Prologue - Exile
Barrowthorne, Central Omagen
The sun slid towards the edge of the mountains and bathed Barrowthorne Tower in golden light. The tower was tall, circular and made of pitted dun-coloured stone; the same hue as the rocky slopes of the Sable Range that formed an arid backdrop behind it. Part of the landscape, Barrowthorne Tower was very old; worn by time and the harsh climate that gnawed at it – bitter winters and scorching summers, year after year.
A hot dry wind gusted down the mountainside and into the folds of the hills surrounding Barrowthorne. The wind buffeted the tower’s rough stone and rattled the tightly latched shutters – all except one window, high up, where the shutters banged in the wind.
A woman reached out of the window to retrieve the flapping shutters. Tall and strong, with a sensual face, and long dark hair that flowed over tanned, bare shoulders, she was dressed plainly in a sand-coloured, sleeveless shift that accentuated her dark beauty. She wore no jewellery save an ornate golden arm ring on her right bicep.
Belythna Falkyn paused a moment at the open window. The wind whipped against her face and tangled her hair as she watched the approaching dusk. The wind was strangely hot. Belythna frowned and stepped back from the window, slamming the shutters closed.
Inside the nursery chamber, the air was unbearably close with the shutters latched. A single candle sat on the sideboard, its flickering light illuminating a large chamber with a flagstone floor. A sheepskin covered part of the flagstones and three cots dominated the centre of the chamber. Baskets filled with wooden toys lined the walls, but no other furniture adorned the nursery.
Belythna stood next to the rattling shutters and steadied her breathing. A light sheen of sweat covered her bare skin. After a few moments, she moved away from the window. She stepped close to the cots and looked down at her sons. They were all sleeping. Watching them, her face softened.
Seth, the youngest, whimpered in his sleep. Belythna reached out and stroked his brow, smiling as a tiny hand clutched hers. Only a few months old, he already had a thick head of raven hair, so like hers.
Eni, the middle child, slept deeply. He lay sprawled on his back, one arm flung across his face, as if nothing in the world scared him. At two years, he already bore a striking resemblance to his father, with the same strong, long-limbed frame and a mop of light-brown hair.
Val, the eldest, was restless. His blond curls were damp with sweat and his gentle, cherubic face was shadowed by troubling dreams. He was only five winters old, but with seriousness beyond his years.
Belythna took a deep breath and straightened up, her eyes glistening.
I’m doing this for their safety, she reminded herself – although the truth of it could not remove the crushing sorrow that compressed her chest and made breathing difficult. Belythna’s jaw hardened then. She had to steel herself for what lay ahead, no matter how it tore her heart out.
First, she had a gift for each of her sons. She opened the sideboard’s top drawer and drew out three amulets. Identical – the black teardrop-shaped gems gleamed in the candlelight. Belythna regarded the glittering amulets a moment. They had been a gift from her oldest friend, Floriana DeSanith.
You tried to tell me Floriana, Belythna thought sadly, I should have listened to you. You knew she would come after us.
Gently, careful not to wake the boys, Belythna hung an amulet around each child’s neck.
She then stepped back from the cots and slowly raised her right arm, holding it above her sleeping children. She noticed it trembled slightly and frowned, irritated.
Perhaps becoming a wife and a mother has made me weak?
Pushing her thoughts aside, Belythna forced herself to concentrate. She moved her hand in a circle above her boys, as if the air was made of water and she was stirring it into a whirlpool. The air started to hum as she spoke. Her voice, low and melodious, made the sultry air inside the chamber shimmer.
Mother Earth and Father Sky;
Shield these three
Sons of mine;
For thirty winters from this day
From the prying eyes of darkness.
Children of the light they shall be,
Far from the shadow.
The humming reached a crescendo before dying abruptly.
Belythna lowered her arm and sighed, suddenly weary beyond her thirty-five winters – so weary she wondered how she would face what lay ahead. She could not bear to leave her sons unprotected, and so had done all she could to ensure their safety. The charms around their necks would keep Val, Eni and Seth safe for a while. The boys would never know it, but for the next thirty years, they would find themselves unwilling to remove the amulet, and would have the unexplained desire to keep it secret and safe.
Now though, Belythna had delayed long enough. It was time.
She crossed to the sideboard and blew out the candle, plunging the chamber into darkness.
Belythna made her way down the tower, her boots whispering on the worn stone. With Hath and his men gone, the tower was strangely still. The maids had swept out the top rooms that morning and were now helping the cook with the evening meal. As Belythna reached the bottom level, she caught the aroma of roasting duck with orange, and sweet potatoes frying in goose fat and thyme. The smell wafted up from the kitchens and filled the stairwell. Usually, such an aroma would have caused Belythna’s mouth to water, but this eve it made her feel queasy. Taking care to move quietly, lest one of the servants hear her, Belythna crossed the entrance hall and slipped out of the great oak door.
Outside, she padded down the wide stone staircase into the courtyard. Cyprus trees lined the wide expanse of pavers. The trees cast long shadows, like scarecrow fingers, across the courtyard and arid ground beyond. The wind caught at Belythna’s long shift dress, causing it to flatten against her legs.
Casting her gaze about her surroundings, Belythna felt sadness envelop her. She had been so happy here. On an evening like this, in other circumstances, she would have taken a walk with Hath in the hills and watched the sunset, before returning to the tower for supper. Yet, her husband was not here, and was not due to return from his hunting trip for another two days.
This eve, Belythna had no time to admire the sunset. Instead, she took the path that led back, away from the gardens, and into the hills behind Barrowthorne Tower. Gnarled olives lined the path and the air was heavy with the scent of wild thyme. She followed the path as it climbed for a while, before descending into a rocky valley. Here a river flowed; a wide turquoise swath cutting through dun-coloured earth, grey-flecked schist and purple clumps of thyme.
Belythna made her way down the hill, her thoughts focused on her destination: a great flat stone, at least twenty feet in diameter, which lay at the river’s edge.
These days, local children played on the stone, lovers met in secret and lizards sunned themselves on its smooth surface. None of the locals knew the stone for what it really was – a Call Stone – one of the many portals the Sentorân and their counterparts, the Esquill, used to travel from one end of Palâdnith to the other. Few Call Stones now remained open. Some were dormant, while others had been closed forever.
This Call Stone was still open, and Belythna could have used it to disappear to some remote corner of Palâdnith – but tonight she would not run.
Belythna began to hurry, her boots sliding on the loose stones. The sun had slid behind the blunt edge of the Sables and the sky was darkening. The last smudges of gold were fading from the sky and here, in the sheltered valley, the wind had died to a soft breeze. Belythna reached the bottom of the hill and swept her gaze to the river bank – to the Call Stone.
Her breath caught and she stopped.
She’s here already.
A woman stood on the far edge of the Call Stone, waiting.
Riadamor, Queen of the Esquill, was tall, plain and dressed in a long silver-grey gown with wide, bell-like sleeves and a high-collar. Her pale blonde hair fell long and lank around a forgettable face. So powerful was she, that the Queen could have given herself a fairer or fouler appearance than this one. Riadamor had tricked many with her unremarkable appearance; it was one of her subtler weapons.
“Welcome Belythna,” Riadamor’s voice, though low and feminine, held incredible power. “Come closer. Do not cower from me.”
“I’m not cowering,” Belythna approached the Queen of the Esquill. She stepped up on to the Call Stone and felt the portal’s energy vibrate through the soles of her feet.
She met her enemy’s gaze squarely. “Have I not come to meet you?”
Riadamor stared at Belythna. Her eyes gleamed and Belythna saw hunger and excitement there.
“Do not bother trying to escape through the stone. I locked it behind me.” Riadamor warned her.
Belythna did not bother replying. They both knew she would not run.
“So you finally came for me?”
“All this time I’ve been looking for you – and here you were, right under my nose. I caught the others in the first years after Deep-Spire fell, even Floriana. Some I killed and some I turned into my servants. But it took me a while to find you Belythna. You hid yourself under layers of cloaking spells and buried yourself on my doorstep.”
Belythna’s voice was flint-edged when she replied.
“So now you have found me – congratulations.”
“You were always the strongest, by far the best of your order. You were even stronger than Serina.” Riadamor cocked her head to one side and regarded Belythna. “Why don’t you join us? We are not so very different.”
“Join you?” Belythna stifled a laugh, “why would you want to join with those you shunned? We weren’t good enough for you – remember?”
Riadamor’s smile widened. “Oh I do remember. When I broke away from the old ways, I asked you then to join me. You refused and look what happened? Let history speak for itself: we met you in battle and we won. I struck Serina down with my own hand, that pious bitch who thought herself better than me. She begged for mercy in the end. You all lost Deep-Spire that day, and the few surviving Sentorân disappeared – but I knew I would find every last one of you.”
Belythna stared back at the woman who had once been a Sentorân. A few years older than Belythna, Riadamor had soon tired of the constraints of their order. She chafed under the leadership of Serina, the head of the Sentorân. She challenged Serina and failed. Days later, Riadamor had disappeared from Deep-Spire. A few years later, Riadamor had re-emerged, leading a new order of sorcerers – the Esquill. Belythna would never forget that terrible day, when the Esquill and the Sentorân fought before the gates of Deep-Spire. The power they unleashed gouged the earth into deep ravines and gullies, and shook Deep-Spire to its foundations. Many died in that battle – but a handful of Sentorân survived. Belythna lost her old life that day; she cast aside her former identity and went in search of a new one. Hath Falkyn had given her what she craved. Yet it had not been enough to keep the past at bay. Why was it never enough?
“You’d permit a Sentorân to live?” Belythna resisted the urge to spit at Riadamor’s feet.
Riadamor smiled again, although the expression was nothing more than a mere twist of the lips.
“The Sentorân are no longer a threat to me. I would prefer to make an ally of you. It would be a pity to waste such talent. I saw you fight that day at Deep-Spire. I could not even get near you. If the Esquill had not outnumbered the Sentorân so greatly, victory might not have been ours. Imagine it!” Riadamor swept her hand in an arc before her. “I now have a loyal following of Esquill – but none have your talent. From Deep-Spire we could rule this land. The realmlords would all bow before such power. With you as my ally and a host of Esquill at my command, Palâdnith would be within our grasp.”
Riadamor’s grimace widened.
“And of course, I would keep your sons as my wards – before deciding their fate once they came of age.”
Ice washed over Belythna.
“You won’t keep my sons as your wards. You will kill them before they become a threat.”
Belythna locked eyes with Riadamor. She had so much to stay in Barrowthorne for. She had never wanted to take this route but the Queen of the Esquill had thrust it upon her.
Belythna would not challenge Riadamor to a duel. Casting the protection spell over her sons had drained her. For eight years, she had been free, not just from Riadamor but from the rigours that life as one of the Sentorân demanded. For the first time she had been allowed to just be a woman, a wife and a mother.
I will never see Hath again.
“You will never have my sons.”
Belythna crouched low, as if preparing to strike, but instead of raising her right hand to cast a spell, she moved it earthwards, towards her feet. She wore light, lace-up boots and in the back of the right one, she had hidden an object. She grabbed hold of a chain protruding from the back and pulled it out.
She held it out before her – a red diamond-shaped pendant with a black heart – hanging from a gold chain.
Riadamor’s gaze fastened on the pendant, and for a moment, the two witches froze. The Queen of the Esquill’s face went slack, her pale face draining of what little colour it possessed. Riadamor rushed forward, but the stone glowed in warning and she stopped short.
Unlike the stone on which they stood, which could transport them to any number of locations through Palâdnith, this stone had only one destination – a place there was no way back from.
“How did you get one of those?” Riadamor’s voice had now lost its arrogance and her grey eyes were huge on her white face.
“This one belonged to Serina. She gave it to me before the Battle of Deep-Spire. She could not risk you taking it from her.”
Riadamor’s gaze narrowed. “That stone will take you with it Belythna. You have not the courage to use it.”
“If it means ridding the world of you then I have courage enough!”
Belythna lunged forward and caught Riadamor by the arm.
With that, Belythna threw the pendant to the ground at their feet.
Riadamor screamed; an agonised cry that echoed up and down the valley.
The world disappeared.
Belythna fell into howling darkness. Wind whipped about her and she plummeted into a black abyss towards nothing. Belythna’s limbs flailed, her hands clawing in the dark, but there was nothing to grab hold of. Then the horror of it consumed her, and she fainted.
When Belythna awoke,
she found herself face-down on cold, hard stone.
The smell of damp filled her nostrils.
Belythna’s body ached, her head throbbed and her mouth tasted foul. For a moment she was completely disoriented. Then it all came rushing back, and with it an agonising sense of loss.
Stifling a groan, Belythna pulled herself up onto all fours and raised her head to look around. She sat on a circular, stone platform with rope and wooden bridges leading off it on all sides. Nearby, Riadamor sprawled, unconscious, on the rock.
They sat on the portal: the gateway between two worlds.
The portal formed the heart of a vast chasm. The sound of dripping water echoed in the emptiness, and only darkness stretched above and below. Pitted stone walls surrounded them, shining wetly in the light from torches chained to the rock. The flames guttered as a cool breeze whispered up from the depths and cast long shadows over the walls.
Belythna sat back and cast her gaze over the tangle of catwalks that spanned the abyss and circled the walls.
Despair threatened to overwhelm her, but she forced it back. She could not think about her boys, or Hath, now. There would be an eternity for her to wallow in desolation.
She glanced over at where Riadamor was stirring.
The Queen of the Esquill sat up. Riadamor looked about, her face stony.
Eventually, the two women locked gazes.
“What have you done?” Riadamor hissed. The torchlight gave her skin a corpse-like appearance and her grey eyes had deepened to black.
“Brought you to the one place where you can do no harm,” Belythna replied.
Riadamor’s face twisted.
“Don’t be so sure of that. Moden has not stripped me of my powers. You have brought me to a dark place – and I have a skill for making dark things do my bidding.”
Riadamor’s words chilled Belythna and she felt a knot of fear tighten in her belly. She was about to reply, when noises roused them.
The creak of ropes.
The slap of bare feet on wood.
Voices whispering in the darkness.
The women craned their necks towards the sound, watching as elongated shadows appeared at the far end of one wall – parodies of men, long-limbed and bent.
Dread curled up within Belythna.
“Our jailers are coming.”
The two witches got to their feet. Belythna’s gaze flicked to Riadamor and, for the first time since their arrival, she saw a glimmer of fear on her adversary’s face.
There was no way out of here – for Moden was an ageless, timeless prison made by long-dead warlocks. Once you stepped through the portal, there was no way back. The ancients had created the perfect dungeon; one where their enemies would simply rot forever.