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Description: Description: T C Southwell writes fantasy and science-fiction books, e-books, and novels. Discover epic fantasy series by a South African author.

 

 

T C Southwell writes fantasy and science-fiction books, e-books, and novels. Discover epic fantasy series by a South African author.

 

These three chapters were accidentally left out of Staff of Law during the layout process, so they are available here for readers who bought the previous copy of the book with the chapters missing. Deepest apologies for the inconvenience.

 

The Broken World Book IV

Staff of Law 

 

Chapter One

 

Talsy glanced at Chanter and Kieran, then turned to stare into the fire once more, sunk in her misery. For the past four days, she had been weak and shaky, her stomach constantly queasy, robbing her of her appetite. When she had asked the Mujar to help, he had regarded her with deep sadness and shaken his head.

“I cannot. It’s the child that makes you sick.”

The gruelling pace they had been forced to set over the past half-moon added to her illness. The Torrak Jahar still dogged them, two days behind now because Chanter had gone back to lead them astray. The tireless black army would soon make up the ground, however, not needing to stop for sleep or food. The riderless horses had all left, peeling off in groups to lead the Torrak Jahar away on false trails for a while.

Tiredness weighed Talsy down no matter how much she slept. She clung to the palomino mare that carried her all day, longing to climb off and lie down. Chanter remained aloof and aloft as an eagle, unsympathetic to her plight. Kieran had offered sympathy and help, but she had rejected him. Since the night she had told him of the child, he had become more helpful and considerate, which only irked her in the face of Chanter’s lack. The Aggapae were supportive, and Mita had brewed herbal tea that helped to settle her stomach and allowed her to eat a little.

 

 

Kieran gazed at the drooping girl on the other side of the fire, then turned to the Mujar. “She looks sicker every day.”

Chanter nodded. “It will get worse, but I believe she’ll get better after a while. Her body is adjusting to the thing it harbours.”

“How can you call your son a ‘thing’?”

“As yet, that’s all it is. I will never think of it as my son, or lay claim to it. It’s her child. She wanted it, and she conceived it through trickery.”

Kieran frowned at the flames. “You have no idea the joy I would feel right now,” he muttered, “if that was my son she carried.”

“I wish it was.”

“I know it’s not your fault, and -”

“Hush.”

Chanter straightened and turned his head, his nostrils flared in alarm. He adjusted his senses to exclude the visible world and sense only the Powers, tuning his mind to the faint pinging that came along the lines of Dolana. The tingle that had alerted him strengthened into an icy wave that sent a frisson of fear through him. The pinging grew louder, and the lines of silver power pulsed, brightening, then growing dark. He leapt to his feet.

“Up the trees, everyone!”

After a moment of stunned immobility, the chosen jumped up. Mita and Brin helped Talsy to a tree and boosted her up it. The Mujar cocked his head as he tuned in to the approaching wave of Dolana.

Brin, send the horses away. Tell them to run... that way.” He pointed.

Brin flung his silent warning to Task, and the horses quit the meadow nearby to gallop into the darkness. Chanter listened. Kieran, last to climb a tree, watched him with a frown. Talsy, who clung to the rough bark of her sanctuary, looked as if she strived to keep the contents of her stomach where they were, since the sudden tension would have made her stomach knot. Chanter looked up, his eyes narrowing as he stared into the distance. He approached the trees in which his charges hid and took hold of two trunks. The fire leapt as he reached for it, then the searing manifestation of Crayash filled the air, winking out as he took control of it. A distant pinging and crackling became audible, growing louder as it neared rapidly. In the silver moonlight, the land around them was quiet and empty.

Chanter held the Crayash within him, drawing on the burning Power, the only one that could counter Dolana. It filled him with its flames, and he increased it. His skin glowed, lighted from within by the immense power he now contained, and his flesh grew hot. The wave of Dolana approached at the speed of a galloping horse. He braced himself, readying his tongue to speak the strange god given words that could command it. He sensed it crossing the hill not twenty man heights away in a flare of bright silver that momentarily became a solid sheet as the lines swelled and joined, shrivelling behind the wave into darkness. The distant pinging increased to a cacophony of crackling and crunching mixed with sharp reports. A tree in its path shattered as the wave passed, falling in shards that broke again as they struck the ground.

The wave raced towards him, and he clung to the trees as it swallowed the ground in front of him, turning everything it touched to stone. The campfire guttered and went out as the logs became rock. As it swept under his feet, he fanned the Crayash within him to ward off the intense cold, throwing back his head with a cry of pain as two Powers warred for his body. In the midst of his agony, he shouted the guttural god words that commanded Dolana, stopping the crackling advance of stone up the six trees that sheltered his wards. The two he held contained Talsy and Kieran, and the creeping stone stopped just below his hands. The intense Earthpower crept much further up the other four trees, and a startled yelp came from one of them.

The wave passed, and Chanter dropped to his knees as the pain of the two Powers abated. Trees around him cracked, too brittle to support their weight. Branches snapped off and shattered on stone grass as trunks cracked with sharp reports. The forest collapsed, crumbling into rubble with a roar of brittle crashes. Within moments, all that remained of the once proud trees were petrified, jagged stumps and the shattered remains of leaves and branches. Squirrels, birds, lizards and beetles lay amid the rubble as perfect, broken statues.

Chanter rose to his feet and looked up at his wards’ pale, scared faces. “You can come down now, it’s gone.”

Kieran jumped down, landing lightly, and Talsy half fell from her tree, doubling up to vomit behind a stump. The Aggapae shinnied down with surprising agility for plainsmen, but Mita limped as she joined the others around the remains of their fire. Everything they had left behind, tents, blankets, food and water had been turned to stone. Kieran squatted beside the stone satchel that held the two pieces of staff and plucked at the rock. Brin lifted a boot and smashed it, revealing the precious contents. 

The Prince glanced up at Chanter. “Are the horses all right?”

The Mujar looked at Brin, who nodded. “They were not caught by it.”

Talsy looked pale and sick as she tottered up and leant against Chanter, shivering. He put an arm around her, sharing the warmth of the Crayash that still burnt in him. The rest stared around at the petrified landscape in stunned disbelief. Kieran crushed the fragile grass, fascinated. The others settled on the ground with crunching sounds as leaves and grass crumbled under their weight.

Mita tried to pull off her boot and muttered under her breath when it would not move. After some poking and prodding, she spoke in a soft, horrified tone. “I think my foot’s been turned to stone.”

Chanter went over to her and placed his hands on the cold, hard shoe. He examined it, then shook his head and banged it with his fist. The stone boot shattered, revealing a soft pink foot inside, which Mita rubbed and fondled with tears of relief in her eyes.

“Just the boot,” Chanter pointed out unnecessarily, “but it was close.”

He returned to Talsy, for the night was chilly without a fire, and she huddled close to him.

Kieran looked up from his contemplation of the stone grass and asked, “What was that?”

“Wild Earthpower. Very strong, travelling in a wave.”

“Turning everything to stone.”

“Yes.”

“How did you stop it?” Kieran smiled. “Or is that a dumb question?”

“No, just difficult to answer.”

Talsy raised her head. “You countered it with Crayash.”

“Only in my body. I used god words to stop it from climbing the trees you were in.”

“God words?” She frowned.

“Words of power that command the elements.”

“Handy,” Kieran muttered.

“Very difficult to use. They came to me as the wave struck, and as soon as I spoke them, they were gone.”

“Another Mujar trick?” Talsy asked.

“Yes.”

“So why can’t you remember them?”

“It’s forbidden.”

“But you knew they would come,” she said.

“Yes.”

“Yet Dolana can’t harm you, so why would you ever need them?”

Chanter shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“You heard it coming, didn’t you?” Kieran asked.

The Mujar nodded. “But there was no time to get to the horses and ride away. We could not have outrun it.”

Talsy glanced at him with a hopeful expression. “Will it stop the Torrak Jahar?”

“Unfortunately, no. They’re already stone.”

She slumped, snuggling close to his warmth. “Now we have no tents, blankets or food.”

“We’ll have to find a village and buy more,” Kieran said. “At least we have some money.”

“There’s one several leagues to the south; we can reach it tomorrow,” Chanter told them.

“I think we should go there now,” Brin said. “We can’t sleep here without blankets or a fire, we’ll freeze.” He looked around at the group, and all except Talsy and Chanter nodded. “And besides,” he added, “it’s a little hard to sleep on rock.”

The Aggapae summoned the horses while Kieran wrapped the pieces of the staff in his cloak and strapped them to his back with two belts. Talsy climbed wearily aboard her mare, and Chanter led the group onwards, the horses’ hooves crunching on the hard ground. The moon-silvered landscape looked almost normal, but for the shattered stumps, and the horses left hoof prints of powdered stone. They crossed a stream that gurgled over a bed that had once been water, overflowing its banks to meander in trickles through tufts of stone grass.

The fact that water still flowed meant that the wave had not reached the stream’s source, but had faded away at some point before the mountains. The horses picked their way through the hard, sharp-edged landscape, shying from the occasional shattered corpse of a hapless animal caught by the wave. An eerie silence gripped the land, for the wind found no leaves to rustle and no animals stirred or called save a lone owl that had been aloft when the wave passed.

 

 

By the time they reached the village, Talsy was almost asleep, and Kieran half dragged her from her horse. He guided her into an inn, whose proprietor they had rudely awakened by banging persistently on his door. The was remarkably clean, with polished brass pots over the common room’s fireplace and bunches of dried flowers and herbs hanging from the rafters to scent the air with spicy sweetness. Black beams networked the whitewashed walls and clean, dry rushes softened the floor. Chanter left to spend the night in the wild, and the Aggapae sent the horses out to graze. Kieran helped Talsy upstairs to a spotless room with chintz curtains, a woollen rug and a soft quilted bed that had cost an exorbitant price and left her to sleep. He tried to remember when the horses’ hooves had stopped clopping on stone and thudded on soil, but could not. It did not seem too long ago. For him, most of the nightmare ride had passed in a blur, fogged by shock and weariness. His exhaustion would not allow his numb brain to think, and he gave up the unequal struggle and flung himself down on his bed.

Kieran woke refreshed the following morning, his aching weariness banished by a night’s sleep in a comfortable bed, something he had gone without for far too long. He washed in the basin of water provided in his room and emerged yawning, to be confronted in the corridor by a pale and dishevelled Talsy. She glared at him, clearly irked by his obvious good health, her expression as sour as her stomach undoubtedly was. He knew that a cheerful greeting would only annoy someone as sick as her, so instead he stepped aside and allowed her to precede him down to breakfast. As they descended the stairs to the common room, they found the Aggapae in a huddle on the steps, their faces mournful.

“What’s going on?” Kieran asked.

“Half the village has been turned to stone,” Brin explained. “It seems the wave just missed this inn. It passed by not ten man heights from it.”

The Prince’s enjoyment of the morning evaporated, and he shook his head in commiseration.

Talsy gulped and turned even paler. “That’s terrible. Oh, god...”

She fled up the stairs to the privacy of her room, presumably to make use of the basin. He gazed after her for a moment before turning to Brin. “We must leave as soon as we can.”

“That’s not the worst part,” Brin said. “The people... They’re not dead.”

Kieran stared at him, shocked. “But they’ve been turned to stone!”

The warrior nodded. “I know.”

“Oh, god.”

“They’re like the Torrak Jahar.”

Kieran sank down on a step, his blood chilled. “Why aren’t they dead? They should be! That would be better for everyone.”

Brin shrugged. “You know why as well as we do.”

“But Chanter said it takes many souls to animate a Ghost Rider, how can these people...?”

“Only a few are animated. The stronger ones have gathered the souls of the weaker, I think.”

Kieran grimaced. “Don’t tell Talsy. We must buy supplies and leave. The Torrak Jahar will come through here too. We’ve got to stay far enough ahead so they’re not tempted to linger here for a quick meal.”

Brin looked morose, glancing at his fellow Aggapae. “I doubt we’ll be able to buy any supplies here. The townsfolk have other things on their minds right now. Half of them are weeping and tearing their clothes in grief, the rest are packing to leave.”

“Damn!” Kieran thumped the stair and jumped up, running a hand through his hair in agitation. “If we go to another town, if there is one before the mountains, we lead those damned Riders to them too, and we can’t cross the mountains without food and blankets. Maybe the proprietor can help us.”

Kieran descended to the deserted common room and followed the sound of sobbing, finding the plump, balding innkeeper slumped over a table.

Kieran cleared his throat awkwardly and murmured, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

The innkeeper raised his head and wiped his face. “My sister, all her children!” His shoulders shook with fresh grief, and he buried his face in his hands again.

Kieran turned away, unwilling to intrude further since the man was distraught, but the innkeeper burst out, “It’s a curse! The world is cursed!”

“You’re right,” Kieran agreed. “It is.”

“You came in last night after this happened, didn’t you?”

Kieran shrugged. “Must have.”

“I wondered how you got past the gate guards. They never let travellers in after dark. But they were turned to stone, like the gates, which shattered.” The innkeeper mopped his eyes with a damp handkerchief. “You were lucky to have missed it.”

Kieran wondered how they could have ridden past the shattered gates and stone guards without noticing them, but everyone had been so tired. “Yes, we were. We must move on today, and we need supplies. Since all your people are so distressed, and quite understandably, perhaps you could help us?”

The innkeeper nodded, putting away his handkerchief. “I’ll do my best. What do you need?”

When the man left with the list of supplies, Kieran wandered to the door and stared up the street. Not far from the inn, a swirling line crossed the road, dividing black tar from grey rock. A weeping crowd gathered before it, afraid to tread on the stone in case it carried its curse to them, he assumed. Five people stood on the stone, four men and a woman, as grey as the street, and stared at their friends with glowing, sickly eyes. The houses seemed unchanged except in colour, which matched the street and the landscape beyond, where the town gates lay smashed on the road and trees had become piles of rubble. On the living side of the line, people loaded their worldly belongings into wagons with unseemly haste, driven to flee the horror in their town.

Kieran turned away and nearly fell over Shan, whose soft eyes brimmed with tears. He chivvied the boy into the common room, where the rest of the Aggapae sat at a table. Talsy joined them a little later, her face chalk white and her eyes ringed with dark circles of fatigue. She looked fragile and vulnerable, her vitality and pluck gone. Her hair hung in lank, dull strands and her thin fingers trembled when she put her hands on the table. Catching his eyes on her, she shot him a defiant look and hid her hands under the table.

The innkeeper returned with some of the items Kieran had asked for, piling them on a nearby table. He shot a concerned look at the girl before hurrying out again as the Prince went over to inspect the supplies. The goods were inferior, the blankets thin and worn and the two tents mildewed from long storage. This was no time to be choosy, however. The innkeeper returned with an old saddle, two satchels of dried food, water skins and an empty satchel. He dumped it on the table and leant closer to Kieran.

“Your lady friend looks ill. Do you want the doctor?”

“No, thank you. She’s not ill, she’s with child.”

“Ah.” The innkeeper smiled. “Your wife?”

After short pause, Kieran nodded. “Yes.”

The plump man shot a glance at Talsy. “She’s young, she’ll be fine. My wife was a midwife, rest her soul, and she made a wonderful tonic for mothers to be. Did them the world of good.”

“Do you still have any?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll buy two bottles of that as well then.”

The innkeeper beamed. “So nice to see a young husband concerned for his wife. I’ll get it.”

When the man returned, Kieran paid for the supplies, far too much for such inferior goods, but there was no time to quibble. The innkeeper explained that his cook not around to make breakfast, but the Prince shrugged it off, wanting only to get away from the town as soon as possible. The Aggapae shouldered the supplies while Kieran trotted upstairs to collect the pieces of the staff, packing them into the empty satchel. Staggering under his burden, he joined the others, and they left through the far gate without looking back. Outside the town, the Aggapae summoned their steeds, and they resumed their journey towards the mountains.

 

 

Kieran glanced back at the exhausted group, whose drawn faces and drooping mounts revealed the toll that five days of arduous travel had taken. The Aggapae had to urge their tired horses on, and they clearly hated forcing their friends to endure such rigours. Talsy was worst off, so pale and drawn that she looked as if she was made from porcelain. It was all she could do to cling to her mare’s mane all day and try to choke down a little food before she fell asleep each night.

Kieran’s concern had grown as she weakened, and he cursed the Torrak Jahar that still followed them. Chanter had gone back twice to try to lead them away, but the Ghost Riders no longer took the bait en mass. They despatched a few to follow the Mujar while the rest continued after the chosen. Chanter had been forced to use other delaying tactics, or the Riders would have caught up with them days ago. First he had raised a wall of rock, forcing them to go around it, then he had torn the earth apart in a great chasm, which had delayed the Riders for two days. Nothing stopped them, however, they just kept coming, their tireless steeds galloping day and night. Sooner or later, they would catch up.

When the horses stumbled to a halt in the soft golden light of sunset, Kieran scanned the terrain around them with bleary eyes. To his right, a swathe of forest covered rolling hills to the horizon, and ahead the mountain range’s white peaks scraped the clouds. Behind him, golden grassland stretched to the stone forest they had left behind, and to his left more woodland clothed the hills. He slid from his sweating mount and waited for Chanter to come down from his vigil in the sky. The Aggapae rubbed and brushed the exhausted animals, soothing them with soft words and caressing hands. Thorn seemed to be the least tired of the horses, possessing an awesome stamina. Talsy huddled on the ground and hugged her knees, hiding her strained, despairing expression. Kieran snorted in irritation when the Mujar failed to land immediately, and went over to the girl.

“How do you feel?” He squatted beside her.

“Like a wet rag that’s just been through a wringer.”

“Why doesn’t he do something more drastic? Can’t he see we’re not going to make it?”

Talsy raised her head to gaze at him with hollow eyes. “You mean Chanter? Like what?”

“He could destroy them with a flick of his damned finger!”

“He doesn’t even have to flick a finger to do that, but he won’t. You know he won’t kill.”

“They’re not alive!”

Talsy shook her head. “In a way they are. They have souls. If he destroys their bodies, they’ll be trapped in pools of rock.”

“So what?” he demanded. “I did that to a whole bunch of them. It’s no more than they deserve.”

“He won’t do it.”

“Then maybe I should. I could go back and burn them with the sword.”

“There are too many,” she said, “and your horse is too tired. You’d only end up dead.”

“If we don’t do something soon, we’re all going to end up dead.”

She pulled her hair back and twisted it to keep it out of her face for a while. “There are almost a thousand of them. How many do you think you can kill before they get you?”

“Why doesn’t he put a wall around them, a permanent one, and leave them inside it?”

She shrugged as a shadow passed over them. “Ask him.”

The eagle landed nearby, and Kieran turned away as the rush of wind that accompanied Chanter’s transformation kicked up eddies of stinging dust. His brows were knotted in a black scowl when he faced the Mujar, and Chanter veered away from him like a wild creature sensing danger.

“We can’t go on like this,” Kieran said. “You’ve got to do something about those damned Riders.”

“What would you have me do?”

“I know you won’t kill them, but why won’t you trap them in a circle of rock?”

“Trap them.” Chanter shuddered. “Like Mujar in the Pits.”

“If you don’t, they’re going to catch us and kill us.”

The Mujar turned to stare across the sun-gilded land, his eyes narrowed, frowning.

Kieran went on, “You won’t be killing them, just locking them away, preventing them from killing others. Once the Staff of Law is restored, they’ll die anyway.”

“The wall will fall if I fly, and there’s much danger on the land for me now.”

“Make it permanent.”

“Then they’ll never be free again.”

“What does it matter? Once the staff -”

Chanter swung to face him. “The staff cannot be restored. This quest is only at Talsy’s Wish. They’ll remain within the wall until the land crumbles. If the staff was restored, they would revert to Hashon Jahar.”

“Then they’ll part the rock.”

“No. If I make it permanent, nothing can part it but Mujar.”

Kieran gestured. “What does it matter? Return and free them then, if you wish. At least it’ll give us a chance to escape.”

“Perhaps. But if I lock them away they’ll lose power and feed off each other to survive. They need sustenance, diabolical though they are. Without it they’ll grow weak.”

“How can you pity those things? They shouldn’t even exist! They would drain you without a moment’s remorse if they caught you.”

“Does that mean I should be like them?” Chanter glared at Kieran, his eyes intense. “Compassion is the greatest of all emotions, next to love. Though they tread the path of damnation, I’ll not harm them. Only Marrana can give compassion in death. Only she could free their souls from the stone in which they’re trapped. The Hashon Jahar were her creations, and carried the souls as punishment for their wrongdoings, but ultimately they were destined to be freed. That will not happen now. They’ll suffer until the world ends, then be consigned to oblivion.”

“They’re evil!”

“No. There is no evil in this world. They are the misled, the unenlightened, the ones who chose the wrong path, that’s all.”

Kieran growled in frustration. “Okay, then return and free them as soon as we’ve crossed the mountains, just give us the time to escape them, that’s all.”

“Perhaps,” Chanter conceded. “I’ll think on it.”

As he wandered off, Kieran called after him, “Don’t think too long, or it may be too late for the rest of us. You don’t want to harm the damned Torrak Jahar, but you’d let us die!”

“Kieran!” Talsy frowned at him. “You have no right to speak to him that way. Without him we’d all be dead long ago. You see things differently, but you don’t have the right to question him.”

“Damn it, he could spare us a lot of suffering if he wished, but he won’t. That’s why Truemen hate Mujar, but I thought that had changed.”

“Careful,” she warned, “you sound like an unchosen. You don’t know that he won’t do it. I think he will, but while you see the Riders as beastly fiends out to kill us, he sees them as lost children, already suffering for their crimes. Haven’t you learnt anything about Mujar while you’ve been with him?

“When he broke your wrist to stop you killing the sea creature, he was filled with remorse. Mujar hate to harm others, and by locking up the Torrak Jahar, even for a while, he’ll make them suffer even more. When he releases them, he’ll owe them a debt, and he’ll pay it just like he did with you. He healed the harm he did you and granted you a Wish. Can you imagine what sort of Wish they’ll want?”

Kieran swung away, torn by conflicting emotions. “By the gods, why must he be like that?”

“Because he’s Mujar. Don’t you understand him yet?”

“I do, I just wish he’d change.”

“He won’t. He can’t. What you’ve asked him to do is no simple thing. If he grants it, he’ll have to make reparations to the Riders for the harm he does them.”

Kieran kicked a rock in frustration, cursing when he bruised his toes, then lifted his head and stiffened in alarm. A faint thunder of hoof beats drifted on the wind.

Talsy’s eyes widened, and she jumped up. “Is it them?”

“Can’t be,” Kieran muttered, “they’re more than a day’s ride behind us.”

 

 

Talsy looked around for Chanter, but he had vanished. The Aggapae stood around the fire they had kindled, staring in the direction of the sound, their expressions tinged with alarm. A mounted party burst from the distant line of trees and thundered towards them, led by a tall man clad in blue and silver. He appeared to be having trouble controlling his big chestnut stallion, which plunged as it fought the bit. The riders who followed were armoured in silver and caparisoned in blue, carrying banners of deep blue edged with yellow. Halfway across the field, the stallion quieted, and the man brought it under control, slowing to a canter. The riders behind him caught up, and the group approached the chosen.

The leader stopped his horse a few yards away and regarded Kieran with narrowed eyes. Kieran’s hand rested on the hilt of the Starsword. The stranger’s size was obvious, even mounted, and his rich garb of silk and velvet told them that he was a noble. Some of his companions were similarly dressed, while the rest were soldiers, though well armoured and mounted. The leader leant on his pommel and pinned Kieran with cold brown eyes.

“Well met, Prince,” he said in a deep voice that matched his size. “I had not expected to see you again. And so poorly dressed and guarded, too. How odd.”

Kieran glanced at Talsy in confusion, but she shrugged, at a loss too. She did, however, take note of the loaded crossbows the nobles carried. The big man gestured to the soldiers, who dismounted and approached Kieran in a threatening manner. Kieran stepped back, gripping the hilt of his sword.

The big man smiled. “I’d advise you to surrender, or you’ll die. You can’t win against all my men.”

“What do you want of us?” Kieran asked. “How do you know who I am? I’ve never met you before.”

“Nice try, but you don’t fool me. You may be in disguise, but I recognise you.”

“Really?” Kieran scowled. “Just who do you think I am?”

“I don’t think, I know. I would never forget the face of the man who caused my daughter so much suffering. You haven’t forgotten Merina, have you, Tyrander?”

Talsy gasped and swayed, raising a hand to her mouth as bile stung her throat. She fought off the dizzy spell while Kieran gaped at the stranger, dumbstruck.

“He’s not Tyrander,” she said. “He’s Kieran.”

The man turned to her, his expression softening. “Dear lady, allow me to free you from this monster. From the look of you he’s treated you badly. But you don’t have to defend him now, he can’t hurt you anymore.” He dismounted, standing as tall as Kieran and broader across the shoulders. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m King Ronos of Malatar, and a friend to all who suffer at the hands of men such as him.”

“But he’s not -”

Ronos raised a hand. “Please, My Lady, don’t try my patience. I know this man; I’ve met him more than once. Long have I prayed that he might fall into my hands, and the gods have seen fit to answer my prayers at last.

Talsy looked around for Chanter, a suspicion forming in her mind. Perhaps the gods had not answered the King’s prayers, but a demigod had, and she wondered at the wisdom of his decision.

The soldiers divested Kieran of his sword, and he evidently knew better than to try to fight them while the nobles had loaded crossbows at hand.

Instead, he glared at the King. “I’m not Tyrander; I’m his twin brother, Kieran.”

“A likely story,” Ronos scoffed. “You’ve dyed that white lock of hair, where the stallion I gave you tried to kill you, and shaved off your beard, but I would know your face anywhere, Prince.”

“That’s because I’m his identical twin.”

Ronos frowned. “Why do you persist with this ridiculous story? You have no twin, Tyrander, you never did.”

Tyrander’s dead.”

Ronos gave a harsh bark of laughter. “Not yet. Merina will decide your fate. The vengeance is hers to take. I hope she chooses a painful demise for you. It’s what you deserve after what you did to her.”

The King’s cold, hateful expression left no doubt about the seriousness of his threat, and a wave of cold despair washed over Talsy. She closed her eyes as the world spun again, then her knees buckled and everything went black.

 

 

Ronos stepped towards Talsy with a startled exclamation, but Kieran imposed himself. “Leave her alone.”

The soldiers gripped Kieran’s arms and dragged him aside, twisting them behind his back. One produced a leather thong and bound Kieran’s hands. The Aggapae approached, looking concerned but uncertain, and glanced at Kieran for guidance.

“I’m all right,” he said. “See to Talsy.”

Mita knelt beside the girl and lifted her head, patting her cheek.

The King scowled at Kieran. “What have you done to her, you bastard, and who is she?”

“I’ve done nothing to harm her. She’s with child, and she’s my wife. It’s your threats against me that cause her such distress.”

The Aggapae shot Kieran a collective startled look, then returned their attention to Talsy.

Ronos glared at him. “So, you add the crime of bigamy to your list of heinous deeds. You might have divorced Merina before taking another wife. At least this poor child won’t have to go through what Merina did.”

Tyrander was married?” Kieran raised his brows in surprise, then laughed. “Who would have wed that vicious toad? If you gave your daughter to him, you’re a fool. I saw the blackness of his heart the moment I clapped eyes on him, and he did his best to kill me, his brother. I thank the gods he’s dead, but he didn’t perish without causing more trouble than anyone before him ever did.”

Ronos’ lips twisted in a half smile that bordered on a snarl. “Very clever. You should have been a troubadour. You won’t fool me again, like you did when you courted Merina. Butter wouldn’t have melted in your mouth; you were so sweet and polite. Only after the wedding did you let your true nature show.”

“What did my brother do to your daughter? Lock her up, like he did my mother?”

The King swung away to mount his horse. “You know what you did to her, and you’re going to pay for it now, Prince!”

 

 

An insistent patting on her cheek woke Talsy, who sat up groggily and gazed around, taking in the scene. She climbed to her feet with Mita’s help and approached Ronos.

“Where are you taking him?” she demanded.

“To my camp for tonight, Princess. Tomorrow we return to my city, where he will pay for his crimes. You and your escort will be seen to. You have nothing more to fear from him.”

Talsy frowned in confusion. “I’m not -”

“Shut up,” Kieran said. “You’ll do as he says, or be parted from me.”

Talsy opened her mouth to deliver a blistering retort, but Mita leant closer and whispered, “Kieran has claimed you as his wife, so we won’t be separated.”

Talsy nodded and glared at the King, who gazed down at her from his horse. The Aggapae called their mounts, and the soldiers boosted Kieran onto the piebald’s back, placing a halter on the animal so they could lead it. Brin soothed the horse with soft whispers to Task, who whickered to the piebald, preventing him from fighting the unfamiliar restraint. The King and his companions looked amazed when the Aggapae mounted without saddles or bridles. The big bay was the only one wearing a saddle, to carry the pieces of staff. The chosen fell in behind Kieran’s captors as they set off back the way they had come.


 

Chapter Two

 

King Ronos led his mounted entourage through a thick belt of elm trees at a canter, entering a sweeping green valley surrounded by tracts of coniferous woodland on one side and oak forest on the other. A massive army populated a veritable city of pale brown tents that dotted the grass on the far side. Cavalrymen performed complicated manoeuvres and dashing displays of precision riding. They wheeled and charged as single body, clashing blunted lances on ranks of shield-bearing foot soldiers. All activity ceased at the King’s appearance, and the men saluted their sovereign with raised weapons and a great shout. Ronos waved, sending them back to their practice as he headed for a regal pavilion set up on one side of the vale. The King dismounted amid a plethora of servants, one of whom led his stallion away, and the nobles joined him in the bright tent. The soldiers hustled Kieran in and left him to stand in the middle of it. Talsy slid off her mare and went in after them, while the Aggapae stayed outside with the horses.

Ronos turned at her entry. “Ah, my dear Princess. I regret we have no women here to tend you. This is an army exercise camp, you see.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I’m used to looking after myself.”

“I bet you are.”

“There’s no need for Kieran to be bound. He’s not going to try to escape amongst so many soldiers.”

The King considered this, eyeing the scowling Prince. “Perhaps not.” He gestured, and a noble stepped up to Kieran, drawing a dagger.

As he sliced the thongs that bound the Prince’s hands, he muttered, “I’d like to sink this into your black heart, you snake.”

“That will do, Orland.” Ronos looked at Kieran. “You remember my son, Prince Orland?”

“We’ve never met.”

“Liar,” Orland said. “You’ll pay for what you did to my sister.”

Kieran rubbed his wrists. “It seems my brother really knew how to make enemies.”

Ronos snorted and turned to take a cup of wine from a serving tray as the servant who bore it passed amongst the nobles, most of whom helped themselves to a cup. Talsy waved the man away, and Kieran was not offered any. The King indicated that Talsy should sit on one of the padded chairs, and she did, aching with fatigue. Ronos settled on the chair beside her and turned his attention to her. Kieran was the only noble left standing when all the others had found chairs.

“So, you are Princess...?”

Talsy.”

“Allow me to introduce my entourage.” He reeled off a list of counts, dukes and lords, ending with Prince Orland.

Talsy nodded to each, impatient to get the formalities over with, then asked, “What would it take to convince you that Kieran is not Tyrander, King Ronos?”

He sighed. “Perhaps a missive from his lady mother, the Queen. But she is probably dead by his hand, as his father is.”

“She’s not, but it would be difficult to get a letter from her, since she’s far away, on the other side of the mountains.”

“Well, then.” The King shrugged. “You’ll just have to take my word for it. He may have fooled you with his new identity, but I met him six years ago when he wooed and won my daughter.”

Talsy shook her head. “I’ve met them both, and seen them together. I admit they were as alike as two peas in a pod, but for Tyrander’s white streak and beard. Yet if I looked closely, I could see they were very different inside. Complete opposites, in fact. Tyrander was a cruel drunkard, but Kieran was raised by a retired soldier from his father’s army, and did not know he was a prince until we came here from another continent. You see, when the Queen bore identical twins, the King gave Kieran away rather than have them feuding for the throne.”

Ronos sipped his wine. “It’s a good story, Princess Talsy, and so plausible. But Tyrander never had a twin. I’m sure you’re telling me exactly what he’s told you, and I admire your loyalty, misplaced though it is.”

Talsy groaned in frustration and raised a hand to her aching head, sickness twisting her stomach again.

The King turned to her, putting aside his wine. “My dear, you should go and lie down, you’re clearly exhausted. Orland will take you to a private tent, and I’ll have some food sent to you there.”

Talsy allowed Orland to coax her from her chair, too tired to argue any further. Ronos appeared to be a kind man, and was not about to execute Kieran out of hand, so there would be time to convince him when she felt better. With this in mind, she cast Kieran a sympathetic glance as she was led past him, and he responded with a sad but reassuring smile. Orland took her to a comfortable tent, complete with a soft bed onto which she sank with a sigh. He left her to rest, and later a servant brought her a good game stew, which she picked at before letting sleep carry her off in warm dark arms.

The next morning, they left the camp with Kieran bound to a bay horse, led by a soldier. She rode next to Orland, a handsome, if rather nondescript young man with his father’s eyes and black hair, although lacking his great size. The army saluted their King as the party rode from the valley, escorted by a platoon of mounted troops. The Aggapae fell in behind, unhindered by Ronos’ men. They headed west, parallel to the distant mountains but away from the pursuing Torrak Jahar.

By late afternoon, they had traversed many leagues and crossed two rivers, entering a vast area of cultivated land. The city that sheltered within its stone walls, like so many others, was larger than Talsy had expected. This one differed in as much as the castle did not hide at its centre, but stood close to the wall, guarding the town. Another difference that surprised Talsy was the lack of a tar web. Unlike every other city she had encountered on this continent, Ronos’ home was not a tar town, and its wall was an ancient rampart built of dressed stone. The city was situated at the base of a mighty cliff, which protected its back from enemies as well as the winter storms’ wild winds. The cliff looked odd, as though the land had risen up in a great wave behind the city, poised to engulf it, but never fallen.

Within the tall brown walls, whitewashed houses with black beams lined cobbled streets, and a bustling populace filled them. Talsy glimpsed many little marketplaces in side streets, where vendors sold all manner of wares from brightly painted carts under gay awnings. Housewives hurried past with baskets of shopping, urchins played on the pavements and street sweepers leant on their brooms. Many of the pretty houses had window boxes of bright flowers that sweetened the air with their fragrance, and bright washing dried on lines strung across the roads. The cleanliness, industry and friendliness of Ronos’ city amazed Talsy. People cheered the King as he rode past, which also surprised her, for not many kings were well loved by their people.

At the castle, a towering fortress of dressed grey stone with lofty battlements overlooking the sweeping vale that led to it, servants came out to take the King’s cloak, see to his horse and brush dust from his clothes. One guided Talsy to a sumptuous suite where olive curtains framed tall, diamond-paned windows that overlooked a pretty garden. Landscapes and tapestries decorated the pale blue walls and several finely woven rugs softened the polished black slate floors. A canopied four-poster bed with a quilted crimson spread dominated the bedroom, whose pale yellow walls were home to several portraits of portly men. A variety of dainty ornaments stood on delicate carved tables, and a yellow-tinged mirror hung above the dressing table with its frilly topped stool.

A bevy of serving women arrived to bathe and pamper her with aromatic oils before dressing her in a lacy fawn gown festooned with frills, bows and flowers. She plucked at the finery in disgust, but, apart from a few protestations that were surprised out of her, she bore it with good grace. The girls washed and brushed her hair until it regained a little of its former lustre, dressed it in elaborate plaits and twists and arranged it about her face. As the women put the finishing touches to their work, a slender woman in a plain black dress came in. The serving women curtsied and left, and Talsy turned to face the newcomer. She knew who the woman was from the pain in her hazel eyes and her air of stiff embarrassment.

“Princess Merina, I presume?”

The Princess nodded and sat on a stool, her hands clasped. “I had to meet you. Father says you’re Tyrander’s new bride. I wanted to assure you that you’re safe now.”

Talsy snorted. “Well, I’m not sure what from, but thanks all the same. Unfortunately, your father has made a mistake. The man he captured isn’t Tyrander.”

“He told me what you said. Tyrander hasn’t mistreated you, then?”

“Kieran has not, no. Tyrander tortured me and tried to kill me.”

Merina blinked several times. “I don’t know how he managed to fool you so well. Perhaps with magic, but I glimpsed the man they brought in, and it is Tyrander, I swear it.”

“I’m really getting tired of this argument,” Talsy said. “Kieran is Tyrander’s identical twin. Why don’t you spend some time with him and get to know him, then you’ll see that I’m right.”

Merina shuddered. “I know him well enough to know that he’s a master of duplicity. He can act very well; he fooled me for a long time.”

“What did he do to you?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.” Merina rose. “I’ll see you at supper. The servants will guide you.”

“What about Kieran?” Talsy called after her as the Princess headed for the door.

“He’s in the dungeon, where he belongs.”

Merina slipped out of the door and closed it behind her. Talsy sighed. Clearly Merina had been through an ordeal, it showed in her haunted eyes and nervously twisting hands. Having met Tyrander, this did not surprise Talsy. What fate would Merina condemn Kieran to for his brother’s crimes, and when was Chanter going to get them out of this mess? He might have saved them from the Torrak Jahar, but the Riders had not even caught up and already the Prince was in danger.

Supper was fraught with peril for Talsy, since she knew none of the etiquette required, and watched the others as they dined, following their example. She was saved from drinking out of the finger bowl when Orland dunked his fingers in it moments before she reached for it. Somehow she got through the meal, though she could eat little of the delicious food and retired early to bed, weak with fatigue. Even her worry for Kieran could not keep her from the dark abyss of sleep, and she sank into it gladly.

 

 

Kieran paced his cell, cursing Tyrander. Even after his death, his deeds caused trouble for his twin. He sat on the hard bed and contemplated his predicament. At least the cell was clean, and he had eaten a good meal of roasted meat and braised vegetables in spicy sauce, so princes evidently received better treatment than most when their enemies captured them. He hoped it was not meant to be his last.

All he could count on now was Chanter’s promise to protect him. It did occur to him to call the Starsword and cut his way out of the cell, but then he would have to fight his way out of the city and deal with the Torrak Jahar, a prospect he did not relish. The sword would have to be counted on only as a last resort, and, if he did end up on the gallows, he hoped the Mujar would keep his vow. He glanced up in surprise as the cell door creaked open.

A slim woman dressed in black came in, her eyes wide with trepidation. She possessed a classical beauty, her heart-shaped face and delicate features framed by bright chestnut hair. Kieran remained seated, not wishing to loom over her, lowered his eyes and bowed his head.

She stopped just inside the open door, a guard within call, and studied him. “So, it is you.”

Kieran smiled and shook his head. “Actually, it’s not. I’m not Tyrander.”

“You think your charade will deceive me? Do you think I wouldn’t recognise my own husband?”

“Evidently you don’t, for I’m not him. You must be Princess Merina. I’m sorry for whatever my brother did to you, though it was none of my fault. He’s dead now, as he richly deserved, but not before he caused a great deal of trouble for my companions and me.”

“I have to decide your punishment.”

He looked up. “That must be difficult for one who is obviously as soft-hearted as you.”

“How well you know me. I remember the insults that stemmed from what you called my ‘lack of spine’.”

Kieran sighed. “I see that I’ve blundered. I don’t know you, Princess, merely looking at you tells me that you’re a gentle woman.”

“How good you are at words that drip with honey, My Prince. I remember them well from our courting days.”

He jumped up, making her step back and bump into the wall. He swung away to stare out of the barred window. “Anything I say you’ll twist to convince yourself that I am who you think I am. Is there no way I can prove to you that I’m not?”

“Look at me.”

Kieran faced her. “I’m his identical twin, Princess; even our mother couldn’t tell us apart, which is why the King gave me away. Looking at me won’t help.”

“You’ve dyed your hair. Tomorrow the guards will wash out the dye, and there will be my proof.”

“And when that doesn’t work you’ll have me grow a beard, I suppose, so you can say there, you have a beard, you’re Tyrander.”

Merina frowned. “If it won’t wash out, it must certainly grow out, unless you are a magician now.”

“Well, at least that buys me some time. Perhaps Tyrander had some scars that I don’t?”

She lowered her gaze. “I wouldn’t know, would I?”

“Surely you would? You were his wife.”

“I never saw you unclothed, and well you know it.”

“Not me, no...” He raised his brows. “You never saw Tyrander?”

“How dare you taunt me like this?”

“I’m not...” Kieran stepped towards her, but stopped at a warning flash of fear in her eyes. He raised his hands. “I’m sorry, Princess. Under the circumstances you must think me callous, but I’m not privy to the things my brother did to you, forgive me.”

Tears shimmered in her eyes as she gazed up at him. “You are a consummate liar, as I well know. It was lies that wooed me, lies that made me love you, and now I hate you for it.”

Merina spun and fled into the corridor.

“Wait!” Kieran started after her, but stopped when a guard blocked the doorway, a spear aimed at his belly. He retreated, and the door slammed in his face, the key grating in the lock. He banged his fist against the wall. “Damn!”

 

 

Talsy woke with bile crawling up her throat and rolled over to vomit into a basin beside her bed. The retching went on long after her stomach was empty, leaving her gasping and weak, cold sweat on her brow. A maid came in and removed the basin, then returned with a clean one and a damp cloth to cool her brow. Talsy enjoyed the pampering, almost glad that Chanter had delivered them into Ronos’ hands, for now she was far too ill to travel. She was a little better by the time Merina came to visit her, and the maid left at a glance from the Princess.

Merina sat on the bed. “How do you feel?”

“Not too good.”

The Princess smiled. “It will pass. It’s only morning sickness. Most women get it.”

Talsy forced a wan smile. “That’s nice to know.”

“You do seem a little sicker than most, though. Mine was not nearly as bad, thank goodness.”

“You’ve had a child?”

Merina nodded. “I am married.”

Tyrander’s child. Of course.”

“Does it bother you?”

Talsy shook her head. “Why should it?”

“Well, they would be half siblings, and, since he’s still married to me, yours will be illegitimate.”

Talsy snorted, then remembered that Merina thought she carried Kieran’s child. “They’ll be cousins. Although, since Tyrander was Kieran’s twin, they would almost be half-brothers.”

A look of deep sadness crossed Merina’s face. “You really believe his lies, don’t you?”

“They’re not lies.”

Merina patted her hand. “Let’s not talk about him. I don’t wish to upset you.”

“You’re not upsetting me. It’s just so silly.”

“I know you must think so, but be glad we caught him before he did to you what he did to me.”

A knock came from the door, and a maid poked her head in. “Excuse me, Highness, Prince Orland asks if Princess Talsy can meet the King.”

Merina glanced at Talsy, who shook her head. “I’m not feeling that well.”

The Princess turned to the maid. “Tell Orland that Princess Talsy is unwell at the moment.”

The maid curtsied and left, but returned a minute later. “The Prince asks if he may enter and speak to Princess Talsy. The matter is urgent.”

Merina shot Talsy a curious look and helped her to arrange the bedclothes and frilly nightgown before nodding to the maid.

Orland entered, looking embarrassed and shy, his eyes clinging to the toes of his boots. “I’m sorry to worry you, Talsy. This morning a black army came to the city gates and demanded entry. Naturally we denied them, whereupon they demanded that we hand over your entire party, Tyrander, and a stone they claim you have.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That we would discuss it.”

“If you hand us over, they’ll kill us.”

“The King wishes to know why they’re pursuing you, and what this stone is.”

Talsy thought quickly before replying, “The stone is sacred to my people. Queen Larina stole it, and we took it back. They have no right to it, or to us.”

Orland glanced at her and nodded. “My father said they were probably Larina’s bunch. We’re not friends of Queen Larina, and fear not, you will not be given to them. But the King is quite taken with the idea of giving them Tyrander.”

“No!” Talsy sat up in horror, forgetting the bedclothes. “You cannot! Kieran is not what they really want. They want the stone more than him, but they’ll kill him.” Orland glanced at Merina, and Talsy realised that it was the Princess’ decision. She grabbed Merina’s hands. “Don’t! At least give him the chance to prove that he’s not Tyrander.”

Merina looked undecided, then shook her head at Orland, who grimaced.

Talsy slumped with relief as he left. “What will happen now?”

Merina shrugged. “They’ll probably go back to Larina.”

“What if they don’t? What if they lay siege?”

“To Malatar?” Merina laughed. “They’d lose.”

“They’re undying.”

“They’d still lose. My father has one of the mightiest armies in all the kingdoms. Black armies may be hard to beat, but burning oil works well on them, I’ve heard, as do great rocks thrown down on their heads. On the field they’re invincible, but under a city wall, they can be crushed.”

“Oil?” Talsy raised her brows in surprise. “Your streets are not paved with tar, but if you have oil, how have you survived the war with the land?”

“Not the black oil. We’ve never used that. My father will not allow it in the city. We use oil extracted from certain trees, without harming them. My father claims that to injure the land is wrong, and the black oil carries a curse to all who use it. We heard tales of other towns that were destroyed because they used it. In fact, Queen Larina was forced to tar her streets after she imported the black oil.

 “When the land started swallowing people around her city, smaller towns nearby bought tar to pave their streets too. Our people were frightened that it would happen here, and begged my father to buy tar for the roads. He refused, saying that as long as we didn’t use it, we’d be safe, and we were. No one was attacked in or near Malatar.”

“Your father’s a wise man. But...” Talsy frowned. “How do you know how to fight Larina’s black army? Have you fought them before?”

Merina smiled. “No, our walls are too high and strong for them, but she has attacked other cities, some of which survived by using burning oil and rocks thrown down from their walls.”

“I see. What if they cut us off and starve us?”

“That would take many moons. They’d starve before we did.”

Talsy nodded, remembering what Chanter had said about the Riders needing the sustenance of blood and souls to survive. “Thank you for not giving Kieran to them.”

“I haven’t decided his fate yet.” Merina rose. “Rest now, I’ll come and see you again later.”

Talsy closed her eyes as the door shut, another wave of sickness making her empty stomach twist.

 

 

Merina went to her father’s cosy, book-lined study, where she found him seated behind his polished oak desk, bent over a pile of scrolls. The heavy green velvet curtains were closed to keep out the chill, but a fire crackled in the hearth, imparting its warmth and light to the atmosphere, and Ronos’ favourite wolfhound snored on the sheepskin rug in front of it. He smiled and invited her to sit in the padded leather chair in front of his desk.

“How’s Talsy?”

“Not too well. She has bad morning sickness, it seems to last all day.”

“Poor lass; and soon her child will be fatherless, like yours.”

“It worries me, Father. She obviously loves Tyrander. The shock of his execution could harm her.”

Ronos raised a brow. “Are you sure it’s not you who’s unwilling to punish him?”

“No, although he seems changed.”

“That does not excuse his crimes.”

“No.” She looked down at her clasped hands. “But it seems unfair to make Talsy suffer.”

The King’s expression softened. “You always were a kind lass. Perhaps you should tell her what he’s really like, then she won’t mourn his passing.”

“That won’t help. She’s convinced that he’s not Tyrander, so nothing I tell her will make any difference to the way she feels.”

“Then we must prove to her that he is Tyrander.”

“How? She claims to have met him, yet somehow he has fooled her.”

Ronos pondered this. “The dye didn’t wash out?”

“No.”

“Then it will grow out.”

The Princess nodded. “That means waiting until it does.”

“Are you in a hurry?”

“No, the longer he suffers at the thought of his impending execution, the better.”

Ronos leant on his desk and steepled his fingers. “Then we wait.”

Orland wandered in and flopped down in a chair, smiling at them. “Well, the black army didn’t much like our reply to their demands.”

“What are they doing?” Ronos asked.

“Milling around, trying to decide what to do next, I suppose. The leader threatened to tear down our city, stone by stone, so I told it to try. They’ll be gone by the morning, I’d say.”

The King frowned. “They must want that stone pretty bad.”

“They claim that our guests stole it from Larina.”

Ronos shrugged. “It’s a moot point, but I wouldn’t give those abominations the time of day. I don’t understand why they’re making so much fuss about a piece of stone.”

Talsy says it’s sacred to her people,” Merina offered.

“Well, I’d rather she had it than that witch Larina.” Ronos looked at his son. “Keep an eye on them; you never know what mischief they may be planning. I don’t like having a black army on my doorstep. If they don’t leave, I’ll send a courier to Larina. I know she doesn’t want to start a war with me.”

 

 

Kieran sat on the hard bed and rubbed his head, which ached from the rough scrubbing the guards had subjected it to, trying to wash out the non-existent dye. By the time they had given up, Kieran was sure most of his hair had been torn out by the roots. He gazed morosely out of the window, through which a portion of darkening sky was visible. He looked around as the key grated in the lock, and the door creaked inwards. A willowy female figure stood silhouetted in it, then entered, leading a small child by the hand. Kieran raised his gaze to Merina’s fearful, defiant face.

“Before you die, I want you to meet your son.”

Kieran groaned. “My nephew, Princess.”

“Don’t you think you’ve lied enough?”

Kieran studied the child, who appeared to be about five years old, and possessed his dark brown hair and black eyes set in a delicate face. The boy regarded him warily, his thumb plugged into his mouth.

Kieran smiled at him. “What’s your name, lad?”

The boy hid behind his mother’s skirts, and she replied, “Urlik, after my grandfather.”

“A fine name.”

Merina pulled the child forward. “Urlik, this is your father.”

“I’m not!” Kieran protested. “I’m his uncle!”

“You’d lie to your own son? I thought perhaps you would admit the truth when confronted with him.”

Kieran gave a low growl and lay back, stretched out one leg and bent the other, staring up at the roof. “If you won’t believe me, Princess, kindly leave me alone. You can wait until doomsday for that lock of white hair to sprout, because it won’t.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Kieran looked up at her. “How’s Talsy?”

“She has the morning sickness badly, but she’ll be all right.”

“There’s a bottle of tonic I bought for her in one of the bags, will you see that she takes it? I was trying to pluck up the courage to give it to her, but I was afraid she’d try to beat me to death with it.”

Merina’s brows rose. “You bought her a tonic?”

“Is that so strange?”

“From you, yes.”

A bitter smile curled his lips. “I couldn’t imagine Tyrander buying tonic for his wife, I suppose.”

“And you couldn’t pluck up the courage? It sounds as though you’re afraid of her.”

“I am. Talsy doesn’t like being told what to do.” Kieran’s smile widened and Merina stared at him in patent astonishment, which puzzled him until he remembered that Tyrander had had yellow, decayed teeth while his were white and even.

“I suppose you’d have me believe that she’s hit you.”

“Hit me?” He chuckled. “She’s given me a black eye, maybe two, I can’t remember.”

“You’re lying! You beat me!”

Kieran rolled onto his side. “Ask her then. I didn’t beat you, Princess, I only met you yesterday. I’ve never lifted a hand to a woman; my father taught me better than that. And I don’t pick on anyone smaller than me.”

“That must be hard,” Merina retorted. “There aren’t many bigger than you.”

“Well, they don’t have to be bigger, just not a foot shorter and less than half my weight.”

“That didn’t stop you before!” Her eyes glittered, her fierce expression at odds with her gentle features.

Kieran rolled onto his back again and covered his face with his hands, driven to distraction with frustration at the unending disbelief. Aargh! Go and talk to Talsy, Princess, maybe she can remember how many black eyes she’s given me.”

“I’m sure you’ve coached her well.”

“Oh, god.” Kieran lowered his hands and stared at the roof. “Don’t condemn me for my brother’s sins, please. It’s bad enough that he tried to kill Talsy and me. Don’t let his curse live on after his death. Wouldn’t it be ironic that you might do the very thing he wanted to, because he hated me for being the brother he never knew? I think he was so twisted because he knew he had a twin, but never met me, while I was ignorant of that. It’s as if his hand is reaching from the grave to try to drag me in there with him.”

Tyrander -”

“Kieran.”

“Changing your name doesn’t convince me of anything, but you spin a good yarn.” Merina turned to leave.

“Princess.” Kieran sat up.

She paused in the doorway. “Yes?”

“Please tell me if Talsy gets any worse. I worry about her.”

“How touching.” Merina vanished through the door, which slammed in her wake.

Kieran lay back with a sigh. “Of course, you don’t believe that either.”

 

 

Merina handed Urlik to his nanny and marched to Talsy’s room, finding her picking at a plate of roast fowl and steamed vegetables smothered with gravy.

Merina settled on the bed beside her. “How are you feeling?”

Talsy shrugged. “Rotten.”

“Which is Tyrander’s pack?”

Tyrander’s dead, but Kieran’s is over there in the corner.”

Merina went over to the three satchels and found two dark bottles in the first one she opened. Taking one back to the bed, she uncorked it and sniffed the contents, her eyes watering at the powerful metallic scent. It certainly smelt like a tonic.

She handed it to a hovering maid. “Take this to the doctor and ask him what it is.”

The maid bobbed and departed, and Talsy eyed the Princess. “What was that?”

Tyrander says that he bought you a tonic.”

“Have you been talking to the dead?” Talsy said, becoming fed up with the situation. “Kieran’s got a cheek. Does he think I look so dreadful?”

“You are a little pale.”

“I feel a little pale. If he was here, I’d make him drink the foul stuff himself.”

Merina frowned. “You don’t respect him?”

“Sure I do, when he doesn’t trample on my toes.”

“He has hit you!” The Princess looked triumphant.

“Did I say that?” Talsy laughed. “He’s a pushover! I’ve given him one or two black eyes myself. Kieran would never hurt me. I must admit, to begin with I was a little afraid of him. After all, he’s rather large. He was very quiet until I got to know him better. Then he kept trying to rescue me, and usually ended up making things worse. I gave him a pretty hard time, poor man. I still do. We’ve had a few fights, and I usually win, because he doesn’t want to hurt me.” She snorted. “The moron.”

Merina shook her head in disbelief. “Tyrander beat me. He... he locked me in a room and came to me... when the urge took him. If I tried to fight, he would get more violent. I have scars...”

Talsy took the Princess’ trembling hand. “That was Tyrander, not Kieran.”

“They’re the same person!”

“They’re not! I saw them together.”

Merina covered her mouth to stifle a sob, and Talsy squeezed the fragile hand she held. “I’m sorry. How did you escape?”

“My father. I sent a message to him with one of the servants I had brought with me. Two died trying to get out, the third succeeded. My father came and demanded that Tyrander release me, but he refused. My father was afraid that if he went to war with Tyrander, he might kill me, so he sent assassins. Twice Tyrander was wounded, and in the end he... he put me on an old horse and sent me into the desert. I think he wanted me to die, but my father’s men found me.”

Talsy put aside her plate. “It’s okay, he’s dead now; he can’t hurt you anymore.”

“He’s in the dungeon. You’ve got to believe me. I don’t want you to be upset. He’s fooled you by being nice to you, but that’s Tyrander down there, I’d stake my life on it.”

“Well, let’s hope you don’t have to,” Talsy muttered with a sigh.

“I know you love him.”

“You do? I mean, of course I do.”

Merina leant forward. “That’s why he’s been able to fool you. Love is blind!”

“It may be blind, but it’s not completely stupid.”

“He fooled me too, when he courted me. I thought he was wonderful, so dashing, charming, and utterly handsome.”

Talsy snorted. “I suppose he’s not bad, if you like his type.”

Merina did not seem to hear. “Every time I go down to the dungeon, and he’s so pleasant and kind, I remember how much I loved him. I want to throw myself into his arms...”

Talsy smiled. “Maybe you should try it sometime. He’ll probably faint from shock.”

“I wish you’d believe me,” Merina mourned.

“I wish that was Tyrander down there, waiting for the chop. But it’s not, it’s Kieran. I only wish I could prove it. Unfortunately, I can’t, because they’re identical. If I showed you Kieran’s scars, you’d just say they were new. The only difference was that lock of white hair, which Kieran doesn’t have.”

“Yes,” Merina agreed. “When it grows back, you’ll see that I’m right.”

“When it doesn’t, you’ll feel rather silly, I think.”

“If that’s not Tyrander, I’ll... I’ll...”

“Careful,” Talsy warned, “don’t promise something you wouldn’t like to do.”

“I’ll kiss him. On the mouth.”

“He might like that.” Talsy giggled, imagining Kieran’s embarrassment, then lay back with a sigh.

Merina rose to her feet. “You’re tired. I’ll leave you to sleep now. Don’t worry; I won’t have him executed until you believe me.”

“Oh good,” Talsy murmured, “then he’s safe.”

 

 

The following morning, a maid approached Merina in her morning room, where she was busy with her embroidery, to inform her that Princess Talsy was far sicker, with a high fever, headache, palsy and chills, and had already vomited upon waking. Merina hurried to Talsy’s bedchamber, the frightened maid trotting behind her, and raked the Princess’ pale features with a worried glance before ordering the maid to fetch the doctor. By the time he arrived, Talsy tossed in a restless sleep, trying to push away the covers. Merina chewed her lip while the doctor examined Talsy, shaking his head in confusion and pessimism. He mixed a foul smelling concoction in a cup and trickled it into the Princess’ mouth, his brow furrowed. When he finished, Merina confronted him.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“I have to say I’m not sure, Highness. She has a fever, and I’ve given her something for it, but I don’t know what’s causing it.”

“What was in that bottle I sent to you?”

“A strong tonic, very good, I should think. If she recovers, she should take it. It will build her strength.”

“If?” she demanded, alarmed.

“She’s gravely ill, Highness.”

“She might die?” Merina’s heart quailed at the thought. “She’s pregnant!”

“I can’t help that, I’m afraid.”

Merina gazed at the sweating girl in the bed as the doctor left, her brow wrinkled with worry. Two maids tended Talsy, wiped her face with damp cloths and covered her when she threw off the sheets. After a few minutes of indecision, Merina hurried out.

 

 

The rattle of keys in his cell door roused Kieran from his doze, and he sat up as Merina came to stand at the foot of his bed. She looked worried and upset, but he waited for her to speak.

Talsy’s very sick,” she blurted at last.

He jumped up and reached for her without thinking. “Take me to her!”

“No!” Merina jerked from his hold. “What can you do? You’re not a doctor.”

“Is she being treated?”

“Of course!”

He swung away, muttering, “It’s that damned child.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The baby! It’s making her sick.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. She has a fever; she’s ill!”

“He’d better come,” he said.

“Who?”

“I must see her, Princess.”

Merina shook her head. “You can’t help her, and you’re a prisoner. I only told you because you asked me to.”

“Thank you.” Kieran strived to remain calm. “Would you do something else for me, please?”

“What?”

He hesitated. “I know this is going to sound bad, but try to understand. I want you to leave her alone, get everyone out of the room. Will you do that?”

“You want her to die,” she said. “She needs care!”

“No!” Kieran lowered his voice when she stepped back. “Listen to me. I love her. I would never harm her, I swear! I promise you, if you leave her alone in her room, with the window open and the door locked, just for a few hours, she’ll recover.”

“How’s that possible?”

“I can’t tell you, but it is. If you care for her at all, if you have any kindness in you, please do as I ask.”

Merina eyed him. “I’ll think about it.”

“Thank you. It’s the only way to save her.”

“At least your tonic was just that, and not poison.”

His brows rose. “Of course it was. Why would I wish to harm her?”

“Why did you beat me?” She swung away.

“I didn’t!”

The door slammed in his face and the key grated in the lock. Consumed now with worry, he paced around, cursing.


 

Chapter Three

 

Talsy tossed and muttered in a delirium all day, burning with fever, her skin flushed and sweaty. Merina hovered over the two maids who tended to her, or fidgeted in her room. She liked Talsy, and the thought of her dying and taking her unborn child with her to the grave filled the Princess with deep sorrow. Ronos came twice to enquire about their sick guest, Orland once.

By the time dusk drew its veil over the land, Merina could not bear the waiting any longer. The doctor had returned twice to administer medicine, shaking his head each time. His attitude made it clear that he expected the girl to die, and his expression was sympathetic but hopeless.

After he left the second time, Talsy called a strange, slurred name in a pleading tone, and Merina came to a decision. She ordered the maids out, and they looked shocked at her sharp tone as they scurried from the room. Merina waited for a moment, gazing at the sick girl with puzzlement and anxiety. Lilac perfume drifted in through the open window on a cool night breeze, raising goose bumps on the Princess’ arms. She left the bedchamber and locked the door, going into the adjoining room, where she slid aside a panel that covered a spy hole in the wall. Why had Tyrander asked that Talsy be left alone? Curious, she put her eye to the hole and waited.

Talsy tossed in the bed, groaned and occasionally mumbled the strange word. Merina’s back grew stiff as an hour passed, but she persisted, switching eyes occasionally.

A soft flutter of wings drew her attention to the window. A raven landed on the ledge and scanned the room, cocking its head. It hopped down onto the floor. A rush of wind filled the room, ruffling the bed hangings, and a man stood where the raven had been. Merina gasped, pressing her eye to the hole. He glanced around, then approached the bed. The Princess had seen enough. Lifting her skirts, she ran to her father’s study, bursting in without knocking.

King Ronos looked up in surprise. “What is it? The Princess?”

“No! Yes! Father, come quickly! There’s... It’s... He’s...” She gulped. “A Mujar!”

“What?” Ronos leapt up. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “I’m sure!”

“Where?”

“With Talsy!”

Ronos rounded his desk and yanked open the door, bellowing for the guards.

“What are you doing?” Merina demanded.

“We mustn’t let him get away!”

“But…”

Ronos marched away down the hall, barking orders at the men who rushed to his side. She ran after him, wondering why he summoned crossbowmen. By the time he reached the Princess’ room, four such men flanked him.

He turned to them. “No one shoots unless I say so, or I’ll have his head, understand? If I do tell you to shoot, aim for his arms; I only want to stop him escaping.”

The men nodded, clearly intimidated by the King’s daunting expression. Ronos crept to the door and unlocked it, then flung it open. The man leapt away from the bed, and the room filled with wind.

“No!” Ronos shouted. “Wait! We mean you no harm! No harm!”

The wind died, and the Mujar stood poised before the window, gazing at the King.

Ronos stepped into the room and held out a hand, palm up. “No harm.”

The Mujar cocked his head, studying the King with expressionless eyes.

Ronos walked a little closer, fell to one knee and bowed his head. Mujar. You honour my humble castle with your presence. Words cannot describe my happiness.” He looked up. “Please stay here with your friend, she needs you, and we welcome you. No one in this city will harm a Mujar, or I shall have them put to death.”

Orland burst in. “What’s all the commotion?” He stopped dead, staring at the stranger. “By the gods!” He dropped to one knee and bowed his head.

The Mujar studied them with narrowed eyes, clearly unsure of whether to trust them or not. His gaze flicked to the crossbowmen in the corridor, their weapons dangling forgotten in their hands, their mouths open.

The King gestured at the men to leave. “I only called them to stop you from fleeing, that’s all.”

He seemed to relax a little, glancing at Talsy. “She needs me.”

“Go to her,” Ronos said, “I swear, no one will harm you.”

The Mujar returned to the bed and sat beside the sick girl. Merina closed her mouth belatedly, her eyes captivated by him. The King rose to his feet, followed by Orland, and they watched the Mujar dip his hand in the basin of water beside the bed and trickled some onto Talsy’s brow. She moaned and writhed as he placed his palm on her forehead.

Merina crept closer to her father to whisper, “What’s he doing?”

“Hush, he’s healing her, I think.”

Merina slipped her hand into his and stared at the demigod who had come amongst them, straining to hear the words he muttered in a strange tongue. After a few minutes, Talsy stopped tossing and relaxed with a sigh. The unman pulled the covers up to her chin and turned to face his audience. Merina shivered as his eyes slid over her, coming to rest on the King.

Ronos bowed again. “I’m King Ronos. This is my son, Orland, and my daughter, Merina.”

The Mujar nodded. “No harm.”

“Thank you.”

“Where is Prince Kieran?”

“You mean Tyrander.”

“No, I mean Kieran. Tyrander is dead.”

Merina gasped and sagged, and Orland stepped closer to take hold of her arms and help her to a chair.

The Mujar’s eyes narrowed again. “You’ve harmed him?”

“No!” Ronos said. “He’s fine, quite all right. We... we thought he was Tyrander. My daughter was married to Tyrander. He looks... the same.”

“Identical,” the Mujar agreed.

Ronos glanced at his son. “Orland, fetch the Prince.”

Orland hurried out, and Merina fanned herself. Ronos looked confused and embarrassed. The Mujar rose and approached the King, studying him.

“You don’t hate Mujar,” he stated.

“No, we don’t.”

“One helped you.”

Ronos nodded as the unman walked around him. “Yes. They lived amongst us, and we didn’t judge them. We never asked them for anything, nor did we harm them. It was in my grandfather’s time. I can’t say we liked them. We were indifferent. People fed them if they chose, but when others threw them into the Pits, we didn’t.

“Then the mountain exploded, and a river of lava came straight towards the town. It was little more than a village then, with no wall. There was no time to flee, and many would have perished. My grandfather went into the town and found a Mujar. He asked him to help, and the Mujar agreed. He made the land rise up, stopping the lava. That’s why there’s a cliff there now.”

The Mujar circumnavigated the King and stopped in front of him again. “So, you worshipped them.”

“Yes, but they all left soon after they had saved us, long before I was born. Is it wrong?”

“Yes, we’re not gods.”

“Sorry,” the King mumbled. “I just wanted to reassure you.”

“I’m assured. How strange.” He went back to the bed and sat beside Talsy. “I can walk amongst your people.”

“Absolutely! No one will say a bad word to you.”

 

 

The Mujar eyed the King, who radiated friendship and a desperate sort of yearning, as if his life depended on convincing Chanter of his trustworthiness. In Chanter’s experience, Lowman kings’ pride was mostly to blame for Mujar’s downfall. Ronos’ demeanour seemed odd, yet he detected no duplicity on the King’s part. The man was in earnest.

“I am Chanter.”

“I shall not use your name against you, thank you for the gift of it.”

“You’re well versed in the ways of Mujar.”

“We have prayed for another Mujar to come to our city since the last one left, and in that hope we have all learnt your ways. Some thought your kind left because we offended them in some way, so I’m careful, you see.”

“You did offend them, but not with your manners,” Chanter said. “You drove the Mujar away with your worship of them.”

“But... how is that possible? We only gave them their due, for saving the town. What did they want of us in return?”

“Nothing but what you had given them before, and your love.”

Kieran came trotting in, followed by Orland. He hurried over to the bed, pausing to clap Chanter on the shoulder.

“Chanter! Am I glad to see you.” He bent over Talsy. “Is she going to be all right?”

“Of course. They are chosen.”

“Who?” Kieran straightened to glare at Ronos. “This lot? They put me in a damned dungeon!”

“They thought you were Tyrander. A whole city of chosen,” Chanter marvelled.

“They weren’t good enough to save the race, like Talsy.”

“No. They made one mistake. They worshipped us.”

“Too bad. People always go to extremes, don’t they?” Kieran turned to Ronos. “I didn’t think much of your dungeons.”

“I didn’t think much of your brother,” the King retorted. “I’m glad he’s dead.”

“So am I. I didn’t know him long, and all he wanted to do was kill me. He took sibling rivalry a little too far.”

Ronos inclined his head. “I apologise, Prince Kieran.”

Kieran bent over the sleeping girl again, placing a hand on her brow. “Was it the baby?”

“No,” Chanter replied. “Not directly. It has weakened her, allowing her exhaustion to become a serious illness. It might have killed her, so I would have been forced to intervene soon, but strangely, I was invited in.”

“Is it time?”

“Not yet. She’ll recover now. It’ll be easier later on. Now would be very dangerous.”

The Prince tucked the bedclothes around Talsy’s shoulders, obviously relieved at her return to health. An awkward silence fell for a moment, then Ronos dispelled it by saying, “Well, we must celebrate the Princess’ recovery, and our new guest. I’ll order a feast tonight. We would be honoured if you joined us, Chanter.”

The Mujar smiled and inclined his head, and the King sent Orland to give the orders, evidently not wishing to let Chanter out of his sight. He had yet to take his eyes off him. Orland returned within a few moments, having found a bevy of curious servants just outside.

Ronos gestured to the door. “Perhaps, in the meantime, you’d care for some refreshment? Talsy should sleep, I suppose.”

The King stood aside so Chanter could precede him, and they followed Orland into the grey stone corridor, where servants shuffled aside, staring at Chanter with expressions of awe and wonder. Evidently the news of his presence had spread through the keep like wildfire.

 

 

Merina fell into step with Kieran, glancing up at him shyly. “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, Prince Kieran.”

He shrugged. “Under the circumstances, it was understandable, Princess. Frustrating, though.”

“I’m amazed that two men who look so alike can be so different.”

“I think it had a lot to do with our upbringing. Perhaps if we hadn’t been separated, we would have been more alike.”

She gazed at Chanter’s back. “You have an incredible friend.”

“He is kind of strange, isn’t he?” Kieran chuckled.

“That’s not what I meant!”

“I know. I’ve just become used to him now, that’s all. When I first met him, I found him rather awe inspiring too.”

“It’s hard to believe that stupid people actually threw such beautiful and magical men into those horrid Pits.”

Kieran smiled. “That’s Trueman nature, I suppose. We’ve become so convinced that we’re the best creatures ever created that when we’re confronted with someone better, we’re consumed by envy.”

They entered Ronos’ warm, wood-panelled study and sat on the overstuffed leather-covered chairs that thronged it. A servant brought a jug of wine and cups, gaped at Chanter and almost dropped the tray. The Mujar settled upon a sofa and gazed at the fire that crackled in the grate. He accepted a cup of wine from Orland and sipped it with apparent enjoyment. Ronos’ eager to please attitude warmed with satisfaction.

“So, may I ask what brings you here?”

“You did,” Kieran said.

“I meant before I found you.”

Kieran glanced at Chanter, who did not seem inclined to answer. The Prince launched into the story of their quest, which his hosts listened to with great interest. Chanter rose to examine some of the books, riffled through them and replaced them on the shelves. The Mujar appeared unembarrassed at being the object of such fascinated scrutiny, though each time he glanced at one of his audience they looked away with obvious shame, as though caught peeping through someone’s bedroom window. Even so, their eyes were drawn back to him as if by a magnet. When Kieran finished the tale, Ronos looked thoughtful.

“A strange but worthy quest, Kieran. So, once this staff is restored, the world will return to normal again?”

“No.” Chanter turned. “The laws cannot be restored.”

“That’s a point of dispute, I’m afraid,” Kieran said. “Talsy maintains that the laws can be restored, Chanter denies it. I suppose it’s safe to say maybe the laws can be restored. We’re not sure.”

Ronos nodded. “We’ll help you any way we can.”

“All we need right now is a safe place to rest for a while; we’ll journey on once Talsy’s better.”

“That you have with us, never fear. Stay as long as you wish. The black army will not bother you within my walls. They have left, returned to Larina, I would guess, either permanently or to fetch reinforcements. But Larina would be a fool to move against me. She has no hope of winning such a war, even with her crossbreed warriors.”

“Thank you. We’re most grateful for your aid.”

Ronos waved it away. “The longer you stay amongst us, the better pleased I’ll be. To have a Mujar in our city again is a great honour.”

That night, Ronos provided a sumptuous feast for his guests, but the Aggapae remained in the stables with their horses and Talsy slept. Chanter consumed prodigious amounts of food and wine, unaffected by the alcohol. Kieran became pleasantly drunk, something he had not indulged in for some time. The Mujar’s reticence forced the Prince to do most of the talking, but Chanter was the guest of honour and centre of attention. By the time Kieran reeled from the banquet hall with Chanter’s help, the birds awakened in the first glow of the false dawn.

 

 

Talsy woke to find Chanter sitting cross-legged on the end of her bed, gazing into space with the vacant-eyed preoccupation that only Mujar could indulge in for hours on end. She sat up with a smile and glanced around the empty room.

“Is it safe for you to be here?”

He smiled. “Yes. These people wish me no harm.”

“Was I that ill?”

“Yes.”

She yawned and lay back. “Where’s Kieran?”

“Asleep in his room.”

“They believed you, then.”

Mujar don’t lie.”

A knock on the door drew Taly’s attention. Merina hesitated in the doorway, gazing at Chanter.

“Come in,” Talsy invited. “I take it you’ve met Chanter.”

The Princess nodded, shooting the Mujar a shy smile. “Are you feeling better?”

“Much. It seems I’ve missed all the fun.”

“I’m afraid so.” Merina approached, stopping beside the bed. “When Kieran asked me to leave you alone, I was suspicious. But when Chanter came, it was the most wonderful thing that has ever happened in our city. You are blessed to have such a wonderful friend.”

Talsy grinned at the Mujar. “Well, this makes a change, doesn’t it?” She looked at Merina. “We’re used to a very different attitude towards Mujar.”

“Thank goodness we found out about Kieran, too,” Merina said. “He’s everything Tyrander pretended to be, but was not. He’s told us the whole story, and my father has sworn to help you all.”

“And you’ve got a promise to keep.” Talsy giggled.

Merina blushed. “I should have believed you. I noticed some things about Kieran that were different, but I was so bitter that I refused to admit I might be wrong.”

“Blame Chanter, he’s the meddling Mujar who brought us together,” Talsy said. Chanter raised his brows, and she added, “I know what you did. I doubt King Ronos has ever had his horse run away with him before.”

“I only wished to put you amongst people who could protect you from the Torrak Jahar,” he replied. “I didn’t know of Tyrander’s crimes against Princess Merina. It seemed a better idea than Kieran’s.”

“It was. He didn’t understand what would happen if you had done as he asked.”

“I thought as much.”

Merina gazed at Chanter while they talked, and, when a short silence fell, she rose and headed for the door, saying, “I’ll order breakfast for you and Chanter.”

Talsy swallowed bile at the mention of food and looked around for her basin, cursing her rebellious stomach.

“Kieran is most likely similarly occupied this morning,” Chanter informed her while she retched and choked, apparently in an effort to cheer her up, but the thought of another suffering the same humiliation only made her heave more.

 

 

Law sat on the soft sand and listened to the sound of the sea. He toyed with the sand, letting it run through his fingers as he enjoyed the sunlight’s warmth and the wind’s playful caress. Two weeks of wandering had brought him to this shore, where he found a new wonder to explore. The sea crashed upon the beach, hissing over the sand to lap at his feet. Gulls mewed above, their cries mingling with the soft humming song of some creatures of this world that frolicked amongst the waves.

Sometimes he thought about Letta and Vosh, but already their memory dimmed, along with the hive and the horror of his eviction. Like all Mujar his age, Law’s memory was short. He remembered the lessons of life without the details of their teaching. This ensured that by the time he reached adulthood he had no recollection of his youth. He was eager to learn more and explore until his education was complete, whereupon memories of events would linger. His blindness put obstacles in his path that no other Mujar had ever had to overcome before. He could not fly without becoming lost in the sky’s vast realm, and was forced to remain earthbound and vulnerable to the tainted Dolana that flowed through the land.

The sea offered a new world in which he might be safer, and able to find his way through its glittering blueness. He hesitated to enter it only because of his immaturity, which imbued a lack of confidence that would wane in the coming years. His short black hair indicated his youth, and as yet he had not sprouted a beard. Although physically full grown, Law was still a child of the world, who had already experienced pain and been tempered by it. He tended to be more timid than was normal for his age, and more inclined to avoid the unknown than to explore it. Having learnt that there were beasts that would not hesitate to harm him, which was something his instincts had not warned him of, he was wary of what he might encounter in the vast watery domain before him.

Twice during his wanderings, he had heard the drone of filmy wings and hidden as manants flew overhead. He had shunned the company of friendly animals, fearing that they would draw the manants to him, and his loneliness grew each day. The tainted land and the knowledge that all was not well with the world increased his unhappiness. His hope for a better life in the sea was mixed with fears that it might prove more dangerous than the land.

Rising to his feet, he walked down the beach. The cool waves lapped at his legs, tugging at him as he waded deeper. Its touch brought new knowledge rushing into his mind, and he paused to study it. Racial memories of strange, finned shapes came to him. He chose one at random as he dived into the waves, and transformed into a sleek grey ray that slid through the water, powered by undulating wings as graceful as a bird’s. In Shissar’s gentle embrace, Law discovered peace and the magical song of the sea, which banished his loneliness long before he found new, playful friends and took their form. After his experience of the land, this wild realm welcomed him, and he knew happiness once more within it.

 

 

A few days after Chanter healed her, Talsy was well enough to leave her bed and explore the city with her friends. She was still sick first thing in the morning, but Merina assured her that this was normal. The good food King Ronos provided helped to strengthen her, and within a week she was able to travel. By that time, Queen Larina’s black army had returned with a company of Truemen warriors, manbulls and manhorses, and made camp outside the city. They brought wagonloads of provisions and plundered the cultivated lands for what they lacked. Farmers who dwelt outside the city retreated into the stronghold to escape the threat, but King Ronos’ messages to the black army, ordering them to leave, were ignored. They remained out of range of the defences, waiting.

Kieran, Talsy and Chanter met the King and his family in his study.

“We must leave.” Kieran leant against the mantelpiece and stared into the fire. “We must return to the valley while Talsy can still travel. Much as we appreciate your hospitality, we can’t stay here until the child is born.”

Larina must have ordered her army to wait for you to emerge,” Ronos said. “They’re not going to lay siege, and if I send troops out to fight them, our losses will be heavy. In fact, we have little hope of defeating a black army on the open field.”

“Then we’ll have to find a way to leave without fighting them.”

“There’s the postern gate,” Orland suggested.

“Aren’t they watching it?”

Orland shook his head. “They’re all camped in front of the city. It’s odd.”

“That’s the answer then.”

“Why aren’t they watching the postern gate?” Talsy asked. “They can’t be that stupid.”

Kieran shrugged, Orland shook his head, and Ronos looked thoughtful, but puzzled. They all glanced at Chanter as the Mujar put down the book he had been leafing through and turned to face them.

“They don’t need to watch the gate. They’ll know when I leave.”

“Of course.” Talsy cursed, making Ronos’ brows shoot up. “I should have remembered that. They can sense Chanter.”

“They can sense all living things,” the Mujar said, raising a brow. “Don’t make it sound like I’m some sort of magnet. But they can distinguish between Lowmen and Mujar, so in this instance, I’m the beacon they’ll be watching for.”

“Damn.” Kieran thumped the mantelpiece.

“Then Chanter must stay here.” Talsy’s cheeks grew warm when everyone turned to stare at her with shocked expressions. “It’s the only way. Just until we’re far enough ahead, then he can catch up. If he stays in the city, they’ll assume we’re with him, and we can sneak out the back. The Torrak Jahar will think we’re just a party of merchants or nobles fleeing the city.”

“It might work, but it’ll still be risky,” Ronos said. “They may send men to see who you are, and if they recognise you...”

“Then we’ll wear disguises.”

“They might still use you for sport, and to feed on. I’ll send a company of soldiers with you, led by Orland. If they do stop you, he can tell them he’s on some sort of mission. A large enough party of men should put them off engaging you in battle. What do you think, Orland?”

The Prince nodded. “An excellent idea, Father.”

“Good. Chanter?”

The Mujar inclined his head. “It should work, but I would like you to send more than a company of men. The journey back to the valley will be dangerous. I must be sure the First Chosen is safe.”

Talsy shot him a smile, and Ronos said, “Of course. Two companies then, or a battalion.”

“A battalion,” Chanter said. “We can no longer use the mountain pass, it’s too dangerous, and we’ll never get wagons through it. We’ll have to go through the woods to the south of the mountains, which will double the journey to the valley.”

“That means it will take two months to reach the valley,” Talsy protested.

“Yes, and that’s using horses. I’ll have to remain here for at least a month. When they see me leave alone, they might send men after you. I’ll lead them over the mountains, which should delay them further.”

“A mounted battalion,” Ronos said, “plus wagons for supplies and equipment. It will take a few days to organise.”

Orland rose to his feet. “I’ll go and give the orders.”

 

 

Three days later, Chanter stood with Talsy on one of the castle’s rear parapets and looked down at the courtyard where a seething mass of mounted men formed up into ranks. She had tried to count them, but had long since given up and now merely admired their handsome blue and yellow tabards and shining armour. Kieran was somewhere in the melee, seeing to it that the pieces of the Staff were stowed aboard one of the supply wagons.

“I had no idea there were so many men in a battalion,” she murmured.

“Nor had I,” Chanter replied.

“But you were the one...”

He shrugged. “It sounded good, and the more the better.”

Talsy giggled. “Don’t tell King Ronos.”

“I won’t.”

She considered the soldiers again. “Do think that’s enough men to keep me safe? It’s a small army.”

“I hope so. The chaos is worsening every day, and travelling through the forest has many perils too. The mountains have become unstable, with the ground shaking so much, and many of the trails have been blocked with rocks. But the forest is full of chaos beasts, and I fear you’ll need this army there.”

“You’ve been talking to the wind again.” She shivered. “I wish you could come with us now.”

“So do I, but this is the only way to get out of the city. I’ll join you before you reach the valley.”

The soldiers formed up into their ranks, and Kieran looked around. Talsy smoothed the dress Merina had given her and tugged at the short cloak on her shoulders.

“Do I look all right?”

“You look very nice.”

She hugged him and kissed him on the lips, and he patted her back awkwardly and smiled when she stepped back. “Be careful.”

“I will. I’ll see you soon.”

Chanter nodded, and she descended the stairs to the courtyard where the soldiers waited with Kieran and Orland. Kieran helped her onto her horse, and officers shouted orders, setting the battalion in motion. The cavalrymen clattered through the city towards the postern gate.

Chanter watched until the cavalcade was lost amongst the buildings, then went to the front of the castle to study Queen Larina’s army. The Lowman soldiers had pitched their tents between strings of tethered mounts, and the manbulls and manhorses stood together in separate herds, some lying down on the soft grass. The manhorses carried long bows slung across their backs and quivers at their waists, while the manbulls were armed with massive spiked clubs. The black army camped closest to the castle, and stood like hundreds of statues, waiting.

 

 

Talsy experienced a twinge of unease as they rode through the postern gate. Already she missed Chanter, even though he was not far away, the fact that they left him behind made her unhappy. She wondered how trustworthy King Ronos was, and whether he would try to trap the Mujar with gold as so many had done. It still seemed strange to have found a king who was so different from all the others. The lack of tar in the city spoke volumes about the nature of its people, however, and she thrust her doubts aside.

They left the city wall and rode along a little-used road, judging by its poor state of repair, running parallel to the cliff. Talsy gazed up at it, marvelling at the massive amount of power it must have taken to create it, but then, to a Mujar such a feat was simple. It had the familiar smooth appearance of a Mujar-made formation, a little weathered in places now and pitted along the top, and scree had fallen to clutter its foot. The end of the cavalcade was still emerging from the postern gate when a group of enemy soldiers, accompanied by a number of manhorses, came towards them from the front of the city. Talsy was relieved that there were no Torrak Jahar with them. They stopped on the road ahead and spread out across it. Prince Orland raised his arm, and the cavalrymen behind him halted in an imposing bunch bristling with lances. The entire battalion was forced to stop, and soldiers galloped past Talsy’s group to join the leaders in the confrontation.

An officer with gold braid on his sleeves and collar approached Orland, his words carrying to her on the wind. “Why are you leaving the city?”

Prince Orland’s voice rang with authority. “I’m escorting my cousins back to their father in Jarima, not that it’s any business of yours, now get out of my way.”

“Where are the thieves who stole my queen’s Stone of Good Fortune?”

“Still in the city.”

“We demand that they be given to us.”

Orland snorted. “We’re not giving you anything. If you want them, go and get them.”

“I could take you hostage, then your king would be forced to give them to us.”

Talsy cast Kieran a worried glance. They had not considered that possibility. He ignored her, listening to Orland’s scornful reply.

“I’d like to see you try. You may have noticed that you’re badly outnumbered.”

“A simple matter,” the officer sneered. “If I call the black army, your defeat and capture is assured.”

Orland shrugged. “Call them. By the time they get here you’ll all be dead, and they know the Mujar is still in the city. They’re not interested in me or my cousins.”

“As a hostage, you’d be very useful.”

“My father won’t be blackmailed. If these thieves are hiding in the city, we don’t know where they are, but nor will he allow you to dictate terms to him. All you’ll do is start a war your queen will regret very much. Now, I’d advise you to get out of my way, before I have my men remove you.”

The officer glanced past the Prince at the long column of men behind him. “You need a whole battalion to escort your cousins?”

“It’s a dangerous world these days.”

The man hesitated a little longer, then urged his horse closer to the Prince. “We’ll inspect your wagons, just in case you have stowaways aboard. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

Orland shrugged. “Certainly not. Inspect all you want, but don’t damage our supplies.”

The men converged on the wagons, leaving the manhorses to block the road. Orland signalled to the drovers, who set their brakes and untied the tarpaulins that covered their loads, pulling them aside. The officer who had confronted Orland rode past Talsy, Kieran and the Aggapae, his eyes raking them. Talsy raised her chin and glared at him, Kieran ignored him. As befitted a king’s cousins, she wore a gold-trimmed green velvet dress and Kieran a smart outfit of royal blue edged with silver. The officer studied them and passed on, following his men to the wagons. They poked their swords amongst the provisions until they were satisfied, then rejoined the manhorses. The officer stopped his horse in front of the Prince.

“You may go, Prince Orland. Queen Larina does not desire war with your father. We have strict orders not to start one, so, in view of that, we’ll not detain you further. The thieves will eventually have to leave your city, or perhaps your father will eject them when his people run short of food. Either way, we’ll capture them in the end.”

“I’m sure you will. Doubtless you’ll enjoy watching those stone monstrosities suck the life out of your fellow Truemen. Just remember, one day it’ll be your turn.”

The Prince urged his warhorse forward, shouldering aside the officer’s mount, and the manhorses moved off the road, allowing the column to proceed. Talsy let out her pent breath as they passed Larina’s men, and the tension drained out of her, leaving her dizzy with relief. She did not like to think of what might have happened had they been discovered. Certainly there would have been a great deal of bloodshed. She looked back many times at the city with its looming castle, wondering if Chanter watched them leave from its tall turrets. Eventually a belt of trees hid it, and she concentrated on the road ahead.

 

 

Two weeks of uneventful travel brought them to the mighty forest that girded the foothills of the mountains to the south, where the peaks sank into wooded land and vanished. Entering the forest’s gloom, they followed a road that wound through the massive trunks, the vast leafy boughs overhead blotting out the sun. The brooding atmosphere amongst the trees sent shivers down Talsy’s back, and the distant, weird screams that echoed through it made her hair bristle. She had long since shucked the velvet dress, and was clad once more in her tough, practical leather trousers, sturdy shirt and bodice. Kieran had also reverted to his black outfit and armour, and his hand lingered often on the hilt of the Starsword at his side. The horses grew restive and nervous in the forest’s menacing dimness, sidling and prancing, their eyes white-ringed. Everyone sensed it, and the soldiers’ eyes darted amongst the trees while the drovers’ hands clenched on their reins.

The first night, Orland posted a guard of thirty men rotating at four-hour intervals, and the next night he increased it to fifty. On the fifth night, while Talsy sat beside the campfire she shared with Kieran and Orland, the gloom erupted with a horde of wailing black chaos beasts whose banshee screams froze her blood. She crouched beside the fire, her heart hammering. Soldiers burst from their tents with drawn swords to battle the creatures, whose front legs were armed with razor claws and whose long, matted fur, the men discovered when their weapons clanged off it with little effect, concealed chitin armour.

The monsters poured from the shadows in a dark tide, their eyes aglow in the torchlight, fangs bared. Kieran laid about him with the Starsword, its fire making the creatures explode, splattering the surroundings, and everyone within range, with globs of gelatinous flesh. The fallen monsters’ stench made Talsy ill, and she clutched her stomach and retched while the Aggapae surrounded her, ready to take on any beast that broke through the defenders. The battle seemed to last for an eternity, and the moon had set by the time all the chaos beasts were dead.

Trueman casualties were high, and Kieran went amongst the wounded with the Starsword, healing all he could with the army doctor’s aid. When he finished, dawn’s first faint glow filtered through the forest. Talsy had moved upwind, her eyes averted from the twisted dead, eager to quit the glade and its horrific contents. She did not want to contemplate what manner of beast had attacked them, their grotesque forms defied analysis. Orland moved on as soon as the last of the injured was healed, leaving the fallen to whatever scavengers inhabited the woodland.

The forest unleashed its true horror upon them two days later, and their journey became an ordeal Talsy wished she could forget. Howling horror filled the nights, when hordes of shrieking beasts swarmed around the camp. The creatures ensured that no one slept with their blood-curdling screams, and occasionally charged from the darkness to slay a hapless soldier, vanishing back into the gloom too quickly to be killed. Days of anxious walking followed the sleepless nights, waiting for the next ordeal to reveal itself.

The chaos beasts attacked with the mindless fervour of the insane, erupting from the ground or dropping from the trees to slay as many as they could before they died. Orland soon learnt the folly of sending out scouts when he encountered their torn and mangled bodies impaled on trees beside the road. There were nights when the campfires gave no warmth, and other times when the air became difficult to breathe. Soldiers fell to strange illnesses that killed them in mere moments. Some went mad and fled into the forest, where their howls could be heard from time to time.

The troops’ discipline broke down under this endless onslaught, and they became dishevelled and unshaven, too tired to ride in ranks or wash their filthy clothes. The forest unleashed vile atrocities in the form of worms that crawled up the horses’ legs and devoured steed and rider alive unless driven away with fire. Men turned on one another in the night and slew their comrades while in the grip of delusions brought on by intense fatigue. Once, the trees dripped slime that burnt like acid, making the soldiers and their mounts scream and run about tearing at their flesh in an orgy of pain. Many times, Talsy thought that they would not survive the journey, and prayed for Chanter to save them or for the gods to put an end to the madness. She longed for the safety of the valley she feared they would never reach, and when at last the forest ended she could hardly believe so many had survived.