cannot allow you to go to Firehame and Drystan to Dreamhame. I cannot be in two places at once. How will I protect you both?"
Lord North grunted. "You have an extraordinary sensibility about your loved ones, Giles Beaumont.
Haven't you taught the lad to protect himself?"
"He knows how to use a pistol and a sword, if that's your meaning."
"Good. It's decided then. You will all sail back with me on the morrow. And we shall bring the scepters with us, Beaumont, for although they have not won us our freedom as we hoped, at least they might help us in this war. We are setting in motion plans to search the orphans for those who might possess enough power to wield them." North turned and studied Drystan again. "Without the bruises beneath your eyes and that haggard face, you would look very much like your brother. Hopefully once you are on your way to England, the scepters will allow you to sleep."
Drystan blinked. To have this man refer to his brother aloud somehow made Duncan seem more
real. "My lord?"
"We must have a disguise for you at Dreamhame court. You will arrive under the banner of Viscount Hawkes. As the eldest brother, the title should have gone to you anyway."
Cecily reached out and clasped Drystan's hand. "I am so sorry, my dear."
Drystan froze. The news should not affect him this strongly. He did not know that man...and now he never would. "My brother holds the title? My...birth father is dead?"
"My apologies," said Lord North. "I forget how slowly news travels to you. Aye, your father died last year, passing on the inheritance. I do not think your brother will mind your borrowing the title for a time, since he knows it truly belongs to you."
"She is alive and well, although I cannot allow you to return to your home, you understand. As it is,
Duncan will have to go into hiding for a time. You would not want to endanger them, would you?"
Drystan scowled. :I am not a fool. Indeed, you will not find another man as learned. I have been
forced to that occupation, my lord, with a daily ritual of mental torture."
Giles strode over to Drystan and laid a hand upon his shoulder. "You have endured more than any man should. And you have always been a son to me. You know that."
Drystan could only nod. What kind of man would he have become without the love of Giles and Cecily?
Probably one as mad as an elven lord. His throat tightened and he stood. "If you will excuse me, I have much to prepare for the morrow."
And before anyone could utter another word that threatened his mettle, he left the room, closing the
door quickly behind him. Drystan leaned against it for a moment, closing his eyes as he swayed on his
feet. He prayed North was right, and that the scepters would allow him to sleep once he was bound for England. Otherwise he did not know how he would manage the journey.
Then a face formed in his mind. A lovely woman with thick, flowing ivory hair and elven eyes that
sparkled with the colors of a rainbow. Eyes that held more loneliness than his own.
He would find her. If he had to walk through fire to accomplish it, he would find her.