Helen Lowe’s Wall of Night series has been called, “a richly told tale of strange magic, dark treachery, and conflicting loyalties” by no less than Robin Hobb, and the first two installments, The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost, were finalists for the prostigous David Gemmell Morningstar Award.
In January, Lowe will continue the saga with Daughter of Blood, and Harper Voyager has given us the chance to share an exclusive early chapter. Enjoy!
Chapter Two: The Serpent Prince
The three hooded figures came up Grayharbor’s Sailcloth Street just as the rain swept in off the sea for the second time that day. The deluge brought a swirl of leaves and rubbish down the deep gutters on either side of the cobbled thoroughfare, and all three leapt for the portico of Seruth’s temple where Faro had taken shelter. He heard one of the strangers curse as his boot came down in the flood. The fine black leather was soaked in an instant, and the man cursed again as he followed his companions into the porch. Faro moved further back, into the corner closest to the temple door, wary of the long black cloaks and deep hoods that did not fall back even when the newcomers sprang for shelter. They were carrying swords, too. He recognized the shape of hilt and scabbard beneath their cloaks and knew that likely meant other weapons as well.
The man who had stepped in the gutter said something, half under his breath, but his companions did not reply. Faro shivered, feeling chilled, although Summer’s End rain was seldom icy. He registered the man’s unfamiliar accent, too, when he had thought he knew all the nationalities that brought their ships into harbor and hawked their wares among the trading houses. He had even seen an Ishnapuri mariner once, with wide silk trousers, curved knives thrust into her waistband, and curled toes to her shoes. She had winked when she caught him staring and tossed him a small silver coin with the lion and stars of Ishnapur on one side, and a ship on the other. He had drilled a hole through it and wore it still, on a leather thong around his neck.
Faro stared at the downpour and contemplated edging inside the temple itself, but feared the movement might draw the strangers’ attention. He studied them covertly, noticing both their height and the way the tallest man’s hood was constantly moving. That fascinated him—until he realized that the leather of the soaked boot was already dry. He would have bolted then, except the boot’s owner turned and stared straight at him from within the concealing hood. The chill around Faro intensified and he tried hard to look past the hood, rather than directly into the face beneath it.
“Guttersnipe.” The man spoke in the River tongue, which was also the language of Grayharbor, but still with the unknown accent. Faro recognized the lordly tone, though, from listening to the mercantile nobility of Ij. “Do you know where the Ship House may be found?”
Faro regarded him warily. “D’you mean Ship’s Prow House, sir?”
“Ship, Ship’s Prow,” the man returned. “Surely it’s all the same?”
“Nossir.” Faro kept both face and tone neutral. “The Ship House is an inn down harborside. Ship’s Prow House is a merchant’s place that gets rented out to River folk with business here. It’s not far,” he added, when the man remained silent. “You go up Awl Lane, off the top of this street.” He shivered, rubbing at his arms, and wished the rain would stop so his uncomfortable companions would leave.
“You will take us there,” the stranger said.
Not for nothing, I won’t, Faro thought. The nearer of the other two, the one without the moving hood, turned as though overhearing his thought and held up a copper coin between black-gloved fingers. Faro hesitated, aware of the sharpness within his stomach and that an Ijiri penny would buy him both a meat pie and an unblemished apple at the market.
“Well?” the first man demanded, and Faro nodded reluctantly, snatching the coin out of the air when the second stranger flipped it to him. After that it was a matter of waiting for the rain to slacken sufficiently to venture out, while trying not to look at his companions at all. Once they did set out up Sailcloth Street, the cobbles still dark with rain, the two strangers walked to either side of him, with their companion in the moving hood immediately behind. Silently, Faro cursed himself for having given in to the coin’s temptation.
Awl Lane was steeper and narrower than Sailcloth Street, hemmed in by tall stone walls with narrow gray houses rising behind, which forced them to walk single file. The first stranger trod close on Faro’s heels, a heavy hand resting on his shoulder. Once he closed his fingers, steel biting into flesh and muscle, and Faro bit the inside of his mouth so as not to cry out. I won’t give him the satisfaction, he resolved, but was conscious of the accelerated thumping of his heart, and the chill sweat filming his skin.
The lane ended in a small square, with more of the tall, narrow houses set around it and short flights of steps up to wooden doors. The fountain in the middle of the square was dry, except for the water left by the rain. A bronze archer rose from its central plinth, suggesting that this must have been a prosperous quarter once. Now all the houses, like the fountain, had a slightly shabby air, the paint on their shutters and doors faded.
The ship’s figurehead that gave their destination its name was set over the door of the largest house on the square. It always made Faro shiver, because rather than being the usual depiction of a heroine or hero out of story, it was a fierce-eyed mer-horse, with a long horn spiraling from its forehead and ears pressed flat to its skull so it looked half serpent. The colors of the savage head and horn, and the scaled body, must have been brilliant once—gilt and scarlet and deeps-of-the-sea green—but had grown as faded as the house’s flaking woodwork. The door was framed and banded with iron, and despite the heavy hand on his shoulder, Faro still noted that both looked new. The hinges and lock, too, as well as the hasps on the shutters, he thought, squinting up—and saw that some wag, a ’prentice most likely, had left a chisel blade stuck into the figurehead’s spiraled horn.
I’ll come back for that later, Faro promised himself, so I’ll have something to stick into the likes of these three, next time someone tries to nab me. “The Ship’s Prow House,” he said, and tried to pull clear, but the stranger was quicker. His grip clamped down, forcing Faro to his knees.
“Not so fast,” his captor said.
Faro felt the chill from the temple porch bite deep into his flesh, and had to ball his hands into fists to prevent them shaking. The three hooded figures stood in a semicircle around him, studying the figurehead and the door. No one knocked, but eventually Faro heard the sound of a bolt being drawn back. A moment later the door opened slightly and a boy his own age peered through the crack. “The master’s not at home to visitors.”
The man with his hand on Faro’s shoulder laughed, short and hard. “He’ll see us.” He shoved Faro ahead of him. “Up you go.”
Faro twisted and struggled, despite the pain of the man’s grip, aware that the other boy was trying to close the door. The man holding him laughed again and uttered a single, unrecognizable word—and immediately, Faro froze in place. His throat was locked, too, as his captor shouldered the door wide and thrust him bodily inside. The door banged into the other boy’s face, knocking him backward.
His nose is broken, Faro thought, seeing its crookedness and the gush of blood. But he’s frozen, the same as me; he can’t do anything to help himself.
As the door closed behind them, his captor spoke another, indecipherable word and Faro’s rigid body went limp. The man shoved him away at the same time, and he collapsed in a sprawl of arms and legs, gasping for breath. Running footsteps sounded, then came to an abrupt halt. Still sucking in breath, Faro peered up at the new arrivals: an elderly servant, and a much younger man with dark shoulder-length hair and an ascetic expression.
“This is an outrage,” the servant began, but his voice was shaking.
Don’t be a fool, old man, Faro thought. The three who had entered the house with him said nothing, but the dark-haired man sank to his knees, dragging the old man down with him.
“Prince Aranraith,” he husked, as though his mouth was as dry as Faro’s. “You honor this house.” He bowed forward until his forehead touched the floor, and after a moment’s hesitation the old man, clearly bewildered, did the same. Faro lay absolutely still, aware that this hall, too, had grown cold. He was trying to breathe shallowly, but he could see the air misting just past his lips.
All three strangers lifted back their hoods—and Faro stifled a cry, because now he could see why the tallest man’s hood had moved. He closed his eyes, hoping that he had fallen asleep in the temple porch and when he looked again the nightmare would be gone. But the stranger was still there, a powerfully built man in gold-washed black mail, with long coils of hair falling down his back. Except that the coils were not hair at all, but a sinuous twist of blue-black snakes, their forked tongues a perpetual flicker about the stranger’s head and shoulders.
Nauseated, Faro screwed his eyelids shut again, but his heart still hammered painfully and he had to fight to control his trembling. Outside, the rain began to drum.
“Where is Nirn?” The voice that spoke was darkness and shadow, with a rustling sibilance through it, and Faro knew without opening his eyes that it belonged to the man with the serpent hair. This time he understood the strangely accented words, although he had to concentrate to make them out.
“Forgive me, Prince Aranraith,” the dark-haired man replied in the same language. “But he has ordered us not to disturb him. Under any circumstances, he said.”
“Fool.” Faro heard the first stranger’s fingers snap as he switched back to the River dialect. His tone was that of a man commanding a dog. “You, boy! Fetch your master.”
For a moment Faro thought the stranger meant him, but when his eyes flew wide the other boy was lurching to his feet, his nose still bleeding. “Now, dolt!” the stranger snapped. The boy ran, scrambling up the dark wooden stairs at the far end of the large chamber. Before he reached the upper level, another tall figure with startling, bone-white hair had appeared at the balustrade. A flare of lightning reflected through the windows in a way that made it seem to emanate from the white-haired man, but no rumble of thunder followed. The only sounds were the rain, and a hissing from the snakes as Prince Aranraith and the newcomer stared at each other.
The prince’s two companions had fanned out to his left and right, and now Faro saw the last of the strangers clearly for the first time. His black armor was honed to spur points at elbow and shoulder, while the sword at his hip was long and curved toward the tip. The eyes that rested on Faro were set slantwise in a face that was all austere planes and sculpted angles, their expression dark and impenetrable as the void. Faro froze again, unable to look away.
He did not see the boot coming, only screamed as agony exploded across his body. The force of the kick propelled him several yards across the floor, into a carved wooden chest. He was aware, through the pain and the sobs that he could not check, that the first stranger was staring down at him. The man’s eyes were as darkly blue as sapphires in a gem merchant’s window, and their color bored through the pain until it was all Faro could see. “You do not look at us without leave, gutter vermin. It will go worse still if I hear you speak.”
Beyond the blue of the stranger’s eyes, someone was laughing. At first Faro thought it was the serpent prince, because even above the rain he could hear the laughter’s hissing note, but then realized that the sound was coming from the balcony. “How you do despise the natives, Arcolin, beneath your envoy’s veneer.” Despite the hissing laugh, the white-haired man’s voice was ice: “And here in company with my kinsman, Aranraith, and the great Thanir—a delegation indeed.”
“As you say.” Arcolin turned toward the balcony, releasing Faro. “You’ve made us work to find you, Nirn, but the time for games is over. We’re here to discuss treachery: your hound Emuun’s treachery.”
Lightning snapped blue-white from the gallery and fractured the flagstones between Arcolin and the stairs. Faro nearly bit through his lip, because this time there could be no question, the lightning had definitely been inside. When his vision recovered from the flash, the dark-haired man, who had been kneeling a moment before, was standing at the foot of the stairs. The old servant still lay with his hands over his head, moaning.
Darkness rose about the three intruders and flowed between them and the staircase. Faro, enthralled and terrified together, found he could not look away from the shadows that writhed through it, or block out their sibilant whispers. The susurration echoed the prince’s serpent locks, which had risen as one, their fangs extended, when the lightning seared. They hissed again as the prince held up a hand weighted with jeweled rings, the gemstones glittering in the afterdazzle.
“Your adept’s behavior suggests he fears us, Nirn.” The prince’s eyes glinted, garnet red beneath heavy lids, and the dark-haired man paled. “Or believes we mean you harm—as if we were Derai, tearing ourselves apart with petty feuding.”
“Petty?” Nirn’s voice was still ice. “When you accuse one who is my blood kinsman, his service to our cause well proven, of treachery?”
“They also entered your house without leave, Master,” the dark-haired man said, although his voice shook as the serpents twisted his way.
The warrior spoke for the first time, pitching his words to carry above the rain. “Rhike is dead, Nirn—we believe by Emuun’s hand.”
Faro was still finding it painful to breathe as Nirn descended the stairs. Despite Arcolin’s threat, he could not stop his gaze from returning to the sorcerer’s emaciated countenance and the fine scar that cut from temple to chin. “Rhike?” Nirn said finally. “That is a loss. And she, too, was kin.” The scar, livid against his pallor, twitched as his pale gaze settled on Arcolin. “I heard you were wounded, Poisoner. Did one of those brands you were busy thrusting into southern fires leap back out and burn you?”
“Retract your fangs, Nirn.” Aranraith’s command resonated through the hall as he crossed to the table at its center and pulled out a chair. His serpent hair subsided as he sat. “Sit, all of you.”
Only the warrior hesitated, frowning as he studied the dark-haired man on the stairs, although he addressed Nirn. “You had two adepts when last we met: Jharin, here, and another one—Amarn. Where’s he right now?”
“Sheltering from the rain, no doubt.” Nirn made a business of taking the chair opposite Aranraith’s, his smile thin. “He went down to the port with orders for the ship’s captain that brought us here. Ostensibly a coastal trader, but a smuggler on the side and useful, so we let him live.”
Arcolin had seated himself on Aranraith’s left, so Faro could only see his back and long black braid. “What if he or his crew talks?”
Nirn placed a jade rod on the table as Jharin, the dark-haired adept, came to stand behind his chair. Finally, he nodded toward the other boy, huddled halfway up the stair. “We have the captain’s only son as hostage, in case my compulsion on him and his crew wears thin.”
“And the old man who welcomed us?” Arcolin’s drawl was pronounced.
“Comes with the house.” Nirn shrugged, indifferent. “He and the boy are also under compulsion, but they can’t understand us in any case.”
“Can they not?” the black-armored warrior asked. Briefly, he glanced at Faro, who shrank back against the chest, as if he could disappear into the carved wood.
“Leave them for now. We have business to discuss.” Something in the heavy velvet of Aranraith’s tone, and the lazy way the snakes curled and uncurled, turned Faro’s throat into a lump around which he struggled to breathe. In that moment he knew that none of them—not the boy on the stair, or the old man still prone on the flagstones, or himself, pressed against the chest—would be allowed to live.
Outside, the rain had become a tumult. Lightning illuminated the room again, and this time the crash of thunder followed within seconds. Nirn waved a hand, and flame leapt in every glass-enclosed lamp around the room. The brightness pushed the shadows back, except around Aranraith, while the white-haired sorcerer’s fingers tapped on the jade rod. “So, Thanir. Unfold me this business of Rhike’s death and your accusation against Emuun.”
The warrior seated himself on Aranraith’s right. “Rhike was slain at midsummer, by a warrior who was immune to magic.”
“And blood,” Aranraith added, “demands blood.”
“Always,” the others intoned as one. The snakes bared their fangs, but any sound they made was lost beneath the storm. The gutters would all be overflowing, Faro knew, every steep street and wynd a torrent of water and filth. If only he could get clear of the house, he would disappear into the darkness and back alleys where he had a dozen hideaways, places these strangers would never find him. He gritted his teeth to prevent them chattering and struggled to concentrate the way his mam had taught him, observing both people and his surroundings closely.
Briefly, he fought back tears, as grief for his mam joined with fear and pain. Focusing on the old discipline helped, even if the strangers’ conversation was a confusion of strange accents and incomprehensible discussion—of enemies and magic, and a warrior immune to it who had sabotaged something called a coterie in some distant place. Occasionally, names would swirl to the surface, like debris in a flood, including Emuun and Rhike again, but also Orriyn, who seemed to be Selia as well … And someone called Nherenor, who had been killed and whose death mattered, for reasons that Faro could not make out. He felt the tension that weighted their silence, though, when eventually the talking stopped.
Lightning had continued to flare throughout their exchange, but now Faro noticed how closely the thunderclap followed the latest flash. “Emuun accompanied me here from Ij,” Nirn said, once the rumble died away. “By the time I dispatched him south again, hunting those accursed couriers … It would have been early summer, at least, before he returned to the River.”
Aranraith’s serpent hair hissed. “This is Emuun we’re talking about. If his quarry went south then he would have arrived shortly afterward.”
“In fact,” Arcolin took him up, “we know he did. Rhike reported that he had the couriers you’re so obsessed by within his hand several times in Emer, yet on each occasion his fist refused to close—difficult behavior to explain away.”
Nirn’s fingers tapped against the jade. “Sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one. Whoever Rhike encountered cannot have been Emuun.”
“Sometimes,” Arcolin mimicked, “the simplest explanation is the correct one. Emuun is the only immune warrior we have left with sufficient experience to overcome an adept of Rhike’s caliber, especially when she knew who she was dealing with. And she saw him, openly working with the native agents who undid our work. Admit it, Nirn: you’ve lost control of him.”
Thanir leaned forward. “Nindorith did allege a Derai taint to Nherenor’s death, although even he could not track its source. But it was definitely one of the native agents seen working with Emuun that wounded Arcolin.”
Arcolin’s response was lost as thunder crashed again, but Nirn was frowning. “Ilkerineth’s son is dead, yet afterward Nindorith could not hunt the killer down? There’s no Derai with that sort of power, not anymore.”
“What’s the alternative? It’s even less likely that a native could accomplish such a thing.” Arcolin shrugged. “The agent who wounded me got lucky, that’s all. Still, regrettable though the boy’s death was, it diverted Nindorith and Ilkerineth’s attention into the mourning rituals. That left us free to deal with the Southern Realms in our own way.”
“Yet here you are.” Nirn’s malice was obvious, even to Faro, tensed against the chest. “And wounded, however unluckily, by one of the natives. Or is that somehow Emuun’s doing as well?”
Every serpent on Aranraith’s head uncoiled, spitting. Momentarily, even the storm stilled, although Faro only realized he was holding his breath when his ears began to roar. At the same time, Thanir’s chair scraped back, his head turning toward the door. “Someone’s coming,” the warrior said.