When the murderers
came for her, cloaked in the creeping dark of waning moons’ light, their swords
were already wet with blood. In
that faltering light, the stains might have been mistaken for oil but for the metallic
hint of iron in the air. Iron and
sweat and maybe a whiff of wine-sour breath from the soldiers.
The smell of Father's death, Ehly thought.
That made her sad. Not that he was dead, for if ever there was a man she had wished might hasten to the greylands, it was he. Instead, it was her relief that made her sad. The very absence of grief was a thing worth grieving. A girl should not hate her father so.
A father should not deserve it, she reminded herself. And it wasn't my fault. Not really.
"We knows you're in there, girl,” the tallest one growled out. He was thick-limbed, thick-necked, and, she guessed from his speech, perhaps thick-witted. "Gave you up, they did. Up in the tower, they said. That's where 'e keeps 'er. And here y' are." He smiled. "Here y'are."
"I can't," she said, embarrassed at the mousy quality of her thin voice. "I can't open it."
"Open it up, girl," he spat, "or I swear by the Swords I'll open you."
Ehly twirled her thin hair in her fingers, biting her lip. She hadn't expected to be so afraid. She'd known they would come. She'd seen it in the ashes. But he wasn't there. She wondered with some panic if she might have read the omen incorrectly.
Maybe it wasn't the Doomed Savior I saw, after all? she considered. It was a sign oft mistaken for The Fated Knight.
Tricky thing about the ashes: you were always one smudge away from getting it all wrong. That’s what Mother always said. Just as she’d gotten it wrong when she'd married Lord Thrent.
Lady Selice had cupped Ehly’s face in her cold palms, thumbs stroking the tears gently from her daughter’s cheeks. “It was just the Blessed Babe the ashes wanted of me,” Mother had lamented. “Just the babe. Not love. Not betrothal. None of this.” Tears overcame her then. Tears and racking sobs as she fell to the floor, her smallclothes clinging to her skin, wet and stinking of oil. She could see the light from the small firebrand reflected in Mother’s eyes. “Just you, my sweet Ehlenor. Just you.”
Then, all she could remember were the flames, and the future that they left smoking on the floor.
Ehly trembled, her courage and confidence straining against her failing will, and she stepped back from the door, looking askance at her unfinished work. The tapestry hung on the loom, each dangling thread trailing bits of hope. The door was strong. Maybe it would hold long enough…?
There was a bit of low, rough talk at the door, and the jingling of mail and at least one sharp retort of metal against stone. An eye peeked in at her through the bars in the cell door. The gold flecks in the deep hazel iris matched the bright helm on his head.
It was a hard gaze, but not cold.
"Your lord father's dead, milady. His guard has bled, fled or surrendered. The castle's ours. It'll go easiest on you if you just come out.”
She smiled despite herself. The ashes were right, after all.
"Yes,” she agreed. "Yes, I know. But the door is sealed. I can't open it.”
‡ ‡ ‡
The girl was thin, with sunken eyes and sallow cheeks. No more than a ten-year, as he guessed it. She was dressed in a rag that might once have been a dress, but it was threadbare and ill-fitted, fraying at the hem. A small torch sputtered in a wall sconce, illuminating a table, a loom with a three-legged stool, a cold, empty hearth and a large circle of thick ash in one corner of the small room.
Not a room, he reconsidered. A cell.
Hardt pulled at him, trying to move him away from the door, but Kraye shook him off with a glare over his shoulder. It cowed the brute, but he knew that wouldn’t last for long. Only Monk seemed to manage Hardt’s trust, but Kraye used that term lightly among Whyr’s sell-swords. Trust and honor were not their selling points.
Not yours, either, he reminded himself.
“Do you know where they kept the key?” Kraye asked, trying to keep his voice calm and even. Although Thrent was dead, he had exaggerated a bit when he said they held the castle. In truth, they held the keep, and that just barely. Whyr said to take the family alive, if possible, and if not, to put them to the sword. Kraye preferred the former. Aside from not fancying himself as a killer of children, this girl was their best chance of purchasing safe passage from what was left of the loyalists, if it came to that. “Did your father post a guard?”
“Oh, it’s not locked,” she explained. “My mother sealed us in. But mostly, she was sealing him out. The problem is, she didn’t use a key. Not like you’d expect.”
Her eyes darted to the pile of ash.
Sad eyes, he noted, but no tears.
“T’the Hells with the key,” shouted Monk from the base of the spiral stair. “Why don’t we just knock it off its hinges and drag her out?”
“This is beyond hinges, Monk.” Kraye held his hand up, and the unmistakable heat of iiyir tingled in his fingertips. Even with his small skill in the Craft, he could sense the energy infusing the door, and the intricate patterns of binding. “This is sorcery.”
Monk cursed. Hardt took a step down the stair.
“Your mother cast this spell? Lady Selice?” Kraye asked, scanning the small room for her hidden companion.
“Yes. She said she had to keep Father away long enough for me to finish. I am almost finished.”
“Finished with what?”
“My new tapestry.”
Kraye tried to make out the hangings on the wall. There were several works: some animals in coarse thread, a more detailed depiction of a mother and daughter supping with faeries in a glade, a woman with a babe in arms, a man in blood-soaked finery, half butchered, with fire for his eyes. And finally, three men in armor, blades raised each against the other, surrounded by flames.
There was no mistaking one of the men. Golden armor. Golden sword. A bit of gold thread glinting in the eyes.
Well, that’s unsettling, he thought with a sigh.
Kraye strained his neck, but couldn’t make out the detail on the unfinished piece. The loom was turned askew from the door, but it was larger than the rest, and the most elaborate.
The girl returned to her stool. “It won’t be long now,” she said.
“Kraye!” Monk shouted. “Captain’s coming. And Koth is with him.”
“No,” he muttered. “It won’t be long.”
‡ ‡ ‡
Ehly hurried through her work as fast as she dared. She was an excellent weaver, and always had been. The ways of warp and weft were natural to her. She saw the patterns in her head, and her fingers wove them into being.
And sometimes, into something a little more.
At first it seemed a coincidence. Nanna Mer had taught her all the finer points of being a lady, as she did with all the girls of Castle Thrent. Even here in Abruosk, among the less genteel aristocracy of the Iron Coast, there were pretenses to keep up.
After they had mastered basic patterns, Nanna had them weave a small hanging of a blue-breasted summer shrike. Ehly had finished perhaps a little earlier than her peers. Her likeness was perhaps a bit keener. But it was the next morning that caused Nanna Mer to run screaming to Lady Selice. The next morning, when the blue bird alighted on Ehly’s sill in the dead cold of Deepingmoon, singing its summer song.
Mother had soothed Nanna with some clever assurance, but neither of them ever treated Ehly quite the same again.
“Your father must never know,” Mother said, as she smiled down on the tiny work of art, her finger tracing the delicate threads. “Never. Or there will be no escape for either of us.”
Either of us, reflected Ehly. Mother had known her own fate even then, although Ehly never noticed the distinction. There was only one that the ashes foretold might live, and Mother knew all along whom it would be, and even what might provide her daughter’s salvation.
When Nanna Mer could teach Ehly no more, artisans were summoned from Moot Khy to further hone Ehly’s craft. Inspiration alone could create wonderful art, but discipline allowed the artist to shape that creation. And though the artisans taught her the skill of weaving, it was her lady mother that taught her the shaping.
Right under Father’s nose, she thought. Hiding what he wanted most in plain sight. Almost till the end.
It was Tylar who had doomed them. Her little brother, so slight and frail and full of wonder. But she didn’t blame Tylar. It wasn’t his fault. No. She’d doomed him first.
Ehly pulled the last of the black silk through her fingers, pulling it tight and tying it off. She shifted over on her stool, snatching up the pale green silk thread where it trailed in the ash.
Mother always looked best in green, she thought. The green was the last of the detail work, and it was the details that mattered.
‡ ‡ ‡
Fenris Whyr was not so much naturally ugly as he was a man of cultivated injury. His visage had been chiseled by the elements, carved by blades, and creased by the constant frown of the wary. Kraye didn’t like him much, but as mercenary captains went, he could be trusted at least to pay well and pay on time. And he had an unerring eye for talent, if a bit of a lazy one when it came to scruples.
Testimony to the latter fact walked at the captain’s heels, a dark-robed man of middle years with a pinched face and a beak nose, his black hair retreating prematurely from his pate, surrendering the territory instead to thick brows that arched steeply as if ever-surprised.
No one liked the would-be sorcerer. Not even Whyr. But there weren’t many from the Collegiate Arcanum who deigned to associate with their ilk. Even if they’d been expelled for dabbling in forbidden bits of necromancy like Koth.
Whyr stopped to exchange a word with Monk. The boy frowned and tilted his head toward the sealed door, saying something that elicited a laugh from the captain. Monk laughed with him, but the easy mirth belied the serious eyes that followed Whyr as he walked past.
The glare the boy bestowed on Koth held no such reservation.
Kraye liked Monk. He had a good head on his shoulders, and he was a natural warrior. Whyr had plucked him from a gaol about six years ago. He’d been slated for a noose, but the captain had heard the rumors about him. Rumors that he’d murdered three men, and priestly men of Myrvoerval, besides. Vengeance of some kind, it was said, for a sister raped or killed. The details differed, but it wasn’t the revenge that had intrigued Whyr so much as the very successful, and very brutal, killing.
For the price of a few silver talons, the boy had left his old life, his old name, and the noose behind. Kraye had taken to calling him Monk, and the appellation had stuck.
Whether or not the rumors were true, Kraye couldn’t say. He didn’t put much faith in hearsay. But for some reason, looking into Monk’s eyes, he believed that story. There was disquiet in those eyes. Disquiet born from taking a life too young, and too often. This sort of unease was absent in men like Hardt or Whyr. Kraye found it encouraging that it persisted in the boy.
Even so, there was no one in the company that killed with more certainty than Monk, when the time for killing came. Kraye liked him well enough, but he watched the boy carefully.
“Lieutenant,” Whyr said, blowing out a loud breath as he reached the landing. Monk and Koth waited behind him. Kraye noted the absence of Himmal and Kurd with some interest. Whyr was rarely seen outside the company of his personal guards.
Kraye saluted, out of habit. No one else ever saluted, and it always brought a grin to the captain’s face. The captain grunted an affirmation.
“Are they in here?” he asked.
Kraye nodded. “Looks to be just the one left, Captain. The daughter.”
Koth bristled. “Lady Selice… She escaped?”
“That might be the poetic way to say it. Looks more like she gave herself to the fire. She’s dead.”
Koth pressed his face against the barred window, glaring at the ash pile.
“You said the girl would do,” Whyr prompted.
Koth nodded, his gaze shifting to the daughter. “She’ll do,” he said, “but it’ll be a year or more before we can get her with child.”
Hardt laughed. “I’m not so picky.”
“You’d ruin her,” Koth sneered. “I need her unspoiled.”
“More than one way to --”
Monk stepped up, placing a hand on Hardt’s arm. “No.”
Hardt frowned and looked away, like a child scolded by his father.
“What do you need her for, Koth?” Kraye asked. “And why are you so concerned with her purity?”
“My business with her is my own.”
Kraye turned to Whyr. “I thought our business was all the same, Captain. Take the keep. Kill Lord Thrent. Take his wife and daughter alive. Why’s his business any different from ours?”
“I didn’t hire Koth for this,” Whyr said. “Koth hired us.”
“Oh, bloody stinking Pits,” cursed Monk. “We’re working for him?”
“Your standards are lower than I suspected,” Kraye muttered.
“My standards were appeased by his gold.”
“Not his gold,” a gravelly voice called from the base of the steps. There, in a pool of spreading blood, standing between the bodies of Himmal and Kurd, stood the corpse of Lord Thrent of Abruosk. His eyes glowed with a soft fire, like embers. “Mine.”
Koth stumbled back into Whyr. “No,” he said, the word hissing from his trembling lips. “How did you… ? You shouldn’t be…”
Kraye stared at Koth in disbelief. “What did you suck us into, Koth?”
“Your betrayal comes too late, necromancer,” Thrent explained as he shuffled up the stair, his sword raised. “You cannot slay me now. You of all people know what I’ve become. I have transcended my physical flesh to-- ”
One of Monk’s throwing knives cleaved into Thrent’s chin, hampering his soliloquy. Monk charged down the stair, sword drawn. Hardt and Kraye followed after, but the captain and the sorcerer were notably absent from the charge.
“Monk, wait!” cautioned Kraye, but it was too late.
Monk was a competent warrior, and he had decent form, but he fought mostly on instinct. That usually served him well, for his instincts were good, but Thrent was a master swordsman, and he deflected the attack and countered with a thrust to the neck. Monk was fast enough to dodge the lethal stroke, but it was a weak parry, and Thrent’s blade sank into the flesh of his shoulder. Monk went down.
Kraye was there before the deceased Lord of Abruosk could follow up with a killing blow, locking blades. Kraye was from a long line of soldiers, and he’d mastered several of the warrior’s arts. He immediately set upon Thrent with a complex variation of Hzak’s Star, and the punishing offensive drove him down a step and away from Monk.
This wasn’t going to be easy, Kraye realized. Lord Thrent had been hard enough to kill the first time around, when he wasn’t already dead.
‡ ‡ ‡
Ehly wove the thread as if in a dream. She was aware of the stool on which she sat, the room in which she worked, but it was distant and drained of color. She was part of something more than physical things. She was amidst the glow of life that filled the hollow places. Streams of shining Light, flowing and receding about her, through her, and into the weave. She nurtured it, crafted it, shaped it into the picture that burned in her mind.
She could also sense the growing Dark, encroaching on her vision from the periphery, like a hint of dusk that threatened night. He was coming. He was coming back for her.
Father. Not as dead as I hoped.
Ehly hadn’t always hated him. Once, long ago, she’d been convinced that there was kindness in him, hidden away somewhere behind his aloof moods and severe expression. She’d thought he must have loved his wife and child, despite his temper and his obsessions. Even despite the beatings.
Ehly thought for certain she could find the bright center of his dark soul. She’d learned so much, come so far. Surely a daughter’s love could warm his cold heart.
She’d known she couldn’t tell Mother. It would have to be her secret. Her special secret. So she’d gathered her finest threads, and she’d found her center, touched the bright heart of the world, and commenced work on the weaving that would change everything.
Once she started, she couldn’t stop. Much like now, once in the grip of her power, she had little choice but to see it through. It consumed her. It propelled her. It lived through her, and she through it.
Her mother had cried when she saw it.
“What’s wrong?” she’d asked. She thought it quite a splendid likeness, and the baby was beautiful and healthy, and a boy, which is what Father had been yelling about for months now. “Don’t you like it?”
Selice had grasped her head in her hands and kissed her forehead, over and over. “It’s lovely,” she’d sobbed. “Lovely. So beautiful. Thank you, my dear sweet Ehlenor.”
The baby had come later that year, and the celebration was remarkable and extravagant. Lord Thrent had indeed been happy, happier than she’d ever seen him, but no less cold to her. The beatings lessened, at least, because his attention was focused solely on Tylar.
Her brother would disappear for time uncounted, brought in by grim-faced guards to nurse with Mother, and then be taken away. He cried for her every time, wailing in protest, his arms reaching out for her embrace.
They could hear Tylar screaming, sometimes. Not crying, but a shriller, more piercing sound. Normally, Mother was very strong, but this sound would send her to the floor, curled into a ball, sobbing. Ehly would stroke her hair as she shook.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” she’d say, as her own tears would come. “I’m so sorry.”
Lord Thrent paid no mind to Tylar for most of his second year. He was immersed in study, and consulting an ever-growing council of robed men who spoke only in whispers. Her mother slept little, spending her days with Tylar and her evenings with her own select array of books. Ehly was thankful that her brother at least had this time to grow and play, free of their father’s designs. She didn’t truly know if she had shaped his birth, or simply seen it in the ripples of the future and shaped its reflection. But either way, she needed the comfort of thinking it was a life lived for more than just pain, however briefly.
The guards started coming for him again in his third year.
Once, in a rage, Ehly had tried to set fire to the tapestry of her mother and Tylar. She knew it had brought this upon them. But Selice had intervened, her eyes wide and full of horror.
“No, my sweet,” she soothed. “You must not. To destroy this could destroy the weave and everything that it helped to shape. To destroy would be simply revenge. But to live…” she said. “That will bring you peace. To live.”
Ehly had crawled into her mother’s lap and cried, hugging her tight.
They heard the screams less and less as the year passed, but the pink glow in Tylar’s cheeks faded. The sparkle in his eyes dimmed. Ehly could still coax him into laughter, and he still had the energy to scramble around the high tower with her on his good days, playing hiders and peekers and filling his head with new words that he’d barely have a chance to use.
It was hard remembering that. Remembering that only brought the rest of it to mind. When his end came, it was bloody, and it nearly ended them all.
It was a moonless night, out of sight of the gods. Neither Illuné’s silver light or the subtle red glow of the Dead Moon lit the quiet hours after twilight. The stillness broke when her father stormed into the room, half-naked, glyphs smeared in blood on his skin. He threw a bundle of blood-soaked cloth at his wife’s feet.
We both knew what it was. Who it had been.
“Weak!” he raged, looming over her. “Your son was too weak!”
He struck her across the face. Her lip split, and she reeled back against the bed. She didn’t cry out. Her eyes met his, matching his hot glare with cold contempt.
“Too strong,” she said, blood seeping from her mouth. “He was too strong for you. That’s why you failed.”
He didn’t speak again after that. He kept hitting her until even the whimpers stopped. He stormed from the room, not noticing Ehly in the bed, hugging the down coverlet.
He rarely noticed me.
They couldn’t bury Tylar, locked in the tower room, so they gave him to the fire the next morning. Her mother had said it would be good for whatever was left of his soul. So she sang him a lullaby. The sad song with the lovely melody and the words Ehly never understood. The flames were hot, and the tears dried on their checks before they could fall.
The guards called Father back when the fire started, but Selice had already crafted a spell of binding for the door, and given over most of her strength in the effort. Father could not break the ward, nor could his coven of old, whispering, robed men.
“I’ll kill you, ” he promised. “But first, I’ll kill your useless mewling cow. And I’ll leave nothing for you to give to your fire.”
Selice pointed to the tapestries, which hung on the wall. She shook her head, smiling, but said not a word.
Her father glanced over them, unconcerned at first. Then he noticed the likeness of his wife and child. His eyes narrowed. He paused next at the portrait of his own demise, and the blood drained from his face.
Lord Thrent looked upon his daughter, and there was anger there, and realization, and fear.
Noticed, at last.
Ehly looked up, blinking away the remembrance. Surprised, in fact, to find that she was sitting on her stool in front of the loom, looking upon her tapestry.
Ehly caressed the fine weave, and she felt the thrum of her mother’s life there in the threads.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
It had been her last gift before the flames burned away Selice’s mortal shell. She’d given her life, and more than just her life, for the crafting of this final piece. For the hope that her daughter might escape the fate of her mother or her brother. The hope that she might be free.
And now, at last, she was free.
Swords rang beyond the door, and she thought of the man with the gold in his eyes. He was marked for death, and perhaps even doom beyond simply the end of his life, but she did not want to give him over to her father.
No, she thought. The Lord Thrent has taken enough lives.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” she said. “But escape is not enough.”
‡ ‡ ‡
Sweat stung Kraye’s eyes.
That was always a bad thing. It meant he was working too hard to win, that he couldn’t afford to wipe it from his brow, and that it could blind him at an inopportune moment and cost him his life.
By contrast, Thrent wasn’t sweating. Or bleeding. Or discomfited in any way by the numerous stabs and slashes that Kraye had carefully executed through the nobleman’s defenses.
Kraye was tiring. His time was running out. There was no room to retreat. Hardt hulked behind him, hoping for chance to join the fray. Koth was working at the door, presumably to find a way through its sealing ward to save his own neck, and quite possibly at the expense of the girl within.
Kraye gritted his teeth. If for no other reason, he needed to delay Thrent long enough to allow the girl a chance to escape by any means she could. But in his heart, he could think of no way out for her. There was no egress from the tower but the one door, and whether it was Koth and Whyr or her father that broke through it first, he guessed a similar and unpleasant fate awaited her.
“Well, you’re winning on points, Kraye,” Monk observed dryly.
Kraye didn’t spare a glance down at the wounded boy, or waste time responding. He conceded the point, however. Even winning this match would not result in victory. If the best he could deliver was a killing blow, and killing wouldn’t stop his foe, what then?
“Balance,” grunted Monk, as if sharing the same thought, and with an abbreviated swing of his sword he took most of Thrent’s left foot off at the ankle. The undying man wobbled.
Kraye bared his teeth in a triumphant grin. His next blow was a forcible push with the flat of his blade. Thrent tumbled down the stair. Kraye followed close behind, alarmed to see the wound Monk had just inflicted already knitting itself back together.
Kraye’s smirk vanished.
I have transcended physical flesh…
Lord Thrent had become something more than mortal. Something of the Dark. A creature of magic and unlife, not held together by bone, sinew and skin alone. Without some form of enchantment, their blades could not kill the undying.
“We’ll have to chop him to bits and bury them!” he yelled, and made ready to swing for the other leg. It would be best to keep him off balance, if they could.
Kraye raised his sword, but stepped back as a wave of heat radiated from the fallen corpse, shimmering in the air.
Thrent made a horrible noise, but it fell short of intelligible speech. Monk’s knife was still embedded in his face, wedged into his jaw. A wisp of smoke curled up from the skin of Thrent’s arms. Then a tendril of flame licked from his fingers up his sword arm.
Thrent began to burn in earnest, then. He made sounds like a scream, crumpling into a heap as the flames burned blue and white, consuming him. Kraye retreated from the heat. Monk scrambled back up the stair on his elbows, and Hardt helped him back to his feet.
They watched as Thrent tried to move away, only to break into several smaller, burning pieces. Soon enough, even those burned to ash. Kraye looked up to find Koth next to the now open door, looking down on the scene as smoke billowed around him from the corpse fire.
Kraye gave him a grudging salute. “Well done.”
Koth shrugged. “He didn’t burn by my hand.”
Koth descended the stairs, brushing past the other mercenaries and waving back the way he’d come. “Have a look.”
Whyr chased after Koth. Hardt sat Monk down to have a look at his wound. Kraye took a deep breath and stepped into the tower cell.
It was as he remembered it: the tapestries, the stool, the loom and the pile of ash. But the weaving of the murdered nobleman with fiery eyes was missing. He found it torn from the wall, burned to shriveled bits of scorched thread.
“Milady?” he ventured, but there was no response.
Kraye twisted the loom toward him. A jolt of fire shot up his arm as the residual iiyir discharged at his touch. The spell had been cast, the life energy spent, but still there was a residue of the enchantment.
Kraye took a moment to appreciate the beautiful work of the tapestry. The doorway looked familiar, like something he’d seen in a storybook once. The detail was astounding. He could almost see the grain in the sable wood, and a vine of green silk wove its way around the frame of the door. It looked nothing short of real.
And Thrent’s daughter stood there, silhouetted in a field of warm light, turning her head back to him with a smile.
Kraye smiled back.
Perhaps the only thing that held more promise than an open door was a young girl walking through it.