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Authors: Rhiannon Hart

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Blood Song: The First Book of Lharmell (9 page)

BOOK: Blood Song: The First Book of Lharmell
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I didn’t have much time to consider this as the final event was being called. Stomach lurching, I stepped forward. As the main attraction, Rodden and I were given pride of place at the centre of the range. The other contestants fell in beside us. The man in the black cloak took his place next to Rodden. I saw Rodden’s shoulders bunch, and a ripple of distaste go through him. Good. He was worried. As my rival’s confidence waned, I found mine grew, and I plucked at my string in a cheerful manner. Renata and Lilith were on their feet, the only ones cheering for me. Two sharp-eyed girls aged around eighteen or so had made it to the final round. They looked like soldiers’ daughters and were long-legged and tanned. One of them must have been Hoggit’s as he hollered and applauded like crazy when she took her place. Two soldiers and one other civilian took their marks.

The rules were simple: six sets of three arrows were to be fired, and at the end of the round all but the top three archers were to be eliminated. The remaining three would go through to the final round. Before any shots had been fired I was certain that the final round would consist of Rodden, me, and the stranger in black. The judges cautioned the audience to remain silent throughout to allow the competitors complete concentration.

The targets were set at fifty paces, which gave those with heavier bows like myself and the men an advantage. Smaller bows would not fire with enough force to be unaffected by the cross-wind that had started blowing.

Lilith stepped forward to start the tournament. I could see from her face that she thought the whole affair was amusing. She held aloft a fluttering hanky which she released with the words, ‘Let the tournament begin!’

We took our marks, notched our arrows, drew back and, as one, fired. Arrows whistled through the air and hit the targets with a dull
thunk
. A murmur went through the crowd. I let out the breath I’d been holding: from my target sprouted a perfect bullseye. I had told myself that I wouldn’t look at anyone’s board but my own, but despite myself I snuck a glance at Rodden’s and the stranger’s. Theirs showed perfects shots as well.

Despite the butterflies in my stomach, I steeled myself to focus. We fired shot after shot and soon I was in my stride. Notch, draw, aim, fire. After each set of three, squires ran forward to clear our boards. The stranger’s arrows were embedded so deeply that the boy had to brace himself with his foot in order to yank them out.

At the end of the round the scorers totted up the points. The contestants shuffled from foot to foot. I bit my thumbnail. The stranger stared straight ahead, motionless.

The announcer called the names of those elimin- ated. As I had predicted, the last ones standing were the stranger, Rodden and myself.

Rodden turned to me and bowed. ‘Congratulations, Your Highness.’ To the crowd he looked gracious, but I could see the sardonic glint in his eyes. As he congratulated me he pulled my ring out from beneath his shirt where I could see it. Odious man.

The final round consisted of sets of two shots. At the end of each set a competitor could be elimin- ated. If no one slipped, the sets would continue until someone misfired from fatigue. The crowd was spellbound; the only noise was the wind. We had all fired equally well so far, so no one was sure which way it was going to go.

I forced myself to concentrate. I imagined that I was in Amentia and a long, chilly afternoon of perfect shots stretched before me. As if to lend authenticity to this, Leap padded to my side and sat blinking in the sun. My mascot caught the crowd’s attention and they oohed and ahhed over him.

We drew back; fired. And again: draw; fire. The wind was blowing harder, gusting erratically. I began to be careful when I loosed my shots; a stray gust could blow an arrow off course. I waited until a particularly vicious wind had just begun to subside and fired before a fresh one could get up to speed. The others noticed my technique and adjusted their shots as well.

After four sets Rodden and I were still as steady as rocks, but the stranger had begun to wheeze. Fatigue was getting to him. For the first time I noticed his hands. They were gnarled and withered and a grim shade of grey. Puffy blue veins stood out over his tendons.

On the second shot of the sixth set the stranger misfired. The crowd let out a collective gasp. Holding my breath, I looked to the scorers as they deliberated. At last one looked away from the board and drew his arm in a sharp, horizontal line: the stranger was out.

I let out my breath, but in dismay rather than relief: the hardest part was yet to come. Neither Rodden nor I had shown signs of tiring. I had a feeling that many more sets stretched before us.

The scorers moved our targets back five paces, upping the stakes.

By the sixteenth set, the first two fingers of my left hand were red raw. By the twenty-first, my shoulders were beginning to cramp. The gusts were blowing harder and more haphazardly. It was getting more difficult to correct for the wind and predict when it was safe to fire.

I loosed the second arrow of the twenty-second set and my hopes plummeted. Before the arrow even sank into the board I knew it had been blown off course. I’d fired too soon. It was inside the bullseye but it was off-centre. Rodden’s arrow bit into his board a split-second later. Feeling like everything was moving in slow motion, I turned to look at his target. He’d caught the tail-end of the gust; he’d fired too soon as well, as he’d been taking his cue from me. I looked from his arrow to mine, hoping to see a difference, but I couldn’t. The murmur from the crowd became a rumble as the scorers stepped forward with measuring tapes, trying to discern any difference in the shots that the naked eye couldn’t perceive.

I knew it was down to this. One of us had been unluckier with that wind. The scorers deliberated in whispers, measuring and remeasuring. Finally, one of them tapped Rodden’s board and drew his arm in a sharp, horizontal line: Rodden was out.

The crowd erupted wildly. Renata and Lilith were jumping up and down.

I had won.

Rodden turned to me, a wry smile on his face. He took my hand, bowed, and kissed it. Then he turned to face the crowd and held up my arm, signifying my victory. Everyone cheered and stamped their feet. Their favourite had lost, but he was still heroic in their eyes, taking his defeat with grace and good humour.

Rodden walked off, unfastening his arm guards as he went, but the crowd was still cheering and I realised the cheers were for me, not him. The underdog had snatched victory in the face of extreme odds and they loved it.

Despite the tears of relief that were accumulating behind my eyelids, I smiled and waved to the crowd. It was over. I wasn’t going to marry Rodden. Before anyone could come over and congratulate me I ran from the range and hid behind a tent, needing a moment to collect myself. Angrily, I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands, trying to grind out the tears.

When I looked up my vision was blurred and there was a black shape standing in front of me. As I was furiously blinking to clear my eyes, it reached for me. It was the stranger in black. I felt a jolt of fear: we were out of sight of the archers and something about the cloaked figure screamed danger. I wanted to run but my feet were rooted to the spot. I felt the hand close over my wrist –

From behind, someone grabbed a fistful of my dress and yanked me backwards.

‘Hey!’ My vision finally cleared and I saw Rodden, holding me behind him, a hand pressed against my shoulder. He leaned forward and said something to the man that I couldn’t make out. The figure looked from Rodden to me, as if weighing up the situation. Then he turned and left.

Rodden turned and shook my shoulder angrily, his eyes blazing. ‘Be more careful, will you?’

‘What? I was just standing here.’ But he was already stalking away.

Now I really did want to cry. Nothing was making any sense. I felt none of the happiness I should have for winning the tournament. Rodden was still acting like he was in charge. I didn’t feel like a winner. I felt like a stupid child.

I drew in a ragged breath. Spots danced before my eyes and I staggered. I was suddenly breathless. I doubled over, the hunger blooming in my chest and rippling like wildfire down my limbs.
No, not here
. There was nowhere to hide.

‘Zeraphina!’ The cry seemed to come from a long way off. It sounded like Renata. I didn’t want her to see me like this so I tried to run. My legs gave out and I dropped to the ground. I curled my body around the pain. It could be fatigue, the sleepless nights and strain of the tournament overcoming me. But I was fooling myself. It was the hunger. I heard a roaring in my ears, felt hands on me, then nothing.

NINE

I
opened my eyes to utter blackness. I sat up, flailing around, and immediately got tangled in netting. I panicked, claustrophobia setting in. Why was it so dark? It was like the dungeon in my dream.
The darkness. The blood. Lilith’s dead body.
I fought my way out of the bed and felt for the balcony door. It had been closed and the curtains were drawn across it, but my frantic fingers soon located the handle and I flung myself outside. I discovered the reason for the darkness: it was night. I had slept the day away. I felt groggy and weak and slumped onto a bench.

Through my fogginess, a sound on the wind came to me, softly at first, but then it pierced through my sleep-haze. It was the eerie, wordless chanting, louder than ever. The sound filled my ears and I searched the sky.

The moon was waxing full. A dark shape passed over it and I thought I saw the flap of wings. It was either small and very close, or huge and far away. My impression was the latter. I couldn’t see much of the sky from there so I ran out of the apartment and along the deserted passages.

I found the stairs to the parapet and flew up them. I was dimly aware of Leap and Griffin at my side. We went up and up in the darkness, my hands clawing at the walls in my desperation to reach the top. I burst out into the night and searched the sky. In the dim moonlight I saw shapes moving overhead, blotting out the stars. There must have been hundreds of them. I ran to the edge of the parapet, straining to see what they were.

A voice spoke over the keening wind. ‘Feeling better?’

In my haste I hadn’t seen that Rodden was standing on the parapet. The sky began to clear.

‘Where are they going?’ I wailed. As the stars reappeared I felt a terrible sense of loss.

‘Where do you think?’

I watched as the shapes receded. To the north. Where else? I slumped against the battlements. ‘No,’ I whispered.

‘No what?’

‘No, I’m not feeling better. I feel worse. What were those things? Lharmellins?’

He didn’t answer me.

‘Did you make the singing stop?’ I asked.

He turned to leave, but I grabbed his arm. ‘Not so fast.’ I held out my hand. ‘My ring.’

He dug into his pocket and slapped it onto my palm without a word. Then he pulled out of my grasp and made for his turret.

‘No! Please. Talk to me. I need to know what’s going on.’

He rounded on me. ‘You really have no idea? I’m amazed. You do enough snooping around.’

‘I think I know what I am. I think I know what you are. But I don’t know what you and
they
are up to, and it’s driving me crazy. And that thing today in the cloak. What was he? And what was in the sky just now?’

I saw relief on his face. He was glad of my ignorance, which meant he wasn’t going to tell me anything. I turned to go, but it was his turn to call me back.

‘Zeraphina, wait.’

I waited for him to speak, but he didn’t. Instead, he held out his wrist and Griffin flew from the battlements and landed carefully on his sleeve. He hadn’t whistled or even looked at her. Then Leap jumped onto the ledge and butted his head against Rodden’s shoulder. I felt a huge pang of loss. They were deserting me. My only friends were being taken from me.

‘How did you do that?’ I whispered. For the second time that day I was close to tears. ‘Griffin doesn’t go to anyone but me.’

‘I asked her to,’ he said.

He wasn’t making sense. He hadn’t said a word. ‘No you didn’t.’

‘Not with my voice. I spoke in my head. They can hear me. They can hear
you
. Haven’t you ever realised?’

I shook my head. Hear me?

Zeraphina . . .

I felt a jolt. It was the voice in my not-dream. The voice of the blue-eyed phantom, the one that had soothed the burning hunger from my body and driven away the keening wind. I knew that voice better than anything in the world. I heard it in my dreams. ‘You try it,’ he said.

Tentatively, I held out my wrist and called to Griffin, speaking her name with my mind. Nothing happened. I tried Leap, begging for him to come to me. He didn’t move.

‘I can’t –’ My voice caught. I stepped forward and clutched Leap to my body, burying my face in his familiar fur. Why was Rodden so cruel? I didn’t understand any of this.

He sighed. ‘I forgot. I made them give you laudanum for the hunger. It’s made you foggy.’

I shivered in my nightclothes.

‘You should go back to bed,’ he said, and walked away.

Angry, I whistled for Griffin and she came, a flash of gold over my head. I trudged to my room, angry that he’d given me still more questions instead of answers. I hugged Leap to my chest and kept my eyes on my eagle, her wingtips brushing the walls as she flew.

––

‘Here.’ Renata handed me a tall glass of water. I sipped cautiously, still feeling the woozy effects of the drug I had been given. I was in our rooms on the sofa, my legs curled under me and a blanket around my shoulders. It was nearly midday but I’d only just woken from a fitful sleep. The glass felt too heavy in my hand. My shoulders ached from the strain of the archery tournament and my mind was leaden. It was mostly from the laudanum, but there was something else. I was fed up. Fed up with not having any answers. Fed up with being kept in the dark. I was also exhausted from the blood-hunger. I remembered what Lilith whispered to me that morning in her room, devastated by Lester’s death.
I just want everything to stop. I try to look ahead and it’s like there’s nothing there.
That was how I felt. I was trapped in Pergamia. I knew that when the time came I would be unable to get in the coach to go home. The Lharmellins had me in their grip. If one of those things had come down from the sky I would have begged for it to take me to the north, even though I was terrified of what it would mean.

So, there it was. I was trapped. In limbo.

Renata reached for my hand but I pulled away. She sat down next to me. ‘Lothskorn wants me to take you home,’ she said softly.

I started.
Rodden
. My mind was suddenly crisp with rage. ‘Why does everyone do everything he wants them to?’ I exploded. ‘What’s
with
him? Is he king all of a sudden?’ I struggled off the sofa and glared at her.

‘Darling,’ said Renata, her voice pitched as if to soothe a wild animal. ‘He’s worried about you.
I’m
worried about you.’

Worried! He knew I could no sooner go home than fly to the moon. I hurled the glass to the marble floor. It smashed into smithereens, water and shards splattering all over the ground.

Renata stood up. ‘Zeraphina!’

I snatched up a vase and hurled it against the far wall. It hit a painting and exploded, and they both went crashing to the ground. This was good. This was just what I needed. To destroy something; feel it break under the force of my hand.

‘What’s going on?’ Lilith came into the room, surveying the damage.

‘Zeraphina is throwing a temper tantrum because she doesn’t want to go home.’

‘But my wedding’s tomorrow.’

‘See, Mother?’ I said. ‘Lilith’s wedding is tomorrow. Now, how can I miss that?’ I stalked to my room. If I had been properly dressed I would have fled the apartment, but I was still in my nightgown. I slammed the door behind me. Leap’s ears were flattened against his skull and he looked at me with haunted eyes. I sat down and pulled him onto my lap.

As my anger dissipated I felt a twinge of shame. Renata and Lilith had no idea what I was going through, but that wasn’t their fault. All these years I had worked hard to conceal the truth from them. From myself as well. Practising my archery had been the sporting equivalent of putting my head in the sand.

But now, because of my pig-headedness, it was too late: Lilith would marry Amis tomorrow, and Pergamia would become her home for the rest of her life. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d condemned her to a life in peril. Whatever circled ominously over the keep on a nightly basis was sure to attack before long. My dreams were more prophetic than I’d thought: if Lilith died, her blood would be on my hands, for I had been the one to coerce her northwards.

My head started to ache and I lay down. I must have fallen asleep again because the next thing I heard was Renata and Lilith coming in from dinner. I crept out, blinking in the candlelight. As my eyes cleared I saw that the mess I’d made had been cleared up.

‘Were they very valuable?’ I croaked.

Renata handed me a flute of something pale and bubbly. ‘Not at all, darling. As soon as I saw them I knew they were barely fit to be hurled across a room. Are you feeling better?’

We sat together on the couch and I curled into her warm body. The dress she wore was of the softest satin. I felt like a child who’d been woken by the grown-ups coming home and I relished the cosseted feeling it gave me. I was still the baby of the family.

‘A little,’ I said.

Lilith sat before us on the ottoman, her eyes shining. She held up her glass. ‘What should we toast?’

‘That’s easy, Daughter. To you and Amis. To the future.’

‘To the future,’ we echoed, even though it pained me to say the words. I took a sip of the bubbly stuff and it was pleasant, but very dry. Then I sneezed.

Renata took my glass. ‘And that’s more than enough for you in the state you’re in. It’s time you were off to bed.’

‘No, please. Just a little longer.’ I wanted to stay with them in the soft candlelight and just be quiet together. It was the last time Lilith would belong only to us.

Lilith took another sip. ‘Tell us about your wedding, Mother.’

Renata smiled softly and dropped her eyes. It was a tale we’d heard only in snatches over the years, and rarely with any joy. Tonight, it seemed, we were to be indulged. ‘By the time I was married,’ she began, ‘I was already queen. My parents were gone and Amentia was mine. It had declined by then, but I expected us to pull through. Of course, we never did. Things just got worse. At the time I wasn’t particularly worried. I was quite enjoying myself and had no intention of marrying; men are so dreadfully bossy. Then I met your father.’

‘Love at first sight?’ asked Lilith.

‘Hardly. He was always taunting me about something. It never even crossed our minds that marriage was on the cards: I was a queen and he was a prince, fourth-born and totally landless. It’s just not done, you know.’

‘Mother,’ I reproached. ‘Marrying beneath your station.’

‘Quite. So, as neither of us was even thinking of marriage, we became friends. Of sorts. More like sparring partners; we were always fighting about something. And then one day he told me I’d have to marry him because I was in love with him, and I was very angry to find he was right.’ She was smiling, lost in the past, a place she hadn’t dared to go for a very long time. ‘And then we had you, Lilith,’ she said softly. ‘And then before I knew it I was expecting you.’ She grasped my hand, her smile fading. ‘And then he was gone. We’d had three years.’

Lilith and I were silent. It had been a mistake to ask her about her wedding. The story, as we’d known, had a tragic ending.

Renata gripped my hand hard. ‘And that’s why I was so afraid to lose you, Zeraphina, when you grew ill. You and Lilith were all I had left of him. I would have done anything to keep you with me. Anything.’

I was too stunned to speak, but the question echoed through my mind.

Anything? What did you do to me?

Lilith wrapped her arms around her, which is what I should have done. Belatedly I joined them, and for a few minutes we were a sticky mess of tears, satin and rouge.

Renata came to the surface first. ‘Look at me, my eldest daughter’s wedding tomorrow and I’m crying before the service has started. I’ve had too much wine.’

‘Don’t they like to
drink
in Pergamia!’ said Lilith.

‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘Have you seen Amis’s aunts? They’re always tipsy.’

‘Outright drunk, more like it,’ Renata said. ‘You watch. We’ll come back to visit your sister next year to find her passed out cold in some bushes.’

Come back.
Leave.
It was an impossibility. The journey home would kill me for sure.

Renata steered me to my room and tucked me into bed.

‘Just you and me now, hey?’ she whispered, smoothing the sheets. ‘Heaven help us.’

I managed a weak smile before the tears, wine and sheer exhaustion knocked me out.

––

I slept until just before dawn, when I was awakened by shouts and running feet. I leaned over my balcony to try to see what was going on, but the commotion had already passed by. As my eyes adjusted to the morning light I saw more archers than ever posted around the battlements, arrows trained on the sky. They looked particularly alarmed and I got the impression that this time it had been a close call. I ran to the door of our apartment and stood outside, listening. There was another commotion going on somewhere, but far off in the keep. The king and queen were being called for. Then things quieted and I crept back inside.

I stood in the darkened sitting room, ears peeled for the sounds of an attack, and I remembered that this was Lilith’s wedding day.

As I was being dressed, possibilities were racing across my mind. I could stop the wedding. Tell Lilith she wouldn’t be safe if she stayed in Pergamia.
There are monsters across the straits. I think they attacked this morning. I think I’m one of them . . .

But it was there that my mind recoiled and I knew I couldn’t open my mouth. I told myself that it wasn’t only cowardice that kept me silent, but a lack of proof: all I had in the way of material evidence was a tawdry paperback from a market stall.

If only I’d voiced my doubts earlier. But hadn’t I tried? Hadn’t I been trying to find out the truth ever since I’d got to Pergamia, and been laughed at and paraded in front of crowds for my trouble?

I remembered how pleased I had been with myself the morning I had convinced Lilith to come to Pergamia. As I watched her being dressed, her face aglow with excitement, I wondered what sort of life I had condemned her to.

I had one chance left to ensure her safety, but I would have to rely on the most dangerous man in the kingdom: Rodden. I’d stupidly asked for my ring back, voiding his promise to grant me anything I desired, but I had one more bargaining chip. He wanted me to go home. So I would tell him I could stay and kick up a fuss in Pergamia, or he could give me a big bottle of laudanum so I could knock myself out for the whole journey back to Amentia, and promise never to return – if, and this was a big if, he promised to take care of Lilith. Get her out of the way before things turned nasty. And I had a feeling they were going to.

BOOK: Blood Song: The First Book of Lharmell
2.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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