Bonds and Consequences

A serial novel of epic fantasy

Chapter 3 – Rafella

Posted by jpbrassard on March 27, 2009

Rafella let out an involuntary, high-pitched shriek, instinctively turning herself so that her body was between Graecanna and the door. Poul was again frozen in his tracks, his arms half-outstretched, his head turned toward the door, his mouth agape in an O of shock that would have been comical at any other time. Rafella was dimly aware that she could now see her husband clearly — light from the antechamber was spilling into their room, pushing away the inky darkness.

“Stepan?” Poul asked, and for a heartbeat she was nearly undone by the unmasked fear and uncertainty in his voice. Then the moment passed and she turned her head to follow Poul’s gaze.

And knew, with sudden, vicious conviction, that they were all in grave danger.

Stepan stood swaying in the doorway to their room, a long, thin sword held loosely in one hand, point down, a guttering torch in the other. By its inconsistent light, Rafella could see that her younger brother was badly injured. His night clothes — he’d not had time to get properly dressed, then — were ripped and torn in numerous places, splashed and dotted with what had to be blood, some of it obviously not his own. He seemed to be favoring his left side, the side on which he held the torch; indeed, there was a large bloodstain blooming on his nightshirt on that side, midway up the chest, and it appeared to be growing larger at an alarming rate. His black hair, already tousled from sleep, was further mussed and matted by sweat and still more blood. His rugged, square face (so much like Father’s, Rafella though automatically), normally ruddy with good cheer, was haggard and wan, smeared with either dirt or blood — impossible to tell in this flickering light. There was a large, shallow gash starting above his right eyebrow and curving down the length of his nose. He was unsteady on his feet and there was a vacant glaze to his hazel eyes that Rafella didn’t like at all.

Ioxh’s Name, what was going on?

“Steppie?” she said, her concern causing her to use her childhood nickname for him without even realizing it. “Are you well? What’s wrong?”

Stepan — who, after slamming open the door, had simply stood upon the threshold without fully entering the room, looking at nothing — turned his gaze to Rafella for the first time, and confused recognition dawned in his eyes. “Rafella?” he asked groggily. “What are you doing in Monir’s Hall? It’s too dangerous. There’s . . . men.”

Rafella’s breath caught in her throat at the mention of Monir. Another element of her nightmare, sharing similarities with the waking world. Though she tried to tell herself it was but a coincidence, she didn’t really believe that. Dread formed a cold, hard ball in her belly. She felt like she was going to be sick.

“Stepan,” Poul was saying now. “Who is in Monir? What’s going on?” Then, with growing alarm: “Where are our guards?”

Stepan looked at Poul blankly, his blond eyebrows furrowed in consternation, as if he didn’t understand the question. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, then closed it again just as quickly, with such force that the sound of his teeth gnashing together was quite audible. His right cheek began to twitch: once, twice, three times. His nostrils flared and his hazel eyes widened, in shock or anger or fear, it was impossible to tell.

Then, like a curtain drawn against the too-bright sun, Stepan’s expression smoothed out and he looked at Poul with none of the fogginess of moments before.

“Killed the men,” Stepan said with a sudden shrug, tonelessly. “Wasn’t hard. Even with this.” He bobbed his chin down to indicate the wound in his side, the movement jerky, almost like he’d never moved his head in quite that way before. The ball of dread in Rafella’s belly grew colder, harder, heavier. She had never heard Stepan speak like he was now.

“You what?” Poul asked, incredulously, after a stunned pause. “Stepan, you did what?”

“No, no, no,” Rafella said, slowly retreating a step. “Stand back, Poul. Something’s wrong here. Very, very wrong.”

“Mama.”

Rafella looked down and saw that Graecanna had ceased her eerie caterwaul and inexplicable hair-pulling, saw that her daughter was now fully awake and looking at her with beautiful green-blue eyes wide with fear.

“It’s all right, Gracie,” she said calmly, cupping one soft, round cheek in her hand. “Mama’s here. Everything’s fine.”

Even though she felt certain that everything was not, in fact, fine.

“Ah, sweet Graecanna,” Stepan said, finally taking a step into the room. As with his chin bob moments before, the motion was spastic, like a child just learning to walk. Rafella took another, involuntary, step backward, the back of her legs now pressing up against the crèche.

“I’ll need to take her. Now.”

This last with a note of command that she had never heard in Stepan’s voice. As if . . .

“Oh, Ice,” Rafella swore. How could it be? How could it happen, here, in the Keep, with all the safeguards put in place over the generations?

It does not matter how, she told herself. How is for later. Right now, you have your family to protect.

“Poul, stand back,” she ordered, the Queen of Rûhn taking over. “That’s not Stepan, not really. He’s a threat.”

Poul did as she said, taking a couple of steps backward to join her by the crib, the expression on his face that of a man completely out of his depth. “Rae, what is this?” he asked her plaintively, not taking his eyes off Stepan. Or the man who looked like Stepan.

“I’m not certain, exactly,” Rafella answered, her gaze also locked on the other man, who now took another choppy step into the room. It was like he was trying to walk while someone attempted to hold his legs in place.

Or, more appropriately, like someone’s trying to make him walk and he’s trying to stay his own body.

“But I think we are under attack,” she went on. “And I think whoever is attacking us has an Adept of the Way with them, because Stepan has almost certainly been Usurped.”

Stepan sneered at her. “Clever girl,” he said petulantly.

Usurpation was one of the most advanced enchantments available to a Practitioner of the Way and was usually attempted only by the most highly skilled Adepts. It was a form of possession, though it could not truly be called such; instead of actually inhabiting another person’s body, an Adept of the Way could, with the Usurpation enchantment, overwhelm a person’s will, essentially pushing it aside, allowing the Usurped’s mind — and, by extension, his body — to be controlled by the Adept through the MindSea. A great deal of concentration was required of the Adept who cast Usurpation; not only did he have to make sure the Usurped’s will remained pushed aside — a more difficult task the greater the mental fortitude of the subject — but he also had to issue commands to a mind and body not his own, unfamiliar in their dimensions. Adepts were usually very vulnerable while in the midst of a Usurpation, and it was for precisely this reason that so few Adepts would even think about using the enchantment.

Which only made the use of Usurpation here more puzzling. Why bother with such an exhausting and hazardous enchantment? What could possibly be gained by its use that could not be accomplished through regular means?

With a grunt of effort, his face contorting with exertion, “Stepan” took another sudden step forward.

“Stepan’s fighting you, isn’t he?” she asked. “You have Usurped him, but you’ve not been able to push him aside completely. And wherever you have pushed him, he’s not staying put, is he? He’s making you work harder than you thought you would have to, isn’t he?”

“Too clever by half,” “Stepan” said by way of answer. He took another step toward them, this one a fraction more assured, a fraction more in control. “I will enjoy . . . silencing that . . . acid tongue of yours.”

“You might have picked an easier subject, whoever you are,” Rafella continued deridingly, pointedly ignoring this last barb. “Stepan’s always been a fighter. And stubborn as a mule. You’ll not have an easy time of it, however long you’re in there.”

He did not answer at all this time, but advanced again — without a trace of the jerkiness that had marked his steps not seconds before. He looked up and grinned humorlessly at Rafella. “As it happens, I am also very stubborn,” he said, moving his arms experimentally. “And your brother, I’m afraid — strong as he most assuredly is — cannot match me, mind to mind, will to will. I am far too powerful.

“Now,” he continued, raising the sword and pointing it at Rafella, “I really do think it past time for you to give me the child.”

“Oh,” Rafella asked, quirking an eyebrow, surprising herself with the insouciance in her voice. “And why I should I do that?”

“Because I am an Adept of the Secthi Order,” the Usurper said, “and you have not completed your Third Binding, Queen of Rûhn, and so may not hope to counter me.”

Rafella’s heart sank. She had never heard of the Secthi Order, but that wasn’t too surprising, really; the Practice of the Way had been spread all over the Continent hundreds of years ago, after the Batani Schism (or the Wyrtheran Apostasy, as it was referred to on the Continent). She would not be surprised if there were dozens, scores, of different orders and schools of which she’d never heard sprinkled throughout the vastness that was Altessa.

But she did not need to know of this Secthi Order to hear the unmistakable power in Stepan’s voice and to understand that whoever was controlling her brother was a very powerful Adept, indeed. It took remarkable will to simply keep the Usurpation enchantment intact; it was an order of magnitude more difficult to do that and impose your own, physical voice over the Usurped’s own. Though he had initially struggled with keeping Stepan a prisoner in his own body, he now appeared to have the situation well in hand, with more than enough mental strength left over to use the Way for more than just the arduous task of Usurpation.

With something close to panic, Rafella realized that this Adept might have more than enough reserve to direct the Way through Stepan — to use Stepan as a conduit for the manipulation of the MindSea that was the heart of the Way’s power.

And if that were the case, then the Adept was very much correct. Not having consummated the Third Binding, her connection to the Root Stone was incomplete, which meant her ability to draw upon the Power of the Root was limited. She could not hope to counter the magicks of an Adept as potent as this one appeared to be without the full Root Bond. It would be like a novice trying to take on a master swordsman blindfolded, the only weapon to hand a wooden practice blade. She would not last long.

Yet she knew that she still had to try, no matter how futile. She would be damned to the Ice before she let them — whoever they were — take her daughter from her or try to harm her in any way.

“Clearly, you are a talented Adept,” she said, the words ingratiating, her tone anything but. “And I am sure this Secthi Order of your is quite the powerful coven, though in truth I have never before heard tell of such an Order. But know this, Adept,” she continued, her voice taking on the edge of steel, as she handed Gracie to Poul with looking at either and took a step toward her brother. “I am the Queen of Rûhn, Daughter and Keeper of the Root, Protector of the Treptis Trepae, and though my Binding may not be complete, I am here, on my island, in my Keep, in my place of power, and I will not be given orders from such as you.”

She took another step forward, casually fingering the plain-looking amulet hung round her neck, and flashed a sudden, bitter smile. “Especially when I have never taken kindly to orders from my brothers,” she said softly, and wrapped the amulet in her fist in one sure, lightning-quick move.

Poul!” she shouted in warning, without turning, hoping that it was enough, that he would heed all that went unspoken in that single cry. It would have to be, for there was no time for anything further.

Without a pause, shooting out her free hand in Stepan’s direction, she whispered, quiet as a prayer: “Nooiraehg!

She opened her mind then, as much as she could with only two Bindings completed, and felt the Power of the Root, muted though it must be, flowing from the shard of the Root Stone that lay at the heart of her amulet, into every fiber of her being. The feeling was instantaneous and exhilarating and more than a little frightening; never before had she tapped the Root in such uncontrolled circumstances. She did not know if her mind was focused enough to shape the Power into the glamour she had cast, but it was too late to worry about it now.

Then Rafella felt the Power coalesce, seeming to coil inside her; less than a heartbeat later, it cannoned out of her, springing from her outstretched hand like a striking snake. There was a bright flash of something that was not quite light and a sound like the far-off felling of trees and the rushing of displaced air and a sensation very much like falling . . .

Then she was nothing.

 

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