Authors: Jennifer Fallon
For Harshini Bhoola and as always, Adele Robinson
Korandellan té Ortyn, the last King of the Harshini, waited until the end of the concert before he left the natural amphitheatre in the centre of Sanctuary to return to his apartment. But first, he congratulated the performers. He admired the clever scenery they had devised, which used a mixture of magic and everyday objects, and graciously thanked them for their efforts. He moved among them, smiling and waving, as the glimmering twilight, that was as close to night as it came in this magical place, descended over the valley. Sanctuary’s tall, elegant white spires towered over the hidden city, touched with silver as evening closed in. The people were trying so desperately hard to be happy. He did his best to seem happy for them in return.
There was a brittle edge to the serenity of Sanctuary these days. An edge that Korandellan, more than any other Harshini, could feel. The happiness here was fragile; the cheerfulness an illusion. The Harshini were running out of time. Quite literally. Only Korandellan knew how close they were to the end.
Perhaps Shananara suspected. She fell in beside him, dressed in the long loose robes that most of the Harshini favoured, which surprised him a little. Shananara had been in and out of Sanctuary a great deal of late, and he was more used to seeing her in Dragon Rider’s leathers. His sister had always been more interested in the comings and goings of the human population than he. With the demon child abroad, and the whole world affected by her presence, Shananara was anxious to know what was happening. Slipping her arm companionably through his, she walked with him back to his quarters, waiting until the doors swung silently shut behind them before she spoke.
“Let me help, Koran.”
The king sighed, letting his shoulders slump and his façade of vitality crumble in her presence. He looked haggard.
“No. You cannot help, Shanan,” he told her, lowering his tall frame into a delicately carved chair near the open doors that led to the balcony. The tinkling sound of the waterfall drifted through the open windows. The evening, as usual, was balmy and clear. “I need your strength for other matters.”
any other matters if you falter,” she warned. “Let me carry some of the load. Or do you enjoy being a martyr?”
He smiled at her wearily. She had been out visiting the humans again. Her manner of speech always reflected her journeys among the mortals. “No, I do not enjoy being a martyr, sister. But if I fail, our people will need you to guide them. If you help me now, you will certainly ease my burden, but it will
weaken you at a time when one of us needs to be strong. Only the demon child can lift the burden from my shoulders completely.”
Shananara flung herself into one of the chairs opposite the window. “The demon child? That unreliable, spoilt, half-human atheist brat? If that’s who you’re relying on to save us, brother, we are doomed.”
“You shouldn’t speak of her so harshly, my dear. R’shiel will do what she must.”
“She will do what suits her, Koran, and not a damned thing more. I doubt if even the gods know if it will be what she was destined for.”
“Yet it is on her we must rely.”
“Then let me bring her back.”
“Here? To Sanctuary? For what purpose?”
“If you won’t let
ease your burden, then let R’shiel do it. The gods know she’s strong enough. Let me bring her back, Koran. Let her carry the load for a time, enough to let you recover, at least. Then you can take up the burden again and R’shiel can do what she has to.”
The king shook his head. “Events unfold as they should, Shananara. We cannot interfere.”
“What events?” she scoffed. “Where is it written that you should destroy yourself holding Sanctuary out of time, while the demon child sits on her hands trying to decide if she even believes that we exist or not?”
“You did not speak to R’shiel before she left us. She has learnt much.”
“She doesn’t know a fraction of what she needs to know. And who is there to teach her? Brak?”
“I thought you were fond of him.”
“I am, but he’s hardly the one I would have chosen as the demon child’s mentor. He doesn’t even like her. And he certainly doesn’t trust her.”
“She will learn what she needs to know in Hythria.”
“But does R’shiel know that? She’s just as liable to head in the other direction.”
“You worry too much, Shanan. These things have a way of working themselves out. R’shiel will come to accept her destiny and will learn what she needs in due course.”
“Before or after the Harshini are destroyed, brother?” Leaning forward, she studied him intently, as if she could see through his skin and into his soul. “Xaphista’s minions have control of Medalon. The Defenders have surrendered to Karien. Hythria is on the brink of civil war and Fardohnya is arming for invasion. And you are beginning to weaken. I can see it in your eyes. You tremble constantly and cannot control it. Your eyes burn. Your aura is streaked with black. A flicker, a slight wavering in your hold on the spell that holds Sanctuary out of time, and Xaphista’s priests will know where we are. Once that happens, you will be able to count the days on the fingers of one hand before the Kariens are standing at our gates.”
“R’shiel will deal with Xaphista before that happens,” he assured her.
“I wish I shared your faith in her. But how long do we have, Koran? How long can you keep draining yourself?”
“As long as I need to.”
She leaned back with a defeated sigh. “Then I can only pray to the gods that it will be long enough.”
“The demon child will do what she must.”
Shananara didn’t look convinced. “You place far too much faith in that uncontrollable half-breed.”
The Harshini king nodded tiredly. “I’m aware of that, Shananara, but unfortunately that uncontrollable half-breed is our only hope.”
The marriage of Damin Wolfblade, Warlord of Krakandar, to Her Serene Highness, Princess Adrina of Fardohnya, took place on a small, windswept knoll in the middle of northern Medalon on a bitterly cold afternoon. It was little more than two weeks since the bride had unexpectedly become a widow.
The sky was overcast and low, the sullen clouds defying the brisk, chilly wind by staying determinedly in place. The somewhat less-than-radiant bride was dressed in a borrowed white shirt and dark woollen trousers. The groom looked just as uncomfortable in his battle-worn leathers. The assorted guests appeared either bemused or amused, depending on their country of origin.
Officiating over the ceremony was a tall, serious looking Defender, who wore the insignia of a captain and quoted the stiff, practical and very unromantic Medalonian wedding vows that were carried away by the wind almost as soon as he uttered the words. This wedding was taking place because the demon child had demanded it, and a quick ceremony—enough to make it legal—was all R’shiel cared about. She had
neither the time nor the patience for any pomp or ceremony.
“This is probably a waste of time, you know,” Brak muttered as he watched the ceremony with a frown.
“Why?” R’shiel asked softly, not taking her eyes from the bride and groom, as if they would somehow manage to escape their fate if she looked away.
“This marriage will only hold up if you can get the High Arrion to accept the legality of a Medalonian ceremony as soon as you get to Greenharbour,” he explained.
“The leader of the Sorcerers’ Collective?”
“The High Arrion is Damin’s half-sister.”
“She’s not going to be very happy about this, is she?”
“Even if she wasn’t concerned about her brother, as the High Prince’s heir, he’s doing a very dangerous thing.”
“But worth it, Brak. In the end, it will be the best thing that could have happened. This will force peace between Hythria and Fardohnya. Nothing else we can do will achieve that.”
Brak looked unconvinced. “There’s an awful lot that can go wrong, R’shiel.”
He stared at her.
“Trust me, it’ll work!”
“I’m surprised Zegarnald is letting you get away with this.”
“I have the God of War’s solemn promise that he won’t interfere. Besides, he’ll think this is likely to cause a war.”
“That’s because it
likely to cause a war, R’shiel,” Brak pointed out.
“Only in the short term.”
He shook his head at her folly and turned his attention back to the ceremony. It was almost over. Denjon was calling on the gods to bless the union—Kalianah to bless it with love, Jelanna to bless it with children. He sounded very uncomfortable, but R’shiel had insisted on acknowledging the gods, even in some small measure. Personally, she didn’t think it would make much difference, but Damin and Adrina were both pagans and it was what
believed that counted. One or both of them might try to wheedle out of it if she left them a loophole.
Denjon declared the union sealed, to the scattered applause of the gathered Defenders and Hythrun who had come to watch. The newlyweds turned to face the crowd and smiled with the insincere ease of those trained from childhood to perform in public. They stepped down from the knoll and began to walk towards R’shiel and Brak. R’shiel shivered, although it wasn’t from the cold.
“Just how much power do the Sorcerers’ Collective have, anyway?”
“Politically or magically?”
“Both, I suppose.”
“The magic they wield shouldn’t bother you. Politically, however, they’re one of the strongest forces in Hythria.”
“So if the High Arrion publicly sanctions this union, the Warlords will accept it?”
“They won’t openly object, but don’t count on acceptance.”
“Then we need the Sorcerers’ Collective on our side.”
R’shiel nodded, her mind already working through how to get the High Arrion on side. And the King of Fardohnya. Brak could deal with him. In fact, she had a sneaking suspicion he was going to enjoy it. Her mind churned with possibilities, as she pondered the problem. The scheming came to her as naturally as breathing—one of the legacies of being raised by the Sisters of the Blade.
“Well, it’s done now,” Damin remarked as he and Adrina reached them.
“A true romantic, isn’t he,” Adrina complained. “Do we have to stand around here chatting? I’m freezing. Every time I get married, I seem to be freezing.”
“We should head back to the camp. Denjon had the cooks prepare a wedding feast for you.”
“What a culinary experience
going to be,” Adrina grumbled.
“You’re not planning to make this easy, are you?” R’shiel asked.
The princess conceded the point reluctantly. “Very well, I shall endeavour to be appreciative of the efforts of my hosts.”
“That should be a new experience for you,” Damin remarked blandly.
The Warlord enjoyed living dangerously, R’shiel decided, noticing the look Adrina gave him. She made her excuses, leaving the bride and groom with Brak, and slipped away to speak with Denjon.
“Thank you, Captain.”
“I’m sure I’ve broken a score of laws here today, R’shiel. Are you sure this was necessary?”
“Positive. It’ll keep Hythria and Fardohnya off our backs while we deal with the Kariens.”
“I hope you’re right. I’m not sure the marriage of a Hythrun Warlord to a Fardohnyan will help Medalon much. Particularly the Warlord who’s spent most of the past decade trying to steal every head of cattle on our side on the border.”
“This Warlord is on our side now, Denjon.”
“I’ll have to take your word for that. Although he seems reasonable enough.”
She smiled, wondering what Damin would think of such a backhanded compliment. “Never fear. Events will strike a balance eventually.”
“I hope you’re right, demon child.”
R’shiel had no chance to chide the captain for calling her by that hated name. A commotion ahead of them distracted her as a Defender ran towards them from the line of tents ahead, calling her name.
“What’s wrong?” she demanded as the man pushed through the wedding party to reach her.
“It’s Tarja,” the young man panted. “He’s awake.”
R’shiel beat everyone else to the infirmary tent. She pushed her way through the flap and ran to the pallet where Tarja lay at the far end of the large tent, straining uselessly against the ropes that held him.
He turned at the sound of her voice, but there was no recognition in his eyes. His colour had improved
but he had a wild look, as if a battle raged inside him. His dark hair was damp and his brow beaded with sweat. The rough, grey, army-issue blankets that covered him were a twisted tangle.
“Tarja? It’s me, R’shiel…”
His only response was to tug even harder at the ropes. Already his wrists were burned from his efforts. With a cry of dismay, she reached for them, to ease his suffering.
Brak hurried to her side and looked down on Tarja with concern. Damin and Adrina were close on his heels.
“Look what he’s doing to himself, Brak! You can’t just leave him there, tied up like a wild animal.”
“If you let him go, he’s liable to do a lot worse damage to himself,” Brak warned. “Until the demons leave him, he’s better off restrained.”
“Demons?” Adrina gasped in horror. “You mean he’s possessed?”
“In a manner of speaking,” the Harshini shrugged.
“That can’t be good for him.”
“It’s the only thing keeping him alive,” R’shiel retorted, suddenly in no mood for Adrina’s tactlessness. “How much longer, Brak?”
“It shouldn’t be long now,” he said. “He’s awake. That’s a good sign.”
“How will the demons know when to leave?”
“Dranymire should sense when they’re no longer needed. With luck, when the meld dissolves, all the brethren will follow.”
?” Damin repeated dubiously. “You mean there’s no guarantee they’ll all leave?” He
stared at Tarja for a moment then turned to Adrina. “For future reference, my dear, if I ever take a fatal wound in battle and the Harshini offer to heal me by having me possessed by demons, let me die.”
“Never fear on that score, Damin. If you ever take a fatal wound in battle, I’ll be more than happy to let you die.”
“Stop it!” R’shiel cried impatiently. “I’m sick of you both! Go away!”
The pair of them looked quite startled at her outburst. “I’m sorry, R’shiel…”
Without any further comment the Warlord and his bride beat a hasty retreat from the infirmary. R’shiel turned her attention back to Tarja, who seemed to have lapsed into unconsciousness again.
“I have to tell you, R’shiel,” Brak remarked as he watched them leave, “if the fate of Hythria and Fardohnya rests in the hands of those two, we’re in big trouble.”
“They need to grow up,” R’shiel agreed impatiently. She had no time for the peculiarities of her friends at this point. She was more concerned about Tarja. “Isn’t there anything we can do for him?”
“Not while the demons still substitute for the blood he’s lost,” Brak told her.
“How much longer?”
“There’s no way of knowing. But he’s strong. If anyone can survive this, Tarja can.”
She watched for a moment, as Tarja’s chest rose and fell in even, measured breaths. “Every day, I keep
hoping…We’ve already been here too long. We have to leave. I can’t keep putting it off.”
“We have a wedding feast to attend first.”
“Don’t remind me.” She pulled the blanket up and smoothed it, then looked at Brak. “I just hope those two behave, tonight. If not, I’ll strangle the pair of them.”
“Don’t worry, they won’t dare cross the demon child.”
“Are you making fun of me, Brak?”
He smiled. “Just a little bit.”
She returned his smile wanly. “Don’t you ever get sick of watching over me?”
“Constantly. But it’s a task I’ll be doing for some time yet,” he replied as his smile faded.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve chosen which side you’re on, demon child. You don’t think Xaphista is just going to stand back and watch while you set about destroying him, do you?”
“You think he’ll send more priests after me?”
“You should be so lucky,” he told her. “A priest you can see. No, I’m afraid he’ll be a bit subtler this time. He’ll probably try to turn someone close to you against you. Someone you trust. Someone who can get near you.”
R’shiel studied Brak for a long moment then glanced down at Tarja. “You think he’ll turn Tarja against me, don’t you?”
“Tarja, Damin, Adrina, one of the Defenders, who knows? Any one of them could become your enemy and you won’t know a thing about it until they’re pulling the knife from your back.”
R’shiel stroked Tarja’s brow gently before she answered. “Tarja would never betray me.”
“Perhaps not. But trust no one, R’shiel.”
“Not even you?”
Brak smiled thinly. “Xaphista can’t turn me to his cause, or any Harshini for that matter. He began as a demon and he was never bonded to my clan or yours. The Harshini you can trust.”
“But nobody else?”
She stood up, frowning at the idea that everybody she knew was a potential traitor. “Brak, I
don’t like being the demon child, you know that, don’t you?”
Brak shrugged. “We all have a destiny we can’t avoid, R’shiel.”
“I don’t believe in destiny.”
“I know. That’s why the Primal Gods are so worried.”
thought actually cheered her a little. “The Primal Gods are worried?”
“They’re worried,” he agreed.
“Good,” she declared petulantly. “They damned well should be.”