Authors: Fiona McIntosh
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy
Just for Ian. Fx
Darganoth of the Host walked with the Custodian through the breathtakingly beautiful gardens of the gods. The King’s voice was kind. ‘Thank you for coming, Lys. I’m sorry we welcome you back to us during such troubling times.’
She did not lift her eyes or smile. Lys walked stiffly beside the King of the gods, her heart heavy. ‘My lord, I have failed you.’ But she had not come here for forgiveness. She had come to seek the help of her fellow gods and the Elders.
‘This is not true, Lys,’ he offered gently. ‘Come, let us walk through the magnolia valley.’
He took her by the arm and guided her through the small gate which would take them into the cool, fragranced corridor of splendid trees. She allowed herself to be led into the exquisite surrounds which,
after so long in the Bleak, might have lifted her spirits. But Lys was distracted; filled with despair.
‘Dorgryl tricked me, my lord; fooled like a child I was.’ She shook her head sadly.
‘He fooled me too, Lys. And now he has tricked us again.’ He paused, then added: ‘It is for the last time.’
Darganoth inhaled the sweet perfume of his magnolia trees. He was tall and broad with black hair and the brightest of blue eyes with a piercing gaze that could hold one still as no chains could. He is so like his son, Lys noted, with the same flaw of—what was it? Kindness? Weakness?—she knew not what. Still, it saw the King unable to destroy his own brother.
Darganoth interrupted her thoughts in a voice achingly similar to another’s. ‘We must consider what to do now, not dwell on what is done. We cannot change the past.’
Lys felt slightly reassured by his calm. ‘Have the Elders discussed it, my lord?’
But her fragile confidence crumbled with his next words.
‘They have. They offer no solution. They assure me that in order to finally deal with Dorgryl, our precious ones may perish.’
Lys stopped. She felt her skin go clammy even though it was cool beneath the canopy of trees.
‘No!’ The King turned back as Lys fell to her knees. ‘You cannot, your majesty. I beg of you, don’t desert them now.’
‘Lys, we no longer have any choice.’
‘What do you think will happen?’ she whispered.
‘I presume Dorgryl will overwhelm the body he
inhabits and we will be forced to interfere against the Law and Quell him once and for all.’
‘Murder your own heir,’ she said bleakly. ‘I thought it could not be done.’
‘There is a way,’ he said, softly. ‘He was always at risk, Lys. He must pay the ultimate price, but I can ensure it won’t be in vain—Dorgryl will die with him.’
‘And what of the others, my lord?’ Her voice trembled. All this time of patience and watchfulness; centuries of pain for the Paladin; such sacrifice of young souls—Lys could not believe it was all over, and in vain.
Darganoth shook his head; said nothing.
She felt anger rise. Her voice was hard this time, no longer caring for protocol. ‘We cannot let these loved ones die. They’ve given their lives to us, been through so much hurt and despair, with more still to come. I cannot stand by and watch any longer, your majesty. Do you forget who it is I gave to the cause of the Trinity?’
She knew she should never have said it—but it could not be helped, the words could not be taken back. She watched the grief move across her beloved King’s face; he too had suffered similar pain. He knew as well as she what it meant to sacrifice a life, a life which he had sired.
He bit back on the words which sprang to his lips; who knew better than he what it was to lose a treasured child.
‘I can never forget the lives we have enmeshed in this, Lys, but Dorgryl’s escape has changed the complexion of this struggle. With him, my son becomes more powerful than we could have ever dared to dream…even in our nightmares.’
forsake Tor and Alyssa, nor their children, your majesty,’ she implored.
‘Then pray my firstborn is strong enough to withstand Dorgryl,’ he took her hand, ‘and that Torkyn is stronger still.’
Lys felt shattered. Her King gave her no hope with these words. In truth they sounded the death knell for the very people she contrived to protect.
Distraught, she took her leave and fled the grove. Beauty had no place in her existence now.
The grumble of not-so-distant thunder was now ominous. It had been a long ride to get this close to the city but Prime Herek had decided, despite the bleak weather, to push on to reach Tal before the Thirteenth Bell. Apart from the men’s desire to be back in the comfort of the castle quarters, he knew the King appreciated the decision made a few hours earlier to ride on through the night. Of them all, he seemed the most eager to get home. Lorys would never say anything to this effect, of course, but Herek understood the sovereign’s desire to be reunited with his young Queen. The forced separation of recent weeks due to official duties had fully tested his usually dependable good humour.
Lightning, still just far enough away not to startle the horses, suddenly lit the sky in warning. The column slowed to a walk.
‘What do you think?’ Lorys asked the Prime,
knowing the certain blunt response would not be what he wanted to hear. Herek was a conservative man who would never put the Sovereign, nor the men beneath his command, under unnecessary threat. He had been trained well by the former prime, Kyt Cyrus.
‘The storm is coming towards us faster than I anticipated, your highness,’ the Prime admitted.
Lorys did not disguise his bitter disappointment. This would mean another night without his beloved Alyssa in his arms. Both men looked up gloomily towards the moon as it slid behind heavy, black clouds, plunging the way ahead into a murky and unwelcome darkness.
Herek knew his proposal would make for an unhappy King this night but it could not be helped; safety had to be his first consideration. ‘My lord, I believe we should set up camp now before the rain arrives. I would suggest that this offers more shelter than we would have ahead.’ He nodded towards the small ridge nearby which rose above a shallow and convenient gully.
The thunder rolled threateningly towards them again, much louder this time. When the sky blazed overhead, Lorys capitulated. ‘As you see fit, Prime,’ he said, disappointment knifing through him.
Herek held up his hand to halt the column of soldiers. Orders were given and dispatched through his captains; within moments the entire Company was busily unsaddling horses and setting up camp for the night.
Someone grabbed the reins of his stallion and led it away but Lorys was too preoccupied by his own grim thoughts to even thank the man. Normally he would unsaddle gladly, and wipe down, feed and water the horse
himself—he was a King who led by example, far preferring physical prowess and the outdoor life to the paperwork and bureaucratic tasks involved in running his realm—but right now he allowed it all to happen around him as he finally accepted that Alyssa would not be fussing over him and warming his chilled bones tonight. And yet he so badly wanted to hold her again; so badly wanted to look Gyl in the eye and admit that he, King Lorys of Tallinor, was his father; so desperately wanted to roam the halls of his palace again.
It was not like Lorys to feel so insecure, but he had been in this pensive mood since an event earlier that afternoon. The Company had been passing a field where a small group of ravens had gathered, their calls loud and grating. It was not a common sight in Tallinor. The raven was considered the most intelligent species of bird, shrouded in ghoulish mystery and superstition, and the Tallinese tended to be wary of it. It was no surprise to Lorys that the entire party of soldiers had murmured a warding at the birds, invoking the Light to protect them, but even he had been vaguely alarmed when the large birds had suddenly lifted into the air as one, flown past the column and then wheeled back towards them. They had appeared to fly deliberately towards the men, and, being at the front, it was the King who had been in direct range. The birds had flown over and one had been low enough to swoop by the King’s head, raking his short hair as it squawked in its horrible voice, unsettling him from his horse.
No man in the Company had dared so much as chuckle at seeing him fall. Even the most simple-minded
of men understood such an omen. A collective breath had been drawn by the soldiers and Herek had immediately leapt down beside the King, quick to dispel any superstitious nonsense. Lorys had said nothing in this regard, merely making some jest which had relieved the tension amongst the men. He had remounted and they were quickly on their way, the incident apparently forgotten.
Except it had not been forgotten by the King. He was a spiritual man and this attack by the black birds of evil was seen by him to be a marking —that his life was now haunted by a black shroud. He felt himself touched by death. He did not share this notion with his companions and tried to put it out of his mind, but it lingered, nibbling at his resolve during the long journey until he felt ragged by the weight of its portent.
‘King Lorys.’ It was the Prime back again, ever attentive.
‘Yes?’ he replied, snapping himself out of his black thoughts.
‘Fires are lit, sire. Perhaps you care to warm yourself? Food is being prepared now.’
‘Thank you. Where’s Caerys?’
The page was at his side in a second. ‘Here, your majesty.’
‘I want a rider sent ahead to the palace.’
Lorys watched Herek grimace but knew the Prime would not challenge the King.
Caerys nodded. ‘I’ll fetch someone immediately. Will you be sending a written message, sire?’
The King blinked; he thought about it a moment. ‘No. I’ll brief him.’
‘At once, sire. I shall fetch a messenger,’ Caerys said, turning.
Lorys glanced at Herek again but the Prime’s face now betrayed nothing. The soldier stood to attention. ‘I’ll see to the men, my lord, if you are comfortable now?’
The King nodded. It was clear Herek did not approve of risking the man, or his horse, out in the blackness and the approaching storm just so Lorys could send a message of love back to the Queen. But Lorys needed to reach out to her. After the scene with the ravens, it would be reassuring to have some communication with Alyssa—even if, for the time being, it was one-sided.
The storm had moved in around them more quickly than any had imagined it could. Their only solace was the moon, which broke through the clouds momentarily to provide a watery glow through the drizzle. Now hunched beneath rough shelter, the soldiers worked hard at keeping the flames of their small fires fanned and alive. The horses were skittish and many of the men chose to stand by their precious mounts, stroking and talking to them whilst the worst of the storm raged.
Herek sat by his sovereign and encouraged him to eat. Lorys chewed on some dried meat out of habit more than hunger—there had not been enough time to warm any food. He was glad for the wine though, and drank thirstily to drown his sorrow. As he swallowed the last of his second cup a massive thunderclap sounded directly above. They all turned towards the animals, except the King, whose eyes were fixed absently on a distant single tree he could just pick out in the thin light, bending against the angry wind but still proudly standing atop a
small hillock. He had been staring in its direction for a while, keeping his thoughts private and brooding, angry with himself now that he had risked a lone rider out in this weather. He regretted his decision bitterly.
The sudden mighty clap of thunder was accompanied by a bright, thick hand of lightning which illuminated the entire sky for a few moments as it reached a long finger towards the tree.
Only the King witnessed it. The tree was struck by all the fiery anger of the heavens, splitting in two and bursting into flame. The rain which had turned heavy subdued the fire immediately. To Lorys, it felt like his blood had become icy in that moment; clogged frozen in his veins as he watched the violence.
Herek turned back to the King. ‘That was close, sire.’ He saw Lorys, mouth slightly ajar, staring blankly ahead. The King was clearly shocked. The Prime followed the direction of the King’s stare, trying to discover a reason and his eyes locked onto what had his Sovereign’s attention. Ahead the tree which had stood so strong and proud, alone on the small hill, was a smashed, smouldering wreck.
He looked back at Lorys, a pit in his stomach. ‘Sire,’ he said, gently.
‘It’s the worst of all omens, Herek.’ The King’s voice was soft, filled with fear.
‘My lord…’ Herek hoped he could break the spell of the ruined tree, devastated by the fingers of the Host. It was true though: to witness the destruction of a tree by the gods was considered the bleakest of all warnings. He tried to think of something comforting to say and found himself without words.
In the end, the King came to his rescue. His voice sounded resigned. ‘The gods have spoken to me, Herek. They warned me earlier today with the ravens and now it seems they are reminding me.’
‘Please, your highness, I—’
Lorys interrupted whatever his Prime had intended to say. ‘It is a sign, Herek.’
Before the Prime could say anything further, the King stood and stepped out from the ridge’s shelter towards the blackened tree. He waved away a shocked Caerys who had immediately followed, making it clear his own dark thoughts were company enough. Herek could not allow this. He ran after his King. Lorys moved swiftly but as though in a stupor. He had eyes only for the still-smouldering tree. For some reason he felt he needed to make peace with it—as though it had taken the rebuke from the gods meant for him. Why did he feel like this? All his ghosts joined him on the hill. Was it Nyria’s untimely death? Was it marrying Alyssa so suddenly?…Or perhaps just the pure guilt of desiring and loving her so much?
Or did it go deeper still? Was it siring the child, Gyl, now a superb young man and yet one he failed every day by not telling him who his father was. Or was it Gynt? Did the execution of Torkyn Gynt still haunt him after all these years? Could he ever atone for the darkest of all sins—allowing a madman like Goth to carry out his grisly work under royal proclamation? So many atrocities perpetrated on good, loyal citizens in his name.
And then he wondered with fresh despair whether a freak occurrence on a windswept, stormy night in
Perswych could truly be an omen. He allowed all these thoughts to loose themselves upon him as he ran now towards the tree. He must touch it; feel its death, show his sorrow for its end and his regret for all his questionable decisions.
The King saw the skies lighten, heard the monstrous slam of thunder directly overhead and realised, with a sense of wonder as well as acceptance, that the old adage of lightning never striking twice in the same spot was indeed a fallacy. The hand of the gods reached across the sky, creating daylight in that terrifying second as Prime Herek watched the deathlight arc once again towards the land and murder his King in the early hours before dawn.
Queen Alyssa hugged a thick shawl about her. It was a very early hour before dawn and she had not slept, unlike her young visitors in comfortable lodgings not far from her own chambers. They were exhausted not only from the walk to Tal, but also by the emotion of the previous night. And why not? She herself was rocked by the revelations. She stood silently by the window watching the storm lash the moors. Alyssa hated storms; always craved their end when the heavy rains would finally break.
The man she had loved for most of her life moved behind her; without the disk of archalyt on her forehead she could sense his power shimmering around him as his arms slid about her waist.
‘What did the messenger say?’ he asked.
Poor fellow. I’m surprised they risked sending him out in this weather. Apart from a personal message from Lorys, he told us that the Company will not be returning as planned. The storm is too great. They are camped safely outside Perswych and will depart at first light.’
Tor said nothing immediately but she could feel his relief.
‘Then we have this night together,’ he whispered into her ear, risking a kiss in her hair.
‘What’s left of it,’ she replied just as softly, turning into his arms. ‘Tor, what are we going to do?’
He searched her face; her beautiful face…the one he had tried to forget but never quite managed to. ‘I must find our other son,’ he said firmly, staring deep into her eyes, refusing to allow her to look away.
‘Alyssa, I will not make this difficult for you. I promise.’
He hugged her close, understanding her helplessness, feeling it himself too. She was only just recovering from the physical shock of learning a few hours earlier that she was a mother to two grown children. There was no mistaking them: Gidyon virtually identical to his father and his sister, Lauryn, so close in looks to herself that no one, not even the King, could have disputed who the parents were.
And then there was the shock of learning that her first love still lived…and she now married to the King. He felt her despair. No son had died in the Heartwood as she had been told by all those she loved. Instead this son, together with his newborn sister, were vanished away at birth to some other world, leaving her in
ignorance to suffer years of pain over the boy’s death. And now fresh heartache at hearing that another son, weak—almost dead—was secreted away deep in the Forests of Tallinor. Alyssa shook her head with disbelief that any of this could be happening to her. She had two living husbands now—and she loved them both.
It was as though Tor had heard her thoughts and cut through all her confusion to clarify what had to be done. ‘Rubyn must be found, Alyssa. We must complete the Trinity.’
‘And then what!’ She did not mean to sound so churlish.
He shrugged. ‘I hope Lys might explain more.’
‘I hate that woman.’ She watched his discomfort at her words. ‘Oh, I know you trust her, Tor, but she brings nothing but sorrow to this life of mine…and to everyone she touches.’
‘She is as much a victim as we.’ He wished he could tell her more but he had given a promise.
‘No! Lys is just as bad as Merkhud and Sorrel, manipulating our lives and creating pain. How can you allow her to keep you as her puppet, dancing to her tune?’
‘I have no choice, Alyssa. Orlac is free. Our only hope is to face him and we need the Trinity to succeed.’