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Also by Barbara Hambly
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WHAT PASSED BEFORE (#uf0dedd6a-6ae6-581a-97f5-2a069c2c2e0b)
THE TALE OF John Aversin and Jenny Waynest, and their involvement with dragons and with the Realm of Belmarie, begins in the book Dragonsbane, when Gareth of Magloshaldon, heir of King Uriens Uwanë II, rides north to the desolate province of the Winterlands to seek John Aversin’s help. Aversin is a Dragonsbane, the only warrior outside ancient legends ever to have slain a dragon, and the black dragon Morkeleb has descended upon the underground kingdom of the gnomes, the Deep of Ylferdun, close by the King’s city of Bel, and is spreading havoc and death.
Aversin at first refuses to go. He is the Thane of the Winterlands, the last repository of law and government in the ruined and nearly empty province upon which the Kings in the South turned their backs nearly two centuries ago. However, Gareth promises him that if he slays the dragon, the King will send garrisons to protect the people of the Winterlands against both the barbarian Iceriders, and the incursions of bandits, which have plagued the land in the absence of royal law. Aversin assents, and he, his wife, Jenny Waynest—a witch of little training and severely limited powers—and Gareth ride south together.
In the city of Bel they discover that the true enemy is not the dragon, but a beautiful witch named Zyerne, who has enchanted the King with powers she is drawing from a Drinking Stone, a secret powersink of magical force that the gnomes had kept hidden in the Deep. She summoned the dragon to drive out the gnomes so that she could have the Stone all to herself. Since she derives her power not from slow learning but from the borrowed force of the Stone that she is not wise enough to use, she can now not get rid of the dragon, who is much stronger than she thought.
John Aversin fights the dragon, and is mortally wounded. Jenny, in her desperation to save John’s life, makes a bargain with Morkeleb, who was likewise mortally wounded in the fight: that she will use her magic to save the dragon’s life if Morkeleb will guide her into the Deep to find the medicines of the gnome Healers, so that she can then save John. In doing so she discovers the secret of the Drinking Stone, and in saving a dragon’s life, she learns the secret of the dragon’s name, and acquires mastery over him. Save a dragon, slave a dragon, runs the ancient spell, and Morkeleb is bound to do her bidding.
Jenny, John, Gareth, and the dragon Morkeleb forge an alliance with Gareth’s cousin, the rebel Master of Halnath, and with the gnome-witch Miss Mab, to defeat the evil Zyerne and destroy the Drinking Stone that gave her power. Morkeleb, who has fallen in love with Jenny, offers to transform her into a dragon herself, so that she may share the life of a dragon with him. Only after she agrees does she realize that she loves John more than the dragon, or the magic that has become hers when she took on dragon form. She asks Morkeleb to release her from dragon shape, and so great is the dragon’s love for her that he does.
Because Zyerne’s spells broke King Uriens’s mind, Gareth becomes Regent of the South and sends the garrisons, and the strong rule of royal law, that he promised. For four years, another of Gareth’s royal cousins, Rocklys of Galyon, commands the garrisons of the North. Then Rocklys is convinced by an old suitor of hers, the wizard Caradoc of Somanthus Isle, that Gareth is incompetent and that she, Rocklys, would make a better ruler, and it is at this point that the book Dragon-shadow begins.
Unbeknownst to anyone at that time, Caradoc has been possessed by a demon named Folcalor, who seeks to gain mastery over the human realms of the earth by setting up Rocklys as a pawn. Folcalor, in Caradoc’s body, summons other demons to possess the bodies of wizards and dragons, forming an all-powerful corps to lead against Gareth. One of the first wizards seized by Folcalor is John and Jenny’s twelve-year-old son, Ian, taken when Jenny herself is away from home helping one of the garrisons deal with bandits. After desperately trying to get in touch with Jenny, and failing, John goes to the Skerries of Light, the islands in the far western ocean, to seek out Morkeleb’s help.
From Morkeleb he learns that exactly the same situation occurred a thousand years ago. Though ordinarily demons can be controlled by wizards with ward-spells, then—as, suddenly, now—demons acquired unheard-of powers, and, led by a demon-ridden wizard named Isychros, possessed both wizards and dragons to take over the ancient realm of Ernine. Folcalor, and his master, Adromelech the Arch-wight, were called in by the ancient wizards of Prokep to defeat the demons ruled by Isychros, demons who were banished behind a mirror wrought of indestructible meteor-iron. When the demons within them were destroyed, Morkeleb says, the wizards and the dragons all died.
Desperate, John and Jenny go south, to both warn Gareth and rescue Ian. Jenny discovers too late that the demons trap wizards through their magic; that in using her magic, she makes herself vulnerable to possession herself. She is possessed by a demon named Amayon, while her true soul is imprisoned in a green crystal that Folcalor is keeping—unknown to his King Adromelech—for secret purposes of his own. In trying to free her and Ian, and the other possessed wizards, John and the gnome-witch Miss Mab go to Ernine, and John passes beyond the Burning Mirror into the Hell that lies behind it. There he makes a bargain with the Demon Queen for the spells and the implements that will free the possessed mages from the demons’ influence. In return she demands a teind, a tribute: a piece of a star, the tears of a dragon, and a gift freely given to him by one who hates him. If he cannot bring her all three, he will become her slave in Hell.
Though John eventually tricks the Demon Queen and wins back his soul from danger, he is branded a trafficker with demons by Gareth’s councilor, Ector of Sindestray. The spells he obtained from her free the wizards Folcalor has trapped. In pursuing Folcalor—still in the body of the mage Caradoc—Jenny and Morkeleb slay Caradoc beneath the sea in a battle whose virulence strips Jenny of her powers. Morkeleb cannot help her, for between his love for her and his own battles with the demons, he has renounced most of his own magic, as he once renounced the gold to which all dragons are addicted. He has passed beyond material existence and become a Dragonshadow, a creature of the legends of the dragons of whom few mortals have ever even heard.
The demons appear to have been defeated, but the psychological toll on everyone concerned is devastating. Jenny and Ian—and the other surviving wizard of Folcalor’s corps, Bliaud—discover that once one has been possessed by a demon, one is plagued by desperate feelings of longing and grief. At the outset of Knight of the Demon Queen, Ian begins to hear the demon Folcalor whispering to him in dreams, trying to take him over. He tries to kill himself to prevent this from happening, and John and Jenny, their love strained to the utmost by the emotional aftermath of what they have been through, quarrel. Jenny returns to her own small house on Frost Fell, where she lived alone for many years before living with John; John nurses Ian at his castle at Alyn Hold. Through the bitter weeks of winter, Jenny wrestles with the worst of her depression and dependence on the memories of the demons.
Before Jenny can return to speak to John, John is visited by the Demon Queen, Aohila. The Queen extorts his services in looking for a man who, she says, betrayed her. She sends him on a quest through various Hells, with Jenny’s former possessing demon, Amayon, as a guide. In freeing Jenny, John captured Amayon and turned him over to Aohila for torture and vengeance; Amayon is an equivocal companion at best.
On her way to Alyn Hold, Jenny discovers that the demons, far from being gone, are growing in numbers, possessing the bodies of the dead. They are also buying slaves from the gnomes, slaves who have no apparent use in the gnomes’ mines—John was warned of this earlier by a former mine-slave named Brâk, whom he helped to free on his way to the Skerries of Light. Realizing that Folcalor is still at large and still plotting, Jenny and Ian seek to retrieve the talisman jewel that still holds the soul of the mage Caradoc, which was lost in the sea during the final battle. Though the whalemages bring it to her, Jenny is forced to drop the jewel, which falls back into the sea and takes over the corpse of a drowned sailor. In this corpse, Caradoc attempts to drown Ian so that he can take over the boy’s body and thus have the use of his magic. Jenny drives him away, and he flees.
After passing through several Hells, John comes to another world, where magic does not work and where Aohila’s betrayer is hiding. He is a scientist of ether physics named Corvin NinetyfiveFifty, and demons working for both Folcalor and Folcalor’s ruler, the Arch-wight Adromelech, are hunting him there. John falls in with a group of men and women, the League of the White Black Bird, who claim that they would be wizards if magic existed. One of them, Shamble, gives him a sword, which he says is spelled against demons. John knows that this world is a true world and not simply another Hell, because the stars are the same, including a comet that has appeared, which is called the Dragonstar, and that appeared also in the sky a thousand years ago at the time of the demon-wars in Ernine.
Returning to Alyn Hold with Ian, Jenny finds the place besieged by bandits who have allied themselves with demons. Because the demons can use a wizard’s magic against him, Ian cannot use his own magic to keep the Hold from being destroyed. Jenny and Ian, at a safe distance, use Ian’s magic to transform her into the shape of a dragon, which Morkeleb once showed her how to do. In this shape she drives the bandits away, but in becoming a dragon she is in danger of forgetting her humanity. Returning to human shape nearly kills her, and she is healed by Morkeleb. The Dragonshadow takes Jenny south to Bel, to warn the regent Gareth that the demons are taking the bodies of the dead.
They arrive to find the city in the grip of a terrible plague. Gareth’s wife, Trey, dies, and to Jenny’s horror is resurrected by the wizard Bliaud, who, weaker than Jenny or Ian, has given in and accepted another demon into his body and mind. Trey’s body is the possession of a demon; when Jenny goes to the Deep of the Gnomes to consult with Miss Mab, she is cornered by demon-possessed gnomes and shot with a poisoned arrow.
At the same time John traps Corvin NinetyfiveFifty in the magic box that the Demon Queen gave him for the purpose. But because he doesn’t trust Aohila, John had the League of the White Black Bird manufacture a duplicate box, with a magical gateway between the two boxes. Upon his return to Bel, John is betrayed by Amayon and captured by Ector of Sindestray’s men, and condemned to be burned at the stake. Gareth, exhausted and shattered by Trey’s illness, death, and resurrection, promises John that he’ll be broken out of prison and smuggled out of the city, but the demon Trey drugs Gareth, and the plan is not carried out.
THE DEMON QUEEN came in the dark hours before dawn; she shined in the blackness with the moony radiance of rotting wood.
Chained, John Aversin raised his head and squinted at her; his breath came fast. The King’s guards had taken his spectacles from him when he’d been brought to the cell beneath the prison tower, and even at three feet—the cell measured barely six—she was blurred to him, which made him sure that this was no dream. That fact was perhaps the most frightening of all the things that frightened him that night.
Prince Gareth, Regent for the mindbroken King of Bel, had promised he’d return Aversin’s spectacles to him with the guardsman he’d send to smuggle him out. That had been that afternoon, while the King’s men and those of the King’s councilor, Ector of Sindestray, were building a pyre in the square before the city’s market hall to burn him alive for trafficking with demons. “He’ll come with the midnight watch, when the courtyard is quiet,” the young man had promised, pushing his own thick-lensed spectacles up onto the bridge of his nose. “He’ll bring you a horse and food,” for it was customary to starve prisoners condemned to the stake. After three days in the dungeon, John was too light-headed and short of breath to put up much of a fight or run very far even if he could escape from his chains. “The man I’ll send—Captain Tourneval—is loyal to me, and will ask no questions.”
By the dirty yellow torchlight that fell through the grilled trapdoor overhead—the cell’s only entrance, nearly twelve feet from the clayey rock of the floor—Gareth’s face, even to John’s myopic perception, had appeared haggard. Days without sleep deepened the lines that rulership and responsibility had put in the features of a boy who’d once ridden to the Winterlands to fetch John to the aid of the Realm, a boy who’d gone looking for the Dragonsbane of his precious ballads. That boy was twenty-four now, and carrying the burdens of a man.
A man’s grief had turned those facial lines to gouges, showing what Gareth’s face would look like in old age. Plague had swept the Realm and especially the capital of Bel. The fever seemed to come from no source, and it killed rich and poor alike. The Lady Trey, barely twenty-one years old and the mother of Gareth’s daughter, had died the day before.
Had died—and had returned.
“It’s all right,” Gareth had said, his light voice shaky with relief and exhaustion. He’d passed a nervous hand over his face. He was built like a fence-rail, and up until the start of his Regency five years ago had done little but study ancient ballads and modern fashions, a gawky and well-meaning dandy whose elder cousin, only the previous summer, had nearly taken the Regency from him by force. “There’s a healer, a very great doctor, in the town. He—he brought her back. She’s all right …”
And at the words, John’s heart sank, and the memory of them made him shudder now. In other worlds, in the alien Hells and alien realities to which the Demon Queen had sent him on errantry, he had seen how demons entered the bodies of the dead. He had seen what those people became, and what they did.
Gar, no. No …
And in the young man’s eyes, sick with relief that the woman he so adored had not after all gone out of his life, John saw that he could not speak. For if he said, She’s a demon, Gar, and you must burn her alive as Ector seeks to burn me, the young Regent would have turned away. Would have made his choice of what to believe, and left John to face the fire.
But as John heard the midnight shift arrive and begin their rounds, and later start up games of dominoes and dice to pass the time, he thought, I might just as well have had me say.
Laughter overhead, and patrolling footfalls that didn’t pause. Anxiety turned to suspicion, then to despair.
Had the demon who now dwelled in Trey’s body dosed Gareth’s wine? Drugged him before he’d met with this Captain Tourneval? Or had it only been sufficient to whisper love-words to him, draw him to her bed? Exhausted, the young Regent would sleep like a dead man afterward. His dreams would be sweet with relief and satiation, with demon-painted visions that now everything would be well forever.
Demons were good at that.
Small odds, anyway, John thought as the night dragged into its final hours. The muttering of the other prisoners along the corridor faded, the sounds he’d heard for three nights now. Curses or weeping, or the gluey persistent coughs of pneumonia. A few yards away from the grilled trapdoor a single torch leaked little of its light down into the cell, four elongated brazen trapezoids on the stones some two yards above John’s head. Here, under the central tower of the old section of the palace, the damp cold seeped to the marrow. The river wasn’t far away. Though it was impossible for Aversin to hear anything but the murmur of the guards, the occasional cries of the other prisoners, his too-vivid imagination—the bane of his thirty-nine years—manufactured for him the footsteps of the men who dragged wood to the pyre in the market square, the harsh rattle of tinder being stacked, and the clack of the ladders raised against the stake.
Trafficked with demons, he did, he could hear them saying, like voices in a nightmare. Got to watch them. Demons started this plague, the way demons possessed them wizards, that evil Caradoc, that tried to raise a rebellion in summer and slay the old King. Never trust those that have words with demons …
And they were right, of course. That was the worst of it, that John agreed with everything that was being done. As a ruler himself it was what he’d have done.
He gazed in the darkness at the sickly phosphorescent specter that stood before him, smiling—even without his spectacles, he knew she smiled.
Her hair clothed her, wreaths and coils like sable sea wrack and like sea wrack gemmed with pearls and creeping with nacreous life. Thighs, shoulders, coral-tipped breasts lifted through it like alabaster, and the spells of lust and yearning ran off him like rain. She said nothing, only looked at him with those golden goat-like eyes. He knew she was waiting for him to speak.
Get me out of this!
Since the age of ten he’d read every book and fragment he could get his hands on of law and judicial proceedings. As Thane of the Winterlands it was part of his duties to bring as much justice as he could manage to those in his care. He knew exactly what would be done to a man who trafficked with demons, and why it had to be that way.
Don’t let them burn me!
He’d been Thane of the Winterlands for twenty-three years. He’d seen men die by fire.