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Chapter Two

O Stallion of the storm,
Let my spear fly true,
May our fields be bountiful,
And our dreams full of joy.

And sharpen our eyes, we pray,
When evil wears your face.

—Skyhorse invocation, trans. Antil Fehris

The shipyards were dead but not deserted. As Nerek crept sword in hand past ramshackle sheds and the leaning, mildewed skeletons of half-built keels, she knew she was being watched. The occasional glimpse of a hastily withdrawn head or leg and the faint scrape of a foot told her there was one, maybe two spying on her.

That, however, seemed to be all they were doing as she made a slow way along pathways cluttered with broken timbers and empty crated lying in frozen puddles. She saw no rats but encountered a grey cat sitting at the end of a jutting plank, watching her pass with an unwavering stare. Moving away from the riverbank in search of an easier path, she came to a corner of a long hut and, nearing one of its corners, almost walked into her three pursuers. They were standing with their backs to her, swords drawn. Quickly and as quietly as possible, she stepped back out of sight and ducked into a low open door in the hut.

The darkness was total, the icy air dank with decay. She kept still, listening as their footsteps drew near.

“...don’t want you pair splitting up, hear? You’re t' move through the yards t'gether, watching for that witch - ”

“Why don’t we go up ahead, Tavo, 'n' get some of the other lads - ”

There was the sound of blow and a stifled cry.

“We don’t have time, pigfool. We have to stop her getting t' the coronation. So yell do what you’re told and I’ll be up on that bluff, looking down till she shows herself.”

“'m sorry, Tavo. Keep 'membering how Olber went and got 'is chest burned out. Horrible it was…”

“Well, don’t remember and don’t think. Just do what I said, and while you’re moving along, keep looking up t' me…”

There were murmurs of assent, the sound of footsteps receding. Nerek relaxed a little, letting tension ease in her neck and back, but her thoughts were in a spin. We have to stop her getting to the coronation? She had been invited to the ceremony as a private citizen, not to carry out any official role. Yet these brigands wanted her kept away from it, for some dark reason. She would have to get to the Five Kings dock and find out the truth, but without any powers how could she win past these hunters? How much luck was left to her?

Luck is a weapon without hilt or edge, child

Nerek froze. The words were quietly spoken in an old woman’s voice from close by yet she could not tell the direction.

Best to employ other sure means - subterfuge and stealth are more useful.

As she turned her head this way and that the voice remained unchanged, and she understood. It was mindspeech that she was hearing.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

A windblown leaf, an empty cave, a forgotten song am I. You may call me Blind Rina. Now, child, look to your left.

Doing so, Nerek saw a vertical crack of dim light appear and widen to reveal a small, indistinct figure who silently beckoned. Her wider senses told her little about this person, but there were no undercurrents of threat so she crossed the hut, half-frozen mud crunching underfoot, and squeezed through the gap. Now she was in a long, narrow space between two sheds, well-sheltered from the snow. Her new companion was a small girl with long, tangled hair, muddy clothing and a serious expression.

The girl put out her hand. Uncertain, Nerek did the same and solemnly they shook hands.

“You don’t seem blind to me,” Nerek said.

Her name is Peki, and she is my eyes. You can trust her - she will lead you to safety.

“I need a boat,” Nerek said.

That can be arranged.

Peki gave a sharp nod, brought a finger up to her lips then hurried away along the narrow passage, with Nerek close on her heels.

It was a dark and twisting route they followed, sometimes crouching, sometimes dashing across open areas, and sometimes creeping to a halt in the shadows when her two pursuers came close. They were clambering across the decaying clutter of a half-collapsed sawmill when Blind Rina said;

You are unable to draw on the Wellsource, is that so?

Nerek felt a prickle of suspicion. “For the time being.”

Fear not, child, I intend neither malice nor treachery. After all, one can achieve little enough with the Lesser Power.

“I know nothing of the Lesser Power,” Nerek muttered.

Hmmm. I’m surprised that Bardow has not remedied that for you, considering all the help you have rendered him….oh, what Peki does not see for me in this city I can usually sense in other ways….

At length, Peki brought her within sight of a wide, sturdy building just yards from the river. A tangle of old spars, torn sailcloth and bushy foliage concealed their approach (Nerek had already realised that most of the debris which masked their progress had been artfully placed for maximum effect), and a toppled wagon shielded the side door by which they entered.

Inside, a gloomy corridor ran straight to a door on the other side with offices, storerooms and living quarters to left and right, all dark and deserted. Half way along it Peki paused to listen at a large door for a moment, then tugged it open. Beyond was a walkway overlooking two pairs of cradles where large boats had once rested, and Nerek followed the little girl along to a set of downward steps, Blind Rina spoke in her thoughts.

Once, river yawls were berthed here, ready to offer aid, to shuttle passengers and prisoners from ship to shore, and even to save lives. Now there is only the rot and stink of neglect. But we managed to hold on to a few treasures.

Peki had vanished into the shadows beneath the walkway, and now reappeared dragging something long and narrow, an open canoe with its paddle loose in the bottom.

Now you must hurry. Those hunters are drawing near to this place, so you must pick up this little craft and run down to the water’s edge. Now - go now!

The urgency of Blind Rina’s words stung her into action, and she lifted the canoe with both hands. There was only time to see the girl Peki, face still intently serious, give a little wave goodbye before she rushed forward out of the boathouse. Voices shouted from along the riverbank but she kept running.

Ignore them. Get the boat in the water, climb in and start paddling. Don’t worry if you hear them following you - just concentrate on quickly getting away from the bank.

Nerek splashed the canoe down and almost leaped in. Then she began to paddle with furious energy, alternating the strokes from one side to the other. There were curses behind her and the sloshing sound of feet trying to run in the shallows, so close she expected to feel a sword point enter her back at any moment.

Then the curses turned to startled cries then to shrieks of pain. Still paddling she risked a backward glance and saw two figures flailing in waist-deep water which was rippling all around with small shapes. One of them stumbled and plunged under the surface which suddenly boiled with activity, while the other began wading back to the riverbank.

Ripperfins… the ever-hungry, but most dangerous in winter

Blind Rina sounded weary, distant. The escaping man almost made dry land before slumping face down in the shallows which were churned into bloody froth by the swarming predators. Meanwhile, up on the bluff overlooking the yards, a solitary figure turned and dashed out of sight back into the empty quarter.

When next you speak with Bardow, child, ask him about the Lesser Power

Nerek watched the frenzied feeding with cold satisfaction, then nodded and resumed paddling.

* * *

Alael shivered and drew her fur-collared cloak tighter as she and her four-man escort followed busy Spinneret Street down to the quayside. The snow had stopped falling but a cold breeze was coming in off the river, nipping ears and noses and bringing a briny sharpness to the air. All around her as she walked Alael saw the poor and down-at-heel of Besh-Darok, their clothes threadbare or patched, their faces made gaunt by hunger and privation. They in turn observed her with sideways glances that held neither adoration nor fear - since the battle, innumerable tales about her and the Earthmother had percolated throughout the city, growing more fabulous with each retelling, regardless of her own patient denials.

On a broad, first-floor balcony some way along Spinneret Street a troupe of choriants from one of the city’s academies was singing plainsongs in Old High Mantinoru. Alael understood less than one word in ten but the interweaving voices had a rich, haunting beauty which stirred in her recollections of childhood. Then, near the end of the street, a pair of minstrels with strange, triple-mouthed pipes played an odd, disjointed jig which sounded almost unsettling against the faint voices of the choriants.

Alael and her guards turned with the chattering crowd onto the long, wide quay known as Goldbarrel Wharf, only to find the distance obscured by a staggered series of huge banners hanging from the warehouses' flagpoles. The first one, a long, rose-bordered stretch of blue material, was adorned with the tree-and-bell arms of Besh-Darok itself stitched in gold and silver silk. Others, in shades of green, blue and yellow, bore the devices of Khatrisian noble houses, major and minor, as well as the sigils of guilds and merchant families, with the style of decoration varying from the simple and austere to the riotously intricate. As she walked past the banners Alael brightly-coloured kites swaying and bobbing in the air near the quayside, their lines held by people in small boats out on the river. And over the hubbub of the streaming crowd she could just hear the continuous sound of drums coming from the direction of the Five Kings Dock, like far-off thunder.

While following the crowd’s winding course along the quayside, Alael caught sight of a small procession coming the other way. Attendants in pale robes and carrying unwieldy standards walked at a steady pace ahead of a strange, horse-drawn carriage on top of which several people stood, holding on to a wooden rail. Other attendants hurried before the bearers to clear the way or push aside the great hanging banners to allow the carriage through unobstructed, and as they drew nearer Alael suddenly recognise the symbol on the standards and one of those riding on the carriage, a man whose right arm was of gleaming metal.

Surprising her escort, Alael moved quickly away from the quay edge, seeking concealment among the crowd and behind the great banners. Her last encounter with Tauric had been hurtful for both of them when she ended their nascent relationship and turned down his desperate offer of marriage, all the time keeping her reasons to herself. For the Earthmother had come to her in a brief, dark dream full of leaves and coiling vines and warned of ‘sullying your bloom with barren seed’. Of more importance, however, had been her realisation of Tauric’s lack of maturity: he really was little more than a boy forced to shoulder a monarch’s burden, with neither natural aptitude nor useful experience to draw on. Ikarno Mazaret, the one man who might have been a good mentor to him, was off pursuing brigands in the wastes of Khatris, and while Mazaret and Yasgur had appointed advisors with the aim of fending off the worst flatterers and schemers, that meant that only the weak and the very cunning could enter the courtly circle, a risky combination.

And now it seemed that her evasive ploy had come to nothing when one of the robed attendants emerged from behind the next banner, approached and bowed.

“Sincerest greetings to the Lady Alael and her retinue. His Imperial Highness is soon to embark upon the next stage of the Low Coronation, and asks if you would care to grace the moment with your presence?”

Her first, quickly suppressed urge was to run. For all that nearly three weeks had passed since their last encounter, the last thing she wanted was an embarrassing attempt to impress her before his court followers. Yet refusal might stir up unwanted antagonism between the Hunters Children and Tauric’s supporters, something that the city could well do without.

“I am honoured by his Imperial Highness' invitation,” she said evenly. “Kindly take us to him.”

The attendant bowed again. As he did so his robe fell open at the neck and a small pendant swung into view. He deftly tucked it away as he straightened but Alael had already seen that it was a bronze amulet in the shape of a horse. Then he turned to lead her and her guards through the crowd.

The carriage had turned off the quay and along a short stone pier where an oar-driven barge was docked. At the end of the pier was a small bell-and-beacon tower, by which the carriage came to a halt. Several people stepped down, except for Tauric who turned to watch Alael as she came to within a few feet of the carriage where she stopped and curtseyed, her face carefully composed. He was wearing dun-coloured riders' breeks and a close-fitting, dark brown doublet with the tree-and-crown device embroidered over the heart and black brocade at the cuffs and the collar, which was open to the third button. And at this distance, she could also tell that there was someone else on the small platform behind him, a woman in a green gown and pale rose mantle who stood facing away.

“It gladdens my heart to see you once more, my Lady,” Tauric said. “Please - come up and see my barge-throne.”

Alael breathed in deep to steady her nerves, indicated to her guards to remain where they were, then climbed the little wood and iron stairway which had been let down. Tauric smiled openly as she stepped up to meet him, and suspicions about his companion began to loom in her thoughts. Was this an adoring sycophant or some other creature of the court whose acquisition he imagined might make her remorseful?

How sad, she thought acidly. He will be disappointed. Then she said:

“His Highness is most generous to extend his invitation.”

A slightly puzzled frown creased Tauric’s features at her cool formality, but still he pointed down to the vessel tied up at the pier. “There it is, the craft of my coronation. Somewhat gaudy, I feel.”

Alael frowned a little, and smiled privately. From the palace officials she knew that when the bells began ringing along the river, Tauric would embark on the short journey to the Earthmother temple on the opposite bank. There he would present the Abbess with a carved agathon spear, and she in turn would give him the Flower Crown. Re-embarking, he would then return across the river to Five Kings Dock, where the coronation itself could then proceed.

The ceremonial barge itself was a large, wide boat with a single tier of oars, blue-canopied sterncastle and a raised dais amidships. The barge was adorned with strings of fluttering pennants, small gilt crests and carved figurines, all in stark contrast to the object which lay at its focus. On the dais was a curved, egg-like cage of heavy black iron, within which was a simple, high-backed torwood chair.

“The same barge my … father sat in for his coronation,” Tauric said thoughtfully.

“Oh, but Taurici, there’s no covering!” said his female companion. “What happens if it starts to snow again?”

“Then I shall just have to endure the cold, my sweet.” Tauric took her left hand in his metal right, and glanced at Alael. “Now, I want you to meet a dear friend of mine, the Lady Alael tor-Coulabric. Alael, this is Mila, youngest daughter of the Margrave of Brankenvale.”

Alael was already resting one hand on the platform’s wooden railing, but when the woman turned round it suddenly became her only anchor, for looking at the Margrave’s daughter was like looking into a mirror.

Somehow she maintained her façade of mannerly calm, said some bland words of greeting then directed her scrutiny at Tauric, expecting to see evidence of malicious intent. But in his stance, his expression and gesture she saw nothing but affection for this Mila who had laid a small, pale hand on the shining steel surface of his arm. Couldn’t he see the resemblance? she thought. The narrow features, the long, straight golden hair, the slender build….was he really that oblivious?

Tauric’s other companions were boarding the barge, among them members of his White Company, the personal guard founded by several idealistic young men after the Battle of Oumetra. Each was garbed in a white tabard bearing the tree-and-crown, and as she looked closer she could see that each also wore a steel gauntlet on his shield arm. This, together with the appearance of the woman Mila, sent a quiver of unease through her. The Margrave’s daughter watched her with nervous eyes and was about to say something when Tauric made a hushing gesture and, smiling, cupped his real hand at his ear.

Still the distant drums pounded from Five Kings Dock, a low insistent undertone to the hubbub of the passing crowd, except that now Alael could hear a faint chime of bells coming from upriver and growing louder. Then the bell on the pier sounded and as she looked up at the tower she saw someone flinging handfuls of petals into the air, a fragrant, many-coloured shower. A joyous cheer went up from the barge in response.

“That is the signal for me to depart, Alael,” said Tauric. “Will you be attending the final ceremony?”

“Indeed I shall, your Highness.”

“Good, then perhaps….” He faltered for a moment then gave a sad smile. “Till later.”

With Mila on his arm, he descended from the carriage and strode across the gangway to his barge. Alael watched him go, thinking - Just a boy, he’s just a boy, but her conviction seemed confused by regret and doubt.

As the couple stepped down onto the deck, the Margrave’s daughter glanced back at Alael with a look of unconcealed triumph. Alael was suddenly aware of her prominence alone on the carriage and went over to the little stairway. By the time she was back with her guards, Tauric was but a dim form seated within the iron cage, being borne slowly away across the water.

* * *

After nearly colliding with a street-seller’s cart for the third time, Gilly decided that the streets were just too busy for an urgent horse ride. He dismounted in front of a coaching inn called the Shaft-and-Shield and thrust the reins into the hands of a surprised stable lad, saying:

“See she gets fed and watered, and a good rub down too, mind! My name’s Cordale - “ He flipped a silver halfpiece to the boy, “ - and there’ll be another of those for your master after the coronation.”

Then he dashed off through the crowd in the direction he last saw Yarram and his men take, themselves likewise on foot.

It had been only a short while since spotting Yarram’s galloping approach after that unsettling meeting with Atroc. Despite hurrying down from the battlements, Gilly was too late to catch Yarram’s party who, after a brief exchange with the chief ostler concerning the whereabouts of Yasgur, had then taken fresh horses and ridden off towards the docks. Gilly had then faced an argument with the chief ostler before a saddled horse was brought forth and he could begin his pursuit.

Now, as he ducked and swerved through the crowds, craning his neck to stare along snow-whitened side streets and wynds, his frustration grew by the minute. Whatever the nature of Yarram’s news, it was sufficiently grave for him to go directly to Yasgur at Five Kings Dock, an act which set Gilly’s instincts quivering with dread.

Then he turned a corner to find the way completely blocked by a tight press of townsfolk cheering and clapping along to a troupe of bellwhistlers and jugglers. It was a narrow street with high-walled houses either side and an archway supporting an overhead bridge, full of people standing belly to back.

“Come on, Cordale,” he muttered to himself. “Think!”

Then he snapped his fingers and looked up at the bridge.

This district of Besh-Darok, known as Highcliffe, had been built on and around rocky spurs of the hill which dominated the southeast of the city. Over the centuries houses, businesses and temples had been hewn from the rock faces while more exclusive residences occupied the higher ground. Bridges spanned the fissures and crevices and passages and stairways had been carved throughout the spurs. Gilly recalled a road which ran the length of Highcliffe District, passing over several bridges before reaching the small park which lay in front of Five Kings Dock. It was sure to be a quieter route than this, and who could tell? - he might even reach the docks before Yarram.

Nearby was a long, winding set of steps called the Envadine Stairs. As Gilly ascended them two and a time he picked up a tail of small boys, chanting and laughing as they pattered along after him. When he paused some way up to catch his breath, they hung back a little, calling out beggar jests.

“You must be fair warm b’now, milor’. Sure y’need that cloak?”

“An' that jerkin - must be right hot for ye - ”

“ - them shoes’ll be pinchin’ ‘im, ‘an ‘all -”

“What about some cups and berries, milor’, cups and berries?…”

He grinned. The copper half-wen was the lowest value coin of the realm and had an overflowing goblet stamped on its obverse: the wen bore the image of a cluster of berries. But he knew for a fact that all his pouch held was a regal and a few silvers. He faced his followers and tried to look menacing.

“Do your mothers know you’re still out...talking to dangerous strangers?!”

“Ah, she does, milor', she does.”

“Mine says I’m dangerous enough on me own - ”

“ - only when ye need a bath, ye mucker…”

Gilly shook his head. I’d be as well trying to scare off a wolf with a carrot.

While his juvenile retinue were arguing over who smelled the worst, he decided to resume his climb and dashed up the stairs three at a time. With high-pitched cries rising behind him, he ducked along the first turning he came to, a cobbled street which curved up a steep incline, then slipped down a narrow, dim alley which brought him to an unexpectedly wide and ornate set of stone steps. Whistling a jaunty tune, he sauntered up them and emerged some minutes later on Allutra Parade, the tree-lined thoroughfare which ran the length of Highcliffe.

To his right were a number of large houses in their grounds, their boundaries set by fence or wall, their well-kept gardens laid to winter sleep beneath unbroken mantles of snow. He curled his lip in contempt as he hastened past - there was no evidence here of the deprivations suffered by ordinary folk since the invasion, no signs of impoverishment or self denial. To his left, beyond the gazebos and arbours, the view looked across the artisan district and the abandoned shipyards to the wide, flat expanse of the Olodar River. The river chimes had sounded while he was ahorse so Tauric was probably at the Earthmother temple at Wybank by now, receiving the Flower Crown.

Better you than me, laddie, he thought.

By the time Gilly crossed the third bridge near the end of Allutra Parade, the buildings had become higher and closer and consisted more of ordinary dwelling houses and businesses. Some side roads led further uphill, through the leafy affluence of Highcliffe, while others led off to join the rickety walkways which ran above some of the lower wynds. This part of the artisan district was devoted to textiles and in the icy cold steam from the dye-houses veiled the air with great white plumes and clouds. Outline and details were blurred or completely hidden and to Gilly’s eyes the wynds seemed mysterious and deserted. Then out of the fumey haze, on a catwalk running parallel to Allutra Parade, a slender female figure appeared, hurrying along in the direction of the docks. Frowning, Gilly slowed to an amble while staring intently across.


That purposeful stride was the same, as was the cropped hair...then the woman was gone, engulfed by a billow of steam. Gilly shrugged and was about to pick up the pace again when another figure came into view, a man holding a sword and clearly stalking the woman who had passed before. Suddenly, Gilly was sure that she had been Nerek.

He turned and ran pell-mell back along the avenue a short way to a side-alley which led down to the lower district. His rapid footsteps splashed in melted snow and mud then thudded on wood as he charged across a quivering gantry to the catwalk Nerek had been on just moments before. Skidding on icy planks, he slewed round the corner and rushed through damp clouds of steam.

Small decorated banners bearing the names of shops and their craftsmen hung limply on lines strung across the narrow street. Droplets of condensed moisture beaded the wooden handrails of the gantries, and water dripped quietly to the street below. Boards creaked underfoot as Gilly trotted along, sword in hand, senses alert. The overcast daylight was smothered in the chill haze between these buildings and the middle distance was utterly shrouded. Then a sharp gleam penetrated the pale gloom, a hard white radiance coming from the walkway on the other side of the street. There was a choked cry, a woman’s voice, and he was running again towards the crossing gantry.

But there were others running the same way directly opposite, small forms heading straight for what Gilly could now see were two figure struggling in a doorway. Coming up fast he could also see that the newcomers were children, mostly young boys it seemed, and a suspicion formed in his mind. But it was forgotten as they closed on the man who had his hand around Nerek’s throat … while bright, wavering tendrils of power joined his eyes to hers.

There was the flicking sound of a loosed sling and Nerek’s attacker let out a cry of anger, turned to confront the boys and was enveloped by a small net. But he ignore it and struck the nearest boy a wild, backhand blow that sent him flying backwards into the handrail, which gave way. The boy screamed as he fell through, arms flailing, but managed to catch hold of the gantry edge. Gilly swore, passed his sword to his other hand, tugged a short throwing dagger from its waist sheath and hurled it. He had aimed at the throat but the man turned suddenly to drag an insensible Nerek to her feet, and the dagger punched into his shoulder.

The man grunted, let go of Nerek and threw himself sideways. Rolling to a crouch, he glanced back at Gilly who was rushing up with sword at the ready. A pitiless, cold look then the man leaped up and darted out of sight along a steam-fogged alley. Gilly’s instinct was to go after him, but a thin cry for help brought him back to the broken railing. He sheathed his blade then reached down and pulled the young boy up to safety. The next thing he knew, the boy had scrambled to his feet and was dashing off into the pale haze. Of the other boys there was no sign.

“Hey!” Gilly cried. “How about some gratitude, you little wretch?”

For a moment there was silence, then a boy’s voice called out:

“Blind Rina thanks you…”

“Now who….” Gilly began, then a racking cough came from nearby. “Nerek!”

She was sprawled in the doorway of a candle makers, trying to get to her feet. He bent to help her.

“In the Mother’s name, woman, rest a while - ”

“…” Still coughing and using Gilly for support, she struggled upright and propped herself against the door frame. “I have to get to the coronation - you must help me…”

Seeing the state she was in, Gilly felt caught between concern and exasperation. Nerek looked so similar to Keren yet was so different, possessed of an unrelenting quality which occasionally made her seem grim and monstrous. Yet there had been instances when she would do or say something which momentarily revealed a lonely and poignant yearning to understand the world around her. Then there were other times when there was no give in her at all.

“You’re in no condition - “ he began.

“Listen - they tried to kill me because they don’t want me showing up at the coronation,” she said hoarsely, one hand tightly gripping his arm. “I don’t know why, but we have to warn Bardow and the others - if you….won’t help, I’ll crawl to the docks if I have to…”

He held up his hands in mock surrender, knowing that she meant every word. “I bow to your arguments, milady, a shrewd combination of bluntness and coercion.” He took one of her arms across his shoulder while supporting her with an arm about her waist. “I swear, they should send you to Dalbar instead of me.”

“Did someone say the name 'Blind Rina' a few moments ago?” she asked as he helped her along the catwalk.

“Some beggar boys were following me…” he said, and related what had happened, including the strange parting thanks. To his surprise, Nerek gave a dry laugh.

“She was right,” she said. “I will have to ask Bardow about learning to use the Lesser Power.”

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