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Authors: Angela Highland

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BOOK: Vengeance of the Hunter
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In the passage at the bottom of the stairs they reached a massive door of oak reinforced with bands of steel, scarred by centuries, immutable as a fortress. This Ealasaid opened with an iron key. Deglis carefully laid down his burden, and then, with an effort that bunched his shoulders beneath his fine robe and brought out beads of sweat along his brow, he pushed the great door open. Light crept into the passage, wan and sickly starlight festering in the depths of night. Ealasaid steeled herself against flinching from the sight of the ghostly figure within the opened cell, hovering in chains a foot off the floor.

“Hail the Blessed Voice of the Four Gods,” Deglis intoned, the words resounding with a weight beyond his mortal presence, echoing off the imprisoning walls. Power crackled through the heavy air, lancing into the Anreulag’s wasted frame and forcing up Her head.

“By Mother and Father, by Daughter and Son, the Voice speaks,” She replied, hollow and blasted. “
Arach shae.

“By Mother and Father, by Daughter and Son, we know where You have walked. Tell us now why You were called,” commanded the priest.

She writhed within Her chains, Her skeletal features contorting with strain. For long moments She struggled against the compulsion, while light twisted along Her limbs and then pulsed out to crash against the walls. Her head sagged; Her wild white mane fell down to hide Her face. Then She raised Her head once more, staring forward with empty eyes. Her lips forced out a stream of broken syllables, words that should flow like purest water, ravaged remnants of music.

Ràe elari enno sul ve carya...enno Amathilàen korthiali ràe...

Ealasaid stepped forward, beckoning to Deglis to retrieve Padraig’s unmoving form and bring him in beside her for the captive to behold. “By this flesh and blood and bone of the line that binds You, speak to us of where You have been, and speak to us in the tongue of Your masters!”

Terror roiled through the Anreulag’s eyes, and Her writhing grew frenzied within the chains. Surging into a panicked keening, Her Elvish words gained desperate strength. The light of Her leashed power flared. The walls of Her prison shook.

White-faced, the Bhandreid gave a single nod to the High Priest at her side. And Deglis moved, first to pull forth from a sheath beneath his robes the blessed dagger required for the sacrifice—and then to haul the cell door closed upon the Anreulag’s screams.

* * *

Arlitham Abbey
Kilmerry Province
Jomhas 24
AC 1876

On the day Kestar Vaarsen betrayed his Order’s training and let not one, not two, but three elven mages and their human accomplice escape his custody, the gods gave him no sign of their favor or disfavor. No lightning fell from the heavens to sear him, and the earth remained dormant beneath his feet. An abbey full of priests and priestesses who should have arrested him and Celoren on the spot had instead given them refuge, in the name of the blood he shared with the ancient woman who’d been hidden away in their walls for longer than Kestar himself had been alive. His amulet doubtless had something to say on the matter, but he still wore it tucked away in a suede pouch beneath his shirt, where its light was safely muffled from view.

“You’re quiet. Are you all right, Kes?” Celoren said as the two of them slipped back into the abbey through the postern gate. Then he promptly grimaced at himself. “Foolish question, sorry. Of course you’re not all right. Not that I’m complaining.” He blew out a breath, shoved a hand through his hair. “I mean, about you. You do know that, don’t you?”

They’d made it to the inner door of the gate leading into the storeroom. There, Kestar paused and studied his partner. Cel’s stance was easy, but his eyes held consternation, and Kestar winced in turn. He meant it in jest, but even so, the expression came out more skewed than he’d wanted. “You’d convince me better if you didn’t look at me like that. I’m...not all right. Not yet. I don’t know what I’ve become, Cel.”

“You look like the same Kestar to me. No, I’m serious. I don’t care what blood you’ve got—”

“You should.”

“Says who? The Church that wanted us to arrest that girl who just saved your life? The duke who was hoarding her power for his own? The priest who nearly killed us all?”

“The Anreulag,” Kestar said, cutting the other Hawk short. For the first time since the abbey had nearly been destroyed, he dared speak of it. Yet even here, in relative privacy and secrecy, he couldn’t quite speak above a whisper. “
should have killed us.”

Cel reflexively starred himself. “She didn’t. Surely She knew somehow? Knew what Enverly was doing, that he was profaning the Calling?”

“I can’t imagine She didn’t.” Kestar leaned against the doorjamb behind him and pressed the back of his hand against his eyes, trying to banish the memory of scalding brightness. “But even if She rejected him, She should still have killed us. She almost killed the assassin. She should have killed
If I can’t be a Hawk anymore, what does She want me to be instead, if She’s left me alive?”

“Well, whatever you’re going to wind up being, we’ll find out together.” At Kestar’s startled look, Celoren smirked. “You did take note of my aiding and abetting, right? They’d drum me out of the Order in disgrace at this point anyway, so I might as well save them the trouble and stick with you, where I belong.”

He should be protesting, Kestar thought. Pointing out that Celoren’s blood was purely human, that he shouldn’t risk the reputation of the Valleford name, or any number of other objections that needed to be raised. Yet that simple show of support made his throat threaten to close.

If the gods saw fit to let his partner stay at his side, maybe he wasn’t entirely doomed.

“Thank you, my friend,” Kestar said simply. “I need to figure out what to do next. It’ll help to have you with me.”

Cel grinned, but his gaze was somber. “We should leave as soon as we can. The abbot’s got enough trouble with Enverly to look after. We may blow their cover if we stay much longer.”

All of which was true, and now that Faanshi and her companions had safely fled, Kestar knew it’d be wisest for him and his partner to do likewise. Eight days of sheltering at the abbey hadn’t diminished the risk that the Church would track them down, even if their hosts seemed disinclined to betray them. By Abbot Grenham’s order, so that he could no longer speak the Rite of the Calling, Shaymis Enverly’s tongue had been cut out. They should by rights have killed the man—but the thought had sat ill with Grenham, and Kestar had to admit he could bear it no more easily. Yet as long as the old priest was alive, able to speak or not, he was sure the man remained dangerous.

He might have said more; there were certainly more words to be said, plans to be made. But before he could utter another syllable the door on the far side of the storeroom opened. Both men snapped up their heads, relaxing only a fraction at the sight of Brother Iain, one of the younger priests. “My lords, please come quickly. The abbot’s sent me to find you.”

The Hawks exchanged glances. “What’s happened?” Kestar asked.

“It’s Sister Darlana. The abbot says she won’t last the morning, and she’s asked to see Lord Vaarsen.”

* * *

“I know you’re there, boy. Don’t just stand there gawking.”

Kestar hadn’t forgotten about Darlana Araeldes, gods knew. The great-grandmother he’d never known he had. Long-lost princess of the royal blood of Adalonia. Refugee kept hidden away within the walls of an abbey far from the heart of the realm, all for her dalliance with an elven lover. She was all of these things, and she was also a withered, ancient husk of a woman, with the barest glimmer of life left in her fragile flesh and bones. Kestar had come to see her when he’d first arrived, but she’d turned him away the instant she’d learned he was a member of the Order of the Hawk, and she’d refused to see him since.

With all that had happened, he could hardly blame her. And he was unsure now whether to be relieved or alarmed that she’d changed her mind.

“Father Grenham said you wanted to see me.” Kestar couldn’t quite bring himself to step or speak too loudly for fear that too much of his presence might somehow extinguish the glimmer of life she yet retained. He edged cautiously away from the doorway of her chamber and ventured toward the bed where she reclined. Celoren was waiting out in the hall along with the abbot, for Darlana had forbidden anyone else to enter the room. “What may I do for you?”

“Come here,” his great-grandmother said, and though it was a breathy whisper, it was nonetheless also a command. She didn’t move as Kestar approached her bed; she scarcely seemed to breathe. But her eyes tracked his motions, focusing upon him with effort, glinting as he drew near. “You have my Riniel’s blood. Yet you’re a Hawk.”

“Yes,” he said, not at all sure what more he could add, faced with the accusation in the old woman’s stare. What protests he might have offered that he was surely not going to be a Hawk for much longer seemed feeble at best, even to him.

“It’ll destroy you, boy. Your Church. It’ll turn against you and swallow you whole, you and all you hold dear.”

That very fear had been slicing at Kestar’s innards for days, low and deep within him, as though he’d inhaled his own sword. He couldn’t manage a denial, not when the strength of bitter experience bolstered Darlana’s voice and kindled a fierce spark in her wrinkled face, but neither could he fathom why she’d said it.

“Gran...” The word caught in his throat. Had he even the right to call her such a thing? He could hardly call her
, though this ancient little woman in the bed before him would warrant it. His inner self was shielded against Faanshi now, yet the shimmer of her memories still fresh within his own offered up the Tantiu honorific before he could think of anything else. “My lady...Sister...why are you telling me this? Why have you called me to you?”

She let out a short, sharp cackle. “Hah. Got Riniel’s blood and his face. But do you have his heart?”

What sort of question was this? In no mood to bear haranguing from a woman he barely knew, whether or not she was his own kin, Kestar snapped, “If you mean to call my honor into question, I don’t have the time—”

“Nor do I,” Darlana retorted, cutting him short. Her hand lifted a few inches from her bed, writhing in the ghost of an imperious dismissal, one that clearly cost her strength. What little color her wrinkled visage held drained away. Force drained from her voice along with it, and her hand fell down again to the woolen blanket that covered her. Her eyes, however, remained alert. “I’m about to die. Before I go to my love’s side at last, you’ll hear this from me whether you wish it or not.”

“I’m listening.”

He should have spoken with better grace; Darlana’s age alone, never mind what ranks she’d once held, commanded at least that respect. But Kestar couldn’t muster any further civility, and oddly, his great-grandmother didn’t seem to care. If anything, his pique seemed to give her fuel for her own. “Only one course open to you, boy.” She jabbed a gnarled finger toward him. “Honor the blood my Riniel gave you, and those who share it with you.”

“I’ve already—” The words escaped the young Hawk in a shout, and only a sudden clasp of Abbot Grenham’s hand upon his shoulder made Kestar recall the need to contain himself. He hadn’t even seen the abbot slip into the room behind him. Blushing crimson, he pulled his voice back down to a more deferential volume. “I’ve already let Faanshi go. What more would you have me do?”

Something must have escaped into his countenance, or perhaps there was a roughness to his tone as he uttered the healer girl’s name. Darlana fixed far too shrewd a gaze for Kestar’s liking upon him, just before she issued a contemptuous snort. “That’s only a start.” Her milky eyes shuddered closed on a long and wheezing inhalation. Kestar’s own breath stopped within him, and didn’t resume until she added in a fainter whisper, “We’ve done them so great an injustice. It must be set right...”

“I’m only one man,” he protested, even as the old woman’s words sent a chill spilling through him. “I swear to you, I’m doing all that I can!”

She slit open first one eye and then the other; that shrewd gaze never left his face. For a fleeting instant regret and the faintest trace of sympathy gentled her features. But neither dimmed a last lingering gleam of challenge in her expression.

“Are you?”

Indignation and denial flared in Kestar, and he stepped closer to the bed, forgetting Darlana’s venerable age and frail health. “What would you have me do? Overthrow the Church? Kill the Anreulag?”

“As long as you’re asking, boy, yes. Finish what Riniel started. Save his people. They’re your people too.”

That stopped him in his tracks. The faraway look that came into her eyes might have made him dismiss her as a raving old woman on her deathbed, save for the utter seriousness in her face—and the words he heard her murmur now that he was close enough to hear.

“He was going to find it, you know. The sword. Only thing that can kill Her, and they’ve probably buried it so deep in the palace now that it’d take an army to reach...”

Then she fell silent, and in that pause all Kestar could think to say was “What sword?”

No other words would come, nothing to make Darlana understand that his hands were tied—that there was nothing more he could do. Once more Abbot Grenham’s hands upon his shoulders stopped him. He shook off the older man’s grasp, but he couldn’t elude his somber words.

“She’s gone, my son. Let it go.”

Kestar jolted, then realized what Grenham meant. Milky eyes still open but unseeing, Darlana lay motionless now upon her bed, without even a rise or fall of her chest to show that she yet lived. He didn’t believe it, though, not until he held his hand near her face and felt no exhalation of breath against his palm. Only then did the truth of it take hold, and his fingers abruptly quivered as he moved them to close the old woman’s eyes.

“May she rest in the arms of the gods.” Abbot Grenham said, resignation and sorrow weighing heavily in his voice.

BOOK: Vengeance of the Hunter
12.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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