Our story begins in the autumn of 1136; I was eighteen years of age and still worked at my father's inn because no suitable husband could be found for me. A fierce storm wailed outside the thin walls, and I, though it was the early hours of the morning, found myself unable to sleep—my old friend Arik was due to return from Beaverbrook that night, but I couldn't distract myself from the thought of him and his horse drowning in some swollen river somewhere. So I washed dishes.

As I submerged my arms into elbow-deep water, I glanced over the counter into the main room of the inn. Several very late-night patrons huddled by the hearth for warmth, while still others clustered in a corner, discussing something in harsh whispers. I quite believed that they were dwarves, perhaps from the isle of Terris En, as their little booted feet did not even touch the floor when they sat on their benches, but, then again, it was not my business to know. A secretive-looking knight in a tarnished mail shirt sipped from a steaming mug of cider, and a young man dandled a curly-haired little girl on his knee while two cloaked figures looked on.

Muffled pounding broke the quiet peace of the scene; I quickly dried my hands on my apron and hurried to open the weathered door. I twisted the rusty bolt from its place, and the door opened with a protesting squawk.

"Service is slow here—as usual."

"Arik!" My heart rejoiced at the sight of his familiar grey eyes and ash blonde hair.

He stepped in out of the rain and flashed a grin at me. "Good to see you, Rayendilyn."

"Ray."

"Rayendilyn."

"Ray."

"Rayendilyn."

"Ray."

He shrugged and hung his dripping cloak on the hook behind the door. "Fine, fine. Since we can't agree, I'll just call you Madam Ha'lett."

Much as I disliked my first name, my surname was worse. "Rayendilyn. Honestly, Arik. You've only been gone a fortnight. Have you forgotten everything already?"

"Don't be silly, Ray. I've only forgotten the most important things."

I ignored this and opened the pantry, searching for a towel. I found one tucked behind the mead and, praying it wasn't dirty, gave it to Arik to dry off with. "How was Beaverbrook?" I asked, referring to the town that he had just returned from.

He waved a would-be airy hand, wiping his face with the other. "Eh. Beaverbrook is Beaverbrook."

I tucked a stray bit of unruly brown hair back into the knot at the back of my head. "Any news? How fares the Queen? Any news of an heir? How go negotiations? Will—"

Arik raised a hand, halting my flow of questions. "Keep in mind, my dear Ray, that Beaverbrook is nearly seven leagues north. It took me three days just to get there."

"What does has that got to do with anything?"

"I've forgotten most of what I learned."

"Arik!"

"I jest." He busied himself in drying the spaces between his fingers.

I waited a moment to see if he would continue, and when he didn't, I went to unsheathe the slender sword that I had hanging about my waist.

He jumped back out of the way. "By the crown, Ray, I'll tell you! I'll tell you!"

I laughed, as I hadn't had the slightest intention of pulling the blade on him, and went back to my dishwashing.

"I wish your father had never told you to wear that thing," Arik grumbled as I hummed an off-key version of a ballad that Gharn the Minstrel had taught me.

"So, are you going to tell me or not?"

Arik gave a long-suffering sigh and stretched his long legs out toward the small kitchen fire. "Her Highness Ulwen is faring well, but there still is no news of who might be her heir."

A thrill of intrigue ran up my spine. It must have shown on my face, because Arik asked if I was ill. I moistened my dry lower lip and bade him continue.

He opened his mouth as if to speak, but instead got up from his stool and strode over to me, clapping one hand over my mouth. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Ray, what I am about to tell you is very important. About the revolution. Do you hear me?"

I nodded mutely.

His grey eyes drilled into my own brown ones. "Rayendilyn, the Nightrunners are attentive to every rumor in Curdasia."

I peeled his hand off my face. "What do you mean?" I whispered back. "Are they…are they about?"

"Not thus far. They haven't caught wind of it yet."

I motioned for him to be silent. The man in the tarnished mail shirt was watching. "Did you get the cloth I asked you to?" I said in a normal voice, turning back to my dishwashing.

Arik caught on. "Yes, I did, Ray, Pony's got it."

"Very good. Thank you."

The man in the mail pulled out a quill and a knife and began whittling at the point of the pen, whistling quietly.

"What do you mean yet?" I asked quietly. "I don't like the sound of that."

"Kethe and his brothers have done their job well, but we've no way of knowing when the dams will burst and someone will talk."

"Arik…" I faltered and concentrated on a piece of porridge stuck to a bowl. "Maybe…maybe this isn't such a good idea."

His eyes widened almost comically. "Ray, you can't…you can't mean that—"

"No, Arik, I don't," I said hastily. "It's just that…this lull won't last. The Nightrunners haven't been awakened since Year of Curdasia 497. Their wrath…Arik, the Seers…"

"Ray, it's 1136 now. Neither the Seers nor their apprentices have been seen or heard of since 839."

"But what if they are awoken? They'll come down from Felburez to help the queen."

"Ray, no one lives that long. Besides, even if they could, they wouldn't dare coming down," Arik replied matter-of-factly. "They'd be killed before they got to the Gyrfell Mountains."

I whirled around to face him. "Arik," I hissed, rage and fear wrestling together in my stomach, "have you forgotten that Seers can have lifeblood in their veins for at least five lives of men! And besides—you know I'm of Felburezain descent. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here, coordinating meetings, finding sympathizers, assigning tasks, all building up to the last moment of my life when we really do revolt! I'm a descendant of Vaet K'lataa, for Loravaran's sake!"

He watched me quietly, refusing to argue. "You, I, and your parents are the only ones who know you have a…er, famous Seer for an ancestor. But I believe in you—we all believe in you, Ray, because you believe in what you do—and you're good at it, too. Who assigned Kethe the job of recruiting? Who got this operation off the ground? Besides—you've got the best disguise of us all."

"It's not a disguise, you ninny," I said testily. "Just because I'm the only woman who's capable of wielding a sword doesn't mean I can lead a revolution!"

"Ray, you're the only woman in a group of two hundred," Arik said with a grin. "More every day."

This caught my attention. "Come again?"

"I told you that Kethe is doing his job well. We have sympathizers in Alban, Caer Læon, Caerwyn, even Terris En now."

In his excitement, Arik's voice had risen nearly to normal level, and the dwarves I had seen earlier looked up. One's hood fell back, revealing a wild yellow beard. He looked at me with glinting blue eyes, then turned back to his companions.

"Caer Læon?" I repeated. "The royal city! Scepter…"

Arik was about to say something, but he stopped and tilted his head to one side. "Say…is that a new gown?"

I gave a foolish little twirl. "Yes, it is. I finished sewing it last night!" I was, actually, very proud of that gown. It had taken me two months of sewing nightly to finish it, and it showed: it was made of light damask that I had woven and dyed myself, and fitted loosely to allow me to still do my chores—and yet, perhaps because of late-night inspiration, it was still pretty.

"Did you ever finish that green one?" Arik asked.

I smiled, knowing that he was only humoring me. "I did that, too…only, I messed up on the hems—now it's an everyday one." The last time Arik had gone to Beaverbrook for his father, he had brought me back a long cut of forest green wool. I had begun the project too hastily, intending it to be a good gown—one for balls and such—and, of course, botched the entire thing and nearly ruined the cloth. Where would I even wear such a thing? I realized much later.

Arik drained the last of his cider. "Well, my father—"

"Rayendilyn?"

"Yes, Mîere. I'm downstairs." It was my mother. "Arik, dig my grave now, if you don't mind."

Mîere came down the steps in her dressing gown and slippers (Arik leapt from his seat). "Rayendi—oh, good evening, Arik! I didn't know you'd be back from Beaverbrook so soon."

"Yes, ma'am. The roads were clear."

Mîere pursed her lips. She didn't approve of Arik—or me, for that matter, but only because I was too independent for her liking. "Rayendilyn, Pîare wants you in bed immediately."

My cheeks flushed with indignation. "Tell Father that we still have patrons."

"Oh, so it's 'father' now, is it?"

"Mîere…"

"So will you be calling me 'mother' from now on, then?"

"I wouldn't dream of it."

My mother gave a shuddering sigh and sank into the chair Arik had just vacated. "My nerves," she breathed. I rolled my eyes.

"Oh!" my mother cried, laying a hand on her forehead, "my legs…so faint!" Her head dropped onto her shoulder and she gave a theatrical little sob.

I gave Arik a look as my mother's actions drew stares from the patrons. "Mother," I hissed.

Mîere gave a loud wail. "Girl, get your Pîare! I…I fear I'm dying!"

I darted up the stairs to the permanent bedrooms, glad to get away from the little clot of people that were crowding at the kitchen door. When I reached my parents' room, I rested my forehead against the worn oak and knocked.

"Yes?" My father's rumbling voice came from somewhere within.

"Pîare, Mîere says she's dying again."

There was a brief silence. Then— "Oh, good."

"Pîare..."

"Very well. I'm coming." The door creaked open, and my father, a tall, weather-beaten man with a grey beard, eased his way out. "Have you got her hyrodite?"

I blinked. "I thought you had it."

My father stopped in the middle of descending a step. "You haven't got it?"

We stared at each other in horror for a moment. My mother would go to pieces without her nerve herb—well, at least, more so than she already was.

A loud yowl brought us downstairs. My mother had poor Arik by the shirt and was shaking him back and forth as she sobbed, something about stealing and "death of us all!"

"Mîere, calm down," I said, hurrying to free my friend from her grasp. "Arik's Edan's son, remember?"

"Oh, Edan, Edan," my mother exclaimed. "Edan! Where's my hyrodite? My hyrodite!"

My stomach churned with dread. "We don't have any more, Mîere."

She raised her voice in such a loud wail that the little girl one of the men was holding began to cry in fright.

"No hyrodite! No hyrodite! We'll all be dead come morning, mark my words!"

Just then, a hooded woman in a travel-stained cloak broke through the knot of people surrounding my mother. "Ma'am," she said clearly, kneeling by the chair that Mîere was slumped in, "ma'am, can you hear me?"

"Of course I can hear, you hussy!"

"Then I need you to listen to me," the woman continued, undaunted. "Can you do that?"

My mother put a hand over her eyes and pursed her lips. "Yes."

"I need you to take a deep breath, and I'm going to touch your neck. All right?"

Mîere, still with her hand clapped over her eyes, inhaled deeply, and the hooded woman reached up with one hand and pressed her fingers below my mother's jawbone. "How do you feel, ma'am?" she asked after a pause.

Mîere peered through a space between her fingers. "Tolerable, I suppose."

I breathed a sigh of relief as Pîare went to help my mother out of the chair and brought her upstairs, saying, "Come along, Rosee, you've had a rough night."

"You have my gratitude," I said, turning to the woman. I saw now that her face was hidden by her heavy hood.

"It was nothing, milady," she said clearly. "I've had training in the art of healing."

Arik, who stood next to me, peered at her face curiously. "Have I seen you before?"

"No, milord, I don't think so."

"But I could've sworn you were at—"

"No, sir, you have not seen me." Her sharp tone surprised me, and Arik, as well.

"My apologies," Arik said, a quizzical lift at the end of his words.

She exhaled sharply and turned to go back to her companions. But as she walked through the doorway, her cloak caught on a nail and the hood was pulled back off her head. She quickly threw it back over, but it was too late. Everyone had seen the brand clear as day—bright red hair, piercing green eyes…

I had a Seer's apprentice in my inn.

There was a clatter of chairs as a man ran out of the room. I took a step forward, but the corners of my vision darkened, the ground rushed up to meet me, and all went black.