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Authors: Susan Murray

Tags: #royal politics, #War, #treason, #Fantasy

Waterborne Exile

BOOK: Waterborne Exile
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WATERBORNE EXILE
by Susan Murray

To my grandmother and great aunt, who epitomised strength without ever needing to define it

CONTENTS

DEDICATION

PART I

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

PART II

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

PART III

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

PART IV

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

PART V

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

PART I
CHAPTER ONE

He was going to burn. And he deserved it. Until then, Weaver knew only one thing: he must hold the attackers back to cover the Lady Alwenna’s escape. Flames crackled behind him, heat snagging at the back of his neck. His padded jacket was drenched with sweat, so heavy it hampered his movements and dragged against his arms. He was tiring, yet the dead-eyed priest before him thrust and parried with his staff, fighting on without any loss of pace. Sweat stung Weaver’s eyes and his defence faltered as he wiped his brow. The priest somehow failed to capitalise on Weaver’s distraction, fighting like one whose thoughts were elsewhere, completely absent from the moment. There was an air of placidity about the man that was unnatural: his dead stare made Weaver’s flesh crawl. He tried to damp down the sense that his opponent would never stop, ever. Had he drawn some curse upon himself for his part in the death of his liege lord? That was nonsensical – Weaver had not killed him. But he had failed to protect his king – or the husk that had once been Tresilian.

The priest’s staff connected with Weaver’s temple as, concentration fading, he parried the blow a fraction too late. Damn the priest’s reach, damn his unflagging determination. Weaver glanced over his shoulder to where the king’s form lay slumped on the floor. Was Tresilian really dead this time? Or was the priest trying to press him back towards his fallen king? Smoke eddied towards Weaver as a draught caused the air in the room to shift and the king was lost from his sight. Had he glimpsed the movement of a hand there, just before the smoke shrouded Tresilian’s body?

Impossible. But how many impossible things had he already witnessed since returning to the Marches? Weaver shivered, even as the heat of the flames behind him seared the back of his neck. Mustering all his strength, Weaver launched a committed stroke at the priest, slicing through the man’s neck. Blood spurted, but it was heavy and dark, unnatural. The man toppled like a felled tree, legs kicking, grey robes stained with blood that was more brown than crimson, as if it had been dry when it left his veins. Yet that was impossible.

The other priests in the doorway fell back one at a time and Weaver paused to draw breath, dimly aware the action brought little relief to his tortured lungs. The last priest to leave flung up his arm to shield his face with his voluminous sleeve as he fumbled for the door handle.

Too late, Weaver realised the man intended to shut him in with the fire. He watched with bovine torpor as the door swung shut. Smoke billowed across the room in the draught caused by the motion, curling and thickening, sending cloying tendrils into Weaver’s nostrils and throat, probing the depths of his lungs. From somewhere Weaver found enough sense to drop to the ground, his thoughts as thick and leaden as the blood from the priest’s veins. From behind him came a crash as the tall window collapsed into the room, swiftly followed by a rush of air as smoke billowed out through the new opening, permitting the ingress of fresher air. For a moment of blessed relief he gulped in air that filled his lungs instead of searing them. But only for a moment. The fire welcomed it too, drawing it in with a roar and a surge of heat. The roof timbers above Weaver creaked ominously and he knew – with the reason brought by that moment of unpolluted air – that he must escape that room or lie there forever next to his fallen king. And above all he knew he didn’t want to enter eternity at the side of the king he’d betrayed in every way possible – by thought and by flesh and finally by steel. Weaver scrabbled across the floor, heading for the door through which the priests had escaped.

When Weaver dragged on the handle the latch twisted and the door swung ajar. The last priest had not locked it; if he escaped this coil he would offer fervent thanks to the Goddess at the first opportunity. At that moment he noticed he was clutching a handle fashioned in the form of three snakes, not the entwined leaves more commonly used as a motif at the summer palace. But he had no time to ponder this mystery, even as it seemed to take hold of his mind and the snake heads reared up between his fingers, hissing, tongues flicking in and out as they fixed the gaze from their empty eyes upon him. Weaver tugged at the iron ring and the snakes vanished. It was just the ordinary leaf motif after all. He dragged the door open and crawled through, suddenly weary.

It would be so easy to simply lie down and stop. Right there. Only the thought of his dead king’s vengeance pushed him on to crawl across the flagstone floor of the anteroom that led to the private quarters Tresilian had occupied. The stone was so cool beneath his fingertips. He might rest there, only for a moment, just to draw breath and gather his wits.

Only a moment.

CHAPTER TWO

She pushed her way through the crowd, unheeding of who she bumped into, who she shoved out of her path. The priests should have let her follow them instead of turning her away. Had she not been chosen by the Goddess for special favour? A broad-backed man was blocking her path. A bucket dangled from his hand, forgotten as he gazed up at the flames. She tried to duck past him. His coarse woollen tunic was damp and stank of sweat. In exasperation she shoved against him with both hands, willing him to move out of her way.

He held out a solidly muscled arm, barring her progress as effectively as any wall. “Steady on, lass. You can’t go in there.” His tone was not unkind; it spoke of regret, laced with resignation. “The roof’s like to collapse any minute.”

He was trapped in there, her lord, their king. Why would no one help? “You can’t give up. Your king is in there.” She side-stepped round the man, but he closed his fist about the fabric of her tunic and tugged her back. “It’s not safe, I tell you. Enough have died today without adding your young flesh to the tally.”

How to make him understand? He was kindly enough. Perhaps…

He released her garment, giving her a gentle push away from the building. “It’s too late to help any in there, help yourself now. Stand clear.”

She stumbled away, losing her footing for an instant on the slick cobbles, biting her lip as she lurched against another of the onlookers. The taste of blood sprang hot and alien to her tongue. Wrong. Everything here was wrong. She should be in there, with her lord.

She fought back tears. She never cried.

She stumbled away to the edge of the yard, losing her footing altogether as something in the burning building caught fire with explosive force.

The sound of the explosion from the king’s chambers brought everyone to a halt, water buckets forgotten in their hands as a great plume of ash and black smoke burst from the roof of the palace. Shouts sounded from within the burning building. Someone screamed. Another burst of smoke through the roof was followed by billowing sparks. Those closest to the fire stumbled back in disarray, shielding their faces from the sudden burst of heat.

Tad gaped, open-mouthed, feeling the heat of the fire against his face even at that distance. Glowing fragments drifted down around them. One settled on his forearm, stinging the flesh before he could brush it away. It left a smear of soot where it had landed.

“The bucket, lad. Quickly.”

The big man next to him reached over and tugged at the bucket handle, forgotten in Tad’s grasp. Tad struggled to lift and simultaneously hand over the bucket, slopping water into his loose-fitting boots before the man took it from him. He turned his attention back to the water chain, doing his best to ignore the bite of the blisters on his right hand. Bucket after bucket went along the line, but the fire grew ever higher and all their efforts seemed to be for nothing. Finally the priests called a halt. Across the yard men were pulling down part of the stables in an effort to prevent the fire spreading further along the range. All was shouts and crashes and confusion. Tad withdrew from the commotion, flexing his fingers. One of the blisters had burst, leaving a raw, sore patch of skin. Dirt from the rope handle of the bucket was embedded in the tender flesh. He retreated to a corner of the yard, hunkering down at the base of the wall, huddled over his knees.

His sister found him there.

“Have you seen him?” There was a wild look in her eyes.

Who did she mean? Their father? Who else could she mean right now? Tad swallowed. “No.”

“He’s in there. I just know it.”

Tad drew in a breath, but he couldn’t speak. Miserably, he nodded. He’d watched them enter the palace earlier that day. They’d not been among those who had left the building again before the fire overwhelmed it.

She sat down on the ground next to him. Tad shifted uneasily. He was never sure of his sister’s moods.

“They won’t let me in there. You could try. We need to search the building. Before it’s too late.” This time, her voice was cajoling.

“If they won’t let you in, they for sure won’t let me by.”

“Of course they will – you’re not important to them.”

As if he needed that reminder. Tad picked at the torn flesh around the edge of the blister.

“Go on. Try. I already have.” She nudged him with a sharp elbow. “They wouldn’t let me near.”

BOOK: Waterborne Exile
9.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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