Bonds and Consequences

A serial novel of epic fantasy

Chapter 5 – Rafella

Posted by jpbrassard on April 6, 2009

When she awoke on the chill flagstones of the floor, Rafella felt that she was falling still, though — curiously — the sense was that she was falling up. Which could not be right, could it?

She opened her eyes to a greater brightness than she remembered — she could easily see the archaic tile work on the high, arched ceiling above her, and that had to be at least twenty hands high, probably closer to thirty. Which meant one of two things: fire, or more people had come, bearing lamps or torches. Either way, she had to find out what was going on.

Experimentally, she sat up and tried to stand, but a wave of nausea swept over her, the world descending into a grayish mist. With an arm that felt weak and insubstantial, she somehow managed to stop herself from falling back completely, but she was unable to do much more than that. She squeezed her eyes shut and dropped her head, breathing shallowly through her mouth, willing herself not to vomit.

Rae?

“Poul,” she replied thickly, unable to raise her head. She had never before felt this drained after drawing from the Root. “Did I . . . ?”

“Yes,” her husband answered, closer now, near her. There was an odd tightness to his voice that she did not recognize. “Whatever you did countered the Usurpation.”

“Had to expel the Adept from his mind,” Rafella said breathlessly. It was hard to talk. “Could have used the Way on us, through Stepan. That strong. I had to tap the Root.”

She felt, rather than saw, him crouch down beside her, placing a cool hand on her cheek. “I know,” he said, concern evident in his soft baritone. “Are you well?”

“Never. . . did anything like that before,” she stuttered. “Drained me more than I thought. I’ll feel better in a bit.” Then, with trepidation: “Gracie?”

“She’s fine,” he said, and relief like she’d never known overcame her. If something had happened to Graecanna . . .

“More than fine, actually,” Poul continued, a note of puzzlement creeping into his voice. “I don’t think I have ever seen her this calm. She has not cried at all.”

“Mama,” Gracie said in a small voice, and Rafella found she could raise her head, after all. The grayish mist from before had receded and she looked at her daughter.

Poul was right: Gracie was, indeed, fine, and more than fine. Gracie sat calmly in the crook of her father’s arm, one hand absently stroking his matted black hair — otherwise, her stillness bordered on eerie. She was looking at Rafella, her expression placid and . . . expectant, somehow. Her wide, green-blue eyes regarded Rafella with an intelligence that simply was not possible for a fourteen-month-old child to possess, yet it did not seem out of place.

They looked at each other in silence for a handful of heartbeats, then Graecanna stretched out her hands and reached for her mother.

Poul started to pull her back. “No, Gracie, I think — ”

“Let her,” Rafella said, sitting up straighter. She still felt weak, but her strength was returning rapidly now. “I want to hold my baby. And you could check on Stepan, make sure he’s all right.”

The tightness that she’d heard before in Poul’s voice suddenly sprang up on his face, the brow tensing, the skin around the eyes wrinkling, the eyes themselves shining with worry or sorrow. Her husband didn’t say or do anything for a moment, simply looked at her like that, as if the weight of the world had unexpectedly dropped on his shoulders. Then he looked away from her, making busywork of fussing with Gracie’s hair.

She experienced a familiar sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. He could never look her in the eye if he had something to tell her that he thought she wouldn’t want to hear. “What’s wrong?” she asked her husband pointedly. “Where is Stepan?”

Though, if she were to be honest with herself, she already knew the answer to that question already, didn’t she?

“Poul,” Rafella said, hating the ugly note of panic that had, once again, crept into her voice. Where is Stepan?

“Dead,” Poul said softly, refusing to meet her gaze for a moment. Then he raised his eyes to hers and said, “Ioxh preserve him.”

The words didn’t make sense to Rafella at first. For a moment, she simply looked at her husband, unable to grasp what he was saying, his words like the buzzing of insects in her ears. Then something inside her shifted, with what Rae could have sworn was an audible click, and she forced her gaze away from Poul, to the crumpled, still (so still too still) body of her brother. She saw the stillness of his chest, the slackness of his jaw. Saw the coins already placed on his eyes, to keep the death gaze shuttered, and her world reeled.

Sweet Wyrtheras, what have I done?

“Poul”, she said after a moment of ponderous silence, her gaze still intent on the body of her dead brother. “Give Gracie to me.”

Poul hesitated. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

Now Rafella did look at him, and something in her eyes caused him to blanch. She was surprised to find that, right now, she didn’t much care what he saw there. “Do you think it wise,” she said, a distant part of her wondering at the cold, haughty voice coming out of her mouth, “to keep my child out of my arms? To deny me that small comfort? Do you really think that wise?

For a moment, her husband looked at her as if she had gone mad; she thought he might continue to rebuff her, out of pique or spite or worry or some combination of the three. Instead, with a hint of disapproval in his eyes that was gone so quickly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t imagined it, he handed Graecanna over to Rafella’s waiting arms. “Be careful now, Gracie,” Poul said as Rafella pulled her daughter close, breathing in the clean scent of her hair. “Mama’s tired.”

Almost by way of reply, Graecanna pushed herself slightly away from her mother’s embrace and gave Poul a long look that seemed to say, I know that, Father. I’m not an idiot.

Poul barked a single, humorless laugh and shook his head.

Graecanna looked at her father for a moment, then turned her attention back to Rafella. Again, she was struck by how knowing her daughter’s gaze was, and by how odd it was that it didn’t seem . . . well, odd.

Rafella suspected something larger was at play here, but her weary mind couldn’t quite grasp it.

“I’m well enough,” she said, starting to rise, the action made more difficult because she was now holding her daughter. “Besides, we need to go.”

“Go?” Poul asked. He made an abortive move to help her, but was stopped by a swift shake of her head.

“He knows where we are, Poul,” she explained, getting to one knee — from there, it was much easier, even if her head swam precariously and the edges of her vision went gray for a moment. “We cannot stay here, with no protection. We need to find Gray and the others.”

Poul nodded agreement. “You’ll get no argument from me on that.” He paused, looked at his wife with renewed worry. “Can you find him?”

Rafella met his gaze, knowing what he was really asking: Do you have the strength to find him? Do you have the strength to tap the Root again? “Yes,” she answered, closing her eyes. With her free hand, she reached up and lightly grasped the shard of Root Stone about her neck.

“Should I take — ?”

“No,” was her terse reply. It would take longer to explain to him that what she was doing now was different than before, that she was using her connection to the Root rather than channeling its power through her, than it would to simply do it.

“There,” she said after a moment. She opened her eyes, catching Poul still anxiously looking at her, his hands half-raised as if in anticipation of needing to spring to her aid should she once again collapse. He quickly lowered them, having the good grace to look embarrassed, at least. “He’s below us, second floor, but I think he’s moving toward us. If we hurry, we’ll catch him on the main stair.”

Poul’s hesitation was refreshingly brief. “I’ll get my sword,” was all he said.

Moments later, they encountered Granil, flanked by a single weary-looking member of the Keepsguard, at the top of the main stair. Like their brother, Granil — eldest of her siblings and recently-appointed Lord Commander of her Keepsguard — was clad only in his nightclothes, his feet bare, his long auburn hair (so much like her own) mussed and tangled, hanging limply past his shoulders and across his brow. It was clear he’d been fighting: his nightshirt was stained with blood and sweat; there was a reddish-brown smear on one night-stubbled cheek; and, Rafella could see by the light of the single guttering torch carried by his escort, his sword had seen recent, violent use.

“Rae,” Granil said, his voice coarse and raw, yet unmistakably buoyed by relief at the sight of his sister. He gave her a quick, one-armed hug, then stood back and with one nicked and bloodied hand gently cupped her daughter’s cheek. “And Graecanna, too, thank the God. I thought we may be too late, that somehow they — Ioxh’s Tears, Rae, what happened to your hair?

“Mama,” Gracie said, patting her uncle’s hand with her own and nodding. “Hair.”

Rafella felt her world spinning. “What do you mean?” she asked in a small voice. “What about my hair?”

“It’s gone white,” Granil answered. “Not all of it, just a lock at the front, but . . . it’s white, Rae. Not gray. White.” He looked at her, concern crinkling his brow. “This is because you tapped the Root. Before the Third was complete.”

This was not a question. “I had no choice. He wanted Gracie.”

She saw understanding suddenly blossom in his eyes. “Stepan,” he said softly. Again, it was not a question.

Rafella nodded, unable to do more than that for the time being.

“Is he . . . ?”

Rafella nodded again, felt a single tear spill down her cheek. “He’s dead, Gray,” she whispered. “I couldn’t — he was going to take her and — and I had to . . . ”

“The bloody Way magus,” Granil growled.

“I couldn’t — he was too strong, and . . . ”

“Shhh,” her brother said in a gentler tone. “We can grieve for Stepan later. Ioxh has him and will preserve him till such time as we may meet again beyond the Pale. But, for now, we must get to someplace safe. You and Graecanna are not yet out of danger.”

Rafella closed her eyes for a moment, pushing back on the tide of guilt threatening to consume her, all the while trying to ignore the thready beat of panic that had been lurking in the background of her thoughts since Graecanna’s nightmare. When she opened her eyes again, she felt more in control. “How many?” she asked her brother, who could hear the change in her tone, the shift from sister to Queen, instantaneous. “How many does the Way magus have protecting him?”

“Twenty, at least,” Granil answered after a brief hesitation to mentally calculate. “Though I’d wager thirty or more. To start — we’d slain a few, perhaps as many as five, before I left Monir.”

“How did they get in?” she asked.

“That is not important — ”

“They were discovered in the kitchens,” came a low, familiar alto voice, and Rafella trained her gaze past her brother’s shoulder to find Shamora, the Root Mother and Ar-Naetra of the School — and Rafella’s teacher for as long as she could remember — striding slowly up the main stair toward them, alone. She was dressed in humble nightclothes, unadorned by the trappings of pride afforded her by her station as the second-most powerful woman in Rûhn, and her iron-gray hair, normally bound and covered by a white wimple, flowed loose about her shoulders, hung straight down her back, nearly reaching her buttocks. Though nearing her sixtieth nameday, she stood erect, climbing the stair without aid of the polished oak balustrade, as others her age might have done. Arms crossed in front of her, so that each hand disappeared into the loose sleeve of the opposite arm, she was the exemplar of supreme competence. Her simple presence was enough to lift Rafella’s spirits a little.

“It was Chae, actually,” the Root Mother went on, seeming to glide up to their level at the top of the flight. “Your father’s appetite unwittingly alerted us to the approaching danger.”

She smiled, a tiny upward curve of her lips, but in that movement one could see that Shamora ces HegLeinz, Root Mother to the Queen of Rûhn and Ar-Naetra of the Treptis Trepae, had been beautiful once. And vain.

“But that is not important now,” Shamora continued after a beat. Something in her voice, some hollow note that had not been there before, caused the hairs on the back of Rafella’s neck to stand on end. Unconsciously, she held Graecanna to her chest a little more tightly as Shamora went on, “What is done is done and cannot be immediately redressed. There are other, more pressing issues at hand.”

“Agreed,” Granil said. “Rae and I were just discussing our next move. What do you think? What’s next?”

“What’s next?” the Root Mother repeated, the small smile dancing across her lips again. “This.”

With a speed that belied her age, Shamora drew one hand out of the opposite sleeve and calmly buried the blade of the dagger she’d hidden there into the throat of Granil’s escort. In the same instant, her other hand went to the amulet she, like Rafella, wore about her neck. Without pause, Shamora turned from the guard to face Granil, extending a hand toward the Lord Commander of the Keepsguard, fingers rigidly splayed.

Dimly, through her mounting horror, Rafella realized what was happening.

Too late.

Shamora uttered a sorcerous word. Rafella could feel the Power of the Root coalesce about the Root Mother, though distantly, without the immediacy of personally tapping the Root. Her skin tingled with a thousand thousand tiny pinpricks and she opened her mouth to call out to Granil, to warn him, even though she knew no warning could save him.

Then the glamour was cast; the Power of the Root sprang from Shamora’s splayed fingers, setting the tingling on Rafella’s skin aflame; there was a bright flash of something that was not quite light and a sound like the far-off felling of trees and the rush of displaced air . . .

Rafella watched in horror as her brother was eviscerated by a beam of what looked like light. He gasped as it went through him, his body tensing, going rigid. He uttered a series of small, strangled gurgles that were somehow the worst thing Rafella had ever heard. Then, in a purely reflexive reaction, Granil tried to clutch at the beam with his non-sword hand. The fingers on that hand were instantly vaporized to the knuckle. Granil let out a tiny, childish shriek, staring dumbly at his ruined hand.

Then Rafella felt the Power disassociate and the beam disappeared. Her brother immediately dropped to his knees.

“Gray!” she cried.

“Granil!” Poul shouted at the same time, from behind her.

Both of them reached out to the stricken man, heedless of the suddenly dangerous Shamora in their midst, urged on by the powerful need to help a loved one in pain.

Shamora, however, was not to be forgotten so easily. She muttered another cant; immediately, Poul and Rafella were frozen in their tracks, each surrounded by a softly glowing nimbus whose illumination seemed to be made up of every single color imaginable, all at once. Graecanna tumbled from Rafella’s suddenly leaden arms but did not fall far, as Shamora cast another spell that caught the babe before she hit the top of the stair and levitated her to where Shamora stood. The Root Mother took the toddler in her arms, cradling the child to her bosom with absent-minded affection.

“I had no need to do that,” the old woman said, as calmly as ever. She might have been discussing the weather, or the weave of a rug, or the ripeness of an apple. “I could have taken Graecanna without violence, without hurting Granil. But you DarClamants are so bloody righteous! To be quite honest with you, Rafella, my sweet: it feels rather good to help bring your family down a peg or two.”

She smiled again, then, without further ado — save for an almost inaudible tsk as she had to step over Granil, who had fully collapsed at the top of the flight — she calmly made her way down the main stair, back the way she had come.

Rage and despair surged inside Rafella, the strength and intensity of the emotional wave surprising, even a little intoxicating. She struggled against her sorcerous bonds, but try as she might, she could not move a single muscle. Her lungs still drew breath, her heart still beat, her brain was perfectly clear: it was everything else that was completely shut down. Almost a living death, if such an oxymoron could make any sense whatsoever.

It was a couple of moments before she realized that Granil had died, only a step or two away, without her knowing. His face had (thankfully) turned away from her when he’d fallen forward, as if even in death he was ashamed of what had happened, ashamed of failing to protect her and Gracie. There was very little in the way of blood; the beam which had killed him had instantly cauterized the flesh through which it passed. If it weren’t for the smoking ruin of his midsection, the charred hole in his back, he could almost be mistaken for being asleep.

But he’s not, she though bitterly. He’s dead, dead at the hand of your teacher, your most trusted advisor, the woman who was almost more of a mother to you than your own mother. And you never even had an inkling of her betrayal.

You blind fool.

For a few moments, she couldn’t tell how long, Rafella simply surrendered to the canker of self-pity. There didn’t seem to be anything to be done, no way out of their situation, so why not wallow? Graecanna was gone, stolen; her two eldest brothers dead; Ioxh knew how many of her Keepsguard slain; the very heart of her realm attacked, breeched, sullied by the lone Way magus belonging to some order from the Continent of which she’d never heard. This night could very well doom her reign on the Root Throne, might even tear her beloved nation asunder. Why not simply give in to cruel fate? What was left? The traitorous Shamora and the Way magus for whom she worked had stolen it all . . .

Rafella’s mind stopped racing of a sudden. If she could have, she would have blinked stupidly, as her self-destructive thoughts spontaneously re-ordered themselves, presenting her with a potential solution that should have been blindingly obvious. She had her own Way magus at her disposal, after all, even if these days Anoli spent three nights out of five finding new and interesting ways to drink himself to death. And the Root shard that hung about her neck at all times was actually resting against the flesh of her bosom — there was nothing that said she had to be gripping the shard in order to wield the Root magick, just that she be touching it. She’d never tried to cast a glamour without holding the shard, but if ever there was a time to try, now was it. Not to break Shamora’s paralytic spell — she felt certain she didn’t have the capability to do that without the Third Binding completed — but to send out a call for help to her Way magus, perhaps the only other magicker in the Keep with the ability to set her and Poul free.

Free, so that they could get their daughter back.

Rafella closed her eyes and concentrated on the Root shard where it touched her skin, summoning the energy and focus needed to send out her desperate plea for aid.

 

<< Chapter 4 – SebastenMain — Chapter 6 – Sebasten (coming soon) >>

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: