Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Adventure  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic  ➡  Action

Deep-Spire

 

 

 

 

Deep-Spire

AN EPIC FANTASY NOVELLA

Prequel to the Palâdnith Chronicles

Sam J. Charlton

 

Epic Fantasy by Sam J. Charlton

 

The Palâdnith Chronicles:

 

Deep-Spire (Prequel novella)

Journey of Shadows (Book 1)

The Citadel of Lies (Book 2)

The Well of Secrets (Book 3)

 

Stand alone novels

The Children of Isador

 

The Lord of the Rings Fan Fiction

The Witch of Angmar

 

All characters and situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

 

Deep-Spire by Sam J. Charlton.

 

Copyright © 2014 Sam J. Charlton. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

 

Edited by Tim Burton.

 

Cover image courtesy of www.istockphotos.com. Cover design by Sam J. Charlton

 

Map by Sam J. Charlton.

 

Sam J. Charlton’s website: www.samjcharlton.com

 

Twitter: @SamJCharlton

 

Sam J. Charlton’s blog: www.samanthacharlton.com

Epic Fantasy by Sam J. Charlton

 

The Palâdnith Chronicles:

 

Deep-Spire (Prequel novella)

Journey of Shadows (Book 1)

The Citadel of Lies (Book 2)

The Well of Secrets (Book 3)

 

Stand alone novels

The Children of Isador

 

The Lord of the Rings Fan Fiction

The Witch of Angmar

 

 

 

To Tim – for all your support, and hard work! With much love.

Contents

 

 

Map of Palâdnith

Prologue – A Mid-winter’s Dawn

Chapter One – Foul Play

Chapter Two – Prayers and Practice

Chapter Three – Lovers

Chapter Four – The Council of Deep-Spire

Chapter Five – The Old Well

Chapter Six – Darkness

Chapter Seven – Ghosts

Chapter Eight – The Marshals

Chapter Nine – Winter Falls

Chapter Ten – The Message

Chapter Eleven – Lady Serina’s Gift

Chapter Twelve – The Gathering Storm

Chapter Thirteen – The Battle of Deep-Spire

Chapter Fourteen – Survivors

Chapter Fifteen – Riadamor’s Revenge

Epilogue – A New Beginning

Journey of Shadows EXCERPT: Prologue and Chapter One

About the Author

 

Map of Palâdnith

Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

― Plato

We guide the hearts, heads and hands of those who rule, but do not covet such power for ourselves.

― Sentorân creed

Prologue

 

A Mid-winter’s Dawn

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

It was a bleak day to die.

The cold air bit hard against skin and penetrated deep into the bone, even through layers of clothing. A freezing mist hung over the land and the stillness, except for the lonely cry of a raven, was absolute.

Belythna Arran watched her breath billow like steam as she exhaled. Then, she cast one last glance back at Deep-Spire, shadowed in mist. Two delicate, notched spires outlined against the grey sky, appeared like twin mountain peaks, one dwarfing the other, framed by the skeleton limbs of black trees.

My home. My prison.

She turned away from the fortress and focused her attention on those surrounding her – one hundred and fifty men and women dressed in black: black tunics, leggings, calf-length leather boots, and thick hooded cloaks. The only splashes of colour were the gold circlets about their necks. Around their waists, some of her companions carried swords. Belythna was not one of them – her skills lay elsewhere.

At the back of the group trailed a band of around twenty figures cloaked in grey. These were the apprentices; the youngest was barely thirteen years old. The apprentices should have been spared. It pained Belythna to see the terror on their faces; the same fear she felt but hid from sight. It would have been better to have sent them away, to have kept them safe – but Lady Serina would not have it.

Belythna’s gaze travelled to where their leader stood at the front of the group. Lady Serina stood ramrod straight, her gaze scanning the mist before them, her strong face impassive. She was waiting – they all were.

Where were they?

They would come. Belythna had no doubt of that. They would have seen the Sentorân empty out of Deep-Spire, ready to do battle. Riadamor was just biding her time.

Belythna inhaled deeply and tried to calm her roiling stomach. This felt wrong, all of it; her palms were slippery and she felt nauseous.

Still, the enemy did not emerge from the mist. The Sentorân waited with the silence of a mid-winter’s morning echoing around them. Winter was cold here, in the depths of Central Omagen, far from the mild coast. The land had gone into hibernation. Belythna’s fingers were turning numb and her feet ached from the chill. She stamped them in an effort to restore the circulation. If Riadamor did not make an appearance soon they would all be too stiff to move.

Belythna glanced once more at Lady Serina, searching for any sign that their leader was losing her nerve. The woman’s face had gone hard. She had grown so still that Belythna could barely notice the rise and fall of her chest. She was summoning her powers, and Belythna looked away, knowing she should do the same.

She closed her eyes and struggled to slow down her breathing. It was an effort to clear her mind and summon her flame – a slender column of silver – that would calm her thoughts and channel her talent. Her thoughts tangled themselves in knots and she struggled to unravel them.

It took brute-force, but, eventually, Belythna managed to reach the place where nothing in the world existing but the flickering flame before her. For what was to come she would need to reach deep. Using her abilities in this way would hurt; it would rub her soul raw.

The flame guttered, threatening to go out as Belythna’s fear resurfaced.

This is wrong – it can only end badly.

Beside her, she heard a hiss from Serina – a warning. When Belythna tore her attention back to the swirling mist before them, she realised why.

The Esquill approached; shadowy figures gliding towards the waiting Sentorân.

Belythna watched them draw near. They were many; at least three times the Sentorân’s number. How had Riadamor managed to find and train so many sorcerers so quickly? No wonder they had begun to make their presence felt all over the five realms. In just a few years, Riadamor had worked the impossible. She was more powerful than any of them. They had all underestimated her from the beginning.

Now it had come to this – two armies of sorcerers facing each other across a misty field on a mid-winter’s morning.

One of the figures stepped forward from the ranks. She was dressed in grey; a tall, slim woman with a plain face and lank blonde hair.

Belythna’s gaze fixed upon the woman’s face. She had not seen Riadamor in seven years, and life in the interim had not been kind to her. Gathering and training her followers had drained her. She looked older than her thirty years; her face was haggard and pale. Yet her eyes, dark pools, were luminous and ageless. This was not the Riadamor she had known at Deep-Spire. Before her stood a stranger, a terrifying one.

Were we ever friends?

Seeing Riadamor’s face once more brought it all back – all the memories of the last seventeen years. They had arrived at Deep-Spire within three days of each other. They had both been thirteen winters old and eager to learn. Both girls had been desperate to cast off their old identities and assume new ones. However, Riadamor had gone further than Belythna – further than any of them.

Belythna remembered the day she had witnessed another side to her friend. It was a day as searing hot, as this one was bone-numbingly cold.

Looking back, the events of that day had been a clear sign of what was to come.

But, who was to know? Her gaze never left Riadamor’s face. We are only wise in hindsight – even if it means the ruin of us all.

Chapter One

 

Foul Play

 

Catedrâl, Cathernis

 

Seven and a half years earlier….

 

The heat was suffocating. Humid and shimmering, it rose up from the earth in waves beneath a hard, blue sky and a white, burning sun. Folk were naming it the hottest summer in nearly fifty years, and the two young women on horseback were starting to wilt as the temperature steadily climbed.

Belythna pulled the sleeveless tunic she wore away from where it had stuck to her back and glanced across at where her companion rode, red-faced and glowing.

“Black isn’t what we should be wearing in this heat,” she remarked.

“Neither are wool and leather,” Riadamor replied.

Their black woollen tunics itched the skin, and their high leather boots felt glued to their legs. Still, Lady Serina had insisted they dress according to their roles. Both young women wore their long hair tied back into severe braids and tight gold collars about their throats. They had long since cast off their heavy cloaks, although they would have to don them once more before going before the realmlord.

They were not long from their meeting now.

The two Sentorân rode along a wide avenue of oaks, through the magnificent grounds of Haladyn Castle. After a long journey, they had left the open spaces of the Cathernis plains behind, and travelled into the heart of Catedrâl, the realm’s capital.

Haladyn Park was huge. The Sentorân rode through lush meadows and along the banks of the meandering Arden River. Belythna’s first glimpse of the castle itself took her breath away – it was as glorious as Deep-Spire was imposing. The fortress’s Omari sandstone walls glowed as if lit from within; its surface rippling in the bright sunlight. Turreted towers pierced the sky, rising from a round keep. As they neared the castle, Belythna spied a deep moat filled with dark water. They clattered over the drawbridge and under the portcullis into the outer bailey.

Drawing her bay gelding to a halt, Belythna craned her neck up at where the black and red Cathernis flag snapped in the breeze. Finally, after ten long days of travel, they had reached their destination. She glanced across at Riadamor then. As usual, her friend’s face was unreadable.

Riadamor had not been the chattiest of travelling companions. Even though they had known each other for a decade, and spent long days training and studying side-by-side, Belythna had never been able to truly understand Riadamor. The two young sorceresses were both of the same talent – that of the Head – but any similarity between them ended there. Belythna, dark-haired, open and candid, was the opposite of Riadamor, who was pale, cold and gave very little away.

Unspeaking, the young women left their horses with a stable-hand and mounted the steps to the keep. Inside, they waited in the reception hall while a servant went to announce their arrival. Presently, a tall, slim young man wearing black and gold robes strode into the hall. He had golden hair, sharp blue eyes and a regal bearing.

The young man surveyed the Sentorân coolly.

“I am Councillor Arkon Valense,” he informed them. “Is the realmlord expecting you?”

“No,” Riadamor spoke up, eyeing the young man back with equal coldness. “I am Riadamor Garret and this is Belythna Arran. We are here to see Gerta of Deep-Spire.”

The councillor took a few moments to reply. Watching his face, Belythna saw alarm flare in his eyes. When he did speak, his tone was far less imperious.

“Surely, the realmlord sent word? Gerta passed away three months ago.”

Belythna and Riadamor stared back at the councillor. They had both feared this. Lady Serina’s messages to Gerta had gone unanswered over the past few months – hence their unannounced visit. Their leader had sent them to check on Gerta’s well-being.

“No, the realmlord did not inform us,” Riadamor replied. “We will need to speak to him.”

Councillor Valense nodded, his mouth thinning. “He is in the midst of a meeting with the Realm Council but he knows you are here. Come with me.”

They followed him along a corridor with a vaulted ceiling and columns as wide as ancient oaks. The soles of their boots whispered on the polished marble, and their cloaks billowed behind them. Belythna kept her gaze fixed upon the councillor’s back as she walked. If his coldness was anything to go by, they were not about to be welcomed warmly by the realmlord and his council.

Judging from his fine robes, Arkon Valense was also one of the Realm Council – the group responsible for administering the territory and, ultimately, for electing a new realmlord upon the death of the current one. After the fall of the kingdoms, and the ending of the Age of Kings, no realmlord was permitted to pass on his title to his sons. Palâdnith could not risk new kingdoms forming, and the mistakes of old being repeated. As such, the Realm Council voted for the new ruler.

Councillor Valense led them into an enormous chamber where the vaulted ceiling seemed even higher, the columns even more impressive, than the corridor leading to it. A row of black and gold robed men stood along one wall. On a dais in the centre, flanked by his guards, sat the realmlord himself.

He was older than Belythna expected.

Realmlord Bar Chatis was nearing seventy winters, and they looked as if they all weighed upon him heavily. Sagging in the upholstered leather chair, the realmlord was considerably overweight, his girth emphasised by the velvet robes he wore. His face was high coloured. Sweat beaded a bald head and a heavy brow, but the eyes underneath it were sharp and hard.

“Milord,” the young councillor bowed before Lord Chatis, before stepping to one side to introduce the two women behind him. “May I present Riadamor Garret and Belythna Arran of Deep-Spire.”

Belythna felt the realmlord’s gaze rake over them; first Riadamor, then her. His gaze fastened on Belythna, sliding over her body, before it returned to her face.

“Welcome to Catedrâl,” his voice was deep and powerful; the voice of a man who must have been a force to be reckoned with in his prime. “Two young, female – and attractive – Sentorân. What a pleasure… and what a surprise.”

“Really?” Riadamor spoke up before Belythna could address the realmlord. “Surely you realised that one of the Sentorân would pay you a visit sooner or later, seeing as we had heard nothing from Gerta in months.”

“Ah, Gerta,” Lord Chatis’s confidence dimmed slightly, his features drawing tight. “I meant to send Lady Serina a missive; it must have slipped my mind.”

“The last time we heard from Gerta, she was well,” Belythna spoke up, casting a warning glance in Riadamor’s direction. Lady Serina had taught them to approach the realmlords softly. Riadamor’s bluntness would not win them friends here. “How did she die?”

The realmlord refused to meet her eye. “She took a fall down some steps one evening and broke her neck.”

Belythna stared back at the realmlord. “A fall?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“And it ‘slipped your mind’ to send word to Deep-Spire?” Riadamor’s face twisted in disbelief.

“I’ve already told you that.”

“Where is Gerta’s body?” Riadamor continued, her voice flinty. “We must take it back to Deep-Spire to be entombed.”

The realmlord started to sweat, his gaze darting around the chamber. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. We burnt her corpse.”

A tense silence followed his words.

“You know we do not cremate the bodies of our dead,” Belythna said, not bothering to hide the anger in her voice. Perhaps Riadamor was right to dispense with diplomacy; the Sentorân needed to be firmer with the likes of Lord Chatis. “Why did you do it?”

“Gerta may have been a Sentorân but she was also a resident in Catedrâl,” Chatis was starting to squirm under the two sorcerers’ accusing gazes. “That is how we deal with the dead.”

Belythna noted that Councillor Valense, standing at the wings next to a handful of other councillors, was looking increasingly uncomfortable.

“Milord,” Riadamor had fixed Chatis with a stare that Belythna knew well; one that demanded his full attention. “I can see you are a clever man so please don’t insult our intelligence by continuing to lie through your teeth. You deliberately omitted to send word when Gerta died, and you knew that burning her body was a defiance of our ways, but you did it anyway. Why?”

Realmlord Chatis regarded Riadamor, his expression turning from nervous to belligerent.

“You’re a self-important one, aren’t you?” he said finally. “You Sentorân have a high opinion of yourselves.”

“Answer my question,” Riadamor commanded. Belythna glanced at her companion and saw that Riadamor had gone still. “I care not for your opinion of me.”

Lord Chatis’s lip curled. “Gerta was a pompous old hag. I had little use for her when she was alive, and had no intention of wasting my time on her once she was dead.”

“Whether you liked Gerta or not is immaterial,” Riadamor countered. “Once a realmlord’s Sentorân adviser dies, he must receive another.”

“I’m in no hurry to receive a replacement for an individual whose opinion I never respected.”

“The pact…”

“Hang that pact,” Realmlord Chatis shouted at Riadamor. He leant forward in his chair, all pretence at civility gone. “I care not for an ancient parchment that a group of fools signed in their own blood. That was centuries ago. I speak for all realmlords when I say that the time of the Sentorân is coming to an end. We don’t need your empty counsel. Leave here you pious bitch, and…”

Whatever the realmlord would have been said next, none of them would know.

One moment Lord Chatis was looming forward, pointing an accusing finger at Riadamor, the next some unseen hand had shoved him back in his chair. A vice fastened around his neck, and squeezed hard.

The realmlord’s eyes bulged and his face turned puce. He grasped at the invisible fingers clamped around his wind-pipe, writhing in his chair like a landed trout. The realmlord’s guards rushed to his aid but could be no use against this unseen foe.

Riadamor stepped forward, her face livid. The look in her eyes was terrifying.

“You know what was written on that pact,” Riadamor told him, her hand outstretched into a claw that slowly compressed. “A realmlord who refuses our counsel must die. We have been too lenient with the lot of you – it’s time you understood who truly rules Palâdnith.”

“Riadamor!” Belythna gasped. “Let him go.”

Riadamor ignored Belythna, her dark gaze boring into the man thrashing in his chair. He was about to pass out.

“Stop her!” Councillor Valense rushed forward. “She’s going to kill him.”

The guards, wary of the enraged Sentorân before them, hung back. However, one was reaching for a throwing knife. The situation was moments away from taking a turn that there would be no way back from.

“Riadamor!” Belythna shouted. “Stop!”

Suddenly, Riadamor dropped her hand. Released from her grasp, the realmlord collapsed in his chair, panting and choking.

“The pact still stands,” Riadamor told him, her voice shaking from the rage that still pulsed through her. “If you break it your life is forfeit.”

Her last words echoed in the cavernous chamber. Its occupants stared back at the enraged Sentorân. Some looked frightened, while others were furious. Councillor Valense was one of the latter; his thin face was white, his blue eyes hard and angry.

Belythna decided to take control of the situation. She stepped forward and threw Riadamor a look of warning – praying that she would not ignore her this time. Then she addressed Lord Chatis.

“We will send you a new Sentorân adviser within the next moon cycle.”

On the dais before them, Lord Bar Chatis had pulled himself up onto his chair. His face was florid, and his body trembled – yet his eyes glittered with defiance.

This is not the end of this, Belythna thought bleakly. Gods preserve us, it is only the beginning.

“You will welcome your new Sentorân,” Riadamor added, her gaze never leaving the realmlord’s face, “and you will see no harm befalls him, or her.” Riadamor paused here, letting her threat hang in the air for a few moments before continuing. “We cannot prove that Gerta was a victim of foul play – but I will report this back to our leader all the same. If you defy us again, we will show you no mercy.”

With that, Riadamor turned and strode towards the great oaken doors at the end of the chamber. No one tried to stop her.

Belythna cast one last glance at the realmlord. She wanted to soften Riadamor’s threat, to try to smooth the situation somewhat – but one look at Lord Chatis’s face made the words die on her lips. Lord Chatis’s gaze tracked Riadamor as she reached the doors. Yet he wisely held his tongue; one more insult and Riadamor would kill him.

Their time here had ended, and no words could put it right. With a heavy heart, Belythna turned her back on the realmlord and his council, and followed Riadamor outside.

Chapter Two

 

Prayers and Practice

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

One month later…

 

 

The smell of incense was cloying. It burned the back of Belythna’s throat and tickled her nose. After all the years she had spent at Deep-Spire she should have become accustomed to its pungent aroma – but she never had.

Belythna knelt on the cold stone floor near the steps leading up to the Flame of the Gods. Eyes closed and head bent, she could hear the fire crackling in the brazier, and sense the presence of the others around her; one-hundred and fifty bodies packed into the circular chamber.

Behind her, someone sneezed.

Belythna gave a rueful smile; she was not the only one bothered by the incense.

Dawn prayers, in the Temple of the Gods, was a morning ritual that no Sentorân escaped. The Sentorân were the mortal agents of the gods, Palâd and Nith, for whom their land was named. Ever since the order’s beginnings thousands of years earlier, the Sentorân had been driven to do the gods’ work; to promote and preserve peace in Palâdnith at any cost. The daily prayers and offerings were but another way that the order showed its devotion to Father Sky and Mother Earth.

Belythna sighed. Prayers, a nuisance at the best of times, weighed heavily upon her today. The cold, hard stone hurt her knees and she was fighting a cramp in the back of her right thigh.

I’m going to have to do this, every morning, for the rest of my life.

The thought filled Belythna with despair, swiftly followed by a rush of guilt.

This is the life you chose – too late for second-thoughts now.

Indeed, she had chosen it. Her father might have dropped her off at Deep-Spire’s gates, but she had not been obliged to stay here. She had been given the opportunity to leave just after her arrival. Belythna remembered the moment well.

She had stood before Lady Serina in the Council Chamber, weeping, for it had been hard to accept that her father had ridden off without a backwards glance. Belythna was unsure if he had even told her mother that he was taking their youngest daughter to Deep-Spire. Belythna had been merely a nuisance; the daughter who had once blown the wheels off the family wagon during a row with her sisters. Her older sisters had bullied her because she was different. None of them, save only her cowed mother, would have been sad to see her go.

The fortress, the austerity, the frightening woman before her… it had all been too much. Yet, Lady Serina had explained, in a surprisingly gentle voice, that she was not a prisoner in Deep-Spire, and that she was free to go. To go where? Belythna was barely out of girlhood, at thirteen winters. She carried only the clothes on her back and had a total of ten bronze dracs in her purse. She would not survive long on her own. Still, she had been given a choice, and that had made her new life easier to bear. She had even come to enjoy being part of the Sentorân order.

Except for morning prayers.

Eventually, the ritual drew to a close, ending – as they always did – with a prayer recited by Lady Serina herself. It was the same prayer that the leader of the Sentorân recited every morning. Tall and stern, her angular face hard in the silvery light, Lady Serina was a forbidding sight this morning. Her voice, clipped and cool, echoed through the silent temple.

“Father Sky and Mother Earth, give us your blessing as we follow your truth. We guide the hearts, heads and hands of those who rule, but do not covet such power for ourselves.”

When Lady Serina’s voice died away, Belythna opened her eyes and raised her chin, staring, as was customary, at the gently flickering flame on the dais before her. Her voice joined the chorus of many, young and old, who repeated the Sentorân creed.

“We guide the hearts, heads and hands of those who rule, but do not covet such power for ourselves.”

Belythna rose to her feet, wincing when the cramp in her thigh made her hobble. Around her, she heard the whisper of gowns, and the scuff of booted feet on the marble floor, as the others left the temple.

However, she did not join them. Today it was her and Riadamor’s turn to tend the flame. Riadamor stood nearby, her long face impassive while she waited for the other Sentorân to file out of the Temple of the Gods.

An impressive space, which took up the last section of Deep-Spire’s smaller spire, surrounded them. The roof above their heads, did not curve into a dome as most of the temples in Palâdnith did, but instead tapered up to a sharp point. The temple, although imposing, was austere in its furnishings. Flickering candles on bronze candelabras and pots of burning incense lined the wide space below stained-glass windows. The floor was blemish-free white marble, very different to the dark schist flagstones that paved the rest of the fortress. The podium, where the Flame of the Gods burned, was the chamber’s centre-point.

Once the Sentorân had left the temple, Belythna nodded to Riadamor and climbed the steps to the flame. Standing at the rim of the brazier, in which golden flames danced, she waited for Riadamor to join her. Theirs was a simple task, one they had completed many times before, yet it required them to follow a set procedure.

Riadamor reached Belythna’s side and wordlessly reached for a tall jug made of beaten bronze. It contained oil, taken from the blubber of great leviathans caught by fishermen off Paladnith’s vast shoreline.

Belythna picked up a large clay vessel and held it out to Riadamor, whispering words of offering and prayer. Riadamor carefully poured the oil in a thin stream into Belythna’s cup, her own prayers whispering in the quiet of the temple.

Belythna then gently poured the contents of the cup into the tray beneath the burning flame – the oil it would consume until someone else performed this ritual the next morning.

“Burn long, burn bright, beckon the sun and chase away the night,” she murmured the words in Ancient Goranthian that brought the ritual to its conclusion. These were the words, woven with a Sentorân enchantment, that the order believed kept Palâdnith safe from evil.

Their task complete, the young women bowed their heads before the flame, in a gesture of thanks, before turning from it and descending the steps. Then, they left the temple quietly, as was expected of them.

The stairs leading down to the base of the fortress were deserted. The apprentices had gone for their daily training, either to the chambers where Marvin, the charm master, taught them about potions, powders, charm stones, enchantments and healing – or to the training ground outside Deep-Spire’s walls, where Ridoc would be overseeing the morning’s exercises.

Those Sentorân remaining at Deep-Spire took turns working in Deep-Spire’s library, doing guard duty, or assisting the training masters. At any given time, there were also at least fifty trained Sentorân out patrolling Palâdnith. They travelled in pairs and were away from Deep-Spire for months at a time; keeping an eye on any trouble spots and reporting back to their leader upon their return. Belythna was looking forward to her first patrol – although it was still some months away.

This morning, both Belythna and Riadamor were due to join Ridoc on the training ground.

They descended the stairwell in silence before Belythna eventually cast Riadamor a side-long glance.

“We’ve hardly spoken since we got back,” she ventured. “Are you well?”

Riadamor looked her way, surprised. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“After what happened, I thought…”

“What? That I would go to Lady Serina and tell her I almost killed Lord Chatis?” Riadamor interrupted, her eyes glinting. “Frankly I’m surprised you’ve kept your mouth shut.”

Belythna frowned. Riadamor’s words stung – she had meant them to.

“Why would you think that?” she asked coldly. “We told Serina enough, and unless the realmlord sends her word, she will probably never find out about the rest.”

Riadamor looked away. “She’s sent Rion to replace Gerta – he’s bound to discover the truth once he arrives in Catedrâl.”

“He might,” Belythna admitted, “but if it comes to that, I will defend you. Remember, we already told Serina that we suspect Gerta’s death was not an accident.”

“Yes, and she chose to ignore it,” Riadamor replied, her voice hard.

The young women lapsed into silence then, and did not speak again until they had almost reached Deep-Spire’s lowest level.

“I shouldn’t have to answer to her,” Riadamor’s voice was sharp with bitterness. “I’ve spent my entire life following orders – I tire of it.”

Belythna shrugged. “Following orders is part of this life,” she replied. “Unless you one day become our leader.”

“I just might,” came Riadamor’s swift reply.

Belythna smiled at that. “You’ll have to fight Floriana for that position – you know she’s set her sights on leading the Sentorân one day.”

“Floriana’s no competition,” Riadamor scoffed, causing Belythna’s smile to fade. Floriana was her friend, and a talented sorceress. Belythna did not like the way Riadamor’s lip curled as she dismissed her.

Why did Riadamor have to make herself so unpleasant? Belythna had tried to befriend her over the years, but she was a difficult person to like. The four of them – Belythna, Riadamor, Floriana and Jedin – had all arrived at Deep-Spire within days of each other. Their histories were intertwined, but Riadamor had always kept herself apart. She spoke rarely about her past. Belythna knew that Riadamor was the daughter of the Lord of Starne Island; but she had learnt little else about her enigmatic companion over the years.

Belythna and Riadamor crossed the huge entrance hall at Deep-Spire’s base, walked through the great oaken doors, which stood open this morning, and descended the steps into the yard. It was a narrow strip in-between the fortress and its protective walls; a sea of smooth white pebbles covered the ground. They crunched underfoot as the women made their way over to where a group of grey-robed figures stood in a line before the talent training master.

The two Sentorân silently took their places either-side of Ridoc.

“Summon your flames,” Ridoc barked at the apprentices, charmless as ever. He was a short, solidly built man with thinning grey hair and sharp blue eyes. “We are about to practice revagrin.”

Belythna looked on while the apprentices, not one of them over sixteen winters, all closed their eyes. The expressions on their faces differed – some were tense, while others nervous – but not one of them looked to be enjoying themselves. Ridoc’s overbearing manner stripped talent training of any joy.

“Emilia Horne!” Ridoc boomed, causing a slender blonde girl at the end of the row to flinch. “What are you doing?”

“Summoning my flame, Master,” she stammered, her eyes flying open.

“And what does it look like, this flame?”

“It’s small and pale gold,” she admitted. Her gaze darted from Ridoc to Riadamor and then Belythna, before she flushed. “It won’t expand, I can’t make it.”

“Control of your flame is the cornerstone of your talent,” Ridoc told her, his face grim. “I’ve told you before; power without control is nothing. If you cannot exercise revagrin then your talent will fail you.”

Emilia nodded, her eyes glittering. A marshal’s daughter, Emilia Horne was one of the few high-born among the Sentorân. Riadamor was the only other to come from a noble family. Unlike most of those in the order, Emilia had chosen this life over a pampered, closeted existence. Unfortunately, these days her enthusiasm for life as a Sentorân seemed to have dimmed. She had arrived at Deep-Spire with a romanticised view of life within these walls; only to be faced with the austere reality.

“Perhaps the girl’s talent is not strong enough?” Riadamor spoke up, her gaze riveted upon Emilia as she spoke. “If she still cannot wield revagrin then she shouldn’t be here.”

Ridoc started slightly, taken aback that Riadamor had dared question him in front of the apprentices.

“I decide where the girl’s place is,” he told her, “not you.”

“What sense is there, in forcing her to continue?” Riadamor replied, turning to him. “You waste her time, and yours.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Ridoc growled, perilously close to losing his temper. “Now why don’t you hold your tongue?”

Ridoc turned back to the apprentices. They were all watching him; except for Emilia, who was staring at Riadamor, as if she had never noticed her before.

“Summon your flames,” Ridoc repeated, raising his hands before him. “Let your flame burn, let it expand, and then wall it in. Feel its weight, its strength. When you unleash your talent your flame must burn within you. It must continue to do so or your powers will desert you. Take it to its limit and then harness its power – that is revagrin.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Lovers

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

Belythna stirred from a deep sleep and stretched out languorously in bed.

A moment later, she realised that Jedin was gone.

Opening her eyes, she saw that the first rays of dawn light were filtering in through the open window, signalling it was time to rise and go to dawn prayers. There, framed by the silvery light of a late-summer’s dawn, she saw a man’s silhouette. Jedin was naked. He was standing looking out at the sun, as it edged over the eastern rim of the world.

Belythna lay there a moment, silently admiring his naked form. Jedin was one of the Hand – another talent among the Sentorân. They were sorcerers with warriors’ hearts, and the only among them who wielded weapons. Indeed, Jedin had a warrior’s physique; he was tall, broad and muscular, with long dark hair that flowed across his naked shoulders.

This morning it appeared that he was lost in his own thoughts as he gazed out of the window. He had not noticed that she had awoken.

Belythna considered speaking – drawing him out of his reverie – but something made her hesitate. It had been a decade coming, this union between the two of them – and yet, they both knew it was a mistake. Jedin had arrived at Deep-Spire, just days before Belythna. Fourteen winters old, surly and uncommunicative, he had been difficult to befriend, and even more difficult to get to know. Yet, with the years that passed, an attraction had slowly grown between them until it had finally flowered into passion. They had slept together on the first night Belythna had returned from Catedrâl, just over a moon’s cycle earlier. Despite that their beds were all they shared, and despite that they had little to say to each other, the affair had continued.

Watching him, Belythna felt sadness compress her ribs. They had both been lonely, both craving human warmth. The attraction between them, that had tantalised them both for so many years, had not been able to withstand their union. Last night, she had lain with a stranger. The longer the affair dragged on, the further apart they grew. It was a cruel irony but one not lost on Belythna. Floriana, and even Riadamor, had warned her that Jedin would not give her what she craved. It galled her that they had been proved right.

Many here have no room in their hearts for anything but their talent, Floriana had told her once. Our training makes us selfish – makes it difficult to give of ourselves.

At the time, Belythna had denied her friend’s words. She could not accept the idea that they were supposed to live a loveless existence. Unions amongst the Sentorân themselves were not forbidden, although they were not allowed to take a consort from outside the order.

Why should she not enjoy her time with Jedin?

Yet, it had turned out to be an empty experience – and watching him now, she realised she would need to be the one to end it.

“You look like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders,” she observed, sitting up in bed and stretching.

Jedin turned from the window, his dark gaze meeting hers before it slid to her bare breasts.

“It’s a beautiful sunrise,” he replied, his rugged face giving nothing away, as usual.

“What you were thinking about?” she asked.

He frowned then, as he often did if she asked him anything remotely personal. “Nothing of importance,” he replied, brushing her off.

“It never is,” Belythna slid off the bed and retrieved her clothing from the chair against the opposite wall. “I go to bed every night with a shadow, and wake every morning with a stranger.”

Jedin’s frown deepened. “What?”

“From now on, I will sleep in my own chamber, Jedin. Alone.”

Jedin looked surprised at that; the first emotion he had shown in days.

“Why? There’s no need for that. We haven’t argued.”

“No – to argue you’d have to communicate. I’d get more conversation out of a wall,” Belythna replied, pulling a tunic over her head.

She fastened a thick leather belt about her waist and turned to him once more. Belythna met his gaze then – and felt her breath seize painfully in her chest. He could not even pretend to be upset; could not even make a show of trying to make her stay. She repressed the urge to leap forward and strike him across the face. Instead, she reached for the rest of her clothes.

“So this was a mistake?” Jedin asked. “You regret being with me?”

Finally, Belythna heard the hurt in his voice. Yet, it was too little, too late.

“This was an error on both our parts,” she told him. She finished dressing, avoiding his gaze as she did so. “It should be easy enough to pretend it never happened.”

“I don’t want to this to end,” he replied. “Belythna, wait…”

“No.” Belythna threw her cloak about her shoulders and turned from him. “It’s over.”

With that, his silence a cold wall behind her, she stalked from the chamber without a backward glance.

 

Dawn prayers were even harder to endure than usual that morning. Belythna kept her head bowed, fighting tears.

She had wanted companionship; she had wanted the union between man and woman that others outside the order had. Life here could be lonely at times and Jedin had provided much needed solace. However, once the initial excitement had passed, being with him made Belythna feel even lonelier than before. Jedin had said little when she ended it, but she knew how proud he was. Her final words to him made her stomach churn.

There would be no going back.

Dawn prayers finally drew to a close and Belythna joined the crowd of black-robed figures that filed out of the temple. She deliberately kept her gaze trained on the person in front of her, lest she accidently spy Jedin. She could not face him now.

This was the morning of the Council. Once a moon-cycle, fifty Sentorân gathered in the Council Chamber to discuss important matters. Belythna, Floriana, Riadamor and Jedin had only recently been admitted to the Council; a great honour indeed.

Belythna made her way down the stairs, ignoring the rumble of conversation around her. She was lost in her thoughts when a familiar voice reached her.

“Belythna – wait!”

Floriana DeSanith, slightly out of breath from her run down the stairwell to catch up, appeared at Belythna’s side. The blonde young woman, easily the most attractive female within Deep-Spire, cast a glance at her friend’s face and frowned.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

Floriana gave her a searching look. “It’s Jedin, isn’t it?”

Belythna winced, wishing that her friend was less astute at reading her. “I’ve just finished things between us.”

Floriana did not reply, her silence speaking volumes.

“Go on,” Belythna turned to her friend; meeting her steady gaze. “I can tell you’re dying to say ‘I told you so’.”

Floriana shrugged and gave a rueful smile. “Actually, I was hoping you’d both prove me wrong.”

“No, you spoke true. Taking a Sentorân as a lover was a mistake.”

“Did I put it that bluntly?”

“You did – and you were right.”

Floriana looked pained at that, but wisely refrained from commenting.

Chapter Four

 

The Council of Deep-Spire

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

Belythna and Floriana took their usual seats in the Council Chamber. They sat at a huge, oaken table, at the end nearest the doors. The two young women, who had become fully-fledged Sentorân just three years earlier – upon their twentieth spring – sat at the opposite end to the oldest, and more experienced, sorcerers of the order.

As the chamber filled up, Belythna leant back in her chair, her gaze travelling around the austere chamber. Apart from the magnificent table and high-backed chairs, little else adorned the space. This had been a throne room once, long ago when kings ruled Palâdnith. Belythna imagined how magnificent this chamber would have been back then; there would have been a dais up one end and tapestries and weaponry hanging from the walls. Many centuries had passed since the Age of Kings; these days the pitted stone walls, made of a dark, volcanic rock, were bare of decoration.

It was a sombre chamber – unadorned except for the large parchment hanging on the far wall. Protected under a thin layer of glass, a rare material in Palâdnith, the parchment was brittle and yellowed with age. The signatures of the six men who had signed it in their own blood were still as vivid as if they had been written yesterday – and not centuries earlier.

The Pact of the Realms – that parchment marked a turning-point in Sentorân history. It had been the moment when the order’s role as protector of the land became formalised. Elisir, the sorcerer who had led the Sentorân order at that time, had worked for peace and unity for many years; and it was Elisir of Deep-Spire who had brought the Age of Darkness to a close.

For many years preceding the signing of the pact, the Sentorân had travelled the land, from one end to the other, gaining support for their idea of dividing Palâdnith into five realms. Each realm would be governed by a realmlord – and each lord would rule with the guidance of the Sentorân. The five men, who would later become realmlords, eventually travelled to Deep-Spire. There, they took part in a conclave with Elisir, where the boundaries of the new realms were drawn up and agreements made.

The five realms of Palâdnith would never have existed without the Sentorân – and the men who chose to become the first realmlords were only too happy to sign the pact. The Age of Darkness had been long and difficult; they were all wise enough to realise that the only way forward was unity.

If only later realmlords had held the same view, Belythna reflected. Men never appeared to learn from their mistakes. Those first five realmlords had been good men, leaders with vision. Yet, it had taken just over a century before the lessons of the past faded from living memory.

It had been the Pact of the Realms that Riadamor had been referring to when she lost her temper with Realmlord Chatis.

The penalty for breaking the pact was death. All the current realmlords knew it – and it was only this that held them in check.

Black-robed figures filled the chamber, their cloaks rippling behind them. To Belythna, their black clothing always made these meetings seem like a council of crows. Such a grim colour, she thought. The morning’s events had left her feeling tired and jaded for her twenty-three winters.

Jedin arrived, and wordlessly took a seat next to Floriana. Belythna glanced his way and immediately regretted it. There was not a shred of warmth on his face. He glared back at her, his dark eyes accusing. Belythna hastily looked away and resolved to ignore him for the rest of the council.

Riadamor entered then. She made her way over to the table and slid into the spare seat next to Belythna.

“Morning,” Belythna greeted her. Riadamor nodded curtly in reply; her terse manner not inviting conversation.

Lady Serina made her entrance a few moments later. She strode into the chamber, her long, silver-threaded, dark hair pulled back, as usual, in a severe braid. It was an unforgiving style for a woman with such an uncompromising face.

The leader of the order strode up the table, towards the chair awaiting her at the top, in-between Ridoc and Marvin, her advisers.

“Kern has brought word from the south,” Lady Serina began the council without preamble, before acknowledging the hatchet-faced man seated nearby. “The skirmish on the Omagen-Sude border grows bloodier by the day – and fighting has now broken out on the Farindell-Sude border as well.”

Disapproval rippled around the table.

“You didn’t need to travel back to Deep-Spire to deliver this news,” a young, female voice cut through the murmuring voices. “You could have sent a raven. Why are you not still on the Omagen-Sude border?”

All gazes swivelled to Riadamor.

Meanwhile, Kern’s face turned thunderous.

“Riadamor,” Lady Serina’s gaze narrowed. “You were not given leave to speak.”

“The Realmlord of Sude sent you away, didn’t he?” Riadamor added, ignoring the Sentorân leader.

“Lord Tagett no longer welcomes my counsel,” Kern admitted sourly. “There is no use lingering where I am not wanted.”

“You shouldn’t have let him dictate to you,” Riadamor replied. “Why did you not uphold the pact? A realmlord who does not accept our council must be made an example of. How else will the others learn?”

“Riadamor!” Serina’s reprimand echoed through the council chamber. “Hold your tongue!”

Riadamor gave Lady Serina a cool look but, sensing her superior’s rising temper, did as she was bid.

Belythna glanced at Riadamor. What was she playing at? Surely, she did not want Lady Serina to know what had she had done to Lord Chatis in Catedrâl? She was dancing perilously close to the edge, but did not seem to care.

Lady Serina turned to Kern. The sorcerer looked as if he had aged a decade in the last few moments. He was hunched down inside his robes, glaring down the table at Riadamor.

“Kern – is it true?” Serina asked him. “Did Tagett send you away?”

The older sorcerer’s thin frame sagged. “He did. He blames us for their unrest. He accuses you of sending me to counsel him in an attempt to enslave him. He thinks you seek to make him do your bidding, that you wish to become queen and bring the realmlords down, one by one.”

Kern’s words brought a series of gasps forth from some of the Sentorân, while others muttered curses under their breaths at the Realmlord of Sude’s audacity.

Only Serina did not show a response. She sat, still and regal, her gaze riveted upon Kern.

“Did Lord Tagett say anything else?” she asked eventually, once the chamber quieted.

Kern shook his head, looking sorry and sad. “Nothing else, Milady. Surely, this is more than enough.”

“Riadamor spoke true,” Ridoc, seated to Serina’s left, was finding it hard to contain his agitation. “We cannot let Tagett get away with this.”

Lady Serina merely shook her head; for the first time in years she appeared at a loss for words.

“Send a group of us to deal with him,” Riadamor spoke up once more. “Offer him a new adviser. If he refuses, slay him, as the pact dictates.”

“Such an act could turn the other realmlords against us,” Kern protested, unable to remain silent a moment longer. “It could bring us to war.”

“If you do nothing, then that pact on the wall is worth nothing,” Riadamor retorted. “If none of you have the courage to uphold it, we will be Palâdnith’s laughing stock.”

Silence followed Riadamor’s words.

Belythna shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Riadamor – please,” she whispered. “That’s enough.”

“Why?” Riadamor gave her a haughty look. “I’m merely stating the truth. It’s time someone did.”

“You speak out of turn,” Lady Serina told her flatly, “and in doing so are demonstrating your ignorance. You would have centuries of peace destroyed because one man has behaved badly. I will deal with Lord Tagett, in my own way. I will not be dictated to by the likes of you.”

Riadamor rose smoothly to her feet. Her face was hard with anger.

Belythna caught hold of Riadamor’s arm and tried to pull her back down into her seat, but Riadamor merely shook her off.

“Do what’s needed,” she addressed Lady Serina. “Bring that realmlord to justice!”

“The world is not as black and white as you paint it,” Serina leaned back in her chair and shook her head mockingly.

“No – it is actually very simple,” Riadamor replied. “A realmlord who does not allow us to counsel them must be removed from power.”

“Stupid girl,” Lady’s Serina’s lip curled. “You know nothing of how the world works. Your father is a petty tyrant, who thinks he can bully the world into doing his bidding. I can see the apple did not fall far from the tree!”

Those words changed everything.

Lady Serina’s insult was a catalyst. Suddenly the argument escalated to a place there was no turning back from.

Riadamor’s face twisted. She gave a yell and shoved her hands forward into the air, unleashing her talent.

Serina flew backwards, as if caught by a gust of wind, toppling her chair to the flagstone floor with a clatter. The leader of the Sentorân order collided, spread-eagled with the stone wall, and, for one terrible moment, the chamber, and all those inside it, froze.

A heart-beat later, the chamber erupted. Sorcerers leapt to their feet, Belythna among them, gathering their talents to strike Riadamor down.

Yet, Serina was faster.

She had not risen to her position through a sharp mind alone; her talent of the Heart, was one of the most powerful the order had ever known.

With a grace that belied her advancing years, Serina peeled herself off the wall and fixed her gaze upon her adversary. Riadamor stood at the opposite end of the room, her hands still outstretched, her face savage. Serina whispered something, her voice so low that no one in the chamber caught the words. Then, she brought her arms up and crossed them over her chest.

Riadamor screamed.

She staggered backwards, her back jack-knifing as if an invisible force attempted to snap her spine.

“Enough, Riadamor,” Serina’s voice rolled across the chamber like thunder. “I am out of patience.”

Riadamor screamed again, writhing and twisting in an effort to straighten herself up. There was agony in that scream, but also defiance.

Belythna stared, shocked, at where Riadamor fought Serina’s talent with everything she had. Her only response, when she managed to choke out the words, was to scream an obscenity at her leader.

Belythna reached out, in an effort to use her talent to soothe Riadamor. In response, Riadamor spat out a curse and flung her arm into Belythna’s face. The bony edge of her wrist caught Belythna’s right cheek and sent her reeling back against Floriana.

Lady Serina, her face creased in concentration, advanced down the right-hand side of the long table. Any Sentorân in her way, hurriedly stepped back to allow her passage. Her arms were still over her chest – the battle stance of those with her talent – although her fists were now clenched, revealing the effort it took to keep Riadamor under control.

She stopped a yard away from Riadamor and watched the young woman who fought her with every fibre of her being.

“You leave me with no choice.” Serina’s voice was cold, hard.

With that, the leader of the Sentorân brought her clenched fists together in the centre of her chest.

Riadamor’s body went into spasms, her limbs thrashing uselessly. Then, she gave one last cry of pain before her eyes rolled back in her head and she crumpled, like a marionette with its strings suddenly cut, to the flagstone floor.

All eyes were on Lady Serina while she approached Riadamor’s motionless form. A hush filled the council chamber. Its occupants were still reeling at what they had just witnessed.

Serina stopped before Riadamor, staring down at her unconscious face.

“You were always the one to watch,” she murmured.

 

***

 

Belythna heard the sound of the Spire Cage creaking in the wind before she caught sight of it. She mounted the final steps to the narrow archway and approached the cage cautiously.

A warm wind greeted her when she stepped out onto the platform beyond the archway. An iron beam, bolted onto the side of the fortress’s Great Spire, stretched above her head. At its extremity, a heavy iron cage hung on a chain. The cage swung gently in the wind.

Belythna craned her neck up, her gaze resting upon the figure who sat hunched in the cage.

“Riadamor,” she called out softly, and despite that the wind whistled this high up, the Spire Cage’s occupant heard her. The young woman raised her head and Belythna saw a pale face and two dark eyes gaze down at her.

“I was wondering when you’d pay me a visit,” Riadamor’s voice was hoarse. She had been in the cage three days now – and although she was given food and water once a day, it was barely enough to sustain her. It had been a deliberate move on Lady Serina’s part; she wanted to weaken Riadamor – to break her spirit, and to punish her for what she had done.

“I wanted to come earlier,” Belythna admitted, finding it difficult to hold Riadamor’s intense stare, “but it was forbidden.”

Riadamor’s mouth curved into a bitter smile at that.

“Yes – you’ve always done what you’re told.”

Belythna did not reply. She merely stared up at Riadamor and waited.

“So why are you here?” Riadamor finally asked. She reached out, her thin fingers curling around the iron bars, and pulled herself forward so that she could see Belythna better.

“I have to know why you did it,” Belythna replied. “You had ambitions. You wanted to serve this order, you wanted to lead it. Why did you ruin everything for yourself?”

Riadamor stared back at her. When she eventually spoke, her voice was flat and emotionless.

“I wanted that once, but not anymore.”

Silence stretched between them for a few moments before Belythna spoke.

“Lady Serina knows about what happened with Lord Chatis.”

“So you told her, did you?”

Belythna shook her head. “Rion sent a raven – it arrived yesterday evening. I will be punished for withholding information.”

Riadamor’s gaze narrowed at that. Belythna tentatively stretched out her talent towards her, gently probing. However, it was like touching a sheet of ice. Riadamor had walled herself in and Belythna could get no sense of her thoughts.

“You don’t belong here,” Riadamor said finally, “any more than I do.”

Belythna stared back at her, not knowing how to respond.

“Set me free,” Riadamor gestured towards the edge of the platform. “Lower me down and come with me.”

Belythna glanced to the left, seeing the winch that was used to lower the cage at meal-times. Then, she looked back at Riadamor and shook her head. They both knew she would do nothing of the kind.

“This is my home – I will not abandon it. I will not betray an order that took me in, clothed and fed me and made me what I am?”

Riadamor’s lip curled. “They’ll turn you spineless and self-important, just like the rest of them. In time you will realise your mistake.”

“There’s no mistake. I belong here.”

“Leave me then,” Riadamor snarled. “If you won’t help me, I have nothing more to say to you.”

“Listen, Riadamor!” Belythna stepped forward, her voice rising in desperation. “Serina will leave you here to rot. Beg her forgiveness and she might let you out one day. If you don’t you will die in this cage!”

Riadamor did not reply. Instead, she turned her back on Belythna, making clear that their conversation was at an end.

 

Chapter Five

 

The Old Well

 

Tarras, Central Omagen

 

 

The wide sky above Tarras was ablaze. Dusk settled over the sprawling town; staining the parched hills and the pitted sandstone buildings gold. It was a warm autumn evening and the air was rich with the scent of baked earth and wild thyme.

On the outskirts of town, in the shade of a stand of spindly pines, Riadamor waited.

It was a peaceful spot, and the chorus of chirping cicadas kept Riadamor company. Few disturbed her here, for she hid far from where the menfolk of Tarras mined for gold. The only item of note was a small, crumbling well, surrounded by a carpet of pine needles. The well was the only source of water for quite some distance. As such, it had been the perfect position to lie in wait.

Riadamor knew that, eventually, the girl would come.

She sat in a shaded spot, behind one of the taller pines, and listened to the muted sounds of the world readying itself for night. The fiery sky was starting to fade as the sun slipped beyond the western horizon.

Barely three moon cycles had passed since Riadamor had left Deep-Spire behind, and she had spent most of that time in hiding. If Lady Serina had sent Sentorân out after her, she had not seen any.

Lady Serina had under-estimated Riadamor – the Spire Cage had not been able to hold her for long.

On her third night in the cage, only a few hours after Belythna had visited her and tried to convince her to beg forgiveness, Riadamor had managed to penetrate the ward that had been placed between the cage and the winch. Then, inch by inch, she had used her talent to lower the cage onto the platform. After that, she had focused on bending the iron bars – a task which left her panting with exhaustion on the floor of her cage. However, at last, she had managed to open them just enough for her to squeeze through.

While the rest of Deep-Spire slumbered, she had slipped through darkened hallways and down empty stairwells till she reached the fortress’s gates.

Here, she had killed both Sentorân guards and let herself out into the moonless night. She had never killed before, but slaying those guards had been easy, thrillingly so. She had crept up behind them as they stood, shoulder to shoulder outside the gatehouse, conversing in low voices. They had never even realised she was there until it was too late. Her talent wrapped itself like an iron band around their windpipes, cutting off their screams. They had fallen, thrashing, to the ground and died moments later.

With Deep-Spire behind her, Riadamor had journeyed north-west, through wide, arid plains. It was exposed terrain, and searing hot. For that reason, it was the last place Lady Serina would search for her. She was far more likely to send search parties out for her to Barrowthorne to the south-west or the Forest of Shadow to the north-east, where there were villages and places to hide.

Riadamor had never been one to choose the obvious.

The journey had almost killed her. She had arrived on the outskirts of Tarras, exhausted, starving and dehydrated. It was only a late summer rain-storm that had saved her from perishing out there on the endless, sun-scorched plain.

At Tarras, she had become a ghost; stealing and hunting to stay alive. Then, she had discovered the old well, and had made her home amongst the pines. And all the while, she thought upon her future.

Revenge was not enough. She would have her reckoning with Lady Serina one day, but she needed more than that in order to go on.

Belythna had spoken true, Riadamor had planned to one day lead the Sentorân, to bring them out of obscurity and to their rightful place as rulers of Palâdnith. She had not planned on losing her temper that morning in the Council Chamber – yet her earlier confrontation with Lord Chatis had freed something within her, something wild and dangerous. With every day that passed afterwards, her need to express herself grew. That council had been the catalyst.

None of them understood me – only my father knew who I really was, Riadamor reflected as she stared up at the darkening sky.

Indeed, the Lord of Starne Island had been only too happy to rid himself of her. Riadamor had been a wilful child, and with the arrival of adolescence, she became impossible to control. She often flew into a rage; and when she did she was perilous company. Once, she had made a vase fly across the room and smash to pieces against her governess’s head, after the woman berated her for being rude. The governess had lain unconscious for days afterwards, and had fled Fort Stealth soon after. Riadamor’s father had tried to find a suitable husband for her; she was very young, but there were plenty of men who preferred brides her age. After she sent her tenth suitor away missing two fingers – when the man tried to fondle her at dinner – her father lost patience with her.

I was never meant to follow others, to toady and cower, Riadamor got to her feet and dusted pine needles off her robes. I was born to rule – and, one day, that’s what I will do.

At that moment, she spied a slight, dark-haired figure, dressed in a ragged, homespun shift, make its way through the trees towards the well.

Riadamor’s mouth curved into a smile. The girl had come.

She waited until the girl – barely thirteen winters by the look of her, and far too thin – had reached the well and was lowering a wooden pail down into it. Then, Riadamor emerged from her hiding place behind the large pine and slowly walked towards her.

“Good evening.”

The girl started and whipped round towards the voice. Her green eyes were huge on her thin face. Riadamor noted that that she had fading bruises on her face and neck. The hands holding the rope were trembling with fright.

“H…hello,” the girl stammered, her gaze travelling over the stranger before her. Riadamor knew her appearance was not intimidating. She had rid herself of her black robes, and golden neck circlet and stolen some plain grey robes from a passing merchant. She looked like a farmer’s daughter, certainly no one to be wary of.

“I’m sorry if I gave you a fright,” Riadamor smiled gently. “I was hoping to see you here.”

The girl’s eyes grew wider still.

“You were waiting for me?” She let go of the rope, not caring as the bucket dropped into the well. The pail clattered against the stone walls before landing at the bottom with a splash.

“Yes, but do not be afraid. I mean you no harm.”

The girl blinked rapidly, her eyes filling with tears. She backed away from the well. “What do you want with me?”

“I wish to offer you a new life,” Riadamor replied, lowering her voice as if she were coaxing a frightened animal. “I see the fear and pain in your eyes. Does your father beat you?”

The girl shook her head, her gaze never leaving Riadamor’s face. “My parents died when I was a babe. A miner and his wife took me in.”

“They mistreat you, don’t they?”

The girl nodded, tears slowly trickling down her thin face.

“Tell me of it,” Riadamor coaxed.

The girl backed further away, suddenly skittish. “Why do you want to know?”

“I can help you,” Riadamor replied, “but only if you talk to me.”

“They were childless at first,” the girl began tremulously, “but after the miner’s wife bore her husband three babes, they no longer had any time for me. I became their servant. They feed me enough to keep me alive, and no more. The wife beats me whenever I am slow, or clumsy.” The girl broke off here, her sticklike arms hugging her torso. “He… the miner… he comes to me at night.” Her face crumpled. “He hurts me, he uses me.”

Riadamor nodded, feeling outrage kindle in her belly as she continued to gaze upon the waif before her. “I can make him pay for that,” she replied, her voice barely above a murmur. “I can make you strong. I can ensure no one ever hurts you again.”

The girl stared at her. “You can?”

“I am a sorceress,” Riadamor explained, “the most powerful alive. I can punish those who have hurt you.”

The girl continued to watch her. However, Riadamor noticed that she was no longer crying. Instead, her green eyes grew bright and sharp. Her heart-shaped face creased in thought as she contemplated Riadamor’s offer.

“You can?”

Riadamor’s smiled, before nodding.

The girl held her gaze for a moment longer. “I will never have to go back there?”

“Never.”

A tremulous smile spread across the girl’s face then, transforming her from an emaciated waif to a rare beauty.

What’s your name?” Riadamor asked her.

“Marin.”

“I am Riadamor,” she took a few steps forward and held out her hand.

Marin reached out and took the hand that Riadamor offered. The girl’s hand was fragile; her fingers ice-cold. However, her eyes were shining.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “You’re my saviour.”

Staring down at the young woman’s face, Riadamor was aware, for the first time in her life, of the power of loyalty. It was an allegiance that you could not buy, borrow or steal – it had to be given freely.

“Come,” Riadamor led Marin away from the well. “Night falls and the miner and his wife will soon expect you back. It is time we paid them a visit.”

Chapter Six

 

Darkness

 

Lake Darkness, Central Omagen

 

 

The village of Darkness sat on the shore of the lake of the same name. It was a ramshackle, sprawling settlement, with no real centre; a village that did not speak of wealth or pride, but of subsistence, commerce and grim survival.

Belythna cast a wary eye over the low-slung wattle and daub hovels as she rode towards the docks; the village looked even more run down than on her last visit, around two years earlier. Many of the thatched roofs were in need of repair, refuse littered the dirt streets, and the faces that peered out of darkened doorways at the three black-cloaked riders, were thin and suspicious.

Four days ride south-west of Deep-Spire, Darkness was not a village that Belythna enjoyed visiting, or staying in – but necessity had called her back.

Not for the first time, she wished that there had been a Call Stone in the vicinity. They had needed to reach Darkness in haste, yet there were no portals nearby – the nearest was just outside Barrowthorne. Most folk had no idea that the large flat rocks dotted throughout Palâdnith were really magical portals that had allowed sorcerers to travel from one end of the continent to another with ease. With the use of one, they could have travelled from Deep-Spire to Darkness in a matter of hours, rather than days.

Belythna glanced at her two companions, Jedin and Floriana. They were also casting guarded glances about them. Jedin’s face was creased in ill-concealed distaste for the stench that had assaulted them ever since they had entered the village. Darkness was a plague-risk, with mounds of rotting food and animal waste piled up just yards from where folk lived. Floriana held a handkerchief to her nose and appeared as if she was having difficulty not retching. The odour also made Belythna’s bile rise. In an attempt to distract herself from it, she focused on their destination – the docks.

If Darkness had a heart, it was the wooden docks built out over the rippling lake. A long strip of dark-stained timber buildings overhung the water, towering over the rest of the village. A collection of water-craft: cargo barges, dinghies, fishing vessels, and even the odd sailboat, bobbed against the shore.

Dusk was falling; the sky to the west was aflame. The red-gold of the sunset cast the docks in a gilded light. It softened the hard faces of the men who heaved crates off barges, and of the painted faces of the whores who called to them from the top windows of the brothel overshadowing the dock.

The activity on the dock surprised Belythna, as it always did. It was easy to forget that Darkness was a hub; a crossroads for merchants, fishermen, and farmers – a place where cargo could be off-loaded and transported north-east to Cathernis and beyond. It was an isolated spot, sitting on the edge of the western foothills of the Sable Range in Central Omagen. Tarras sat five days journey to the north and Barrowthorne lay on the other side of the Sables – yet, the village received steady traffic throughout the year, often attracting those who preferred to do business away from the prying eyes of the realmlords.

Belythna and her companions approached the docks with relief, leaving the worst of the village’s stench behind. The breeze off the lake freshened the air somewhat, and the docks were cleaner and better kept than the rest of Darkness.

Dismounting from her horse, Belythna led it towards a sturdy timbered building that loomed over the crowds of men working in the fading light: The Lake Witch Tavern, named after the legend of a troublemaking woman who had once lived on the tiny island in the middle of Lake Darkness.

After four days in the saddle, Belythna longed to soak in a hot bath and enjoy a roast dinner with a tankard of ale; yet, those luxuries would have to wait. First, they had some questions for the inn-keeper.

The group had begun to attract attention already. Heads swivelled. The Sentorân stood out in their ebony robes and golden collars.

Belythna ignored the stares; she was used to attracting attention wherever she went. These days, the looks became evermore hostile, but she was getting used to that as well. Head high and back straight, she led her horse round the back of the tavern, to the stables. The stable-hand, an idle lad who they interrupted in the midst of fondling a girl in one of the stalls, sullenly made an appearance and relieved the three sorcerers of their horses. Belythna handed him over a bronze drac for his trouble and the three companions made their way inside.

The Lake Witch was the only tavern for leagues around, and as such it was often packed with men, especially at this hour when many of the dock-workers had just finished for the day. A wall of noise hit Belythna as she stepped inside – followed by the pungent smell of ale mixed with smoke and sweat.

An enormous common-area with a sawdust floor took up most of the ground floor of the building. Blackened beams criss-crossed the ceiling above the patrons and two huge fireplaces flickered at either end of the enormous space. The fires did not roar this evening for it was still late summer, and autumn’s chill had not yet made its presence felt. Gazes swivelled towards the three black cloaked figures that wove their way through the jostling crowd towards where a tall, thin man with a neatly trimmed black beard poured ales at the bar.

The inn-keeper saw them coming, and his expression grew grim.

“Good afternoon,” Jedin reached the bar first, towering over the two dock-workers who sat on stools to his left; young men with callow, sneering faces. “We’re here about the man who was killed ten days ago, just outside your tavern.”

The inn-keeper scowled, pushing a frothing tankard of ale towards a waiting customer, and taking the bronze drac the man offered him. “Aye – what of it? Ill news travels fast it seems.”

“Tidings such as these do,” Jedin replied, his face expressionless. “A merchant brought word to Deep-Spire.”

“Then you don’t need to hear it from me.”

“Such tales are of interest to the Sentorân,” Jedin said. “Our role is to keep the peace.”

“Isn’t that what the realmlords are for?” the inn-keeper countered, holding Jedin’s gaze. Despite that the Sentorân towered over him, he did not appear remotely intimidated.

“Do you think the Realmlord of Omagen cares for what happens in this backwater?” Jedin replied, his tone hardening. “We’re here to investigate this death further. Tell us of it?”

“I’m busy,” the inn-keeper growled. “Come back later.”

“We aren’t going anywhere,” Floriana cut in. “Answer the question.”

The inn-keeper’s expression darkened and Belythna saw anger flare in his eyes. Her companions were not going to get anywhere by bullying the man. She could see from his expression that he was on the verge of ordering them to leave.

“I can see you’re busy,” Belythna said, pushing in front of Floriana, and casting her friend a quelling look. “If you can speak to us later, once things quieten down, we would appreciate it. In the meantime, can we have three rooms for the night, and three meals?”

The inn-keeper stared back at Belythna a moment before his expression softened.

“Aye, that’ll be six bronze dracs.”

Belythna dug into the leather pouch at her waist and handed over the money. The inn-keeper handed over three keys. “Last three rooms at the end of the corridor on the first floor. I’ll speak to you later.”

“Thank you,” Belythna smiled back before handing him another bronze drac. “Can you have a bath filled for me as well?”

“I’ll have it seen to,” the inn-keeper promised curtly before turning to his next customer.

The three Sentorân moved away from the bar.

“We don’t have time for this,” Jedin grumbled.

“Another hour or two won’t matter,” Belythna replied. “Whatever he tells us, we can’t do anything about it tonight. The pair of you were about to cause a scene – not something we need. I’d also prefer to speak to him when there isn’t a crowd of flapping ears around us.”

Floriana nodded reluctantly, although Jedin merely held her gaze. She could see the flickering resentment in his eyes.

To think we were once lovers, she thought sadly. These days we are barely friends.

Upstairs, the three sorcerers each retired to their rooms for a while, before promising to meet for dinner later. Glad to have a moment alone, Belythna shrugged off her cloak and sat down on the bed. It was a small, sparsely furnished room but clean enough; it would do nicely.

A short time later, there came a rap at the door. Belythna got up from the bed to let in four servants, all boys of about twelve winters, struggling under the weight of pails of hot water. They poured the water into the cast-iron tub in the corner of the room before retreating, although not without curious stares at the sorceress who stood-by watching them.

Belythna locked the door behind them and let out a sigh of relief. Moments later, she had disrobed and was soaking in hot water. As the fatigue of the last few days slowly dissolved, she found her thoughts drifting to an issue that had plagued her with increasing constancy over the last year.

I don’t want to go back there.

Deep-Spire often felt like a prison these days. This simple room with its scrubbed wooden floor and white-washed walls was far more appealing than the stone chamber she slept in back at the fortress.

Five years had passed since Riadamor’s escape. Since then, the atmosphere within Deep-Spire had become ever more oppressive. Lady Serina kept a tight leash upon the order these days, and no longer tolerated the slightest challenge to her authority.

Riadamor, what has become of you?

Belythna soaked up to her neck in hot water and wondered, as she often did these days, about what had happened to the disgraced young Sentorân. They had spent weeks searching Central Omagen for Riadamor but she had disappeared without a trace.

Lady Serina had been furious – although she blamed herself more than anyone else. She had given Riadamor too much freedom and in return the girl had betrayed her. What lenience Serina might have shown towards the younger members of the order was now but a faint memory.

Belythna did not regret her decision to stay at Deep-Spire, rather than escape with Riadamor. That path would have only led to ruin. Still, of late, she had come to tire of the life she had chosen. She had taken part in ten patrols over the last five years, which had allowed her to travel far and wide across Palâdnith. However, the austerity of her life, and the isolation at Deep-Spire made her feel as if she was being slowly smothered.

Life had developed a monotonous routine – punctuated by twice-yearly patrols – until a few months earlier. It was early spring, and Belythna had been away from Deep-Spire, on a patrol with Floriana. They had been travelling up the Omagen coast, making their way from Dunethport up to Omari, when they heard of strange occurrences. Wherever they went, folk reported young men and women going missing from their beds, never to be seen again. People blamed sorcery – and many pointed the finger at the Sentorân. Belythna and Floriana had done their best to alleviate their fears before returning to Deep-Spire.

A few months later, a cloth merchant brought word to Deep-Spire of this murder in Darkness; a killing that appeared to be the work of dark magic.

Belythna sighed – these thoughts had succeeded in ruining her enjoyment of her bath.

She climbed out of the tub, dried herself off and dressed for dinner. The world seemed to be growing ever more complicated; it felt as if a storm was brewing, but its direction was unknown. Like the others, she was keen to find out the circumstances behind this man’s death. She wanted to know how sorcery was involved.

She had to know if it was Riadamor’s work.

Belythna went downstairs and found Floriana and Jedin conversing over an ale in one of the booths that lined the common-area. They both looked considerably more relaxed than earlier. The ale had brought a flush to Floriana’s cheeks and Jedin was leaning back in his seat in an almost casual manner. Belythna slid into the booth next to Floriana.

“Did you enjoy your bath?” Floriana asked with a smile.

“Not really,” Belythna admitted. She waved to a serving wench and signalled that she would like a tankard of ale. “I found it difficult to relax.”

Their dinners arrived moments later – three plates of roast duck, potatoes and steamed greens. The Sentorân, famished after a day in the saddle, fell upon their meals and only attempted conversation when they had wiped the gravy off their plates with pieces of coarse bread.

“It’s starting to quieten,” Jedin observed, his gaze sweeping over the interior of the tavern. “We should speak to the inn-keep soon.”

Belythna nodded. “Not much longer now.”

“Do you really think it’s her?” Floriana pushed her empty plate aside. “After all this time.”

“Some believe it could be the Sisters of Sial causing trouble,” Jedin replied, “not Riadamor.”

Belythna shook her head. “The Sisters aren’t that different to us. They’re a peaceful order and they never come this far north. They are easy to blame but I don’t think this is their work.”

Jedin raised his eyebrows in response, appearing unconvinced. However, at that moment, Belythna spotted the inn-keeper. He was making his way across to their booth. He carried a tray with four tankards of ale – a generous offer – although his expression was shuttered.

“Good evening,” he slid into the booth, next to Jedin. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Belythna smiled at him and took one of the tankards the inn-keeper offered. “Thank you – we are grateful.”

The man nodded and helped himself to one of the tankards, before taking a large gulp of ale.

“Very well. What was it you wanted?”

“That man who was murdered ten days ago,” Jedin spoke up. “What do you know of it?”

“I didn’t witness it myself,” the inn-keeper began, his gaze flickering across to the two women opposite him. “He was a trader; a rough character, foul-mouthed and always getting into fights. It was a hot evening, late, and I’d sent him outside to cool off after he got into a brawl with some other lads. While he was outside, he met a girl who was making her way along the docks. Witnesses say that she was dressed in green robes, no older than sixteen winters. She had just disembarked from a passenger barge coming from the other side of the lake.”

“What happened?” Belythna pressed.

“There weren’t many folk around,” the inn-keeper replied, “just a couple of drunks – but they remembered what happened clear enough. He approached the girl… tried to give her a bronze drac so she’d lie with him. She refused. He grabbed her and tried to drag her off into the shadows.”

The inn-keeper paused here.

“What happened then?” Belythna asked.

“She burned a hole in his chest. Killed him instantly.”

“But how?” Jedin interrupted. “Tell us about how she burned a hole in this man’s chest.”

The inn-keeper gave Jedin a baleful look, clearly irritated by the Sentorân’s pushy manner, before replying. “The witnesses said they saw a strange kind of pale fire. The girl threw her hand at his chest and the fire erupted from it. When I saw him, it looked as if someone had plunged a hot brand through his ribs.”

“What happened to the girl?” Floriana asked.

The inn-keeper shrugged. “Ran off.”

Silence fell upon the table then. Belythna leant back against the leather upholstered seat, her gaze still fixed upon the inn-keeper. “There’s more, isn’t there?” she said, finally.

The inn-keeper nodded, absently stroking his short, dark beard. “There is. That girl wasn’t the first we have seen here, dressed in green robes. There have been a few of late, drifting through Darkness after nightfall like ghosts. They’re all young. They shun company, and come here only for supplies.”

“Where from?” Belythna asked. Finally, they were getting somewhere.

“Not sure exactly. Some folk say there’s a community of them, living in the western foothills of the Sables. Some kind of reclusive sect. There’s a woman among them, a few years older than the rest. I saw her once – and once is enough.”

“Can you describe her?” Jedin asked.

“She’s easy enough to describe,” the inn-keeper replied. “About your age. Tall and thin with pallid skin, lank blonde hair and dark eyes; wearing loose grey robes. She came here only once, about three weeks ago, to meet a group of her companions arriving on an early barge. I was on the dock, receiving a delivery when she walked by. She gave me one look – and that was enough to keep me away from her.”

The inn-keeper’s voice faded away then, and he took a deep draught of ale. His gaze swept over the faces of the three Sentorân, assessing their expressions.

“You have what you want?” he asked.

Belythna nodded. A lump of ice had taken up residence in her gut as she glanced over at Floriana.

“Yes,” she replied with a tight, forced smile. “You have been very helpful.”

The inn-keeper gave a nod and slid out of the booth. The three Sentorân watched him walk away. A heavy silence settled, before Floriana eventually broke it.

“It’s her. It has to be.”

Jedin nodded, his face set in grim lines. Out of all of them, he had been the most sceptical that Riadamor was to blame for the disappearances, and for this unusual killing. However, he could not refute the inn-keeper’s words.

None of them could.

Chapter Seven

 

Ghosts

 

Lake Darkness, Central Omagen

 

A misty dawn rose over the lake, casting its pale light over the cluster of timber buildings perched on lake’s edge. The stillness of the night lingered. There were few folk about on the docks when three cloaked figures left The Lake Witch Tavern. The fog, thick as porridge, rolled in across the lake, blotting out the glow of the rising sun.

Belythna saddled her horse and led it out of the stables. Jedin and Floriana followed her in tense silence. Mist wreathed them as they swung up onto their mounts and rode away from the docks. The thud of their horses’ hooves on the wooden platform was the only sound on this still morning. Belythna was relieved when they reached the dirt road that circled the port, where the sound of their passing was muffled somewhat.

Although they had done nothing wrong, she sensed that their presence was not welcome here. The inn-keeper had been civil enough but the glares the three of them had received, as they sat discussing what they would do with the information they had gleaned, had been openly hostile.

Riadamor and her band of followers had brought fear to Darkness, making life for the Sentorân even more difficult. When the three of them had left the dining room, to continue their conversation upstairs, mutters and whispers had followed them.

Fatigue pulled down at Belythna. She rubbed her tired face in an effort to wake herself up. They had slept little, after spending most of the night arguing about their next move. Belythna planned to travel to the foothills of the Sables, and discover more about this group. She wanted to return to Deep-Spire with details of where they were hiding, and of their numbers. However, Jedin and Floriana had disagreed. They wanted to return immediately to Deep-Spire and tell Lady Serina what they had heard, rather than investigate further.

It had taken Belythna a while, but eventually she had persuaded her companions that their leader would want more details. They had travelled days to discover that Riadamor had resurfaced. If they could find out where she was hiding as well, she would be easier to apprehend.

Belythna urged her horse into a brisk trot, eager to be free of Darkness and its brooding, watchful presence. The three riders left the village behind them and followed the rutted dirt road south along the lake’s edge. Autumn’s chill was definitely in the air this morning. It had been a long, hot summer but the lazy days of warmth were drawing to a close. Further along the shore, the Sentorân passed a cluster of cottages inhabited by fishermen, with ragged nets hanging outside to dry. The smell of wood-smoke greeted them but they caught no glimpse of folk about on this mist-shrouded morning.

Eventually, the dawn sky lightened and the sun cleared the tops of the Sables. The fog drifted away, revealing a shrubby landscape, and dun-coloured mountains to the east, covered by dry, scrub woodland. After a scorching summer, the landscape was cracked and parched – desperate for rain.

The road they travelled would have taken them for many more leagues around the southern edge of Lake Darkness, before finishing at the Dragon Gorge. Far to the south, Belythna could make out the shadowy outlines of the Low Dragon Spines, the great mountain range that marked the border with the Realm of Westhealm. However, instead, of continuing in that direction, the trio veered east mid-morning, and took a narrow track up through the gently sloping foothills of the Sable Range.

The track was rough, rocky and difficult going for the horses. As such, the Sentorân travelled slowly. The three companions spoke little among them; each lost in their own thoughts. They had travelled a short way into the foothills, when Belythna halted her horse and twisted in the saddle.

“The track is too rough,” she called back to the others. “We’ll need to get off and lead the horses or they’ll end up with stone bruises.”

Jedin and Floriana nodded. They followed Belythna’s lead as she swung down from the saddle. Then, in single file, they led their horses up the rutted track.

A short time later, Belythna realised that something was wrong.

If she had not been so tired, if her thoughts had not kept drifting, she would have noticed immediately.

The trill and chatter of the birds had disappeared.

The morning had gone silent and the fine hair on the back of Belythna’s neck suddenly stood erect, her skin prickling as if she stood naked in a draft.

They were being watched – she could sense it. Her talent was attuned to such things. She had been trained to detect when she was under scrutiny. Slowly, not wanting to draw suspicion, Belythna’s gaze scanned her surroundings. Everything seemed as it should be. They were travelling up a particularly steep incline, studded with boulders and carpeted in briar rose and bramble – yet with each passing step her instincts screamed a warning.

Belythna stopped abruptly, swivelling back to where Floriana walked close behind her. If Floriana had been of the same talent as her, as Riadamor had been, she would have been able to convey a clear warning merely by making eye contact. However, Floriana was of the Heart, like their leader, Serina, and her power lay in her emotions. Beside Floriana, Jedin pulled his horse to a halt, his dark gaze fixing upon Belythna’s face.

“Danger,” Belythna hissed. “Ready yourselves!”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth when green-cloaked figures exploded from behind boulders further up the track. A moment later, the air was thick with sharp stones that pummelled the three Sentorân like hail.

Belythna’s horse snorted and pulled back, dragging her with it. She hung on and turned back towards their attackers, trying to gain an idea of their number. A brief glimpse, before a stone grazed her scalp, revealed that there were at least half a dozen of them. She could not see their faces, for they wore deep hoods.

She saw immediately, from their stance – legs apart, arms outstretched – that they were sorcerers.

Not only that, but they were displaying the battle stance of those trained in the talent of the Head. Her talent.

Their attackers moved out into the open, upon seeing that their initial assault had been successful. The three Sentorân had halted and were struggling to control their horses. Once they had advanced, the cloaked figures resumed their battle stance once more, and flung their hands out in unison.

The earth around the Sentorân exploded.

Hunks of earth and rocks pelted them, and funnels of air raced along the dirt track towards them. When the first hit Belythna, she lost control of her horse. With a squeal of terror, the beast tore itself from her grasp and took off the way they had come. Belythna heard Floriana cry out as her horse did the same, followed by the sound of Jedin withdrawing his sword from its scabbard.

Unlike his female companions, Jedin had surrendered to the inevitable and released his horse as soon as their attackers advanced. He needed both hands free in order to fight.

Another rock found its mark, slamming into Belythna’s shoulder with a force that made her cry out.

Enough. It was time to fight back.

Belythna assumed her battle stance; the mirror image of those attacking her. She summoned her flame, letting it expand so that it roared like a furnace within her. Then, she used revagrin to hold it firm. For what was to come she could not risk her flame going out.

At her shoulder, Floriana crossed her arms over her chest, in the stance of her talent and Jedin swung his blade in an arc before him. Each gathered their power close for an instant, while an unnatural storm of dirt and stones slammed against them.

Then they set their talents free.

Belythna unleashed a tempest from her fingers – a hungry twister that cut through the storm and flattened the nearest green-robed figures in her path.

Floriana, head bowed, shouted out a string of words in a lilting tongue – Ancient Goranthian – the language of sorcerers through the ages. Belythna felt the whisper of something pass her right shoulder. An invisible hand struck their attackers and pummelled one of them to the ground. With a shriek, the figure crumpled, and lay unmoving.

Jedin shouted the battle cry of the Hand. His blade moved in a white streak. He deflected the storm of rocks that hurtled towards them, batting them away as he dived and twirled like a dancer. Such a feat would normally have just dented the blade, even one of the highest quality folded steel. Yet, Jedin’s sword was enchanted. It was fused to his talent, part of his will. It repelled the debris, without the slightest damage to his sword. Jedin turned the flying stones upon those who had launched them. A sharp rock to the skull felled another of their attackers.

A surge of power rippled down Belythna’s arms. It made her feel vibrantly alive; the world around her stood out in sharp relief. The colours, sounds and smells of the dry hillside were suddenly much sharper than before. It was a dangerous sensation, and she recognised it as such. She broke the neck of one of their attackers with the twist of her hands.

These sorcerers were young, she realised; newly trained and untested. Even though they outnumbered the Sentorân, they were no match for the three that stood before them – that was, until one of their number did something none of the Sentorân had anticipated.

One of the figures, small and quick, leapt over a boulder and crouched at its base near one of the fallen attackers. Belythna caught a glimpse of the shadowed face of a girl, in late adolescence.

Then the girl spat out a word and flung her hands forward.

A column of white fire shot from her outstretched hands. Only Belythna’s quick reflexes, and her highly attuned senses, saved her life. She ducked as the fire roared over her head. She felt the deathly heat of it and dropped to a crouch, ready to spring again if another attack came.

This was a bad turn of events. Belythna realised that she had just witnessed the pale fire that the inn-keeper back in Darkness had warned them off. When she had heard the tale, Belythna had wanted to believe that the pale fire had not been borne of sorcery, but had been the work of alchemy. Yet she had just seen it with her own eyes.

Fire had sprouted from that girl’s fingertips.

How had Riadamor created such a weapon?

Another column of fire roared across the path. This time, Belythna scrambled backwards, only to hear the hiss of its heat singeing her cloak. Yet another tongue of white flame barrelled towards her. It would have found its mark if Jedin had not dived in between her and deflected the pale fire with his blade.

Belythna picked herself up off the ground. She glanced across at Jedin and saw that his face was contorted with fury.

“Fall back!” she called out to her companions.

“What?” Floriana shouted above the howl of the tempest that still raged around them. The other ghostly shapes of the girl’s companions had moved up behind her, their courage bolstered. “We can’t let them beat us.”

Belythna’s reply was cut off when she was forced to dive behind Jedin as another volley of pale fire exploded towards them. Once again, Jedin used his sword as a shield. The fire hit the blade with a hiss but did not penetrate further.

“It’s not worth it,” she shouted back. “We’ve never encountered this before. This is a trap – they were waiting for us.”

“How do you know that?” Floriana demanded.

“I sensed it,” Belythna countered, “the moment they attacked. They didn’t bother to hide their thoughts from me. They’re about to close us in. We need to escape – now.”

“A bit late for a change of heart now,” Jedin snarled. “I told you it was unwise to come here without telling Serina first.”

Belythna threw him a dark look before venting her rage through her talent. This time, instead of unleashing her talent on their attackers, she angled her hands towards the ground, around ten feet from where they stood.

The earth erupted in an explosion that threw the Sentorân backwards, knocking all three of them to the ground. However, the tactic had worked. A choking cloud of dust now enveloped them.

“Hurry,” Belythna leapt to her feet and yanked a dazed Floriana up after her. Her friend’s neatly braided blonde hair had come loose, and was now hanging wildly in her face. Her pale cheeks were smudged with dirt. “We don’t have long to get clear.”

This time, neither of her companions argued.

Jedin scrambled to his feet and followed the two women down the narrow track. They stumbled on the uneven, potholed ground but did not slow their pace.

The dust burned Belythna’s throat, her scalp stung and her left shoulder ached from where she had been hit by rocks. Yet, she ignored her discomfort and raced on. She did not stop running until they reached the flat, open land at the bottom of the foothills. They had run so far that they could see the waters of Lake Darkness glittering in the distance.

The Sentorân halted their flight, and bent double as they struggled to regain their breaths. Belythna’s pulse was still pounding in her ears when she raised her head and looked back the way they had come. Her gaze followed the line of the narrow track that wound its way up the scrubby, rock-studded hillside, searching for any sign of their pursuers.

The dust had settled. The foothills of the Sables were still and empty as if not a soul inhabited them.

 

Chapter Eight

 

The Marshals

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

Belythna opened her eyes and rolled over onto her back. For a moment she lay there, staring up at the pitted grey stone ceiling of her chamber, her mind still fogged with sleep. Then, the thought – the same one that plagued her every morning these days – returned.

I don’t want to open my eyes.

It was a bleak thought to wake to every day, and the one that swiftly followed it was no better.

Why can’t I just go to sleep one night and never awake?

She lay upon her narrow bed, letting the desolation wash over her for a moment longer, before doing what she always did. She shoved the thoughts back into the recesses of her mind, sat up, threw aside the covers and rose from her bed.

Irritated by the self-pity that stole upon her every morning, in that vulnerable moment between waking and sleeping, Belythna splashed icy water on her face. Despair hung upon her like a heavy mantle these days, dragging at her steps and taking the warmth out of the sun; the joy out of the things she had once enjoyed. She had tried to fight it but it had grown slowly, insidiously, and before she had fully recognised it for what it was, the sadness had taken root in her soul and refused to let go.

Belythna opened the wooden shutters of her chamber’s window, letting in the dank winter air. It was a heavy, sunless day outside. The grey dawn matched her mood. She turned from the window and dressed, in ceremonial robes, for today was the day of the ‘audience’. For centuries, the Sentorân had opened their doors twice a year to common folk, allowing them to come before their leader and council and ask for assistance or vent their grievances.

Belythna snapped on the gold circlet around her neck and reached for her heavy black cloak. She left her chamber, her boots whispering on the damp flagstones, and made her way down to the dining hall to break her fast. The hall was enormous, the largest inside the fortress, with rows of long tables to accommodate the one-hundred and fifty Sentorân who supped here three times a day.

Belythna was one of the last to arrive, and took a seat next to Floriana, as she always did. Her friend acknowledged her with a tired smile. Grey-robed apprentices moved around the hall, carrying jugs of milk, baskets of fresh bread and trays with dishes of butter and pots of honey. As part of their training, all Sentorân apprentices had to serve the meals and assist the cooks in the fortress’s kitchens. Apprentices had to assist the common folk working as servants within the fortress. Belythna remembered those days well: scrubbing floors, kneading bread and running errands. Sometimes she looked back upon them wistfully, for her world had been simpler then.

Although she was not hungry, Belythna helped herself to a piece of bread and smeared it with butter and honey. She felt as if she was wading through porridge these days, but she could not let the others, even Floriana, know that she was not happy.

The murmur of conversation in the dining hall was subdued this morning. Most of the older Sentorân looked fatigued. Belythna knew that they often met with Serina in the evenings to discuss the deteriorating situation. The younger Sentorân, Belythna included, were never invited.

“Kern’s looking sour this morning,” Belythna murmured to Floriana as she poured herself a cup of water. “His face could curdle milk. What’s wrong with him?”

“Serina’s furious with him,” Floriana whispered back. “He has just returned from the Citadel of Lies and informed her that he gave the last Blood Stone to the Guardian of the Citadel for safe-keeping.”

Belythna went still at this news. “He did?”

Floriana nodded, her gaze travelling to where the aging Sentorân sat brooding into his cup.

“I was taking books back to the library when I overheard them arguing,” Floriana continued. “Serina was livid. She’s threatened Kern with expulsion from the order.”

Belythna took a sip of water, absorbing this news. The Blood Stone was a precious, and highly dangerous object. It was linked to a past that the current rulers of Palâdnith would rather forget. Many legends surrounded the stones, yet all the Sentorân knew of their real history – how they had been used to transport enemies of the warlocks and kings of old to an underworld prison named Moden. Throwing the stone at the feet of the condemned and uttering the word that unlocked the stone’s power, would open a portal between this world and Moden, and suck the hapless individual into a timeless prison warded by immortal creatures known as the Keepers of Moden.

Legend had it that the Blood Stones had been created from the heart of a live volcano by the long dead order of warlocks who built the Citadel of Lies – a mysterious fortress that lay deep in the heart of the forests of Westhealm. Whatever their origin, the Blood Stones were precious, and if one got into the wrong hands it would be catastrophic.

“That was a foolish move on Kern’s part,” Belythna said finally, meeting her friend’s gaze. “Yet, if the Guardian hides it away in the Great Bibliotheca, it’s safer there than most places.”

“True,” Floriana admitted. “Although Serina liked knowing that she had possession of the remaining stone.”

Belythna held her friend’s gaze a moment, wondering what Floriana really thought of Kern’s behaviour. Like Belythna, she had just reached her thirtieth winter. However, unlike Belythna, Floriana, appeared serene in the life she had chosen.

The women finished their meals in silence before following the other Sentorân out of the dining hall and up three levels to the Council Chamber. They spoke little during the way up, each immersed in their own thoughts, and arrived at the chamber to find Lady Serina awaiting them.

The large oval table that usually dominated the huge chamber had been carried away this morning, in preparation for the audience. Its absence made the Council Chamber seem even larger and more imposing that usual. Grey light filtered in from the arched windows, highlighting the severe contours of Serina’s face. She sat waiting upon a dais at the end of the chamber, upon an ornately carved wooden chair. The Sentorân silently climbed up on to the dais, flanking her on both sides.

Lady Serina acknowledged many of the sorcerers with a curt nod. She appeared fatigued this morning. Deep grooves had formed either-side of her mouth and thick streaks of grey now laced her dark hair. It was as if the weight of the world rested upon her shoulders.

In a way it did – for ever since Belythna, Floriana and Jedin’s return from Darkness two years earlier, events had taken a downward spiral.

After delivering the news that Riadamor had indeed re-emerged, and was gathering followers to her, a party of fifty Sentorân had returned to the foothills of the Sables. However, they had found Riadamor’s hideaway deserted.

Six months later, word had reached Deep-Spire of a new order, led by Riadamor herself. They called themselves the ‘Esquill’, which meant ‘free’ in Ancient Goranthian. Sightings of green-robed sorcerers had come from throughout the realms: Omagen, Cathernis, Sude, and even those on the edges of Palâdnith: Farindell, Westhealm and Marl. Worse still, these sorcerers were trouble-makers. The Esquill travelled through the realms, abducting young men and women and stealing whatever they needed as they went. They terrorised, or killed, those who stood in their way.

The common folk had turned to the Sentorân for help against this new threat, and the realmlords demanded to know from where these ‘Esquill’ had come. Rumours began to circulate that the sorceress leading this new order had once been a Sentorân. This rumour caused folk to turn against the order they had once loved and trusted.

The order had become ever more isolated. The Sentorân had done their best to aid the folk of Palâdnith, sending out as many patrols as they could spare across the land. In the months that followed, the Sentorân and the Esquill clashed often. Over that time, a dozen Sentorân had died, and nearly twice that number of Esquill. However, they had not been able to take any of the Esquill alive. As such, the Sentorân were no closer to offering answers, or solutions, to the people of Palâdnith.

Belythna pondered this as she moved into place at Serina’s right. Patrols were not enough. Something had to be done now, before the situation spiralled out of control.

If it is not already too late.

The last of the Sentorân had just stepped into place on the dais when the massive oaken doors at the end of the Council Chamber opened. The first of the folk wanting audience with the leader of the Sentorân had entered.

A short, balding man with a pugnacious expression strutted into the chamber. He was expensively dressed in chamois breeches, a velvet tunic and a fine wool cloak. Two burly men in creaking boiled leather armour followed him. A few steps behind them were four apprentice Sentorân, who had been charged with escorting those seeking an audience.

“Marshal Horne,” Serina appeared to recognise the man and inclined her head in greeting.

“Lady Serina,” the Marshal stopped around ten feet back from the dais, his heavy-lidded gaze resting on Serina’s face.

Silence echoed through the chamber before Serina broke it. “To what do we owe this visit, Marshal? Are there problems in Tarras?”

Marshal Horne’s mouth compressed. “No more than usual.”

“I sent two Sentorân patrols to you,” Serina reminded him. “Have they not served you well?”

The marshal shrugged. “They engaged the Esquill, who had been causing trouble in Tarras, and chased them off. No more have been sighted since. Still, they have not been able to retrieve the three boys who went missing in the spring.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Marshal Horne held her gaze, his expression stony.

“How kind of you. However, I’m not here for that. I have come to take my daughter back.”

Murmurs of surprise rippled through the chamber.

Serina’s mouth compressed into a thin line. She stared at the marshal, a deep groove forming between her eyebrows. “That is impossible. Once someone joins us, they cannot leave.”

“Yes they can,” the Marshal countered. “If you expel them from the order, they can leave.”

“I will not expel Emilia,” Serina replied coldly. “She is a promising and able apprentice. She will remain here.”

“My daughter has no place in this fortress!” Marshal Horne snarled. “I’ve heard that the leader of these ‘Esquill’ was once a Sentorân. I will not have my daughter remain in a place that fosters such individuals; I am her father, and I demand her back.”

Lady Serina stared at the marshal, her face set in stern lines. Belythna glanced at their leader, wondering what she would do. It was not true that Emilia was a promising apprentice; the girl had never been happy here in Deep-Spire. Ironic really since she had begged her father to let her come here.

Marshal Horne had not wanted to give his only daughter to the Sentorân.

How different to my father, Belythna thought, not without a trace of bitterness.

“Emilia remains here,” Serina announced. “That is the end of the matter.”

“You have no right,” Marshal Horne shouted, his face flushing. “She is my daughter. I will not let you drag her down with you!”

“This audience has ended,” the Sentorân leader replied. “Jedin, Valon – see this man and his guards out.”

The two male Sentorân, tall and threatening, with swords at their sides, stepped down from the dais and strode towards the marshal.

One of the guards behind the marshal started to draw his sword.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Jedin rumbled, fixing the man with a hard stare. The man glared back at him but let his hand drop away from the hilt of sword.

“This doesn’t end here witch,” Marshal Horne growled. “Night is coming for you and this archaic sect. Everyone knows it. I will have my daughter back, I promise you.”

With that, the marshal turned and marched, stiff-backed with fury, out of the Council Chamber.

An uneasy silence hung in the chamber after he had gone. Belythna and Floriana exchanged glances.

“Who comes next?” Serina turned to the apprentice hovering at the door. He was a thin, sallow-faced boy, who was due to be initiated into the order in the spring.

“Another marshal, Lady Serina,” he replied hesitantly, cowed by her fierce stare. “The Marshal of Barrowthorne requests as audience.”

Belythna watched Serina clench her jaw and narrow her gaze. Then, she leaned back in her chair and took a deep breath, swallowing the anger the Marshal of Tarras had just provoked in her.

“Another one,” she spoke between clenched teeth. “Very well, bring him in.”

Moments later, a man strode into the chamber, unescorted, and walked towards the dais.

Belythna’s breath caught at the sight of him, and her gaze tracked him across the floor.

This man was very different to the one who had just left the Council Chamber. He was much younger than Marshal Horne, at around thirty winters. Tall and built like a hunter, he moved with supple, long-limbed grace. He was dressed in worn, calf-length hunting boots, leather breeches and jerkin, and wore a travel-stained cloak about his shoulders. He had a handsome face with chiselled features, and a mop of light brown hair. As he drew closer, Belythna saw that his eyes were the colour of iron.

There was something about this man, a charisma that drew, and held, her attention. She was entranced.

He never once looked her way. Instead, his steady gaze was focused on Lady Serina.

“So you are the Marshal of Barrowthorne?” Serina spoke, her tone dismissive as she dispensed with pleasantries. “A bit young aren’t you?”

The man inclined his head slightly, wry amusement sparking in his grey eyes. Unlike their previous guest, this man did not exude aggression. “Old enough to earn the Realmlord of Omagen’s respect,” he replied. “Greetings Lady Serina. My name is Marshal Hath Falkyn of Barrowthorne.”

“Greetings then,” Serina sighed. Belythna could see that this encounter already wearied her. “Why do seek audience?”

Marshal Falkyn’s face grew serious. Watching him, Belythna found herself hoping he would glance her way. She gazed at him, willing him to feel the weight of her stare. She even stretched her talent towards him in an attempt to draw his attention.

Yet, this man was immune to her abilities.

Belythna withdrew, confusion warring with disappointment. Hath Falkyn was no sorcerer, but an invisible barrier surrounded him. He was strong, and exuded a self-contained power. This realisation merely increased her attraction to him.

“I come to ask for assistance,” Hath Falkyn told Lady Serina.

The leader of the Sentorân frowned at that. “We already have Sentorân patrols throughout Central Omagen, including Barrowthorne,” Lady Serina reminded him, “but if we can assist further, we will.”

“Patrols are not enough,” the marshal replied, his words mirroring Belythna’s earlier thoughts. “We’ve had four young women and two youths go missing in the last month. Three days ago, Barrowthorne’s weaponsmith was found dead in his workshop with a hole burned in his chest. The collection of swords he had been working on were all taken.”

“I am sorry to hear of this,” Lady Serina shook her head, her face softening, “but we are doing all we can.”

“Your patrols are never in the right place,” Marshal Falkyn countered. “Most of the time, the Esquill slip right by you like shadows. To my knowledge you have not apprehended one of them.”

“I assure you, we are doing our utmost to stop them,” Lady Serina’s expression hardened once more. “We have chased them from many settlements, and although we have not apprehended any, we have killed a number of them. Our presence in Barrowthorne has reduced the attacks, as it has elsewhere, but for now I can make no other promises.”

Hath Falkyn folded his arms across his chest and regarded Serina coldly. “The man they killed was my cousin – but we were as close as brothers. I’m not leaving here without a better explanation, and some assurance that you will track down those responsible.”

“You are not in a position to make demands,” Serina replied, her voice clipped. “I tire of marshals striding into my domain and issuing orders.”

“So, you will do nothing?”

“You have my answer. I will say nothing more.”

Silence stretched out in the Council Chamber. Marshal Falkyn stared at Lady Serina for a few moments, before his gaze flicked to The Pact of the Realms on the wall. “So the rumours are true,” he said finally. “The Sentorân are no longer our protectors. Sorcery can only be fought with sorcery – yet you refuse to do what is necessary.”

Listening to the marshal, Belythna felt her skin prickle. He was right. Lady Serina was not doing enough. Yet, of late, she had become obstinate when anyone dared question her.

“We are peacekeepers,” Serina countered, her cheeks reddening as she sought to control her temper. The marshal’s accusation had hit a raw nerve. “Not warmongers.”

“That is a weak excuse,” the marshal replied. “A few Esquill deaths are not enough. You have not frightened them off, as you seem to think. You won’t be able to hide behind these walls forever. The Esquill are gathering their strength; and when they have, they will come for you. Let’s see how you answer then.”

With that, Hath Falkyn turned and strode from the Council Chamber without a backwards glance.

 

Chapter Nine

 

Winter Falls

 

The Rock and Pillar Range, Central Omagen

 

 

Riadamor awoke face-down on the cold stone floor of the cave.

Opening her eyes, she squinted against the flickering light of the candles she had placed around her workspace. Despite that the light was muted, it seared her sensitive eyes. She blinked rapidly, her eyes tearing, and attempted to sit up. Her head ached cruelly and her limbs felt boneless.

She had pushed herself to her limits this time – and it had almost killed her.

I must be more careful, Riadamor reached for a jug of stale water and poured herself a cup with shaking hands.

The water was a balm on her parched throat. She drank deeply before casting the cup aside and glancing around the cave. She was alone, for she had told her followers to leave her be, and not to disturb her, for any reason, until dawn. It was quiet in the dank cave, save for the rhythmic dripping of water. The damp seeped into her bones, adding to her discomfort. She felt over twice her age and winced when she attempted to fold her legs under her. The last few years had taken their toll on her body. Still, if this potion worked, it would have all been worth it.

Riadamor shuffled over to where the pewter dish sat at the centre of the uneven stone floor. It was filled with a dark, viscous liquid – her blood.

The wound on her left wrist ached dully. She had bound it with some gauze after making the incision but a dark stain had seeped through the material. The loss of blood did not bother her, for she had performed a similar ritual many times while performing the forbidden. Of all those followers she had gathered from throughout the five realms, only a handful had shown any natural ability for sorcery. The others, had all required her blood, her talent.

The forbidden was an ancient practice that the Sentorân had long shunned. It was a practice, begun by the warlocks of old, that required a sorcerer’s blood. When a sorcerer cast a spell using his own blood, it was far more powerful – the only downside was that it could turn him mad, or kill him. Yet, the risks had not put Riadamor off. On the contrary, they had only heightened her interest in the forbidden. She had discovered books on the subject, hidden away in Deep-Spire’s library.

The forbidden required blood, and so this potion also required it. She had emptied nearly two pints of her blood into the pewter bowl, and it had been an effort to complete the rest of the steps after she had bound her wrist. The remnants of the other ingredients that she had added to her blood were scattered around the bowl – ground crow feathers, a paste of raw meat, and bone powder among them. She had just finished mixing everything together, and had been about to gather her precious ingredients and put them away, when a terrible weakness had overcome her. Suddenly, her senses had clouded and her vision went dark.

She had been fortunate not to fall, face-down, into her potion. She had shifted back from it when she felt herself go faint.

Just as well, for the innocuous-looking liquid was hazardous.

Riadamor carefully picked up the pewter bowl and peered into its depths. If the blood had congealed, she would have to start from scratch; for it would signify that the ingredients had not alchemised.

Gently, she tipped the bowl to one side, and exhaled in relief when the blood lapped against the edge. It was the consistency of syrup – perfect. She would now decant it into a series of stoppered vials, ready for use.

Her hands trembled slightly as she worked, warning her that she was in desperate need of food, water and rest. She had pushed herself hard of late, but it had all been to one purpose. Soon, she would reap the rewards of all the effort she had put in.

Seven years had passed since her escape from Deep-Spire.

The time since then had been but a blur. She was physically, emotionally and spiritually drained. Yet, it was all going to plan. Just a few more weeks and they would be ready.

Riadamor stoppered the last vial and slotted it away in a rose-wood box. Then, she climbed stiffly to her feet and made her way out of the cave, carrying the box under one arm. The cave went deep into the mountain, and Riadamor was slightly out of breath when she reached its entrance. She stepped out onto a shale bank and was greeted by an icy wind.

It was freezing up here, in the north-western slopes of the Rock and Pillar Range. Winter now had Central Omagen in its grip and this season was brutal this far inland. The eastern sky, just visible over the craggy outline of the mountains, was beginning to lighten. Riadamor had been unconscious for longer than she had realised.

Great tors, pillars of stone, loomed over the entrance to the cave, as if they were guarding it. Stones, boulders and huge stacks of rock littered the slope below Riadamor. It was an unusual landscape, and had been a good choice for their new hideaway. After they had been forced to flee their refuge in the Sables two years earlier, the Esquill had been careful to keep on the move, often staying no longer than two months in one place.

“Milady?” A slight figure, swathed in a heavy fur cloak, emerged from the shadows. “Were you successful?”

“I believe so,” Riadamor replied, pulling up the hood of her grey woollen cloak. The wind chilled her to the marrow of her bones. “It is done. I have a weapon that will allow us to use our enemy as our servant when the time comes.”

The young woman smiled at that before stepping closer. “We have prepared you a hot meal at the camp.”

“Thank you, Marin,” Riadamor favoured her most loyal follower with a thin smile. “I am drained. I need to eat and rest.”

She held out the rose-wood box to Marin then. “Here, take this. It will be your responsibility to take care of this box, and the vials it contains. We will need it once we take Deep-Spire.”

The hooded head nodded, and two pale hands stretched out to take the box. “Yes, Milady. I will guard it well.”

Together, the two women made their way down the slope, picking their way between boulders. Riadamor felt her legs drag, as if she had weights attached to them. They wobbled under her, barely able to hold her upright. If Marin noticed her leader’s weakened state, she did not make a comment. She had spent enough time in Riadamor’s presence to know that the woman who led them had little time for fussing.

The first rays of sun were creeping over the rim of the Rock and Pillars when they reached the camp. Their refuge was disguised well, in a steep gully between two enormous tors. There were eighty Esquill here. The rest had been sent out to do Riadamor’s bidding, although they were due back any day now. After that, they would gather their full strength and ready themselves for the final stage of Riadamor’s plan.

Riadamor entered the camp in a narrow alley between rows of animal hide tents. The smell of wood-smoke, baking bread and frying onions greeted her. The camp was just beginning to stir. Some of the Esquill, all clad in thick green cloaks, were weaving their way through the tightly packed tents, emptying privies or carrying firewood. All who encountered Riadamor, greeted her with reverence, bowing their heads and calling out her name.

Riadamor felt the ghost of a smile lift the edges of her mouth. Despite her fatigue, she would never tire of knowing she now commanded an army of trained sorcerers, all ready to do her bidding.

They were young – the oldest among them was barely twenty five winters – but they had all joined her willingly. Orphans, strays, pickpockets – the beaten and the broken – she had given all of them a home, a purpose. A few moments in Riadamor’s presence and they recognised that she did not make promises lightly. She had great ambitions. She could give them everything they desired – wealth, power a sense of purpose. Their loyalty was unquestioning.

Serina could learn much from me, Riadamor thought as she neared a glowing fire in the centre of the camp. I’ll make sure she does – right before I kill her.

The fire’s warmth soaked into her chilled, aching limbs and she received a large bowl of mutton stew. She was not a big eater, but the potion-making had made her ravenous. She finished two bowls before, finally, turning to the silent figure beside her. Marin had pushed back her hood, revealing a pretty face and thick dark hair pulled back in a braid. However, there were dark circles under Marin’s eyes; like her mistress, she had barely slept over the past few days. Now, as always, Marin awaited her command.

“It is time,” Riadamor told her. “All that remains is that we deliver Lady Serina our terms.”

Marin nodded, although her brow was furrowed. “Will she agree to them?”

“She will. We will give her little choice.”

“When shall I leave?”

“Today.” Riadamor fixed the young woman with a cool stare, one she only reserved for the moments in which she could not risk a mistake. “State our terms and then leave. Do not tarry there a moment longer than you have to.”

“And if they don’t let me go? What if they kill me?”

“They will not kill you,” Riadamor assured her. “Not when they could gain information from you, or use you against me.”

“I would die before helping them.”

Riadamor smiled, pleased by Marin’s response. “I know – but if they take you prisoner, do not despair. When I take Deep-Spire, I will free you.”

Marin nodded, and Riadamor was struck by the girl’s calm, her trust. Seven years had passed since she had met that beaten waif by the well outside Tarras; the young woman before her bore no resemblance to that cowed creature. With Riadamor’s assistance, Marin had become strong; many of the other Esquill were wary of her. Her elfin face and doe eyes hid a will of iron. Her loyalty was absolute.

“Very well,” Marin replied before pulling her hood up. “I will return soon with news.”

With that, the young woman slipped away like the morning mist, leaving her mistress alone at the fireside.

“Soon,” Riadamor whispered, staring at the dancing flames. “Soon, I will have my reckoning. I will have my prize.”

 

Chapter Ten

 

The Message

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

The dusk gathered early on this grey winter’s day, drawing night’s dark curtain across the arid landscape surrounding Deep-Spire. It was an isolated spot, made even more so by the bleakness that winter brought to the heart of Omagen.

Two cloaked and hooded figures made their way towards the fortress; their boots scuffing on the rocky ground, their breathing steaming in the chill air. Ahead of them, the twin spires rose against the darkening sky.

Belythna slowed her step, and pushed back her hood. Beside her, Floriana did the same.

“Home,” Belythna pronounced, unable to keep the lack of enthusiasm from her voice. Every time she re-entered those iron gates, crossed the gravel courtyard and mounted the schist steps to the great oaken doors, she felt as if she was returning to her dungeon.

“Just in time for dinner,” Floriana added with a tired smile, in an attempt to lighten the mood.

Despite the cold, they were both breathing heavily. Their heavy robes stuck uncomfortably to her back with sweat. With so many patrols out these days, there were not enough horses for all the Sentorân. As such, Belythna and Floriana had journeyed to Mirfaran on foot. After that, they had spent ten lonely days traversing the Andra Valley before beginning the five-day journey home.

Inside Deep-Spire once more, Belythna and Floriana mounted the spiral staircase that led up the taller of the two spires. Fatigue dragged at every step, and they spoke little between them. They passed by their chambers on the way, dropping off their bags, before continuing up to the dining hall. Dinner was being served when they slipped inside, joining the last Sentorân who were taking their seats.

Apprentices drifted around the vast space, their arms laden with trays of steaming venison stew. Belythna’s stomach growled at the smell; she had not eaten since noon, when they had paused briefly for a piece of stale bread and cheese. Both she and Floriana were ravenous. The women were making their way across to the table where Jedin had just started on a large trencher of stew when Lady Serina called to them.

“Belythna, Floriana. You will join us this evening.”

Belythna’s heart sank.

Could their leader not wait till they had eaten before interrogating them?

The two women changed their course and headed towards the smallest of the tables at the back of the hall – reserved for the most senior members of the order. They took their seats, opposite Ridoc and Kern, and an apprentice brought a basin of warm water for them to wash their hands. The rumble of subdued conversation resumed as another apprentice placed trenchers of steaming stew before them.

Belythna poured herself half a cup of wine, which she topped up with water – as was the Sentorân custom. Then, she glanced across at Lady Serina, who was ignoring her for the moment. The leader of the order was deep in conversation with Marvin, the charm master. Taking advantage of Lady Serina’s distraction, Belythna started on her trencher of stew. She was half-way through it when the Sentorân leader addressed her.

“So Belythna, any news from the Andra Valley?”

Belythna swallowed a mouthful of stew and met Lady Serina’s gaze.

“It wasn’t an easy patrol,” she admitted, casting a glance in Floriana’s direction for confirmation.

Her friend nodded. “We weren’t welcome.”

Lady Serina’s gaze narrowed. “Why? Have there been more abductions?”

Belythna shook her head. “There haven’t been any in months. The Esquill have gone quiet – worryingly so.”

Serina’s frown deepened as she considered Belythna’s words. “That is interesting news.” She then turned her attention back to Floriana. “So why weren’t you welcome?”

“Folk are uneasy,” Floriana replied, pushing aside the remnants of her meal. “The Esquill may have left them alone for the moment, but they dread their return.”

“Not only that, but the realmlord has increased taxes to pay for the realm’s border dispute with Sude,” Belythna added. “The harvest was poor this year. The marshal’s bailiffs did not collect half of what they were due and the Andra Valley communities fear the realmlord’s retribution.”

“They fear outsiders and blame us for the ill-turn of events,” Floriana concluded.

Lady Serina’s mouth had compressed at that last comment.

Belythna watched their leader closely, wondering what her reply would be. Indeed, they were living in troubling times. Still, the events of late had at least roused Belythna from the melancholy that had shadowed her for too long.

She was toying with the remains of her stew, and awaiting Lady Serina’s response, when the doors to the dining hall whispered open.

An apprentice hurried into the dining hall. Belythna recognised him as the same young man who had ushered in the marshals during the ‘audience’. His face was set in tense lines as he crossed the wide flagstone floor and made straight for Lady Serina’s table.

“Geril,” Serina had seen him approach. “What is it?”

“Lady Serina,” Geril gasped, breathless after running up the flights of stairs to the dining hall. “A messenger has come. A young woman wishes to speak with you.”

“Could this not have waited till after dinner?”

Geril shook his head, his eyes huge on his thin face.

“This could not wait,” he gasped, struggling to regain his breath and deliver his message. “The girl says that she is one of the Esquill, and that she has travelled here to personally deliver a message from Riadamor.”

The young man’s words echoed in the sudden silence. Geril took a deep breath before issuing the rest of his message. “She demands an audience with you immediately.”

 

***

 

The Council Chamber appeared vastly different at night.

During the day, its arched windows let in the light; softening the chamber’s austere lines. Outside, night now shrouded the land and only rows of flickering torches, which hung on chains from the damp walls, illuminated the shadowy space.

The members of the council, Belythna among them, sat at the great oval table, awaiting Riadamor’s messenger. Lady Serina sat at the head of the table, her stern expression discouraging any of those present from commenting.

The doors to the Council Chamber creaked open and a small figure wearing a hooded green cloak, stepped into the room. All eyes tracked her across the floor as she approached the table. The female was only a few feet back when she halted and pushed the hood back. She was young and pretty, although her thick dark hair was tied back into a tight braid, giving her a harder look that belied her years.

“You are the Esquill messenger?” Serina finally asked, when she had completed her silent assessment of the individual before her.

The girl inclined her head, studying the older woman for a moment before a smile lifted the ends of her mouth. “I am. My name is Marin.”

“Speak your piece then, Marin.”

“Riadamor sends a message,” the girl replied, with a supreme confidence that bordered on arrogance. “The time of the Sentorân is at an end. We will meet you in battle, before the gates of Deep-Spire, on the dawn of this mid-winter’s day.”

A rumble of outrage followed her missive. Yet, Serina remained silent. She sat, leaning back in her chair, her face expressionless. Eventually, when the outrage had died, the leader of the Sentorân replied.

“And what if we refuse?”

“If you refuse, we will drench you in the blood of the innocent,” the young woman replied. “We will arrive here on the appointed day, and if you do not meet us, we will take retribution by destroying each of the surrounding villages, one by one. You know what we are capable of. We will torture and slay all we find – and we will make sure that you are blamed.”

“That is quite a threat,” Serina acknowledged, ignoring the fury that continued to vibrate around the chamber. “However, you cannot force us into battle.”

“No, we can’t,” Marin agreed. “The choice is yours.”

Lady Serina regarded the girl calmly for a few moments before speaking once more. “Why is Riadamor doing this?”

Marin smiled. “She told me you would ask me that, and wanted me to inform you that you are to blame, Lady Serina. Had you taken a firmer hand with the realmlords, as The Pact of the Realms dictates, Riadamor would never have questioned your authority. You made a mistake in not killing her when you had the chance. She is dangerous, far more so than you realise.”

“Enough of this folly,” Serina replied, the cracks finally showing in her composed façade. “Tell me what she wants.”

Marin’s smile widened. “She wants Deep-Spire. She wants to rule. She wants to make you – all of you – pay for not listening to her. She wants to give Palâdnith the sorcerers it deserves, not a council of fools and cowards.” Marin’s gaze coolly swept the assembly as she said those last words.

Watching Marin closely, Belythna was stupefied by the young woman’s audacity.

You’re either very brave, or a little simple, she thought, her gaze shifting to their leader’s face.

“Go from here,” Serina said finally, her voice raspy from the effort it was taking to control her simmering temper, “and take this message back to your leader: it is not up to Riadamor to decide who rules and who does not. Till now, I have been merciful. I do not wish to repeat the mistakes of the warlocks of old – but if Riadamor continues on this course, my mercy will be at an end. Stop this now and we shall show you clemency, but continue and it will lead to your ruin.”

“What answer is that?” Marin’s smile faded.

“The only one you will receive. Take my response back to your mistress – may she choke on it.”

Marin stared back at Lady Serina. Her arrogance had dissolved and her eyes now glittered with anger.

“Get out,” Serina rose to her feet. “Do not test me girl. I will not repeat myself.”

Marin pulled up her hood and turned her back on the leader of the Sentorân. The gathered council watched as she made her way from the Council Chamber without another word.

“Are you letting her go?” Marvin spoke up. He sat at Lady Serina’s right; his face was creased in deep lines of disapproval.

Their leader did not respond. No one else spoke while the young Esquill left the Council Chamber. It was only when the doors had whispered shut behind the girl that Lady Serina finally turned to Marvin.

“She must leave,” she told him. “Riadamor must receive my message.”

Chapter Eleven

 

Lady Serina’s Gift

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

Belythna walked down the last stretch to Lady Serina’s chambers. She breathed in the smell of damp, of ancient stone, and her breath clouded before her. Winter was always a miserable season in Deep-Spire. The fortress, cheerless even in mid-summer, was a freezing tomb for three months of the year.

It was an icy night, and she had been loath to leave the hearth in her bed chamber. It was especially cold in the corridors, away from the roaring fires that lit Deep-Spire’s common areas and bed chambers. Yet, the leader of the Sentorân had summoned her, and she was obliged to do her bidding.

Belythna pulled her heavy woollen cloak close about her and covered the last space before the door to Lady Serina’s chambers. Stopping before it, Belythna knocked briskly.

It was but five nights till Riadamor’s arrival at Deep-Spire. Ever since Marin’s delivery of her leader’s ultimatum, the Sentorân order had been in upheaval. Lady Serina had sent a small patrol of Sentorân after her, to track Marin’s steps, in the hope of finding Riadamor’s lair. However, the girl was cunning. Her tracks had disappeared, suddenly, just a league from Deep-Spire; and they had not been able to pick up her trail once more.

Although, Lady Serina had flatly refused Riadamor’s terms, Deep-Spire was preparing for war. They had recalled all the Sentorân in service throughout Palâdnith, for they were needed at Deep-Spire. Whatever happened, their role as protectors and advisors was coming to an end. No one knew what the future held for the order – but whatever happened there would be no going back to the way things were.

Deep-Spire was readying itself for war. It had been bitterly cold over the past few weeks, but the senior Sentorân had brought them outside onto the frozen training ground inside the fortress walls nevertheless. They had made them run, made them spar against each other, and kept them outdoors until their faces hurt from the cold and their feet went numb.

Belythna’s limbs ached tonight, after spending the afternoon sparring against Floriana and Jedin. She did not care though – it took her mind off what was coming.

No sound came from beyond the door and Belythna was raising her hand to knock once more when she heard a voice from within.

“Enter.”

Belythna did as she had been bid, stepping out of the freezing corridor into a warm room. Lady Serina stood by the fire place, dressed in a plain dark woollen tunic that brushed the floor. Her dark, greying hair was tied back at her nape. Her face looked severe, even in the soft fire light. She watched Belythna silently, waiting till she had closed the door behind her and taken a few steps towards her before speaking.

“Good evening, Belythna. Thank you for coming to see me.”

Belythna stopped, surprised by the humility in Serina’s tone.

“You called,” she replied, deliberately keeping her tone guarded. She had rarely spent time alone with Lady Serina. The woman’s penetrating gaze and cool manner had never put her at ease.

Lady Serina must have sensed Belythna’s reserve towards her, for she smiled – a strained expression tinged with sadness.

“I did,” she replied. “Please sit down, Belythna.”

Belythna moved closer to the fire and took a seat on a wing-backed, leather armchair. She sighed as the heat suffused her chilled limbs. Her toes were still numb from spending hours outside, and they tingled when the heat began to penetrate her leather boots.

Moments passed, and silence stretched between them. Belythna watched Lady Serina, waiting for her to speak, but still her leader said nothing. Eventually, Lady Serina got to her feet and began to pace the flagstone floor of her chamber. It was a wide space, furnished elegantly, yet simply, with a large bookcase against one wall, a huge woven mat in the centre of the floor and well-made leather arm-chairs around the fire place. An engraved wooden mantelpiece sat above the fire, where a row of candles burned. This was the space where Lady Serina occasionally received guests. A door at the far end of the chamber led into her private quarters.

“I did not want it to come to this,” Serina began, her voice low and strained. Regret laced every word. “After everything Palâdnith has suffered over the centuries, I didn’t want there to be yet another war – especially between sorcerers.”

“Surely, conflict is sometimes necessary,” Belythna replied. “We have fought them before, we will do so again.”

“There is no strength in taking another’s life,” Serina shot back. “All the ages of this world and we have learnt nothing. The warlocks, the chieftains, the kings, the realmlords – and now us. Only the dead have seen the end to war.”

Lady Serina ceased her pacing and turned back to Belythna, her face fierce. “For the first time in Sentorân history, we will fight against our own kind. The realmlords must be laughing at us now. They will be thinking that if they wait long enough, we shall finish each other off.”

Silence fell between the two women, once more. Both retreated into their own, private, thoughts.

“I will lead us to war because I must, not because it is my will,” Serina said eventually, before crossing to the mantelpiece. “However, there are preparations to be made first.”

She picked up a small wooden box that sat at the end of the row of flickering candles. Then she whispered a few words, a charm in Ancient Goranthian. The ‘clunk’ of a lock releasing followed. Serina opened the box and retrieved an object.

She turned to Belythna then. “This is why I summoned you here – I want to give you this.”

Belythna’s breath caught in her throat when she saw what lay inside the box.

A beautiful pendant hung from a gold chain. It was a red diamond-shaped stone with a black heart. Its surface rippled in the firelight, as if alive. Belythna recognised it immediately; these stones were legend amongst the Sentorân.

“I thought Kern gave our last Blood Stone to the Guardian of the Citadel of Lies?” she asked, her gaze never leaving the stone’s flickering surface. It was entrancing in its beauty.

“If he had, I would have sent him back to retrieve it,” Serina replied. “As it was, he was a great fool to give one of our greatest, and most dangerous, treasures away. This is the last of the Blood Stones – and I’m giving it to you.”

“Me?” Belythna recoiled slightly, suddenly loath to touch the glittering gem before her. She knew what the Blood Stone was capable of, and was fearful of touching it. “Surely, you want to keep it – especially since we are about to face the Esquill.”

Lady Serina shook her head. “Riadamor must never know about this stone. If the battle goes against us, and she takes Deep-Spire for her own, she must never get her hands on it. If I fall, she will search me for any talismans of power.”

“But you could use it against her.”

“I considered that, but it’s too dangerous. Opening a portal to Moden in the middle of a battle could be the end of us all,” Serina replied. “I cannot keep the Blood Stone. I am giving it to you. Please take it.”

Belythna reluctantly reached out and took hold of the chain. The talisman was strangely heavy, far more so than it appeared.

“Why me?” she asked, her gaze studying its inky depths. “Surely there are others you trust more.”

Lady Serina smiled at that. “I am giving this to you because you are the best among us. Your powers are strong, and grow with every passing year. Whatever happens when we face Riadamor, you must survive. You must keep the Blood Stone safe and only use it in the direst of need.”

Belythna nodded, unsure of how to respond. “I’m no stronger than the others,” she finally replied, embarrassed.

“This is no time for false modesty,” Lady Serina admonished her.

Belythna stared at her leader. Serina’s admission shocked, and discomforted her. She had not denied Serina’s claim out of false modesty; she really did not think that she was any stronger than the others. However, her leader obviously saw something that she did not.

“Keep it hidden from the others,” Lady Serina advised, before placing the empty box back on the mantelpiece and returning to her arm chair in front of the fire. She sank back into its recesses, her face weary and showing her years for the first time. “For the Blood Stone has a way of corrupting the hearts and minds of folk.”

Belythna nodded and tucked the talisman away in her robes. She noticed, as she did so, that the stone was warm to the touch. Like a living thing. She understood Serina’s warning. The Blood Stone had an enchanting effect on those who looked upon it; Belythna had felt its pull and it had been an effort to drag her gaze away.

“I will,” she promised solemnly. “I promise.”

 

***

 

Belythna found Floriana in the fortress’s library; a vast chamber with many hidden corners and a musty smell that made one’s nose itch upon entering it. After her conversation with Lady Serina, she had gone in search of her friend but found her chamber empty.

There was only one other place where Floriana could be at this hour.

Floriana was alone in the shadowy library. She sat at the end of a vast, dusty table, bent over a pile of books. Her hair fell in a pale cascade over the pages as she read. Floriana was deep in concentration; she had not even noted the creak of the library door when Belythna entered. She held a candle aloft, above the page, her brow furrowed.

“You’ll ruin your eyesight, trying to read in that light.”

Floriana started slightly. She looked up from the page, her gaze meeting Belythna’s, before giving a tired smile. “You’re up late.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Belythna replied, deciding that it was best not to mention that she had spoken privately with Lady Serina. She took a seat next to her friend; her gaze flicking to the open page before Floriana. “What are you up so late studying?”

“A bit of history,” Floriana replied. “Most of the Sentorân history volumes are kept safe in the Citadel of Lies but this library still has a lot to teach us.”

“Looking for anything in particular?”

Floriana shrugged. “Any trace of past conflicts from within the order – anything that might help us resolve this.”

“And did you find anything?”

Floriana shook her head and leant back in her chair. She rubbed her eyes, which were no doubt stinging after the hours she had spent reading.

“Nothing. To read these histories, you would think there was never a cross-word spoken between any of us.”

“That’s what Lady Serina would have us believe,” Belythna replied, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice, “and if it weren’t for Riadamor, we would have no cause to think otherwise.”

Floriana nodded, her face troubled. “You’re right. Riadamor will not have been the first to rebel against the order.”

“No,” Belythna replied softly, “and if we win this battle, she won’t be the last.”

 

Chapter Twelve

 

The Gathering Storm

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

“You will fight in groups of three,” Lady Serina announced as she strode down the line of assembled Sentoran, “One of the Hand, one of the Head and one of the Heart.”

Belythna, who stood between Jedin and Floriana at the end of the line, listened with interest. That made sense; they were stronger in threes – each talent balanced the others. It was a relief to see their leader finally take command; although, in Belythna’s opinion, it was too little, too late.

We should have gone after Riadamor in the beginning, as soon as we knew she posed a danger – not wait until she is strong enough to challenge us in battle.

“Apprentices will shadow some of you today,” Serina continued, motioning to the line of grey-robed figures at the back of the crowd. “They will fight at our side when we meet the Esquill.”

This comment drew murmurs from the assembly.

“They aren’t ready,” Ridoc spoke up, his heavy-featured face creased in a deep frown.

“Of course they are,” Serina countered with a frown. She then turned and motioned to the grey-robed figures. “Come forward apprentices. Let me see you.”

They did as bid. Belythna immediately noted that their faces bore a myriad of reactions to this news; ranging from worry to excitement. Geril, the young man who had brought news of the Esquill messenger, looked terrified, whereas Emilia, the Marshal of Tarras’s daughter, appeared as if she would faint.

Belythna felt a stab of pity. They were too young, and they had never faced combat. It was unlikely any of them would last long in battle. For once, she found herself agreeing with Ridoc.

“Do you wish to stay behind in Deep-Spire?” the leader of the Sentorân asked the group. “Would you prefer to watch the battle from safety?”

The apprentices glanced at each other nervously. Belythna gave Lady Serina a probing look. It was a clever approach, but a cruel one. Far better to give them a choice; that way they looked cowardly if they opted to stay behind.

Silence stretched out before Lady Serina spoke up once more. “Well? What will it be?”

“We will fight,” a young female voice echoed across the training ground. All gazes swivelled to Emilia Horne. Belythna was surprised to see that Emilia had spoken up on behalf of the others; however, despite her ashen complexion, the girl’s eyes were gleaming with purpose. Perhaps she had more spirit than they had credited her with.

Belythna looked away, her gaze meeting Floriana’s. Her friend shook her head wordlessly. This was folly – but there was nothing they could say against it. In the end, it had not been their decision to make.

“It is settled then,” Serina smiled at the apprentices. “Come this way and I will assign you to your groups.”

 

Emilia was assigned to Jedin, Floriana and Belythna.

The apprentice had shown aptitude for the talent of the Heart, although she had been slower to develop it than some of the others. However, today, she showed a different, more determined, attitude than usual. She valiantly tried to keep up with the trained Sentorân as Ridoc put them through endless drills.

“Drop, roll, gather and attack!” Ridoc’s hoarse voice echoed across the training ground and ricocheted off the surrounding walls. “Again! Drop, roll, gather and attack!”

Belythna pitched forward, dropped onto her side, rolled, gathered her talent close, and flung her hands out towards the row of targets – heavy clay pots that had been lined up upon a wall. Her talent rushed down her arms, like liquid fire, and burst from her fingertips. The clay pot she had been aiming for shattered.

Beside her, Emilia brought her arms up across her chest, mimicking Floriana’s action. Her young face was tense as she unleashed her talent. The clay pot she had targeted, toppled off the wall and landed on the pebble-covered ground with a crunch.

“Well done,” Belythna straightened up and grinned at the girl.

Emilia’s face was glowing with exhaustion and pride as she gave a shy smile back. Despite that it was a chill, sunless day, they were all sweating heavily. “Not as good as you though,” she replied.

“Few of us can shatter objects as well as Belythna,” Floriana stepped up beside the apprentice. “Besides, she was showing off.”

Belythna made a scoffing noise and was about to give a cutting reply when Lady Serina’s voice rang out across the yard.

“Cease practice,” she commanded, “and gather close. We have something to discuss.”

When the crowd had formed a semi-circle about her, Lady Serina swept her gaze across their faces.

“I must inform you of our battle strategy,” she told them. “Riadamor’s followers only use the talent of the Head – we must be ready for this.”

“What about the pale fire?” Jedin asked from near the back of the assembly. “Isn’t that more of a concern?”

“I’m getting to that,” Serina replied curtly. “Firstly, we need to address the fact that we will be facing an army of just one talent. This is going to give them an advantage – for it is easier to unify an army of just one talent. They will also be able to share thoughts, which will make them formidable in battle.”

Lady Serina paused here, her gaze scanning the assembly, daring any of them to disagree with her, before she continued. “However, they have little practice dealing with the other two talents – and this should give us an advantage.”

The leader of the Sentorân then focused her attention upon Belythna.

“You are the strongest of your talent I have ever seen, Belythna,” she said, causing everyone present to swivel around and stare. Lady Serina rarely doled out compliments, and Belythna felt her faced burn in response. “What do you perceive to be your weakness?”

Belythna did not respond immediately; instead, she considered the question. The crowd around her remained silent, awaiting her answer.

“I think our greatest strength is also our flaw,” she finally replied. “Our power lies in harnessing our thoughts. We work less on intuition, more on rationalisation. This means we can over-think situations, especially when it comes to guessing the behaviour of others. I would guess that Riadamor’s battle strategy will be complex and detailed. She will have analysed the Heart and the Hand and will strike at any perceived weakness. She will have left nothing to chance.”

Lady Serina nodded. “So, if we do anything unexpected it might throw her?”

Belythna gave a guarded smile in response. “It is only a guess, but I think that might.”

“And what of pale fire?” Kern spoke up for this first time, his aged face creased in worry. “Jedin’s right. That should be our greatest concern. How did she develop such a weapon?”

Lady Serina’s face went grim and her lips thinned. “The forbidden,” she replied. “There is no other way she could have done it.”

Silence followed Lady Serina’s words. Belythna shivered, suddenly aware of the biting cold. Using your lifeblood to gift your powers to another, and in doing so enhance your own, was a sure route to complete madness. In ancient times, there had been accounts of warlocks who had used the forbidden; it always ended in their ruin – and the deaths of many others besides.

“Jedin,” Serina turned her attention to the tall dark-haired man standing at the back of the crowd. “You told me a while ago that those of the Hand can combat pale fire. When you fought them in the foothills of the Sables, you used your blade to repel the fire – you have also used it against them since. Is this correct?”

Jedin nodded, his dark gaze intense.

“Then those of the Hand shall be our shields in this battle,” Serina pronounced.

A hush settled over the gathering of Sentorân. Many of them exchanged glances. It was becoming real; war was breathing down their necks.

“A storm is gathering,” Serina’s voice was gentler now, although her expression was hooded. “The worst this order has ever had to weather. Riadamor must not prevail.”

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

The Battle of Deep-Spire

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

Belythna picked herself up off the ground and stepped over the corpse of the Esquill she had just slain. The young man lay on his back, gazing sightlessly skywards. Around Belythna, the swirling smoke and dirt obscured much of her surroundings. The figures of those fighting were ghostly shapes in the murk.

The dust stung her throat and Belythna coughed painfully. Her gaze then flicked left, just as two green-robed figures hurtled towards her, arms outstretched. Belythna’s flame still burned within her, like a pulsing furnace. One of her attackers was a young woman, barely older than she had been when she joined the Sentorân. Under normal circumstances, such a young adversary would have made her hold back. But now, in the madness of battle, she was numb to it. Belythna channelled her talent through her clasped fist, crushing the girl’s wind-pipe. Then, with, a flick of her free hand, she knocked the youth behind the girl off his feet and ground his face into the stony earth.

It was either slay or be slain.

Belythna staggered forward, raising her arms to protect herself from the razor-sharp stones that pelted her. The sheer power of the talents the Esquill and the Sentorân unleashed gouged craters in the frozen earth. The ground quaked and buckled beneath their feet.

Despite the chill morning, sweat trickled down Belythna’s back. The screams of the dying, and the battle cries of the living, stabbed her ears.

Things had gone ill from the beginning. They were vastly outnumbered, and Lady Serina’s order to keep together in their assigned groups had been disregarded the moment the battle disintegrated into a bloody fight for survival. Belythna scanned the battlefield, peering through the haze in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Floriana or Jedin, but both had disappeared. Instead, she saw Emilia Thorne fall, her thin arms flailing, as a column of pale fire consumed her.

Belythna cursed, and felt despair well. She strode forward and flung her hands out towards Emilia’s attacker. Her talent hit the Esquill in the centre of the chest and threw him onto his back. With a twist of her hands, Belythna forced the young man’s head backwards; only relenting when she heard his neck snap. However, it was too late for Emilia Horne – the girl lay, sprawled on her front, her skin still bubbling from where the pale fire had struck her. Her slender limbs twitched and she gave one last whimper of agony before her body went still.

Belythna looked away, her bile rising. Emilia had been brave, and lasted longer than most of the apprentices. Yet, she should never have been allowed to fight.

The ground suddenly buckled beneath Belythna’s feet. She staggered and nearly fell on top of Emilia’s body. The sound of talents unleashing around her sounded like booming thunder. Belythna frantically looked around, trying to get her bearings.

They were no longer before the gates of Deep-Spire – that was for certain. Little by little, the battle had edged away from the gates of Deep-Spire and out onto the scrubby plain beyond. The ground was rougher here and at one edge, there were dense thickets of brambles and black thorn that stretched away to the northeast. The thickets formed a carpet around the southernmost reaches of the Starwalden Alps, until they reached the dark boughs of the Forest of Shadow.

After the early stages of battle, Belythna lost sight of Serina. The leader of the Sentorân had strode through the swirling dust to meet Riadamor, and was lost. Belythna wondered who had survived the encounter – and hoped for them all that it had been Serina. Yet, as the battle progressed, a sickening realisation settled over Belythna. The fight was turning against them. The Esquill were pushing them ever closer to the dark line of the bramble thickets.

If Serina had bested Riadamor, it would not feel as if defeat was imminent.

Belythna felt fatigue pull down at her, penetrating even through the madness of battle. Her breathing was coming in ragged, painful gasps when she took cover in a stony gully. She slid behind a couple of large rocks, and found Floriana already there.

Her friend was exhausted. Floriana lay on her back, her breast sharply rising and falling; she struggled to regain her breath. Her face was flushed, her eyes large and dark.

“There are too many of them. They are strong,” Floriana gasped. She rolled onto her front and gripped the edge of the rock before her for support.

The arrival of someone else at their hiding place prevented Belythna from responding. Jedin, bleeding profusely from his right temple, ducked behind the boulder.

“They’re closing us in,” he announced, his voice remarkably calm.

“Is there no way out?” Floriana asked.

Jedin shook his head. “We’re trapped. They’re pushing all of us back. We’ll only be safe here for a few more moments.”

Belythna pushed herself up into a crouching position. Her gaze met Jedin’s.

“Serina fell,” he told her, “I saw Riadamor kill her.”

Belythna nodded, still holding his gaze. “We can’t win this.”

“No, we can’t.”

Jedin fell silent for a moment, his gaze never leaving Belythna’s.

“We are moments away from defeat,” he continued. “They can’t take us all. You and Floriana need to get out of here, while you have the chance. I’ll cover you.”

Belythna stared back at him. Next to her, she heard Floriana’s sharply indrawn breath.

“We’re not leaving you here to die,” Belythna told him stonily.

“What do you take us for?” Floriana added. “Cowards?”

“Listen to me – both of you!” Jedin slid closer, his face fierce. “We stand on the edge. All three of us will die, if I join you. Do you understand?”

“Risk it,” Floriana countered, her eyes shining with tears. “Come with us.”

Jedin shook his head and sat back on his heels.

Nearby, the screams of the dying grew louder. The ground began to tremble once more as the Esquill closed in.

“You two must survive. You won’t get away if I don’t cover you,” he replied flatly. “Run for the bramble thickets, push your way in and head north-east. Don’t stop until you reach the Forest of Shadow – and once you get away, don’t even think about returning to Deep-Spire. Hide yourselves in some forgotten corner of Palâdnith; wait until Riadamor stops looking for you.”

The two women stared at him. Floriana was crying, tears streaking her delicate face. Belythna felt ill. Her stomach was twisted in knots.

“You can’t sacrifice yourself like this,” Belythna whispered.

“This is my choice,” he leant down then and pulled her to him. His lips crushed against hers, fierce, brutal. Belythna pulled back. She stared at him, her mouth stinging.

“Jedin…”

“There’s no time,” he tore his gaze from hers and slithered back to the edge of the rock covering them. He raised his sword. The blade shimmered as he channelled his talent into it. “Run now. It’s almost too late.”

Then he was gone, without a word of goodbye – before either woman had been able to respond.

Belythna’s gaze misted with tears. She turned to find Floriana weeping against the rock. Wordlessly, she grabbed her friend by the arm and hauled her to her feet. Then, she propelled her forward towards the dark line of brambles around fifty yards behind them.

The ground exploded around them as they ran. An explosion knocked them both off their feet. Belythna sprawled forward, the stony ground biting into the palms of her hands. Heedless to the pain, she scrambled to her feet and kept running. After the initial push, Floriana needed no further encouragement. Her face was hard with determination, her gaze fixed upon their destination.

Jedin had given them a chance; they had to make that worth something.

The women dove into the wall of brambles.

Tangled, thorny branches clawed at them, ripping their robes, snagging their hair and slicing exposed skin. The thickets were impenetrable in some places; the women had to weave their way back and forth in an attempt to find a path inside.

The battle raged behind them – the screams, the shouts, the rumble of exploding earth, and the hiss of fire. The mayhem followed Belythna and Floriana for a long while. Eventually, weeping with exhaustion, bloodied, their clothing in shreds, they realised that the sounds of battle had faded.

They were alone, lost, in the heart of the bramble thickets.

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Survivors

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

The smoke cleared, the dust settled and the screams of the dying faded to whimpers.

Riadamor walked across the battlefield. The ground that had once been smooth, was now gouged and cratered. It would bear the scars of this battle for many years to come. She picked her way carefully through the bodies, her gaze sweeping over them for any sign of life. Nothing.

There had been heavy losses on both sides, but in the end the superior numbers of the Esquill had driven the Sentorân back. Trapped against a wall of impassable bramble thickets, they had eventually fallen.

Riadamor was exhausted. Her limbs dragged and her pulse throbbed in her temples. Yet, the thrill of victory made her feel as if she were walking above the clouds.

There, before her, were the gates of Deep-Spire.

Great iron gates, bolted shut.

Riadamor halted before them. Despite her fatigue, excitement coursed through her. She stood there, gathering her talent. She breathed deeply and let the exhaustion seep out of her into the parched earth. These gates would not stop her – nothing would.

Riadamor extended her hands and flung forth a column of pale fire. It hit the iron gates with a resounding ‘boom’. She heard the groan of the metal under the strength of her talent. Gathering her power once more she sent another volley of fire at the gates. The iron squealed, as if in agony, and finally gave way.

The doors swung inwards, revealing a wide space; a sea of white pebbles with a flagstone path leading up the centre. The path before her led up to granite steps, which in turn lead up to vast oaken doors. It was a sight she remembered as if it were yesterday.

Deep-Spire had been her keeper – but no more. Now, it belonged to her. She was its mistress.

Riadamor walked forward to claim her prize.

 

***

 

The Forest of Shadow, Central Omagen

 

A chill dusk was settling over the forest when the two women limped out of the thickets. After nearly two days, lost in the maze of bramble and blackthorn, Belythna had started to believe that they would perish there; wandering amongst the thorny bushes until hunger and thirst claimed them.

If she’d had any tears left, she would have wept with joy when the brambles drew back and the dark boughs of the Forest of Shadow beckoned.

Both of them had started to stagger. Hunger gnawed at their bellies and their thirst raged uncontrollably. Belythna’s tongue felt twice its usual size; her lips were cracked and parched. Even swallowing was painful. They had to find a water source or they would not last much longer.

The last of the light was fading when they stumbled across a small stream. Not caring if the water was safe to drink, the women stooped over the edge of the stream and drank, before splashing water over their faces and washing the blood off their arms.

“Careful,” Belythna croaked, seeing that Floriana had dunked her head under the water and was gulping greedily. She yanked her friend up by the scruff of her neck. “It’s dangerous to drink too quickly. Wait.”

Floriana nodded and slumped down on her rear on the pebbly edge of the stream. Thirst and hunger had disoriented her.

Belythna sat back on her heels and looked down at her ravaged black robes. The thickets had ripped them to shreds. The thick black material hung in rags from her body, and any exposed skin was criss-crossed with deep scratches. Some had started to scab over, while some bled and wept. She looked down at her lacerated hands and winced as she immersed them in the ice-cold trickling water of the stream.

She wondered if they were the first ever to have made it through that vast stretch of thickets.

Night fell and the women remained at the stream’s edge. They washed their wounds as best they could, before stretching out on the ground to rest. Eventually, as a frosty dawn crept across the forest, they built a small fire and Floriana went in search of some healing herbs. Their scratches needed tending; some were deep and would fester.

Belythna was warming her chilled, aching fingers over the first tender flames, when Floriana returned with a handful of Wayfarer. It was a herb that grew wild all over southern Palâdnith; one that healers often used to clean wounds. Floriana mashed the soft green leaves up with a small knife before smearing the paste over the cuts on their faces, arms, wrists and hands. The medicine stung at first but a few moments later, Belythna could feel the worst of her scratches numbing.

“It will be done now,” Floriana spoke finally, her voice hoarse. It was the first time she had spoken in many hours. “Deep-Spire will belong to her.”

Belythna nodded numbly.

Floriana stared down at the flickering flames. “She will come after us,” Floriana’s voice was flat with resignation.

“Jedin was right about that,” Belythna agreed. “We will have to hide.”

Silence fell between the two of them then. Belythna’s stomach growled loudly, demanding to be fed. The water had revived her, but neither of them could continue much further without food.

“So, do we have a plan?” Floriana asked eventually.

Belythna smiled at that; Floriana was practical. She had an ordered, methodical approach to life, even when her world was unravelling around her.

“First, we need to find a village,” Belythna replied. “We need to change clothes, get food and supplies. After that, I don’t know.”

Floriana nodded, her gaze still focused on the fire. “We won’t be able to stay together, you realise that?”

Belythna sighed, wishing Floriana had not brought that up.

“Others will have escaped,” Floriana continued, “and she will begin tracking us down, one by one. You and I must make sure we are not together when that happens.”

“But surely together, we’re stronger?” Belythna replied. Her hand strayed to the pouch around her waist where the Blood Stone safely nestled. “Serina gave me something, a couple of days before the battle. She told me to keep it secret and hidden but I think you should know about it.”

Belythna reached down and opened the pouch, drawing forth the pendant. She held the Blood Stone up for Floriana to see by its gold chain. The talisman’s surface flickered in the firelight. Floriana’s eyes grew huge as she studied the stone.

“I thought the last of these has been locked away in the Citadel,” she finally breathed.

Belythna shook her head. “No, this is the last of them.”

Floriana’s gaze met Belythna’s then. “You carry something Riadamor would love to get her hands on,” she told Belythna, her gaze fierce. “She must never find you.”

 

***

 

The collection of wattle and daub cottages with thatched roofs was hardly big enough to be considered a village.

It was a dreary-looking hamlet, nestled amongst the trees. Smoke rose from the chimneys but there were few folk out and about on this still, cold day. Belythna and Floriana remained hidden, observing the village closely as dusk settled. The smell of roasting mutton and baking bread caused Belythna’s stomach to ache. She was so hungry now that her limbs were trembling.

Once night had settled over the forest, the two women crept out of their hiding place and made for the cottage nearest to them; a ramshackle structure on the edge of the hamlet. They had seen a middle-aged woman, who appeared to live alone, return there just before dusk with a basket of firewood. She was a stout woman, with a bitter face; aged beyond her years. Belythna felt a pang of guilt at targeting such an unhappy individual – yet, she was a safer choice than the other villagers.

They had considered approaching the villagers directly, and buying food and clothes off them, but had discarded the idea. No one could know that they had been here; for it would only make it easier for Riadamor to track them.

The two sorcerers moved quickly, decisively, towards the cottage. Moments later, they burst in through the wattle door.

The cottage’s inhabitant was tending a pot of stew over the fire. She turned, mouth gaping to issue a scream, but Floriana cast an enchantment over her before she could do so. The words of Ancient Goranthian echoed through the cottage.

The woman remained still, ladle in hand, her face frozen in fright. Her glazed eyes stared at Floriana accusingly.

Floriana lowered her hands from where she had crossed them over her chest. Belythna approached the woman, and walked her over to a narrow bed in the corner of the one-room cottage. The woman moved stiffly, as if sleep-walking, and sat down heavily on the straw-stuffed mattress.

Belythna then pried the ladle from the woman’s fingers. “How long will the charm last?” she asked.

“Long enough for us to eat, gather what we need and be on our way,” Floriana replied, “provided we don’t linger.”

They wasted no time in devouring two large bowls of stew each, and half a loaf of coarse bread. Then, they stripped off their ragged robes, which would mark them as Sentorân wherever they went, and burnt them upon the fire. Instead, they donned coarse, home-spun, baggy, shift dresses and woollen cloaks, which they dug out of an old trunk under the woman’s bed. They had long since removed, and thrown away, their golden neck circlets; even trying to sell the objects on the black market could lead Riadamor straight to them.

The cottage, although filthy and cluttered, was warm and cosy after days wandering lost in the wilderness. Belythna could have happily remained there for hours, but knew that the woman would not remain enchanted for much longer.

They helped themselves to two water bladders, a wheel of cheese, another loaf of bread, onions, carrots and some cured pork, which they placed in a sack to carry with them. Then, Belythna reached into the pouch at her waist and removed two gold dracs. It was enough to feed this woman for the rest of the winter, and a small fortune in a poor village. It was over half the money she had, but she could not leave this woman with nothing after stealing from her.

“Sorry about all of this,” she told the woman softly, before placing the dracs on the woman’s palm and closing her fingers about it. “But we could not risk you alerting the village.”

“Come,” Floriana said gently behind her. “We need to move on.”

The moon was rising above the trees when two cloaked and hooded figures emerged from the cottage and slipped away into the shadows. It was a clear night; Belythna could see the moon’s luminous face through a gap in the canopy above their heads. Their boots crunched on the ground, where a frost was starting to form. Belythna could feel the bite of the cold night air on her cheeks.

However, with a full belly, warm clothes and a sack of supplies over her shoulder, Belythna felt the best she had in days. The blood, death and terror before the gates of Deep-Spire was still an open-wound on her soul. She knew that the memories of that battle would eventually scab over and heal – she just needed time.

Her rough, homespun tunic and cloak scratched her skin but she felt oddly comfortable in her new clothes. For the first time in years, she was no longer wearing her Sentorân robes. She could slip away, and pretend that life had never existed. She could be whoever she chose to be, go where ever she wanted.

For the first time in her life, Belythna Arran was free.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Riadamor’s Revenge

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

Riadamor stepped out onto the platform, near the top of the fortress’s highest spire, and looked west, at where the sun was slowly slipping beyond the horizon. An icy wind snagged at her robes and blew her hair into her eyes, but Riadamor paid it no heed.

This was the moment she had dreamt of; all these years of hardship, all the anger she had channelled into her work – it was all for this.

The day she could step out onto Deep-Spire’s Star Platform, take a walk about the tip of the Great Spire, and look down on the lands that were hers.

Tears trickled down Riadamor’s cheeks. She did not bother wiping them away; she had earned them. She circuited the platform, walking dangerously close to the edge. The wind whipped at her robes, buffeting her ever-closer to the edge, but she was fearless. The joy of this moment felt like a living thing in her chest.

The memory of the pleading look in Lady Serina’s eyes, the moment before Riadamor stopped her heart, still gave her a thrill of pleasure.

I waited years to kill that bitch.

Yet, the only sour note was that at least half a dozen of the Sentorân had escaped – Belythna Arran and Floriana DeSanith among them. That should not have happened. Riadamor knew that she would not be able to turn her mind to other tasks with Sentorân still at large. She had to eradicate them all, for she could not risk their resurgence at a later date.

Deep in thought, Riadamor turned away from the sunset and left the Star Platform.

She descended the central stairwell to the fortress’s Spire Garden; a vast chamber that was open to the elements along one side. Riadamor made her way past a row of trellises, around the tinkling marble fountain and out onto a terrace that was filled with a profusion of rose bushes, potted shrubs and trees. This being mid-winter, the entire garden lay dormant, waiting for the first flush of spring to bring it to life.

However, Riadamor had not come here to take a stroll in the garden. A group of Esquill, her strongest, stood waiting for her in the centre of the terrace. Riadamor’s feet crunched on fine gravel as she approached them. Her gaze moved from her followers, to the bloodied, chained group who stood in their midst: the six Sentorân they had managed to capture during the battle.

Riadamor smiled when her gaze slid over Kern’s ravaged face and rested on Jedin. The younger man stared back at her coldly. His boldness made irritation surge through Riadamor.

You’ll look at me with fear in your eyes when I’m through with you.

Riadamor stopped before the group and surveyed her captives for a moment longer, before turning her attention to one of her Esquill.

“Marin, do you have the potion?”

“Yes, my Queen.” The young, dark-haired female stepped forward and held out her hand. In it, she held a slender vial of dark liquid.

“Queen?” Kern spoke up then, his voice dripping with venom. “You’ve crowned yourself already have you?”

Riadamor took the vial from Marin and turned to Kern.

“Old fool,” she looked him up and down dismissively. “I think you can go first.”

Kern glowered at her, his lips curling. Riadamor nodded to two Esquill who stood behind the elderly sorcerer. “Bring him forward.”

The two Esquill, young men with hard faces, unchained Kern and dragged him forward.

“Kneel before me, Kern,” Riadamor ordered.

Kern spat at her feet in response but did not obey.

“Make him do my bidding,” Riadamor ordered.

One of the Esquill kicked Kern in the back of his knees. With a grunt of pain, the Sentorân sank to his knees on the gravel.

“Pull his head back and open his mouth.”

Kern’s gaze fixed on the vial in Riadamor’s hands, which she was unstoppering – then he began to struggle.

It took four of them, two holding him still and two forcing his head back, to subdue Kern. He may have been getting on in years, but he was still wiry and strong. Finally, they had to pinch his nose shut to force him to open his mouth. Kern went purple before he finally took a gasp of air.

At that moment, Riadamor let a drop of the liquid fall into his mouth.

Then, she stepped back and restoppered the vial.

“Let him go and stand well back,” she ordered her followers.

They did as they were told, abruptly releasing the Sentorân and moving back to where the other captives looked on.

Kern stood alone in the centre of the Spire Garden. He stared at Riadamor a moment, hate in his eyes, before shuddering.

“What have you done to me?”

Riadamor laughed, the sound echoing across the terrace. The light was fading now and the torches that lined the edge of the Spire Garden guttered in a light breeze.

“I am making you into my servant,” she replied before holding the vial aloft. “This potion has taken me years to perfect, and many cups of my own blood. You are about to become a terrible creature. You will love me and hate me. You will obey me but will never forget who you were or what I did to you.”

“Foul hag,” Kern managed between gritted teeth. “Moden curse you!”

He doubled over then, as if someone had just kicked him in the stomach. Those present watched, their faces frozen in horror. No one, not even the captives, uttered a word. Kern writhed on the pebbles; his legs kicking, his mouth frothing.

A moment later, he began to transform.

Black feathers sprouted from his body, pushing through his clothing like it was wet tissue. His feet grew into huge, scaly claws, his torso expanded and his head grew massive and grotesque.

Even the Esquill, who had been expecting this, let out gasps at the sight of the creature transforming before them.

Kern disappeared and a foul bird, five times his size, replaced him.

The abomination crouched upon the pebbles. It had the body of a massive crow. A face that was, and was not, Kern, looked about the terrace, taking in its surroundings. Its head was bald, as Kern had been, although the man’s features and been turned into some foul parody of himself. His beaky nose pointed down, his chin jutted up, and his forehead bulged above two gleaming white eyes with pinprick pupils. However, it was his mouth that drew everyone’s attention. Kern’s thin mouth had stretched wide and was now crammed with razor carnassial teeth and two huge canines.

The creature finished surveying its audience before opening its maw wide and issuing a wrenching scream. It fixed its gaze upon Riadamor, its great body quivering.

“Yes,” Riadamor crooned, stepping forward and stroking its soft black feathers. “You desire to slay me, but find you cannot. You will serve me well, dear Kern. I will send you to live high in the mountains, where you will be my spy, my eyes on the world below. Whenever I have need of you, you will come and carry me wherever I bid.”

The bird gave another keening wail.

Riadamor ignored it, fearlessly remaining at the creature’s side while she turned to face her other captives. Her gaze slid over their terrified faces till it reached Jedin, and there it stayed.

“This will be your fate too, Jedin,” she told him, enjoying the sight of him barely managing to keep his fear in check. A nerve flickered in his cheek and his tall, muscular body trembled. “You will help me track down the Sentorân who are still at large. You will kill the last of your kind.”

She looked deep into his eyes and smiled when she saw fear, at last.

 

 

Epilogue

 

A New Beginning

 

Deep-Spire, Central Omagen

 

 

Belythna stepped out from under the boughs of the Forest of Shadow and looked up at the sky.

It was nearing noon. A freezing wind buffeted across the shallow, arid valley in which they stood. Behind them, to the north, lay the dark bulk of the forest and to the south, the craggy outlines of the northern-most reaches of the Rock and Pillar Mountain range.

They had reached a cross-roads, a turning point.

Belythna had been both anticipating and dreading this moment. It marked the beginning of her new life, but also signalled that she would have to bid Floriana good-bye.

She turned to the slender blonde woman beside her. The cross-hatching of scratches on Floriana’s face had all scabbed over and were healing well; however she was still not a pretty sight. Likewise, the scabs on Belythna’s face had been itching all day and it had taken all her will not to scratch at them.

“This is it,” Floriana gave her a wan smile, her gaze sweeping the lonely valley.

“Where will you go?” Belythna asked.

“To Dunethport for now. After that, I might take a boat elsewhere.” Her gaze fixed upon Belythna then. “And you?”

Belythna shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“You need to get as far as possible from here, hide yourself in a place Riadamor will never think to look.”

“I may go to Starne Island for a while,” Belythna replied. “I’ll skirt the western foothills of the Rock and Pillars, get some supplies in Mirfaran and head south.”

“She’ll never stop looking for you,” Floriana warned. “Remember that.”

Floriana then dug into a pouch that hung from her waist and withdrew a small cloth bag. It clinked as she passed it to Belythna.

“I made these a few days before the battle – I think you should keep them.”

Belythna opened the bag and emptied its contents onto her palm. A handful of teardrop-shaped, black stones gleamed in the winter’s light.

“Charms,” Belythna breathed before glancing back at her friend. “Surely you should keep one for yourself.”

Floriana shook her head. “Since you carry the Blood Stone, you will need all the protection you can get. Keep them safe and use the amulets if Riadamor draws close. Beware of taking anyone into your confidence. You know she won’t spare them.”

Belythna nodded, considering Floriana’s words. There was an urgency to her voice she had never heard before. Her friend’s eyes were glittering with tears as she took hold of Belythna’s hands and gripped them tightly.

“I can see you are glad to be free,” Floriana attempted another smile but failed, “that you wish to leave your old life behind, to forget you were ever one of the Sentorân. But she won’t forget. Don’t ever let your guard down.”

Belythna sighed and squeezed Floriana’s hands – her fingers were ice-cold – before releasing them. “I thought I hid it from you.”

Floriana shook her head, and finally managed a rueful smile. “Never.” She then stepped back and drew her cloak close. “Take care of yourself, Belythna. I hope we shall meet again.”

“We will,” Belythna promised her. “Keep safe.”

She watched Floriana DeSanith walk away. She was heading south-east towards the arid lands between two mountain chains: the Rock and Pillars and the Silverthorne Mountains. She was a slight, waiflike figure against the windswept hills.

Belythna remained there awhile, watching Floriana. Her friend’s stride did not waver; she did not look back. Belythna was sad to see her go, for Floriana had been a constant in her life since her arrival at Deep-Spire. Yet, she did not mind being alone.

I’ve always been alone.

Belythna turned then, the chill wind feathering her cheeks, and began walking south.

 

 

***

 

The woman appeared from nowhere.

One minute, Hath Falkyn had been riding through the skeleton woods in the northern foothills of the Rock and Pillars, his gaze trained on the spot in the trees he had seen a hare escape – the next, a figure swathed in brown, homespun robes stumbled out into his path.

His horse squealed and skidded to a halt. Its front legs flailed before it – just missing the head of the person who had run into its path.

The woman let out a cry and staggered backwards, falling into the dirt.

Hath reined his horse back and sought to calm it; however the stallion, a nervy beast at the best of times, threw its head down and attempted to buck him off. It took a while before he had calmed his horse enough to be able to glance back at the female he had nearly trampled.

“I could have killed you,” he shouted at her, his voice harsher than he had intended. “What were you playing at?”

His gaze seized upon the face of the woman, of around his age, who was still sitting in the dirt, staring up at him.

She was beautiful, he noted that immediately; tall and lithe with an olive complexion and long, dark hair. However, she looked as if she was recovering from a beating; her face and forearms were scratched and her robes were travel-stained and worn.

Hath glared down at the woman a moment longer and then swung down from the saddle.

“Did you hear me? Why, for the love of the gods did you run out in front of me like that?”

“I’m sorry,” she appeared to come out of whatever trance she had been in, her cheeks colouring. “I didn’t hear you coming. The wind masked the sound of your horse.”

Their gazes met once more and the blush in the woman’s cheeks deepened. “Besides,” she continued, her tone turned flinty. “You were riding too fast.”

Hath smiled then, enjoying her fire. “Is that so?” He could see that she was starting to bristle and so stepped forward and held out his hand. “Then I too apologise milady.”

The woman gave him a withering look but took his proffered hand, allowing him to pull her to her feet.

“I’m no lady – surely that’s obvious.”

“And yet, there is culture and schooling in your voice.”

“I was raised by the Ladies of the Temple in Cathernis. They taught me how to mind my manners.”

Hath laughed out loud at that before giving her a leisurely once over. She was almost as tall as him, although graceful. Up close, her eyes were a dark, warm brown. She had a full, sensual mouth.

“So, what is such fine a woman as you doing out here, in the middle of nowhere on a cold, winter’s day?”

The woman sighed, her gaze clouding. “I’m lost.”

Hath raised an eyebrow. “Go on?”

“I was a governess, to a noble family in Dunethport. We were travelling north to Catedrâl when we were attacked by bandits. I managed to escape but the family I worked for were all killed.”

Hath’s gaze narrowed. “Bastards. They even killed the children?”

The woman nodded and looked away, her dark hair falling in a curtain over her face. Watching her, Hath suddenly felt monstrous for questioning her so disrespectfully. After all she had been through, this woman deserved better.

He stepped closer to her, wanting to reach out and comfort her but knowing that it was improper to do so.

“What’s your name?” he asked gently.

“Belythna,” she replied, looking up at him. Their gazes fused once more and Hath felt his breathing quicken. Despite her dishevelled appearance, she was even lovelier up close.

“And yours?” she asked.

“Hath,” he said softly. “I’m the Marshal of Barrowthorne, around four days ride from here.”

“A long way from home, aren’t you?”

“On a hunting trip,” he replied with a grin, “sometimes I have to get away from Barrowthorne Tower and all its responsibilities. Out here, I’m free, I’m just myself.”

She smiled back, her eyes wistful. “I can understand that. Out in the wilderness, the world is simpler.”

“Yet, by the looks of things you aren’t going to be able to continue through this wilderness much longer,” Hath observed. “You are exhausted. When did you last eat?”

“Yesterday morning,” she admitted. “Some mushrooms.”

Hath turned from her and crossed to where his stallion awaited, still snorting nervously. He removed some bread and cheese from his saddle bag and passed it to her. “Here.”

The woman gave him a grateful look and began to tear at the bread.

Belythna – a beautiful name. It was not common that he encountered folk on this stretch. They were still a few days ride from Mirfaran, and these lonely woods in the foothills of the Rock and Pillars were the last place he would have expected to meet such a woman. He watched her as she ate, and wondered if she really was who she purported to be. He could not imagine her as a governess; there was something too fiery and proud about her for that role. However, he decided not to press her.

“Thank you for the food,” she said, finally, brushing the crumbs off her front. “I’ve never known hunger like that.”

Hath smiled and passed her a water bladder so that she could slake her thirst.

“So where are you heading?” he asked casually.

She gave him a sharp look before taking a deep draught from the bladder. “Mirfaran, I suppose,” she replied, her tone guarded.

“You suppose?”

“It will be a good enough place to start again.”

Hath met her gaze, and felt his chest constrict once more.

“If a new start is what you’re after, why don’t you come back with me to Barrowthorne?” he offered.

Her gaze narrowed. “Excuse me?”

“You can find employment,” he said hastily, “and I can make sure you’re fed and clothed until you do. It’s dangerous out here in the wild, Belythna. I’m only offering you safety. You don’t have to accept, if you’d prefer not to.”

She regarded him for a few moments, her gaze speculative.

“Will I be free to go, if I chose?”

“Of course,” Hath frowned at that. “You’re not a prisoner. Who do you think I am, a brute?”

Belythna laughed, a gentle, warm sound that was whipped away by the chill wind that gusted through the bare trees.

“I’m sorry,” she gave her head a rueful shake. “Events of late have made me suspicious of folk. Thank you, Hath. I accept your offer.”

 

Belythna Arran took the Marshal of Barrowthorne’s hand, and placed her foot on top of his. Then, she vaulted up onto the saddle behind him. Neither of them spoke as he turned his horse the way they had come; the quarry he had been hunting forgotten.

The warmth of the horse’s flanks against her thighs soaked into her chilled and aching body. She sagged against the man seated in front of her, not caring if it was improper. She was only grateful that she did not have to walk a step more.

They rode down the slope, with the towering crags of the Rock and Pillar Range behind them. An icy wind from the south blew in their faces and the first fluttering flakes of snow fell, swirling around them like blossom on a windy spring day.

Belythna glanced up at the pale sky. “Bad weather is coming,” she murmured.

“A blizzard by the looks of it,” the marshal confirmed before adding, with a teasing tone. “It seems that we met just in time.”

Belythna smiled at his back but did not answer. Indeed, they had. Although she had almost ended up trampled beneath his horse’s hooves, Belythna had never been so relieved to see a man in her life.

Hath Falkyn – the enigmatic marshal who had strode into Deep-Spire all those months ago and demanded Lady Serina answer to him – had reappeared in her life. And this time, he had seen her, responded to her, and offered her a safe place to hide.

I won’t be able to stay in Barrowthorne, she thought. It’s too close to Deep-Spire.

And yet, a small voice within taunted her, tempted her.

You could hide there. You could vanish under layers of cloaking spells and she would never find you. You could fall in love with this man, bear his children and forget about your old life.

Belythna closed her eyes and forced those thoughts back into the recesses of her mind. She remembered Floriana’s warning but she could feel herself weakening nonetheless. Another existence beckoned, one that almost made the risk worth it.

She reopened her eyes, wrapped her arms around Hath’s waist and leaned against the strength of his back. At this moment, she was too weary, too traumatised, to fight fate. Hath was taking her back to Barrowthorne, and she would let him. Whatever came after would be her choice.

Together, they rode on through the skeleton trees and disappeared into the fading light.

 

Did you enjoy DEEP-SPIRE?

 

 

The adventure continues with Sam J. Charlton’s epic fantasy series: the Palâdnith Chronicles.

 

Thirty five years after DEEP-SPIRE ends, another story begins. This time, we follow the adventures of Belythna and Hath Falkyn’s three sons: Val, Eni and Seth.

 

Three brothers. One legacy that binds them.

 

***

 

The Paladnith Chronicles:

 

[+ JOURNEY OF SHADOWS+] – Book One of the Palâdnith Chronicles (Shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, ‘Best Novel’, 2014 – Available on Amazon)

 

 

[+ THE CITADEL OF LIES+] – Book Two of the Palâdnith Chronicles (Available on Amazon)

 

 

THE WELL OF SECRETS – Book Three of the Palâdnith Chronicles (To be published late 2014 on Amazon)

 

 

 

Find out how the adventure begins!

Read the Prologue and first chapter of JOURNEY OF SHADOWS

 

 

 

Journey

of

Shadows

 

 

Book One of the Palâdnith Chronicles

 

 

Sam J. Charlton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

 

Buddha

 

 

Prologue

 

Exile

 

Barrowthorne, Central Omagen

 

 

The sun slid towards the edge of the mountains and bathed Barrowthorne Tower in golden light. The tower was tall, circular and made of pitted dun-coloured stone; the same hue as the rocky slopes of the Sable Range that formed an arid backdrop behind it. Part of the landscape, Barrowthorne Tower was very old; worn by time and the harsh climate that gnawed at it – bitter winters and scorching summers, year after year.

A hot dry wind gusted down the mountainside and into the folds of the hills surrounding Barrowthorne. The wind buffeted the tower’s rough stone and rattled the tightly latched shutters – all except one window, high up, where the shutters banged in the wind.

A woman reached out of the window to retrieve the flapping shutters. Tall and strong, with a sensual face, and long dark hair that flowed over tanned, bare shoulders, she was dressed plainly in a sand-coloured, sleeveless shift that accentuated her dark beauty. She wore no jewellery save an ornate golden arm ring on her right bicep.

Belythna Falkyn paused a moment at the open window. The wind whipped against her face and tangled her hair as she watched the approaching dusk. The wind was strangely hot. Belythna frowned and stepped back from the window, slamming the shutters closed.

Inside the nursery chamber, the air was unbearably close with the shutters latched. A single candle sat on the sideboard, its flickering light illuminating a large chamber with a flagstone floor. A sheepskin covered part of the flagstones and three cots dominated the centre of the chamber. Baskets filled with wooden toys lined the walls, but no other furniture adorned the nursery.

Belythna stood next to the rattling shutters and steadied her breathing. A light sheen of sweat covered her bare skin. After a few moments, she moved away from the window. She stepped close to the cots and looked down at her sons. They were all sleeping. Watching them, her face softened.

Seth, the youngest, whimpered in his sleep. Belythna reached out and stroked his brow, smiling as a tiny hand clutched hers. Only a few months old, he already had a thick head of raven hair, so like hers.

Eni, the middle child, slept deeply. He lay sprawled on his back, one arm flung across his face, as if nothing in the world scared him. At two years, he already bore a striking resemblance to his father, with the same strong, long-limbed frame and a mop of light-brown hair.

Val, the eldest, was restless. His blond curls were damp with sweat and his gentle, cherubic face was shadowed by troubling dreams. He was only five winters old, but with seriousness beyond his years.

Belythna took a deep breath and straightened up, her eyes glistening.

I’m doing this for their safety, she reminded herself – although the truth of it could not remove the crushing sorrow that compressed her chest and made breathing difficult. Belythna’s jaw hardened then. She had to steel herself for what lay ahead, no matter how it tore her heart out.

First, she had a gift for each of her sons. She opened the sideboard’s top drawer and drew out three amulets. Identical – the black teardrop-shaped gems gleamed in the candlelight. Belythna regarded the glittering amulets a moment. They had been a gift from her oldest friend, Floriana DeSanith.

You tried to tell me Floriana, Belythna thought sadly, I should have listened to you. You knew she would come after us.

Gently, careful not to wake the boys, Belythna hung an amulet around each child’s neck.

She then stepped back from the cots and slowly raised her right arm, holding it above her sleeping children. She noticed it trembled slightly and frowned, irritated.

Perhaps becoming a wife and a mother has made me weak?

Pushing her thoughts aside, Belythna forced herself to concentrate. She moved her hand in a circle above her boys, as if the air was made of water and she was stirring it into a whirlpool. The air started to hum as she spoke. Her voice, low and melodious, made the sultry air inside the chamber shimmer.

 

Mother Earth and Father Sky;

Shield these three

Sons of mine;

For thirty winters from this day

From the prying eyes of darkness.

Children of the light they shall be,

Far from the shadow.

 

The humming reached a crescendo before dying abruptly.

Belythna lowered her arm and sighed, suddenly weary beyond her thirty-five winters – so weary she wondered how she would face what lay ahead. She could not bear to leave her sons unprotected, and so had done all she could to ensure their safety. The charms around their necks would keep Val, Eni and Seth safe for a while. The boys would never know it, but for the next thirty years, they would find themselves unwilling to remove the amulet, and would have the unexplained desire to keep it secret and safe.

Now though, Belythna had delayed long enough. It was time.

She crossed to the sideboard and blew out the candle, plunging the chamber into darkness.

 

***

 

Belythna made her way down the tower, her boots whispering on the worn stone. With Hath and his men gone, the tower was strangely still. The maids had swept out the top rooms that morning and were now helping the cook with the evening meal. As Belythna reached the bottom level, she caught the aroma of roasting duck with orange, and sweet potatoes frying in goose fat and thyme. The smell wafted up from the kitchens and filled the stairwell. Usually, such an aroma would have caused Belythna’s mouth to water, but this eve it made her feel queasy. Taking care to move quietly, lest one of the servants hear her, Belythna crossed the entrance hall and slipped out of the great oak door.

Outside, she padded down the wide stone staircase into the courtyard. Cyprus trees lined the wide expanse of pavers. The trees cast long shadows, like scarecrow fingers, across the courtyard and arid ground beyond. The wind caught at Belythna’s long shift dress, causing it to flatten against her legs.

Casting her gaze about her surroundings, Belythna felt sadness envelop her. She had been so happy here. On an evening like this, in other circumstances, she would have taken a walk with Hath in the hills and watched the sunset, before returning to the tower for supper. Yet, her husband was not here, and was not due to return from his hunting trip for another two days.

This eve, Belythna had no time to admire the sunset. Instead, she took the path that led back, away from the gardens, and into the hills behind Barrowthorne Tower. Gnarled olives lined the path and the air was heavy with the scent of wild thyme. She followed the path as it climbed for a while, before descending into a rocky valley. Here a river flowed; a wide turquoise swath cutting through dun-coloured earth, grey-flecked schist and purple clumps of thyme.

Belythna made her way down the hill, her thoughts focused on her destination: a great flat stone, at least twenty feet in diameter, which lay at the river’s edge.

These days, local children played on the stone, lovers met in secret and lizards sunned themselves on its smooth surface. None of the locals knew the stone for what it really was – a Call Stone – one of the many portals the Sentorân and their counterparts, the Esquill, used to travel from one end of Palâdnith to the other. Few Call Stones now remained open. Some were dormant, while others had been closed forever.

This Call Stone was still open, and Belythna could have used it to disappear to some remote corner of Palâdnith – but tonight she would not run.

Belythna began to hurry, her boots sliding on the loose stones. The sun had slid behind the blunt edge of the Sables and the sky was darkening. The last smudges of gold were fading from the sky and here, in the sheltered valley, the wind had died to a soft breeze. Belythna reached the bottom of the hill and swept her gaze to the river bank – to the Call Stone.

Her breath caught and she stopped.

She’s here already.

A woman stood on the far edge of the Call Stone, waiting.

Riadamor, Queen of the Esquill, was tall, plain and dressed in a long silver-grey gown with wide, bell-like sleeves and a high-collar. Her pale blonde hair fell long and lank around a forgettable face. So powerful was she, that the Queen could have given herself a fairer or fouler appearance than this one. Riadamor had tricked many with her unremarkable appearance; it was one of her subtler weapons.

“Welcome Belythna,” Riadamor’s voice, though low and feminine, held incredible power. “Come closer. Do not cower from me.”

“I’m not cowering,” Belythna approached the Queen of the Esquill. She stepped up on to the Call Stone and felt the portal’s energy vibrate through the soles of her feet.

She met her enemy’s gaze squarely. “Have I not come to meet you?”

Riadamor stared at Belythna. Her eyes gleamed and Belythna saw hunger and excitement there.

“Do not bother trying to escape through the stone. I locked it behind me.” Riadamor warned her.

Belythna did not bother replying. They both knew she would not run.

“So you finally came for me?”

“All this time I’ve been looking for you – and here you were, right under my nose. I caught the others in the first years after Deep-Spire fell, even Floriana. Some I killed and some I turned into my servants. But it took me a while to find you Belythna. You hid yourself under layers of cloaking spells and buried yourself on my doorstep.”

Belythna’s voice was flint-edged when she replied.

“So now you have found me – congratulations.”

Riadamor smiled.

“You were always the strongest, by far the best of your order. You were even stronger than Serina.” Riadamor cocked her head to one side and regarded Belythna. “Why don’t you join us? We are not so very different.”

“Join you?” Belythna stifled a laugh, “why would you want to join with those you shunned? We weren’t good enough for you – remember?”

Riadamor’s smile widened. “Oh I do remember. When I broke away from the old ways, I asked you then to join me. You refused and look what happened? Let history speak for itself: we met you in battle and we won. I struck Serina down with my own hand, that pious bitch who thought herself better than me. She begged for mercy in the end. You all lost Deep-Spire that day, and the few surviving Sentorân disappeared – but I knew I would find every last one of you.”

Belythna stared back at the woman who had once been a Sentorân. A few years older than Belythna, Riadamor had soon tired of the constraints of their order. She chafed under the leadership of Serina, the head of the Sentorân. She challenged Serina and failed. Days later, Riadamor had disappeared from Deep-Spire. A few years later, Riadamor had re-emerged, leading a new order of sorcerers – the Esquill. Belythna would never forget that terrible day, when the Esquill and the Sentorân fought before the gates of Deep-Spire. The power they unleashed gouged the earth into deep ravines and gullies, and shook Deep-Spire to its foundations. Many died in that battle – but a handful of Sentorân survived. Belythna lost her old life that day; she cast aside her former identity and went in search of a new one. Hath Falkyn had given her what she craved. Yet it had not been enough to keep the past at bay. Why was it never enough?

“You’d permit a Sentorân to live?” Belythna resisted the urge to spit at Riadamor’s feet.

Riadamor smiled again, although the expression was nothing more than a mere twist of the lips.

“The Sentorân are no longer a threat to me. I would prefer to make an ally of you. It would be a pity to waste such talent. I saw you fight that day at Deep-Spire. I could not even get near you. If the Esquill had not outnumbered the Sentorân so greatly, victory might not have been ours. Imagine it!” Riadamor swept her hand in an arc before her. “I now have a loyal following of Esquill – but none have your talent. From Deep-Spire we could rule this land. The realmlords would all bow before such power. With you as my ally and a host of Esquill at my command, Palâdnith would be within our grasp.”

Riadamor’s grimace widened.

“And of course, I would keep your sons as my wards – before deciding their fate once they came of age.”

Ice washed over Belythna.

“You won’t keep my sons as your wards. You will kill them before they become a threat.”

Belythna locked eyes with Riadamor. She had so much to stay in Barrowthorne for. She had never wanted to take this route but the Queen of the Esquill had thrust it upon her.

Belythna would not challenge Riadamor to a duel. Casting the protection spell over her sons had drained her. For eight years, she had been free, not just from Riadamor but from the rigours that life as one of the Sentorân demanded. For the first time she had been allowed to just be a woman, a wife and a mother.

I will never see Hath again.

“You will never have my sons.”

Belythna crouched low, as if preparing to strike, but instead of raising her right hand to cast a spell, she moved it earthwards, towards her feet. She wore light, lace-up boots and in the back of the right one, she had hidden an object. She grabbed hold of a chain protruding from the back and pulled it out.

She held it out before her – a red diamond-shaped pendant with a black heart – hanging from a gold chain.

Riadamor’s gaze fastened on the pendant, and for a moment, the two witches froze. The Queen of the Esquill’s face went slack, her pale face draining of what little colour it possessed. Riadamor rushed forward, but the stone glowed in warning and she stopped short.

Unlike the stone on which they stood, which could transport them to any number of locations through Palâdnith, this stone had only one destination – a place there was no way back from.

“How did you get one of those?” Riadamor’s voice had now lost its arrogance and her grey eyes were huge on her white face.

“This one belonged to Serina. She gave it to me before the Battle of Deep-Spire. She could not risk you taking it from her.”

Riadamor’s gaze narrowed. “That stone will take you with it Belythna. You have not the courage to use it.”

“If it means ridding the world of you then I have courage enough!”

Belythna lunged forward and caught Riadamor by the arm.

Marthragin!

With that, Belythna threw the pendant to the ground at their feet.

Riadamor screamed; an agonised cry that echoed up and down the valley.

The world disappeared.

Belythna fell into howling darkness. Wind whipped about her and she plummeted into a black abyss towards nothing. Belythna’s limbs flailed, her hands clawing in the dark, but there was nothing to grab hold of. Then the horror of it consumed her, and she fainted.

 

***

 

When Belythna awoke, she found herself face-down on cold, hard stone.

The smell of damp filled her nostrils.

Belythna’s body ached, her head throbbed and her mouth tasted foul. For a moment she was completely disoriented. Then it all came rushing back, and with it an agonising sense of loss.

Stifling a groan, Belythna pulled herself up onto all fours and raised her head to look around. She sat on a circular, stone platform with rope and wooden bridges leading off it on all sides. Nearby, Riadamor sprawled, unconscious, on the rock.

They sat on the portal: the gateway between two worlds.

The portal formed the heart of a vast chasm. The sound of dripping water echoed in the emptiness, and only darkness stretched above and below. Pitted stone walls surrounded them, shining wetly in the light from torches chained to the rock. The flames guttered as a cool breeze whispered up from the depths and cast long shadows over the walls.

Belythna sat back and cast her gaze over the tangle of catwalks that spanned the abyss and circled the walls.

Despair threatened to overwhelm her, but she forced it back. She could not think about her boys, or Hath, now. There would be an eternity for her to wallow in desolation.

She glanced over at where Riadamor was stirring.

The Queen of the Esquill sat up. Riadamor looked about, her face stony.

Eventually, the two women locked gazes.

“What have you done?” Riadamor hissed. The torchlight gave her skin a corpse-like appearance and her grey eyes had deepened to black.

“Brought you to the one place where you can do no harm,” Belythna replied.

Riadamor’s face twisted.

“Don’t be so sure of that. Moden has not stripped me of my powers. You have brought me to a dark place – and I have a skill for making dark things do my bidding.”

Riadamor’s words chilled Belythna and she felt a knot of fear tighten in her belly. She was about to reply, when noises roused them.

The creak of ropes.

The slap of bare feet on wood.

Voices whispering in the darkness.

The women craned their necks towards the sound, watching as elongated shadows appeared at the far end of one wall – parodies of men, long-limbed and bent.

Dread curled up within Belythna.

“Our jailers are coming.”

The two witches got to their feet. Belythna’s gaze flicked to Riadamor and, for the first time since their arrival, she saw a glimmer of fear on her adversary’s face.

There was no way out of here – for Moden was an ageless, timeless prison made by long-dead warlocks. Once you stepped through the portal, there was no way back. The ancients had created the perfect dungeon; one where their enemies would simply rot forever.

 

 

Chapter One

 

A Word of Warning

 

Over thirty years later…

 

Osforth Tower

Weatherbay, Omagen

 

 

Dawn had not yet broken when Seth Falkyn rose from his bed. The candle next to it had burnt down to a stub. Still, it threw out enough light for Seth to distinguish the interior of his tiny, cell-like chamber. Damp walls, a lichen-encrusted flagstone floor and a few items of wooden furniture riddled with woodlice surrounded him. It was a depressing abode, but one that had been his for nearly a decade.

Seth turned away from the bed, catching sight as he did so, of Matilde’s tussled hair peeking out of the blankets. He envied the girl her slumber. Matilde often shared his bed. She wasn’t particularly bright, or half as pretty as most of the girls in the village, but she came whenever he sent word – and that gave her a certain appeal.

The hiss of rain lashing against the tower made Seth grimace. Shortly, he would have to ride out in this foul weather. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, Seth reached for his leather breeches and pulled them on. The leather was clammy against his warm skin. He then put on worn leather boots that reached mid-calf before layering the top half of his body with an undershirt, a thick woollen high-necked tunic and a leather vest. Then, Seth took down the hooded mantle he always wore when escorting his master, from its hook behind the door, and fastened it about his shoulders. The mantle was a deep royal blue with Marshal Osforth’s crest, a white stag, on the collar. Finally, Seth buckled his sword about his hips, strapped a knife to his left thigh, and pulled on a pair of thick, leather gloves.

Matilde did not stir as Seth crossed the room and let himself out into the stairwell.

Stifling a yawn and struggling to clear the last remnants of sleep, Seth descended the granite steps that snaked their way down the tower. Candles lit his path, giving some warmth to the austere walls.

Darin and Kal were waiting for Seth near the kitchens on the ground level. Behind them, warmth emanated from the open doorway; Seth could see the glow of the ovens pulsing like a hot ember in the darkness.

“Here,” Kal Roarn, his blond hair rumpled with sleep, passed Seth a crusty roll. It was still warm from the oven. “That’s all we’re getting till Dunethport apparently.”

Seth took a bite and glanced across at Darin Mel, the third of Marshal Osforth’s tower guards. A slender, sharp-featured man with piercing blue eyes, Darin was blinking, owl-like, at the stairwell behind Seth. Darin nodded brusquely at his companions.

“Osforth’s coming.”

Seth swallowed the rest of his roll, brushed the crumbs off his cloak and fell into line beside Kal and Darin. The three of them stood to attention as two figures descended the stairs; one portly and richly dressed, and the other whippet-thin and bent.

Marshal Osforth and his manservant Garth reached the ground floor. The marshal sagged against his servant’s arm, favouring a gouty leg as he walked. He wore fine velvet robes and his long grey hair was brushed out around his shoulders. Looking upon his master, Seth was struck by how old and fat Osforth had become of late. If you were to believe the servants, the marshal had been handsome in his youth, but overindulgence in rich food and a sedentary, pleasure-seeking life, had ruined his health and looks.

Marshal Osforth halted at the foot of the stairwell. His gaze swept over his tower guards before his face darkened.

“The three of you look like you have slept in your uniforms,” he snapped, “you’ll have to tidy yourselves up before our audience with the realmlord. I’ll not have you disgrace me!”

Seth bowed his head, so that Osforth would not see the derision in his gaze, and fell in behind the marshal.

The only disgrace here milord, is you.

There had been times, over the past months especially, when those words had been on the tip of Seth’s tongue. Osforth’s financial problems – the very reason they were travelling to Dunethport on this cold, wet morning – had made the marshal even more viperish than usual. Only fear of losing his position prevented Seth from giving the marshal a tongue-lashing.

Together, the party crossed the entrance hall, their boots scuffing on the flagstones, and made their way down to the cobbled courtyard below. An assembly of servants waited next to the marshal’s carriage to see him off. Osforth never left his tower without demanding that his household farewell him. The rain had lessened to a thick drizzle but the servants still hunched, miserable, in their woollen cloaks. They held torches aloft to guide the marshal to his carriage.

Oblivious to his servants’ discomfort, Osforth limped across the cobbles to where his gilded carriage awaited. At this point, it took all three of his tower guards to hoist him into the silk-lined interior. Seth gritted his teeth as he performed the odious task. At times, he felt as if he was minding an enormous infant rather than one of the most powerful men in the Realm.

Garth clambered to the front of the carriage, pulled up his hood and waited. With the marshal ensconced, Seth mounted his horse. He saw Kal blow one of the kitchen wenches a kiss. She was a giggling blonde known as ‘winsome Marta’. The girl tittered and blew Kal a kiss back.

“Tis too early in the morning for this,” Darin swung up onto his horse’s back, and gathered the reins, “I swear it Kal, ever since that wench started sharing your bed, you’ve turned soft.” Darin urged his mount forward to flank the left-hand side of the carriage.

Kal shrugged and mounted his own horse, his gaze still on Marta. He winked at Darin and took up his position to the right of the carriage.

“I’ll have you know that if there’s one thing that Marta doesn’t make a man, tis soft!”

Darin snorted and Seth stifled a laugh. A moment later, Garth flicked the reins, and the two grey horses pulling the marshal’s carriage moved off.

Seth fell in behind as they rumbled out of the courtyard, under a stone arch and towards Weatherbay. To the east, the first light of dawn stained the sky, while behind them the shadowed bulk of Osforth Tower looked even grimmer than usual. It was a great stone edifice covered in moss and lichen, and wreathed in mist this morning.

The bad weather had closed in, and a monochrome world enveloped the party. Sheets of rain swept over the travellers and banks of porridge-like mist obscured the ocean from view. They rode through Weatherbay, but there were few outdoors to note their passing. The hamlet was little more than a scattering of low-slung timber houses with thatched roofs stretching down a long, muddy street. Firelight burnt behind tightly shuttered windows and plumes of wood-smoke rose from stacked chimneys. Seth could smell onions roasting as he passed Weatherbay’s only tavern, reminding him of his own meagre breakfast.

There were no fishermen out this morning collecting shellfish from the mudflats, or netting fish in the channel. Nor were there any farmers out in the fields. Spring was nearing, and once it arrived, the countryside would come to life. For now, nature lay dormant.

Leaving Weatherbay at their backs, the party climbed the foothills of Mount Caligar. They passed no other travellers. The marshal’s carriage bounced and jolted over the muddy, pot-holed road and they were forced to slow their pace for the cumbersome carriage and its wearisome inhabitant.

It was a long and tiring journey over the mountain, especially so in bad weather. As he rode, Seth let his mind wander. The spring would mark ten years since he had entered Marshal Osforth’s service – and yet it felt as if the decade had passed in an instant. Seth had departed Barrowthorne with hopes of high adventure. The reality had been far less exciting. Seth had arrived in Dunethport, before finding work at Osforth Tower shortly after – and there had ended any chance of journeys and discovery. He had often talked about leaving, to Kal and Darin, over a few ales in Weatherbay. Usually this talk came after a particularly frustrating day, but Seth had never carried his complaints forward into action.

Yet now, with the marshal heavily in debt, fate was breathing down Seth’s neck. The three tower guards had spoken of what they would do, if Osforth let them go. With the war between Sude and Farindell, mercenaries were in demand. Rumour had it also that Omagen’s realmlord was getting twitchy, what with war on his doorstep, and was increasing the Dunethport legion – they could always find work there. Neither of those choices held much appeal and Seth eventually shut off his mind to thoughts of what the future held, instead, concentrating on the road across the mountain.

By the time they reached Dunethport it was mid-afternoon and rain still cloaked the world. Seth, like the other two tower guards, was soaked, chilled and in a foul mood.

As they rode down the long incline towards the city, Seth cast his weary gaze over Dunethport. Despite his ill temper, the approach to Omagen’s capital never failed to impress him. From this angle, on the southern slopes of Mount Caligar, the city appeared much bigger than it actually was. It spread out from a long harbour and climbed the folds of hills; a jumble of white-washed walls and slate roofs nestled amongst dense copses of rainforest with the purple shadows of mountains beyond. To the east, Seth could just make out the flat surface of the Ocean of No Memory, partially obscured by thick, rolling rain-clouds and banks of mist.

As the Northern Highway wound its way down the mountainside, the trees receded and the road sloped steeply as they entered the city. They passed terraces of tightly-packed houses that spread up the hill to their left, while to the right the land fell sharply away into a rocky gorge. The River Lelith, swollen from the rains, bubbled through the gorge on its way to the ocean.

The carriage began the tortuous journey down the hillside into the city centre. The bulk of Dunethport spread out on the flat land below, in the lap of the hills. The Northern Highway ended at the bottom of the hill, where they joined the Street of Lords.

Osforth’s carriage bounced over rough cobbles, following the street through the heart of Dunethport. A group of blue-robed Sisters of Sial, their hoods pulled up against the misty rain, hurried across the street in front of the party like shadows, before disappearing into a lane. Seth watched them go with interest. There were many more Sisters in Omagen these days, ever since the war had begun. Until recently, the witch women rarely ventured from the forests and hamlets of Sude. Now, they just added to the swelling number of refugees from a war that showed no sign of ending.

Further on, the travellers passed row upon row of mean-faced shops, protected from the elements by dripping overhangs. Despite the foul weather, townsfolk, huddled under hooded cloaks, went about their daily activities. Amongst them, wandered ragged and filthy refugees; dispossessed from the war between Sude and Farindell. Seth had never seen so many beggars in Dunethport. Many were in a desperate state, and few wore shoes or cloaks. He saw a butcher chase one of them out of his shop. Brandishing his meat cleaver, the butcher shouted insults at the beggar who slunk away like a beaten dog.

Townsfolk and vagrants alike peered at the gilded, mud-splattered carriage as it rumbled by.

Eventually, they reached the Sea Parade; a wide, paved road that ringed the port. Due to the murky day, the lamp-lighter had been out early and all the lanterns on the harbour-front glowed orange in the rain. Here, the carriage veered right, leaving the Street of Lords and the depressing shop-fronts behind. The road hugged the water’s edge. The tide was in and water foamed against the huge rocks that formed a breakwater at the harbour-mouth, spraying across the road. Behind them, to the north, lay the port, where the outlines of ships and fishing boats emerged, wraithlike through the mist.

To the south, thrusting out its long arm into the ocean, lay Omagen Peninsula. Desolate and possessed of a stark beauty, the peninsula huddled under a bank of rain clouds this afternoon. Nevertheless, Seth caught sight of the great grey edifice that loomed over the harbour at the peninsula’s neck. Marshal Osforth’s carriage followed the Sea Parade to its end, before climbing the peninsula’s first windswept hill towards the realmlord’s fortress – Larnoth Castle.

The castle rose out of the mist like a grey giant; a grim granite fortress. As they rode into the castle’s courtyard, Seth pushed his hood off his head and raised his face to the misty rain. He looked up at the walls rising high above him. Dark windows stared back at him like blind eyes. Seth had always found Larnoth an unnerving place, and he did not envy any who dwelt here.

Turning his thoughts to the tasks expected of him, Seth dismounted. He handed his horse over to Garth before helping his master alight from his carriage. Staggering, as much from his thick robes and furs as from his gouty leg, the marshal leaned heavily on Seth and Darin, while Kal followed close behind. Together, they struggled up the stone steps and into the main entrance hall.

The realmlord’s chamberlain met them, his face pinched with disapproval at the muddy, bedraggled party before him. He left them outside the doors to the reception hall and went to inform the realmlord of their arrival.

While they waited, Marshal Osforth cast an eye over his tower guards.

“You look like louts! Tidy yourselves up a bit!”

Seth pushed his dark, wet hair off his face and raked his fingers through it. The others did the same, but they could all do little about their dress.

“We have just spent the day riding through mud and rain milord,” Seth gave a sarcastic smile, “you cannot expect us to look as groomed as you.”

Osforth’s gaze narrowed, before his face flushed. Seth waited for the blistering rebuke – however the reappearance of the realmlord’s chamberlain concluded their exchange.

Moments later, Marshal Osforth and his tower guards entered Realmlord Thorne’s reception hall. Seth, Kal and Darin hung back, letting Osforth receive the realmlord’s gaze.

Realmlord Vik Thorne was roughly the same age as Osforth, although any similarity between them ended there. A tall, muscular man, bald and hawk-featured, he wore black mink robes and lounged back in his seat with the loose-limbed ease of a man who had spent his life moving rather than sitting still. Two figures flanked him – a man and a woman wearing the green robes of the Esquill. The woman was tall and proud with high cheekbones and a mane of chestnut hair rippling down her back. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, as did the other Esquill; a lithe blond man whose chiselled good looks made him appear aloof.

Seth had only caught glimpses of the Esquill during his life. They were a reclusive, secretive order employed in the service of Palâdnith’s realmlords as advisors. This role had once been the domain of the Sentorân, warrior wizards and witches who had vanished from the world nearly four decades earlier. The Esquill and the Sentorân had fought for supremacy at the Battle of Deep-Spire – and the Esquill had won. Yet, a few years after the battle, the Esquill lost their leader: a powerful witch named Riadamor. Her disappearance removed the Esquill as a threat to the realmlords’ power. Satisfied that the Esquill would serve rather than seek to rule them, the realmlords invited the order to send some of their best sorcerers as counsellors. These days, the rest of the Esquill lived in relative obscurity, holed away in Deep-Spire; their stronghold in Central Omagen. A rare sight, these sorcerers fascinated Seth.

The Esquill scrutinised the approaching party; the brightness of their gazes made Seth wary. He tore his own gaze away and focused, instead, on the man they had come to see.

“Osforth,” Thorne rumbled, steepling his fingers in front of him, “do you know why I have called you?”

“My Lord,” Osforth sank to his knees and bowed low before Thorne, “I come in supplication and entreaty. My district has suffered from last year’s poor harvest, I am plagued with a land full of lazy peasants and idle fishermen,” Osforth struggled to his feet, “I beg you to waive my taxes this year. I pledge to fulfil my fiscal obligations come autumn – I promise you I will.”

“That’s what you said last year,” Thorne replied distractedly, “that’s what you always say.”

Watching the scene unfold before him, Seth knew the realmlord was playing with Osforth. Observing his master’s pathetic display, Seth felt an uncharacteristic stab of pity towards the marshal.

“My word is true this time,” Osforth wrung his hands together and cringed before the realmlord, “I will have my farmers beaten, my fisherman whipped and my wine-makers caned – they will all be more productive this year, I swear it!”

“Promises, promises,” Thorne’s voice rumbled through the reception hall, “what I want are dracs – gold, silver and bronze – not a mouthful of lies. For years, you have drained me Osforth. The other marshals do not spend their coffers on furs and jewels, on courtesans and gambling. They remember their duty and pay their taxes.”

“I know I have been lax,” Osforth whined, “but that will change. From today it will change!”

Thorne sighed. “I will not waste any more time on you. This year you are not going to wheedle out of paying your dues. In a week, I will send my bailiffs to Weatherbay. If you do not have my payment in full – two-thousand gold dracs – they will ransack your tower and take everything of any worth. They will strip your home clean. If you attempt to hide your valuables, I will have you arrested and thrown in Larnoth Dungeons. Do you understand?”

“My Lord… please!” Osforth wailed, “I…”

“Be gone Osforth,” Thorne waved him away, “or I’ll throw you into the dungeons now and be done with it.”

Taking this as their cue to exit lest the realmlord decide to imprison them all, Seth and Kal grabbed hold of an arm each and dragged their master from the hall. Osforth’s wails and pleas echoed off the walls. Seth’s face burned at his association with such a pathetic creature.

As Osforth’s party left the hall, Seth glanced back at the realmlord and his advisors.

Like a striking adder, the female Esquill’s gaze seized his and held him fast. Seth stumbled, nearly causing himself, Kal and Osforth to go down in a tangled heap.

It was as if a whip of lightening had just lashed across the room and caught him. Her gaze was magnetic and terrifying, but Seth’s reaction came unbidden.

Release me! He gathered the power she bore down on him and flung it back at her. The woman jolted and stepped backwards, her eyes widening.

A moment later, Seth was out in the corridor. The reception hall’s door boomed shut and Marshal Osforth sagged in his tower guards’ arms.

“Take me back inside,” he wailed, “let me speak to Thorne. Give me some time and I can convince him to be lenient this year. I must speak to him!”

“Milord,” Seth replied, taking a firm grip of Osforth’s arm and propelling him down the hallway, “if you go back inside that hall, tis likely you will never see your home again.”

“The realmlord will not be swayed this time,” Kal added, “it would not be wise to anger him further milord.”

Darin led the way to the entrance hall and down to the courtyard. Osforth’s protests had now dwindled to feeble threats as they bundled him into his carriage and retrieved their horses. Seized by an urgent need to get away from this place, Seth sent the carriage first out under the portcullis. Then, they rode out over the drawbridge and down the hill towards the city. A biting wind gusted down the harbour and rain lashed against Osforth’s party. If it was possible, the weather had worsened since their arrival. It would be dark within the hour; they would have to stay the night in Dunethport.

Darin rode up alongside Seth, his thin face pinched.

“That’s it then,” his gaze met Seth’s, “the marshal’s ruined.”

Seth tore his thoughts away from the Esquill woman and her hypnotic eyes, and glanced back at the carriage.

“Admit it, you’re not surprised,” he replied, his voice flat, “our days in Marshal Osforth’s service are numbered.”

 

***

 

The White Lady tavern lay on the outskirts of the city on the edge of a lush, terraced garden. The White Lady was Dunethport’s finest tavern. It was a gracious, three-storied building, plastered white, with a slate-tiled roof. Marshal Osforth always insisted on staying at the Lady whenever they visited Dunethport; in fact, he was such a regular that the tavern reserved its best chamber, with a view over the harbour, just for him.

The stable-hands looked on in amusement, while the three tower guards hoisted the shaken marshal out of the carriage and escorted him into the tavern.

“Two thousand gold dracs!” Osforth muttered as they climbed the stairs to his chamber, “where am I supposed to find that sort of money?”

You could sell that mountain of furs and jewels in your safe for a start, Seth thought sourly, and that armoury of ceremonial weapons you’ve never touched!

Servants had already brought up the marshal’s two large trunks of belongings to his room. When they reached Osforth’s chamber, Garth was busy warming a pot of wine over the fireplace. Seth led Osforth over to an armchair near the fire, while Kal and Darin hovered in the doorway. The marshal waved all three of them away as soon as he settled into the chair.

“Leave me,” he snarled, not able to bear the sight of the three men who had witnessed his humiliation any longer, “Garth will see to me now. Get out!”

Seth glanced over at Garth, who was uncorking a small bottle of Enisflower, a powerful sleeping draught. Just a couple of drops would have the marshal sleeping like a baby. Garth, his leathery face, giving nothing away, nodded.

“Go on lads – go dry yourselves off. The marshal won’t need you again this evening.”

 

***

 

Seth stepped out on to the open expanse of cobbles that marked Dunethport’s heart – the Great Square. Tall, narrow buildings housing taverns, brothels and alehouses ringed the wide space. Figures huddled in hooded cloaks and greatcoats milled around the entrances. In good weather, the Great Square was a place to linger and watch street performers, bards and jugglers. Yet, the sight that Seth missed this eve was that of the whores, leaning, bare breasted, out of windows on the upper stories of the brothels. Like sirens, they would call to passersby and beckon them inside. Seth rarely had enough money for one of them, normally having spent most of his paltry wage on ale in Weatherbay. Matilde on the other hand did not charge for her services, even if she was not as exciting as a Dunethport whore. Seth’s casual relationship with Matilde suited him; he had just passed his thirtieth winter and had no desire for anything serious at this stage of his life.

Their destination tonight was the Golden Galleon. Squeezed in between two rowdy brothels, the tavern was a tall, timbered building that appeared to lurch out over the square. A sign, of a golden ship cresting a wave, hung above the entrance and dripped water on their heads as they pushed their way inside.

They had not even managed to cross the threshold when a drunk lurched towards them. Cursing, the huge man barrelled into Seth, and would have knocked him flat if Kal had not broken his fall.

Seth recovered his balance and dropped his shoulder. He jammed it into the drunk’s chest, slamming the man back against the doorframe.

With this obstacle removed, Seth stepped past the drunk and gave him a dark look.

“Sorry mate,” the drunk muttered.

The tavern was heaving. Still, they managed to jostle themselves into position at a table, next to where two pipers belted out a rousing tune. Elbow to elbow, they ordered tankards of ale and a steak and onion pie each, from a willowy girl with soft brown eyes and a mass of blonde curls. The ale arrived, warm and frothy, and the pies shortly after. The pies were the size of small pumpkins with a crisp buttery pastry and rich filling. The three hungry men took huge bites and sighed in contentment as they ate.

They needed a few more ales to wash down their fare, and after the third, the troubles of the day were little more than a hazy afterthought. When the pretty blonde serving wench brought their fourth round of ale, Seth flashed a smile, and was rewarded with a delightful blush.

All three men watched her go, admiring her shapely rear as she did so, before Darin pulled out a pouch of knuckle bones.

“Fancy a game boys?”

“Go on then,” Seth grinned taking a gulp from his tankard, “twill distract me from pretty wenches!”

A short while later, a peddler elbowed his way through the crowd and dumped his basket of trinkets down on their table.

He was a small, birdlike man dressed in a colourful, patched cloak. He appeared oblivious to the fact that they were absorbed in their game of knucklebones

“Off you go,” Darin said, without bothering to glance the peddler’s way, “take your baubles to another table.”

Ignoring Darin, and obviously used to being given the brush off, the peddler began digging around in his basket.

“Good evening my good fellows,” he produced a large black feather and waved it under Seth’s nose, “how about a Harlet feather for luck? I can let you have one of these rare feathers for just one silver drac!”

“That’s a Harlet feather?” Seth frowned, “looks a bit small to me.”

“I’d say it came from a turkey,” Darin added as he took his turn to throw the knucklebones and catch them on the back of his hand, “I told you, we’re not interested – push off!”

Unfazed by their lack of interest, the peddler produced a handful of gleaming white stones. “How about these Malwagen charms – they ward off the evil eye. Times like these, you need all the protection and good fortune you can get!”

“We make our own luck. I can’t believe you sell any of this rubbish,” Seth replied.

“Even strong men like yourselves need protection from the forces of darkness and evil,” the peddler replied cryptically, his beady eyes gleaming, “there’s an eclipse coming and tis an ill omen for us all. My brother is a soothsayer and he has foreseen it. Such events bring forth great change, and the war to the south is but a sign of what is to come…” As he spoke, the peddler reached into his bag.

“Look!” he exclaimed, producing a small, stoppered bottle, “I have a special draught, made by one of the Sisters of Sial. Twill give you the strength and potency of ten men!”

“Enough,” Seth was struggling to keep a straight face as he picked up the peddler’s basket and handed it back to him, “sell your trinkets and spread your nonsense about eclipses and dark times elsewhere. We’re busy.”

“Very well,” the peddler replied meekly, grasping his basket to his chest, “I wish you all a fine evening.”

The peddler moved on to the next table and Seth heard him begin his patter once again.

“Good evening my good fellows. How about a Harlet feather for luck?”

Kal watched him go and raised an eyebrow. “What a life. Suddenly, our profession doesn’t seem so onerous.”

“Well enjoy the security while it lasts,” Seth replied as he took his turn at throwing the knucklebones, “for that could be you in a few months time!”

The evening wore on and the Golden Galleon pulsed with music and laughter. The three companions played a few more games of knucklebones and discussed the day’s events. Eventually, his bladder full of ale, Seth left his friends to finish the last game on their own and pushed his way towards the privy. Unsteady on his feet, Seth shoved his way past the revellers. A long day, combined with copious amounts of ale, had made him tired.

It was an effort to cleave a path through the packed tavern, and Seth had almost reached the privy when he collided with a woman.

She was attractive: tall and well built with wavy brown hair and laughing blue eyes.

“Well hello, my lovely,” he put his hands on her hips, as if trying to move her out of the way, but instead his touch lingered. It was then he noticed that she wore blue robes and a silver-star pendant around her neck. The fact that he was fondling one of the Sisters of Sial would have put Seth off had he been sober. Many men believed that to touch a Sister brought a lifetime of impotency upon you. Yet, few of the Sisters were as attractive as this one. She was about his age, with full lips and a swelling bosom that pressed up against his chest as the crowd jostled them.

“Hello yourself, handsome,” she replied with a knowing smile, running her hands across his chest in admiration, “tis not often a comely man such as yourself throws himself into my arms.”

“I can do much more than that if you’re willing,” Seth replied, letting his own hands wander over the curve of her hips and the swell of her bottom.

Her smile widened at his suggestion, but then froze on her lips.

Surprised, Seth followed the direction of her gaze to where his shirt gaped open. Her fingers had fastened around an amulet that he wore around his neck.

“Where did you get this?”

The sultry temptress had disappeared, and a shrewd witch had replaced her. Her gaze never left his amulet.

“My pendant?” Seth let go of the woman and stepped backwards, tearing the amulet from her grasp, “I’ve always worn it. My mother gave one to me, and to each of my brothers.”

They both looked at the amulet that now lay against Seth’s skin. It was tear-drop shaped and jet black, although its surface flickered as if a flame danced across it.

“Do you know what this is?” the woman tore her gaze from the amulet and scrutinised Seth’s face.

Seth shrugged. The witch was starting to irritate him. He tucked the amulet back inside his shirt and turned to continue on his way.

“Wait!” the woman grabbed his arm and hauled him back. She was strong. Her fingers bit into his skin through his shirt. “Since you obviously don’t know or don’t care, I shall tell you.” Her face was fierce.

“Only the Sentorân possessed these charms,” she continued, holding his gaze in a snare, “who was your mother?”

Seth shook her off. “Enough witch! Tis none of your business who my mother was – and as for your waffle about the Sentorân, I care not – they are all dead and buried.”

“That may be so,” the Sister replied, her blue eyes snaring him, “but heed my words. That is no pretty necklace you wear. Tis a Sentorân charm stone, designed to protect its wearer. Such a charm is not given lightly. I’d wager you and your brothers are in danger, and if I were you I’d watch my step.”

 

 

Want to know what happens next?

 

Get your free copy of JOURNEY OF SHADOWS!

 

 

About the Author

 

 

Sam J. Charlton is an author of epic fantasy adventures. Her novels are character-driven, coming of age stories that take place in richly drawn fantasy worlds. Fast-paced, and full of epic adventure and memorable characters, her books are for anyone who loves traditional epic fantasy.

 

Two of Sam’s novels: Journey of Shadows, and The Children of Isador, were shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards.

 

PUBLISHED WORKS:

 

The Palâdnith Chronicles:

Deep-Spire (Prequel novella)

Journey of Shadows (Book 1)

The Citadel of Lies (Book 2)

The Well of Secrets (Book 3 – available late 2015)

 

The Children of Isador

 

Sam lives in New Zealand’s South Island, where she works as a freelance copy writer.

 

Website: www.samjcharlton.com

Blog: www.samanthacharlton.com

 

 


Deep-Spire

Belythna Arran is a sorceress. She is one of the Sentorân, an order charged with the protection of Palâdnith - a land that has seen too much blood-shed in its history. She pledged, at the age of thirteen, to dedicate her life to the Sentorân - but as the years pass she begins to realise that the walls of Deep-Spire, the order's stronghold, have become a prison. Once, powerful and respected, the order has fallen into stagnation. The rulers of Palâdnith no longer seek their council, and the people view the sorcerers with distrust. However, the greatest threat to the Sentorân, and everything they stand for, comes from within. Riadamor, an ambitious young sorceress, rebels against the order. Her act is a catalyst for a series of events that bring the Sentorân to the edge of doom. Belythna, who entered the order at the same time as Riadamor, struggles to come to terms with a changing world, and her place in it. As Deep-Spire edges towards war, she must decide who she really is, and where her loyalties lie.

  • ISBN: 9781370226139
  • Author: Sam J. Charlton
  • Published: 2017-02-20 22:50:20
  • Words: 42032
Deep-Spire Deep-Spire