The following content is a preview of the opening chapters of Winter of the Snowfox and is Copyright © Nik Heikkilä 2010. All Rights Reserved. This preview may be read, printed, or downloaded for personal, non distribution use.
Winter of the Snowfox | Age of the Unifier, Volume 1
“A great deal has been written of the Unifier, and of the epochal war that arose along with the prophecied savior. Far less scrutiny is usually given by my fellow historians to the Northern conflict which preceded these events. This, I believe, is a terrible oversight, for much was set in motion during that struggle which would ultimately shape the nature of what was to follow.”
-Elena Kethrace, from The Dark Before Unity’s Dawn: A History of the Necromancer War
Flames and Tears
Rania awakened from a deep sleep as her mother pushed open the door to her room. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she looked out her window. It was still night, but in the absence of sunlight the window frame flickered with a ruddy glow, as if the entire city were lit with torches. Sounds drifted up to her room from below as well, thin and indistinct from the distance. Screams.
Frightened, the eight year old looked wide-eyed back to her mother.
“Rania, dear,” Emereen Amoran said gently to her daughter, “I need you to get out of bed and get dressed.”
“What’s happening, mother?” Rania asked in a quavering voice, “Is everything okay?” She knew it wasn’t, but mother and father would make things right. They were the Lord and Lady of the city. That’s what they did.
“No, dear. There are bad men in the city, burning the buildings and hurting the people.” Emereen was going through Rania’s wardrobe, pulling out clothes. She laid a bundle of them on the bed. They were some of Rania’s play clothes, the comfortable ones she didn’t have to worry about ruining when she was playing outside with the other children of the household.
Obediently, Rania crawled out of bed and began getting dressed. “Where’s daddy?”
“He’s with the guards, dear. They’re keeping the bad men out of Felmorinen.” That was the name of the castle Rania lived in, as well as the small city surrounding it. It was old, so old that nobody remembered when it had been built. People sometimes said that it was cursed, that bad things had happened here long ago, but Rania had never really paid them much attention; it had always seemed a wonderful place to live.
As Rania finished pulling on her tunic and was about to put on the scratchy wool cloak her mother had picked for her, Emereen pressed a small knapsack into her hands. “Put this on, Rania.” She said, “I need you to take this with you.”
“What is it, mother?” It was a little heavy, but not so bad once she had the straps over her shoulders. “And where am I going?”
“It’s a book, dear, a secret book. Only your father and I know about it, and now you. It’s the biggest secret ever, so you can’t tell anybody about it. Can you do that for me?” Emereen was on her knees, looking Rania in the eyes. She looked sad and a little bit frightened, with tears glistening at the corners of her eyes.
“Yes, momma. I promise I won’t tell anyone.” Rania put the cloak on over the sack. “Where are we going?” she asked again.
Emereen brushed a stray lock of red hair out of her daughter’s eyes. “Captain Drevaan and some of his men are going to take you out of the city, Rania, in case any of the bad men get into the castle. I can’t come with you. I have to stay here.”
Rania felt her eyes getting wet. “No, mother,” she sniffled, “I don’t want to leave you here.”
“I don’t want that either, Rania, but sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to because they’re so important.” Emereen hugged her daughter close. “This is very important, honey. You have to be brave. Do it for me, please?”
Rania bit her lip and nodded.
“That’s my girl.” Rania’s mother stood and took her daughter by the hand, giving it a little squeeze. “I’m so proud of you, Rania.”
Captain Drevaan, who led Felmorinen’s household guard, was waiting in the hall with five of his men. They were all dressed in plain clothes like commonfolk from the city below, but they were all wearing their swords and the armor under their clothes jingled when they moved. Drevaan smiled gently at Rania as her mother led her into the hall, and then addressed Marquess Amoran, his liege. “We’re ready?”
Emereen nodded decisively. “Yes. Remember, get out of the city quickly but take no unnecessary risks. More depends on your success than you could possibly know.”
The captain saluted, fist to heart. “It shall be as you order, my Lady.”
Emereen bent down to her child, absently straightening the collar on Rania’s cloak. “Go, Rania. Remember I love you. I love you very much.” A single tear dripped down the noblewoman’s cheek.
“I love you, too, Mother.” Rania said, trying to sound less frightened than she was. The guards surrounded her and they started down the hallway.
Emereen stood and watched until they disappeared around the corner. “Goodbye, my darling daughter,” she whispered.
They took the back ways down through Felmorinen, the narrow passages usually used by the servants. It was long past the time that the last of the servants finished their duties for the night, and the narrow halls and stairways were dark and frightening to young Rania. As they descended lower and lower, ever closer to the ground floor of the ancient keep, the sounds of fighting drifted up to them, distant but still scary. Rania tried not to tremble as she walked, tried not to make a sound. She had promised mother she would be brave, but it was so hard.
As they drew near the kitchens and the delivery door by which foodstuffs were brought into Felmorinen, they heard the heavy footsteps of running men headed their way. Drevaan flattened himself against the wall, holding out an arm to press Rania likewise to the stone. The sounds moved thankfully past them without anyone coming into the darkened passage they occupied, but they continued to wait. Rania could hear her heartbeat pounding in her ears, and she counted thirty beats after the running men passed before the Captain moved again. Drevaan motioned to the rest to stay where they were as he crept down the hall to furtively look around the corner before he signaled them forward.
When they emerged into the kitchens, they found two soldiers wearing strange livery of white and gold. Their uniforms were spattered with crimson, and they stood amidst the corpses of several of the household staff who had apparently tried escaping by this same route. They turned in surprise toward the men entering the room.
Drevaan’s men acted without hesitation. The terrified Rania was pushed back behind them as they charged forward, drawing swords to fall upon the invaders.
Their foes surprised and outnumbered, it was over quickly. One of the guardsmen stared in consternation at the still forms of the two men while Rania sobbed with fright. “Those’re the colors of the old kingdom. Is it true, then, what they’re saying? Are these ghosts?” Fear quavered in his voice.
“Don’t be daft,” Drevaan answered gruffly, wiping his sword blade on one of the white uniforms before resheathing it. “Ghosts don’t bleed.” He walked over to Rania and gently took her by the chin, turning her face upward to look into her eyes. His other hand wiped the tears from her cheek. “Come, child. There’s no time for tears now.”
Rania gulped and nodded. She didn’t dare open her mouth to reply, afraid that she’d start crying again.
Drevaan picked the girl up, carrying her out of the fortress.
The courtyard was a scene of bygone chaos and destruction. Bodies littered the ground, friend and foe alike tangled where they had fallen. There looked to be more friends among the slain than foes. Above the inner wall of the castle, flames could be seen crackling up to the sky. Aside from the flames, there was no sign of movement. It appeared the struggle had moved on into Felmorinen itself.
“Try not to look at them, my Lady.” Drevaan murmured. He started cautiously toward the inner wall.
Rania tried to do as he said. She was afraid to look at the corpses, afraid she would find her father among the detritus of the battle. Mind recoiling from her surroundings, she stared straight ahead as Drevaan carried her to a small sally port set into the wall.
On the other side of the wall they found a dying city. Flames danced in many of the buildings, and several had already collapsed in on themselves. Corpses lay scattered in the streets, but here they were all townsfolk, cut down as they tried to flee. None of the bodies wore the white and gold they had seen inside. Whereas the inside of the wall had been the remnants of a battle, these streets had witnessed a massacre.
Anger contorted the face of one of the guards who escorted Rania. “How could this happen? Where was the city garrison? Why didn’t we put up a fight until they were on top of us?”
Drevaan shook his head. “Somehow, I don’t know how, they got into the city without the alarm being sounded. The first warning we had was when the fires started, and the city barracks were the first buildings to go up in flames. They probably barricaded our men inside and let the fire do their work for them.” He surveyed the carnage grimly. “Let’s pick up the pace a bit. We’ve got a ways to go, but these streets seem empty. Stay sharp, though, there’s no doubt stragglers out here somewhere.”
They trotted down the streets as fast as their attempts at stealth would allow. Rania’s fear bordered on unreasoning panic. The city seemed a nightmare of mauled bodies, flames, and heat. Small clusters of white-clad invaders roamed the streets, and several times they had to fight off attackers. She lost track of how many times they had to turn and fight, how many times she cowered in the street while Drevaan and his guardsmen fought like cornered mountaincats to keep her from harm. The occasional struggles took their toll on her protectors, though. By the time they were nearing the outer wall that ringed the city, two of her guards had fallen, and two more bled from wounds taken before they felled their assailants.
Still they continued on, the gate in the looming stone wall ahead beckoning them on. Beyond that wall lay safety, Rania remembered her mother saying. They ran, and soon were passing under the wall, the great stone of the arch swallowing them. As they emerged from the other side, Rania wanted to breathe a sigh of relief. Then she looked around, and screamed.
With a roar, the men who had been lying in wait to either side of the gateway charged them, encircling the smaller party.
Drevaan hastily set Rania back down on her feet and drew his sword, turning his back to her to face the attackers.
Steel clashed on steel, and Rania had nowhere to run. Her protectors were outnumbered six to four, and bloodied where the attackers were unwounded. Men fell screaming around her, and not all of them enemies. In the initial rush, three of the men in white and gold went down. So did two of the Felmorinen Guardsmen.
Rania had her opening. She began backing away, not daring to look away from Drevaan. The last guard aside from the Captain himself was run through even as Drevaan landed a mighty overhand blow on the soldier in front of him, nearly taking the man’s arm off at the shoulder. The two remaining assailants circled the last of Rania’s protectors, ignoring the young girl for the time being.
Rania’s foot caught against something soft and she sprawled backwards over one of the fallen attackers. She tried to catch her fall, struggling not to cry out at the warm stickiness that her one hand found. The other came to rest on something hard and contoured. Rania pulled, and found herself holding the dagger that had hung at the soldier’s belt. She struggled back to her feet, clutching the weapon awkwardly.
Drevaan was still locked in his dance of death with the two men. Rania clenched her teeth and summoned up her last ounce of courage to begin creeping back towards the struggle.
With a bellowing roar, Drevaan lunged at the soldier before him, knocking aside the man’s sword to thrust his own through the soldier’s abdomen. At the same time, the other attacker swung low, cutting deep into one of Drevaan’s legs. The captain foundered, falling forward and losing his grip on the weapon still stuck through the man he had just killed. He hit the ground with a grunt, struggling to rise again as the soldier moved in for the killing blow.
Rania saw her opportunity and jumped forward, stabbing down with the dagger toward the back of the bad man’s leg. She felt a tearing sensation through the blade and warm blood welled forth as the soldier howled. Somehow, she managed to pull the dagger free before the man fell to one knee.
“Run, child!” Drevaan yelled, his voice urgent and laced with pain. “Run and don’t look back!”
Rania did as she was told and ran for all she was worth, off along the outer edge of the wall. Man-shaped shadows lined the walls, and she had to remind herself that they were just the stone guardians, statues of soldiers set into embrasures lining the entire outer wall of Felmorinen, relics left over from the past ages of the city. Her breath came ragged in her throat as she ran and ran, fear giving her strength to go on long after her legs would normally have given out. Well away from the gate, she turned and fled away from the city toward the surrounding mountains.
At long last she could run no more and collapsed, her legs trembling from exertion. She crawled over to huddle against a nearby large rock jutting out of the ground, finally daring to look back at the city she had called home for eight years. The flames were dying down, but her eyes were drawn upward, to the great stone spire of Felmorinen itself. Smoke belched from the ancient keep, rising toward a sky that was just starting to turn grey with the first rays of the sun. With that sight, it all came crashing home. Everyone she knew, everyone she cared about was surely dead, taken from her in the flames and blood of the night.
Rania cradled the dagger she still carried to her chest, and cried until she thought no more tears could come.
Someone was watching Talaren. It was a peculiar thought; standing as the young lord was in the midst of the Grand Melee at the annual Harvest Tournament of Val Zherrane, a roaring throng ringing the tourney field, of course he was being watched. But this feeling was different, a persistent tingling at the nape of his neck that whispered to him that he specifically was under intense scrutiny from some unknown watcher.
Tal pushed the feeling aside, though, to focus on the task at hand. He had a competition to win. All about him armored men with blunted weapons hewed at one another to win the honor of the title of Champion of Arms for this year’s tourney. Tal had taken that honor last year, and he had every intention of doing so again today.
A bulky fellow in chain mail with sword raised overhead rushed at Tal, who casually brushed the crude attack aside and struck back with a series of rapid blows that left his attacker groaning on the ground. Tal had already put the man out of his mind as he turned to face another three attackers, howling like madmen as they came at him. He danced deftly around their attacks, tangling the three men up with each other as they all sought to strike him a disqualifying blow. The foremost of the three pushed forward aggressively, trying to break through the young nobleman’s guard. Tal ducked under a high swing and swept the man’s legs out from under him. Before the fellow had even struck the ground, Tal had launched himself forward, blade rising swiftly crosswise to dash aside another attack and strike his astonished attacker all in one flowing motion. The third foe gave a startled cry as Tal stepped smoothly forward, inside the arc of his quarry’s swinging blade, his free hand reaching out to catch his opponent’s swordarm by the wrist even as he drove his knee up into the man’s abdomen. He pivoted, still grasping the captive arm, and heaved his gasping opponent over his shoulder to the ground. Snatching up the man’s dropped sword in his left hand, Tal turned and strode into the nearest boiling cluster of combatants.
The young heir to the Duchy of Val Solus moved through the fighting with a skill and grace that bordered on the inhuman. Mind, body and weapons in accord, as he had been taught, Tal moved through the fray bringing down the best of Valeran’s warriors with either hand. For nine years he had practiced in the fighting arts of the Armslords, the inheritors of the legacy of the most fearsome and infamous warriors history had ever known, the Shevestra’ken. His tutelage under Armslord Malry Zhierren had been punishing but effective, pushing him beyond all normal endurance to surpass limits he’d never dreamed he could reach in the first place. The training had become part of Talaren, rooted itself in his reflexes and instincts such that it came without effort now. He fought without fear, without doubt, and without hesitation, as was the way of an Armslord. Against that, few foes could hope to contend.
Tal swept an incoming attack aside with one sword while striking a disqualifying blow to his attacker’s mailed chest with the other. A swift kick to the side executed right atop his swordplay staggered another man bearing a mace, its head padded for the competition, and Tal surged in with both blades swinging before his opponent could regain his balance. The maceman just managed to block the first blade, but the second caught him low in the chest, knocking the wind from his lungs and removing him from the fray. Tal glanced quickly about, blades held in readiness to meet another attack, and found that while there were still contenders on the field, all those immediately around him were downed.
The feeling of probing eyes came over him again, overpowering, as palpable as if the watcher had reached out and touched him. Tal cast his gaze across the stands in his brief moment of respite, seeking the source of the odd sensation. Like iron to a lodestone, his eyes were drawn to a young woman sitting amongst the crowd not fifty paces distant. She was strikingly attractive, with shoulder-length red hair framing a face that somehow managed to be both delicate and bold at the same time. There was an enormous sense of presence about her, as though she were somehow more real than her surroundings. All those around her were cheering and yelling with wild abandon, but she sat almost motionless, quietly watching. Watching Talaren. Why did he feel as if he should recognize her, when he couldn’t place her anywhere in his memory? Their eyes met, and the defending Champion of Arms felt an electric thrill shoot up his spine. He thought he saw the hint of a smile cross that breathtaking face.
Suddenly, a heavy impact crashed into Tal’s left shoulder. By instinct he rolled forward with the force of the blow, but from the way his shoulder protested he knew that he’d already been eliminated from the contest. He silently berated himself for his moment of inattention even as the man with the padded axe who’d just struck him leapt past Tal in search of another foe. Had this been real, I’d be minus an arm and bleeding to death. That thought stung far more than the fact of having just lost his title from the previous tourney.
Tal watched on from the place where he’d been struck down as the few remaining competitors converged on one another towards the center of the field, swinging and slashing at each other until after a few minutes only one remained standing. The victor, a man Tal didn’t recognize, held his blunted sword aloft to the cheers of the crowd as a herald in the black and red livery of the Royal House of Zherrane declared him this year’s Champion of Arms. Good for him, Tal thought. He’s likely either a mercenary or hedge knight, and winning this recognition might earn him a high place in service to one of the Houses. It was more benefit than the young Lord would have taken from a win today.
Footmen were rushing onto the field from the sidelines to help the defeated to their feet, or carrying off those whose injuries precluded moving on their own to be tended by Jhessaillian-trained healers. Tal waved off one of the men as he got back to his feet. There were others who would need the help far more. He cast his gaze back to where the mysterious woman who had so distracted him had been sitting, but she was nowhere to be seen.
With a regretful sigh, Tal made his way to the edge of the field, which was hemmed in by rank upon rank of spectators. They stepped back to open a narrow passage for him to walk through, those closest to him offering words of support and wishing him better luck in the Melee next year.
After clearing the crowd Tal was free to wend his way to his tall black-and -silver striped tent. A small pennant with the silver running fox on a black field that was House Solus’s crest fluttered atop the tent in a gentle breeze. Tal pushed through the door flap and went inside.
Malry was already within, waiting for his pupil, a stern scowl on his face and in his voice. “What happened out there, Talaren?” Beside his student the silvery-haired Armslord seemed a small man, but his slender frame was all muscle and sinew, and anyone assuming his age made him a less formidable warrior would be setting themselves up for a rude surprise. Tal knew from years of training with Malry that the older man was stronger, tougher, and far swifter with a blade than most men half his age. He held himself with an easy grace that the young Lord hoped he would one day be able to duplicate. “One moment your performance was nearly flawless, the next it seemed as though your focus completely vanished. I’ve not expected you to have difficulties like that since your first year working with me.”
“I’m sorry, master,” Tal replied contritely, his face flushing with embarrassment, “I let myself be distracted. There was someone in the stands, a woman…” He shook his head, struggling to find the proper words to explain himself. “There was something about her…”
“You’re telling me you were too busy looking at women to defend yourself?” Malry’s tone was incredulous. “That’s ridiculous. I know for fact that you’ve better discipline than that.”
“You’re right, or you should be,” Tal agreed with a frown. How could he describe the odd feeling that had overtaken him? “This was different, though. I could feel her watching me, before I even saw her. And when I spotted her, I had the strangest feeling that I knew her, even though I’m certain I’ve never laid eyes on her before today.” He shrugged apologetically. “Still, I shouldn’t have let my concentration slip. It was a foolish mistake.”
“So long as you realize that,” the Armslord said gruffly, “I suppose I can let it pass without further reprimand this time.” He gave his student a searching look. “It sounds to me as though you read something within the Sephira about this woman. I couldn’t tell you what it may have been, but I can tell you that when the Sephira speaks to you, you ignore it at your own peril.”
The Sephira was the animating force of reality, an all-pervasive energy field in which the entirety of existence was suspended. The Shevestra’ken had learned how to somehow merge with it, channeling its raw power through their bodies to attain the unnatural strength, speed, and stamina for which they had been renowned and feared. Though the secret to that ability had disappeared along with its practitioners, the Armslords of the present learned through meditation and discipline to read the ebb and flow of combat through the Sephira. Some few, Malry included, claimed it could even occasionally grant other, deeper intuitions.
“So it could have been a warning, then?” Tal began the work of removing his armor, a complicated affair based on the traditional design favored by Armslords and the Shevestra’ken before them. At first glance it resembled a light suit of plate and mail armor, but with segmented plates to allow the wearer the greatest possible range of movement. The gaps between the segments were protected with an extra layer of mail, the whole assembly held together by a network of straps and buckles that also served to distribute the armor’s weight evenly. It afforded an excellent balance between protection and mobility, at the price of being irksomely involved to put on and take off.
Malry set to helping his pupil with the armor. “Did it seem like a warning? Did you feel threatened, endangered, uneasy?”
“No,” Tal answered with a shake of his head, “nothing like that. It was just like I said, a sense of familiarity that I know rationally shouldn’t actually have been there.” He grunted softly as the Armslord worked at a buckle on the dented pauldron where he’d taken the axe blow.
“I’d suspect it to be something else, then,” Malry said as the strap came free. “Perhaps you were sensing a potential friend or ally in this woman. Or maybe there was something between your spirits in a previous life. I really couldn’t say. It’s on you to interpret those things you may sense in the Sephira. That’s why you felt it and not I.”
“Are you filling my son’s head with Battleborn mysticism again, old friend?” Duke Daron Solus asked as he pushed through the door-flap into the tent. Talaren’s father was a broad, solidly built man only barely taller than his son. The golden hair Tal had inherited was on Daron beginning to fade to silver, but his face was yet unlined by the years. His black doublet and mantle were of the finest cut, the Solus fox insignia embroidered boldly across the chest. The Duke leveled a paternal gaze at his son. “It’s clever tactics and sound leadership that win battles, not archaic philosophies and exaggerated legends.”
Tal had heard this argument any number of times over the past several years, and knew from his past attempts that it was useless trying to change his father’s opinion. Though Daron appreciated the value of the Armslords’ martial skills and training, he considered the esoterica of Shevestra’ken lore to be little more than a curiosity of history, questionable in its accuracy and lacking practical application. So Tal simply bowed his head acquiescingly toward his father.
Malry, on the other hand, wasn’t so easily deterred. “With the utmost respect, Your Grace, Talaren is but a few short steps away from becoming the first noble-born son of Valeran to attain the title of Armslord in at least a dozen generations. It would seem appropriate for him to have some knowledge of those from whom we inherited our ways.”
“You’ve certainly seen to that over the past several years,” the Duke commented wryly. “Tal knows almost as much trivia about the Bloody-Handed Maiden’s followers as you do.” That was a reference to Shevestra herself, who some claimed had been a demon and others a minor deity, and who the Shevestra’ken had claimed as their founder and patron in naming themselves after her. “What I overheard sounded far more specific than general lore, though. What were you discussing?”
“Talaren sensed something unusual in the Sephira about a young woman among the onlookers,” Malry answered, “which is what distracted him in the middle of the competition. I was simply trying to help him interpret whatever it may have been.”
The final strap on the outer layer of Tal’s armor came loose and he shrugged off the plates with a relieved sigh, then promptly set to stripping off the mail shirt underneath. It made for a convenient way to cover his embarrassment at the Armslord’s disclosure.
“One hardly needs a convoluted Sephiral explanation for taking notice of a woman at the tourney,” Daron chuckled, making Tal’s ears burn all the redder, “though to have kept you from noticing an armored man coming up behind you, she must have been quite something to look at.”
“It was a foolish lapse on my part,” Tal muttered as Malry took the mail from him to hang on a nearby wooden armor rack. “It won’t happen again.” He flexed his left arm to test its range of motion after the blow it’d absorbed.
Thankfully, Daron didn’t press his son about the mysterious young woman. “How’s your shoulder, Tal?” he asked instead. “That looked like quite the brutal hard hit you took.”
Tal shrugged. “It isn’t that bad. A bit stiff, but otherwise it seems fine.”
“I’ll send for a healer,” Daron said decisively.
“I suppose,” Tal agreed halfheartedly, “though I’m sure there are others who need their attention more than I do.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Daron scoffed. “None of the other contestants are in dire need, and if any were, they’d have been taken care of by now. A whole team of Jhessaillian-taught healers will hardly be so overtaxed they can’t spare one man for a few minutes to heal you.” Healing was one of the few, and the most popularly studied, of the Sephiral disciplines that the Jhessaillian Order taught to those outside its own ranks. A healer who had studied under them could mend in mere moments wounds that might otherwise cost a man his life.
Malry lifted the back of Tal’s tunic to examine the injured shoulder. “You’ve got quite the bruise back here,” he noted dryly, applying gentle pressure to the shoulderblade with his fingertips. “But nothing appears to be broken.”
Daron took note of Talaren’s slight wince during the Armslord’s examination. “That decides it. You’ve got the competition for King’s Champion tomorrow, Tal. You don’t want to have a stiff shoulder slowing you down.” He ducked out of the tent.
Within a few minutes Daron returned with a slight, sandy-haired woman in tow with a healer’s scrip at her side. She coolly ordered Tal to strip to the waist, and he complied without protest. She gently ran her hands over the injury. Tal’s skin seemed to prickle as she read his Sephiral pattern to determine the severity of the wound.
“This is fairly minor. I’ll have it taken care of in no time,” she said matter-of-factly as she reached into her scrip and pulled out a small tin. She opened the tin and dabbed her fingertips into a faintly greenish ointment inside, which she then tenderly rubbed into Talaren’s shoulder. A cool tingling spread through the area, washing away all hint of stiffness and ache. “There,” she said crisply when she finished, refastening the lid and putting the tin back, “good as new.”
Tal rolled and stretched the shoulder to check for any lingering aches. It felt, just as the healer had said, good as new. “My thanks, dear lady,” he said, rummaging in his pocket to produce a pair of silver coins which he pressed into her palm.
“Oh, it was no trouble,” the young woman said as a smile dimpled her face. She really was quite pretty. “My husband will be cheering for you tomorrow, and he’d never forgive me if I let you go into the Joust injured.”
“Well then, I’ll just have to try not to let him down,” Tal replied with a smile.
The healer dropped a graceful curtsy. “Thank you, milord, I’ll tell him you said so. I’m sure he’ll be very happy to know I tended to you myself. But if you’ll excuse me, there are others who yet require my attention.”
“Of course,” Tal said graciously, “I wouldn’t want to keep you too long.”
The healer bowed her head and let herself out of the tent. Tal turned to a chest in the corner and pulled out a clean tunic, black with understated silver trim and House Solus’s running fox emblem embroidered on the left breast, also in silver.
As Tal pulled the clean tunic on, Daron cleared his throat. “Tazmin asked me to tell you that he’d wait for you at The King’s Lancer, Tal.” Tazmin was Tal’s cousin and best friend, the son of Baron Remarr Joseth, whose House was among the closest of allies to House Solus.
Tal chuckled. “He probably wanted to get a head start on me in the drinking.” The Harvest Tournament was among the biggest of events in Valeran, equaled in merrymaking only by the Festival of Liberation which commemorated the fall of Empress Anakara the Undying and the founding of Valeran by Korven Zherrane. The streets and taverns tonight would fill with celebrating folk, and Tazmin had never been one to miss an opportunity to celebrate.
“We’ll let you get on to Tazmin and the festivities,” Daron said, “just be careful not to celebrate yourself into a hangover in the morning.”
“Of course not, father,” Tal replied, “I’m the sensible one, you’ll recall.” Not that Tazmin lacked sense so much as restraint.
“And yet it seems you let your cousin talk you into trouble more often than not,” Daron chuckled. “But no matter, so long as you can ride and lance straight in the morning. Enjoy yourself, Tal.”
Malry met Tal’s gaze and gave a curt nod before following Daron out of the tent.
Tal gave himself a cursory inspection in a small hand mirror, taking a moment to regather his shoulder-length hair into the silver ring he used to keep it pulled back in a neat tail. He rubbed his strong, lightly stubbled chin for a moment, and decided he could put off shaving again until morning. Setting the mirror aside, he gave his tall boots a quick brushing to remove the dust of the Grand Melee before departing from the tent himself and making his way from the tourney field, where workmen were already erecting the lists for tomorrow’s joust, and into the city proper of Val Zherrane.
The capital city of Valeran had been built a scant three centuries past by Korven Zherrane himself, following his defeat of the Undying Empress, making Val Zherrane the youngest of Valeran’s great cities. Situated on the northern coast, the city was laid out like an enormous semicircle, with the Royal Palace on its promontory overlooking the sea at the center. Straight, broad avenues ran like spokes of a giant wheel out from that center, with smaller connecting streets between. With sturdy stone construction for most of the city’s buildings, streets kept meticulously clean, and a healthy trade passing through the harbor, Val Zherrane was the crowning glory of what had once been the largest and mightiest of nations, prior to the Bhellan Revolution twenty years past in which Bhellus to the East and later Amberyl to the South had broken away.
The King’s Lancer was familiar to Tal, one of the larger taverns located in the richest part of the city near the Palace. As he walked there the streets were already beginning to fill with people, musicians and the folk dancing to their music, hawkers selling ale and mead from booths erected just for the festivities surrounding the yearly tourney. Many on the streets called out to Tal as he passed, and he waved back or exchanged a few polite words with those who did. When he arrived at the tavern, the sun was just beginning to slip below the horizon.
“Tal, you glory hound!” Tazmin declared over his mug as Talaren walked into the common room. “Finally you manage to find your way here! I was starting to wonder if you’d gotten lost!” Tal’s cousin was a few inches shorter than the heir to Val Solus, with close cropped reddish-blond hair and a ready smile. Aside from the mug in his hand, a full one sat on the table before him, which he slid over to Tal. The common room was filled with men and women in their finest festive dress, drinking cool ale or enjoying a pipe or dancing to the tune being played by three musicians on a small platform at the end of the room.
“Not lost,” Tal said as he sat down and took a sip of the dark, bitter ale, “just not quite so eager as you to start getting drunk.”
“I’m just trying to get a start in on the drinks you owe me,” Tazmin grinned, “for the money I lost on you today.”
“Tazmin, you didn’t…”
“Of course I did,” Tazmin cut Tal off merrily. “Just a small wager, mind you. The Grand Melee is unpredictable enough that the odds were quite agreeable. You’re so heavily favored tomorrow that a bet would hardly be worth my time.”
Tal grunted noncommittally as he reached into his belt pouch to produce his carved wooden pipe and a pouch of pungent dried herbs, the finest smoking blend from the fields of Val Solus. He began thumbing the bowl full as Tazmin followed his example, pulling out and filling his own pipe. Tal puffed his pipe alight with the aid of a long splinter that lay beside the candle on the table and then offered the small flame to Tazmin.
“I must admit, though,” Tazmin said as he exhaled a long streamer of smoke, “I’m still rather perplexed as to how you let that fellow smack you across the back. How did you manage to miss him clanking up behind you?”
“I was busy looking at a girl,” Tal sighed.
“Is that so?” Tazmin chortled. “It’s about time. Talaren Solus, the great swordsman and Armslord-to-be, who can never be bothered to find time for the swarms of ladies that sigh over him, finally notices a woman. This is a banner day.” He took another long sip of ale and chuckled again.
“Just because I don’t play at courting every pretty pair of eyes that cross my path, unlike some people I know, is no reason to laugh,” Tal said with a grin and a twinkle in his eye before puffing deeply on his pipe. “I’m just selective.”
Tazmin laughed heartily. “And I’m just trying to have my fun before my father marries me off. With my luck, I’ll end up with some rich, powerful, and above all ugly and old harridan.” Tal’s cousin shuddered, but the smile never left his face. “So who’s the lucky girl, Tal? No, wait, let me guess – is it Korine of House Eldarion? She’s quite the eyeful. Or maybe Joseen of Dorath – not only is she beautiful and her House strong, I know she’s had an eye for you for quite some time. Well, Tal, who is it?”
Making a disgusted sound at the back of his throat, Tal rolled his eyes. “Tazmin, you know how I feel about the so-called ‘ladies’ of the Royal Court. They’re taught from childhood to smile, bat their eyelashes, and find themselves a husband who’ll advance the standing of their Houses. And never to say anything controversial, never to have a thought that’s too original lest they raise eyebrows, never to do anything that breaks the mold of a ‘lady’ that they’ve been crammed into. It’s all terribly sad, and dreadfully boring to have a conversation with, let alone anything further. I’ll pass on that, thanks.”
Tazmin’s grin grew through Tal’s brief tirade. “So she must be a commoner, then. The plot thickens.” He waved over a buxom, dark-eyed serving girl. “Would you mind getting the former Champion of Arms and I each another ale?”
The girl assented with a smoky gaze and inviting smile for Tal. He smiled back and nodded in acknowledgement.
“You see, there you go again,” Tazmin grumbled, watching as the serving girl swayed back to fetch their drinks, “the less you give them the more they want it. I wish I knew how you do it.” He drained the rest of his mug with a sigh. “So tell me about this mystery woman of yours, Tal. What’s she look like?”
“Red hair to the base of her neck,” Tal said, picturing the mysterious woman in his mind, “with a flawless face and eyes that bore right through you. What I really noticed, though, is that there’s an intensity about her that I can’t quite put my finger on. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, but I could feel it from across the field like she was jabbing a finger into my chest.”
Their new mugs arrived, and Tazmin began drinking his while Tal finished off his first one. “That narrows the field a bit, but she still doesn’t sound like anyone I know of. You’ll have to point her out to me, I suppose. Or you could make her your Queen of Roses when you win tomorrow.”
“If I win tomorrow,” Tal corrected absentmindedly.
“Oh, would you stop that, Tal?” Tazmin sighed in exasperation. “You’re the best in Valeran, and everybody knows it except you, apparently. There’s not a knight in Val Zherrane tonight who isn’t praying to every god he can think of that he not have to lance against you tomorrow.”
“Not true, Lord Joseth,” a too-familiar voice called insolently. “I, for one, don’t fear to face Talaren in the lists. He did well enough in the melee today against ruffians and mercenaries, but some nameless commoner still defeated him. I look forward to showing him tomorrow how a true nobleman fights.” The speaker, Lord Joren Jerak, was of an age with Tal, an inch or two shorter, and broad of shoulder. A fine fuzz of blond hair covered his head, and his pouty lips were now twisted in a mocking smirk. In Tal’s experience, Joren was a fair swordsman, an exceptional lancer, and a superb braggart. He swaggered up to Tal and Tazmin’s table flanked by a pair of lesser lordlings who Tal recognized only by the insignias on their coats, all well in their cups judging by their gait.
“I stand corrected,” Tazmin announced merrily to Tal. “I should have said instead that there isn’t a man with an ounce of sense who wants to lance against you.”
Joren glowered at Tal’s cousin. “Were I you, Tazmin, I’d not go picking fights with three men when you’ve but one at your back.”
“I’m not the one picking a fight. And were you me, Jay-Jay, you’d be a great deal more popular with the ladies,” Tazmin laughed. “You’d also realize that the man at my back is worth the lot of you twice over.”
Tal groaned as one of Joren’s companions reached for the sword at his side. Tazmin just would have to goad them. He stood and caught the younger lord by the wrist before he’d bared more than an inch of steel.
“Nobody’s questioning your prowess, Joren,” Tal said, drawing the other nobleman’s gaze, “or that of your friends. You’ll have ample opportunity to demonstrate it tomorrow, no need to cause a disturbance now. Let’s drink instead to your success at the joust. I’ll buy.”
Joren sneered. “No Jerak needs a Solus to buy him his drinks. You can drink to me tomorrow night instead, after I knock you in the dirt at the lists.” He shouldered rudely past Tal, his friends in tow, and stormed out of the common room.
Tazmin sighed and shook his head. “There are times I just don’t understand you, Tal. Joren comes on blowing smoke out his arse like that and instead of kicking it back to Val Jerak for him, you stroke his already bloated ego?”
“Better than letting you needle him into starting a fight and spoiling our welcome here,” Tal grumbled back.
Tazmin opened his mouth to reply, then shifted his gaze past Tal and smirked instead, murmuring, “I’d say that welcome looks plenty unspoiled.”
“Excuse me, milord,” the serving girl with the inviting smile said as she laid a hand lightly on Tal’s shoulder. “I wanted to thank you for seeing that lot off,” she nodded toward the door Joren had so precipitously exited through. “They’d been hassling me and the other girls something fierce.”
Tal shrugged modestly. “I didn’t really-” he cut himself off abruptly when Tazmin kicked him in the shin under the table.
“If it wouldn’t be too forward of me,” the girl went on, “would you care for a dance? Alsibeth’s covering for me a few minutes.”
Tal smiled and bowed his head to her. “It would be a pleasure.” Offering her his hand, he let her lead him out to the cleared space of floor where folk were merrily dancing. He flashed a quick grin over his shoulder at Tazmin, who tipped his drink in reply before taking another long sip.
Once on the floor, Tal had no shortage of requests for the next dance. Tazmin came out himself after a short while, trailing another serving girl who giggled at whatever it was the heir to Val Joseth was whispering in her ear. So the night passed in dancing, drinking, and merriment. That was what festivals were all about, after all.
He felt her eyes on him again as soon as he had taken his place at the sidelines of the field to await his first match. Searching the crowd, Talaren’s own eyes came to rest upon her almost immediately, just as he remembered her from the day before. The peculiar intensity that he had almost convinced himself was a trick of his mind was still there, and her gaze remained fixed on him just as intently as before. This time he was certain she smiled when she saw him looking back at her. And then slowly, deliberately, she bowed her head toward him in acknowledgement. Curiosity filled Tal anew. Who was this woman? Why was she watching him, seemingly to the exclusion of all else? And why did he feel so powerfully drawn to her? He had to have answers. But not now. Now, he had the most important event of the tournament to focus on. He promised himself, though, that he wouldn’t lose track of her this time, that he would find her and get his answers once the Joust was over.
The competition was expected to last most of the day, as virtually every knight and young noble with any amount of martial training had come to contend for the title of King’s Champion. Tal’s first bout, the seventh match of the morning, was against Lord Jonos, the son of Baronet Orman Ygris. Jonos was a few years younger than Tal, this his first time in the Harvest Tournament. Tal unseated him on the first pass.
Two bouts later Tal watched Joren face Boral, youngest son of the Earl of Val Goren. Joren won on the third pass, but from the way he wavered in the saddle, Tal suspected the heir to Val Jerak was feeling the aftermath of the previous night’s drinking.
The second matchup an hour later proved a bit more of a challenge for Tal. Facing him at the other end of the lists was Sir Roddik of Gahane, who had been King’s Champion at the Harvest Tourney twice in the past. He and Talaren each shattered five lances against the other’s shield to the pleased roaring of the crowd before Roddik was finally thrown from the saddle on the sixth charge.
Roddik was followed by Famrir of Val Oryx, and then Dellim of Harost and Sevwin of Val Lorran who tenaciously kept his saddle for eight passes and nearly knocked Tal from his twice. Joren made it to his fourth match before being unhorsed by Sir Galnar Larch. Apparently he’d not have the opportunity to make good on his promise to knock Tal into the dirt.
The entire time, Tal remained aware of the eyes watching him. So long as the feeling persisted, he found he didn’t even have to look to be certain the mysterious girl was still there.
At last, well into the afternoon, the championship match was announced, pitting Tal against Sir Wyman Mavis, a seasoned warrior who had earned his knighthood in service to House Arvin during the Bhellan Revolution. Tal had never before faced Sir Mavis, but had watched his matches both this year and the last, when Mavis had taken the honor of King’s Champion. The man was formidable, his form little short of perfection and his aim as close as Tal had ever seen to unerring.
A young squire held Talaren’s grey warhorse, Stormwind, while Tal climbed into the courser’s saddle. He took up a lance from a rack at the side of the field, and took his place opposite his opponent. The crowd grew silent in anticipation as the two men saluted one another, and then Tal pulled down the visor on his fox-headed helmet and kicked Stormwind into a charge, his lance coming down as he and Mavis hurtled toward each other. The impact when lanceheads met shields was enormous. Both lances exploded into clouds of splinters, but both men kept their saddles. After replacing the shattered lances, the second pass was almost identical, as were the third, forth, fifth, and so on.
By the ninth pass, both men were visibly less than steady in the saddle and it was beginning to look as though the winner would be decided by endurance more than anything else. On the tenth, Sir Mavis’s aim was particularly good and Tal barely managed to stay on Stormwind, having to drop his unbroken lance to haul himself back upright in the saddle. The cheering and yelling of the onlookers grew more frenzied with every pass. The eleventh time Tal and Mavis clashed, it seemed for a few moments as though both men were going to lose their saddles, but they managed to steady themselves and turn their horses about again. Tal’s ears were ringing from the repeated impacts, and his shield arm felt numb from all the blows taken. Holding the tip of his lance steady seemed a supreme act of will. Taking a deep breath to steel himself, he comforted himself in that Sir Mavis looked to be having similar difficulties. Again both riders set heels to the flanks of their steeds to thunder down the lists at each other. As the last few feet between them flashed away, the tip of Mavis’s lance wavered by just a few inches. It was enough. His lance glanced off of Tal’s shield, even as Talaren’s own lance struck home. As though lifted by a great invisible hand, Mavis flew from his saddle to crash to the earth sprawled on his back.
As the dust began to settle on the knight’s prone armored form, the crowd leapt to their feet and roared. Tal raised his visor and held his lance up in victory as cheering rolled across the field. Four men ran out from the sidelines to pick up the insensate Sir Mavis and carried him off to where a healer was already waiting in case he needed any attention. Tal brought Stormwind around and cantered up to the King’s Pavilion, where a liveried herald stood waiting for the cheers to die down enough to announce the King’s Champion. Tal sat his saddle patiently.
Within a few moments the crowd’s din died down and the herald boomed, “Winning the title of King’s Champion this year is Lord Talaren Solus, heir to the high seat of House Solus!” Again cheers drowned everything out.
Tal lowered the tip of his lance toward the herald, who placed a crown of roses around the head of the weapon. Tradition held that the King’s Champion presented the crown to a woman from among the audience to mark her the Queen of Roses. Whomever was chosen joined the Champion at the King’s table for the Royal Feast following the tournament.
Tal turned Stormwind about and rode down along one side of the stands. Women in the crowd yelled to him, beckoned to him, even threw hats or shawls at him trying to draw his eye. His gaze went inexorably to one woman only, though.
Unlike those around her, she made not a move and spoke not a word. She simply sat calmly, watching as Tal rode closer and closer. When the tip of the lance swung over to hold the crown before her, crystal green eyes sparkled amusement at him before she took the wreath of roses. Tal had wondered what color they were, after having felt their touch all day. She raised an eyebrow at him as she placed the crown atop her head.
The red-haired young woman stood gracefully and stepped forward, accepting Tal’s outstretched hand to help her up into the saddle behind him. In the instant they touched, Tal was struck by a sudden burst of sensation, like a lifetime’s worth of half-remembered recollections flooding through him for a heartbeat and then vanishing.
Also surprising, though a mere curiosity by comparison, the young woman wore grey breeches instead of skirts and carried a sword at her hip balanced on the other side by a long fighting knife. From the way she moved, she was clearly used to wearing them. The weapons didn’t hinder her in the slightest as she smoothly pulled herself up by Tal’s hand onto Stormwind’s back. As she settled down, she wrapped her arms familiarly around Tal’s waist to hold on and leaned forward to speak softly over his shoulder.
“I hope milord doesn’t mistake me for a wide-eyed admirer, easily impressed and added to a handsome young nobleman’s conquests.” Her voice was clear and almost musical, her tone playful.
“Not at all,” Tal replied back over his shoulder, “I consider you more a riddle waiting to be solved.” He could barely see her out of the corner of his eye.
She laughed lightly. “I’ll warn you then, Lord Solus, this riddle will take more than a single night to yield up her secrets.”
“The best kind then,” Tal smiled back. “I’m afraid you have the advantage of me. You know my name, but I haven’t yours. What are you called, my Lady?”
“Rania,” came the reply, “And don’t call me ‘Lady.’ I claim no such titles.”
In spite of himself, Tal had to grin. Though barely past the introductions, he already knew he was going to enjoy the company of this impertinent young woman. “Very well, then. Rania. Shall we join His Majesty for the feast?”
“Yes,” she murmured, “I believe we shall.”
2 A Feast of Questions
The Harvest Tournament’s Royal Feast was held beneath an enormous tent erected a short distance from the competition field. Tal brought Stormwind up alongside the Royal Pavilion and dismounted, handing the reins off to a waiting groom. He turned to offer Rania a hand down from the warhorse, but she simply sprang down from the saddle and flashed a grin at him.
“I’m not so delicate as the women I imagine you’re used to,” she said, eyes dancing.
“I see not,” Tal replied wryly. There was something about those green eyes that tugged at him, something roiling beneath the cheerful and amused surface that he couldn’t put his finger on. The sense of her presence that had been so strong from a distance was nearly overwhelming with her standing beside him.
An elderly gentleman was stepping down from the set of stairs at the side of the King’s platform. He wore the black and red livery of House Zherrane and had a kind, grandfatherly face below thinning silver hair. Tal had known Gyles, the King’s Seneschal, since he had been but a young boy.
“Talaren! You put forth a most impressive effort today. Allow me to offer my congratulations.”
“Thank you, Gyles,” Tal replied with a small bow.
“Yes,” Rania agreed, “from what I’ve seen you handle both sword and lance extremely well. You’ve quite a distinctive, and effective, fighting style.”
“Lord Solus has long studied the arts of the Armslords, my lady,” Gyles volunteered.
With a thoughtful nod, Rania murmured. “Yes, I thought that was what I was seeing. Have you completed the training?”
“Not yet,” Tal answered, “but soon, my master says.”
The young woman eyed him thoughtfully. “He must be a very thorough man, this master of yours. With the skill you appear to possess, I’d think he would have declared you ready by now.”
“That’s a fairly accurate description of Armslord Zhierren,” Tal agreed. “I’ve been fortunate to have his instruction.”
“You seem to have chosen a most fascinating Queen of Roses, Talaren,” Gyles observed, studying Rania curiously. “Beautiful, unconventional, and unusually observant. Who is this lovely lady who causes the unmarried noblewomen of the Court to gnash their teeth in jealousy?”
“Gyles, this is Rania,” Tal introduced her. “Rania, this kind gentleman is Gyles Devrin, the King’s Seneschal and head of the Royal staff.”
“A pleasure, my lady,” Gyles murmured with a bow. “I’m to inform you that His Majesty’s party will be along shortly and then we may all process to the Feast.”
“Thank you, Seneschal Gyles,” Rania said, and then flashed an impish grin at Tal before adding, “but what’s this about jealously gnashing teeth?”
“Oh, you didn’t know?” The Seneschal seemed surprised. “With his position and honors, Talaren here is regularly and relentlessly pursued by the unmarried noblewomen at Court. I’m sure a great many young Ladies are disheartened at his choosing you over them.”
“Really?” Rania asked, casting a sly glance at Tal, “How fortunate for me.”
“Indeed,” said Gyles with another smile. “But if you’ll pardon me, I must rejoin His Majesty.” The Seneschal turned and mounted the stairs again.
“So, Talaren,” Rania asked with a smirk, “why did you choose me over all the Ladies of the Royal Court?”
Tal shrugged casually. “None of them are quite as striking as you.” He fixed her with a searching gaze. “And because I wanted to know whose eyes those were I’ve felt on me the last couple days.”
Rania gave him a peculiar look. “You could feel me watching you,” she mused. “Interesting.” A wicked grin crossed her face and with a devilish glint in her eye she asked, “Did you enjoy it?”
Tal let himself smile faintly. “Let’s just say it wasn’t unpleasant.”
Just then the Royal Party began to descend the steps at the side of the pavilion. First came Gyles and Uried, the High Commander of the Valerite Guard, in an ornately crafted breastplate polished to a high shine with Valeran’s crossed swords emblem raised and lacquered a slick black and crimson on the chest. Following them were the Lords of the Royal Council with their Ladies, Tal’s father among them. Daron walked unescorted; Duchess Nareene Solus, Tal’s mother, had died of a winter fever in her son’s youth, and the Duke had shown little interest in remarrying since. Duke Solus nodded to his son as he passed by. Last of all came King Garant Zherrane. The King was an elderly man, face creased and wrinkled from the long years. The simple golden circlet that was the crown of Valeran rested on snowy white locks, but face and hair were the only places Garant Zherrane showed his age. His shoulders were unstooped beneath his heavy robes of state, and his clear blue eyes spoke of a sharp, incisive intellect that age had only honed to a keener edge.
As King’s Champion and Queen of Roses, Tal and Rania were given a place of honor directly behind the King, the tradition being that the Champion protected his monarch for the procession to the feast. It was a ceremonial role only; In all of Valeran’s history the Champion had never been called on to execute it, for no King had ever come under attack at the Harvest Tournament.
Tal offered Rania his arm as they fell in at the end of the procession, and she took it without comment. He was still very much puzzled by her. He’d fulfilled his promise to himself to speak to her, if only for a short time thus far, but had learned little more about her than her name. In fact, it seemed she had learned more of him than he of her. Tal couldn’t help but feel that Rania was playing with him. And Gods help him, he was enjoying the game, even if he didn’t yet grasp the rules.
It was but a short distance to the massive canvas roof of the tent. Already a thick swarm of nobles, courtiers, and commonfolk of station milled about beneath it, and more were still trickling in as the Royal Party arrived. A line of eight heralds sounded a fanfare on long, straight horns at a signal from the Seneschal. The murmuring crowd fell silent as they all turned to face the raised dais on which the Royal Party would sit.
The nobles of the Royal Council filed in and stood before their seats, their proximity to the King’s seat determined by the influence of their Houses and their standing within the Council. Talaren’s father stood at the seat just to the left of His Majesty’s. One seat down from him Archduke Zharkus Jerak, with his immaculately trimmed blond hair and beard and heavy square jaw, scowled as he took his place. Usually it was he who would be seated at the King’s left, with Daron to the monarch’s right, but with the right hand seat given to the King’s Champion the members of the Council were all shuffled down one rank in the seating scheme. Zharkus’s having to relinquish his position beside the King, even for one day, would be a sore reminder to him that although his House’s position and wealth were reckoned among the greatest in all of Valeran, its influence had been on the wane since the Bhellan Revolution. His mood would only be worsened by the fact that a Solus would be seated to either side of the King, for there was a rivalry between the two Houses that had grown alongside House Solus’s expanding influence over the past couple decades.
When the Council were all in place, the heralds blew another fanfare, and the assembled crowd bowed as the King entered with Tal and Rania following close behind. As King Garant took his place at the great padded central chair, Tal came to stand at the King’s right hand with Rania beside him.
The King lifted a gem-encrusted silver goblet from the table before his seat and held it aloft. “Rise, my friends and subjects,” he declaimed in clear tones. As the gathered aristocracy straightened themselves, he went on. “Another growing season has passed us by, and our storehouses are filled and ready for the long, cold winter to come. Sit and feast with me, friends, and let us celebrate the bounty the land has given us this year.”
A cry of approval went up from the onlookers and as the Royal Party took their seats, the rest of those in the tent began to seat themselves at the myriad of other tables set out for the Feast. Already a small army of servants was streaming into the tent bearing to the tables covered platters from which emanated mouth-watering smells.
While the food was being laid out before them, the King turned to Tal. “My congratulations on your victory today, Talaren. All of Valeran stands in awe of your skills.”
“Thank you, Majesty,” Tal replied with a bow of his head. “Although I hardly deserve such praise.”
“Nonsense!” Garant scoffed. “I seem to recall you saying much the same last year when you won the competition for Champion at Arms. Take a little pride, at least, in your accomplishments. You certainly deserve that much.” He smiled soothingly and glanced past Tal to Rania. “And who is your lovely Queen of Roses?”
“Majesty, this is Rania,” Tal replied.
He thought he detected a brief trace of something, perhaps recognition, on the King’s face, but in the blink of an eye it had become mere curiosity as Garant nodded his head to Rania. “If I may ask, Lady Rania, from which House do you hail? I feel there’s something familiar about you, though I regret to say I can’t seem to place it.”
“I claim no House, Your Majesty,” she replied politely, “I am but a humble traveler.”
Garant nodded. “Of course. I apologize. Perhaps you minded me of someone I once knew.” The King grimaced. “Would you listen to me, nattering on like an old fool about half-forgotten memories? I should permit you the time instead to become acquainted with Talaren. He’s quite the charming young man, really, once you get past the fact that he denies anything you say to him that’s at all complimentary.” Garant smiled indulgently at Tal before turning his eyes back to the young woman. “Be welcome, Rania.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Rania responded. As the King turned to converse with Duke Solus, she focused her green-eyed gaze back on Tal. “So tell me, Talaren, how long have you trained in the Armslord’s ways to so command the awe of Valeran?”
“Nine years,” he replied, “and please, call me Tal.”
“Alright then,” she smiled warmly, “Tal.”
“Rania, why were you watching me so closely?”
“Maybe I was just admiring a handsome young Lord,” Rania replied with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Then her tone became much more serious. “Actually, I recognized your fighting style. I have something of a fascination with the ways of the Armslords and Battleborn, you see. I’ve learned a great deal of lore about them, but it’s not often that one encounters someone who actually practices their arts.”
Tal nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose this interest would arise from your own training,” he guessed. In response to the questioning look Rania gave him, he grinned and explained, “You wear your weapons with obvious familiarity. Between that and the way you carry yourself, I’d expect that you might have done rather well in the Grand Melee yourself, had you competed.”
Rania gave an approving nod. “Very astute,” she conceded.
Tal’s grin grew wider. “Every struggle is won or lost in the mind before ever the first blade is drawn,” he replied sagely.
“Shevestra’ken philosophy,” Rania murmured, her recognition of the ancient adage startling Tal. “It sounds to me like you’ve learned more than just how to swing a sword in those nine years.” She directed a considering look at him that fairly near made his bones melt. Those eyes were weapons in their own right. In a low voice she asked, “So are you expecting a struggle with me then, Tal?”
He kept his gaze locked with hers by sheer force of will. “Certainly a challenge, at the least,” he said, and lifted his goblet of wine from the table to hold it out to Rania in a toast. “To interesting company.”
Rania plucked up her own goblet and lightly touched it to Tal’s with a crystalline ring. They both drank.
Valeran’s Harvest Feast was known throughout the North for its grandiosity, and this year was no exception. The trays laid upon the tables by House Zherrane’s servants bore delectable foodstuffs of every imaginable description: roasted game hen, fish in a delicate white sauce, stuffed leeks, and a myriad of other dishes, many of which Tal didn’t even know the name for. Entertainment was in no short supply, either. A large patch of cleared ground lay between the King’s table and those of all the other guests, where there would be dancing later. While the guests ate, though, the space was host to a stream of acrobats, jugglers, minstrels, and fools who plied their trades to the laughter and polite applause of the onlookers.
Tal ate but lightly and paid little mind to the entertainers. His attention was very much focused on the enigmatic Rania, who demonstrated throughout their dinner conversation that her claim of knowledge of Armslord and Shevestra’ken traditions had been no idle boast. It was strangely exhilarating for Tal, being able to engage this alluring young woman on topics that he was accustomed to only being able to discuss in any sort of depth with Malry. From blade techniques to meditation to codes of conduct to history, Rania seemed comfortable and conversant with it all. At times, Tal couldn’t help but wonder if she was trying to impress him with the range of her knowledge, or to test the depth of his own. On the topic of the Four Great Frailties of the Spirit, a cornerstone of Shevestra’ken philosophy, they entered a stimulating debate as to why malice was included with fear, doubt, and hesitation. Tal argued that it was to be shunned because excessive hatred for a foe could incite one to dishonorable and ignoble actions, whereas Rania held the belief that malice was a path to disrespect for an enemy and the potentially fatal mistake of underestimating them. Despite their disagreement, Tal found himself smiling through the whole thing, and noted with some satisfaction that Rania was as well.
As the rhetorical duel wound down still unresolved, Rania gave a satisfied nod. “When I commented earlier that this Armslord Zhierren who trained you was thorough, I didn’t have the half of it. He’s taught you as much as an initiate to the Shevetra’ken might be expected to know.” She paused, lips pursed, staring into Tal’s eyes as if she were trying to see through them to the back of his skull. “You can sense the Sephira at times, can’t you?”
Tal hesitated for just a heartbeat before answering. “Yes. Sometimes, I think I can.”
“That might explain why you thought you could feel me watching you. Although I still don’t understand…” Rania frowned and shook her head as though to dislodge a troubling thought.
Tal couldn’t take it anymore. The overpowering curiosity that had led him to make Rania his Queen of Roses grew with every word she spoke, and he was well and truly ensnared by it now. “Rania, just who or what are you, exactly?”
She shrugged. “Nobody of consequence, really.”
“The more I talk with you, the harder it becomes to believe that.”
Rania graced him with a radiant smile. “Maybe I’m being intentionally evasive to keep your interest. Is it working?”
Tal’s throat suddenly felt very dry. He had to swallow carefully before answering, “Very much so.”
“Good,” she said, sounding pleased as could be. Her eyes strayed to where the entertainers had cleared out from some time ago and the Valerite aristocracy were now dancing to the lilting music of five musicians. “I assume that the King’s Champion is expected to dance with his Queen of Roses?” she asked, looking back at Tal.
He nodded. “That’s the tradition.”
“Well, I suppose you’d better start teaching me how, then,” Rania said, standing.
Tal looked at her incredulously. “You don’t know how to dance?”
“I never really had the opportunity or inclination to learn,” she replied, “but I think now seems like a good time to remedy that.” She held a hand out to him.
Tal stood and took the offered hand, and led Rania out to the dance space.
One thing he had to give her credit for, she learned quickly. He had only to show Rania the steps to each dance once or twice before she picked them up, and she possessed a lithe grace that complemented dancing very nicely. Before long she didn’t even require to be shown the steps, only for Tal to lead her.
At one point Talaren spotted Tazmin in the crowd, dancing with the elaborately coiffed Lady Lauriana of House Raheen. Tazmin caught Tal’s look, and his eyes went from Tal to study the beautiful, sword-bearing redhead in his friend’s arms. Tazmin’s gaze flickered back to Tal, and he grinned widely with an approving wink before disappearing into the mass of dancers again.
For a time, the questions in Tal’s mind were silent. He drifted along with the music, his movements and Rania’s blending together, and he was able to push aside his curiosity to simply enjoy the pleasure of dancing with a comely young woman. From the bemused smile on her face and the distant, almost wistful look in her eyes, Rania seemed to be feeling much the same.
Hours blurred around them dreamlike as the night grew deeper. Still couples danced, and wine flowed freely beneath the tent of the Harvest Feast. On this, the night of the final day of the Tournament and accompanying festivities, many of the celebrants would not be seeking their beds until the sun rose again.
At length, in the lull between the end of one song and the beginning of the next, Rania pulled herself close against Tal to whisper in his ear. “I feel like taking a walk, and I very much think you want to come with me.” There was no question in her voice, only absolute certainty that sent a shock of anticipation up Tal’s spine.
Tal pulled back from her to study her face. She looked far more bold than delicate now, a smile playing about her lips that was both inviting and challenging, a challenge echoed in her fathomless green eyes as she looked back at him, daring him to accept the invitation.
Tal nodded in agreement, his curiosity rising anew. Taking Rania’s arm, he led her away from the dancers, out of the tent and into the night.
The sky was clear, the air crisp and cool with the coming of autumn. Pale blue ribbons of Sephiral Aurora stretched across the sky, twisting and writhing placidly, heedless of the vicissitudes of the wind. They were bright and strong tonight, an auspicious significator of possibility and change according to old lore. Beyond the gently pulsing curtains of light glittered a myriad of stars, adding their gentle illumination to the brighter provided by the Sephira.
Rania chose their path once they were clear of the tent, leading Tal silently around and past the Tourney field, away from the village of tents clustered about it, and up a gently climbing hill beyond. She stopped partway down the southern slope of the hill, facing away from Val Zherrane and the Festival and, looking out across the countryside ahead, sat down. Tal seated himself beside her.
They sat in silence for a long while, taking in the rolls and folds of the land and the breathtaking spectacle of the ever-changing lights in the sky. Tal would occasionally spare a glance at Rania; her eyes were far away, looking off at some distant point that he could not perceive. He wondered what had prompted her to bring him here.
Finally she spoke, quietly, her voice little more than a whisper. “I’ve got just one more question for you, Tal.” She looked at him then, her eyes dark pools, deep and unreadable. “Why did you do it? The training you’ve had couldn’t have been easy. It’s said that the disciplines of the Shevestra’ken and the Armslords are the hardest to learn, and only those with the greatest willpower, discipline, and determination can hope to succeed. Where do you find your determination?”
“That’s a complicated question,” Tal replied, “and requires a complicated answer.”
“I know,” she said simply, “I expected no less of a proper answer, and after the rest of the night I expected no less of you than such a response. That’s why I brought us out here, where we won’t be disturbed.”
Tal nodded. Now it was his turn to gaze distantly at the horizon. “In my bedchambers back in Val Solus,” he began, “hangs a tapestry. I had it put in my quarters shortly after I began training with Armslord Malry. It’s a battle scene, an artist’s version of the Battle of the Gilden Hills. The battle that my father is famous for winning, and for which his title was elevated to Duke.”
“And deservedly so,” Rania said, “I’ve heard of it. He lured a vastly superior force of invading Bhellans into a series of ambushes and skirmishes in the hills that slowed their advance and whittled away their strength until he received reinforcements and was able to put his enemy to rout with a concerted attack. After that battle, the Bhellans never managed to push as deep into Valeran again. It was the turning point of the Bhellan Revolution, a victory to be proud of.”
“It wasn’t out of pride that I had the tapestry hung in my rooms,” Tal said, “but to be a reminder. My father thought it was pride at first, too. He demanded I take it down until I told him my real reason. I wanted that image of my father leading the charge against the Bhellan ranks where I would see it every morning, to remind me that one day I’ll have to equal or even surpass his deeds.”
“Why would that be?” Rania questioned. “To make a name for yourself, write it into song and history?”
“No,” Tal said softly, shifting his weight uncomfortably.
“So why then,” she pressed, “if not for fame and glory? The advancement of your House?”
“That’s part of it,” Tal admitted, “but only as a means, not an end. What would you say if I told you we’ve not yet faced the worst consequences of the Bhellan Revolution?”
“I suppose I’d have to wonder in that case why no armies have marched to fight in it for two decades,” came the reply, delivered with a grin. Her eyes spoke of interest, though, sharp and attentive.
“The fighting stopped, true,” Tal agreed, “but not before both of King Garant’s sons had died in it. By then the Queen was past childbearing age, and so Garant has no obvious heir. Granted, most all the Noble Houses of Valeran have some Zherrane blood somewhere in their lineage, but none strongly enough to grant a clear claim to the throne. What many have in abundance, though, is ambition.”
“You’re talking about a war of succession,” Rania guessed.
“That would only be the beginning of it,” Tal predicted darkly. “When the King dies and leaves an empty throne, the Greater Houses will surely enough struggle with one another to claim it. In the resulting loss of order, any number of the Lesser Houses may try to carve themselves out a greater portion of the realm. Before long Bhellus and Amberyl would likely enter the struggle, either in alliance with a Greater House or simply seeking to annex as much land as they can. What remains of Valeran could crumble away, and the North would be reduced to what it was in the old days before Korven Zherrane or Anakara the Undying and her Skeletal Legions: a patchwork of territories claimed by petty warlords and tyrants, constantly at one another’s throats, where no man, woman, or child could be assured of their safety from day to day.”
Tal took a calming breath and stared Rania in the eye. “That’s what sustained me through my training. The war I just described is little short of certain, Rania, and I’m going to have to fight in it, to lead Val Solus’s forces in it. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do, or if I’ll be able to change anything about it at all, but I’m going to have to try keeping it from spiraling too far out of control before we lose everything.”
Rania looked long and hard at him. Finally she murmured, “Your goals do honor to your master and to the lineage of Armslords and Shevestra’ken who came before him.” She nodded. “And to yourself, to be sure. Though I apologize for making you talk about something that obviously troubles you.”
Tal shrugged. “I could have refused to answer if I’d really wanted.” They were silent for several long moments before he asked, “So will you finally answer any of my questions now that I’ve answered yours?”
“Soon. You’ve certainly earned some answers. But there’s just one more thing I want of you first,” Rania replied. “Fight me.”
Tal blinked in surprise. “What?”
“I want to fight you,” Rania said, getting to her feet and pulling him up after her, “I want to see how good you really are. Besides, you might learn a little bit about me from it.”
“But neither of our blades are blunted,” Tal protested.
“We’ve both practiced with sharpened blades before, I’m sure,” Rania tossed back over her shoulder, completely undeterred, “I promise not to hurt you.”
“That wasn’t what I was concerned about,” Tal muttered. Rania didn’t notice, or pretended not to.
She led Tal to the bottom of the hill, took several strides away from him, then turned and drew her sword. It was a well-crafted weapon, with a broad, middling length blade well suited to swift slashing attacks and a narrow hand guard. In workmanship, it appeared at least the equal of Tal’s own Sephirally-forged weapon. Rania stood with her right side advanced, holding the blade slanting up at an angle with its tip level with her eyes, which were fixed on Tal. “Well?”
Talaren sighed. Argument, it appeared, would be to no avail. He unsheathed his own blade and advanced carefully, leveling a halfhearted swing at Rania. She turned the attack aside with only a slight movement of her blade, standing otherwise completely still.
“Tal, when I watched you yesterday you would never have shamed yourself with such a pitiful attack. Do try, please. You wouldn’t want me to think you’re not taking me seriously, would you?” Her smile was encouraging, but her tone chiding. “I told you I’m not delicate.”
“Alright,” Tal agreed grudgingly, and pushed in toward her with a series of rapid slashes. Rania’s blade flickered to meet the attacks, responding with a flurry of swift strikes of her own.
Tal parried furiously and danced back from Rania as recognition hit him, and with it realization. “I understand now,” he said. “You know so much about the Armslords because you’ve studied under one yourself.”
“I’ve had some instruction,” Rania allowed as she closed with Tal. Blades flashed and rang against one another as they exchanged attacks, Talaren finally pushing Rania back a step.
“How long did you study?” Tal pressed his advantage, stepping forward to keep on the offensive.
“Seven years,” Rania answered, startling Tal with a ferocious counteroffensive that pushed him back several steps, barely able to keep her blade away from him.
“You’re extraordinarily accomplished for only seven years’ training,” Tal said, breaking away to circle cautiously around Rania, “I daresay you’re better than I was after that much time.” He threw himself back at her.
“I’m a quick study.” Rania ducked under a high kick and came back up with blade swinging.
They clashed back and forth, struggling constantly for the upper hand. Tal was amazed at how evenly matched with him Rania appeared to be. Their attacks grew more and more elaborate, striking at each other with blades, hands, and feet, yet through all their exchanges neither managed to connect with the other.
After long minutes of fighting, Rania stepped back, nodding approvingly. “You are good, Tal,” she said. “Extremely good. But there are still some things I think I could show you.”
As she spoke, tendrils of misty blue light seemed to seep up from the ground, twisting and winding their way up Rania’s legs as Tal’s jaw dropped in disbelief. The light seemed to coalesce around Rania, suffusing her with a glowing azure aura. A fearful awe filled Tal unbidden as Rania surged toward him with blinding speed. She seemed suddenly no longer a creature of flesh and blood but an unstoppable force of nature, violence and strife made manifest. Battleborn.
Rania effortlessly swept Talaren’s startled attack aside as she flowed forward with a preternatural grace, not a single movement wasted. Even as Tal recovered from his attack, she caught his swordarm by the wrist with her free hand and spun past his side, doubling the arm up painfully behind his back and forcing him to drop his blade. Before the weapon even hit the ground, Rania was sweeping his legs out from under him and Tal came to lie beside his weapon, looking up at the point of Rania’s sword poised inches from his throat. As his gaze moved up past the blade to her face, what he beheld there was enough to freeze the breath in his lungs.
Rania’s features were contorted into a mask of rage, her lips twisted up in a voiceless snarl. Blue fire flickered in her usually green eyes, the flames cold and hard and cruel. Death danced in those eyes. The tip of her blade began to quiver, as though she were fighting some terrible urge to plunge it through his neck and finish him. Then abruptly she withdrew the sword and sheathed it, the flames vanishing from her gaze even as the glow about her faded away.
“I… I’m sorry, Tal,” Rania said, dropping her eyes in shame. “The battle rage nearly took over. I should’ve reined it in better. Please believe me, I didn’t mean you any harm.”
Tal sat up, half surprised to find his body still whole. He stared up at the young woman standing above him, still struggling in his mind to accept the impossibility he had just seen. “You’re not just an Armslord,” he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper, “you’re one of the Shevestra’ken.”
3 Possibility and Change
Regaining her composure, Rania held a hand out to Tal and helped him back to his feet. “Yes, I’m Shevestra’ka. Protégée to Muzash Finallin, who before me was the last of us.”
“So he still lives, then.” Muzash had been white-haired and venerable when last he had been seen, and that had been close to a century ago. Shevestra’ken were said to have unnaturally long lifespans if not slain in battle, but even for them such longevity was difficult to credit. The common wisdom had long been that with the disappearance of Muzash, the Shevestra’ken had finally completely vanished from the world.
Rania looked down, her lips tightening as she shook her head sadly. “No longer. He died three years ago, shortly after finishing my training and claiming me for Shevestra. I gave him to the flames myself, in the old way. It was his last request of me.”
“I’m sorry,” Tal said gently, “I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”
“It’s alright,” Rania replied, “I finished mourning a long time ago.” The strain in her voice and the haunted look in her eyes said otherwise, but Tal decided it best to let the subject drop.
“You didn’t reveal yourself to me on a whim,” he said instead. “The conversations we’ve had tonight, bringing me out here to fight you where we’d not be observed – there was purpose behind this. What was it?” Tal suspected the answer, but years at Court had taught him never to give away everything he knew, or thought he knew.
Rania nodded. “Yes, of course there was. It’d take a fool not to see that at this point, and I know already that you’re no fool.” She fixed him with a deadly serious gaze. “I could complete the training your current Master began, Tal. I can grant you Shevestra’s Embrace. I could make you Shevestra’ka, if you desire it.”
Tal’s heart seemed to skip a beat. It was the answer his own reasoning had brought him to, but suspecting it and actually hearing it were completely different things. Such an opportunity was the fantasy of nearly every young boy ever to play at swordsmanship and imagine himself a hero. But Tal was no longer a boy, and this was no idle daydream. Could he truly give himself into service to the Bloody-Handed Maiden? The rewards were great, to be sure, but it was whispered that so was the price, that in reaching beyond human limits Battleborn risked becoming something other than human.
Some of the legends told of the struggle Shevestra’ken fought internally to keep the violent energies they absorbed in check, and of a few of those who had lost that struggle. Tyrek Varr, who in his madness had laid waste to his own home city before taking his own life. Or Kieran Salamar, said to have blazed a trail of wanton destruction across three nations before finally being hunted down and slain by his own brethren to protect those still in his path. Such tales were one of the biggest reasons folk questioned to this day whether the Shevestra’ken had been a blessing or a curse. Tal had difficulty believing the scale of destruction that legend attributed to those men, but Rania had only moments ago shown him the truth at least of the difficulty presented in controlling the battle rage.
After a long moment of quiet consideration, Tal broke his silence. “I’m not sure I can accept,” he said. “I’ve told you what lies ahead for me, and while becoming Shevestra’ka would no doubt help me fight the succession, it may hinder my goals in the long run. The Battleborn are even more feared than they are respected, and I’m not sure the commonfolk would be very eager to follow one. At the least I would need some time to think it over. This is so sudden, and not a decision I can make lightly.”
“No, it’s not,” Rania agreed. “You don’t have to rush to a decision. I can wait. Think it through and choose when you’re certain.”
Tal smiled hesitantly at her. “Thank you,” he said.
Rania nodded gravely. “I’ll find you in a few days to see if you’ve come to a decision. But for now I think I should seek my bed.”
“Rania?” Tal asked as she began to walk back toward the city.
The Shevestra’ka turned back around and gave him a questioning look.
“While I’m deciding, can I see you again? I still hardly know you.”
She seemed to ponder for a moment. “I think I’d like that,” she said finally. “I have a room at the King’s Bounty, in the Eastern district. You can find me there. Good night, Tal.”
“Good night, Rania,” Tal murmured as the darkness swallowed her.
Rania made her way leisurely through the streets of Val Zherrane. Folk were still about, drinking and carousing their way through the night. Rania held on to the Sephira only lightly, taking in just enough for it to bring her its gift of awareness. So small a trickle was far from enough to cloak her in the telltale aura; she didn’t want to make a spectacle of herself. There was an unmistakable ebullience to the currents of the Sephira tonight, an intoxicating joy carried on its waves. It tended to do that, taking on the mood of the moment, and at a celebration like the Harvest Festival it soared and sang in tune with the spirits of the people around her.
Rania smiled to herself as she walked down the streets. She hadn’t been in such a good humor in what seemed forever. On the whole, it had been a surprising, eventful, and pleasant day. The young Lord Solus had proven to be, aside from a skilled warrior, engaging, courteous, and quite handsome.
She very nearly had to laugh at herself for such a thought, so uncharacteristic for her. Of course, she’d had very little social contact for the past fifteen years, a fact of which she was painfully aware. Her only company had been Muzash, and he had been more like an adoptive Grandfather to her than anything else. With so little prior practice, she had been worried she might embarrass herself with her attempts at wit this evening, but Tal had seemed to enjoy them.
There was a sincerity about the King’s Champion that had taken Rania entirely unawares. From someone as deeply embroiled in the Royal Court as he surely must be, she would have expected considerably more guile. Tal had instead seemed remarkably forthcoming with her. Part of her wished she had been able to return the favor in kind, but there were things about her past she wasn’t ready to share with anyone yet, regardless of how ruggedly handsome a face that anyone might have or how tempted she might be to lose herself in the depths of his slate-blue eyes. It was for his own safety, she told herself; some of those things were dangerous, and that she’d nearly lost control of herself when she seized the Sephira at the end of their sparring duel was proof of just how dangerous. She’d been terrified when she felt it slipping from her grip, but thank Shevestra she’d managed to regain her hold on herself before doing anything she couldn’t take back.
Arriving at the front of the King’s Bounty, whose sign bore a faded picture of a stately man with hand held up in benediction, Rania pushed open the door and stepped into the common room. A great many patrons were still at the tables, merrily drinking or smoking pipes. A honey-haired woman danced atop one of the tables, skirts pulled up above her knees, as she sang a bawdy song about a self-important tax collector and his young wife’s many infidelities. Several of the drinkers lustily bawled the words out along with her.
Rania picked her way around the edge of the room and mounted the stairs to the rooms above. Two floors up and at the end of the hallway, she let herself into the room she was renting. Singing voices drifted up faintly from below.
The singing brought to her mind the dancing earlier. That had been perhaps the most delicious part of the evening, a taste of a life she had never lived, but might have had things been different. Had Felmorinen never fallen, she might have danced with Lord Talaren Solus many a time before tonight.
“As well to wish night was day,” Rania murmured. She looked at her reflection in the mirror atop the room’s dresser and shook her head at herself. “Just look at you, Rania. Only a few days in the city and already you’re pining after some pretty Lord.” The circlet of roses Tal had presented her with still rested atop her brow. Gently she lifted it off, careful not to crush any of the flowers, and placed it on the dresser.
Rania’s hand began to tremble as she set the wreath down. She sucked in a deep breath through her teeth, mentally bracing herself. These episodes had become all too familiar to her, occurring with disturbing frequency. Mind-numbing anguish rippled through her, seeming to tear its way from the depths of her soul to rampage through her uncontrolled. Her muscles tensed, her entire body shaking with the strain. Tears seeped from the corners of her eyes. Her vision seemed to blur, overlaid with images of blood and death, of men’s faces distorted with their dying cries.
After a moment, the agonizing torrent subsided. Rania’s trembling ceased. One side of the rose crown lay crushed in her hand. She bled from where several thorns had pierced her palm, an uncomfortable reminder. There was so much blood on her hands. Entirely too much blood. She had spilled rivers of it over the past couple years, absorbed the energies of countless deaths. With each foe slain her Sephiral abilities had grown stronger, but so had the sense of anguish and loss that she also absorbed with every life taken. It was part of the price Shevestra’ken paid for their powers, but Rania hadn’t realized the spiral of madness she had been falling into until she was deeply caught in it. When the vision had come to her at the height of one of these Sephiral backlashes, she hadn’t dared hope it was true rather than just another manifestation of her self-inflicted condition. And yet she had followed it, if only because she knew she needed time away from strife and bloodshed to try containing and controlling the forces within her before they tore her mind apart.
Now, it appeared there may have been some truth to the vision after all. Meeting Tal, a warrior already trained as an Armslord and disciplined enough to withstand the Maiden’s Embrace, had been entirely too fortuitous for her to believe it mere coincidence. By giving a part of her strength to him, she would be able simultaneously to perpetuate the Shevestra’ken and rid herself of the excess energies that threatened her sanity. Assuming, of course, that Talaren chose to accept her offer, yet despite his own uncertainty Rania felt confident that he would, eventually. She couldn’t have said where such assurance came from, but there it was anyway.
Rania grimaced at herself in the mirror as she plucked the thorns from her palm, casually wiping off the blood on the hem of her shirt before pulling it up and off. She studied her reflection again, wondering at some of the compliments Tal had given her. She wasn’t accustomed to being around mirrors, wasn’t used to looking at herself. More striking than any of the Ladies at Court, he had said. Surely he had to be exaggerating. Her face was pleasant enough, she supposed, with smooth skin and high cheekbones that some might find attractive, but certainly no more so than some of the carefully powdered and painted faces she had seen at the Feast. The same with her straight fiery hair – while it certainly didn’t detract from her appearance, it simply hung to the tops of her shoulders in stark contrast to the elaborate styles most noblewomen wore theirs in. Of course, she didn’t look as soft as any of them, either. The training and life of a Shevestra’ka had left her slender, with hard and well-toned muscles. Her arms and torso were crisscrossed with thin white scars, the legacy of how hard she had pushed herself in training. They seemed symbolic to her, scars left behind from a life lived too quickly, and the worst of them couldn’t be seen in any mirror.
With a sigh, Rania stripped off her boots and breeches. Clad only in her smallclothes she climbed into bed, forsaking the covers. Winter’s chill had yet to begin to settle in, and it was a warm night. She blew out the candle that lit her room, and closed her eyes.
Relax, she told herself, it’s going to be alright. The Maiden has brought you to someone who can help you. Things will get better from here. Amazingly enough, she was almost even able to believe it.
Talaren sat wreathed in the night on the hillside where Rania had left him, staring at the sky. He watched the lazily shifting Sephiral Glow, pondering its serene and majestic beauty. He wondered what it must feel like to have that energy, the raw stuff of all potential life and existence, coursing through one’s body. He wondered if he had the courage to find out.
A night of possibility and change, truly, he thought. Rania’s offer had certainly opened a new realm of possibility to him, and one that would entail enormous change to his life. Tal found he had two paths before him, and no way to tell which was most right. Were he to accept Rania’s offer, become an Adept of Shevestra, the abilities he’d gain command of would surely be of tremendous help in the struggle for the North that loomed in the future. But swearing the Shevestra’ken oaths would also mean renouncing his claim to the high seat of House Solus and with it his right to lead the armies of Val Solus, a role his father had spared no effort to prepare him for. Could he really turn his back on that? There seemed no way, short of knowing the future, to tell which path would better accomplish his goals. Somehow he would have to settle on one and hope he chose correctly.
If you do not find your own way, fate will find one for you. The saying, from one of the old books in the Duke’s Library at Val Solus, seemed appropriate to Tal. The unwritten implication was that it was preferable to choose one’s own way. And so he sat, lost in thought, trying to decide which way felt more like his own.
An hour passed, and then two. Dawn wasn’t far off. Presently, a sound intruded itself on Tal’s consciousness, at first a barely perceptible suggestion of sound that over time resolved itself into the rhythmic muted thump of hooves on turf.
Tal shook himself from his musings as soon as he recognized the sound. In the palely illuminated night, he had little difficulty spotting its source. To the southwest, a dark horse plodded toward the base of the hill Talaren sat upon, a cloaked rider hunched forward in the saddle. The rider didn’t appear to have noticed Tal despite his sitting out in the open, but the horse’s path would take him close past the watching nobleman.
Tal waited silently until the horse was perhaps twenty yards away, and then he stood and raised his voice. “Hello? Who’s there?”
The horse stopped as Tal spoke and the rider stirred, cowled head rising to peer at him with frightened, glassy eyes. His face was pale, disheveled hair plastered to his brow with sweat. The tattered black clothing he wore had certainly seen better days. “Who are you?” he gasped between labored breaths, his voice pained and wary. “Have they sent you for me?” His gaze darted about skittishly.
“Easy, friend,” Tal soothed, holding his hands out in front of him to show that they were empty. “I am Talaren Solus of Val Solus. You don’t have to be afraid. You’re safe here.”
“No.” The man shook his head insistently. “No place safe.” He doubled over with a pained groan. “They come from the shadows,” he whispered.
“You’re hurt,” Tal said as he ran forward to support the man before he fell from the saddle. “I’ll take you to a healer.”
“Chapterhouse,” the man gasped, clutching at Tal’s sleeve. His feverish gaze held Tal’s. “Take me to the Order. Matter of prophecy.”
The words struck Tal like a blow to the stomach. He glanced at the man’s collars, and surely enough, embroidered on each one in white thread stood the sigil of an open book, crossed diagonally by a sword. Tal hadn’t recognized the uniform at first, torn and rumpled as it was, but this man was a Guardian of the Jhessaillian Order.
A Guardian claiming to be acting under the auspices of the Jhessailian Prophecy was a serious matter indeed. Nations were known to rise and fall when such words were uttered. Cities could burn, ruling Houses toppled, almost anything could happen. The Order claimed for itself absolute authority where its agents said the Prophecy was involved, and to deny it such could easily lose a nation the support of the Jhessaillians, along with the prosperity brought by Jhessaillian-trained healers and craftsmen. Few kingdoms survived the Order’s displeasure for long.
Tal had to wonder for a moment if helping this Guardian was really wise, but didn’t see that he had much choice. His affiliation aside, this was a man in apparently desperate need, and Tal could not in good conscience deny him aid. He just hoped he wouldn’t later have reason to regret it.
“Hold on,” he said, “I’m coming up to hold you in the saddle. I’ll take you to the Chapterhouse.” He climbed gingerly up atop the horse’s back behind the Guardian. With one hand he took the reins, while the other he wrapped gently around the other man to hold him upright. The Guardian’s shirt was crusty with dried blood.
Tal kicked the horse forward, riding toward the city with as much speed as he dared, not wanting to jostle the injured man about too much. He could feel the Guardian still breathing, but he could also feel the unnatural warmth coming from the man’s skin. Whatever had happened to him, his condition was dire.
The streets were mostly empty as Tal guided the horse through the city. Here and there were the occasional groups of people still celebrating the festival, and they looked on curiously as Talaren and the wounded Guardian rode past before returning to their own devices.
The Jhessaillian Chapterhouse was in the northern part of the city, not far removed from the Royal Palace, a small walled complex of buildings rarely frequented by any not of or studying under the Order. Tal brought the horse up beside the gate and climbed down from the saddle, gently lifting the Guardian down after him before walking up to the closed doors. Supporting the man’s weight with one arm, Tal reached out and pulled a chain that dangled down beside the door. On the other side of the wall, a bell sounded.
A moment later, a small panel in the door slid open and a pair of eyes peered out. The eyes widened as they took in Talaren and his burden, and the panel snapped back shut. Tal heard a bolt being slid back on the other side, and the door opened.
“I found him outside the city. He asked me to bring him here,” Tal explained to the black-clad Guardian who emerged.
The Guardian nodded as he took his injured comrade from Tal’s arms. “Wait here,” he said brusquely, “I’ll be back.”
After the man disappeared back into the Chapterhouse, closing the door behind him, Tal heard raised voices from the other side calling for a healer. The commotion died down quickly, and he waited for several minutes in the silence.
At length the door opened again, and the same Guardian emerged once more. He was just a shade shorter than Tal, with short dark hair and a penetrating gaze.
“You’re Lord Solus, the King’s Champion, are you not?”
“I am,” Tal confirmed.
“You’ve done a great service for the Order today, Lord Solus,” the Guardian said sincerely. “We will remember your help.”
“Is he going to be alright?” Tal asked. This talk of service and remembrance was all well and good, but it failed to address the wellbeing of a seriously injured man.
“It’s too early to say for sure,” the Guardian replied, “but he’s in the best hands possible now. We’ll let you know if anything changes. Again, milord, thank you.” He bowed, and retreated back behind the gate, leading the horse within and leaving Talaren none the wiser as to the nature of the events he had just been part of. He didn’t know what else he could have expected, considering the Order’s well-known penchant for secrecy.
Trying to put it from his mind, Tal turned with a yawn to walk back to the Royal Palace. He had rooms there, and sleep sounded a good idea right now. It had been a long, eventful, and quite tiring day.