Hey everyone! This feels so weird. I am thrilled and also terrified. But first things first, I have to make it clear that this is not an update for Dragonrend. I repeat, this is not an update for Dragonrend.
However, this is about that original book that I was talking about way back in 2018. Remember when I said it might be ready in 2019? I think those of you who hopped on the Dragonrend bandwagon early enough would have had your doubts, given the 'speed' of my updates. So, here I am. Five years of real life later, two discarded drafts, one completed draft, one entirely rewritten draft and the book is finally done (!).
I'll be honest. Half of me just wants to hide it. Writing my own material was such a learning curve and it did not always help to feel as though I could do better no matter how hard I tried. In some ways, this is so much like posting that very first chapter of fanfiction; you just have to put it out there and keep working at it. That's the process. It was a rather lonely one though. I was so used to hearing from you all through the reviews and even Tumblr. That part required adjustment too, a lot of it in fact.
Still, all your well wishes and encouragement kept me going. That, and I have a story I very much want to tell, amongst others. I'm not sure how many of you are still around or even still interested. But because I said I would, I am announcing it here that the book, Blood Of Fire, will be published online on November 20th and is available for pre-order at Books2readcom/Bloodoffire1-please note I removed the dot before the com, otherwise it would not show. Alternatively, literally just google search "Myrielle Glassman Blood of Fire". The links to various stores will appear.
If you like fantasy and redemption arcs, Fae and human entanglements, magic and mages, this may be for you. The synopsis and first three chapters are enclosed here as a preview and I truly hope you like what you read. If you want to get in touch, come on over to my Tumblr (myrielleglassman), PM me here (I still check!) or send me your thoughts at myrielleglassmanATprotonDOTme (am literally spelling this out because again, ff net). I would love to hear from you.
They say the War was won. But she lost everything. Standing in the ashes of her honour, haunted by the memory of all the faerie lives she took, Bloodborn knight Meara renounces the Order. Before she can flee, she is bound to an enchanted ring and a most unlikely quest—the rescue of a mysterious faerie named Tamsen. In the shadows, drawn by the blood and fire spilled by mortal and immortal kings, ancient Darkness awakens to finish what it began: the dominion of worlds. As kingdoms burn, old enemies must come together. Or fall one by one.
The dungeon's stench coiled through narrow corridors. Even here, relatively far from the cells, the scent of blood could be detected along with the stink of sickness and death. Torches lit the way, turning darkness into murky pools of shadow held at bay by flickering orange. Worst of all was the silence, haunted by the voices of those who perished in this godforsaken place. Screams, wails, whimpers. Fruitless prayers breathed out by the desperate. Wingless birds of hope turned carrion crows in the breasts of chained prisoners. There were two hells, one of shadow and ice, another of undying flame. But here, Meara thought, here was a third unto itself: a dungeon built to imprison fae. That was the reason why, apart from the Citadel's armoury, this place held more Bloodsteel than anywhere else in the kingdom. Light as a feather, clear as water and gilded with a silver-red sheen, it was a metal that was extraordinary only in the hands of those like her. It was also the only metal that the Fae feared for it burned and weakened them like nothing else. Bloodsteel was a rarity now that the mines of the Snow Mountains had run dry but the bars and chains housed in the dungeon had not been melted down for weaponry. They remained, nearly as old as the Citadel itself which stood above in sunlight.
The keys to the cells jangled softly. She clenched her fingers tighter, drawing one more pathetic grate before the metal fell quiet. Being at the head of the column had a single advantage. The others behind could not see her shaking hands or the fact that she did not want to be here.
The corridors they passed twisted like the gut of some great wyrm tunnelling deep underground. It was designed such that in the event of a prison break, only one prisoner at a time could come through. An individual was always easier to finish off. And there was no way to avoid the armed guards who came patrolling in twos, one after the other. Only Bloodborn ever came down here. Born of fire. Born of blood. Armed with Bloodsteel swords. There had been escape attempts made and not a single one ever succeeded. In here, there was no hope.
Out of the semi-darkness cells loomed, rivulets of silver-red light glinting on the bars, the same shade reflected on the bracers she wore and the blade at her side. These marked her as one of the Order, as much as the Blood in her veins. A long time ago, she had worn them with pride. Swallowing hard, Meara looked at the keys, at the cell numbers they bore, one for each remaining faerie that had not succumbed to disease, torture or starvation. They had the misfortune of being exceptionally strong and thus their reward was a public execution in the Great Square on New Year's Eve.
"Bastard, you might want to get a move on." At the end of the line—there were a total of ten of them, one for every prisoner—Willard, sole heir of the Duke of Camden, called out sarcastically. "Or can't you read the numbers?" Sniggers rose in the air only to be silenced by the man directly behind her, whose tall figure shielded her from mocking eyes. All he had to do was turn and stare. Such was the power of being second in line to the throne of Elyria, the first and oldest kingdom in the mortal realm. She had but one friend in this world and thank Ehyn, the One God and Maker of All, he was Prince Finnegan of House Caravel.
The urge to retort came and went just as quickly. Taking a deep breath—which was a mistake because the foul stench nearly brought up whatever little breakfast she had been able to stomach—she took the first key, shoved it into the keyhole and twisting hard, wrenched the tumblers of the lock back. The sharp sounds made the gloom shiver with jarring echoes. She unlocked cell after cell, determinedly deaf to the sounds of babbling—several of the captives were clearly insane—to the sounds of old chains being unclasped and new ones locked on, to soft sobs and weak cursing. If her eyes stung at all, it was only because of the tallow from the torches, from the smoke melding into shadow. Or so she told herself.
In the last cell was a shrunken figure made more of ragged cloth than flesh and bone. When she stepped in, it stirred. Huge green eyes opened and in them she saw her silhouette edged in red. She had been prepared for a cursing. Instead, the prisoner blinked slowly and said, "It's you."
That was when she realised who it was. Leprechauns were stocky, short, built for strength and burrowing tunnels. Their hands, much like their feet, were disproportionately large. Their noses were not the bulbous monstrosities that human illustrators, most of whom had never seen a leprechaun in their lives, imagined. While big, they were exceeding elegant but this one's nose had been broken. Several times. Some teeth were missing too because there was a faint whistling as he spoke. Their skin was rough and mottled, something that faerie glamour could not truly disguise. That was why those who had dwelled amongst humans often wore long-sleeved garments, long pants or long robes with high boots. This leprechaun had worn robes that had once been red, not that one could tell with all the dirt and blood on the filthy strips. Meara tried not to look at the sharpness of his bones. She did not reply, stiffly unhooking the chains looped to her belt. The coils and wrist cuffs were warm against her fingers. Bloodsteel was always warm. Even if left outside in winter, no frost would kiss it.
"Thornbury. In the province of Vrain," the faerie added, mistaking her silence for forgetfulness.
Vrain lay across Valarin's Bay from the capital, Thelione, and to the south. It had been her last trip across the waters, her final hunt. Months before, reports had arrived of a particularly elusive faerie. She still remembered the wind in her hair, the smooth surge of the medium sized vessel over calm waters, the sight of the ruin that was now Gullsport; before Oberon it had been a prosperous river city. Ships that could not dock at Thelione would go there for supplies and repairs, though the bulk of the trading occurred at the former. Now, all that remained of it was memory and ash. There were others too, towns and villages. Dewberry, Lothein, Olderfeld, to name a few. But not Thornbury, which sat just before the border of the Vales. She had spent the entire trip praying that the faerie would be gone by the time she and her companions arrived. But the Maker had not listened. The leprechaun had been smoked out with fire, his boltholes blocked with burning stones slicked with oil. Cornered, he begged her to kill him. She had been about to but Finn stepped in. King Iain wanted this prisoner alive. For what, he would not say though by then, it was an open secret. The leprechaun had wept and spoken no more to her, not even when he was handed over to Willard who was in charge of interrogations.
So this is what had become of him. If only she had been quicker. If only she had disobeyed. "Hands out please." After the cuffs went on, his feet were chained as well. The faerie hissed softly through it all. The faint smell of burning skin grew stronger as his new bonds came into contact with sections of his bare flesh that were not already seared.
"You do remember." His knowing tone was unbearable. She moved faster, stripping off the chains tethering him to the wall, careful to keep her face averted. "You don't look well."
Startled, she finally met his gaze. How ridiculous that statement was, given their current positions. Then out burst a question nestled deep in her gut, one that had been twisting as restlessly as she had been for months on end. "Why didn't you leave?" she hissed. "Why didn't you take the Faerie Road home?"
"There is no home." He shrugged. The chains sang softly.
"Don't lie. I know there is a way to the Underworld." Anger curled her lips. Her teeth were white in the dark. "When Oberon retreated, he swore his people would never again come to the mortal realm. Why did you not follow?"
Deep wrinkles and wattle-like sagging folds of skin did nothing to detract from the sad beauty of those enormous green eyes. "Oberon is not my king."
The denial stung more than the acrid smell of blackened skin. She opened her mouth to say there was no point in lying but a new shadow cast by the light stopped her. She turned to see Finn. And realised how quiet it was, save for the mad gibbering of one or two prisoners who would not be silenced despite hard blows dealt. It was time. Fastening the collar around his throat, she led the leprechaun to join his fellow fae, all similarly chained, all to be led to the same doom.
They would be taken from the Citadel dungeon, paraded through the Highlands District and into the Gardens District. In the latter was the Great Square. While different districts had their weekly markets, the Square was where the monthly Market Day was held, where everyone, even the poorer citizens from the Bay District— unofficially known as the Burrows—came, if only to gawk at the merchants and aristocrats in their finery and to smell food not all of them could afford.
Rattling chains at the head of the column signalled that Willard had begun marching out. Today was not Market Day, Meara thought grimly. But the crowds would be there in full force all the same. Today, blood would whet their appetites.
"Hey big ears! Long claws!"
"That's what you get when your king invades us then turns tail and runs!"
"Look Mama, they're green! And blue!"
"Don't look at their eyes, you stupid child! They'll put a spell on you."
"Don't nag the boy, wife. That's why we have the Order here escorting these bastards."
"Why is their hair so long?"
The chatter of the masses washed over her in waves. They were in the Gardens now. This was the ward of the merchants, the middle-class who bartered and imported both local and exotic goods for a living. Sometimes, they bartered their daughters off as wives and mistresses in order to get a foothold into the Highlands. In the Burrows, the roads were little more than dirt; here, they were made of clean smooth stone. Against it, the smudged red trail left by the prisoners was stark. Barefoot, their abused feet had begun bleeding.
At the end of this road was a turning to the left. That would bring them almost immediately to the Square. The inside of her cheek was a stinging mess; she had bitten it repeatedly, almost constantly. On her tongue was the copper taste of blood. If she held the chain attached to the faerie any tighter, her knuckles might split skin. Above, the midday sun was a relentless orb burning in its zenith. She wondered if it were possible to find a place to hide from all this by nightfall.
An object came sailing out towards the leprechaun, large and fast. It was a melon. The ring of her drawn sword was bright against the crowd's dull thunder. In her hand, it was brighter still, a shining blur as she lunged forward, striking the fruit, splitting it into halves with such force that they sailed past her and the faerie, and ended up smashing into the crowd. Something wet dripped down her face. She wiped it with the back of her hand which came away sticky; it smelled sweet. Fury seized her. "The next person who throws an object is going to spend the new year in a cell," she snarled, the threat clanging out like an alarm. The crowd went silent. "It is a crime to strike a knight of the Order, even if by accident."
Glaring fiercely at the people on her right, she transferred her gaze to those on the left and noted with satisfaction that they looked down and shrunk back. Ignoring the stares of her fellow Bloodborn and the leprechaun, she sheathed her blade and they proceeded without further incident until they entered the crowded Square, clearly demarcated by the tall storeyed shophouses surrounding it and the huge crowd that was confined to standing behind ropes and guards that cordoned off the area. The middle of the Square was dominated by two covered canopies beneath which rows of chairs had been placed; the nobles were already seated, some with their servants holding fans to cool them. At its end was a huge platform erected specially for this occasion. There was only one executioner, hooded and masked, sharpening a great sword, and only one block. Two nervous assistants stood well to the side. They were the ones who would remove the corpses.
They meant to behead the prisoners one at a time, to draw out the gory spectacle. The first one to die would be the lucky one. The last one, much less so. She glanced at the leprechaun who looked stoically ahead. 'Bloody hells.' Heat flooded her face. She clenched her jaws together because she feared what would happen if she did not. Against her ribs, her heart beat in wild contrast to the slow rhythm of drums that had begun the moment the prisoners arrived. This was not what she had envisioned when she had sworn her Oath at thirteen. This was not protecting the mortal realm. This was butchery. Still, her feet moved with a life of their own until all the prisoners had been escorted up the platform and their chains joined by links that none of them could break.
She was about to leave when the leprechaun shifted towards her. The executioner turned, full of nervous energy and Meara knew he was afraid to be left on stage with emaciated, bound fae. Hundreds of them had been killed and there were none left in Elyria, if the lack of reports in the past few months was any indication. But fear did not go away because of that; it lingered, feeding off the foundations laid by nearly three thousand years of enmity and the War from two years ago. "Did you know leprechauns can transmute any material into gold?" the wizened faerie murmured.
"That won't save you." Her voice was a raw withered thing in her ears. She swallowed the words she really meant to say: I'm sorry.
"We also know true gold when we see it." Deep green eyes bore into her seafoam ones. "I forgive you."
It would have hurt less if he had pulled an adamantine blade and stabbed her in the chest. All the same, she flinched as if he had. Her eyes fell on his chains and she felt the weight of her sword, usually featherlight, like a boulder. It would be nothing to sever those bonds. It would cost everything to do so.
"Go," he whispered and she realised that the rest had taken their places at the sides of the Square, flanking the platform. Finn's blue eyes were drilling into her, silent and urgent. The drumbeats escalated, building to a grim crescendo. The king and queen mother had arrived. All the nobles stood in a flurry of silks and satins; the crowd gasped and murmured, mesmerised and fearful in equal measure. Head down, shoulders hunched, she retreated, slipped off the stage and took her place beside Finn.
Twenty Bloodborn knights escorted them, a reminder that Selya was the Commander of the Order. Iain too had the Blood. By tradition, he could not assume her role; officially he had no say in what the Order did but Meara knew tradition and rules were not something Iain would let stand in his way. After all, he had murdered Oberon's ambassador.
They could nearly be twins, Selya and her son. Both were very tall and pale with paler blond hair and deep green eyes. They had the same fine-boned features, though the son was more striking than even his mother. The only other person in the kingdom who was as good-looking as Iain was Finn. But there was a world of difference between them. Finn was kind and good. Iain was mad and cruel. Everything they had done after the War had been based on his orders, carried out because of duty. Once upon a time, such a notion had made things bearable; now there was little more than a brittle kind of consolation to be found. She realised she was glaring at her king only when Finn gave her a subtle nudge.
Seats were filled once again when Iain and Selya settled into the great high-backed ones which had been carved in the likeness of their thrones at court. It was Willard's father who stepped out to read the damning indictment. 'Of course it would be Camden,' she thought bitterly. In his quest to please his king and gain more power, the man had basically orchestrated the War that had nearly resulted in the destruction of Elyria. The son was a fool and so was the father but they were both dangerous. Had it not been for Finn, Meara was certain she would have been murdered for breaking Willard's leg. That she had done it while defending herself from rape did not matter. Sometimes, when Willard stared at her too hard or even when he walked past, nose and eyes in the air to let her know that she was dirt beneath his boots, she could feel his fingers around her throat, the harsh tug of bunched material and tearing laces. Finn had told her that it might have been better if she had broken Willard's neck. "At least you would only have his father to contend with," he said on the way back to her room from the infirmary, bruises like ghastly flowers blossoming on her neck and her arm in a sling. "Now you have two powerful enemies here and at Court."
When the Order originated, its members had to renounce their titles and familial ties. The Order came first, the Oath of their founder Valarin came first. Because when it did not, other loyalties crept in. Iain had not been the first monarch to use the Bloodborn in a war fuelled by self-interest but he might very well be the last. The War of the Kings had decimated their numbers like nothing else. When she had entered it, the Citadel had held close to a thousand warm bodies. Excluding Selya, thirty remained and not a single one with one hair turned white by age. They were young, stupid, ignorant, hungry for power with blood ties to the Court. Their elders had been much the same. Impartiality was a pipedream of old.
It was impossible to completely block out the treacherous windbag who held the title Lord of the Vales. Wilfred Camden possessed a voice that theatre actors would kill for and he used it to marvellous effect. Try as she might, parts of his speech, all a patchwork of lies, invaded her ears.
"For the crimes of black arts…" There was a woman and a man watching from the topmost balcony of a pleasure house. The thin silks she wore did little to obscure her breasts and the dark valley between her legs. The man, dressed in rich satin and furs, probably a banker from the number of gold rings and chains he wore, was paying Lord Camden as much attention as Meara was. Clearly the well-displayed charms of the courtesan were more important.
"…invading houses, murdering the innocent…" Cutpurses threaded through the crowd, graceful as spiders on a web. Each kept to his or her own corner, intelligent enough to keep greed in check. Better a few pouches full of coin rather than making a grab for many and losing a hand instead. Meara silently wished them luck; she hoped they robbed the crowd blind.
"…remaining behind as spies of the wicked Faerie King, Oberon…" Would anyone notice if she jammed her hands into her ears to drown out the memory of the leprechaun claiming Oberon was not his king? Probably, which was why she gritted her teeth instead and made a study of her boots, the flagstones of the Square, counted how many ladies were dressed in green and wearing black diamonds and tourmaline because apparently that was now the latest trend.
"…hereby sentence you to be executed, a swift and just punishment by His Majesty King Iain and Her Majesty, the Queen Mother Selya…" Both of whom were sitting there like sculptures of ice and marble. Bloodless. Heartless. No, that was not true. Maybe for Selya. But not Iain. He hated too much to have frost in his veins. He had lost his wife to Oberon and the land had bled for it, just as these fae were about to bleed. His eyes could have passed for real emeralds but the fever light with which they glittered frightened her. Nothing could warm such darkness, not even the sun's light filtering through the curtained canopy to settle like a halo on his sleek blond hair. Deep lines were etched at the corners of his eyes, lines that previously had not been there and which did nothing to detract from his beauty. She had pitied him, she still did. But now she hated him too.
The sound of drums broke. "Step forward!" the executioner bellowed.
No one moved. The two assistants nudged each other, disgracefully obvious. Neither wanted to take a faerie by the chain and lead it to its death.
It was then that she noticed how dark the sky had grown. The sun was being swallowed by gathering layers of coal-black clouds. A chill wind swooped in, whipping the canopy curtains, tearing loose a fan from the hands of a careless servant. Across the flagstones, light receded like a wave.
She was not the only one watching. Faerie eyes of blue, of green, of brown, milky eyes that would never see tracked the gloom which spilled towards the stage. Lightning, long and jagged, split the sky. The air tensed like a fist, held itself taut, held its breath.
And the fae screamed in unison, necks stretched, eyes wide, pupils blown so that they swallowed the whites of the sclera. Down came the thunder, the sound of boulders and snow crashing from mountains, the sound of hungry oceans rising to swallow cities. Yet it was the shrieking of the fae that rose above all.
Then as suddenly as they began, they stopped. Like a beast soothed by the silence of its master, the thunder quietened. But the darkness and wind kept growing and the eyes of the fae remained the same. "What the hells is happening?" Meara breathed, drawing closer to Finn. Both of them had their hands wrapped around their blades. "Is that a trance?"
"I thought only banshees had the Sight," he murmured grimly. "Just be ready. We don't know…"
He was right, they did not. The Bestiary contained notes and chapters written as far back as two and a half thousand years before yet it was the slimmest book in Elyria. There was so much they did not know about the ones who called themselves the First Children. That was why Iain had taken live prisoners. Above all, he wanted to know where the Faerie Road was. Despite torture and death, he had failed. Today's execution was revenge but there was nothing sweet about it, for he had given up hope and given in to rage.
As one, the prisoners stepped forward. As one, the crowd that had come to watch them die shrank back.
The chanting began with the selkie who had lost an eye. The dwarf took it up next. Beyond that, Meara could never remember who spoke after.
Imrith or vahn eria
Imrith vokhn dy ahn
Vwye'thal merevith vos
Valarhion merenin vos
They were speaking Edemic, the language that the Fae claimed had been taught directly to them by the Maker whom they named El'Aeyn. It was forbidden for humans to learn such; only Magi from Nargos knew that speech and they too had been driven from Elyria in the Second Age, returning to the continent that spawned them. She should not have known what they were saying. But the leprechaun's voice was in her head though his eyes were blank dark shards facing skywards.
Three crowns afire
Three worlds aflame
All ends in destruction
All is in vain
And Valarin awakes
"What are you waiting for?" Camden shouted at the executioner. "Kill them now!"
A harsh motion from the latter sent his assistants scrambling forward. Both were healthy and stout. The selkie they grabbed was frailer than a bent sapling. Yet she remained rooted in place, unmoving as the great oaks of the north. Over and over again she chanted along with the rest, their voices rising with the wind, perhaps raising it as great gusts whipped across the Square and struck the crowd, tearing loose hats and scarves, sending some people sprawling. The canopy, ripped from its posts, sailed overhead and out of sight like a great bird with mangled wings.
"Imrith or vahn eria…"
"A spell," someone shrieked. Arms lifted, fingers pointed. "They're cursing us! They've put a spell on us!"
"Imrith vokhn dy ahn…"
The hysterical took up the cry. "I can't breathe! I can't move!"
People began collapsing. Others pushed and shoved at each other, desperate to get away. Soldiers drew themselves in a tight line before the cordon, warning the crowd back with spears and swords.
"The Hunt! They are calling the Wild Hunt upon us!" Screams erupted.
"Vwye'thal merevith vos…"
"Meara!" Finn grabbed her shoulder, shook her so hard her teeth rattled. That was when she realised her hands were jammed over her ears. Even so, she caught the tail end of the chant on her lips, only it was in Common Speech. "…And Valarin awakes…" she repeated stupidly, unthinkingly. Finn turned white. She felt his grip through her chainmail. 'Oh Ehyn,' she thought, belly folding in ice-cold coils. 'I'm going mad.'
"Kill them now!" Finn roared, turning to the Bloodborn who leapt up the stage, swords flashing. Blood flew. Guts spilled. And Meara watched through tears as a sword crunched down and cut off the leprechaun's head.
The rain fell in torrents, shattered sheets of dark silver pummelling the fleeing crowd, soaking the screaming nobles who fled for shelter. Crimson streamed from the platform, spilled in red fountains on the ground below. Selya was on her feet, a pale statue in the heart of the storm, Iain by her side, shouting. Thunder and rain drowned out his words. Meara, frozen to the bone, met the gaze of her Commander and knew that the queen mother understood as well the last words of the fae whose bodies now littered the stage, whose blood earth and stone now drank.
She had come from the Burrows so it was there she went when the need to escape arose. Drains overflowed with household waste; it was not unusual to spot the occasional cat, rat or dog carcass. The buildings were narrow and long, with business often conducted below while families stayed in cramped quarters at the upper levels. As the city population grew, so did the height of the houses—illegally of course. Once in a while, guards would come to dish out fines and walk away with bribes. Sometimes, buildings leaned in so closely to each other that a person could climb easily from one balcony to the next. It was not uncommon for a back alley leading to a main street to be blocked by some extension that had been cobbled together.
It was a veritable warren, a district of a hundred streets each hawking its specific wares and today she was on Tavern Street, at the point just before it met Steel Street. The scents of smoked pork, roasted fish and pipe smoke were almost strong enough to mask the rank smell that was native to the Burrows. Several establishments had food and ale so outstanding that even the Gardens residents could be found here, with bodyguards in tow of course. If the Highlands residents had a hankering for the humble peasant grub of the Burrows, they sent servants, escorted by a city guard, to get it. The Boorish Boar was one such place, The Feathered Fish another. The Golden Goose had the best spiced ribs and bitter ale that Meara had ever tasted. But that was the first place Finn would search.
And since she had given him the slip and wanted it to remain that way… Her eye landed on the faded signboard of The Prancing Pony. Judging from the people moving in and out its swinging doors, it had to be fairly popular. 'Only with men though,' she noted. It could be trouble, going in alone. She knew what they would see: a young red-headed woman of average height, wearing a nondescript dark blue shirt, leather jerkin and bracers, black breeches and a sword strapped at her side. She wasn't even particularly pretty, more unusual looking—and that was Finn's assessment. He had been drunk but he was always honest. Still, it could be trouble going in alone.
She crossed the crowded street—still wet from the afternoon's storm—deftly avoiding puddles, the groping hands of a stranger, and a cutpurse who tried to slit the pouch around her waist before pushing open the tavern doors.
There was a moment of collective silence when every man in the establishment, including those who had their hands up the skirts of several barmaids—one of them had his face buried in a pair of very generous breasts—turned and looked at her through the murky glow of smoking candles. Now she understood why only men patronised this establishment. In the sudden quiet, the muffled sounds of beds thumping rhythmically against thin walls and the loud caterwaulings of pleasure—probably faked—could be clearly heard. This was an illegal brothel.
'Perfect. Finn will never think to check this place.' With an easy smile that was more warning than friendly, she tipped her head at the gawking men, draped a hand on the hilt of her sword, which she had bound in strips of silk cloth—along with its sheath— to disguise, and sauntered to a small corner table. Pulling it out, she shoved one bench between it and the wall, then pushed the second bench to another table nearby. The message was clear: she wanted to be left alone. An imperious wave of her hand, something she had learned from watching other Bloodborn, brought the barkeep running. He was portly but with shoulders as wide as a bear's. He also bore more than a passing resemblance to at least two of the barmaids who were busy serving patrons their food along with a generous view of their bosoms as they bent to put platters and mugs on the tables. Apparently, this was a family business.
"What do you have on the dinner menu?" she asked.
"Pheasant, chicken, mushrooms, fish."
The barkeep looked at her anxiously. She returned his gaze without blinking. Of course the menu was sparse; people were not coming here for the food. "Pheasant, with mushrooms. And barley wine, if you have any."
"We do. My lady," he added, a clear afterthought.
Biting her lip to subdue the ironic grin rising, she dismissed him with a nod and settled against the comforting solidity of the wall. No knives would be coming from this direction. That might not last long if the patrons thought she was a spoiled rich brat who had ventured out into the big bad Burrows, as some of the children of merchants and aristocrats were wont to do. There was also the fact that she was the only female customer in a brothel. None of that was incentive enough to get up and leave.
For now though, she was left alone. She listened to the sounds, took in all the details. The rough beards adorning men's faces, the scars on lips and eyes and sometimes hands which told her they were likely carrying concealed daggers and knives. She noted which patrons the barmaids preferred, who was cruel and who was kind, and who was most likely going to pay for whom to warm his bed. The rusting iron chandelier clinging to the low ceiling held more candles than seemed wise. The stairs tucked far away at the other end of the room creaked indiscreetly as men tumbled down, adjusting their pants with silly smiles on their faces to join their friends at the table, ready to satisfy other appetites now that more carnal ones were sated.
If she could drown her senses or numb them at least, then perhaps the memory of the day's slaughter could be diluted. The sound of the leprechaun's voice might soften; those green eyes that even now drilled through her would dim. The loathing and confusion and that strange feeling, as if she were a piece of metal hammered far too thin, would grind to a temporary halt. Hers was the Blood of Valarin; a faerie blast might fell her but the Blood, amongst other things, granted immunity against enchantments that those born without it could not resist. So how could the leprechaun's voice have been in her mind?
Meara pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, as if to blot out what had been pursuing her all day. Those strange words lingered; if she licked her lips she might taste them. Dread was a fist in her belly, twisting her guts into knots. Something was wrong with her. Perhaps the Blood realised what an unworthy vessel she was and thus its power was fading. Or maybe, after months of wrestling with her conscience, she was simply going mad.
Approaching footsteps brought her head up sharply. But it was only a barmaid bringing a large tankard which she eyed with more desperation than appreciation. She drank so quickly that the rich concoction spilled down her chin, splattering her shirt. Without stopping, she swiped at the stray rivulet, smeared her fingers dry on her pants. "Another," she called out, the empty tankard dangling from her fingers before she set it loudly on the table. A second one came and it was similarly dispatched. It took two more and the arrival of the food before she slowed down.
It was neither the most delicious nor the worst thing she had tasted. But at least it was hot and the mushrooms tender. She had barely swallowed when a sudden flash of orange and yellow made her jump. At a table nearby, some drunken fool had blown a mouthful of alcohol over several candles he was clutching, shooting a stream of fire into the air. His table companions who had tumbled out of the way now sat on the ground, cursing him. The barkeep hurried over to remove the candles from the man before he burnt himself and the tavern to the ground. But the damage had been done.
Her lungs closed in on themselves. She opened her mouth but could draw no air. Sounds and sights became garbled; it was as if she was watching everything while submerged under water. Like a knife out of the shadows, the words struck.
Three crowns afire. Three worlds aflame.
"No," she whispered. Before her eyes the flaming tops of the candles and sconces danced large and wild. Then they leapt, across tables and down from the ceiling beams to form a web of fire, charring the walls and floors and pillars black, surrounding the oblivious occupants.
All ends in destruction.
Bloodsteel was in her hand. The blade was half-drawn and she was on her feet when the flames abruptly vanished. Suddenly everything was clear. She found that she could breathe again and that the tavern was not, in fact, ablaze. Also, everyone was staring at her once more, this time with good reason. There was no excuse to offer, nothing to say, no pithy joke to make, not with a throat dry as sandpaper. So she sat back down and drained her cup, thinking that in a few minutes, the men would go back to their conversation and ignore the half-mad girl alone in the corner.
She was wrong. This time the footsteps were far too heavy for a woman's. Her assumption that it was the barkeep melted away when she saw it was the hulking brute who had not taken his eyes off her from the moment she stepped in. He was easily the tallest and largest man in the room. His arms were marked with thick scars but there was only one on his face and it told its own story. Once upon a time, someone had almost killed him with a knife to the eye. The blade had missed its mark, splitting his lips at the corner and gouging flesh from his cheek, so that only a thick puckered patch remained. He was an ugly bastard, heavy with muscle and in his hand, he carried a frothing mug.
Setting it down roughly on her table so that the froth spilled over to pool in a ring, he grinned down at her. "Yer really can put them away, lassie."
In the background, the chatting, the eating, the serving and the groping continued. Yet people were watching. Whoever the hells this big fellow was—Scarface seemed an apt enough moniker— he must be someone important around here. Either that or everyone was looking forward to seeing how the little rich girl who had downed copious amounts of alcohol would handle herself. Or not.
He grabbed his crotch in an obscene movement. "I got something for yer to put away meself."
Very deliberately, Meara shoved a large spoonful of mushrooms into her mouth. She chewed with purposeful loudness. Scarface leered at her. She did it again without taking her eyes off him. This time, he frowned. Then she pushed the mug away. "Not interested."
For a big man, he moved fast. The seams of her shirt groaned when he grabbed her by the front, pulled her to her feet and shoved her against the table so hard that its wooden edge bit into the backs of her thighs. "I don't give a pig's arse if yer are or not," he rasped, his breath an eyewatering fume of onions and garlic. If fishwives' tales were true, he probably could have stunned a basilisk at twenty paces. Stepping in closer, he forced her to lean back. A smile uglier than his face split his mouth. He probably intended to take her on the table right there and no one was going to stop him.
A big hand landed on her leg, squeezing hard. For a moment it was Willard's face she saw; it was his breath hot on her cheek. Revulsion rose, threatening to send her food back up her throat. Panic blazed beneath her skin. For a moment she was paralysed. But when he moved his hand to her inner thigh, she found her voice. "Don't touch me."
It was so simply worded, coming from her, a mere slip of a girl, that he missed the warning for what it was. Eyes dark with lust, he moved in for a kiss. And caught the empty tankard full on the side of his face when she slammed it against his head. The cup shattered; Scarface let out a roar of surprise and pain. He staggered and was unprepared when she kicked him so hard he backpedalled, falling onto the table behind. Food flew, ale spilled, the sounds of people shouting mingled with the jarring noise of mugs and plates crashing to the ground. A hard, reckless laugh escaped before she could stop it. This was not the type of distraction she had sought but all the same, here it was. In a tone designed to provoke and infuriate, she drawled, "I told you to stop."
From two corners of the room, men stood. The glint of naked knives and drawn swords was cold against the hazy glow of candleflame. So her earlier assessment was right: Scarface was a big deal around here. "Now, now, gentlemen," the barkeep wrung his hands as the other customers started scrambling towards the door or stairs. "Please."
"Shut up Polly!" Several of them roared. Polly in turn shrank towards the kitchen entrance behind the bar. Meara knew he certainly was not going to help. He seemed decent enough but frightened. Walking over, she reached into her pouch and laid out five coins on the bar top. His watery blue eyes widened. Snatching one up, he bit it. "Real gold," he exclaimed. His smile was almost as bright as the coin, embossed with a floral edge, stamped with Iain's likeness on one side and on the other was Elyria's official crest: stars over a mountain peak with a city at its foot.
"To pay for any damage. And your silence." Because brawling was illegal.
Polly's look of sheer disbelief informed her he thought her mad and that it was her corpse he would have to dump in some back alley when the dust settled. Nonetheless, gold was gold even if it came from crazy women. Scooping up the coins, he nodded and scuttled away into the kitchen with a speed which belied his bulk.
When she turned, the place was empty save for the armed men who were much nearer and had formed a half ring to fence her in. Scarface was on his feet, his ruined cheek a livid white in contrast to the angry red of his face. The bar was at her back; the doorway was blocked off, as were the stairs. They meant to murder her where she stood.
They did not know what she was. Otherwise they would have been less complacent and attacked as a group. A man came at her, sword flashing forward in a strike. She sidestepped, whirled in and grabbed him by the neck, squeezed hard enough to make his eyes pop so that all the whites showed. It was child's play to wrench the blade from his hand and smash the pommel against his temple. He went down like a sack of potatoes. "Come on then." She twirled her newly acquired weapon, feeling its weight. "I'll try to make this a fair fight."
The sword was steel and of good make. Its edge held as she blocked a vicious downward blow, shoving that attacker away before whipping around to slam its flat into the head of a man attempting to stab her. As he dropped to the ground, his dagger fell from his hand and she snatched it up in mid-air, stabbing at the unprotected gap between the armpit and flank of another who was wearing a leather cuirass. He screamed, backing away, fingers slick and red over the wound. "There's no point wearing armour if you don't know where its weak points are," she taunted. Who would have thought that she would get to repeat Master Ewin's lines in a tavern-brothel of all places? The old sword-master would have been scandalised. As it was, he had thought her as a living breathing disgrace walking about on two legs, tainting the sacred ground of the Citadel. If he could see her now, he would roll in his grave. That thought cheered her considerably.
"Get the bitch!" Scarface roared and the rest of them launched themselves forward wildly. With one hand braced on the bar counter, she leapt over it. Loud grunts erupted as some of the men, driven on by those pressing in behind, smashed into the structure. Her sword flashed out, hitting them on the temples and flats of their heads with enough force to stun and disorient. A blade came sweeping in wildly when its owner tripped over the body in front of him. His mistake was putting a hand on the bar. Her dagger sank in an inch from his wrist. Howling, he never saw her blade swing in, never knew when his knees hit the ground, his hand still pinned firmly to wood.
At first there had been eleven. And now there were five. Meara rolled her shoulders. Her grin was all thinned lips and bared teeth; a hard, fevered gleam turned her eyes the colour of stormy seas.
"What the—" one of the men, heavy-set with jowls that would have done a bulldog proud, sputtered. "Who trains a woman to fight?" He might as well have said ass or horse. He also had the misfortune of standing between the exit point of the bar and the entrance of the tavern. He barely saw her move when she barrelled straight into him with such force his feet were lifted off the ground. Then she rammed him against the doors which burst open. The crowd in the street screamed and scattered. He hit the ground before rolling to a stop at the opposite end, groaning, covered in dirt and mud, unable to rise.
The remaining men stared at her, faces pale with dawning comprehension. "Bloodborn," Scarface blurted out. "But…" Their eyes went to the sword at her side.
"We couldn't very well announce our presence when faerie hunting now, could we? Very often, we would go out disguised." With her stolen blade, she pointed at Scarface. "You started this, you'll end it. The rest of you, get out." Like whipped dogs with tails between their legs, they did as ordered.
The big man gripped his great sword tighter, assuming a defensive stance. "This ain't a fair fight."
She was born for hunting fae whose strength far outstripped a human's, with reflexes that would shame a cat. "Neither was it when you thought I was just some rich girl. At least I didn't kill your men. But you…" Rage ran low in her gut. "You would have raped me while everyone watched, too scared or immune or entertained to intervene."
"Anyone of them would have done it. It weren't just me."
The sword hit the floor with a loud clang as she tossed it aside. Bloodsteel sang out soft and slow as she drew her blade fully from its sheath. Scarface's hairline was beaded with large drops of sweat. His face and ruined cheek were now the same shade of white. "He and you are exactly alike," she seethed. Scarface frowned in confusion; he could not know she was thinking of another bastard, a highborn one from a legitimate union. Willard had picked on her from the moment she arrived, a lonely frightened ten-year-old whose caregiver had been murdered. He saw something that did not fit and proceeded to torment it in whatever way he could. He liked weak things. No wonder Iain let him have the imprisoned fae.
In her hand, the sword was near weightless, an extension of her arm. No other metal on earth would ever feel as right. Like her, it came from Valarin's blood which had run deep into the mountain upon which she died. It cut the air in a clean arc and with a soft hum. In Scarface's eyes she saw her reflection staring back at her, the gaze of a stranger from across a great distance.
Then the big man twitched his gaze to something behind her. She heard nothing. Then notes of mint and warm wood hit her nose. Only one person had that scent. "What gave me away?" she asked flatly, running her blade over the silk covering its sheath and tearing the strips off the hilt so that the pieces fell to the floor. Disguise was no longer necessary. Scarface looked torn between elation at a prospective rescue and the sheer horror of being confronted by two Bloodborn.
"The people who screamed in the streets. And it's not everyday that you see a man being thrown out of an inn and sailing through the air. You broke more than a few bones by the way, in case you were concerned."
Finn hardly ever used sarcasm so when he did, it meant he was fuming. Turning around, she saw that like her, he wore civilian clothing. A more careful eye would discern that his clothes were as beautiful as the man himself. The exquisite stitching of his shirt and trousers, the fine deep glossy leather of his boots and bracers. The clean sheen of his dark mahogany hair that ended in a slight curl at the nape of his neck. Beyond the clothes, there was that elegant confidence he wore like a second skin. Clearly the man came from money and privilege. And no one would overlook the silver-red sword in its silver-red sheath at his side.
"Do I seem concerned?" She turned, arms folded, feet apart, sounding as defiant as she looked.
Finn glanced at Scarface. The kitchen door creaked open as Polly peeped through. From the top of the stairs scuffling and whispers could be heard. Their eyes met again and she knew what he was thinking: there were too many people present.
No words were needed. He turned and she followed, both of them falling in step as they hurried through the streets, leaving The Prancing Pony behind, ignoring the sound of alarm bugles in the distance as guards hurried towards it.
"Were you really going to kill him?"
Meara ignored her best friend, choosing instead to slide her hands into the warm pockets of her breeches. She would have liked to rest them on the waist-high stone wall but the surface was covered in a thick layer of bird droppings, as was most of the floor. Still, the bell tower had a view nearly worth killing for: from it, one could see Thelione in all its unruly splendour.
The first city ever to be built in Elyria, the city of kings and queens, the city which stood in the shadow of the Snow Mountains surrounding it from behind, forming an impenetrable shield. The first and oldest kingdom of the mortal realm. Three thousand years and it was still growing, a wild garden of dirt, stone and glass ringed in by high walls, stretching up and up towards the sun. To her left lay Valarin's Bay, calm as a sapphire mirror, alight with the swelling sails of more ships than she could count. Ships from lands faraway, where desert seas drowned men and drew them to disaster with tempting mirages of water, where the sun never set on hard silver snows, where kingdoms consisted of a thousand green islands. Trade had always been a staple of Elyria's economy: people came for its rare flowers, rich wines, silks, the wood of fire oaks harvested from the lower slopes of the Snow Mountains, the vast varieties of seafood. A year after the War ended, the merchants returned, as had the money. The coin exiting the Treasury to rebuild the lives and towns and cities Oberon and his army had damaged was swiftly replaced.
Sunset lashed both sky and water with generous streaks of vermilion and gold. Flocks of seagulls rose and fell, sudden and fierce as geysers, flooding the air like living clouds of white as they flew from the huge stone wharf and warehouses that were stacked like grey and brown boxes packed shoulder to shoulder, clamouring about the fishing boats each time a catch was brought in. Even from this distance the piercing cries of the birds could be heard. Less audible were the inevitable curses of the fishermen whose catches were being pillaged.
Behind these, sectioning off the warehouses from the Burrows, was the Sea Wall. Guards patrolled its crenelated walkways, the fiery gleam of evening lighting the points of their spears and armour. A huge arched gate at the bottom, also manned by guards, allowed for traffic in and out. The Burrows began almost immediately after the Sea Wall, springing up like a carpet of wild mushrooms a few days after a storm, uncontrolled, uneven, each building vying for space, striving to outgrow its nearest rivals. Mud brown, washed-out red, slate grey.
In vibrant contrast were the green gardens that lay to her right with their tall graceful slender trees of varied species which flowered yellow, scarlet and white. She remembered staring at the Gardens from the edge of the Burrows, at the intricately wrought fences which demarcated the start of the merchants' district and warned off undesirables like herself, at the guards who looked through her unless she came too close. Unless it was Market Day, no one from the Burrows had any business elsewhere in the city. Back then, she had wished with all her heart that someday she would be able to cross over. It had come true. She had moved beyond the clean white stone and gilded gates of modest houses and small mansions, beyond sprawling ones filled with marbled pillars and pools and crystal. She had made it all the way into the palace, had stood before the throne itself. There were no words for how much she regretted it.
Finn stood beside her, so close that their arms brushed. She loved him fiercely and it had begun seven years before when he stepped between her and Willard in the training courtyard where Ewin was allowing the older, trained boy to beat her younger, untrained self bruised and bloody. He was both family and friend. He was good.
She looked at him and his roar from that afternoon rose like a ghost from the grave. Kill them now! Wilfred Camden had shrieked those exact words but with a completely different intention. Finn had been afraid for her so he had ordered the slaughter; he had done it to protect her. She might not have been holding the sword but she had certainly swung it over and over again.
"No," she muttered, wondering if her thoughts showed in her eyes. "I was only going to hurt him."
His expression never changed; she felt rather than saw his tension leave. "Tell me what happened. What did the leprechaun say to you?" He bumped her arm gently, so tall and broad that he sheltered her from some of the evening winds.
She had not told him in the aftermath of the execution and even now, she could not. He would not understand what the leprechaun said and why it meant something to her. She knew that as surely as she knew him. He would dismiss it, she would argue and if that conversation began, she would not be able to stop and treason would come pouring out like poison from a wound. And Finn was the king's cousin, his direct heir until Iain fathered children of his own. The latter was bloody unlikely since Iain had been prepared to literally burn his kingdom to the ground over losing his queen to Oberon. But more than that, he and Finn were close. Finn knew Iain's grief better than anyone apart from Selya. He believed in the rightness of Iain's cause.
'His love blinds him.' That understanding left a hollow sensation funnelling through her bones. He had ordered the deaths of starving, weakened fae to keep her safe. He had served willingly in Iain's war, determined to avenge his cousin's loss. Finn was good. But she could not tell him anything.
"Nothing happened." She shrugged. Straight dark brows drew together in a frown that said plainly he did not believe her. "Look, he begged for his life and I told him there was nothing I could do."
Finn said nothing. In the silence, her lie echoed long and loud. Meara fought the urge to fidget. Then he spoke. "Willard is accusing you of treason."
Her mouth fell open. "Just because I didn't kill anyone?"
Finn's profile might have been carved by a master artist. It was all strong lines and sensual angles. She had heard noble ladies sighing over his lips, the deep cleft of his chin, his high cheekbones and perfect nose. Right now the expression on his face would have made them think twice about approaching him, as they were so wont to do whenever he appeared at court or in the Highlands. "He said you were consorting with the faerie; you exchanged words in the dungeon and again on the stage. And that you participated in the curse which drove the crowd mad with panic."
There had been a stampede even before the slaughter began. The young, old and unlucky had borne the brunt of that; the number of dead and injured amounted to fifty. What had been intended to kickstart the New Year's Eve festivities had instead cast a pall over it. Not that it would put a stop to them; people were definitely going to get drunk. There would still be revelries, street performances and fights, minstrels singing in between bar brawls, people tumbling into bed together at home and in the pleasure houses and even in dark corners of the streets; resolutions would be made only to be broken come dawn. In the Gardens and the Highlands, parties and private gatherings would go on as planned because such events were drawn up with the same detail lavished on battle plans and nothing was going to get in the way. Supposedly, there were to be fireworks. But in the coming days, people would talk about how the last fae in Elyria had perished and taken a greater number of humans with them while the king and Bloodborn stood helplessly by, and the story would grow and grow. What had been meant as a display of power by the Crown had become a tale of humiliation.
"I didn't do anything!" she exploded. Then realisation hit. "Is that why you spent the whole afternoon asking me what happened? Because you knew what Willard had done? How? How did you know?" Her nails bit painfully into the palms of her hands which had somehow gotten out of her pockets.
"Iain asked me."
Breath left her lungs, ejected by sharp bolts of panic. "He went straight to the king?"
"I saw him approach Selya and Iain just before we left." She barely remembered departing the Square. She only recalled the queen mother's burning gaze before Finn stepped between them and took her back to the Citadel. "People heard you, Meara." Finn's hands wrapped around her upper arms, gentle and urgent. "I could deny what happened in the dungeon but in the Square, others heard you. Aric and Kylin, to be precise."
Fear and fury like a burgeoning storm built in her breast. Shrugging off Finn's grasp, she stalked down the short length of the bell tower, blind to the majestic beauty of the Snow Mountains now limned in evening's gold. "Well, that's it then. Your cousin's going to have my head on a pike as part of the New Year's Day celebrations."
"Not if I have anything to say about that."
"It doesn't matter what you say!" She whirled around. "Unless it's something he wants to hear. Today was supposed to be the end. He kills the last living fae in our land and it's over because he would have accepted that Anya is gone and she is never coming back!" As if they had heard her, the gulls rose against the distant darkening sky in screeching billows. "Isn't she the reason why he had us hunt them down and drag them back in chains to begin with?"
Finn's face was as pale as the moon that was waiting in the wings. "Meara, stop. You know as well as I do they stayed behind when Oberon swore all his people would leave. Clearly they were spies and up to no good. They killed people—"
"Not all of them. You know that as well as I do." She flung his words back at him. The walls she had built to silence those secret thoughts and feelings had been bending beneath the weight of everything dammed inside. Now they were breaking and the flood could not be stemmed. "He was hoping that either Oberon would return because his people were being slaughtered—never mind that we were also dying—or that one of those fae would give up the secret to the Faerie Road so that he could invade it and get his wife back," she spat. "But neither of those things happened. And now when this mad wishful thinking is about to expire, Willard offers me up on a silver platter. A co-conspirator in one last faerie curse. Who knows what other secrets the leprechaun divulged? You tell me," she jabbed an angry finger at him, "how difficult would it be for Camden and his bastard of a son to convince the king that I know something about the road to the Underworld?"
Finn's silence was answer enough. Absurdly, tears came to her eyes and she gave an ugly gasping laugh. "I've lied and killed in the name of the Order, in the service of a mad king and weak queen mother who themselves are liars and killers, and this is how it ends." She had wasted her whole life. "I'm going to get what I deserve." Looking out over the tower, she took in the streets swelling with people, the rumble of the city as its one million strong population got ready for the evening's celebrations. She remembered the fae screaming in the Square, rain mixed with blood running over stone. "We all are."
She had seen Finn go up against two of Oberon's generals on a sinking ship and he had not looked as shaken then as he did now. "It's the truth. Iain swore safe passage to Oberon's ambassador. He broke bread and salt with him. He took the gifts the faerie brought and murdered him when he refused to say how Anya might be found."
To his credit, Finn did look ashamed. But he persisted. "You don't understand and neither do I. No amount of faerie treasure can make up for a wife stolen—"
"A wife who left willingly—"
"One note," he interrupted heatedly, "does not equal genuine consent. They were in love. They loved each other from the first day they met and even a blind fool could see it. She would not have left him unless some foul play had been at work."
Meara looked at him with wounded eyes. "Even if that were the case, does it make what he did to Elyria right? Three provinces scorched and the people decimated along with the soldiers protecting them. An armada of a thousand ships blockading the Bay towards the end. There were nine hundred Bloodborn and he spent us all for what?" She held her hands out, as if waiting for answers to fall into them. "If Oberon hadn't left—and Maker alone knows why because he was winning— you and I wouldn't be here. This city would be a pile of rubble and bones; Thelione would be a graveyard. Iain's not just a husband. He is a king before all else and a king should put his people first."
"Even if it means leaving the woman he loves to suffer at the hands of the Faerie King?"
"Was there ever a possibility of regaining her through the methods he used?"
They were less than six feet apart and on vastly opposite sides of a chasm which had opened between them, one that ran so deeply they dared not take its measure. By then, night had fallen. It cloaked them in velvety dark while the huge lamps hanging outside the rows of shops and houses turned the streets into a veritable sea of lights.
"I want to know what happened in the Square. What were the fae saying? How did you know?"
This was not Finn her best friend speaking; this was Finnegan Caravel, prince of that ancient house, Lord of Glennaic and Rivellan, the northernmost provinces that made up almost half of the land across the Bay, and Second-in-Command of the Order. In his voice was steel and fire and Meara found her spine involuntarily straightening. One did not slouch in the presence of one's leader.
"The leprechaun's voice was in my head. I don't know how it happened."
"What was the curse about?"
"It wasn't a curse. More like a warning." In a small, hushed voice, as if to veil the ominous words, she recited them to him, watched as the lines on his face deepened. This side of Finn she knew too; this was him just before he stepped onto a battlefield.
"We have to tell Iain."
Maybe Selya had told her son. But Finn would never believe that his aunt knew. There was no proof. All she had was a searing look and a sixth sense that told her the queen mother understood. "If you tell him, I'm dead."
He stepped towards her and she moved back. Hurt flashed across his face. "I won't let anything happen to you. I swear it."
"You were never one to make empty promises. Don't start now." She turned to look out over the city once more. "But tell him anyway." Shuddering, she wrapped an arm around herself.
"Come with me." For all the firmness he used, she heard it as the plea it was. "We will tell him together and I will vouch for your innocence. No one will touch a hair on your head, much less arrest you."
"Just go, Finn."
He did. The tears came then, scalding down her cheeks despite her muttered curses, regardless of how many times she rubbed them away.
Maybe that was why she did not hear the person behind her until it was too late.
Her neck hurt. That was the first thing which registered. The second was the smell of the place; the stench of mildew and rotting wood was overpowering. Last of all, it dawned on her that she was not alone, that the person who had grabbed her by the neck and squeezed a pressure point until she passed out was still there.
Her eyes snapped open. And Meara froze. She was propped up in a corner against a wall and not too far away, regal in the light of a hand-carried lamp, was Selya in a black cloak with the hood down about her shoulders, her hair a shining helm of tightly coiled braids. But greater than the shock of seeing the queen mother was that which came from being in that place. After so many years, there remained an unnerving familiarity to the former orphanage. It was under her skin and would never leave. There were gouge marks on the walls that no human hands could make. The windows were boarded up but the curtains still hung there, dull in their thick coats of dust. A spider ran between folds which once upon a time been vibrant russet red. Sebine had sewn them and Meara had helped cut the cloth.
The ruined dining table with its wrecked chairs had not been removed. The mantelpiece which had been wrenched loose from the wall was still—unbelievably—dangling over the hearth that was certainly filled with ashes. Here, memory was an open wound; it took the shape of a creature made of scarlet and bone with a voice like silk.
This was the main room on the first floor of Honour Hall. Upstairs, Sebine's blood, along with that of all the other orphans, was on the walls and sheets. She scrambled to her feet and spoke without thinking. "What the bloody hells is going on?" The complete lack of decorum registered as much as a falling raindrop in a lake. She felt raw. Cornered. What good was a sword against a monster who lived in remembrance? Some things just would not die.
"This was the safest place I could think of." The former queen's tone was apologetic. "Nobody comes here and despite the city council's orders to tear it down, no one will take the job."
Because people still believed that a faerie, having killed or evicted the previous resident, would claim ownership of the place. And if one disturbed a faerie's abode, even an empty one, it would come back to hunt down the culprit. No one had seen the creature responsible except for her, but everyone had seen the door half-ripped from its hinges, the damaged walls, the blood. The mangled corpses had been wrapped in thick sheets and carted away for burial in broad daylight, and those who had done it had talked. As had the guards who had found her dying in the street—some of them had caught a glimpse of the faerie as it fled. So the word spread.
"Why are we here?" Selya was the Commander of the Order; there was no finer swordsman in all the land. The older woman had always been as civil to her as she was to any of the highborn knights. She was the reason why Meara still lived, for it had been Selya who sent her to the palace infirmary to receive the best care. None of that made her feel safe. This woman was the mother of the king and she, like Finn, indulged him.
"We are here," the older woman drew in a deep breath, as if to fortify herself, "because of what happened in the Square." She pinned Meara with her eyes, green as her son's but somehow faded because they were great wells full of something deep and dark like grief. "Because you and I both know what the fae were saying. Something has happened; something is coming that none of us are prepared for or can withstand as we are now."
"How could you have understood them?" the younger Bloodborn asked suspiciously. "The only parts of their language that remain are the names of things and even then, only we know that."
"I studied Edemic. It is outlawed to stop the general populace from dabbling in mage arts but surely you did not imagine the Commander of the Order would not know the speech of our enemies."
Selya probably did not mean to make her feel stupid but all the same, she did. The start of the Third Age began with the reign of the newly crowned Queen Estrid who set that law in place and since death was the penalty, it had been unfailingly obeyed. Or so she had thought.
"Was it the leprechaun? I saw him speak to you."
If Selya had seen, Iain would have too. The question felt like a sword stroke which could not be parried. There was no point lying. "I could hear his voice in my head but that should have been impossible. We're immune to spells."
"That is true, which is why I do not think it was a spell though it certainly was magic. There is much we don't know about the Fae or what they can do to us beyond faerie blasts. What happened to you is proof of that, though it has never been reported before."
It was not the answer she wanted. But it was the only one to be had. "So what does it mean, all of it? The Sight, the warning they spoke."
The queen mother's eyes grew more troubled. "A warning indeed. Or prophecy now fulfilled."
Near the entryway, a series of thin high screams erupted only to be cut short. It was likely some poor unsuspecting rat dying beneath a cat's claws. Meara did not believe in omens but all the same, it was unsettling. "Prophecy? I don't understand."
"Neither do I. And that is what I fear." As if shaking off an invisible weight, Selya's gaze sharpened. Her shoulders straightened. "I saw Finn leave the bell tower. I have no doubt you told him what you knew and he would have spoken to Iain by now. He will do his best to dissuade my son and defend you, an effort equally useless as it is admirable. Guards will be looking for you soon. Perhaps they look for you even now. I need you to do something for me—"
"You could stop him." One never interrupted royalty but Meara did not care. "You're the Queen Mother. You're his mother. Tell him what you told me."
Selya was not a day past the middle of her fourth decade but in that moment, she seemed older than a crone who had seen a hundred of them. "I can't."
Sheer disbelief kept her quiet. Then anger set her tongue alight. "I've done enough for you and the king." She remembered her manners. "Your Majesty," she added acidly. "I'm not doing anymore. Your son is about to have me thrown into jail and Willard's hands." This was not something she could fight her way out of; not even Finn could help. The decision came suddenly while she spoke, bringing equal amounts of elation and terror. She had thought of it before, turned it over and over in her mind like a beggar would the last coin in his hand. But this was the first time it was spoken aloud. "I'm done with the Order. I'm leaving."
"Excellent." And just like that, Selya pulled the proverbial rug from under her feet. While she was still reeling, the queen mother turned and picked up a large leather satchel that had been concealed behind the folds of her cloak. "Your chainmail shirt is in here, along with two spare suits of clothes and a cloak. Two pouches of gold and another of silver and copper should stand you in good stead. Other necessities for travelling on the road have been included."
"Were you not listening? I'm not doing it!"
"So you're not leaving. You prefer jail and Willard's tender mercies."
"Yes. No! I mean…" The red-haired woman growled. "Yes, I am leaving. No, I am not doing a damned thing for you."
"So do you need this or not?" Selya sounded almost haughty even though she was the one holding out the satchel. The woman could probably wear sackcloth and ashes, and still look every inch the queen she had been and still was.
Meara barely restrained herself from snatching the bag. It was then that she saw the ring on the index finger of her right hand. It was exquisite; double bands of delicate gold intricately intertwined to form a whole piece. Upon closer inspection, she realised each respectively had a dark and fair thread of what looked like silk twisted around it. "This isn't mine." She reached for it and pulled. And pulled. And pulled again. Nails scrabbled against skin, pinching flesh. The fresh sting of scratches blossomed. The ring would not come off. Only one person could have put it on her. She looked up, eyes blazing, face white. "What have you done?"
Selya stood there, so impassive she might have been the marble and ice statue that Meara had likened her to. "It's an enchanted ring. Stop pulling, you will only hurt yourself. No matter what you do, it cannot be removed."
It was a fact well-documented that faerie artefacts did not work on Bloodborn. But those forged by mages did. "This is sorcery." A thin line of blood ran along the golden ring. She could not believe the words coming out of her mouth or that they were aimed at the Commander of the Bloodborn. "Colluding with mages and the practice of their magic is forbidden on pain of death."
"As is colluding with a faerie. You may not have done so. But I did."
For a third time that night, Selya left her stunned, only this time the shock exceeded almost any other she had experienced in her life. "What?"
"I did what I had to." The queen mother spoke with quiet grimness, almost to herself, as though—if only for a moment—she had forgotten Meara was there. "I will not apologise for it. Neither do I have the time to explain all. That ring is a wayfinder. A faerie made it and I must speak with him. Find him. Bring him to me."
"This makes no sense!" Meara raged. "Faerie artefacts don't work on us—"
"This one will," came the cool interjection, "thanks to the mage. You have your orders."
Selya would not help; she had plans of her own. "Damn you!" With one last wrench that nearly dislocated her finger, Meara gave up. "You hypocrite. I'm not your errand girl and I'm done being your son's executioner!" she spat, battling the urge to strike the woman. "Maybe I can't take this ring off but I choose not to use it. I won't use it! I'll find someone to help me remove it and I'm going to drop it at the bottom of the goddamned sea."
"I doubt that will happen."
Tears blinded her. Her throat felt so tight that speaking hurt. It was like dragging broken glass over open cuts. "I wish the guards had never found me. I wish I had died. I would be better off than what you've made of me now."
Swiftly snatching up the bag, she turned and made for the door. No matter what, she would not let Selya see her cry.
"Meara!" Selya's voice cracked like a whip, almost irresistible to the soldier, the knight, the pawn that she was. She did not look back but she stopped. "His name is Tamsen."
"I don't care." Her hands were trembling as—for the second time in her life—she fled Honour Hall and ran out into the night.