Bonds and Consequences

A serial novel of epic fantasy

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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) >>

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Chapter 4 – Sebasten

Posted by jpbrassard on April 2, 2009

No matter how long he might have before his time Beyond the Pale; no matter how many times he had seen it with his own eyes; no matter that he knew the mechanisms at work: Sebasten Mol would never grow accustomed to the sight of man being flayed by . . . well, nothing.

It was a favorite glamour of Kaliks’s, he knew from long experience, and a particularly tricky one to cast — which, Sebasten realized, was probably the reason the old Adept favored it. Even in a situation like this, where his powers and attention were distracted by the need to maintain wards to defend them from bolts and arrows, Kaliks would, given the choice, use this spell above all others when the need arose to kill, as if to prove his superiority by its use. Look at what I have wrought! Others have naught the skill as I!

Sebasten Mol felt something for the old man he had never felt, in all his years with the Order: a semblance of pity. What does he try to prove? he thought idly, mostly blocking out the screams of the man Kaliks had just skinned alive. For what shortcoming, perceived or otherwise, does he try to overcome?

He did not know the answer to these larger questions, most likely never would. But he did know that, ever since he had regained his strength after the disturbingly powerful ripple in the MindSea — even a failed initiate like Sebasten had felt it, a momentary disembodied pressure on the back of his skull, almost pleasurable in a way — had sent him reeling, Kaliks had been wielding his magic like a man possessed. Like a slave boss, upbraided by his master, exacting his vengeance on the slaves beneath him.

Like a child, Sebasten thought sourly, as the Way Mage turned his sorcery on yet another hapless victim, eyes bright with feral glee, his thin, wrinkled lips intoning the Argots silently. Like a spoiled brat, throwing a fit when a favorite toy is taken away. Bile threatened to surge up his throat as another Rûhni guard — a young man who could not have yet seen his twentieth nameday — was caught up in the web of Kaliks’s glamour. Sebasten could feel the Way Mage gathering his might, the MindSea thrumming in the back of his head like a plucked mandolin string. The guard was lifted off the floor by unseen hands — Sebasten found himself wondering just what it was the lad was seeing; whatever it was, it terrified the guard, judging by the wideness of his eyes, the growing wetness at the crotch of his breeches — and then Kaliks completed the Argots, the final words coming out of his mouth as a barely audible hiss. At the same time, the old man slashed one hand down in a ripping gesture.

In one terrible instant, the guard’s flesh, from head to toes, was peeled from his body, exposing glistening muscle, sinew and bone. The resulting slough dropped to the floor unceremoniously, making a wet, flopping sound that incongruously reminded Sebasten of his mother doing laundry. A moment later it disintegrated into ash, as if consumed from within by unseen fire.

The boy hung silent in the air for a moment, leaking blood and plasma, his skinless head lolling to one side, lidless eyes unable to close against the pain. Then he screamed, an awful, anguished howl rising from the pit of his being, scraping raw from his ravaged, lipless mouth, and whatever pity Sebasten Mol had felt for Kaliks disappeared beneath the accusation in that wail.

I am a part of this, he thought with disgust as the boy’s scream somehow grew louder. I am a part of this horror.

He looked at Kaliks, whose feverish eyes were watching the skinned guard with a hunger that bordered on sexual arousal, and knew that the old man delighted in this torture. Killing wasn’t a necessary evil for Kaliks, as it was for a lifelong soldier like Mol; no, killing was a pastime, the most intoxicating of entertainments, and if the killing was more painful than it had to be, all the better.

As he watched, Kaliks’s lips peeled back from his teeth in a rictus grin, his wrinkled chin and jowls quivering orgasmically. Nausea swept over Sebasten in a wave, until he could bear it no longer. Turning, he raised his crossbow, took quick, sure aim, and fired.

The bolt took the guard through the throat, cutting off the horrible scream, killing him. An act of mercy.

Kaliks let out a guttural growl and whipped around to face Mol. The naked fury in his piercing eyes caused Sebasten to take an involuntary step backward.

“I was not yet finished!” the old Way Mage spat.

Refusing to think about the many ways Kaliks could kill him without lifting a finger, Sebasten replied firmly, “He was as good as dead already. I merely quickened the process.”

“It was not your place, Mol,” Kaliks replied, the anger and frustration in his voice making him sound like a man interrupted in the middle of coitus. “You forget yourself.”

In spite of himself, Sebasten felt his own ire rising. “Not my place?” he repeated incredulously. “I am a soldier; death is my business. No, you forget yourself, Kaliks. We are not here to torture lowly guards.

“We are not here simply for your pleasure.”

This last was meant to cut to the pith, despite the inherent danger in provoking Kaliks’s wrath, and Sebasten saw with muted satisfaction that he had found the mark. The Way Mage’s eyes narrowed until they were barely slits camouflaged in the wrinkles of his face, and he pressed his thin lips together so firmly that they disappeared into a barely discernible white line. Lonely, almost perfectly-round splotches of color appeared high on his cheeks, lurid against his otherwise grayish skin. His liver-spotted hands, arthritic knuckles bulbously swollen, curled into claws — the closest the old man could come to making fists.

He raised a palsied hand and Sebasten had a sickening moment to wonder if he had underestimated Kaliks’s temper — or overestimated his own importance to the mission — and was about to pay the ultimate price for the barb. How would the old bastard do it? Would he flay Sebasten like the Rûhni guard? Or would it be something even more gruesome, something that would draw out the pain for excruciatingly long moments?

Sebasten had only ever had the Way unleashed on him once, not long after he had joined the Order as an Initiate to see if his own latent ability with the MindSea could be harnessed, and it was not an experience he was ever likely to forget. The thing that Ty’vendech — the ancient Siil Adept who was Ar-Phostaeron of the Secthi Order and had been (it was often joked) since before there had even been a Secthi Order — manipulated into existence from the MindSea for his first true test as an Initiate had been a nightmare given corporeal form, a slavering creature with as many eyes as limbs (and it had had a great many limbs). His task had been a relatively simple one: to cast an effective ward of protection, known colloquially among the Initiates as “the Blanket” for its uncomplicated function, enveloping the caster in a nimbus of MindSea unreality, so that all who looked upon him would think him a number of steps from his actual position. The easiest of the defensive wards — really, the easiest of any of the glamours taught by the Order’s phostaers — but, of course, Sebasten’s throat froze closed at the sight of the creature (a creature only he could see, for Ty’vendech had cast it for him and him alone) and he had been unable to utter the Argots, the ritualized Old Tekamic words that gave access to the Way. Ty’vendech had been forced to intercede, muttering the Argots of the counter with contemptuous ease, and the creature had winked out of existence. Though, Sebasten knew, it had never really been there in the first place.

He had, of course, failed his first — and last — test as an Initiate.

The recollection of that night was so vivid, the non-existent creature so ghastly in his remembrance, that his mind shied away from the image still, nearly two decades later. As if the mere thought of it would bring it back.

In his most secret heart, Sebasten Mol believed that this just might be true.

He was brought back to the present by the sound of Kaliks’s voice. “Your impertenance will not go . . . unrewarded,” the mage said icily, pointing a rheumy finger at him. “For now, you are still needed.”

Sebasten breathed an inward sigh of relief. Like any lifelong soldier, he had a fondness for wagers — he didn’t know how many turns of the glass he had wasted throwing the bones, losing more often than winning. He did not, however, make a habit of wagering his life on the temper of a capricious and clearly sadistic old phostaer, especially one as demonstrably powerful as Kaliks. That he had cast his bones and won — or, at the very least, managed a draw — was nothing short of miraculous.

This night, at least, he appeared to be in a mood to gamble haphazardly. “Then let’s stop playing around and get on with this,” Sebasten said, turning away from the mage to survey the scene before him. He, Kaliks, and the three newest members of his squad that he’d held back with him for Kaliks’s protection — which seemed, on its face, patently absurd, considering how powerful he was in the Art of the Way, but the old man had insisted — were on a raised, stepped dais at the north end of the hall, which Kaliks had called “Monir” (named, he presumed, for something depicted in the bas relief images carved on the doors he had noticed earlier). All of the other men, with Uffo in the lead, were engaged in close combat at the southern end by an ever-increasing number of Rûhni guards and — so it appeared from Sebasten’s vantage point, in the guttering half-light of inconsistent torches — by Keep nobles, as well. They were quickly going to be outnumbered two-to-one, Sebasten realized. Already, they had lost five men, and Uffo was being forced to give ground as the Rûhni’s numbers kept growing.

They’d been set upon as they made their way through the audience chamber, the first of the Keep’s defenders — undoubtedly alerted by the servant boy with the bolt in his head who, annoyingly, hadn’t died quickly enough — bursting through the doors in the southeast corner of the hall just as Mol and Uffo were approaching. There had been three of them, Sebasten remembered. The first guard through the door Sebasten had dispatched easily enough, lopping the head from his shoulders in one sure, thoughtless motion; the second had been felled almost as quickly by Uffo, unleashing one of his favored djik, the infamous Baramundi six-pointed throwing star, burying it with unerring accuracy in the man’s throat.

The third, however, had immediately recognized what he and his now-deceased companions had discovered, and he’d stumbled backwards, tripping on his own feet after a couple of steps and tumbling to the tiled floor of the hallway outside. His clumsiness had saved him from Uffo’s second djik, which he’d drawn and thrown almost before the first star had left his nimble fingers; the gleaming six-pointed weapon had sailed a hair’s breadth over the Rûhni’s head, to embed itself in the hallway wall opposite, some ten arm-lengths away.

“Second time tonight, friend,” Sebasten had remarked with a grim smile, to which Uffo had not deigned to reply.

The man had loudly started calling for assistance then, shouting in Middle Barish, the guttural-sounding tongue of Rûhn (as well as the once-mighty city-states of the Barren Coast, across the sea to the north and east, whose ancestors had first come to Rûhn centuries earlier), all the while fumbling with his sword, which had become entangled between his legs and in the ridiculous cape he wore. Sebasten figured he was a guard captain, or whatever the Rûhni used for the equivalent rank, and one who had gained his position by virtue of a patron in the higher echelons, not by the merit of his own service: no self-respecting soldier would dare adorn himself with such a potential encumbrance while on duty.

When Uffo’s third djik found the mark, tearing into the man’s throat and cutting off his shouts with a gurgling yelp, Sebasten had spit on the floor at the man’s feet, to show his disgust.

Then the other Rûhni started to arrive and they had to fall back into the audience hall. They’d not been able to get any closer to the royal apartments, which had been their goal. They were bogged down here and would soon become hopelessly trapped if they couldn’t either find a way around their current impasse or beat a hasty retreat and pray they could make it back to their boats without being slaughtered. Kaliks’s Usurpation had failed, Sebasten knew, and they were wasting time while he exacted his petty vengeance on ultimately unimportant guards.

“We’ll die here this night,” he said now, still looking away from Kaliks to the growing battle down the hall. He made a vague gesture with the hand not holding his sword, a movement that seemed to encompass the entire room and all within it, friend and foe alike. “All of us will die here this night — if we do not move soon.” Now he turned to face the old Way Mage and, not without considerable difficulty, looked him square in the eyes. “Stop playing games, Kaliks. It is time and past time for us to figure out a way to get this bitch’s whelp and leave this damned island.”

Kaliks’s clear eyes hardened with renewed anger. He opened his mouth, no doubt to issue another not-so-subtle threat.

He did not say a word, however. His eyebrows shot up in surprise and his open mouth formed a shocked O. Curious — a man like Kaliks did not easily let such a vulnerable expression grace his features — Sebasten turned to look behind him, to find the source of such outrageousness.

There, like a prayer answered, like a curse consummated, stood an older woman, dressed in nightclothes of plain, uncolored wool.

With a gift in her arms.

 

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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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Chapter 2 – Sebasten

Posted by jpbrassard on March 23, 2009

As he struggled to withdraw his sword, buried to the hilt through the unfortunate servant-boy’s throat, Sebasten Mol tried again to ignore the feeling that had been tickling the back of his mind all night; once again, he failed. It had started off as an ill-defined tension as they cast off just after nightfall from the commercial galley Strider several leagues down the coast, and at first he had simply attributed it to the nervousness he always felt before a raid. But as the night wore on and the constant push-pull of the other soldiers at the oars spurred them ever closer to their goal, the vague worry began to blossom into something else, something he couldn’t quite define, though it felt familiar. By the time they had reached the harbor and rigged the two small boats for silent running, Sebasten’s brain was nearly consumed with trying to figure out what, exactly, it was that he was feeling.

Frustrated, he had tried to chide himself for being craven, to pry his mind away from it through the considerable force of his pride, but in truth he knew he wasn’t particularly frightened. Sebasten had been a fighting man for too long — had spent too many nights much like this, creeping under cover of darkness — to be paralyzed by fear before battle. This was not to say that he was without fear; Sebasten wouldn’t be so foolhardy as to think that. No, he understood that the tiny thrill of fear in his gut was normal, expected, and needed, if he wished to survive the violence that was his stock.

But this feeling: in some ways it felt like fear, though it lacked fear’s uncertainty. Still and all, he couldn’t place it, though by this time he’d been convinced that he had felt something like it before; and as they had approached the leeward side of the massive cliff that jutted out into the middle of the harbor — known, appropriately enough, as the Spur — and spied the Keep perched at its acme that was their goal, he’d resolved to ignore it.

At this, as in so many things in his life, Sebasten Mol failed.

But not immediately. They had found two climbing ropes and a line with an ancient and flimsy-looking wooden basket attached, just as Kaliks had promised. The basket, of course, was for Kaliks himself: he was far too old, having seen sixty-seven namedays come and gone, to attempt scaling a mostly-sheer cliff, more than two hundred arm-lengths high, over open water in the middle of the night. The soldiers, Sebasten Mol included, would not be so lucky. Though, after seeing how rickety the basket looked, Mol didn’t consider himself that unlucky. After all, hanging on a rope with your arse in the wind, you didn’t really suffer the illusion of safety that a basket, even a decrepit one, might confer.

The climb had taken the better part of three turns and had afforded Sebasten an opportunity not to think about anything except survival: for himself, his men, and Kaliks. There’d been more than one moment, as he and two of his men slowly hauled Kaliks up the side of the Spur, when a sudden jerk in the line had Mol thinking they had lost the old man, that the basket had simply disintegrated, even under Kaliks’s sparse weight, and dropped the old man to his doom in the icy waters below. But each time there’d been no corresponding ease in tension in the rope that would indicate the disappearance of its load, and after what seemed a lifetime, they’d finally hauled the basket and Kaliks into the old, abandoned lading dock carved into the very face of the Spur. Kaliks’s mole had said that the dock had once been part of the Keep itself, though it had not been used for a hundred years or more. This was to be their way inside.

By the timid light of a single, shuttered oil lamp, they had made their way through dusty, neglected corridors that were nothing more than simple tunnels cut through the rock of the Spur. Sconces had been sparsely set into the rough-hewn walls, though it was clear they had seen little recent use; other than that, there was no adornment to the naked stone. Eventually, after nearly half a turn, they had found themselves before an old, iron-banded wooden door, the metal bands rusty and corroded from the moist sea air. As Kaliks’s mole had promised, it was propped slightly ajar, and they’d soon found themselves in the Keep proper itself.

Now, after following Kaliks up from that lowest sub-basement, where mainly old furniture and the collected trappings of generations were cached in moldy storerooms, they found themselves in the kitchens of the keep, where, Kaliks had assured them, they would find nary a soul and gain unfettered access to the halls of the Keep and their ultimate goal.

Unfortunately, as soon as Sebasten, Kaliks, and the rest of their party — a little more than thirty men in all — had entered the kitchens, they had stumbled on two servant boys, in the middle of preparing some midnight snacks.

Sebasten had been nearest to the younger of the two — a gangly, horse-faced lad of no more than twelve years — and, after the initial shock of finding people where none should have been, drew his blade and neatly skewered the poor, unlucky sod through the neck. The other boy — really, almost a man grown — was on the far side of the main kitchen area from where they had entered, with a couple of islands and a huge cast-iron kettle between him and the party. When the younger servant had gone down, the older one had raised his head from his preparations and momentarily froze at the sight of Sebasten, Kaliks and the men. Sebasten had hissed a command to Uffo, his lieutenant and second for this mission, and the tall, reticent Baramundi had swiftly raised his crossbow and took aim at the boy’s wide eyes — the surest way of securing a quick, quiet kill.

It was at this most inopportune moment that the servant boy’s paralysis broke. Letting out a wordless cry, he bolted for the exit, a low archway on the far side of the room from the soldiers covered by thick, deep-blue drapes of what looked like velvet. Uffo swore softly in his native Farsen dialect, adjusted his aim with the surety of long-practiced skill, and with a quiet twang-thunk of bridle and bolt releasing, let fly.

It was an expert shot, Sebasten saw immediately, a sure killing blow, the quarrel speeding for the lad’s left ear with unerring accuracy. Mol was amazed, yet again, at his lieutenant’s proficiency with the crossbow, when the boy caught his foot on the edge of the archway and stumbled slightly. Instead of hitting the boy’s ear, the quarrel slammed into his skull, the bronze-tipped head allowing the shaft to penetrate a couple of fingerbreadths before shattering. The force of the blow made the boy stumble further, his shoulder catching the upper edge of the archway where the curvature began its inward slope. For a moment, Sebasten thought he would go down, spun completely off-balance by his altered momentum and the ash-and-bronze quarrel embedded in his brain. But the lad recovered and plunged through the drape-covered arch, croaking wordless pleas in a changed, suddenly husky voice.

A couple of soldiers let loose with their own crossbows, but the quarrels found nothing save blue velvet and air, and Sebasten waved at the rest of them to hold off. “Save them, lads,” Mol said quietly. “I’ve a feeling we’ll be needing every spare bolt before this even is out.”

He turned to Uffo and leaned in close, pitching his voiced so only the Baramundi lieutenant could hear him. “It’s unlike you to miss,” Mol said plainly. “It’s especially unlike you to miss when it’s most important that your aim is true.”

“My aim was true,” Uffo grumbled, also quietly. “I could not anticipate the fool tripping. I am good, Sten, but I am no seer.” He grimaced, his thick lips pressing into a thin, pale line. “We will not have to worry about him for long. A wound like that, he will be bleeding inside his head, drowning his mind. The boy is dead already — his body simply does not yet know it.”

“Aye,” Sebasten agreed, turning his attention away from his lieutenant toward the drapes covering the exit through which the servant-boy had just disappeared, as if he could cast his vision beyond the opaque velvet and see into the castle beyond — once, he had hoped to harness that ability, but that had been long ago.

In the here and now, that nagging feeling was back, front and center, stronger than ever, and he finally recognized it for what it was: resignation. This was the way he’d felt as a boy, on the nights when his mother would see off some particularly brutish custom, then come find him and his older brother to visit the same hurts upon their bastard flesh. He could remember hearing her step on the ladder, the ragged breath rasping in and out of lungs already infected by the consumption that would claim her life before his ninth nameday, and feeling a flash of fear, which was almost immediately swallowed up by a fatalistic acceptance of the beating that was to come. Lenard, the poor misguided sot, would always proclaim that this time he would stand up to her, this time he would protect them from harm.

Lenard had made this same promise more times than Sebasten could remember. Of course, he had never lived up to it. Sebasten had grown to expect the beatings, to know that most nights would end in pain and humiliation and that he was powerless to stop it. This was his lot in life: the bastard seed of a sickly, well-used whore. There wasn’t much to be gained by fearing the inevitable.

Sebasten dimly wondered if his brother yet lived, and if so, if he had ever amounted to anything. Then he shook his head to break out of his reverie. Turning back to Uffo, he knew suddenly that his trusted lieutenant — the closest thing to a friend he’d had in years — would not live to see the sun rise. The thought, coming with such unbidden certainty, depressed him, but not unduly. His had been a hard life, thus far, and he’d long ago become accustomed to loss.

“He may be as good as dead,” Sebasten said now, without recrimination, resignation creeping into his voice. “But our dead boy will live long enough to let others know he’s dead. This changes our plans, methinks.”

Nonsense!

Kaliks joined the two soldiers, scowling reproachfully. The old man had been a towering figure when he was younger, standing over twelve hands in height, with the broad shoulders and long arms characteristic of those from his native Ignaue, off the north coast of Altessa’s western-most provinces. But time and age had taken their toll: his spine had shriveled and contorted; his shoulders had become stooped; a hump had formed on his back over his left shoulder blade; and he now stood closer to ten hands than twelve. For all that he’d lost in physical stature, though, his mind was as keen as ever, his deep brown eyes were not cloudy with cataracts or dementia, and he could still wield his rich tenor voice like a whip.

“Nothing changes!” he went on sternly, his tone making it clear he would brook no dissent. “One servant with a bolt in his head is not cause for panic.” His eyes settled on Sebasten and went hard with disapproval. “I thought you made of sterner stuff, Mol.”

Sebasten bristled. “Why did you not help with the boy?” he asked angrily, refusing to address Kaliks’s unsubtle accusation of cowardice directly. “You could have easily dealt with him, and then this would not be an issue.”

Kaliks’s forehead wrinkled further as his eyebrows knotted in consternation. “There are wards in place here, some of them ancient, all of them powerful. None of them will ultimately be a problem, but it takes time to deal with them. You worry about raising an alarm, Mol? Had I interceded with the boy, that would have announced our presence more surely than letting the boy escape these rooms.” He paused; when he continued, his voice carried a note of puzzled disappointment. “I shouldn’t need to explain this, especially to a former Initiate.”

Unexpected, this last rebuke, and more stinging for that it sounded to Sebasten’s untrained ear like a father wearily chiding a constantly wayward son. He looked away from the chagrin in Kaliks’s expression, unable to meet it head on. “We shouldn’t tarry here,” he said gruffly. “We’ve no idea how much longer we will remain undiscovered.”

“Indeed,” Kaliks agreed. “That is the first sensible thing you have said this even.”

Sebasten ignored this last. “Right, lads,” he said, sotto voce. “We proceed as planned. No steel unless I command or you need to save yourself. Uffo has the lead.”

They moved out of the kitchens, moving quietly but quickly: first through dim, narrow service hallways, where the walls were plain mortared stone and the sconces were few and far between; then through the main passageways of the Keep itself, ornate in their splendor, even when seen in the half-light of guttering torches. Sebasten found it hard not to gawk, especially when it seemed like everything he saw, down to the simplest golden candelabra, was worth more coin than he had made in his entire life. This was his first time among the trappings of royalty, and it made him feel an awe-struck child. He had always known that there were people in this world who lived lives of exorbitant plenty, whose daily existence was far removed from the constant struggle through hardship and filth and pain experienced by common folk such as he, but it had been a remote knowledge, easily acknowledged and just as easily ignored. Now, with its evidence all around him, he could not possibly deny that these people were his betters, in every conceivable way.

Well, save for one. Sebasten was reasonably certain he was a better killer.

The passage they were traveling came to an abrupt end at a pair of high oaken doors. Their elaborate, stylized carvings depicted a scene of battle, with a lone woman, her hands splayed rigidly in front of her and what looked to Sebasten like rays of light shooting from the tips of her fingers, surveying the carnage from a high hilltop. No, he realized, that wasn’t quite right; she was not simply examining the butchery below her, she was the cause of it.

Uffo looked back at Sebasten, his expression inscrutable. “What now?” he asked simply.

Kaliks answered before Sebasten could even open his mouth. “We go on, of course,” he said, as though speaking to a child. “This is one of their smaller audience halls, but it provides us our quickest route to the apartments. We shall go through.”

The Baramundi lieutenant looked from Kaliks back to Sebasten, a silent question in his eyes. Mol nodded. “We’ll go on,” he said, the feeling of resignation coming back in a rush, so quickly that it gave him a moment of vertigo. The taste of bile grew strong on his tongue, and for an instant he thought he might vomit.

And then he knew, with the same certainty as before (a certainty that he would be unable to explain, if pressed) that to go through these doors with their carvings of slaughter was to hand all of them — himself, Kaliks, Uffo, the soldiers who looked to him as leader — over to the Pale.

He also knew that there was no other choice. There never had been.

Stifling a sigh and swallowing back his gorge, Sebasten Mol nodded again.

“Open the doors.”

 

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Chapter 1 – Rafella

Posted by jpbrassard on March 20, 2009

 

Rafella was a child again.

It was her eighth nameday, the day of her first Binding, the sun spring-bright through the windows of the Hall of Monir, dust motes lazily playing in the golden shafts of light. Monir was the smallest of the Audience Halls — though it could still easily hold seventy-five or more — but it was the way the sunlight fell through the tall windows in the long, narrow room that had caused Rafella to choose this place for her first Binding Day celebration. She had always loved the sun, and Monir was the brightest room in the Keep, especially on spring afternoons when the promise of summer could be felt in the air and the gloom rain and snow of winter were starting to become a memory. Mother had given her the choice, and Monir it was.

She sat now on the steps leading up to the dais at the north end of Monir, watching as Granil and Stepan pretended at swords. The tables and chairs had been cleared out of the hall after the meal, and her two younger brothers raced up and down the room on the elegant Baramundi rug, waving their wooden blades at one another, occasionally stopping long enough to exchange a few glancing strokes. Father and Mother sat, uncharacteristically, on the steps just above her, Father’s arm casually draped around Mother’s shoulders in a show of affection never witnessed by the rest of the world. At the far end of the steps, below and to the right of Rafella, sat the wet nurse with baby Reice. There was no one else. The other members of the Court had been dismissed after the meal and the initial presentation of gifts. It was considered . . . unusual, and there were sure to be whispers about it among the noble wives for weeks to come, but Mother had allowed it without hesitation.

For that, Rafella was grateful. This was, truly, as she’d wanted it. It was her first Binding day, after all, the first of three. She was to be Queen one day. Read the rest of this entry »

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