Authors: Alma Alexander
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Magic, #Brothers and Sisters, #Pretenders to the Throne, #Fantasy Fiction, #Queens
To that great Once and Future Fellowship of Writers—from the legends to those with names as yet unknown, who inspired me, entertained me, encouraged me and finally made me one of them.
Changer of Days
hen Red Dynan, King of Roisinan, dies in battle, his illegitimate son, Sif, is offered command of the army and the crown by Dynan’s general, Fodrun. As Sif leads his troops to victory, Dynan’s widowed queen, Rima, realizes her nine-year-old daughter, Princess Anghara, is in mortal danger. The Queen spirits the girl away to Cascin, to the household of her sister, Chella, while she tries to ensure Anghara’s succession. Rima’s fears are justified, and she dies in Sif’s conquest of Roisinan—but not before laying the groundwork for Anghara’s succession.
Anghara’s real identity is a secret at Chella’s manor, where she is known as Brynna in an attempt to keep her safe from Sif. However, the household tutor Feor realizes Anghara bears the seeds of Sight, the ability to see events hidden from normal eyes. Feor, himself Sighted, begins training her, as well as subtly preparing her to reclaim her throne.
But it proves impossible to conceal Anghara. Untrained in Sight, she poses no small danger to herself and to others, and a wretched incident involves Kieran, another fosterling at Cascin, with whom Anghara establishes a special relationship, and Ansen, her aunt’s oldest son. The confrontation costs Ansen dearly; he loses sight in one eye. Anghara’s true identity is revealed, and Ansen, bitter and angry, stores the knowledge silently against payment of the blood debt. Chella sends the girl to Castle Bresse, a place of safety where she can be fully trained in the use of her gift.
Bresse provides sanctuary for less than three years before Ansen betrays Anghara. She is far from trained, but the sisters manage to spirit her out of the castle before an enraged Sif turns his fury against anyone with Sight. He proclaims there is no place for witchery in his realm and burns Bresse to the ground. All the sisters die in the flames.
Travelling alone, Anghara meets a blind beggar woman, who turns out to be a Kheldrini
a priestess from a strange land. The people of Kheldrin are far from human and their powers prove to be old and vast. The priestess, who perceives an extraordinary potential in the young girl, breaks with centuries-old tradition and asks Anghara to return with her to Kheldrin. The priestess assumes the role of teacher, and Anghara spends the next two years adapting the techniques of the Kheldrini
to her Sight.
After receiving the last prophecy of a dying and venerated oracle deep in the Kheldrini desert, Anghara finds in herself the power to defy al’Khur, the Kheldrini Lord of Death himself, demanding back a life he has taken. He bows to her will, calling her “Changer.” He reveals to her that she has a great destiny but must forget their encounter until she is ready to claim it. Anghara is then instrumental in raising another oracle to replace the one which offered her its last words—and the new oracle’s first prophecy is a call to return to her kingdom.
t was raining in Roisinan.
The Kheldrini ship glided into the harbor of Calabra at twilight, with the first torches already guttering under sheltering roofs streaming with water. The air was rich, damp, cool, filled with the sharp, brittle smell of autumn which opened the floodgates of memory and released a torrent of small, exquisitely painful recollections into Anghara’s mind. As she had found it difficult to believe that anything other than the yellow sand of Arad Khajir’i’id lay beyond the mountains that sundered the desert from the sea, so now she found it equally hard to think that there was anything else in the world except this wet autumn evening on the shores of Roisinan. There was a lump in her throat which she couldn’t quite seem to swallow as she stepped off the ship, dressed decorously Roisinan-fashion and wrapped in what had once been Kieran’s cloak, the same one she had taken from Cascin and treasured carefully throughout her years in Bresse and the Twilight Country—her Kheldrini finery she carried bundled up in a parcel in her hand. Home. She was home. Everything about this place she knew, she remembered, it was all stamped soul-deep into her; she forgot for the moment, lost in the sheer joy of it, why she had fled Roisinan, and the cage she had once seen hanging in a street of this very town.
She stood motionless for an instant, lifting her face into the drizzling rain much as Kieran had been wont to do back in Cascin, and for the same reason—in the past two years Anghara had not seen water often, rain least of all. The few violent desert storms that had come her way had been a far cry from what she revelled in now—and she had all but forgotten the feel of raindrops on her skin. Her eyes were closed in a kind of rapture, and her face, if she had only stopped to think about it, was full in the light of a nearby torch, underneath a half-drawn hood that offered little concealment. A man standing a few paces away, talking to the captain of another ship which had come into harbor almost at the same time as Anghara’s and had berthed alongside, glanced casually at the passenger who had just come off the Kheldrini vessel, and then looked again, narrowing his eyes in sudden interest. Before Anghara had opened her eyes and moved away from the quayside, the man had abruptly excused himself from his friend and stood waiting in the shadows. When Anghara walked away from her ship and into Calabra to look for food and shelter, he followed her at a judicious distance.
She did not choose the hostelry where ai’Jihaar had taken her on her last sojourn in this place. That held too many memories, even for her; and it was a place where the Kheldrini traders often stayed when in Roisinan. Anghara wanted to reconnect to Roisinan, not wallow in memories of Kheldrin; she picked a sturdy Roisinani inn just off the quay. She even had plans of joining the common room crowd for a while, listening to the sound of her own tongue, not heard since she left Calabra two years before—if one didn’t count ai’Jihaar in the beginning, or al’Jezraal’s own surprising, Shaymir-gleaned prowess. But once the landlord’s buxom wife showed her into her room, the lure of the narrow bed proved too strong. Anghara hadn’t realized how tired she was, how much emotion could drain one’s strength, and she had been living on little else but emotion, culminating with tonight, ever since she had sailed from Sa’alah. There would be time—there would be time for everything. For now, a jaw-cracking yawn reminded her that the best thing to start with would be a good night’s sleep; she yielded with good grace, leaving the common room for another time.
Her dreams were strange, laced with odd premonitions of which she could only recall the sense but not the substance when she woke the following morning. She brooded on them for as long as it took her to dress and get ready to step outside and begin reclaiming Roisinan, only to dismiss them as she closed the door of her room behind her. A pale sun was shining from a washed-out sky, the air crisp and cool from last night’s rain; the day was full of promise. Anghara breathed deeply of it, touching again the edges of last night’s joy, tasting it as though it was sweet wine—and then, gray eyes determined, she set her mind sternly on what lay ahead.
The first order of business was the purchase of a horse. Anghara spared a swift, regretful thought for the gray dun she had ridden into Sa’alah—his owner, the yellow-eyed young man from Kharg’in’dun’an, had said that nothing she would ever ride afterward would match that mount. She set out in the direction where, according to the landlord, lay a posting stables which might offer a far more ordinary beast for sale.
She had left her premonitions behind in her room, but on this bright, innocent morning she could not get rid of a prickling between her shoulder blades. Several times she turned sharply, but never saw anything untoward behind her, and hated herself for waking this suspicion so soon.
What if someone recognized her?
she chided herself, after yet another glance behind.
The years in Kheldrin, and before that the years in Bresse…Who is likely to recognize you after all this time?
But the feeling persisted. Perhaps because of it, she was far too eager to conclude the deal for the horse—to be out of this place, with its invisible eyes. The stable owner sensed her urgency, and got away with far more than he would if Anghara’s full attention had been on the bargaining. Nevertheless, she walked out of the stables as the owner of a quiet bay mare; the mare had cast a shoe the previous day, however, and it was agreed she would be delivered to Anghara’s inn after she’d received the required attention from the smith.
Outside, the inexplicable menace had thickened. Anghara shivered as she stood for a moment at the stable’s door, raking the street with anxious eyes. Still nothing, still nobody.
“I can leave as soon as I get the mare,” she murmured to herself, more to reassure herself by the sound of her voice than anything else. “In the meantime…it’s probably best to go back to the inn…and wait.”
She stepped off the threshold into the street, and a few quick, cautious steps took her around the corner. The apprehension which beat in her had put a furtiveness in her step which she had to consciously quash, if she didn’t want to find herself thought of as guilty by suspicion. Every so often she caught herself looking like an escaping thief, anxious to avoid detection. “There’s nobody out there,” she told herself firmly. “Nobody.”
But there was.
Not behind her, but ahead. Even as she lifted her eyes, she recognized the youth who had paused to glance at her on the other side of the street with a sudden pang of knowledge which made her heart miss a beat.
Adamo! Or was it Charo…She never had been able to tell them apart at first sight…
But even as she straightened, her eyes wide, her hand half raised in a motion of greeting, it was too late. A quiet step behind her was her only warning; even as she began to turn, an arm slid around her waist and yanked her into an archway that opened into the street. Another hand, bearing a rag drenched with something pungent, clapped over her mouth and nose. It all happened too fast—she didn’t have a chance to reach for the power that could have saved her. Before she lost consciousness she was dimly aware of the hand holding the rag none too gently pinching shut her nose while someone held a vial of some noxious-tasting liquid to her lips. She swallowed convulsively, gasping for air, before her conscious mind had a chance to refuse. The drug, for some kind of a drug it had to be, was potent and took effect almost immediately, spreading in a slow liquid fire into her bloodstream.
Somewhere deep inside her something was laughing hysterically.
Hama dan ar’i’id,
a small voice chanted; you are never alone in the desert. And she had behaved in the streets of Calabra with that dictum in mind. But she was no longer in the desert, and she had paid for her carelessness. She thought she shaped a few syllables in a dying voice—
—but the cry remained in her mind, and she finally went limp, collapsing into the arms of her captors as she slid into unconsciousness.
They had been quiet and professional, and they had not drawn any attention to themselves—it had almost looked as though Anghara had stepped backward into the archway herself. But there had been six of them; Adamo saw them all, and he was alone. It would have been foolhardy to attempt a rescue, especially here in the streets of Sif’s harbor city against soldiers wearing Sif’s colors beneath their concealing cloaks. But without a doubt it was Anghara. The relentless search for his foster sister had been the kernel around which Kieran’s small band of rebels had formed. These were proving a hard nut for Sif to crack, simply because he could never find them. There was a danger, simply by standing on the street and showing he had seen what had happened, that Adamo might well draw unwelcome attention onto himself, and by inference onto Kieran’s group—Anghara’s only chance of rescue. So he hunched his shoulders, lowered his eyes and hurried on. He didn’t need to follow the men who had seized Anghara. There could be only one place they meant to take her.
The posting stables around the corner seemed the most obvious place for her to have been coming from, and Adamo, after a small hesitation, ducked inside. “Anyone here?”
The stable owner peered out of a stall, wiping his hands on already filthy breeches. “Can I help you, young sir?”
“My master has need of a horse,” said Adamo, adopting all the swaggering arrogance of a young squire. “A quiet beast; it’s for his lady. Hers was lamed the other day, and it is urgent that they leave for home at once. Have you any for loan or sale?”
“Well, now, I don’t really keep ladies’ mounts,” said the stable owner, scratching his head. “Perhaps the gray over there?”
Adamo gazed at the indicated gelding with a jaundiced eye. “He’s swaybacked, and looks as if he would shake my lady’s bones apart,” he complained. He looked around. There could have been only one reason Anghara had been in here, to obtain a mount. Now which…“How about the bay, there?”
“She’s just been sold, not minutes ago,” said the stable owner, not without regret. He could probably have gotten an even better price off this green young retainer than he had from the preoccupied girl who had just left.
“The young lady I saw a moment ago coming out of your establishment?”
“That’s the one,” the stable owner nodded. “The mare’s to go to her at the King’s Inn just as soon as I can get the smith to look to the shoe she’s cast.”
Adamo clicked his tongue impatiently. “But nothing else that I see here will really do…the King’s Inn, you say? My master’s need is urgent; perhaps if I could speak to the young lady…”
“That’s nothing to do with me,” the stable owner shrugged. “The horse is to go to her, she’s paid me fair and square, and if you want the beast you must talk to her. But she seemed quite set on the animal. I doubt that she’ll sell…”
“Are there any other stables nearby?” Adamo asked for form’s sake, and listened with some impatience to the litany of instructions the query brought forth. As soon as he could make his escape, he hurried back the way he had come, peering cautiously into the niche where the two men who had attacked Anghara had pulled her, and into which Adamo had seen their four henchmen follow. It was a gateway, leading into a cobbled courtyard, but both the gateway and the courtyard were empty. Adamo raked the place with his eyes but there was no further sign of them. Sif’s men and their prey must have slipped behind one of the closed doors. Swearing softly, he turned and hastened down the street, toward the harbor and the King’s Inn. What possessed her, he thought violently and irrationally, to choose an inn with such an ill-omened name? And where had she been all this time? It was partly the shock of seeing that familiar face so unexpectedly, when he, one of many, had almost given up hope of ever finding Anghara again, that had paralyzed him for one precious instant, which Sif’s men had seized to good advantage. He should have…He should have…
The possibilities of what he should have done buzzed round in his head like angry bees. Even as he was racing to the King’s Inn, he was berating himself for not following the abductors. Perhaps they would stay in the city another day in some lair, and a rescue could have been tried with the handful of Kieran’s men who were in Calabra. But it would be difficult to catch Sif’s soldiers by surprise, and if there had been six on this detail it stood to reason there were more where these had come from, and possibly still more within earshot. And, counting Adamo himself, there were only five all told in his own small group. They had not been sent here as a fighting unit. And Kieran…Kieran would have to be told…
Wishing all the while that Charo, who was much better suited for this kind of intrigue, was in his shoes, Adamo managed to charm the landlord’s wife at the King’s Inn into believing he was her newest lodger’s half-brother, who should have been here to meet her yesterday but was delayed on the road. After one or two lukewarm refusals, she eventually agreed to let him wait for Anghara’s return in her room.
A swift search gave him nothing but more mystery. The package containing Anghara’s Kheldrini regalia baffled him; if the landlady had been one whit less sure of herself, Adamo would have been quite prepared to believe she had let him into the wrong room. Knowing with bitter certainty that Anghara would not be back to claim any belongings she had left behind, Adamo packed the intriguing paraphernalia and, giving the landlady a wide and cautious berth, took his leave.
Only one of his men was at their lodgings. He’d been laying out a solitaire with a battered pack of cards when Adamo arrived, and looked up with an expression of patient boredom at the sound of the opening door. One glimpse of Adamo’s face and that expression fled; the man leapt to his feet with a haste that overturned the small table before him, sending cards flying everywhere. “What in the world has happened?” he demanded. “You look as though you just saw a ghost.”
“I have, and she’s very much alive…and in trouble,” Adamo said, tossing Anghara’s package onto his bed. “Where are the others? We move out today. Kieran spoke about pulling out from the base shortly; if he’s not there he might take some finding, and this can’t wait.”