Authors: Fiona McIntosh
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy
For Monnica and Fred Richards, my parents and close friends
The tendons on Themesius’s neck stood out like stakes as he strained in a silent scream. He was bearing the brunt of the attack. Figgis, so fiercely unyielding all of these long years, had finally weakened. The cracks in his mental armour were widening rapidly.
Pitching their wit and their magics together, the original ten-strong Paladin had held for centuries. Gradually, though, time and their prisoner’s inexhaustible power had worn down their unified strength. He worked on them constantly, sometimes as a group, mostly on individuals.
Kyt Cyrus had fallen initially and would for ever be known as the First. The Second was Cloot of Rork’yel and the Third, Solyana, magical beast, succumbed soon after. There was a long wait for the Fourth but fall she did: Juno the Esian. Adongo of the
Moruks was Fifth, followed by Saxon the Kloek, Sixth. The minstrel, Sallementro, was Seventh, and later Arabella the Priestess was Eighth of the Paladin to capitulate.
Only Figgis the Rock Dweller and Themesius of the Giants still held, although Figgis knew his time had almost come. Somehow these two pushed back against the god’s relentless whisperings, the wave after wave of astounding power which crowded their minds and battered at their resolve.
Themesius roared as he fought the monster.
Orlac laughed. ‘Such spirit, Themesius. I must work harder on you.’ He turned to Figgis. ‘You had better rest now, my short friend, for soon we shall lock our minds again and then, I fear, I may see your end.’
Nanak, Keeper of the Paladin, watched in bitter silence as his brave warriors rested, their tortured expressions slowly relaxing. He could see the toll this ancient battle was taking. It would not be long now: Figgis would fall, but bravely. Nanak’s only comfort was an ever-increasing belief in Merkhud’s assurance that these courageous friends would re-emerge to fight again. Merkhud had told him that their spirits fled to the Heartwood where they were restored amongst the living to prepare to fight the next battle. Themesius, bedrock of the Paladin, would succumb last and bear the final humiliation of Orlac’s victory; of this Nanak was certain. If only the Giant could maintain his strength long enough to give them the time they desperately needed.
Hold, my brave Paladin
, he gently passed through their minds.
The Trinity will come. You are its torchbearers. Buy us the time we need.
But both were too lost in their despair to respond. Nanak understood. He too yearned for the moment of release, when the Custodian would relieve him of this formidable task.
The silence was shattered by Orlac’s manic giggle. The god was staring at him now. Those strange, piercing violet eyes penetrated his own ancient and bewitched soul. Nanak shivered and closed his eyes, shutting out the vision of Orlac whilst he awaited the next attack. He must trust Lys. She would guide them through this and bring about Orlac’s destruction.
There were brief moments when Nanak felt a flash of sorrow for Orlac. Prince of the gods, revered son of the Host, stolen from his birthright and forced to live a mortal life. A tragic character. Nevertheless, Nanak hated him. He lived for the time when retribution would be visited on Orlac on behalf of the suffering souls of the Paladin.
Lys had promised salvation. She was the Custodian. He would obey her.
He sensed Themesius and Figgis stiffen and the barriers were thrown up in their minds again in a blink. Orlac was on his feet, dancing madly, rejuvenated. The fight to the death had begun again and Orlac was enjoying himself.
He was not alone.
Watching silently was the god Dorgryl. Excommunicated from the Host and thrown into the
Bleak to ponder his sin for eternity, he had watched this battle for centuries, invisible to all, and had celebrated every one of Orlac’s victories.
If he had arms, he would have hugged himself on this day. He could sense Orlac’s coming release. A release which the mighty god Dorgryl would turn into his own personal triumph.
‘The anointing syringe!’ bellowed the midwife. ‘We should save the soul of the stubborn wretch before we leave them both to die.’
Alyssa Qyn stepped back in disbelief as one of the assistants hurried to hand the imperious midwife the strange contraption. She looked towards the greyfaced woman slumped on the birthing stool. Sweat dribbled through her lank hair and her expression was a combination of exhaustion and untold sorrow. She was too spent even to understand the heartless decision being made for her. Midwives only called for the anointing syringe when they believed the child would perish; it was a means of symbolically cleansing the babe prior to its death.
Alyssa felt an old grief grip her; she was still vulnerable to those hurts coming back to haunt her.
Jayn Elkin was a decent woman; wife to one of the courtiers, kind to everyone, gentle of voice and with an equally soft smile for all who passed before her eyes. She did not deserve to die like this, with her child ready to be born and she herself too weak to bear it.
Snatching the contraption, the midwife pushed one end into the now still mother. Depressing the plunger at the other end, she squirted water onto the head of the child.
Except it is not the head, Alyssa wanted to scream. Even her unpractised eye could tell as much. The midwife carelessly offered some rote words of blessing before withdrawing the syringe, throwing Jayn Elkin’s skirts down and standing to stretch her own back.
‘Clean her up,’ she said to Alyssa. ‘She’s going to her gods now.’ Her task apparently complete, the woman swept importantly out of the chamber with her wide-eyed assistant trailing behind.
It was a cruel scene but it was not out of the ordinary.
Alyssa recalled her own labour. It was a blurred memory; she had been robbed of the actual birth. Perhaps the pain had bludgeoned her into a stupor? She had never understood how it had happened; how could she have been unconscious and still deliver a child?
And yet during that period of unconsciousness, her son had been delivered by Arabella the priestess and had died in his father’s arms in the Heartwood barely moments later. He had cried his first and last breath without a mother to soothe him and been
buried in a shallow grave of forest foliage with no ceremony. Cruel, indeed.
Harrowing though that picture was in Alyssa’s mind, it was the father’s memory she dreaded most whenever the haunting came. Torkyn Gynt’s handsome face, smashed and bleeding from the execution stones. His beautiful blue eyes no longer bright, but dull; unseeing. His bloodied corpse hanging limp from the cross. Many had gathered to touch his feet, to pay their final respects to a man whom the city of Tal had loved.
When Alyssa was sure Tor was dead, she had deliberately turned to look upon his murderer: King Lorys. She had sworn then that she would always look upon that sad, haunted face with hate. And that would never change, for as much as she loved his Queen, she despised the sovereign. He could have averted the execution with a simple command. But he had chosen not to and she had never understood why. Tor, after all, had been a cherished friend to the royals as well as being their healer.
That winter, four years ago, had been a traumatic time. Except for Saxon, all those she had known and loved had disappeared, including Cloot, Tor’s loyal guardian. Where had the falcon gone after Tor’s death? And what had happened to Royal Physic Merkhud? She had seen him momentarily in the stairwell as she was being escorted back to the holding chamber after Tor’s execution. The old man had acted so very strangely that even the guards had commented on his behaviour. She knew Merkhud
had taken Tor’s body to its final resting place but no one had ever told her where that was. She had wished so many times since that she had asked the physic of its location. And now he too was gone. His few awkwardly spoken words had told her to watch out for Sallementro; that he was a friend. How could the old man have known this?
come into her life a few weeks later but he claimed never to have known Merkhud. And Merkhud had followed his words by blowing her a kiss. What had it meant? There had never been any love lost between the two of them. She had despised him and he knew it. She had always blamed him for stealing Tor from her in the first place. What could the old man have been thinking of to show such a public act of affection?
Alyssa heard a whimper from behind her. It was only then that she remembered Jayn Elkin’s serving girl was trembling in the shadows.
‘Is she going to die?’ The girl’s voice sounded shaky.
Alyssa expected no less but she tried to sound confident. ‘Not if we can help it. Make her comfortable, then go and fetch Sallementro as fast as you can.’
Whilst Elsa laid moist folded linens on Jayn Elkin’s brow, Alyssa scrubbed her own hands clean. It was something she noticed none of the midwives did. She had learned this from Sorrel. ‘Clean hands do not carry disease,’ she had often told Alyssa.
She pushed thoughts of Sorrel away. She had never
heard from the old girl again. They had shared and overcome such harrowing events together and it was just another blade in Alyssa’s heart that her great friend had deserted her in the Heartwood after the death of her son. Perhaps she too was dead.
Jayn Elkin’s eyes flew open as the pain of a vicious contraction gripped her. She screamed weakly. Alyssa heard the door bang as the girl fled to find Sallementro. She took a deep breath and lifted the woman’s skirts once more. What she was about to attempt scared her. She was going to test Sorrel’s suggestion that a trapped baby simply needed to be turned gently.
Alyssa was perspiring, nervous at what she was about to try. She whispered comforting words to Jayn, pushed her own sleeves up and, after oiling her hand, began an examination.
Some time later, when Elsa burst through the door with news of Sallementro’s arrival, Alyssa was alarmed the minstrel may follow the girl in.
‘Not in here!’ she admonished. She walked to the door. ‘Sallementro, please play for Lady Elkin outside the window. She loves your music almost as much as I do. It will help her.’
‘I shall sing “My Lady, My Love”,’ he said, ‘for both of you.’
Alyssa touched his arm in thanks and closed the door on him swiftly.
‘How is she?’ Elsa asked, tiptoeing over.
‘She is between contractions. They have begun again properly.’ Alyssa could not keep the excitement from her own voice.
The baby had been turned almost effortlessly and she was sure now that the child was lying in the birthing position. Perhaps she could allow herself to hope.
Many a babe, she had heard, had been pulled feet first into the world by aggressive midwives. She had seen the evidence of this harsh treatment in the deformed limbs of children around the city. None in the midwives’ guild would admit to such a thing, of course, but then being born with contorted limbs was probably preferable to being murdered, she decided. It was whispered that a baby which simply would not come, and threatened the life of someone more important than a mere courtier’s wife, would be killed to save the mother. Alyssa had heard terrible tales of midwives attempting surgical procedures to retrieve a dead child or, worse, killing it in the mother’s belly and dragging it out, piece by gruesome piece. Luckily Jayn Elkin was not important enough to warrant such trouble.
Sallementro’s lovely voice filtered through the open window. He had chosen Alyssa’s favourite ballad. It was the song he had written for her when he first laid eyes on her as she stood on that balcony preparing to watch her lover die.
No one present at the execution, save Saxon and Cloot, had known that she and Tor were husband and wife. And Alyssa had never cared to enlighten her captors. What did it matter now anyway? Tor was dead. Her son was dead. There was nothing to do but kill herself or accept this new life amongst the palace servants. The problem was, when she asked herself the hard question of why she forced herself to
struggle through each day, she could never come up with an answer.
Saxon and Sallementro insisted they would never give up hope. Alyssa had been surprised to learn that Sallementro was of the Paladin, but the knowledge had been blurred by Tor’s death. Without Tor, surely there could be no Trinity? Even though none of them knew what form the elusive Trinity might take, it seemed obvious that Tor was the critical figure.
If only she had kept her books, the Writings of Nanak. Alyssa had never got the chance to read the second book but felt sure it would have provided the most important revelations in the story of Orlac. Lys had told Tor that the vengeful god would return to Tallinor to finish what he had begun.
Sitting here now, listening to Sallementro singing and seeing Jayn Elkin grimace with another contraction, it seemed just that—a story. But when Alyssa had read Nanak’s words, they had chilled her and she knew she had been reading the truth. Now those books were as lost to her as Tor, Sorrel and her friends from the Heartwood.
As for Lys, she too had disappeared from their lives. Not that she had ever visited Alyssa. Which was strange, was it not? Lys had appeared to everyone else connected to this strange quest.
She shook her head clear of thoughts which had troubled her for so long. The search for the Trinity was over. Without Tor, what was the point?
Jayn’s contractions were becoming harder, faster; the woman had begun to bear down.
‘Fetch the midwife, Elsa,’ Alyssa commanded. ‘She’s probably filling her ugly mouth in the kitchens. We don’t know what we’re doing and your mistress is about to give birth.’
Thankfully it was not long before the midwife blustered back into the room and was pushing Alyssa aside. It was almost as though the woman had to see it for herself to believe it. Alyssa felt sure she was not back in this room out of compassion, merely inquisitiveness—or was it for mercenary reasons?
She cautiously offered what she knew. ‘She is ready to push, ma’am, but she is weak.’
The woman’s mouth twitched a grim smile. ‘I had this one down for cooling already in her chambers. Oh well, the fee for a live birth pays me more handsomely. Let’s set to.’
As Jayn Elkin pushed her wailing infant into the world, the sight of a gleeful Chief Inquisitor Goth kicking at the forest debris which covered her own dead son flashed into Alyssa’s mind.
She felt Elsa tugging at her shoulder, dragging her back to the present once again, her own tears flowing freely. Alyssa glanced at the tiny bundle being passed to Jayn Elkin.
‘A son,’ Elsa said. ‘My lord must be told. He will be the happiest man in the castle tonight.’ She turned so that no one else could hear. ‘Because of you.’
‘Hurry and do your duty,’ Alyssa said. She needed no one to know of her interference.
Whilst Alyssa Qyn was turning a trapped child in its mother’s womb, the King and Queen were preparing for their early morning ride.
As her stableman checked her stirrups, Nyria straightened her back and breathed in the crisp autumn morning. Ah, how she loved this season. She imagined galloping across the frosty turf of the open moors behind Tal, calling a challenge to Lorys that he would never catch her on Freycin. He always gave chase, roaring his response to her bait, but then she knew he also always let her win…and she loved him for it.
Nyria’s thoughts were pierced by a shrill cry. She looked over towards the palace gates and noticed a scrawny child being led by one of the guards. The little boy was struggling as the man pulled him along.
She asked a nearby guard what the commotion was about.
He bowed. ‘Your highness, the child was tied to the palace gates during the night. We discovered him only during the change an hour ago.’
‘But he must be frozen,’ said the Queen, staring back at the child and his large companion.
‘We gave him a warm ale and some gruel. Prime Herek has ordered him to be returned.’
‘To whom?’ she demanded.
The man shrugged, then checked himself and quickly turned his gesture into words. ‘Prime Herek told Orgo,’ he pointed to the retreating guard, ‘to take the lad into the city and ask around.’
Nyria pulled her right leg from its stirrup. She had always impressed the King’s Guard by how she rode like a man.
‘Oh, that’s ridiculous. Stop him immediately!’ she commanded.
King Lorys, who had been consulting with the two riders accompanying them, looked over, confused to see Nyria dismounting.
‘Now what?’ he said and guided his horse to where his wife stood, purse-lipped, her riding crop slapping at her thigh.
She shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Lorys. Go on without me.’
She explained quickly. The King sighed. ‘Why must you take in every waif, Nyria? Every child in Tal is not your responsibility. What will you do with him?’
‘I don’t know, Lorys, but you can’t just hawk a child around the city until you find someone who may know him. It could take days.’
The King stared into her pale eyes. He knew he could not win this one. When it came to children, Nyria was as soft as butter. Not having one of her own meant she lavished her affection on every child she came into contact with. He pulled gently on the reins to head his dark stallion out of the courtyard.
‘I might ride out a bit further then.’
‘Thank you, Lorys.’
She meant it and showed it by squeezing his gloved hand as they heard Orgo and the child returning. The King departed.
Orgo bowed stiffly. He was not used to such close proximity with the Queen. He cuffed the child on the head to do the same. Nyria kept her polite smile fixed, though she would have liked to tell Orgo what she thought of his gruffness. She was glad to see Prime Herek striding towards them. She liked Herek. He lacked the previous Prime’s charm and dash, but then the boots of Kyt Cyrus would be hard for any man to fill. She often wondered about his curious disappearance.
Herek was bowing. ‘Queen Nyria, may I help?’
‘Yes, thank you, Herek. I’m told this child was tied to the palace gates last night and I wish to know more.’
Before Herek or Orgo could speak, the tall Queen had bent low and was eye-to-eye with the tear-stained face of the boy. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ she said, loosing his elbow from Orgo’s grip.