The Falcons Saga, Book 5 (Spoiler Warning)
In the dungeon beneath Tírandon’s towers, an ogre snarled. Small red eyes reflected the light of a single lamp. Bovine nostrils flared, sniffing the air, detecting the man who shared the darkness.
Great iron chains bound the ogre’s arms and legs, coiling like a constrictor. Muscles strained, but the chains held fast.
Whispers skittered through the dark, knocked against the deep stone, and slithered back. “You’re sure you wouldn’t have me kill it?” asked the Elari.
“I’m sure,” said the man.
They peered through a small barred window on the iron door, watching the creature fight its bonds. Dragging the ogre into the cell had taken a half-dozen Miraji warriors, and this ogre was not yet full-grown. Its ears were too big for its head, its ivory tusks small and little scarred.
The man palmed a jar. The glass was ice-cold and frosted white. He felt the chill even through the gloves he wore, gloves to conceal abyss-blighted fingers. “I won’t be long,” he said.
“Don’t get too close,” said the Elari, then left. His feet made no sound as he climbed the winding stair.
Thorn Kingshield unbarred the iron door, retrieved the lamp from a hook on the wall, and eased into the cell. The ogre’s struggles multiplied. Its snarls shook the echoing dark with animal rage. Thorn crouched, setting the lamp on the floor, and watched the ogre worm around in vain.
“I’m not going to kill you,” he said.
The ogre grew still, listening.
“Do you know where the avedrin have been taken?”
The ogre’s chest heaved against the chain as it grumbled with laughter. “De pit.”
“Yes. Where is it?”
Heavy, hairless eyebrows pinched low. “Dis naeni? Dis naeni don’t know. See for you self, ‘vedra. You rot wid ’em soon.”
Thorn sighed, disappointed. It was worth a try.
No answer the ogre gave would have stopped Thorn from doing what he came to do. He raised the jar in satin-gloved fingers, careful not to fumble it, and pulled the cork. The ogre watched his every move intently. Black steam, like the smoke rising off a match, eddied from the jar’s mouth. Thorn blew the tendrils away from his face. The substance must not touch him.
The ogre sniffed, but the steam had no odor. “Med’cine?” it asked.
Thorn met the creature’s eye, grinned, and nodded. Then he stretched out his arm and upended the jar. Liquid blacker than the lamp-licked shadows oozed out in a syrupy stream. It clung to the ogre’s flesh like pitch.
The ogre began to shriek.
* * *
Tírandon brooded under a shroud of unnatural silence. The silence was born of worry, and the worries were whispered. Household staff crept through the corridors as if they’d been horsewhipped. Highborns waited in parlors, pacing off the hours. On the parade grounds, between rows of tents and corrals crowded with disgruntled warhorses, soldiers drilled halfheartedly. Sentries eyed the keep more than they watched the war-pocked plain and the naked stretch of highway.
Was the War Commander dying? Rumor said the ogre had broken him nearly in half. And Thorn Kingshield? If he was too ill to ride six miles to Bexby Field, was he too ill to fend off the ogres?
Morale wallowed. Panic clutched.
Thorn paid the rumors no mind. He climbed the stairs to a corridor lined with guest suites. Sorrow and exhaustion were twin burdens weighing on his shoulders. He should be abed, recuperating from his tussle with a demon. But the past couple of days had forbade him respite. Too much to oversee in his brother’s absence. Too many soldiers to bolster. Too many experiments to refine.
A woman’s plea echoed along the corridor. Rhoslyn stood outside Rhian’s rooms, fists knotted upon the door locked against her. “Please, dearest. Your father needs you. Thorn tried, but he cannot manage alone. You must come help.”
A voice replied, muffled through the thick oak. Thorn couldn’t make out the words. Must’ve been another refusal; anger sharpened Rhoslyn’s plea: “Carah, he’s your father! He loves you, don’t do this to him.”
Thorn laid a hand upon Rhoslyn’s shoulder. She turned, startled. “I have the key,” he said, raising the iron ring that Ruthan had given him.
Downstairs, gossip provided the house with a delectable distraction. Lady Carah had locked herself in Rhian’s room? This expression of her grief could mean only one thing.
Two days before, highborns and officers, squires and passersby had gathered at Tírandon’s gate to learn about the debacle that had transpired at Bexby Field. Carah had been among them. No one had missed her reaction to the news that ogres had taken Rhian. Others had seen firsthand the beating Kelyn had dealt the young avedra. Scandal loomed.
The duchess glowered at the key, at Thorn. “How could you let this happen?”
Her words tore at an old wound. “Still blaming me for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Your Grace?”
Rhoslyn’s resentment wilted. “No, no, I’m sorry, Thorn. I only wish you’d never brought him.”
“So that Carah would give her heart to someone more convenient? Is love ever convenient?”
Rhoslyn balled her hands together, as if resisting the urge to slap him. “Don’t try to be wise with me right now. Just talk to her. Make her see reason. Her father needs her.”
Across the corridor, Kelyn slept at the command of poppy wine. The ogre’s hammer had caught him full in the side and launched him several feet. Three ribs were broken; his lung was bruised. If it hadn’t been for the hutza armor, the War Commander would have died then and there. When he was awake, Kelyn labored to breathe as slowly and shallowly as possible, but trying to prevent the pain kept his injured lungs from clearing and put him at risk of pneumonia.
“Maybe I should try again,” Thorn said.
Rhoslyn laid a stilling touch to his wrist. “No, you’ve done too much already. Where will we be if you’re incapacitated too?”
After fighting the rágazeth, Thorn’s color had slowly returned, and the feverish chills had abated, but he dared not tell a soul that for two full days fire had refused to obey him. Yesterday, he could not so much as light a candle. He feared that touching the rágazeth, wrestling with it as it tried to birth itself into the light, had caused something inside him to die. This morning, however, he finally managed to light his lamps from afar. He’d been as clumsy as a novice. His head throbbed with the effort. His healing touch had been just as ineffectual. Rather than mend the bone and soothe the bruised flesh, he’d only caused Kelyn more pain.
He plied the key to Rhian’s door. “I’ll bring her out, if I must drag her by her hair.” He slipped into the vestibule and closed the door behind him. One look at his niece withered any ferocity he had managed to conjure.
She sat against the headboard of the great four-poster bed, clutching the blood-brown velvet of Rhian’s avedra robe. Grief had turned her into a ghost, pale and lost. She winced at the sound of the door opening against her wishes. “No, Mum! It’s his fault!” Peering past the drapes, she saw Thorn instead. Her wan face crumpled with new sobs. She released them, raw and gasping, into the velvet robe, then she raised her face and cried, “H-how can it hurt so much?”
Thorn wrapped her in his arms and rocked her as if she were a child, and she let him, clinging to him as if he could save her from drowning in a wild, wild sea.
A woman’s hysterical keening had alerted Thorn to danger. He’d been standing atop the wall, gazing through the crenels toward Bexby Field, listening, watching for any sign of trouble. Distant thunder had rolled over the hills, but it might’ve come from the storm clouds darkening the horizon. Then, farther down the wall, one of the dranithi sentries began shrieking. He’d run and found Danellys on her knees, mindlessly wailing. Her arm reached south. Azhien restrained her from bolting down the tower.
Her twin brother had scouted for Kelyn that morning. She met Thorn’s questioning gaze, and her thoughts had roiled with a tide made of two words: he’s dead he’s dead he’s dead.
Thorn had grabbed Záradel from the stables and ridden from Tírandon as fast as the Elaran black could carry him. By the time he caught up to them, Kelyn’s party was halfway back to Tírandon, and he tallied their losses at a glance. Duíndor, Rhian’s horse, carried Kelyn instead. Thorn had urged Záradel on to the village, but it was too late. Signs of battle were everywhere. Bloodstains in the stable yard, in the street; claw marks in the soil, the stamping of many feet; broken chainmail, shards of a shattered bow. Confounded, frightened humans milled about, but he found no ogres, no Elarion, no bodies. Even the dead horses had been carried away. And no Rhian.
News had arrived with the War Commander, and by the time Thorn returned to Tírandon, Carah was shouting, “You left him! You left him!” The betrayal in her voice and the hurt on Kelyn’s face were unbearable to behold.
For two days she had sequestered herself, taking no food, accepting no visitors. Carah’s sobs trailed away and she pressed against Thorn’s shoulder. With a shuddering inhale she said, “If you’d been there, it wouldn’t have happened.”
He shook her by the shoulders. “Stop this! Rhian’s abduction is not my fault. It’s not your da’s fault. It’s not your fault.” She blinked at him in surprise, and Thorn realized he had found the kernel of her anger. “It’s not your fault, Carah.”
She buried her eyes behind her hands. “I made him promise.” Her confession spouted from her, a strained shriek. “He promised to protect Da, because of me.”
He gathered her close again. “No, love. Rhian would’ve guarded your da anyway, because that’s who he is. Only Lothiar is to blame. Do you hear? Only Lothiar.”
“He won’t stop. Not until he’s captured us all.”
Thorn kissed the top of her head. “I’ll be long dead before I let Lothiar near you. Whatever it takes, Carah, he’ll not have you. My life on it.”
* * *
Alyster lingered on the skybridge that linked Tírandon’s inner and outer walls. He’d never been up so high, and he didn’t like it. Standing atop a mountain was something else entirely; there was solid rock beneath his feet, but below the skybridge there was eighty feet of air. Chimney smoke from North Town curled under his boot soles; swallows nesting under the great stone arches twittered beneath his toes. Unnatural, it was.
But he was able to hide here. Remain inconspicuous, anyway. He thought the sentries would order him to move on, but they trudged past, pikes on their shoulders, and cast him not even a sideward glance.
He didn’t want to explain to Haim or the rest of his kindred why he’d come. Dozens of times he told himself to forget it, to leave fast and return to the highland camp beyond the moats, but he lingered. Waiting. Waiting, like everyone else.
Tírandon’s keep reared toward the sky, a massive faceted block like a giant opaque cut of quartz. A blue, black, and silver banner flew atop the roof, and pigeons wheeled, no bigger than flyspecks. He watched the upper windows. Cousin Haim had told him that highborns sleep on upper floors. The farther they slept off the ground, the more important they felt. That was Alyster’s theory, not Haim’s.
Stupid waste of time, this. If the War Commander died, the windows wouldn’t tell him. And why should he care? He’d get his kindred out, that’s why. Alyster wasn’t about to stick around a bunch of leaderless soldiers lost to panic. He’d get his kindred out and return to the mountains, and bogles take the rest.
Was that a window opening? A hand waving the all-clear? Ach, just a reflection.
No one saw fit to tell Alyster a damn thing. Carah would. But it was a bad time to trouble her, and he owned no words of comfort.
A soft shuffle of feet approached. It wasn’t the dogged plodding of a sentry. Someone had found him. It wasn’t Haim. Haim’s step was like a rock bouncing down a mountain. This step was stealthier. The newcomer’s urge to speak circled Alyster like a thirsty midge, but there was only silence.
Annoyed, he turned and found one of the highborns standing at the next crenel, far too close for a casual passerby. Daxon, he was called. Lord Ulmarr. Though Alyster didn’t give a heap of shit about that. He cared only that this haughty young noble should approach him now—why now?—when he hadn’t so much as sniffed in Alyster’s direction before.
His fair hair was shiny and groomed, a cap of pale curls. Over chainmail he wore a white surcoat blazoned with three red towers. Though the velvet was clean, it was stained with red-brown smears. Dark eyes gazed past Alyster toward the keep’s lofty windows.
“You want somethin’?” Damned if he would ‘my lord’ anyone, no matter how entitled they felt.
Daxon lowered his gaze, but not his nose. “Do you get along well, you and your … the War Commander?” He grinned at the word he’d omitted. Father. He wielded it like a taunt. “Do you feel cheated, I wonder?”
“Of a decent life. He did cast you off, didn’t he?”
“How is that any business of yours?”
Daxon shrugged. “I might have a proposal, if you’re interested.”
Alyster shaped the kind of grin he’d once seen on a wolf’s muzzle. “And what would that be?”
“He’s laid up in there. Helpless as a babe. How easy would it be, do you think, to … you know …?”
Alyster was aware that Daxon was Fieran, that Fierans would rather quench their swords in Aralorri blood than fight alongside them, but this was something personal. His grin faltered not one fraction. “How easy would it be to pitch you off this bridge?”
Daxon laughed, a dry, scornful bark. “Don’t tell me you feel loyalty toward him. He abandoned you, and if I hear correctly, pretended you didn’t exist. Doesn’t that injustice enrage you?”
Alyster eased closer, as he did when challenging a man in a tavern. He shared the War Commander’s height, loomed a handspan over the lordling. “You ask me to assassinate a man, and you talk to me of injustice? What kind of fucked-up bastard are you?”
The light of false camaraderie snuffed from Daxon’s eyes. They went cold, and up went that nose again. “Listen here—”
Alyster’s fist filled with stained white surcoat. “No, you listen. I begrudge the War Commander for the way he treated my mother, but that’s all, and that’s none of your affair. And what would you know about my life? You, born with a fat silver spoon in your mouth and soft rugs under your toes, and plenty of folk to clean it all for you. I dare you to face him when he’s strong enough to wield a sword. You want to murder him like a coward, you do it on your own.” Alyster released the surcoat and smoothed it flat again, relishing the hostility in the lordling’s glare. “Approach me again, and I’ll assume you mean me ill.”
With a nod of farewell, he crossed the skybridge and ducked into the tower. Let these highborns settle their own squabbles, he warned himself as he wound down the stair. But, like an itch in his skin, it wouldn’t let him alone.
* * *
That evening, Kelyn received his commanders. As gravely as they gathered about the great curtained bed, one would think he’d summoned them to witness his last breath. They brightened considerably when he ordered, “Report.”
He could barely draw breath enough to speak and had no hope of sitting up. Queen Briéllyn had assigned herself as his personal caretaker. She made him as comfortable as possible, a stack of pillows propping him up, a pack of ice over his ribs, a blanket to help stave off the chills, and half a dose of poppy wine down his throat—enough to take the edge off the pain but not quite enough to deprive him of his senses.
“Lothiar has wasted no time,” said Laniel Falconeye. The green stripes adorning the Elari’s brow pinched together as he frowned.
Beside him, Lady Athmar plunged in: “The ogres entrenched between here and Bramoran are testing our defenses. They send sallies nightly to the edge of camp. Commander Sha’hadýn here says she’s lost a dozen Miraji to them in the past two nights.”
The bronze-faced Elaran woman couldn’t understand a word, but she nodded at the reference to herself and her people. Laniel translated the basics for her.
As if the rug were too hot to stand on, Eliad paced; something ate at him.
Johf, Lord Haezeldale contained his emotion with far more skill. Standing at-ease, he added softly, “And we’ve found two of our foraging parties slain on the road, not half a mile from Tírandon’s wall, their wagons empty.”
Eliad stopped abruptly and faced Kelyn, his arms crossed, nose raised. Why should he look so defiant? “With your permission, sir, we’d like to return in kind. Send us to ride on the trenches.” A sweep of his hand included all the commanders present.
They had discussed the assault several times in recent days. When the ogres had fled the onslaught of the Miraji, Kelyn expected them to fall back to Bramoran. But they’d been more clever than that. They’d stopped within ten miles of Lothiar’s stronghold and dug in, extricating an intricate latticework of trenches across the highway and out into the countryside, barring the path to Bramoran. Kelyn had never imagined anything like it. He could barely believe his scouts’ reports.
Drona, he knew, was itching to fill those trenches with ogre blood. Likely Eliad’s anxiety came from an assumption that Kelyn would refuse them.
“Cavalry,” he whispered, careful to measure each expulsion of breath, each intake, lest his ribs shift. “It will take cavalry. Eliad, means you stay here. This is not a job for your highlanders.”
Kelyn tried clearing his throat; it sounded more like a growl and sent a spike of pain through his middle.
Eliad got the point. He ducked his eyes. “Yes, sir.”
After the death of Lord Rhogan, the Leanians had yet to promote a strong leader. Looked like the Fierans would have all the fun. “Haezeldale, your regiment. Drona, ride along with them as Johf’s second-in-command, in case something happens to him. Sha’hadýn?” He raised two fingers. “Two companies. Hide the humans inside your veil.”
Laniel translated. The Miraji commander replied in duínovan: “Yes.”
Kelyn beckoned sharply to all of them. “Listen to me. You are not to take the trenches. There’s no point in it. By no means push on to Bramoran. Bramoran is not our objective, it is too well defended. Give them hell, then return.”
The commanders saluted, some more eagerly than others, and began to file out. Drona paused. “Dax?”
Kelyn waved away the question. His ribs throbbed with too much talking already. “Yes, of course, take him. But do not give him command. He has much to learn from you.” He had underestimated the young Lord Ulmarr once already, and it had cost his troops dearly.
Eliad stood his ground, as disgruntled as a child. “Kelyn, c’mon. Just me. My highlanders can stay here.”
Oh, for the satisfaction of a deep breath and a thunderous bellow.
Queen Briéllyn rose from her unobtrusive chair near the window and raised a hand toward the door. “That’s enough, Eliad. Out.”
Ever since he was a boy huddling inside Briéllyn’s cloak through an ice storm on the slopes of Slaenhyll, Eliad had worshipped the ground she walked on. He did not buck her now, but bowed sharply and about-faced for the door. He didn’t make it farther than the vestibule. A woman spoke to him. Kelyn couldn’t discern her words, but he recognized the timbre of his daughter’s voice.
“Why didn’t you come earlier?” Eliad cried. “Two days you’ve left him like this. Shame on you! Look at him, will you.” He shoved Carah into the bedchamber.
She stubbornly glared at the rug beside the bed. She wore her resplendent silver robe, establishing her presence as avedra. Duty had brought her, nothing more.
When at last she raised her eyes, astonishment flooded her face. She failed to mask it fast enough. What had she expected? Her da beating about as usual? Kelyn would’ve snorted if it didn’t hurt so much. He’d been bashed with a hammer as broad as a stallion’s chest. He didn’t remember taking to the air or hitting the ground. The right side of his face was bruised and scraped from that inglorious tumble, and every muscle ached when he risked moving at all. But, he suspected, it was the sight of him lying helpless that shocked Carah so.
She donned a cool expression, curtsied for the queen, and took a seat at the bedside.
Eliad huffed, cursing her for a bitch, then left.
Mechanically, Carah removed the ice pack and bandaging that did a damn poor job of holding Kelyn together. Her hands settled upon the discolored flesh. Her eyes closed and a frown deepened.
You left him! You left him! Kelyn’s memory, not hers. Because of me, because of us! You abandoned him so they’d take him.
Do you really think I’m that cruel?
How she had stared at him, as if at a stranger. Then she’d replied with the unthinkable: I don’t know.
Was she right?
Thorn had asked the same thing of him yesterday. “Are you secretly pleased that Rhian is no longer a problem?”
“No,” he’d replied, then turned to stare at dust motes glinting with afternoon sunlight. “And yes.”
Carah’s hands leapt away. “Don’t. Think about something else or I’m leaving.”
“Will you now?” said Briéllyn. She strode to the door and snicked the lock.
Carah grit her teeth. She didn’t dare defy the queen, but the lamps flared a little brighter.
Do not become Thorn. I couldn’t bear it, dearheart. What should I think about? How lovely you are? How proud I am of you?
Kelyn knew she heard his thoughts because a tear welled across the blue iris of her eye and rolled down her cheek. “Don’t think at all,” she said and laid her hands to his side again. She promptly got to work.
Kelyn soon wished he’d requested more poppy wine. Bone knocked against bone as his ribs reset. Pain-swaddled flesh began to tingle, to protest, to scream as new bone rushed to bridge the break. Did Carah handle all her patients so severely? Or was this the easiest way to exact her revenge? Sweat beaded across her nose, trickled into the hollow of her throat, and Kelyn swore that her hands emitted a soft glow.
At last she sat back, lowered her hands into her lap, and opened her eyes. They were flat with exhaustion. “It will take a couple more sessions.”
She rose to go. Kelyn caught her by the wrist. “He wouldn’t come.” Please understand. “Rhian threw me onto his horse, gave it some order. It wouldn’t let me turn around.” Already he could breathe a little deeper, force more power into his voice. “You don’t have to believe me, but that’s the truth.”
Her mouth pinched tight around sobs that fought to rise. “Is it true, what I heard you did to him?”
“That I flogged him like a dog? Yes. He never should’ve … he was in the wrong, Carah. You both were, and you know it.”
Her eyebrows jumped, and her eyes were like blades as they fell upon him. “And you’re the one to know all about that sort of thing.”
Kelyn stared at her in horror. His grip on her arm slid away. That his own daughter would use his youthful indiscretions as a weapon against him… Who are you?
She heard that too. Regret wiped the disdain off her face. She retreated toward the vestibule, but paused at the door. Over her shoulder she said, “I’ll tend to you, Da, but I won’t discuss it. It’s mine to cherish, not yours to spoil.”
* * *
Carah stepped into the corridor and slouched against the wall, a hand smashed over her sobs. They echoed sharply anyway. When had she become so vicious? She had always been a champion when it came to wielding words like swords. She had wanted to wound him, it was true; she hurt too deeply to bear the pain alone.
Do not become Thorn… She didn’t understand. When had her uncle been anyone else? Could he be as malicious as she?
I’m sorry, Da, I’m sorry. But she couldn’t tell him.
She drew herself up, dabbed her face dry on her silver sleeve, and started for her rooms. She didn’t care what anyone said. She would move her things into Rhian’s suite, and that was the end of it. What harm now? There was no getting him back. And it was too late to reel in the rumors.
“Tst!” The hiss lanced toward her from the far end of the corridor. A hand beckoned. As she neared, Alyster emerged from the shadows. The red, gray, and black cloak of his kindred was draped over his head like a shawl, as if the colors and pattern weren’t obvious. Why so clandestine?
He examined Carah’s face, which must be puffy and blotched red from hours of weeping. “Is he dying?”
His concern astonished her, and yet … it didn’t. “He’s broken up, but he’ll recover.”
Alyster’s jaw clenched, and he nodded, but he didn’t seem relieved. “Does he have guards about him?”
He shook his head in reply. I’ll bring Haim, a couple of the lads. His thoughts rolled toward Carah, but he didn’t explain what they meant. “Don’t tell him I’m here. I don’t want to see him. Just … he’s vulnerable, and … don’t tell him.”
Carah kissed her brother’s cheek. The gesture made him uneasy. He shifted feet. Her fairy pendant glinted on his chest. “Look, Carah … about Rhian … I liked him. He was good for you. I’m sorry.”
She held up a hand, stopping him from saying anything else. “He’s not dead.” Tears strangled her voice. She knew with every pulse of her blood that Rhian still lived. But how long would he survive in the hell Lothiar had devised for him? “Don’t let him take you, too. Be watchful, Alyster. Promise?”
Carah retreated to Rhian’s suite and locked the door. Someone had been kind and delivered a tray with a tea service, cheese, and black bread. Uncle Thorn, likely. But she had no appetite. The tea was cold, so long had she tended to her father. Her arms and shoulders ached with the effort of mending his wounds.
Rhian’s red-brown robe was draped over the foot of the bed. Carah put it on over her own. The gold-embroidered hem dragged the floor; the sleeves covered her hands almost to her fingertips. Bundling herself inside it, she curled up on his pillow and tried not to imagine the horrors he was enduring. Did Lothiar torture his captives? Did he starve them?
Instead, she imagined Rhian on a shore, a shore she had never seen, the salt-wind all around him and gulls crying overhead. She had glimpsed him there before, the night before the massacre when he slept near the hearth in her suite at Bramoran. It was an image so tangible that she could almost taste the salt in it.
He stood alone on pale yellow sand, gaze turned toward the rolling waves. Seals danced in the brine, watching him in return. Son of the Sea.
Turn and see me, she called, but he didn’t. He could no longer hear her. He meant to slip into the sea and vanish, and she couldn’t run to him fast enough.
* * * * *
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