A sweeping story of love and war, prejudice and acceptance...
Tirren, heir to the ruler of Thiery, has raised his half-Elven son in a land that hates and fears the Elves, but his son's struggle for acceptance is only one source of Tirren's pain. The other is his unfading desire for Yslaaran, the Elven woman who eighteen years ago captured him in a spell, seduced him, and vanished. She returned only once more—to hand him his infant son.
When a neighboring ruler attacks the land of Thiery, Tirren rides to battle with his half-breed son at his side. Learning of the war, Yslaaran fears the conflict will unravel her long-laid plans for the boy. If she doesn't interfere, he could die before his time, but if she reveals her hand by meddling, her own people could rise up against the humans they despise—and that will trap the land between two deadly enemies.
The fate of two races hang in the balance, but only Yslaaran knows that both humans and Elves risk a future more devastating than war.
"A grand epic fantasy in the classic tradition. The Halfblood War is filled with capricious and dangerous elves, epic battles, and star-crossed lovers. The characters are compelling, the worldbuilding well-realized, and the multiple plot lines pull together into a wonderfully satisfying conclusion in this stand alone epic, sure to please fans of Katherine Kurtz's Deryni series."– D. J. Butler, author of Witchy Winter
"It's too soon to risk it," Erimar said.
Tirren stood, anticipating the rest of the objections his father would raise. It was an old argument but past time to revisit it. He paced to the library's hearth and leaned an elbow on the fireplace mantle. "We've held off an extra year already. What will more waiting accomplish? It won't alter my son's heritage." The heavy, gray stone of Thiery Hold seeped cold into his arm, despite the fire. Outside, a chilly, spring rain pelted the leaded windows with a sound like small pebbles hitting the thick glass.
"He would have more time to mature," Erimar insisted.
"He's seventeen," Tirren said, striding back to the middle of the room, his volume increasing, "a year into his manhood." Escalating this would accomplish nothing. He took a breath and began again. "The more we emphasize his differences, the harder we make this for him. Chayan has enough to overcome already. He has to be ready to be Beodan by the time he's twenty, to be Bealdor when you and I are gone."
"Gods, Tirren! Don't you think I've thought of that every day since that woman brought him to us?"
That woman. Erimar had never once referred to Chayan's mother by name.
Tirren had intentionally steered the conversation away from Yslaaran, as much for his own sake as to avoid his father's bitterness, yet even the harsh and impersonal invocation of her triggered memories: his first sight of her through the open gate of the Hold eighteen years ago, as she stood at the edge of the woods that Winterfest night. A woman, nearly of a height with him, wearing a single, flowing gown that had shimmered in the dark like opals, so different from the layered, high-cut dresses of Heshan women. Her thick, red hair loose, spilling down her back to her hips. He asked if she was well, titling her "Iden," as her graceful elegance bespoke a highborn woman. He hadn't realized at the time how much he debased her.
Tirren dragged himself from the memories. "I'm sure you've thought of her daily." He didn't bite back the resentment that seeped into his words. Unfair of him, he knew, to criticize his father's objections to her when he'd never reconciled his own conflict at loving the woman who stole his will and his seed for reasons he'd never understood, leaving him with the complications of Chayan's heritage heavy on his shoulders.
Their ancestors watched the argument even now, from tapestries covering the stone walls of the library. Men paused forever in the bloody battles that had won Thiery in the Conflicts, and paved the way for it to become the wealthiest of the four regions comprising their country of Hesh. Tirren's father would have continued the family's strong line, but his wife's frail body had given them only one child. And Tirren had failed more grandly still; one bastard child, born to the Elven woman who had abducted and seduced him eighteen years ago. A halfblood heir for a land that hated and feared the Elves.
"Don't twist my meaning, Tirren. You know I love Chayan. I've raised him as my grandson despite his blood and his illegitimacy. But to let him travel the region, see the people, meet with the councils. We have no way to know the effect it will have."
"We'll never know if we keep him prisoner in the Hold."
"Prisoner?" His father snorted. "Chayan has never been kept in the Hold and you know it. I'm saying we can't let our plans outrun our caution." His father stared into the fire. "The two of you are all I have," he said, quietly.
In nearly twenty years since Tirren's mother died, his father had never remarried, pinning his hopes on his son instead. Tirren had failed him there as well. He had been twenty-two the last time he saw Yslaaran, that following Winterfest eve, when she brought Chayan to him as an infant. At thirty-nine, he still couldn't bear the thought of another woman. His obsession with her was wrong, and guilt plagued him for it, but year after year the feelings refused to fade.
"I know we are," he said at last. "And I know the part I've played in that."
His own conflicted feelings extinguished the last spark of his anger. He moved back to the chair opposite his father and sat leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands clasped. The silence that followed drew them in, drew them together.
"I appreciate everything you've done for Chayan," he said. "If not for your protection, he might have been murdered as a babe, even here in the Hold. You kept us both safe, helped him become accepted. I can never repay that. You are my father and my Bealdor and if you say not to go, we won't go."
The collapse of tension on his side left no wall for his father to push against. Erimar sat back with a deep sigh. "I'm not saying you can't go. I'm saying it frightens me."
His father had aged quickly in the past few years. At sixty-three, the brown hair and eyes of a Heshan had faded: the hair to gray, the eyes to a slight bluish cast. His olive skin had dulled and his trim muscularity looked almost skeletal, but he was strong and stubborn still.
"I promise you this, Tirren." Erimar's voice regained its conviction. "If you rush things and this plan fails, I'll see you married by the end of summer. Our line will continue to rule." The ultimatum had metal behind it this time, though the thought of marrying any but Yslaaran made Tirren's guts twist. "My own guilt has swayed me too often," his father continued. "No more. You had best be sure you are right about this."
He was sure Chayan could win out over the prejudice. The people of Thiery would surely come to accept him in time, despite his Elven blood, just as the community here in the Hold had done. He felt certain the magistrates wouldn't challenge Chayan's right to rule once they became familiar with him. He was gambling much on his son's readiness for this trip, though.
"Chayan has been preparing a long time. I don't want to tell him he has to wait another year or more." Tirren leaned back and watched the rain pound at the window, blurring the garden to steel gray. He was tired of the argument and they were returning to the crux of it again. "I think my status as Beodan and a couple of swordsmen at our backs will get us through the initial reactions." He met his father's eyes, willing him to agree. "The region expected to see the heir a year ago, when he turned sixteen, and the heir needs to see the region. If Chayan is different than the people anticipate, all the more reason for them to meet him, see his diplomacy, his humanness."
"The two of you and two swordsmen, and you think you'll be safe?" Erimar's grunt said eloquently what he thought of the idea.
"It's traditional," Tirren said, knowing that was not a strong enough reason for his father. Not even sure himself it was a good idea. "If we go with a show of force, people could be more frightened of him."
"They'll be frightened of him if he unleashes some wild magic on them, that's a sure thing. The two of you, trained soldiers that you are, and a couple of swordsmen won't save you from a mob. Or from an arrow in the back." Erimar waved one arm emphatically. "And as for the magic Chayan inherited, it's more likely to harm than help if you get in a bad way."
"It's been a long time since anything has happened. Chayan has worked hard on his control."
"He doesn't even understand what it is he's trying to control, Tirren!"
"How could he?" The sharpness returned to his voice with the painful memories. "There was no one to learn from. I certainly was no help, though the gods know I tried. But you've seen how maturity has changed him. The fevers are long gone and nothing untoward has happened in years. We can travel when neither of the moons are full, for extra caution."
Erimar stayed quiet. Tirren pressed his point. He leaned forward, as if moving closer could help him reach his father's emotions. "Even as a boy, he never meant to hurt anyone. He's a man grown now, and he tells me it won't happen again. I believe him. Chayan needs us to have faith in him. He can't succeed if we never give him the chance."
He held his breath, watching his father consider. He could see his thoughts dancing a razor's edge. "How many men would make you feel safe?"
"The whole gods-sworn army!" Erimar steepled his fingers and considered Tirren over the top of them. "Ten. Take ten good men with you, go at the dark of the moons, and be gods-damned careful in the Southlands."
* * *
Tirren woke to deep and nearly moonless darkness. He rolled onto his back, reorienting, trying to shake off his vivid dream of Yslaaran. In the five weeks that had passed since his father relented, the twin moons had waned concurrently, an event that wouldn't occur again until summer. Today he and Chayan would begin their journey. A cock crowed in the distance, heralding the approaching dawn, but his thoughts drifted back to his dream.
It had started as it always did, as things had started that night, eighteen years ago. Leaving the Winterfest celebration to take some cold night air in the courtyard and shake off the muzziness of the heavy mead. Seeing her at the edge of the woods; the heat of her touch when she took his hand as he approached to check on her. Leaving Thiery's snowy evergreens behind and entering a grassy meadow surrounded by beech and ash. Though the two full moons remained the same, the summer glade and the foreign stars overhead should have sent fear crashing through him, but nothing mattered except her. He would have walked through the gates of the Land of the Dead with her had she asked it of him. His mind had been cocooned in cobwebs, desire the only coherent thought. His memory of that night, though, remained as sharp as if it had been yesterday. Unfading, all these years, and bringing the frequent dreams, which in turn strengthened the memories. The most bitter torment she could have bestowed on him.
By the time the first sliver of dawn wrestled with the dark outside, Tirren closed the door to his apartments, saddlebags over one shoulder. He entered the hallway and saw the back of a soldier also heading for the stairs; from his size, it could only be one man.
Shen turned, hearing someone behind him. He filled the opening to the narrow stairwell as he waited for Tirren to catch up. Heavily muscled and nearly a head taller than most men, even Tirren came only to his eyes. The front of Shen's hair was tied up into a high ponytail, the same as Tirren's and every other swordsman's, but the rest of it hung nearly halfway down his back. It had kept growing a hand or more than most men's, just as Shen himself had.
The spiral stone steps were too narrow for them to go down abreast. Shen stepped back to let Tirren go first. "Are you leaving soon?" he asked at his shoulder as they descended.
"As soon as possible. I want an early start so we can take our time on the road."
"How is Chayan? Still nervous?"
Tirren nodded. "I think so, but he puts on a good face."
They reached the main floor and made their way to the great hall, the rows of long, heavy tables and benches nearly empty with the early hour. Tirren scanned the room for Chayan, not finding him, and he and Shen took a table to themselves. A wisp of a girl attended them a moment later, one of the many granddaughters of the Hold's eldest cook. She set out wooden bowls and pewter plates, with a large bowl of porridge and a platter of ham and warm bread. Tirren learned from her that Chayan had eaten before first light.
"He must either be packing or already at the stables waiting for me." He reached for the ham first, knowing his friend's appetite too well. The girl returned with two mugs of dark, watered ale and a bowl of fresh butter.
"I hope you know how much I wanted to go with you," Shen said.
He nodded. "I heard you asked to be in the escort. I also heard you drew first spring patrol. Just because you're a regiment leader now doesn't mean you'll get your way with Jaron." The captain of the swordsmen had never been a sentimental man.
Tirren was glad Jaron had promoted Shen early; he'd deserved it. Hard to believe it had been so many years since Shen first came to the Hold, arriving the same year that Yslaaran first appeared. He'd been sent from one of the better families up north, and Tirren had been impressed with the tall, athletic boy. He'd claimed him to squire as his personal uthow, which Shen did for six years, until old enough to join the ranks of the swordsmen. Since then, he'd become a good soldier and an even better leader.
"It must be nice to be out of the barracks and have your own rooms finally." Tirren smiled, but Shen remained serious.
"I'd give it up to protect you and Chayan."
"I can't go over Jaron's head to reassign you, not when Jaron himself is going with us." He looked down to saw at a thick piece of ham. "Besides, a giant like you would just scare people." He grinned, still looking at his plate.
Shen laughed. "You're in rare form today. It's good to see you smile, though. You should try it more often." He drained half his mug and wiped his mouth. "Well, I suppose you'll be safe enough without me."
"Gods, ten men," Tirren said. "I still think we might have been better off with just the traditional escort. I want so much for the people to accept him, not fear him."
"He picked a hard place to begin, starting off with the Southlands." Shen ladled a generous portion of porridge. "Why didn't he start up north, or better still, here in the Midlands? Thiery Village and Fent have been familiar with him for years."
"He didn't want the Southlands hanging over his head while he visited the other districts. I suppose I can see his logic."
Shen scraped the rest of the ham and bread from the platter to his plate. "Do you think people in the south really still see Elves, like they say? It's hard to believe when people in the rest of the region—probably all the rest of Hesh—have never seen any. Not these days, anyway."
Tirren shrugged. He often wondered the same himself, but the Southlanders were a suspicious and closemouthed lot. He had sent men there, years ago, to try and ferret out information about the Elves. They'd come back with nothing.
He'd never seen any of the Elven folk other than Yslaaran, and he'd only seen her the two times: that first night when she took him to the meadow, and the following Winterfest night—one year after she'd abducted him. He'd evaded the men his father had assigned to watch him and went to the woods looking for her. She was there, just as he'd hoped she would be, but Chayan had been a surprise. She'd passed the infant to him, naming the boy and, at last—when he'd begged—giving her own name. She'd never returned.
"I suspect they're just more superstitious in the south," Tirren said. He shrugged and his mouth crooked in a wry smile, "but I'm hardly the one to gainsay them."
Their first night together had felt to him like a single night, but he'd returned to find that search parties had been looking for him for three days. In legends, mortals abducted by the Elves usually vanished for years; when they returned, they had no memory of their abduction and their wits were often addled. Tirren's wits and memory had been intact, but he'd endured the whispers that followed him through the Hold for some weeks, and the looks the villagers had given him in town for months. Considering what he'd been subjected to, it was hard to imagine what Chayan saw in people's eyes every day.
Shen toyed with a piece of bread. "Do you still dream of her?"
Six years as Tirren's uthow and a dozen more as his friend had made Shen privy to more than most.
The memory of her emerald green eyes looking up at him returned to him from this morning's dream. The scent of her skin—jasmine, gardenia, and spice. Her deep red hair with tiny white flowers caught in it, wrapping about his bare forearms as he topped her.
He lowered his eyes, as if Shen might see the erotic images there. "Not as often now." He wasn't sure if he was glad of it or not.
"I notice that fewer of the camp followers are dying their hair red these days." Shen gave him a wicked smile. "Even they must be giving up on you finally." He bit off a hunk of bread.
The unexpected remark pulled a short laugh from Tirren in spite of himself, knowing it for truth. His vivid and sensual dreams had led him occasionally to those women, but the experience was such a coarse and disappointing shadow of his memory that he swore each time he wouldn't yield to it again.
"My patrol's gone fat and lazy over the winter," Shen said, recognizing when to change the subject. "It's good they'll be getting out of the Hold soon."
Shen was always anxious to start patrol. The man loved to travel. Tirren shoved his half-eaten plate of food aside and debated with Shen what the spring roads might be like. When Shen wiped his plate with a last piece of bread, Tirren stood and gathered his things.
"I'd better check the stables. Chayan's probably pacing the courtyard waiting for me."
Shen stood and came around the table to him. "Fare you well, both of you," he said earnestly, gripping his shoulder. "My patrol leaves later this week. We'll be out longer than you, but I'll see you when I return. Be safe." He clapped him on the back as they parted.
Tirren planned to do everything in his power to see that they were. He left the hall with breakfast sitting uneasy in his stomach, wondering if maybe he had been wrong to push for this.
He would find out soon enough.