Authors: Sam Bowring
‘In honour of her,’ said Vyasinth. ‘And of you.’
After a time, he turned to her, all his doubts fallen away. ‘What must we do, my Lady?’
‘Let Arkus do our work for us,’ she said. ‘He has set Bel a task, to find the Stone of Evenings Mild, an artefact that will allow him to recombine with Losara. You might remember it, Corlas – I gave it to Mirrow, and when she died you gave it to your boy.’
‘Would that I never had.’
‘Nor I, but we are not to blame. It was not us who cast the spells that pulled the child apart. Once Bel finds the Stone, he will try to remake himself . . . when this happens we must try to bring the resulting soul here as fast as we can, so that he is in his proper home with his proper people around him. We may have to convince him to join our cause, but it will be easier here. I can reawaken his blood, as I did yours, and he will remember his true heritage.’
From all sides of the clearing, Sprite people began to emerge, and to approach the root on which Corlas and the Lady stood. The older ones were less visibly Sprite, having lived their lives as Varenkai before answering Vyasinth’s call. The younger, some no more than toddlers, were all pointy-eared and had beautiful multicoloured eyes. They nudged each other, giggling and chortling, and giving playful bows.
‘More than I expected,’ rumbled Corlas. Then his breath caught in his throat. An old feeling came upon him intensely, only felt for years in dreams: that Mirrow was nearby. His eyes were drawn to a girl, no more than eighteen, with long blonde hair and orange–blue eyes. Ashamed at the thoughts her beauty created in him, he blinked and tried to stop staring. She made it no easier by staring back.
‘She isn’t Mirrow,’ said Vyasinth quietly. ‘Souls are not reborn whole, else how would they grow, and return fuller upon death to the Wells, thereby increasing their god’s power?’
‘But . . .’ ventured Corlas.
‘But,’ Vyasinth said, ‘it
possible that part of Mirrow’s soul was used as the seed that gave young Charla the spark of life. It may even be that a certain Lady intervened in the process.’
Corlas felt tears welling in his eyes.
‘She has no memory of previous lives,’ said Vyasinth. ‘And is not exactly the same person. But perhaps you will find peace in her arms?’
‘She is so young.’
‘She is new to womanhood, but a woman nonetheless. Besides,’ it was impossible to see if Vyasinth smiled, but her voice gave that impression, ‘give it twenty years and neither of you shall look older than the other for a long time to come.’
‘How could I ever repay such a gift?’
‘By serving me, and your people,’ Vyasinth said, then raised her voice for the assembled Sprites. ‘Dear folk of the wood, attend! This is he whose return I promised, he who can lead us back into the world. I ask you, spread word throughout the forest that we welcome amongst us Corlas Corinas – Lord of the Wood!’
A cheer went up, and Corlas wasn’t sure what was more stunning – his unexpected elevation, or the smile of the girl with his wife in her eyes.
Part One Ascension
I often heard Kainordans refer to the Shadowdreamer as a tyrant, but really, was the central figurehead of ‘the Throne’ any less powerful? Yet somehow it was considered barbaric that Fenvarrow leaders seized their power through strength, with little regard for lineage or predecessor. So much less civilised than the arbitrary passage of crown from parent to child or, failing that – if, for example, the heir to the Throne had his head chopped off with an axe – to the next closest relative. Does being born to a certain family at a certain time really qualify one to lead, I wonder? A set proximity to a point which is not itself fixed, like joining dots that float freely in time and space?
As it turns out, exceptions can be made.
The Good of the People
The Good of the People
The Good of the People
With Skygrip Castle looming on the horizon, Losara felt a touch of melancholy. For weeks he, Lalenda and Grimra had been travelling Fenvarrow on a pilgrimage ordered by the Dark Gods, and although he had never forgotten the immensity of his eventual task, the journey had afforded him some time for peace and reflection. A between time it had been, almost a break from the troubles that threatened the land, and the three of them had flown high and far, content in one another’s company. Then the dream had come, and Losara had seen how Fenvarrow would crumble if his counterpart, Bel, were victorious. So along with melancholy came a sense of relief to see Skygrip still untouched by the forces of light, no rays of sun beating down upon its sceptre peak. It was illogical to have feared otherwise, he supposed, given that he had gone to the lengths of personally invading the Open Halls and murdering the leader of the light, the Throne Naphur, to avert the possible catastrophe. He remembered the open disbelief on the Throne’s face, frozen there even as Losara had frozen his heart. He took no pleasure in the deed, but the man had been bent on destroying his people.
What ripples from his actions? he wondered. A delay to invasion, or its hastening? Perhaps the people of Kainordas would rise up in anger over the death of their Throne, rattle their swords and clamour for revenge? Perhaps he had not delayed things at all, but actually started a new landslide of events cascading towards whatever end awaited.
, he thought,
there’s a notion barely worth contemplation, lest it lead to the doing of nothing.
As they flew along, he noticed that unconsciously, or maybe not, they had all begun to slow down. Beneath them lay Fenvarrow’s capital, Mankow, rambling in parts and grand in others, the last step between them and the castle. Once inside it would become a time for serious action, but did the others fear to return more than he? Lalenda – Battu’s prophet, now Losara’s lover – had been confined to Skygrip almost all her life and had often been tormented by Battu. Despite Losara’s assurances that she was now under his protection, there was trepidation in her cobalt eyes as she glided along. As for Grimra, certainly the ghost did not want his amulet encased in stone at the castle entrance again, thus reinstating him as guardian of the front door, now that he’d had a long-awaited blast of freedom.
Lalenda felt for Losara’s hand as they flew. Even though his own hands were shadow from the wrist, he still felt the tiny points of her retractable claws – another sign of growing tension? He glanced at her beautiful brown face and for a moment considered telling her that everything was going to be all right. Immediately he felt foolish – what dim comfort such words would be to someone who could see the future.
Then again, as far as he was aware, Lalenda had not experienced a vision for some time. They were rarer for her, he knew, than his own dreams of times to come. Were their visions the same? he wondered. What was the point of a Shadowdreamer possessing a prophet when a Shadowdreamer, or indeed a Shadowdreamer’s Apprentice, could himself catch glimpses of the future? The answer, he feared, was that the shadowdream was just that – shadow, possibility, vague impression, shifting and unfixed. Prophecy, on the other hand, would always come to pass. Just a theory, of course – for who really understood the forces that governed the ebb and flow of the world? – but a disquieting one nonetheless.
Lalenda had once described to him the vision that, a hundred years ago, had appeared to every prophet, of a blue-haired man standing victorious atop a hill, his sword held aloft. If that scene was destined to occur, absolutely and without deviation, how could Losara ever hope to win? He had never held a sword in his life. Could he somehow make the vision fit his aims? And what was the point of prophecy if all it showed was something that would happen whether one knew of it or not?
Perhaps the events surrounding such a fixed point were not so immutable. Maybe
could be made to fit
‘It will be all right,’ he told her, and she smiled.
They descended towards the castle entrance. Goblin guards watched them approach, showing slight hints of unease. Losara noted one disappearing inside, to bring news of their arrival, no doubt – one of Tyrellan’s comprehensive network of eyes. They landed, and Losara nodded as the guards stood to attention. Then, still holding Lalenda’s hand, he led her into the dark entrance chamber of Skygrip while Grimra wafted after. They moved towards a portal door, a veil of shadow that would instantly transport them further up into the castle. Lalenda hesitated.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘Should I . . .’ her eyes turned down, ‘return to my quarters, my lord?’
In truth he had not thought about that side of things, but now that he did, the answer came easily. ‘No. Unless you wish to, of course. But otherwise . . . would you like to stay with me?’
Her grip upon his hand tightened, though her claw tips retracted. She was pleased with his offer, and that pleased him in turn. What a strange thing, that his own happiness could be so closely linked with another’s.
‘And me?’ said Grimra. ‘What be Losara wanting of Grimra?’
Losara reached into his pocket and produced the ghost’s amulet, at which Grimra hissed softly. He held the amulet above Lalenda’s head and let it fall, down around her neck to nestle in her bosom. Instantly the hissing ceased.
‘Keep her safe for me,’ said Losara, ‘when I am not there to do so.’
Perhaps he had managed to ease both their apprehensions, for Grimra gave a chortle, and Lalenda squeezed his hand all the tighter.
He realised he had not asked Battu’s permission about any of it.
Standing at the window, Battu did not turn when he heard Tyrellan enter the throne room, for he already knew what information the First Slave brought. While his connectedness to the castle did not make him aware of every last little thing, a mage of Losara’s power walking through the front door was hard to mistake. So, his Apprentice had returned from his pilgrimage.
An old question, pondered too long, arose once more. Was Losara more powerful than he? Maybe he was when he was outside Skygrip, but what about inside, where Battu could draw on the immense power of the castle?
‘My lord,’ began Tyrellan.
‘Save your breath,’ said Battu. ‘I will see him immediately.’
Did his voice betray him, he wondered? Did it crack with weakness, born of restless nights spent in the thrall of the only dream he ever had any more? He slipped out of his body to look upon himself and was appalled. It wasn’t the weight he’d lost, or the thinness of his silken hair, weeded from his scalp in sleep. It was his eyes, once black wells with pupils impossible to see – now, for the first time in years, the whites were visible. If he’d been in possession of his lips, he might have gibbered.
Tyrellan, who was unaware that Battu had left his body, bowed to it and departed. That was something, at least, and he seized upon it. Surely a servant who bowed even when his master’s back was turned was loyal. And why not, why not? He’d treated Tyrellan well, given him rank when he had been nothing, even granted his personal wishes on occasion. The First Slave was the only one he’d ever trusted, so why doubt him now? There was doubt enough elsewhere, doubt enough to go around. As if in answer to this thought, the vision of the dream flashed before him once more, and he fled into his body as if under attack.
‘What does it mean?’ he bellowed from the long window, raking worn, bony fingers down his face.
Why would he be walking across fields of grass in the shining sun?
If the dream was a sending from the gods, then they tormented him deliberately – did that mean he was a damned man who had earned their rancour for his disobedience? Perhaps the gods had nothing to do with it; perhaps it was a warning? If he allowed Losara to supplant him as Shadowdreamer, as he was sure the boy desired, was this to be his punishment? Banishment to enemy lands? Either way, one thing was certain: to avoid such a fate he must maintain his power. And the only way to do that was to destroy Losara.
‘Ungrateful cur,’ he muttered. ‘Parasite. All the gifts I have bestowed on him, the knowledge I’ve imparted, my steady hand moulding him to greatness . . . this is how he would repay me?’
The idea of fighting Losara made him afraid, and being afraid made him hateful – of himself, of Losara, of the fear itself. What cause should he, supreme ruler of Fenvarrow, have to fear? It wasn’t fear, he told himself, but righteous anger. Yes, and he would show them all – no god or fate or blue-haired man would steal his hard-won throne.
If I am damned already
, he thought,
then damn you all.
A laugh welled up in him, but it broke across his tongue too soon, and he choked.
With both his companions safely ensconced in his quarters, Losara turned to shadow and travelled swiftly up towards the throne room. As he slipped through the maze of winding corridors, he came across Tyrellan making his way downwards. Behind trailed the First Slave’s eternal butterfly companion, flitting merrily through the dark passages. Losara stepped out of the shadows and rippled into being.
The goblin halted abruptly. ‘My lord Losara,’ he said. ‘It is good to see you safely returned.’ As he bowed, the butterfly settled on his shoulder.
‘I’m on my way to Battu.’
‘And I’m on my way to fetch you to him.’
‘Then let us walk together.’
Losara considered asking Tyrellan about Battu’s disposition, but decided it was unnecessary. He would find out soon enough.
Tyrellan cleared his throat. ‘Did you have a . . . pleasant trip . . . my lord?’
Losara smiled faintly. The goblin used the word ‘pleasant’ the way others used the word ‘scurvy’. He wondered if Tyrellan even understood what it meant.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘We travelled far and saw many wondrous things. I also averted a possible future in which we all perish.’
Tyrellan shot him a rare look of uncertainty.
They entered the throne room. Battu stood where Losara had so often seen him, a dark hulk staring from his window across the land. Did he love the land, Losara wondered, to watch over it so closely? Or did he watch as a wealthy man watches his purse?
As they approached, Battu turned. He looked drawn, paler than Losara remembered, and had large circles under his eyes. His appearance made his smile seem even more rabid than usual.
‘Ah, my boy,’ he said. Not for the first time, Losara was struck by how his smooth tone and twisted features seemed at odds. ‘I am glad to see you.’
Losara inclined his head, a loose approximation of a bow. ‘Good day to you, lord Shadowdreamer.’
Battu came forward, seeming to force his footsteps, and set a hand on Losara’s shoulder. Losara tensed, ready for an attack, but the false gesture of affection was quickly and awkwardly withdrawn.
‘And has the Dark Gods’ purpose in sending you on your pilgrimage been revealed?’ said Battu.
‘Yes,’ said Losara, ‘and the journey yielded unexpected results. I wonder if you’ve had any fresh news about goings-on in Kainordas?’
‘Nothing to speak of,’ Battu almost snarled, then smoothed his expression.
‘It was necessary to kill their leader, I’m afraid,’ said Losara. Battu stiffened, and beside him Tyrellan’s eyes glinted. ‘The Throne was going to set my
down a path I could not abide.’
Battu’s lip twitched uneasily. ‘Well . . . that is . . . most welcome news.’ He seemed to consider his next words carefully. ‘Any land would be weakened by the loss of its leader.’
Is he trying to tell me something?
Does he still put his own selfish grasp of power ahead of the wellbeing of Fenvarrow?
‘And your companions,’ continued Battu. ‘Are they well?’
‘They are better for the journey, in fact.’
Battu grunted and his gaze slid away. Losara could tell he wasn’t really listening. News of the Throne’s death seemed to be troubling him. Why? Because it had not come at Battu’s hand? Because it was a clear display of Losara’s power and purpose? It didn’t matter. Soon, he was sure, one way or another, he was going to have to deal with Battu. Could the dark lord be convinced to join the cause for the common good?
The Shadowdreamer forced a smile that was almost a grimace. ‘You must be tired from your travelling and mighty accomplishments,’ he said. ‘You should rest – but tonight I would like to hold a feast to welcome you home. What say you, Apprentice?’
Losara nodded. ‘I thank you, lord Shadowdreamer.’
‘And feel free to bring your companions.’
‘The ghost as well?’ said Losara, genuinely surprised.
‘Why not?’ said Battu, although Losara thought perhaps Battu hadn’t remembered precisely who the ‘companions’ were before making the offer. ‘He likes to eat, doesn’t he?’
‘Indeed he does.’
Battu waited until he was sure Losara was truly gone. It was hard to tell, what with his Apprentice’s ability to travel wholly in the shadows. But this was still Battu’s castle, where the shadows obeyed him, and he could seal the room from outside influence if he wanted to.
Cautious in my own throne room
, he thought angrily.
‘Tyrellan,’ he said. ‘How long have you been at my side?’
‘Twenty-four years,’ replied Tyrellan blandly.
‘Yes. And how well you’ve served me during that time. I’ve never forgotten the part you played in my rightful rise to the throne, when all others stood against me . . . against us.’
‘Raker was weak,’ said Tyrellan. ‘We were right to hurry your ascension, lord.’
Battu relaxed. How could he ever have doubted his First Slave? ‘But now,’ he said, ‘I fear there is a new threat to the sanctity of Fenvarrow.’
Tyrellan arched a hairless eyebrow. ‘Lord?’
‘My Apprentice,’ Battu sighed. ‘He grows reckless, committing these acts of war on behalf of the gods. I must question whether the gods act with the best interests of our people at heart. Do they care what sacrifice, what suffering they cause to our folk? I think not, for they seek to steep us in a war of attrition.’