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The Hvitbjarn beached by Dnieper-mouth with a jolt that sent Alexa sprawling. A quick twist, one hand flung out for balance, and she caught herself from falling. It hadn't hurt, she realized. Her knifewounds had healed during the journey across the Black Sea from Byzantium. Pain? No princess of Byzantium, heir to the power of Isis and Osiris that was the first best gift of Divine Cleopatra to her consort, expected to feel physical pain. Except, perhaps, in childbirth. But Alexa would never have children now. Her brother, who should have been emperor, was dead. She deserved to be dead too.
She would have traded her new physical wellbeing for worse gashes than she had suffered in the disastrous fight at Byzantium's harbour, from which Audun Bearmaster and his Aescir kin had rescued her. Any pain was better than the guilt she felt for drawing on forbidden sorcery.
All around her, the Aescir unloaded Hvitbjarn and her sister ships of the wine, silk, gold, jewels and fruit they had gained in Byzantium. Shouting, they began to hammer extra timbers to the keels of the clinker-built ships so that they could withstand the Dnieper's rapids. The men did not trouble her. Probably, they thought she was still too injured to work. In the unwelcome leisure, her thoughts turned on treason, murder and the foulest of battle magics.
'Still idle?' Audun Bearmaster padded up behind her, stealthy and almost as strong as the white bears that were his clan's sigil and constant companions. In his arms was a coffer that only an Aescir would have tried to carry. He dropped it at her feet, then flung it open to reveal rolls of papyrus and parchment sheets.
'Even if you are only newly restored to health, Princess, you are lettered. Perhaps you might keep these records of our cargoes? Einar and Ragnar, here, will tell you what to watch for.' The request was so politely phrased that even if Alexa had not owed Audun her life she could not have refused. He seeks to occupy my mind, she thought. He had encountered her on the shore the night before, attributed her 'wandering' to sleeplessness and brought her back to the quarters she shared with two redoubtable Aescir women, who watched her as they might watch a too-wily Syrian merchant when they bargained for spices.
Alexa looked up from her new task. The shore teemed with people and goods; it looked remarkably like the sack of some city. Guards prowled at the camp's perimeter. The threat of attack by Petcheneg barbarians was very real; it had intensified since the Emperor's death. Alexa studied the guards. So much for that scheme, then. She had no chance to escape and nowhere to escape to. Einar came up and pointed at a cluster of chests.
Shortly after, Ragnar led her to count bales of carefully wrapped silks. Each of the big, ruddy Aescir assigned to guard her—though Audun called them her assistants—had a wave or grin for her. They cannot know the poison I have made of myself. They knew her only as the little princess whom Audun had watched grow up and to whom, along with her brother, he had given a white bear cub. But the cub had died, poisoned by Irene, their father's second wife, who dared to call herself Empress and Isis on Earth. So Alexa had secretly engaged Audun and the Aescir to carry herself and her brother, Marric, away from their city to a place where Marric could raise gold and troops to regain their throne.
That had been her plan. Blameless, it was, and it would have succeeded were it not for the rottenness that Alexa had let seep into mind and soul. She had feared Irene and been revolted by her son, Ctesiphon, Alexa's half-brother—yet she had felt a salt fascination for them, too. Isis on Earth, Irene claimed to be. Sorceress was more like it, mistress of magics that had more to do with Set than with the holy linkage that bound the Empire and its rulers into one truth, and yoked the infinite and the mundane with an inviolable tie. Though Irene was barred from that union, her necromancy had given her the strength to grasp at the throne.
In power had lain Alexa's temptation, and there she had fallen. If magic had given Irene such power, what might it do for the Emperor's daughter, the rightful heir to the moon crown that her mother had worn so well? Half-Greek, half-Egyptian as the imperial family were, magic quivered in their blood, to be drawn on as sacrament and weapon. Barred from the one, she had seized desperately on the other. With a stepmother taunting her, her half-brother lingering in her courtyard, avid to talk or touch, she had studied feverishly. Her studies had drawn her stepmother's predatory interest. Terrified by this, she delved further into her ancient scrolls, a lethal spiral that warped her judgement even as it stained her soul.
With her contamination came her hubris. Now she had dreamed of overcoming Irene herself, simultaneously avenging her father, Alexander, and presenting Marric with the throne that they would then occupy jointly.
Her poor brother. At her call he ventured from his army, which loved him, to come to her. She must have been drunk, or mad, when she and Marric had fought off their half-brother's guards. Ctesiphon's inept attempt at rape had maddened her further, but Marric had praised her courage. He could not see what she had become. The madness fed on itself like plague; not content with taking their half-brother hostage, she had cut his bonds and hurled him beneath the hooves of their pursuers.
Alexa dropped the scroll she held and clasped hands to her temples. Though Ctesiphon had been wrapped in a carpet when he fell, she had heard his screams as the horses trampled him. She could hear them now, drowned out by hoofbeats, the hiss of Marric's sword drawn in her defence, and his furious reproaches.
'My Isis, not a murderer!' Marric had snarled at her, his hands bruising her shoulders.
How dare he accuse her! That was when she had turned on him, too, red fire blazing from her fingertips, words spewing from her lips ... at the remembered taste of those words she knew she was going to be ill, and leapt up to run for whatever privacy she could find.
After what seemed like an eternity of heaving and shuddering she knelt upright and dashed her hand across her mouth. Her guards were nowhere in sight. But Audun Bearmaster stood over her, watching with a mixture of patience and compassion.
'Drink this,' Audun said from behind her, and held out a carved horn.
'It will make me sicker,' she whispered. She sounded petulant, even to her own ears.
'From water? A few herbs?' He continued to hold out the horn to her. If she did not take it and drink, he would make her drink it, the way she had seen him stroke a potion down the throat of a sick beast. The drink was astringent, oddly refreshing, unlike the mandragora she had swallowed in the evil nights of their journey across the Black Sea. That had kept the nightmares at bay while her body healed itself; this left her keener of mind, more vulnerable to those wounds of spirit for which she could see no healing.
'You are much too kind,' said Alexa, little as she cared for kindness that restored memories of her treason.
'Walk with me, Princess,' said the Bearmaster. He led the way past the ordered frenzy on shore—the scattered embers of fires and hastily thrown-up dwellings—towards the dark quiet of the forests. Here, Audun's white bears wandered, hunting or waiting for scraps from the Aescir's fires. Two bears, one but a cub, raised their narrow heads as the pair passed. The elder rose to her hind legs, towering to almost twice Alexa's height.
Audun reached up to scratch beneath the bear's pointed muzzle. Jaws, which could gnash through his arm, opened and delicately bit on his massive fist. 'So, sister, make your manners to the Princess.'
The white bear wove towards her. Alexa steeled herself to touch it, but the beast veered abruptly and moaned, then dropped to all fours. The cub, drawn by Audun's deep, furry voice, scuttled to Alexa. Its black eyes and nose made Alexa laugh, remembering how the cub that Audun had once given her and her brother had wrestled with them. Until the day it bit Irene, and she had it poisoned, it had never harmed a soul. She reached out to ruffle this cub's thick fur, but its mother slapped at her hand with a huge paw, then whacked the cub so that it tumbled on to its back and rolled into a heap of pine needles before it recovered its footing and ran off. The female lingered long enough to growl at Alexa. Then she turned her back and left.
That was no retreat, Alexa thought. The bear had withdrawn herself and her cub from contamination.
'So,' Audun nodded to himself. 'So.'
Alexa drew herself up. 'The bears shun me,' she said. Surely Audun must have noticed it when they disembarked. Not one of the great white beasts would willingly come near her. How not? she thought. If the Aescir were men and women of all tribes—Rus, Finn, brightly clad Lapps, and strangers from Biarmaland by the White Sea—who pledged faith to one another, then just as surely the white bears which travelled with them and which, as a mark of great esteem, were bestowed only upon chiefs or emperors—were part of the var, or pledge of honour and loyalty, each made to the others.
'I know,' Audun said. 'I had meant to take you into Finnmark with me. But if the bears—'
'Doesn't that tell you what I am?' Alexa burst out.
'You are the daughter of Alexander, risen to his Horizon with Osiris in Glory,' the Bearmaster told her. 'That makes you his heir, along with your brother. And well you know it.'
'You saw,' she raged, heading deeper into the tall trees, 'you saw my brother Marric fall on the dock.' A clear stream blocked her path and she kicked a rock into it.
Audun's hands grasped her shoulders and turned her around as she might have lifted a feather. She was forced to look up into his face. He towered a good foot taller than she, and had long braids and beard the colour of one of his bears. He wore a heavy blue tunic and breeches, and shone with ornaments that would have been ludicrous on anyone but a Northerner: a belt buckle the size of her hand, wrought of garnets and braided gold; a chain that might have been hammered into pectorals for two priests on a feast day; immensely heavy bracelets and rings. But all else faded as she gazed up into his eyes. They were grey, but that was all there was of coldness about them. Though a beast's innocence and its potential for innocent violence shone in them, so did the compassion and wisdom of a wise king or a priest.
It was painful to meet Audun's eyes, but how could she look away? For the first time, Alexa wondered how it might be if she confessed what she had become. She deserved to be slain and cast unburied into the waste, but she remembered that Audun had always been kind.
'I saw Prince Marric, all right,' said Audun. 'Guards cut him off from you and he fought like ten demons to reach your side until they brought him down.'
'You saw my brother die,' she said flatly.
To her amazement Audun shook his head. 'I only saw him fall. Princess, when we rescued you, you were gravely hurt and your wounds turned feverish. Yet if your brother had died you would have sensed it. Heaven and Earth would have revealed it, for he is Horus Incarnate, lacking only the rituals to rule as emperor. One land,' he said, as Alexa had heard him say since she was a child, 'one lord—and he is that lord. As you are rightful empress.'
He thought her to be as innocent as he! 'I am not fit to rule now,' she said, and prayed for courage to force out the rest of the story.
'What else should I have seen?' he asked suspiciously.
Alexa twisted her hands and half-turned from Audun. 'Answer me!' he ordered. She was ashamed that she could not submit to the judgement that she had laid on herself: confess what she had done and take whatever punishment she had earned. Something at the corner of her eye drew her attention, and she turned towards the trees. She could scarcely see them now, and the day had been bright, too bright for such a mist to spring up. Suddenly she was dizzy, and the hair at the back of her neck prickled the way it did whenever Irene had drawn too close to her, and she had felt her magics. When Audun demanded that she answer him, she hushed him almost absently, listening until she stood trembling.
'Something ... hidden ...'
'Is it a raid?' Audun asked. He shouted something into the forest and the mist faded.
Now that the mist was gone, they saw the war party of Petchenegs, who had used it for cover, come boiling out. The three in the lead, briefly dismayed at seeing people who might spoil the stealth of their attack on the camp, grinned, then advanced at a run.
'Get behind me!' One massive arm swept her behind Audun, sending her sprawling on the ground. The Bearmaster drew his weapon—a heavy sword, rather than the axe carried by most Aescir—and, bellowing a challenge, struck first through the guard, then the swordarm, of the first barbarian.
Alexa drew the dagger no one had thought to take from her. As she had been taught, she kept it sharp with whetstone and oil. When Audun sent another man flying she pounced on him fiercely, the Wickedly sharp blade slashing at his throat. Blood fountained out over her hands ...
... and in its redness she remembered words that would free them from this trap, words that would save Audun to rule his clan and tend his bears ...
If he were spared what difference did it make if she spoke those words once again? She was already accursed. Audun swung his blade with two hands, making deadly arcs which the Petchenegs backed away from. Barbarians they might be, but they were also fierce warriors who had killed many Aescir and many of the Empire. In an instant more they would encircle him. She held her bloody hands before her face and drew breath to curse them.
Then angry grunts and roars were heard. Alexa glanced behind her; three male bears reared up fully eight or nine feet high, then advanced on the Petchenegs. Immensely fast, one bear seized a man in a deadly embrace. His bones snapped the way her half-brother's had. Warcries howled out as Einar and Ragnar followed the bears and flung themselves into the battle.
She could not permit them to die for her. She focused on the blood that dripped from her fingers, summoning up the controlled lusts for power and violence that underlay Irene's powers. Scarlet light began to build around her fingertips.
'No!' shouted Audun. 'Princess, guard yourself!'
The bloodlight began to crackle from hand to hand, building up power for an attack. Audun's order made Alexa whirl round, ready to hurl the fire at whatever wretch thought to flesh his knife in her. But no one rushed her with blade or axe.
'No!' Audun shouted again, as the power in her ached for the victims it craved. It craved, Alexa thought. She did not. After causing one brother's death and—for all Audun's comforting words—the capture and worse than death of another, Alexa would never crave victims again—would she?
Not ten feet ahead of her Einar screamed and fell, blood bursting from his mouth and nose. 'Einar!' she cried. He had been good to her, had taught her Aescir songs and found her a heavy cloak. A bolt of red lightning lashed from her left hand to turn the man who had slain Einar into a shrieking torch.
'Stop it!' Audun shouted as the lightning built up again, began to encompass her in a red nimbus like that she had seen encircle Irene after the cub bit her. With each spell, with each bolt of crimson fire she would become more and more like Irene, until the day would come when her soul would be weighed against a feather on the Scales and she would be hurled into darkness for the crocodiles to devour.
I will die first! she swore to herself, and sought to quench the fires she had summoned. They leapt and whined about her, the nimbus of flame fading then surging up again. It was a temptation to cast the power roundabout—already she could smell pine, and scorched flesh from the one man she had killed. Once she launched the flame, the trees would burn like so much tinder, destroying Aescir and Petcheneg alike. And now that she had summoned it the fire must be launched, or it would recoil threefold upon the user. Marric had dared to come to her aid. Audun had the heart to fight a troop, Einar to die at his side. Could she equal their courage?
Excerpted from The Woman of Flowers by Susan Shwartz. Copyright © 1987 Susan Shwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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