Jonmarc Vahanian reined in his horse. The autumn day was chill and his breath misted in the air as brilliantly colored leaves swirled around the courtyard. His gaze scanned the hulking, dark stone building. The manor house of Dark Haven was finally habitable.
Jonmarcís horse snuffled restlessly. Teams of workers bustled around the courtyard, trying to get the manor house fully livable by winter and, more to Jonmarcís concern, suitable for visitors. He slipped down from his horse and absently handed the reins to a squire as Neirin, his grounds manager, bustled up. Neirin was born to Dark Havenís lands, kin to many of the ghosts and vayash moru who served the manor. A cloud of wild red hair framed his freckled face, and when he spoke it was with the heavy accent of the Principality highlands.
"Youíre out early, mílord," Neirin greeted him cheerfully. "Theyíll be thinking youíre vayash moru with the hours youíve been keeping."
Jonmarc smiled. "Iíve always been a night person, but Dark Haven gives that a whole new meaning." He stretched, and grimaced as his right arm twinged. A little more than three months had elapsed since the battle with Arontala. The badly broken arm, leg and wrist had required most of the summer to mend, even with Carinaís help.
"Taking a chill in the bones?"
"Not quite good as new, but getting there."
Neirin gave him a knowing look. "I doubt your lady healer had the schedule you keep in mind when you came north. Reaping grain with the farmers in the morning, down in the forge for the afternoon, swords practice with your guard at night."
Jonmarc chuckled. "She expects me to ignore orders. That means Iím doing just what she thought I would."
"Thatís the most twisted logic Iíve heard in a long time."
Jonmarc looked up at the dark stone of the manor house. "Yeah, well even by my standards, this is the strangest place Iíve been in a long time, so weíre even." He stared down the road toward the village and the fields beyond. Last yearís heavy rains made for a poor harvest. Dark Haven could not afford another poor yield, and here in the northlands, winter would be coming on soon.
"Youíre worried about the harvest."
Jonmarc shrugged. "Shouldnít I be? The manor house wasnít the only thing left to rot for ten years. No one looked much after the fields, thatís certain. And with the mess Jared made of Margolan, there wonít be grain to spare this year. Weíve got to take in everything we grow and make sure it winters. Iíve no desire to win a title and still go hungry!"
"Youíve already done more than the last two lords."
"As Iíve been told repeatedly, they died young. Maybe Iím not counting on a long tenure."
"I wish you wouldnít joke like that."
Neirin looked out over the fields. "Iím not a mage, but even I know that things were better here before Arontala disturbed the currents of magic beneath the manor house. Iíve heard my father and my grandfather talk about how it was before. Ever since Arontala ripped out that damn orb, things have gotten worse."
"Last year, when I heard Tris and the Sisterhood talk about the Flow, I didnít actually believe them," Jonmarc mused. "Now, Iím living on top of the damn thing. Iíve got no magic, but even to me, something feels wrong whenever Iím in the vaults below the manor."
A powerful current of magic flowed beneath the manor house and through its foundation. It was in this Flow that the great mage Bava Kíaa imprisoned the orb containing the soul of the Obsidian King more than fifty years ago. The manorís foundation had shattered and one wing of the building had collapsed when Foor Arontala wrested the orb of the Obsidian King free eleven years ago. Mages swore that it created a disruption in the Flow, a dislocation that could be felt the breadth of the Winter Kingdoms.
A chill wind blasted past him, and leaves swirled around his feet. Once more, the manor house bustled with life and the activity of those who, if not alive, were not entirely dead. Dark Haven was the ancestral home of the vayash moru, and Jonmarc, who earned its lordship as a gift from the king of Principality, was its newest lord.
"Are you ready for tonight?"
Jonmarc gave Neirin a hard stare. "Sure. Iím as ready as Iím going to be. Iím being introduced to the Blood Council. Only mortal in the place. The last time Gabriel arranged a Council meeting I almost died-and I wasnít even officially invited. Iím not at all sure theyíre happy about a new lord, and a mortal one at that."
Neirin walked alongside Jonmarc as they surveyed the progress of the building crews. "Youíll be on Lord Gabrielís lands. That gives you sanctuary. Heíll have his brood there to watch over you. No one will dare move against you. Even if they wanted to."
"Thanks. That makes me feel much better."
Jonmarc pulled his cloak around him, watching the workers. By daylight, the laborers were mortal. By night, vayash moru craftsmen worked to restore the manor to its previous glory. Gabriel had begun the process of rebuilding before Jonmarc was able to travel from Margolan. Within a few weeks of Jonmarcís arrival, the pantries were provisioned, the sheds filled with firewood and necessities, and the stables full with horses and their tack. Dark Haven was livable for mortals once more.
Dark Havenís manor was four centuries old, a three-story rectangle with a large wing on either side. The main entrance had a sweeping set of steps cascading from a columned entranceway and above it a large balcony. Made of dark granite, Dark Haven seemed brooding.
Even the buildingís construction revealed its role as home to both mortals and vayash moru. Its rooms were built concentrically. An outer ring of rooms with large windows was designed for its mortal inhabitants. A second ring of rooms at the core of the building was windowless, so vayash moru could move in safety regardless of the sun outside. At the far left end of the western wing was a small temple to the Goddess. But where Margolan worshipped Her as Mother and Childe and Isencroft venerated the avenger Chenne, only Dark Haven worshipped Her as Istra, the Dark Lady. The temple had been faithfully kept throughout the years of disuse. Even Jonmarc, whose views were at best agnostic except under fire, could feel a ghostly sense of presence there.
"How can it be this bloody cold so early in the season?" Jonmarc grumbled.
"This is Principality! Itís only by the Ladyís luck it hasnít snowed." The green-gray tinge of the clouds looked as if that luck might be ready to run out.
"If the snows are bad, Linton wonít be able to get his caravan provisioned by Winterstide. That trade agreement we worked out with him and Jolie is only good for bringing in money if they can move goods. Weíre going to need gold to get the manor fully repaired and more to get the seed for next yearís crops. That reward from Staden is only going to go so far."
Neirin smiled. "Iíve seen you drive a bargain. If anyone can stretch a coin, itís you. Itís been a long time since Dark Haven was self-sustaining. Trade like that could get the village back on its feet."
"Trade routes aside, the trip back for Trisís wedding will be the demonís own if weíve got snow to deal with. It should take about three weeks with good weather, although Iíve never done it without guards chasing me, so weíll see."
"An early snowíll play havoc with the remaining harvest, and the manor repairs. But youíve got a fortnight before you and Lord Gabriel head for Margolan. Weather up here can change completely by then." Neirin pulled his own cloak tighter around him. "Wordís out that youíll be bringing a healer back with you, and a fine one at that. There hasnít been a decent healer in Dark Haven for years. If your Lady is willing to be bothered, I dare say sheíll have patients aplenty."
Jonmarc smiled. "Try to stop her. I suspect sheíll come quite well prepared. Just donít bring her any bar fight injuries. Sheís touchy about those."
"Sounds like you have that on good authority."
"On more than one occasion."
Jonmarc entered through the iron-bound doors. He could smell roasting lamb, baking bread, and the aroma of simmering spiced wine. Dark Haven had a feast-day air about it. Although the vayash moru had no need of mortal food, the staff prepared for the Feast of the Departed-or Haunts as most called it-with gusto.
"Itís going to be different celebrating Haunts here, thatís for sure."
Neirin grinned. "Thereís nowhere else in the Winter Kingdoms youíll find the residents to be so friendly with the departed--except maybe in Margolan with a Summoner-king."
"As long as Iím still among the living, Iíll count it a win," Jonmarc said, taking his leave of Neirin as he headed for his rooms.
Jonmarc had just closed the door behind him when the temperature in the room plummeted. He felt a prickle on the back of his neck, and knew that one of the manorís ghosts was close at hand. Turning, he caught just a glimpse of a spectral girl as the apparition glided across the far side of his room and disappeared into the dark gray stone of the wall. He stared after her in silence.
"Donít let our bonnie lass trouble you."
Jonmarc turned to find Eifan, his valet standing behind him. Eifan had the dark eyes and dusky looks of a Trevath native, although his mortal days were some two hundred years past. A quick, wiry man, he moved with the speed of a small bird of prey.
"I expect our lass is up and about early for Haunts," the vayash moru said, setting out the last of the bath items next to a steaming tub of water.
"Iíve seen her before. Did you know her? I mean, alive?"
Eifan shook his head. "Many of Dark Havenís ghosts are older even than I, mílord. The lass is said to be the daughter of one of the Lords of Dark Haven, taken by a plague. They say sheís looking for a healer who promised to come to the manor and never arrived." He held out a towel. "You have a big evening ahead of you, mílord. Your bath is ready and your clothes are laid out."
"Have you seen Gabriel?"
"No, mílord. Lord Gabriel had business to attend with the Great Houses in preparation for tonight. I am sure heíll return shortly."
"Too soon, Iím sure,"
Though the vayash moru were generally taciturn by mortal standards, several months of solid vayash moru companionship had given him more insight than he could have ever imagined."Something on your mind, Eifan?"
"Itís not my place, mílord."
"Iíve never held much for íplace.í"
Eifan was silent for a moment. "I have served three masters of Dark Haven. None made so good a beginning as you. I would like to see you succeed. There are some, mílord, who may not share that view. Youíll be the only mortal at the Blood Council tonight. Some among my kind donít agree that a mortal should be our Lord."