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Authors: Rhiannon Hart

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BOOK: Blood Song: The First Book of Lharmell
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‘And if I win,’ Rodden continued, grinning out at the court below us, ‘I claim Zeraphina’s hand in marriage.’

I started to say, ‘Now, hang on –’ but the entire court erupted into cheers, wolf-whistles and table-banging and I was drowned out. I looked to the king, expecting him to interject on my behalf, but he was applauding and saying ‘Splendid! Splendid!’

How could he condone his soon-to-be daughter-in-law’s sister marrying a commoner? Where was his sense of propriety? I was a princess!

Now that he was confident of the support of the king, Rodden toasted the room with his wine goblet, looking as if he’d already won the tournament. There was no way I could back out now so I flashed a smile at the court. This brought on even more cheers. Renata glared down the table at me, but really, she was the least of my worries. Why, oh why had I agreed without hearing all the terms? He’d tricked me, making me think all that was at stake was my ring.

Rodden took his seat as soon as the cheers died down. I clenched my hands in my lap, not trusting myself to reach for anything in case I slapped him, right there in front of everyone. I tried to keep the smile in place, but my fury must have shown.

‘Starting to doubt your talents?’

‘Not in the least,’ I spat.

‘Now, now, Zeraphina. Don’t be like that. Aren’t you secretly hoping you’ll lose? Carmelina told me about your little crush.’

My face flamed red. Oh, she hadn’t! I looked down the table at her. She grinned back at me – she had told. It was too much. Not only had he got the upper hand, he thought I
liked
him.

He leaned closer, dropping his voice. ‘You know what makes this all the more sweet? Your ring. I don’t even need it any more.’

I stared at him, uncomprehending.

‘You’re here in Pergamia, aren’t you?’ His blue eyes were dancing with amusement.

‘You’ve got the whole court in the palm of your hand. But you don’t fool me.’ I didn’t bother to mask the pure hatred on my face. ‘And you’ll never have me, either. I’ll die first.’

As I fled the dais I heard Rodden say to the king, ‘Nerves, Your Majesty, nerves.’

––

It wasn’t long before Renata appeared, with Lilith just behind her. I was curled up on the sofa, a cushion clutched to my belly. I hadn’t been faking to get away from Rodden. I really did feel ill, as if I’d swallowed a dozen angry snakes and they were all writhing around in my belly. Renata stood in front of me without saying anything. Her foot was tapping on the marble floor so I knew she was just warming herself up. Choosing the right words to blast me with. Lilith hung in the doorway, keeping away from the storm that was about to break but curious just the same. I’d be curious too if I was about to see my sister flayed alive.

Renata opened her mouth, and then closed it again. Then she opened it.

Here it came. The word-barrage.

But she just threw up her hands and stalked out.

‘Aren’t you going to bawl me out?’ I called.

She strode back. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.

‘You,’ she said, pointing a finger at me, ‘had better hope that you’re as good an archer as you say you are, or that he is a terrible one. Because if you lose, there’s nothing I will be able to do to prevent this marriage. What leverage do I have? They take words of honour very seriously in Pergamia, and with Lilith on the brink of her own marriage to the king’s son I can hardly go around making demands. It could jeopardise everything.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘Unless you want to lose. This isn’t some plan the two of you have hatched up? You haven’t fallen in love with him, have you?’ Renata said ‘love’ as if it was the most despicable thing in the world. Then again, loving Rodden would be rather despicable.

‘No! Oh, yuck, love Rodden? You’ve got to be kidding. He’s an absolute creep.’

‘Really?’ Lilith piped up. ‘Amis says he’s the best person in the world.’

‘Amis needs to get out more.’

‘And he said –’ Lilith stopped.

Renata turned to her eldest. ‘And he said
what
?’

Lilith looked apologetic and twisted her hands this way and that. ‘And he said . . . he’s a really good shot.’

Renata covered her eyes with her hands and groaned. I did the same with the cushion.

‘Oh, look on the bright side, Zeraphina,’ Lilith said.

I looked up from behind the cushion. There was a bright side?

‘After you’ve married him, we’ll be able to see each other every day.’

‘No you won’t, because I will have thrown myself off the battlements on the morning of my wedding.’

‘Don’t be so dramatic, you silly girl. What you are going to do is get yourself down the archery range first thing in the morning and practise, practise, practise. No daughter of mine is going to marry some trumped-up politician because of a ridiculous bet. We’ll be the laughing stock of all Brivora.’

I pressed my face into the cushion again.

‘I don’t think you’re helping, Mother,’ I heard Lilith whisper. She must have steered Renata out of the room, because when I came up for air Lilith was sitting beside me and Renata was nowhere in sight. Then, in the silence, I could hear her muttering from the next room.

I rolled my eyes. ‘Thanks.’

Lilith shrugged. ‘She’s overreacting. I know you’re a good shot. Anyway . . .’

‘Anyway what?’

‘If you do lose . . .’

‘Don’t even say it!’

‘Oh, Fina, come on. I know you like him. You’re always looking at him.’

‘That’s because he’s up to something.’

‘Don’t be so childish. He’s very handsome and you have a crush. Just admit it. And he’s a good person. He’s devoted his life to the protection of Pergamia. He’s fiercely protective of Amis, too. Do you know Amis would have turned me down if Rodden hadn’t approved of me?’

I wanted to tell her that it was because Amis, and everyone else in Pergamia, was blind to the truth. Everyone except me. I was going to prove he was a monster. But first, I had to make sure that I didn’t end up as his wife.

EIGHT

W
hen I went down to the practice range the next morning at Renata’s insistence, Rodden was there. Not firing, just standing around. Waiting for me. When he saw me he grinned and leaned against the wall, arms folded. I ignored him, notching up a few arrows and firing them, but I could feel his eyes on me. It put me off and my shots were way off target. Every misfired arrow brought a snort of amusement from him.

‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’ I asked, not taking my eyes off the bullseye. I would hit it this time. I would.

‘What could be more pleasant than watching you make a fool of yourself? Unlike you, I’m sure of my skill. I don’t need to practise.’

My fingers were slippery with nervous sweat and the arrow loosed before I had finished drawing back. It fired sluggishly and rebounded off the board.

He laughed. ‘Don’t worry, sweetheart. Whichever way it goes you’ll still get a ring.’ He waggled the third finger of his left hand at me.

I unstrung my bow with a snap. Stuff practice. I wasn’t going to stand around being tormented all day. I stomped past him and made my way to the stables. I needed to get away; far, far away. Besides, if I went back to my room Renata would give me hell about not practising. She wouldn’t understand that if I wasn’t ready now, I never would be.

I asked a groom to saddle up a horse for me – with a proper saddle, not one of those silly side-saddles. I wanted to gallop.

Reasoning that it looked like the only semi-deserted place near the palace, I headed for the forest to the north-west, outside the heavily guarded walls. I wanted to get out of sight of Rodden and all his soldier minions. Away from the northern turret.

The horse was shiny brown like a chestnut and was eager to get some exercise. We raced up a narrow track through the trees and I was exceedingly glad to leave Rodden, Renata and the whole palace behind me. Tree branches grew low across the track and I flattened myself against the horse’s neck so I wouldn’t be swiped off. The wind sent my hair flying like streamers.

Sooner than I would have liked, the forest thinned and we could go no further. We’d reached the edge of a cliff and beyond it was the sea. I dismounted, walked to the edge and looked down. It was a sheer drop. Waves crashed against half-submerged rocks.

My thoughts grew morbid. Here was where I would throw myself off if I lost the tournament tomorrow. It would make a good bards’ tale.

Hear me now, hear me now. I am Yorris the Bard, who heard this tale from Derko the Bard, who heard it from Heppo the Bard, and all the bards before him. Gather to me, and hear the tale of the beautiful, clever princess whom no one would listen to but was right all along about the evil, depraved monster who had all great Brivora in his thrall
. . .

It would end with Renata weeping over my dead and pallid body as it lay on the beach, attractively scattered with seaweed. What a shame I wouldn’t be alive to hear it sung. The last part sounded especially sweet.

If I lost. But I wasn’t going to. I’d been practising since I was eight.

I shaded my eyes and peered across the ocean. I almost expected to see dark and forbidding mountains, the tors of Lharmell, rising in the distance. But all I saw was a gleaming horizon.

To the west was the city dock, cluttered with sailing and fishing ships. From this distance they looked as tiny as toys. There were several more on the open water, their sails filled with wind as they ripped along. The freedom they commanded was intoxicating; the whole wide blue yonder was theirs.

To the east stretched a curving, sandy expanse of coast. Waves crashed against an empty beach, sending plumes of spray up into the air.

So this was the sea. Living as I did in a land-locked, mountainous country I had never imagined that it would be so big, so blue and so noisy. Holding the horse by its bridle, I made my way along the cliff until I found a path down to the beach. I took off my boots and tied my practice dress around my thighs. Over the wind and crashing waves I could hear the screaming cries of the white and grey gulls that wheeled overhead. They coasted the strong wind, moving neither forwards nor backwards. Foamy water rushed in and covered my ankles before rushing out again. Despite my glum mood, the shock of cold water made me squeal and hop about. As the wave receded it stole grains of sand from beneath my feet. It was one of the oddest sensations I had ever felt, the earth being pulled from under me.

Things didn’t stay the same; I was starting to understand that. In a few days Lilith would be married and gone forever. Of course, she wouldn’t be
gone
, but she would never be just my big sister again, the one who had the bedroom down the hall and all the time in the world to lie around with me on rainy days. She would be Princess of Pergamia, and one day, Queen Lilith. I imagined what it would feel like, going home without her, and I felt a squeeze in my throat. I didn’t want things to change. They were changing faster than they ever had in my life and showed no sign of slowing down. This time next year I could be married. This time tomorrow I could be betrothed if I didn’t win the tournament.

I looked out to the north, the direction of the greatest uncertainty of all. On such a bright day it was difficult to imagine that, just out of my sight, was a cold, mountainous country filled with malevolent beings. And that just behind me, barely a mile off, Rodden Lothskorn sat in his turret plotting who knew what. The man was an enigma. Why tell me to go home one moment and then construct an elaborate plan to force me into marriage the next? It didn’t make any sense.

Unless it was to discredit me before the court. If he won and I refused him, everyone would know I’d gone back on my word, however unwittingly it had been given in the first place. No one would believe me after that if I accused him of spying for the enemy.

Or – and this was an even more startling thought – he intended to marry me in order to hand me over to the Lharmellins.

Whatever the reason, it didn’t originate from any affectionate feelings, I was certain.

The sun was biting into my bare shoulders so I waded out of the water and mounted my horse. I let it set its own pace as we headed for the castle. I was in no hurry to get back.

I had not gone fifty feet when a gnawing pain clawed at my back. I gasped and straightened, trying to work out what I imagined to be a knot. The pain grew worse, and five minutes later I was sweating profusely. Shaking, I slid from the horse’s back and pressed my face against its flank. The pain dimmed as I stood there, but when I started forward, it erupted again with greater violence. It felt like a thousand claws had dug into the flesh of my back. If I stepped backwards, there was no pain; forwards, and the agony began.

I was no great judge of direction, but the coastline told me that behind lay true north, the direction of Lharmell.

With tears springing into my eyes, I again mounted my horse. Burying my face in its sweet-smelling mane, I urged it onwards, south towards the palace.

My shrieks of pain ricocheted around the bare trunks of the forest, only falling silent in the blessed moments when I lost consciousness.

––

Renata looked up from the sofa as soon as I entered our apartment.

‘Did you practise?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I said, going straight through to my room before she could see my white face and shaking hands. It had taken hours to make the return journey, whereas outward it had been merely minutes. Somewhere close to the castle walls the pain had dimmed. I had leaned gratefully against the cool, white walls for several minutes and composed my streaky face and sweat-soaked figure.

As far as Renata knew, I had practised for many hours.

––

Despite the wedding of his only son being just days away, King Askar pulled out all the stops for the tournament. In a grassy field within the palace grounds a temporary range had been set up. Two dozen targets were at one end of the field. There were to be more contestants than just Rodden and me, I found out. A royal decree had been issued the very evening of the challenge, inviting all archers within fifty miles to enter the competition. Amis told me this when I had come down to the field and found it full of people stringing bows.

‘They’re not
all
being offered my hand in marriage, are they?’

‘No,’ he assured me. ‘If somebody else wins, they get a coin prize. But no one else is going to win.’

‘You mean you think Rodden’s going to win.’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, giving me a sidelong glance. ‘Lilith’s been telling me just how good her little sister is. This should be interesting.’ He grinned.

Interesting. Yes, like a trip to the tooth-surgeon.

Lilith gave me a kiss and a hasty ‘Good luck!’ before Amis took her hand and they went to their places in the royal marquee. Multi-coloured tents had been erected around the field, a-flutter with little flags. Spectators from the city were filing in through the front gates. They sat on the rows and rows of benches that had been carried down from the great hall. Stalls were selling cups of pink lemonade and honey biscuits. Children ran all over the gardens with toy bows and rubber-tipped arrows. A group of girls in party dresses threw a red ball between them. A coconut shy had been set up. The atmosphere was that of a carnival. The whole of Xallentaria was treating this event as little more than a diversion.

Everywhere I went, people pointed at me and gawked openly. I overheard snippets of their conversations: I was the proud princess from the south who’d bitten off more than she could chew; Rodden was their champion, the kingdom’s saviour. He was tipped to win and take this arrogant foreigner down a peg or two, and then marry her to boot. He was the darling of the masses, a man who could show them that no matter how low-born you were, you could still end up gentry by a twist of fate. I, on the other hand, represented the misplaced pride of a spoilt royal. I would have found their ignorance amusing if I wasn’t so nervous about my own fate.

Bets were being placed and the odds were fifty-to-one in Rodden’s favour. No one thought I was going to win.

I stood outside my warm-up tent, Leap at my feet and Griffin perched on the back of a chair. They watched the proceedings with interest; a bow in my hands usually meant quiet, solitude, a chance to hunt; but they seemed to be enjoying the crowd. I rolled my sleeves up past my elbows so I didn’t get too hot and took my gauntlet off, buckling my arm guards on in its place. All I could do now was wait. I glanced towards the royal tent. The king and queen sat on their thrones, laughing and talking to a few lords and ladies, and supping from silver goblets and little platters. Amis and Lilith were engrossed with each other, talking intently and holding hands. Rodden stood confidently nearby, chatting with a baron’s daughter or two and leaning casually on his bow, clearly at ease. The girls pulled ribbons from their hair and knelt down to tie them to the butt of his bow for luck. More girls saw this and went over to him, and soon there was a rainbow of ribbons fluttering from his bow. One girl leaned in to kiss his cheek.

The people’s favourite, I thought with scorn.

Renata sat next to the queen, the only one apart from me not enjoying the festivities. She must have heard what people were saying. Either that or she was still livid that I had gotten myself into this mess. But when I caught her eye she gave me a small smile and jutted her jaw:
chin up, Zeraphina
. Family pride to the last. I was glad for her support, but she must have heard that pride always comes before a fall.

Rodden and I were the last event of the day. First would be the children’s contest; the ladies’; the soldiers’, which would give the king an opportunity to exhibit his army’s prowess; several opens; and then, finally, the main event: Rodden and I and the winners from the opens.

For the children’s round, the targets were set at ten paces. Boys and girls lined up, mostly soldiers’ children. More than a few gangly girls had entered, and they cast shy smiles at me. It seemed I was popular with one group at least.

I was too keyed up to pay close attention to the heats. Row after row of archers lined up, and as the events progressed the targets moved further and further away. The soldiers drew the most cheers as they took the opportunity to show off with some fancy shots. One drew a circle of arrows around the rim of the target. A group of nine lined up and fired at once, their arrows spelling out a capital ‘A’ in honour of the king. To them, it was more of a display than a competition. Hoggit was there and he was particularly vocal, calling out to the crowd and strutting around between shots. I had to admit that as a group they were quite proficient. But I was better.

It was the opens that I paid close attention to. Among their ranks might be a maverick, a lone-wolf archer who was going to steal the day; someone better even than Rodden and me. I prayed for such a thing. If neither Rodden nor I won, all bets would be off: I wouldn’t get my ring back and he wouldn’t get my hand. This, I decided, was the second-best outcome. I didn’t need to get my ring back from Rodden. As he’d said, it was useless to him now. I was already here.

None of this was going to change my game-plan, however. If I slackened off to allow someone else to win and Rodden beat them, I would be lost. I was going to compete to the best of my ability and just hope that if I wasn’t as good as Rodden, another would be better than both of us.

Someone in the last open caught my attention. It was a tall man, cloaked in black. Without emotion, he fired shot after perfect shot and ended up winning the heat. Rodden noticed him too, consternation on his features. I saw him lean across to say something in Amis’s ear. The prince frowned and looked at the man, and then called Hoggit over. The captain listened, nodded, and went back to his archers. There were already a handful of guards on the field, but those who had competed suddenly snapped to attention and posted themselves around the range as well, their eyes on the cloaked figure.

What was Rodden up to? Was this stranger too good, and he was going to stoop to murder rather than lose the tournament? But surely if this was the plan he wouldn’t have involved the prince. I studied Rodden’s face, but instead of fierce competitiveness, I saw unease. I looked back at the stranger but couldn’t detect anything dangerous about him. Besides, he was one man against a hundred, so what could happen?

BOOK: Blood Song: The First Book of Lharmell
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