Authors: Janet Woods
Tags: #Fantasy Romance
The city of Karshal
The war was over. The prosperous northern trading city of Karshal now belongs to Lord Cynan. His standard, a red scorpion within a gold circle on a black background fluttered from the battlements. Outside the city walls funeral pyres sent smoke into the still air. Blood darkened the river water.
Azarine’s family had been put to the sword, but her lady mother lingered on. One of Cynan’s troopers had driven a spike through her belly, which was swollen with child.
Azarine stood quietly, her mind joined with that of her mother, absorbing some of the pain.
‘Death or submission?’
Cynan was an imposing man, used to being obeyed. Azarine swallowed at the thought of belonging to him. She closed her eyes so she didn’t see it coming when she made her choice. ‘Death.’
He gave a big booming laugh. ‘Do you want to die then?’
Of course she didn’t want to die. ‘Allow me to ease my mother’s pain first.’
‘Only if you promise to choose life, otherwise you will be given to my troopers for sport and then hung by her side.’
Her maid, Esbel, carried a basket of herb medication covered by a cloth, and they made their way out of the city to the row of pikes with their grisly contents.
The soldier called Servish guarded them, and was quickly put to sleep by the art of mesmer.
‘I am here Yvaine, my beloved mother.’
‘Thank the Gods, for I cannot hold on much longer. The child inside me is damaged, but he still lives. He will be born with a scar on him. It has taken the last of my strength to transfer to him the knowledge of his birth. He must be cut from my belly because he is weakening. Esbel has arranged for him to be taken to a place of safety, after which, you must forget about him and about me.’
‘I will never forget you and I will avenge the death of my family.’
‘Come kiss me goodbye daughter and know I love you, then turn away while Esbel does what we know she must.’
There was a moment of love between them and then Yvaine said tiredly. ‘Esbel do it now. Turn away Azarine. Fetch the sheet from the basket the child can be swaddled.’
Her mother’s last breath was cut short by the whisper if a knife and a faint cry that sounded like relief.
‘Yvaine,’ Azarine whispered, her heart bursting with grief.
‘Your lady mother is now with her husband and sons. Hold out the sheet, Lady, we must hurry before the soldier wakes.’
The infant placed in the sheet for swaddling was dark-haired and had vivid blue eyes. There was a look of a bird of prey about his dark lowering brows.
Esbel thrust a marker into her hands. ‘Quickly now, give him his secret name so you will know each other.’
Her mother had intended to call him Falcon. Azarine would call him Darkwater for the river ran dark with blood,
They gazed in each other’s eyes and she imprinted him with his first memories, along with the blood and carnage he’d been born to. ‘I am your sister Azarine. Grow with the honor of our father and mother, Falcon Darkwater. Close your eyes and rest now. You’ll wake to another’s face.’ She kissed each delicate eyebrow and when he fell asleep she attached his marker to his wrist.
There came the beating of wings and a large bird with a pouched beak alighted. Taking the infant from Azarine’s arms Esbel placed him in the pouch and sprinkled the herbs that would ensure an undisturbed and peaceful sleep on his long journey. The bird flew up into the darkening sky and was gone.
Azarine gave a cry of distress when a bat swooped around them. The trooper woke with a start. ‘What was that?’
‘A bat, and soon it’s companions will join them. They come to eat the bodies. We must run for the safety of the city lest they attack us. By morning the Karshal family would be nothing but bones, and no evidence would remain of the son Yvaine had birthed.
Servish lumbered after them, his arms thrashing the air about him in case of attack from the bats.
Azarine cried out with relief when they were inside the city walls. She needed solitude and time to grieve for her family, but she doubted if she’d be offered it this night as they turned towards her home.
But Cynan was not entirely immune to her sensibilities. He had bathed and wore a clean black tunic trimmed with gold, and breeches.’
‘Will this act be a pleasure Lord?’
‘I will make it so for I find you powerfully attractive and have no wish to hurt you.’ He kissed her mouth so tenderly that she knew he meant it.
‘I have a meeting of my advisors to attend. Prepare yourself for me Karshal princess. Await my pleasure.’
Later, when she was helpless in the throes of this man’s urges and she found pleasure enough in his stimulation of her senses so she didn’t give in to the desire to repulse him, she activated the true-blood capsule she’d earlier placed inside her.
There was a warm flush as it was driven deep into her womb and attached itself.
A protective shield formed around it. From now on any attempt to impregnate her would fail. Azarine experienced a moment of regret before she regained her resolve for revenge.
When Cynan was spent and slept at her side, she prised open his eyelids and embedded some crystals, whispering, “The infant resulting from this assault of me will be a true-blood. No matter how high you come to esteem me, or how well you treat me, Cynan the conquerer, the day will come when the son you love will raise an army of true-bloods against you. With me at the vanguard they will raze Arles to the ground,
She held out her hands, palm up. ‘These hands will kill you for the cruelties committed against my family this day. They will be avenged – this I swear on the blood of Bane, the dark Lord to whom I pledge my allegiance body and soul.
The city of Arles
Eighteen seasons later.
It was summer when they took the young males. They were three-quarters grown into manhood and as lithe and as tall as saplings.
Bursting with energy and excitement they strutted about in the sunshine and jostled each other on the dock. Most of them were conscious of the covert glances of the young maids, and the admiration in their eyes set blood stirring hotly in their youthful loins.
The dark tunics and breeches the young males wore, were covered by a mottled brown cape with a wooden clasp. When they’d earned their arms, the cloaks would be changed for darker ones, and they’d wear the red and gold clasp that pronounced them fully trained defenders of Cynan’s guard.
Prince Laek of Arles stood a little apart from the crowd, commanding his own space. The confidence to command was displayed in his stance. His lithe, well-muscled body had been inherited from his father, but his dark hair and vivid blue eyes made him stand out amongst his companions, reminding them his mother was the blood princess of Karshal. His braid of youth had been removed that morning and his hair curled darkly against his face.
The sight of him filled Cynan with pride. Laek was a son to brag about – the result of a coupling between two royal houses. His companions were not far away. Jon and Iago had been friends with Laek since early childhood; they had grown up together. The three of them were almost inseparable. Jon was a season older than Iago, and both had more than a hint of red in their hair. Their eyes were a grayish/green. Azarine had brought them home from the orphanage where she did her charitable work, to be companions to Laek. Nobody knew who their father was, but the boys had been found on an ice flow with their dying mother.
At first Cynan had been annoyed with Azarine for bringing them into his household. ‘Laek has my brother’s children to grow up with.’
‘You have to remember that your son is part northern. There will be times when this causes resentment. Jon and Iago will provide companionship without the complications of kinship, for they’ll always know their place. Their loyalty to Laek will be absolute and under your influence they will grow into loyal citizens.’
And so it had proved to be. Now Cynan turned to his brother, who was the younger by two seasons. ‘Remember how we strutted when we were sent off to be trained to arms, Penn.’
Penn chuckled. ‘And remember how eager we were to bed a maid after two seasons of abstinence. We couldn’t wait to be paired off and wed.’
‘Aye,’ Cynan chuckled. ‘Your woman bore you two sons. All I could manage with Serica was a daughter, and she’s a graceless creature. How I envied you.’
‘But your second wife has given you a fine son. You did well to wed Azarine. It pleased the people of Karshal when she gave birth to a prince. The people of Arles were not so pleased, though. Laek is more Karshal in his looks than he is Arles.’
Annoyance flared in Cynan. Why did Penn keep harping on what was obvious to him? ‘They’ve grown used to him, and when the time comes for him to rule he will have earned their loyalty. Besides, he’ll be supported by Kedar and Grise, will he not? Where are your sons, by the way?’
Penn’s eyes hooded over. ‘They are with their units. Look, there’s Helise Colban. Is it true that you’ve promised her to Laek?’
Cynan nodded. ‘I’ve discussed it with Laek and he doesn’t object. I thought it might be a fitting reward for General Colban’s loyal service. Don’t you approve of her?’
‘Oh, the girl is fine enough, but she’s silly-headed and flaunts herself to court the admiration of men. I wonder if she will manage to keep herself untouched. Laek would be better off with the younger daughter. Jynx is his intellectual equal and they are friends.’
‘Jynx grew up with her twin brother and is too adventurous. Her parents despair of her for she has no feminine qualities and acts like a lad. Besides, she’s too small to be wed.’
‘She will grow in two seasons.’
‘I will think on what you’ve said, Penn, but at the moment my mind is set on Helise. If necessary I’ll take her into my household and she will have a chaperone.’
A whistle blew and the recruits scrambled into orderly lines. When the master-at-arms gave the order the young warriors began to stream towards the three trimarines waiting at the dock.
‘Laek!’ A girl ran out of the crowd to join his son. She slipped a talisman on a chain over his head.
A smile spreading across his face, Laek picked her up and twirled her round. He kissed her on the forehead, then set her on her feet and rejoined the column.
‘Farewell, Laek,’ Jynx called out before her mother managed to grab her by the long braid of fair hair that hung down her back and drag her away.
When Greer took hold of Jynx’s shoulders and gave her a good shaking. Greer Colban’s mouth opened and shut meanly as she scolded her youngest daughter, but Jynx didn’t look in the least bit chastened.
Jynx warmed his heart for she had a carefree soul. But she would not do for Laek, he thought, his glance going to the boyish breeches that molded her pert little behind. Over it she wore a short, belted tabard. Jynx hadn’t grown breasts yet, though the buds were there. Helise was more rounded, and definitely more womanly. His tongue flicked along his lips.
As soon as Greer loosened her grip, Jynx joined her brother, Remy, and the wolfine companion that followed the pair everywhere. It was hard to tell them apart except Remy’s hair was a darker shade of fair, almost tawny. He was a studious and gentle lad.
They slipped away into the crowd, heading for the hilltop at the entrance to the harbor. There, no doubt, they’d watch the fleet set sail for the horizon and the training isles beyond, where the three units would spend their first season learning battle strategy by pitting themselves against one another.
He saw Azarine with Esbel at her side threading her way through the crowd below the castle. People made a pathway for her, smiling and inclining their heads in respect. She was popular with the people, for she spent time tending to the sick. Azarine had lost none of her beauty, and Cynan couldn’t get enough of her. Even after all these seasons together her beauty blinded him to any other. He adored Azarine, and had never lusted after another woman since she’d surrendered herself to him. As for Serica, his first wife, he barely paid her any attention now, or the daughter they’d had together.
Despite the whistle from the master-at-arms, Laek took the time to say a private farewell to his mother as he lifted her hand to his mouth. The pair of them turned and looked up to where he stood on the balcony. Laek bowed to him, a sign of respect from son to father. A smile touched Azarine’s mouth. That respect would not last much longer.
The wave she sent him was mostly mockery. Cynan was so full of conceit that he wouldn’t know the difference, and she’d learned to manage him over the years. Immediately, all heads turned his way and the people began to clap and cheer.
Jon and Iago grinned at each other and bowed too, but lower, teasingly claiming the royal wardship. Cynan laughed, the pair had become like sons to him. Some teased him, saying that Iago and Jon, with their red hair, resembled him more than the son from his own loins. Had they been older than Laek he might have questioned the resemblance himself. His eyes were suddenly drawn to Helise, the woman he’s selected to be Prince Laek’s wife. Unexpectedly, his groin tightened when she smiled at him. He turned away, disgruntled by the attraction she presented to him, since he’d just congratulated himself on his fidelity to Azarine.