Authors: Karen Miller
Tags: #Fantasy, #Epic, #Magic, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction
There were hands to help him over the broken railings at the top of Salbert’s Eyrie. “Easy does it,” said Pellen Orrick, holding his elbow with firm fingers. “Catch your breath a moment. Are you all right?”
Bent over and heaving air into his lungs, aware of stinging scrapes and strained muscles, Asher nodded. “Aye. Where’s Matt?”
“Minding his own business back at the Tower.” Orrick frowned, and released his grasp. “You know, Asher, some folk might say you were mad to climb down the side of the Eyrie. I might even be one of them. Was it worth the risk?”
Breathing easier, he slowly straightened. Some Doranen or other had conjured glimfire; a floating flotilla of magical lights turned the new night into a pale imitation of day. He looked into the Guard captain’s shadowed, hatchet face and nodded again. “Aye.”
Orrick’s expression tightened. Then the tension left
him and he sagged, just a little, and only for a heartbeat. “You found them.”
There was nobody else within earshot. Orrick had set a line of guards to keep everyone away from the Eyrie’s treacherous edge and further calamity. Beyond them, by the side of the road, clustered a group of agitated Doranen. Staring, Asher recognized Conroyd Jarralt and Barlsman Holze; Lords Daltrie, Hafar, Sorvold and Boqur: Jarralt’s General Council cronies. No sign of Gar or Master Magician Durm, though. Doubtless they’d been rushed back to the palace and the eager bone-bothering of Pother Nix.
Further along the road stood two wagons, a fancy Doranen carriage and one of Orrick’s men guarding coils of rope. With a pang of relief he saw Cygnet, still safely tied. An uneasy silence muffled the scene, broken only by the stamp of a hoof and snatches of sharp speech from the gathered Doranen lords.
“Asher?” said Orrick.
“Aye,” he said. “I found ‘em. The family, any road. Coachman Matcher’s lying at the bottom of the valley, I reckon, along with one of his precious horses.”
“And you’re certain they’re dead?”
He laughed. Was he certain? _Red blood and white bone and black flies, crawling… _”You want to go see for yourself?”
With a deep sigh, Orrick shook his head. “Can their bodies be retrieved?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. Reckon it’ll take a hefty dose of magic and some luck, though.”
“Their position is precarious?”
“They’re on a bit of a ledge stickin’ out over the valley. You tell me if that be precarious or not.” Swept by a sudden, obliterating tide of exhaustion, Asher felt all
blood drain from his face and staggered where he stood.
“Damn,” he muttered.
“Easy now,” said Pellen Orrick, once more taking his arm. “You’ve had a nasty shock.”
The captain’s kindness was almost his undoing. Grief and rage and a hot swelling helplessness blurred his sight. He could feel his heart’s brutal beating, solid blows against his ribs like the tolling of a funeral drum. The cold night air seared his struggling lungs and his teeth began to chatter like bones in a breeze. He felt wetness on his cheeks and looked up. Was it raining?
No. The starry sky was clear of cloud. And anyway, how could it be raining? Lur’s WeatherWorker was dead. Furious, he blinked back the burning tears.
Fool. Tears were for folks with time on their hands …
A shout went up from the cluster of Doranen dignitaries. Lord Hafar had spotted him. Pointing, he tugged at Conroyd Jarralt’s brocade sleeve. Jarralt turned, frowning, mouth open to snap or snarl. Then he saw too. His chin came up, his shoulders braced and his teeth clicked closed. Vibrating with angry self-importance he broke away from the group … and so revealed its center.
Awoken to a fragile consciousness, the prince—no. Not any longer. Not after today. The
was sitting on a cushioned stool at the side of the road, draped in a blanket with a hasty bandage wound tight about his head. His left arm had been bound hard against his battered body to safeguard the broken collarbone. In his right hand he held a mug of something steaming, and stared into its depths as though it contained all the secrets of the world.
Conroyd Jarralt took another step forward, his jeweled fingers fisted at his sides. “Asher!”
The sound of his name rang like a chapel bell calling for silence. The lords’ muttering voices faltered. Stumbled. Stilled, as step by step Asher shrank the distance between himself and his friend. His king.
Gar looked up. One pale eyebrow lifted, seeing him. And he realized there was no need for anything so crude as words. The truth was in his tears, still drying amidst the dirt, and the telltale pallor of his cheeks, nipped as cold as frostbite.
He reached the tangled knot of Doranen lords. Reached Gar, who looked into his rigid face with an air of calm inquiry. A polite patience. An absence of anything more powerful than a mild curiosity. He stopped and dropped to his knees. There was pain as his bones met the unyielding road. It scarcely registered. Hands by his side, shoulders defeated, filthy with dirt and sweat and little smears of other people’s blood, he bowed his head.
From the watching lords, gasps. A cry, quickly stifled. A sob, smothered.
Asher snapped up his head, disbelieving.
Gar was laughing. His face was mirthless, and his eyes, but still he laughed. The blanket around his shoulders shivered free. The scarce-touched contents of the mug slopped over its sides to splash dark stains on his ruined breeches. His nose began to run, and then his eyes, tears and mucus reflecting glimfire, glittering like liquid diamonds. And still he laughed.
Jarralt turned on him. “Stop it!” he hissed. “You disgrace yourself, sir, and shame our people! Stop it at once, do you hear?”
He might as well have saved his breath. Ignoring him, Gar continued to laugh, not stopping until Barlsman Holze came close to touch his unhurt shoulder with gentle fingertips.
“My boy,” he whispered. “My dear, dear boy. Hush, now. Hush.”
Like an Olken toy running down its clockwork, the giggles bumped erratically into silence. Asher dragged a kerchief from his pocket and held it out. For some time the former prince just sat there, staring at the square of blue cotton. Then he took it and wiped his face. Handed back the soiled kerchief and said, “I want to see them.”
The lords broke into a babble of protest.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Conroyd Jarralt. “It’s out of the question.”
“Conroyd’s right,” added Holze, and tried to lay a calming hand on Gar’s arm. Gar shook him free, heedless of the pain, and stood. His expression was ominous. ‘Truly, the idea is most unwise!” Holze persisted. “Dear boy, think of the danger. You heard what Pother Nix’s assistant said! You need warmth. Rest. More rigorous physicking. We must get you indoors, immediately. Come now. Listen to your elders, Your Hi— Your Ma— Gar. Be wisely guided, and leave this unfortunate place.”
The other lords echoed the demand. Asher, aware of Pellen Orrick now standing close behind, grunted to his feet and exchanged uneasy glances with him as the lords closed ranks about Gar and raised their voices in ever more vehement argument.
Gar let the storm of words rage unchecked. Seemed almost not to hear his clamoring subjects. His frowning gaze was focused somewhere distant, pinned to something only he could see. Then, at last, he stirred. Lifted his hand. “Enough.”
Ignoring him, the lords continued their clamor.
I said!” The lords fell back, shocked. Stared at the glimfire flaring from Gar’s fingertips as his newly focused gaze swept all their dumbfounded faces. “Is this how you speak to your king?”
Conroyd Jarralt stepped forward. “You presume a title not yet conferred, Your
He turned to Asher. “You.”
This was no time for lord-baiting. Asher bowed. “Sir.”
“Borne’s death is not in doubt?”
He shuddered. “No. King, queen and princess. They’re all dead down there.”
Grief rippled through the Doranen. Jarralt, the only one unmoved, stared at him with eyes like frozen silver. Then he glared at Gar. “Even so. Until both councils have met and the proper ceremonies been observed, you are yet a prince, sir. Not king.”
Gar clenched his fingers and the glimfire died. “You challenge my claim?”
“I challenge your presumption. Scant hours have passed since your father’s death. Before the succession is settled there are questions to be asked, and answered, in the matter of His Majesty’s destruction.”
Jarralt waved an impatient hand. “This is neither the time nor the—”
“I disagree,” said Gar. “It is the only place, and if you don’t ask here and now I swear you never will.”
Holze insinuated himself between them. “Gar, Conroyd, please. This is unseemly, the bodies cannot yet be cold. Desist, I implore you, in Barl’s—”
“No,” said Gar. “I would hear Lord Jarralt’s question.”
Jarralt’s lips thinned in an angry smile. “Very well. Since you insist. How is it that you survived the accident barely touched when the rest of your family is so dreadfully perished?”
Gar’s answering smile was winter cold. “You forget Durm.”
“Our esteemed Master Magician is unlikely to live through the night. Come the dawn, I warrant, there will be only you.”
“You accuse me of
Lord Jarralt? Of killing my father, my mother, my sister—”
“Your unloved sister,” said Jarralt. “Who scant days ago tried to kill you.” He nodded at the edge of bandage peeping beyond Gar’s shirt cuff. “I believe the wound is yet unhealed.”
“So, Conroyd. You are a man who listens to servants’ gossip,” said Gar. “How … disappointing.”
Jarralt’s face darkened. “It pleases you to insult me. Very well. But how long will your arrogance last once I have undertaken inquiries as to precisely how this
unfolded? When I—”
“As to that, my lord,” said Pellen Orrick, “any investigation into these deaths falls to me. As Captain of the City it is my right, and my responsibility.”
“Indeed?” said Jarralt, skewering Orrick with contempt. “And why should I trust your impartiality? Or your competence?”
“Because the late king trusted them, sir,” Orrick said quietly.
“And if you discover foul play, Captain?” said Holze. “What then?”
Orrick’s hatchet face sharpened. “Then I will pursue the murderer to the ends of the kingdom. He or she will find no escape and receive no mercy … regardless of rank, social status or privilege.”
Gar nodded. “Satisfied, Conroyd? Good. Now if you’ll move aside, I intend to visit a while with my family!”
Alarmed and helpless, Asher watched Gar take two staggering steps towards the edge of the Eyrie. Unbidden, Lords Daltrie and Sorvold reached for his arms in an effort to restrain him.
It was a mistake.
Gar shouted. A golden light shimmered into life around him. The lords unwisely touching him cried out and snatched their hands away.
Conroyd Jarralt’s hand went to the sheathed knife on his hip. “You see?” he demanded. “He uses magic as a weapon! Prince Gar is unfit for any kind of authority! He knows nothing about being a true Doranen! He is a precocious, undisciplined child who cannot be trusted with the power so newly come upon him!”
“You’re the one who can’t be trusted!” Gar spat. “All your life you’ve coveted my father’s throne and now he’s dead you think to take it! Well, think again, Conroyd. There was more kingship in my father’s little finger than you possess in all your body. I’ll see this kingdom a smoking ruin before ever I see you on its throne!”
Jarralt raised a shaking fist. “Just like your father, you overstep all bounds. Magic or no magic, you’re not fit to rule! You’re nothing but the unnatural offspring of a selfish and short-sighted fool!”
Gar’s golden aura deepened. Flared crimson, like a fire fed fresh fuel. Jarralt was forced half a pace backwards. “Stand in Justice Hall and say that, Conroyd,” Gar whispered. “I dare you. Stand in Justice Hall and see what the people reply.”
Conroyd Jarralt sneered.
That undisciplined rabble of Olken? That’s who you’d call for your support? You wretched boy, if they are all you can rely upon then—”
Dismayed, Asher jumped as Pellen Orrick leaned close and whispered urgently, “Do something, Asher, quick, before the fools go too far.”
He stared. “Why
“Because you’re the only one here the prince’ll listen to.”
Gar was shaking, his face screwed up against every kind of pain. “Is this disaster your doing, Conroyd? Is your appetite for power so ravenous you’d
to feed it? My father, my mother—”
“Kill your mother? “
Heedless of Gar’s crimson mantle of power, of his torn flesh and broken bone, Jarralt grabbed him by the shirt front and dragged him to his toe-tips. “You pathetic little worm, I
your mother!” he cried. “I love her still! If she’d married me she’d be alive this minute! If she’d married me I’d have given her a
prince! A son she could be
“My lords!” shouted Asher, and threw himself at Jarralt. Snatched at the incensed man’s hands and dragged them free of Gar’s shirt, then shoved Gar in the chest, heedless of the danger, sending him staggering back two paces. “For
sirs, both of you! The royal family dead and you brawling like drunken sots in an alehouse!”
Jarralt turned on him, snarling. “Lay hands on me again and I’ll see you strung from a gibbet before sunrise!”
Holze chimed in, parchment-gray with distress. “No, Conroyd, no, the boy’s right. You must control yourselves—this dreadful business—set an example—” The elderly cleric’s eyes were full of tears. Behind him the other Doranen lords dithered, paralyzed by protocol and surprise, “His Highness is overwrought, he spoke out of grief and shock, you can’t think he’d believe that you— that
—would deliberately harm our king and his family! And you, Conroyd, you spoke unthinking too. This terrible tragedy—we are all of us in dreadful disarray. Your Highness—”