The Prince of Souls – Lynn Kurland

When a man was facing death, his mind naturally became consumed with questions of a profound and pressing nature, such as why pursuing his favorite things— murder, mischief, and mayhem—should result in the most fatal of the three being perpetrated upon his own poor self. Acair of Ceangail leaned his head back against the weeping stone wall of a dwarvish dungeon, ignoring the alarming rattle in his chest, and wished he’d had the wherewithal to find the answer that question deserved. Unfortunately, his strength had been spent on numerous escape attempts, his voice worn hoarse from shouting demands that someone come release him, and his hands left bruised and bloodied far past the point where they might be acceptable at even the roughest of supper tables thanks to his banging them repeatedly against the invisible door of his cell. He suspected he might be nearing his end. That he might meet that end in the very last place he’d wanted to be, a kingdom ruled by a monarch he had endured innumerable humiliations to avoid encountering lest that selfsame monarch decide the time had come for him to indeed breathe his last, was almost more than he could bear. If the cold, vermin, and lack of food didn’t finish him off, the irony of that likely would. Such a terrible fate should have been impossible given the charmed nature of his existence. He had spent decades cutting a gleeful swath through the Nine Kingdoms, tossing himself with abandon into situations that would have given a lesser mage pause and extricating himself from the most impenetrable of strongholds with a wink and a cheery wave. Kings had ground their teeth, mages had hidden behind tapestries, and priceless treasures had leapt out of locked cabinets to take up residence in his pockets. Why the course of his life had taken such a decided turn toward less desirable locales was— Well, honesty was, as he reluctantly admitted to those he wasn’t trying to rob or intimidate, his worst failing. If he were to be honest, he could pinpoint the exact moment when his life had veered off the smoothly paved path laid before his exquisitely shod feet and led him to a place that had been the beginning of the end for him. It had been, if memory served, during the previous spring as he’d been going about his usual business of toppling thrones and attempting to pilfer the world’s supply of magic. He’d been in the right place at the wrong time and found himself a reluctant witness to the sight of a very sharp blade coming directly toward a rather lovely if not perilously powerful maiden fair. His chivalry had risen like gorge, and he’d stepped in front of her to take the blade meant for her into his own black heart. If he’d had even the slightest inkling how that colossal piece of do-gooding would begin the unraveling of the cloth of his life, he would have nipped off into the shadows and left the wench to fend for herself.

But he’d jumped into the fray and the deed had been done. That act of selflessness—and lesson learned there, to be sure—had led to a series of events that had completely derailed his plans for the making of obstreperous hay. Having his fine form restored to perfection by a piece of elvish rot had only been the beginning of the horrors he’d endured. Good deeds, polite smiles, fawning apologies he hadn’t meant in the slightest: the list of what had taken up the subsequent months had been endless and endlessly trying. He had submitted to the indignities, though, because his freedom had hung in the balance. Fate had obviously stepped in to take the helm only to set him on a collision course with the one soul before whom he had absolutely refused to bow and scrape, namely Uachdaran of Léige: maker of legendary swords, digger of priceless gems, and papa of one vexatious daughter with plans. ’Twas obvious to him now that he should have made an effort to clear up a few lingering misunderstandings between himself and the king of the dwarves. A rare bottle of elvish wine or an irreplaceable tapestry or two sent at just the right moment might have been the very thing to soften the king’s heart and overcome any reluctance to share one or two of the kingdom’s plentiful treasures. After all, dwarvish mines produced sparkling things he liked very much, and Durial was a place full of useful lakes and rivers. If he’d helped himself to a handful of gems the king might or might not have missed, then used one—or perhaps several, the details escaped him—of the king’s many rivers for his own purposes, who should have been the wiser? Well, obviously the king had been, which was why he was rotting belowdecks instead of taking his ease in front of a roaring fire upstairs in the great hall.

Unfortunately for his hopes of luxuriating in fresh air again any time soon, he knew— and never mind how he knew—that not even the most creative of shapechanging would allow him past Uachdaran of Léige’s containment spells. Worse still was knowing—and on that score he was all too happy to recount the ridiculous reason why he knew—that whatever the king’s magic might leave of him after such an attempt, the fiendish spell currently sitting across his cell from him would certainly finish off. He looked narrowly at that nasty piece of business that was definitely the cause for his being where he was at present and decided that reminding himself of exactly why that was might at least keep him warm for a bit longer. There he’d been, less than a fortnight earlier, facing a formidable foe and limiting himself to a rudimentary spell of return, when things had taken a foul jog south. The words of his own spell had scarce left his lips before that damned thing presently glaring at him like a surly youth had leapt upon his mostly innocent person like a hound on a meat-covered bone and begun to chew. If it hadn’t been for the intervention of a woman he loved but didn’t deserve and the magical stylings of a prince he loathed but owed his life to, he would have definitely breathed his last. He’d hardly managed to scamper off to safety with his lady before he’d run afoul of the local monarch who had popped him in a truly awful little prison and promised him a oneway journey to a spot in the East where the king had pointed out quite enthusiastically that Acair wouldn’t be all that welcome. He sighed as deeply as he was capable of at the moment. ’Twas all too soon for the business of endings. He had mischief to make, the world to save, a red-haired stable lass to woo.

If he’d had any heart to break, that noise echoing in his soul would have been the sound of it. He would gladly have gazed upon Léirsinn of Sàraichte’s lovely visage one more time, though he supposed having seen her that morning on the other side of the spell that guarded his door was the best he was going to manage. Or had she been there yesterday? The day before that? He frowned, reluctantly conceding that it had become increasingly difficult to mark any distinction between dreaming and lucidity. Rousing himself to put events in their proper order, never mind attempting to marshal the strength to put the world back in its proper order, was simply beyond him. A little gloss of hopelessness over any piece of mischief tended to leave him rubbing his hands together with delight, but this was something else entirely. He could feel his breath slowing with every exhale, his strength ebbing with each heartbeat, his very will to live being pulled from him with every moment of imprisonment that passed. The thumping in his ears was likely what was left of his broken heart giving its all before — He froze, which admittedly was done rather easily all things considered. Were those footsteps? He’d heard that sort of thing before, but usually those plodding boots belonged to some belligerent guard delivering his daily stew of things he absolutely refused to identify. A time or two the footfalls had been lighter and belonged to a spectacular woman who had come to keep him company in his hour of need. Now, though, he honestly couldn’t decide if he were hearing things or hearing actual things, if he could stir himself to distinguish between the two.

Aye, those were definitely footfalls. He closed his eyes and tried to identify the number of feet making them and if the cadence were pleasant or sinister. Before he’d even begun to come to any conclusion on the matter, the spell serving as the door to his hellish jail disappeared. Before he could so much as blurt out a half-hearted, self-serving apology to whomever might have been responsible for the same, he was hauled to his feet. “The king wants you upstairs,” one of the two guardsmen there said curtly. He imagined the king did and suspected the invitation had less to do with enjoying a robust pint of ale together and more to do with swinging all on his own from the nearest beam. Given the rather rustic nature of the king’s lodgings, the old whoreson wouldn’t have any trouble finding one of those. Death it would be, then. He indulged in a brief moment of regret that his legs weren’t steadier beneath him. If he were to face the gallows, he would have preferred to have walked there with a swagger.

He spared a brief nod of thanks to his spellish chaperon that appeared at his side and slung a shadowy arm around his shoulders. Enemy in life, friend in death. He stumbled along between a pair of dwarvish guards he would have felled without so much as a twinge of conscience not half a year earlier and found it in himself to be grateful that his execution wouldn’t happen below ground. Then again, for all he knew Uachdaran had invited several souls of note he might or might not have offended in the past to the event and didn’t want them catching a chill. He could only imagine who might be on that list. Please not Léirsinn. If he had to die, he didn’t want her to watch. Not after what she’d put herself through to save him. It took longer than it should have to make his way through the palace and out the front doors, but his guardsmen didn’t seem anxious to rush off to other tasks. He finally limped out into the courtyard, then leaned over with his hands on his shaking thighs to catch his breath for a moment or two.

When he thought he could manage it, he straightened. Perhaps his usual expression of sardonic amusement was beyond him, but he would meet his fate with his head held as high as he could manage. The sun was inching up toward its mid-morning spot in the sky, but its pale winter light had done little to warm the air. That was no doubt why the courtyard was full of the satisfying smell of a hearty fire— Or, perhaps not. There, to his left, on the north side of the gates—he liked to keep those sorts of details straight in case the opportunity for flight presented itself—were the king’s stables. He was surprised to see them wearing scorch marks. Somewhat less surprising was the sight of the king himself standing but a handful of paces away. Acair attempted a polite bow. That sent him pitching forward onto his knees, which was perhaps better than landing straightway upon his poor visage though not by much. His guards hauled him back to his feet, then did him the very great favor of holding him up until he could stand there on his own.

He waited until the stars stopped swirling about his head before he nodded his thanks. The dwarves stepped away a pace or two, but no farther. First things first. Though Léirsinn had told him the king had offered her a chamber, there was no sense in not making certain of it. “My lady?” he asked pointedly. “She is safely housed and recovering from her attempts to destroy my hall.” The king leveled a steely glance at him. “I blame you for her misguided actions.” “As you should,” Acair agreed, furiously calculating the amount of strength it would take to get both himself and his love out the front gates. Though it galled him to admit as much, he knew it would take more than he had at the moment.

The best he could do was keep himself free of the dungeon and recover a bit until the opportunity for escape presented itself. He reached for his best expression of contrition, appalled by how easily it came to him, and faced the king squarely. “I believe I feel an apology coming on.” Uachdaran folded his arms very slowly over his manly chest and lifted an eyebrow. “Do you, indeed.” “Perhaps more than one,” Acair amended. “If there’s time.” “I have all morning. Spew away.” Acair supposed the longer the apologies, the more chance to catch his breath, so he jumped in with both feet.

“First, I would like to apologize for rushing off into the night with your middle daughter. If it appeases Your Majesty any, she almost killed me with a chair.” “I’ll speak to her about leaving things undone when next we meet,” the king said. “What else?” “I apologize for making use of one—” “More than one!” the king shouted. “Several,” Acair conceded. “Several rivers belonging to you that I appropriated for my own unsavory purposes.” The king looked at him for so long without moving that Acair began to wonder if perhaps all those sleepless nights he was responsible for might have done more damage than he’d suspected. The king was indeed a bit puffy about the eyes and he looked as if he needed a decent nap. Acair imagined his own visage didn’t look any better, so perhaps ’twas best to let that observation lie. “Insufficient,” the king said crisply.

He stroked his beard, encountered a few equally crispy ends, then pointed toward the stables. “Look at the damage there. Apologize for that.” Acair had already looked and wasn’t sure he cared for a second viewing. “I didn’t do that.” The king snarled a curse at him. Acair wasn’t unfamiliar with the dwarvish tongue—it came in handy for knowing which spells to poach—so he understood precisely what the king was telling him to do with himself. He would have pointed out that he couldn’t very well consign himself to Hell and engage in those sorts of activities by himself, but he imagined he didn’t need to. With the way the king was looking at him, he wasn’t entirely sure the king wouldn’t be his escort and primary tormentor if given the chance. So, instead, he chose discretion and kept his mouth shut.

He would have attempted a look of regret, but he’d tried that a time or two in the past and found that sort of thing just didn’t sit properly on his features. He was made for sneers. It was his burden to bear, to be sure. “I never said you lit the fire,” the king said curtly, “though I’m guessing yours was the spell that was used.” “I don’t imagine—” “Shut up,” the king said, turning away. “We’ll go have a closer look and decide then. Follow me.” Acair didn’t dare not, though it was rather a more dodgy business than he was comfortable with. He stumbled along behind the king, accompanied by a decent collection of palace guards, and tried not to dwell on the fact that he was within bolting distance of the gates. He also ignored the fact that at any other time he would have found the number of obstacles in his path toward freedom to be exhilarating not exhausting.

At the moment, it was all he could not to weep with gratitude when the king stopped and turned to glare at him. “Your lass, Léirsinn, said this morning that she wanted to do a bit of horse work. I agreed, because I thought it would keep her from trying to burn my house to the ground again.” Acair refrained from commenting on that. He’d heard all about that rather fiery adventure from the woman herself. It had been unsurprising, actually. She had recently acquired a bit of magic—something he still hadn’t quite come to terms with—and her first act had been to set half a forest on fire. Red hair equaled a bit of a temper or so he’d heard, but he suspected that mentioning the same to her would only result in her turning her incendiary sights on him. So many conversational topics to avoid. ’Twas enough to leave a man of quality reaching for ink and parchment in order to jot them down for reference.

“This,” the king continued coolly, “is what your wee horse miss did earlier this morning after I refused to bring you upstairs.” “I can’t imagine she would have burned a stable full of horses to the ground over that,” Acair said slowly. “She was aiming for me!” The king blew out his breath, accompanied by a curse or two. “My stables bore the brunt of her fury, though my own person is not without damage as well.” Acair thought it wise not to comment on the condition of the king’s long, glorious beard, though that was where discretion ended. He considered, then gave his all to drawing himself up in his best imitation of a very dangerous black mage on the verge of dire deeds. “You said my lady was well, but I have no proof.” He gestured toward the stables. “That isn’t proof.” The king’s expression was enough to leave Acair wondering if the man was capable of sheering off parts of his mine with his glares alone.

“I do not harm women,” Uachdaran said frostily. “Mistress Léirsinn is recovering from her exertions, as I said. I’m still considering whether or not I’ll allow you to see her before I send you off to your well-deserved reward in Hell. You’ll improve your chances by remaining silent.” Acair nodded, silently. He would have pled for a moment to enjoy his relief that Léirsinn was indeed safe, but dwarvish swords being loosened in finely tooled dwarvish sheaths were a chorus of reasons why he was better off not making any requests. He followed the king into his stables without comment and hoped for the best. The truth was, the barn had only sustained minor damage and even that was only on the outside where Acair suspected the horses didn’t find themselves troubled by it. He shuffled past pristine stalls until the monarch paused. He glanced to his left and was only marginally surprised to find his own horse housed there.

Sianach, that damned nag, had his nose buried in a bucket of something that smelled so much better than anything Acair had choked down over the last few days that he had to clutch the edge of the stall door to keep from swooning. He wondered briefly if his blasted horse would bite him if he tried to steal his breakfast. Sianach lifted his head, bared his teeth briefly, then went back to his grain. The king grunted and continued on. Acair walked until he simply couldn’t go any farther. He grasped a post when it presented itself as something to be used in remaining upright, then blinked in surprise at the sight of a different horse sticking its rather distinctive nose over a stall door. “Is that an Angesand steed I see in yon kingly accommodations?” he asked faintly. “It is,” the king said grimly. “Lord Hearn is a good friend to send you such a valuable beast,” he ventured, wondering why the dwarf-king seemed less than pleased with the gift. “It isn’t a gesture of friendship,” Uachdaran said shortly, “’tis a bribe.

” He reached out and stroked the horse’s nose. “And a tempting bribe it is. Hearn knows all too well that I’ve coveted this lad for quite some time.” The horse whickered in pleasure, then snuffled the king’s hair. And damn Uachdaran of Léige if he didn’t chortle a bit himself, looking as if he were a lad of ten summers facing his first decent mount and feeling the thrill of possessing the same. “You have excellent taste in horseflesh, Your Majesty,” Acair said. It was hard to go wrong with an Angesand pony, but they were equally hard to come by. That Hearn should relinquish one without a king’s ransom being surrendered in return was unusual, indeed. Uachdaran shot him a dark look. “Damned right I do.

” He pursed his lips, considered, then pulled a missive from out of a pocket. He looked as if he were considering chucking the thing into the nearest pile of manure, if such a thing could be found in such immaculate stables, then thrust it out without comment. Acair had gained a healthy dislike for the written word over the past several months and suspected the current offering would be no more welcome than any of the others. But he was no coward, so he took it. Reluctantly, but there it was. He fully expected to find anything from additional questing tasks to pointed threats on his life scribbled there for his pleasure. He steeled himself for the worst, then unfolded the sheaf. I need the bastard alive Well, at least he didn’t have to ask who had penned those words with such an aggressive scrawl. He half expected to see that the note had been sealed with manure and stamped with a horseshoe, but perhaps Hearn was trying to impress. He was vastly relieved to learn that the good lord of Angesand wanted him still on the job, as well as being enormously flattered that the man valued his services to the tune of a very fine horse.

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