The King's Bastard - By Rowena Cory Daniells

Chapter One

Rolencia, near Midwinter's Day

Byren went first, hoping to spot the Affinity beast's tracks so he could judge its size and the danger to his men. Despite the clumsy snow shoes, he ploughed on. Cold air stung his nostrils and the drifts lay deep with a crust of crisp ice crystals, glinting in the rays of the setting sun. Ah, how he loved Rolencia!

When he reached the rim of a small, treeless hollow, he searched for signs of the beast. No tracks in the smooth white snow. And they hadn't had a fall since dusk, last night.

'Slow down, Byren. Lence isn't with us this time,' Orrade called, short of breath despite the reserves of strength in his wiry frame.

Byren grinned ruefully. For as long as he could remember, he'd pushed himself to challenge Lence, but his twin had remained at the castle to welcome the Merofynian ambassador. Byren did not envy Lence. As kingsheir, his twin had to marry to consolidate Rolencia's alliance with Merofynia. While Byren...

Orrade joined him, sucking in deep breaths.

To give the others time to catch up, Byren studied the bluffs and ridges of the Dividing Mountains which formed a barrier between the rich Rolencian valley kingdom and the savage spars. Familiar peaks told him they weren't far from the border of Dovecote estate. Why, if he climbed a tree and looked east, he could probably spot the nearest warning tower looming over the snow-shrouded forest and fields.

What was Elina doing right now? Last spring he'd caught her in the cold-cellar and demanded a kiss. She'd promptly clipped him over the head with a frozen ham, almost knocking him out. Moaning convincingly, he'd let her put fresh mountain ice on the bruise. Her contrite sympathy was better than any kiss. He smiled to himself. Back in Rolencia's war-torn past she would have made a fine warrior's wife.

'Say, Orrie, when our work's done here do you want to go down to Dovecote and visit your father?'

'Visit Elina, you mean.'

Byren chuckled and went to move, but Orrade stopped him. His friend's sharp, dark eyes surveyed the hollow, and his black brows drew together to form a single line of worry.

'What?'

'Don't know.' Orrade spoke slowly. 'Something's not right.'

Byren studied the trees lining the rim. Mostly evergreens, their skirts were mantled with snow and could easily hide the beast they sought. The size of a large wolf, with the markings of a leopard, lincis were rarely sighted this close to habitation. All Affinity beasts were dangerous but a lone predator was not a great threat for a party of armed men like his. And it was a lincis the villagers had reported, not a manticore pride or a fearsome leogryf. 'Could it be the beastie?'

'Don't know... nearly midwinter so the walls between the Seen and Unseen are at their weakest.' Orrade shrugged. Byren reached for his bow, but Orrade gave himself a shake and grimaced. 'No sign of the beast and I don't have Affinity, yet -'

'Byren Kingson?' The village's Affinity warder caught up with them, red-faced and insistent.

'Monk Hedgerow,' Byren greeted him, then had to wait while the man bent double, gasping. He had seen the monk ordering the villagers about, insisting on the best of the harvest for himself. No wonder he'd grown so plump in just one summer. Halcyon's monks were renowned for their fighting skills but this one would be useless if the warlord of Cockatrice Spar sent raiders over the pass, or if they met up with the beast. Byren began to regret not bringing the village's healer as well. She had looked lean and eager, despite having seen sixty winters. Consideration for the nun's age had stopped him; that and the thought of them bickering. Rivalry between the monks of Halcyon and nuns of Sylion went as deep as the rift between summer and winter.

'So where did they see this lincis, Hedgerow?' Byren prompted.

'Not far from here,' the monk said, and frowned. 'Why haven't you strung your bows?'

Orrade raised his eyebrows, and Byren shrugged. 'There's been no sign of tracks. It could be hours before we sight the beast, if at all.'

When the monk looked blank, Orrade added, 'If we leave the bows strung, the strings will lose tension. They'd be useless when we needed them.'

The monk seemed unconvinced, but gave an ingratiating bow. 'Kingson, I ask a boon. I shouldn't be serving a rural village whose only claim to fame is discovering a tin mine by accident. I'm a scholar, not a dirt grubber. You

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