THE CONCLUSION TO K.J. TAYLOR'S "COMPELLING AND EXCITING" (SFFANZ) RISEN SUN TRILOGY
Half-breed Queen Laela Taranisäii is in more danger than ever before. Her subjects hate her, her closest allies, including her griffin, have fallen, and, most worryingly, the Night God’s immortal assassin, The Shadow That Walks, is bent upon reaping vengeance. As her enemies close in on all sides, her methods of maintaining power increase in desperation—and violence.
Laela’s half-brother, Kullervo, is supposed to be her strongest ally. But as he comes to terms with both who he is and what his sister’s reign means to the land, he begins to doubt his once strong loyalties. With the conflict drawing to its bloody close, he must decide what he’s truly prepared to fight for, a choice that could have dire consequences for all he once held dear.
Meanwhile, a new threat is lurking in the darkness, the Night God’s final, deadly pawn. It is this shadow that will decide the outcome of the war—and its power that will seal the fates of all involved…
About the Author
Born in Canberra in 1986, Katie J. Taylor attended Radford College, where she wrote her first novel, The Land of Bad Fantasy. She studied for a Bachelor's Degree in Communications at the University of Canberra, and graduated in 2007 before going on to do a Graduate Certificate in Editing in 2008.
She is also the author of the Fallen Moon Trilogy: The Dark Griffin, Griffin's Flight, and Griffin's War, as well as the Risen Sun Trilogy: The Shadow’s Heir, The Shadowed Throne, and The Shadow’s Heart.
Read an Excerpt
So this is it. The end.
Every time I finish a trilogy, I do it with some degree of fatalism, knowing that each trilogy could be the last one I’m able to publish. But if this book must be the last one in the series, then I wouldn’t be too unhappy about it. I think The Shadow’s Heart is one of the best books I’ve written, and as endings go, it has one of the very best. But, I must warn you, it also has one of the most tragic. As Arenadd might say, all’s unfair in love and war.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey I’ve taken you on, and that the ending I’ve made will be one that gives you some kind of closure. Six books, and it’s been a long road to get there. Thank you for staying with me—I hope you still want to stay when it’s over.
Finally, the usual notes on pronunciation: The Northerners speak Welsh, and in that language “dd” is pronounced “th.” Some of the odder-looking names are pronounced this way:
Laela: “Lay-la” (I include this one because I’ve heard some people say it “Leela.”)
Akhane: “Ah-kah-nay” (This name is actually one I made up, and is meant to sound a bit like the word “arcane,” which fits his interests very well.)
And finally, as always, griffish is pronounced phonetically. Griffins can’t read or learn how to read, and don’t want anything to do with anything that could be called grammar or linguistics. Leave the pointless analysis to the humans, thank you.
In her personal chambers high in the towers that made up Malvern’s Eyrie, Queen Laela Taranisäii was alone.
Her brother, Kullervo, was gone, and so was her advisor, Inva. Her friend and former tutor, Yorath, was gone, too, and Lord Iorwerth, the man who commanded Malvern’s armies while his partner, Kaanee, led the humanless griffins called the Unpartnered, hadn’t yet returned from his conquest of Warwick. And her father, Arenadd, the only friend she had had in the world once upon a time . . . Arenadd was gone, too.
Once she might have turned to her own griffin partner, Oeka, but Oeka was not there. Or not all there, anyway. Her body was locked away somewhere underneath the Eyrie, mouldering in silence while her mind wandered who knew where.
Her only company now was a book: her father’s diary. Oeka had embedded some of her power in its pages so that Laela could open them and hear her father’s voice read the words, but by now the effect had worn off, and Laela couldn’t read well enough to understand most of it. Nor did she trust anyone enough to have them read it to her. Not with Yorath’s having vanished.
And so, with nothing else to do for the moment while she waited for Iorwerth and Kaanee to return, she sat down and opened a book of her own. The pages were blank, but she had a pot of ink and a reed-pen ready to change that.
Tongue sticking out with the effort, she started to write, forming each rune slowly and carefully:
This is the diry of Quen Laela Taranisäii, who is the dorter of King Arenath Taranis-eye. I dont no how tu rite meny words, but thort I should rite down wat I no so one day peeple can reed it an no wat I did and thort also I thort it would be use-ful for future sk skol book people historeens to reed wat I wrote, so hear gos.
She stopped to wipe the sweat off her forehead and took a deep breath before continuing.
My muthers name was Flell she was a Suthern girl whom my dad might of raped but he says not an I never met her so I dunno wat happned. I was rai grew u come from a place in South called Stirick, not sure how to rite it never saw it rit down. My dad wat raised me was Bran, but he wast my reel dad that was Arenath. I never noo who my real dad was an Bran didnt rite so he never showd me how so I had too lern wen I was a woman. When Bran dyed I left an went North.
Arenath found me but didnt no he wus my dad. He looked after me an I lived with him an helped him an he made me griffiner after I puled him out of the water. He said your my advi advu helper an we went to Amoran together with Skander who was his partner. I got married too a princ called Akhane an brought slaves back home to be free. Arenath died the Nite God killed him an then I got made Queen, but Arenath’s cusin Saythrin said no I should be Queen, yu are a half-breed an not his real dorter anyway. I burned her temple to teech her a lessen but she ran off with her son an dorter. I killed her husband, Torc when she wouldn come back.
Then my brother comes, he is called Kullervo an he found Sennek who was my uncle Erian’s partner before my dad killed him. They went to Warwick where Saethryn was an Kullervo got cort but I sent Iorwerth an Kaanee with the Unpartnered an they smashed up the place. Senneck killed Saethryn’s dorter an her partner Aenae who wus Skandar’s son. She killed Saethryn, too, but the Nite God has sent her back to kill us all espeshuli me cus the Nite God hates half breds like wut I am. I have sent Kullervo an Senneck to Amoran to get my husband to help us an when Iorwerth gets back I will send him to Skenfrith where Caedmon is, he is Saethryns son an leeds the enemys now. Saethryn came to get me yesterday, but Oeka drove her mad an got rid of her. Oeka is my partner an she is madder than a cut snake which is wat Bran used too say.
Laela sat back to look at her handiwork. Her writing had crowded together in some places, and she had kept running out of room at the edge of the page, but she reckoned it was the best writing she’d ever done.
That was enough for one day. She blew on the ink to make it dry faster, closed the book, and put it aside. Then she got up and walked out of the room to go and see if Iorwerth was back yet. He and Kaanee had been away far too long, and she was starting to get worried.
The other thing she had to worry about was Saeddryn. Once Saeddryn had been an ordinary woman—and not a young one, either. She was Arenadd’s cousin, and she had been his second-in-command back in the days when he seized power in the North. By the time Laela had come along, Saeddryn had become Malvern’s high priestess, and she and Arenadd weren’t on the best of terms any more. Arenadd had disowned Saeddryn’s son Caedmon, who had been Arenadd’s apprentice and heir apparent—until Caedmon turned on Arenadd. By the time Laela arrived at Malvern, there was no officially chosen heir to the throne, and Caedmon had fled.
But his mother was the far worse danger. When Senneck killed her, the war should have been all but won, but Laela had not reckoned with the Night God. The Night God had been Arenadd’s master, and she had given him the dark powers he used to conquer the North.
Now those powers belonged to Saeddryn, and if Laela couldn’t find some way to do away with her, then Laela would die for her throne. And Kullervo, Arenadd’s only other offspring, would have to die, too.
Saeddryn’s attempt to kill Laela might have failed when Oeka drove her mad, but after she threw herself out the window, her body had not been found, and Laela knew she was still out there. The fact that she was now insane did not make Laela feel any safer. Frankly, it made her feel worse.
The guards were scouring the city right now, but so far they hadn’t found anything, and Laela didn’t believe for one moment they ever would.
She paused by a window to look out over the city and sighed a long, weary sigh. Ruling the North was far harder than she had ever thought it would be, and in ways she hadn’t expected. She spent so much time worrying about other people and what they were doing, and without a griffin to protect her, she couldn’t leave the city. She had been stuck in Malvern for nearly a year—ever since her father’s death, in fact.
Laela rubbed her eyes and turned away miserably from the window in time to see a servant come hurrying toward her.
She straightened up instantly. “What’s goin’ on?”
The servant stopped and bowed. “My Lady, Lord Iorwerth is here. He’s waiting for ye in the audience chamber.”
“Huh. Nice timin’,” Laela muttered, and walked back the way she had come.
Sure enough, when she entered the white-marble audience chamber where the platform for the ruler and her partner to sit on stood empty, she found Lord Iorwerth and Kaanee ready to receive her. When they saw her, Kaanee glanced at his human. Briefly, but Laela saw it.
“There yeh are,” she said unceremoniously. Not bothering to sit down or ask them to do the same, she folded her arms. “All right, explain yerselves. Where’ve yeh been an’ why?”
Iorwerth, a middle-aged, strong-looking man, clasped his hands together. “I’m sorry, my Lady, but—”
“Where is your partner?” Kaanee interrupted. He pushed forward, tawny brown wings slightly raised. “Where is Oeka?”
“She ain’t here,” said Laela, not bothering to use griffish.
Kaanee’s eyes narrowed. “Where is she? Is she dead?”
May as well be, Laela nearly said, but stopped herself. “No, she’s just not here. She’s busy.”
“Busy with what?” said Kaanee. “She has not been beside you in a long time. Is she not interested in ruling her territory?”
Laela shifted uncomfortably. “Yeh’d have to ask her about that. It ain’t my place to say. Now tell me what’s goin’ on.”
Iorwerth opened his mouth to reply, but once again Kaanee obliged.
“We have been in Warwick, as you commanded, and after that we went to Fruitsheart. We found no enemies there, and now we have come back.”
“Good,” said Laela. “Because now I want yeh to go to Skenfrith. That’s where they are now, that’s where Caedmon is. Go there. Take the Unpartnered. Kill them all. Now.”
“We cannot do that,” said Kaanee.
Laela growled. “You’ll do it because I’m tellin’ yeh. We killed Caedmon’s mother an’ his sister. There ain’t no way he’s ever gonna give up with that on his mind. If we’re gonna keep the North together, then he’s gotta die, an’ that’s all there is to it.”
“We cannot,” Kaanee repeated. “I would do as you say, and so would Iorwerth, but the Unpartnered will not.”
“What?” said Laela, blankly.
“The Unpartnered are not with us,” said Kaanee. “We are late because we have spent our time trying to make them come back to Malvern with us, but they refused. They will not obey me any more.”
“What?” Laela said again, much louder. “Why not?”
“They see no benefit in it for themselves. And there is no griffin at Malvern powerful enough to dominate them and force them to fight. Your partner is not doing her duty.”
“Oh no.” Laela put a hand over her face. She looked up at Iorwerth. “What are we gonna do?”
“There’s only one thing you can do,” he said unhappily. “If we’re going to get control back, then you and Oeka have to go to them, and Oeka will have to impress them.” When Laela didn’t reply and instead pulled a grim face, he tried to reassure her with a smile. “Don’t worry, my Lady. I’m sure she can do it. We all know how powerful she is, and it’s not just about size. They’ll bow to strong magic as well.”
Laela opened her mouth, then shut it again. She coughed. “Yeah . . . I’ll go see her, then.”
She trudged out of the room, mentally listing all the swear-words she knew.
Oeka was not going to come, and she was not going to bring the Unpartnered into line. Laela wasn’t even going to waste time hoping for that. Unpartnered griffins would never normally fight as a group to begin with—they’d only done it in the first place because the Mighty Skandar, as they called him, had had the sheer power to dominate more than a hundred griffins at once. And there was no other griffin in the world who was like him. What was that word her father had used? “Unprecedented.” Without the Unpartnered, it would come down to whatever the humans in this situation thought. And Laela knew exactly who had the popular support right now, and it wasn’t her.
A word that her other father, Bran, had used now sprang to mind.
* * *
Meanwhile, down in the city, someone else was on the hunt. Heath, of no fixed name and no fixed abode, also wanted to find Saeddryn. He had been at it for several days. He knew perfectly well that the entire city guard was trying as well, but they didn’t bother him—even if he knew they would hang him if they caught him. Possibly it would be hanging and dismembering, depending on whether the Eyrie decided to class him as a traitor or just as a spy.
That was an unpleasant thought, but Heath figured the guard were too busy just now. They were looking for Saeddryn, not him, and he’d given them no reason to be looking for him anyway. Or, at least, not just now. Finding the country’s most wanted woman was probably more important than tracking down a fraudster who hadn’t been seen in Malvern for years.
That aside, Heath had already been arrested once, and that hadn’t turned out to be half as bad as he’d thought. It had been touch and go for a little while, but thankfully he’d been caught in Skenfrith, just after Lord Caedmon took control of the city. Caedmon had talked to him and decided to recruit the wily thief as a spy rather than kill him.
As far as Heath was concerned, things were looking up. Besides, this was fun.
He strolled briskly along the main street leading through the lower end of the city, where some of the better-off commoners lived. Nobody paid him any attention. Today, he was in a particularly good mood. It had taken him longer than he’d expected, but if he, Heath, was any judge, then today would be the day that he would finally do what everyone else had failed to do: find Saeddryn. The guards were numerous, and he was on his own, but he had contacts they didn’t. Nobody, he had pointed out to Caedmon before he left, lived the life of a scumbag like him without meeting useful people. A friendly visit here, a bit of social drinking there, a little eavesdropping and a coin in the right pocket bought him all the information he needed. And after a couple of false leads and a near miss or two, he had finally found the people and the place that he was after.
Spotting the alley he had been told to look for, he sauntered over to it without a glance in any direction. Sneaking and hiding were all very well, he knew, but in his experience nothing was easier to overlook than someone just walking along as if he knew exactly where he were going and had no reason to be furtive about it.
In the alley, he found a trapdoor not very well hidden under a stack of boxes. Checking to make sure nobody was watching, he shifted them aside and tugged on the trapdoor’s ring. It lifted, and after another quick check and a shrug, Heath opened the door and jumped down to the bottom of the ladder inside. The trapdoor fell shut behind him, and he found himself in the dark.
Almost. He waited sensibly until his eyes adjusted, and when they did, he spotted a faint light up ahead.
Heath took a deep breath. This was something he hadn’t done before. His world was lying and manipulating and getting everything he wanted out of life. Fighting and infiltrating and creeping into places owned by people who might well slit his throat on sight hadn’t been much a part of it. Still, it was always a good time to learn.
He checked that his dagger was in his belt. It was, but he left it there and moved cautiously toward the light, where he saw something that made him start in fright. Saeddryn Taranisäii herself, crouching on the floor in a little dirt-lined cellar. A lantern hanging from the roof cast dim light on her face, filling the ugly crevasse of her missing eye with shadow. Her long, greying black hair was tangled around her face. She didn’t look up when Heath came in but sat staring vacantly at the floor, mumbling to herself.
Forgetting himself for a moment, Heath took a step toward her. “My Lady—”
“Stop right there!”
Two people appeared from the shadows, putting themselves between Heath and Saeddryn. He stopped, quickly holding up his hands in surrender, but after his initial surprise, he soon relaxed. The two people—a man and a woman—had knives in their hands, but they held them uncertainly and kept their distance.
Heath offered up his brightest, friendliest, most reassuring smile. “Hello. Sorry if I startled you, but there’s no need to worry. I’m a friend.”
“So ye say!” the man said at once.
“I do,” said Heath. He became stern. “But who are you, may I ask? Are you a friend to this poor woman, or are you holding her prisoner?”
“We’re her followers, not her friends!” the woman snapped. “This is the rightful Queen of Tara!”
Very amateur, then, Heath decided. “Good,” he said. “Then I’ve come to the right place. One of you should probably guard the entrance before I say anything else.”
“Nice try, but we ain’t fooled,” said the man. “Get outta here!”
“What, so I can run off and tell the guard exactly where Lady Saeddryn is?” said Heath. “No, I think it would be better if you kept me here.”
They glanced at each other.
“Who are ye?” the man finally said. “How did ye find us?”
“My name’s Heath,” said Heath. “And I found you by talking to some of your friends. They were looking for new people to join the resistance here in Malvern. I’m not against a little treason, so I decided to join. And here I am.”
“Prove it,” said the woman.
“I found you, didn’t I?” said Heath. “I didn’t bring the guard. I’m not one of the guard. I’m just one man. I know things only your people know. I know that one of you found Lady Saeddryn after she fell out of that window and that you smuggled her into the city. I know you’ve been keeping her here while she recovers. How else could I know all that? Oh, and I also know that when she first came here, she went around the city talking to people and formed the resistance in the first place. That’s how you knew where she was going to be, so you could rescue her.”
They glanced at each other again.
“Fine,” the man said at last. “If ye know all that, then I believe ye.”
“Excellent,” said Heath. “Now, may I see Lady Saeddryn? I should ask how she is.”
The woman stood aside. “Ye can, but she won’t answer. She won’t talk t’nobody.”
“Feeling shy, is she?” said Heath, feeling he could afford a little flippancy.
Neither of them smiled.
“She’s . . . not well,” said the man, choosing his words with care.
“Is that so?” Heath approached Saeddryn. “Excuse me?” he said cautiously. “Lady Saeddryn? Hello?”
Once again, Saeddryn did not react to his presence in any way. She hadn’t moved since he had come in but stayed exactly where she was, staring blankly at the floor.
Heath shivered, and reached out for her shoulder. “Hello? Saeddryn? Can you hear me?”
The instant he touched her, Saeddryn came to life. She jerked upright and backed away, waving a hand wildly. “Not now!” she snapped, in a perfectly normal, irritated voice. “What are ye doin’ here, anyway? Get back to yer post!”
Heath managed to stop his heart from thumping, and took a step toward her. “Saeddryn,” he said. “Saeddryn! Can you hear me?”
“I said, get back to yer post!” Saeddryn rapped out. “Are ye daft? The Southerners could be here any moment. Do ye want me to tell Arenadd yer slackin’ off? Is that it?”
Heath glanced at the two rebels. The woman looked sadly at Saeddryn.
“See what I mean?” said the man. “She can’t see ye or hear ye. She just babbles like that.”
Saeddryn had stopped talking again. She shook her head slowly, dazedly. “Mother, I can’t do this,” she said, in a much softer voice than before. She took a step toward Heath, reaching out beseechingly. “Please, don’t make me do this. Yer the only family I got left.”
Heath took her hand in his and held it to try and comfort her. “Saeddryn . . .”
She wrenched her hand away. “What if I don’t want to?” she yelled. “I ain’t ye! I’m me. I don’t wanna just do whatever ye did; I want my own life, don’t ye understand? I don’t care about the stupid griffiners. They ain’t botherin’ us up here; can’t we just live in peace? I want a life, Mother. I wanna marry Rhodri, an’ I want a family. A real family. I ain’t a child no more! Let me go. Please, if ye love me, Mother . . .”
“It’s like she doesn’t know where she is any more,” said Heath, watching her with morbid fascination. “Like she’s forgotten where she is in her life.”
“Yer right,” said the woman. “She’s been doin’ that for days; talkin’ to people who died years ago, fightin’ enemies she must’ve killed when she was young. Even . . .”
“Yes?” Heath cocked his head.
The woman smiled sadly. “Yesterday she told someone she loved him, an’ then cried for an age afterward.”
“He must have said no,” Heath murmured.
The man looked at him. “What are we going to do? She’s been like this ever since we found her an’, she ain’t getting better. If we can’t fix her, she might be like this forever!”
Heath rubbed his face. “Ugh . . . I don’t know. Listen, do you have any food down here? I think better on a full stomach.”
“’Course,” said the woman, and hurried off. Her partner sat down on a handy chair and offered another one to Heath.
Heath sat and gratefully accepted some food when the woman returned. Apparently, he was one of the gang now.
While he ate, he watched Saeddryn as she continued to wander about the room, reliving some girlhood argument with her long-dead mother. She showed no sign of seeing anything else, or even noticing when she walked into a crate, and as Heath watched her, he grew steadily gloomier. He prided himself on being a jack of all trades, but he wasn’t a healer and knew nothing about how to cure madness, which was what he was more than ready to call this. What was he going to do? He’d found Saeddryn, but how was he going to get her back to Skenfrith when she was like this? He could get out of Malvern easily enough on his own, but doing it with a raving, instantly recognisable woman was another matter altogether.
“It’s no good,” said the woman, interrupting his thoughts. “Only the Night God can help her now.”
Heath raised his eyebrows. “The Night God . . . ?” he repeated slowly. “Hmm.”
The man was watching Saeddryn and looking almost tearful. “What did they do to her? My gods, what did they do?”
“I don’t think I want to know,” said Heath, not really listening. He kept his eyes on Saeddryn and let his new thought grow without prodding it too much in case it disappeared. Saeddryn had lost her mind, and with any other person that would be more or less the end of it. She’d be locked up somewhere and forgotten about, or left to wander at random until she died.
But, he reminded himself, Saeddryn wasn’t an ordinary person, or even completely human any more. She was the Shadow That Walked now, and the Night God had chosen and blessed her. Everyone knew the Night God’s chosen one was sent with a particular purpose to carry out, and Saeddryn couldn’t very well do that if she was mad.
Therefore, it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that the Night God would want to help her get better. Heath wasn’t even going to question whether she had the power to do that; you just didn’t spend time speculating about whether a god who could bring people back from the dead could deal with a little dose of insanity. Anyone with the power to cure death could probably cure just about anything.
The only question now was how to get the Night God to do it.
Well, Heath thought, how does one usually get a god’s attention?
“We should pray,” he said, without quite meaning to say it aloud.
“Eh?” said the man.
“I said we should pray,” Heath said more loudly. He stood up. “You’re right. Only the Night God can help her now. We just have to ask her.”
“We have,” said the woman. “We’ve prayed for her every night since she came here.”
“Then we’ll just have to make a proper show of it,” said Heath, after a moment’s consideration. “You there . . . er . . . can you get some rocks?”
The man looked blank. “What for?”
Heath shook his head. “Actually, never mind. I reckon we could use anything we can get our hands on. It’s the shape that really matters.”
“What shape?” said the woman.
“We have to make a circle,” said Heath. “A stone circle. Or . . . I don’t know, a circle of bricks or chairs or bits of wood.”
“I know where there are some bricks,” said the man, instantly latching onto the idea. “I can go and get them, if ye like.”
Heath nodded. “Do it. We should have it built by moonrise.”
“How many should I get?”
“Er . . . thirteen, I think.”
“I think we have that many.” The man darted off to climb a staircase into the house above.
While he was gone, Heath went to the trapdoor and poked his head out. He could see the sky, and he looked at it thoughtfully for a few moments before reaching into his tunic and bringing out a small mirror. It was made from a polished silver plate and was just about the only possession he’d managed to hang on to all this time. When he angled it correctly, it reflected the fading sunlight down into the cellar.
Heath spent some time experimenting with this and eventually retreated to check on Saeddryn. She had settled down again in the corner and was mumbling to herself. Heath thought he had never seen anything so utterly sad.
“Now then,” he told the woman, whose name he wasn’t planning to ask, “here’s the plan. We build our circle right about . . . here.” He scuffed a mark on the floor with his boot. “Once the moon comes up, we make Her Ladyship stand in the middle of it, and I’ll direct some moonlight onto her. That should put the Night God’s eye right on her.”
The woman nodded. “What should we do while ye’re doin’ that?”
“Pray,” said Heath. “I don’t think the words would matter that much.”
“I will, then,” said the woman. “Yer plan sounds good.”
“My plans always do,” Heath said gravely.
The man returned shortly after this, carrying an armload of bricks. He dumped them on the floor and went back upstairs to get the rest of them, and while he was gone, Heath and the woman set about building the circle. They did their best to make it as round as possible, standing the bricks on their ends and spacing them out as evenly as they could.
Once the bricks were in place, Heath, still unsatisfied, took out his knife and scratched some symbols into the ground—circles to represent full moons in front of each stone, and some stars and different phases placed in a pattern around the rest of the inside. The pattern didn’t mean anything as far as Heath knew; since he had to improvise, he picked one that looked nice. The Night God was a woman, he reasoned, so she probably liked things to look pretty. His two helpers were impressed, at least.
“Did ye learn that in the Temple?” the woman asked.
“I did,” Heath said immediately. “It will sanctify the circle.”
The man smiled hopefully; the woman looked positively awestruck.
“Now then, let’s see if the Night God is awake yet.” Heath went to the trapdoor to check. Night had indeed come, but he couldn’t see the moon yet. Better wait a while, then.
He hung around in the cellar and enjoyed another meal courtesy of his two hosts, who took it in turns to check the sky every so often. The moon, however, seemed reluctant.
“Don’t worry,” Heath advised. “It’ll come when it’s ready.”
He had noticed a blanket and a pillow on the floor, and happily claimed them both without asking permission. Before long, the tiring and troublesome day he had had made itself felt, and he fell asleep with one leg resting on another, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. And because he was Heath, he didn’t.
A hand shook Heath awake.
He opened one eye. “Hm?”
“Sir? Er . . . Heath? The moon . . .”
Heath sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Shown itself, has it?”
“Yes, sir.” The man helped him up.
Heath looked over at Saeddryn—she hadn’t moved. “Then let’s get to work! Move her into the circle, and I’ll get into position.”
Together, the man and the woman coaxed Saeddryn into getting up. She did it without too much effort and walked blindly between them toward the circle, like someone with no mind of her own. She kicked over several of the bricks when she entered the circle, but once her helpers let go of her, she stood in the centre among Heath’s symbols and didn’t seem inclined to move again.
While the man and woman put the bricks back in place, Heath went to the trapdoor and peeked out. Sure enough, there was a pale sliver of moon visible in the sky above the alley. He reached for his mirror, but the first thing his fingers touched was his knife.
He stopped, frowning to himself, then nodded. “Of course. Nearly forgot there . . .”
Saeddryn looked through him as he approached the circle. Beside her, standing outside the circle, the man said, “What are ye doin’?”
“I forgot that we have to make an offering,” said Heath. “Just wait a moment . . .”
He brought his knife out and pressed the blade against the palm of his hand. “Well, Saeddryn,” he murmured. “I promised Caedmon my hand would be useful to him if he didn’t have it cut off. Let’s hope it is.”
He sliced the blade across his hand and grimaced as blood dripped onto the circle. “May this offering of true Northern blood summon you!” he said quickly, hoping it sounded suitably ritualistic.
He hastily wrapped up his hand before it could bleed on his clothes and went to the trapdoor. “Now, pray!” he said, and thrust the mirror out into the open air.
The effect was much less noticeable than it had been during the day, but when Heath looked back, he saw faint, silvery light shining into the cellar. He moved the mirror around, angling and reangling it until the light touched Saeddryn’s face. On either side of the circle, the others prayed in low, murmuring voices.
Heath, holding the mirror as still as he could, looked up at the moon. In all his adult life, he had never prayed. It was too . . . unconfident. Too uncertain.
So he didn’t pray now. Instead, he talked to the Night God as if she were another person right in front of him.
“Hey. You there. I know you can hear me; you’re famous for it. Now, I understand you sent this woman here, Saeddryn Taranisäii. I was pretty certain of it before, but now it’s a fact in my mind. So she’s here to do your bidding, which is all well and good, but from what I can see, she’s not doing it that well right now. So go on. Do your thing. Help her. I’m helping her. You can, too! Go on,” he said again. “It’s easy, isn’t it? We both know what you want, and . . . honestly, I want it, too. Everyone who really believes in you does. So help them, too. Help us all. Help her. She’s earned it.”
He kept on like this tirelessly, not letting the mirror move, even after his hand began to shake. His other hand, holding up the trapdoor, stung fiercely. He could feel the blood congealing on his arm, and realised he must have cut himself more deeply than he’d meant to. But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was this.
A ferocious determination that he had not felt in years rose inside him. It was the same feeling that had made him leave his home all those years ago, that determination that had come after he decided that he would not be poor ever again but would have all those things the rich took for granted and revel in them. But that determination had been selfish, and this was a different kind: a determination to help someone other than himself. It was quite a novel sensation.
Eventually, the moon drifted out of sight, and Heath couldn’t hold his arms up any longer. He put the mirror away and shut the trapdoor, finally turning around to see what the results of his night’s work had been.
Saeddryn was still standing there, unmoving and expressionless. The man and woman on either side of her both looked exhausted and miserable.
Heath ignored them. “Saeddryn? Saeddryn, can you hear me?”
Yet again, Saeddryn did not respond to him at all.
Tiredness, nerves, and sheer frustration finally got to Heath. He strode forward straight into the circle, knocking the bricks aside, and seized Saeddryn by the front of her dress. “I said, can you hear me?” he shouted.
Saeddryn blinked once, slowly, and did nothing else.
Heath had had enough. He pulled his hand back and slapped her hard in the face.
The man and woman started forward with furious yells, but they didn’t get the chance to do anything else.
Before anyone could say or do a thing, there was a shout, a thump, and a cry and there was Heath, flat on the floor, with Saeddryn on top of him, holding a dagger against his throat.
For a long moment, nobody moved. Heath’s breath was cut with pain, and one eye twitched. The knife at his throat—his own knife—had new blood on it.
“Er,” he said eventually. “I, er, I think she’s feeling better . . .”
Saeddryn stayed where she was for a few heartbeats, then she took the knife away and stood up, blinking dazedly. “What . . . ?”
Heath scrabbled away from her with astonishing speed and pressed himself against the wall. He dabbed at his face with his bandaged hand. “Sorry about that, my Lady, but it worked. Thanks for the reward. It was my pleasure.”
Saeddryn didn’t seem to hear him. She lowered the knife and rubbed her face, then looked blankly around the room. “What is this . . . ? How did I . . . ?”
Heath, seeing that his two companions didn’t look ready to take the initiative, took it for them. “You’re safe,” he said. “And sane again . . . in theory. My name’s Heath. I think you already know these two.”
Saeddryn peered at them. “What happened?”
“Well,” said Heath. “I don’t know the full story, but apparently you came here—to Malvern—to assassinate the, er, the Queen. Something went horribly wrong, we don’t know what, but you fell out of a very, very high window and were lucky enough to be rescued by some of your supporters, who brought you here to this cozy cellar. Unfortunately, you were a little confused for a while, but luckily I came along and came up with a brilliant plan to make you feel better. Then you slashed me across the face. Does any of that sound familiar?”
Saeddryn shuddered. “Oh shadows . . . I remember . . . so confused . . . didn’t know where I was, who was there . . . just seein’ things that had already happened, didn’t know if they were today or yesterday or now . . .”
“But you’re all better now,” said Heath, trying to sound jovial. “Can I have my knife back, please?”
Saeddryn’s eye narrowed. “Who are ye? Where did ye come from?”
Heath glanced at the other two. “Me, I came from Skenfrith. From . . . well, maybe you should see for yourself.” He reached into his tunic and offered her a piece of paper with a wax seal on it.
She took it and scanned its contents. Then she smiled, and handed it back. “I see. He did well, to send ye. Here.” She gave back his knife. “I’m sorry I hurt ye. I didn’t know if ye were a friend, or . . . what ye were.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Heath. “Honestly, a scar from the Shadow That Walks should be an honour for anyone.”
“Aye, an’ I’ll honour the half-breed with a few more before I’m done,” Saeddryn growled.
“Of course.” Heath took a few deep breaths. He’d succeeded. Now he’d just have to hope the scar he was probably going to have would make him look heroic rather than just ugly.
“Now . . .” Saeddryn dusted herself down and looked at her two followers. “Thanks to both of ye. Ye’ve done yer duty as true Northerners, an’ I promise ye both that when this is all over, ye may tell Caedmon who ye are an’ have any reward ye care to name. As for me, when I next see the Night God, I’ll tell her both yer names an’ praise ye to her.”
“Er, I don’t suppose you could maybe mention me?” Heath said, from the background.
“It’s still night outside, an’ I should go now,” said Saeddryn, ignoring him. “The longer I stay here, the more danger I bring ye. I’ll take Heath with me, an’ thank ye both.”
“And thank you from me, too,” said Heath. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
He nodded politely to them and followed Saeddryn out of the cellar. To his alarm, she climbed straight up through the trapdoor without checking if the coast was clear and walked off without waiting for him.
He hurried after her. “Wait!”
Saeddryn stopped near the alley entrance, and peered out into the street beyond before turning to him. “We’re leavin’ the city tonight,” she said.
“Are we going to meet up with you-know-who?” asked Heath.
“Understood,” said Heath. “Now, as for getting out of the city, I have a few suggestions. Just between you and me, I have some experience—”
Saeddryn took him by the arm. “Shut up. Yer comin’ with me, an’ yer gonna do it without talkin’ or I’m leavin’ ye here.”
“Fine, fine. Just as you say, milady. Can I just ask how we’re going to do this?”
“Hold on to me,” said Saeddryn. “Don’t let go, no matter what happens. Got that?”
Heath gripped her arm. “I think so, but—argh!”
Saeddryn leapt forward, dragging him with her, out of the alley and into a black void.
* * *
Dark winds blew over the winter landscape of the North. They carried snow with them, and dead leaves and bad news. But no news could be worse, or darker, or cause more death than the griffin that flew high above.
Few griffins could or would fly at night, but this one had no fear. He made a massive shadow against the stars, a moving blackness that would terrify anyone who saw it, man or griffin.
No griffin was mightier than the Mighty Skandar, and everyone knew it. He was the master of this territory and always would be unless another griffin won it from him. But that would never happen.
He had been away for a while, waiting for his human to get better. Arenadd always got better, no matter what. This time it seemed to be taking longer than usual, but that didn’t matter. He had been content to stay where he was, at least until the mysterious white griffin came to him in his sleep again. Last time he had seen her, he had done as she said he should, and it had made him master of the North. So this time he had been quick to listen to her again. He had flown away to Warwick and used his power to bring Saeddryn back to life, just as he had once done for Arenadd.
But when he realised that the white griffin meant for him to make Saeddryn his human, instead of Arenadd, Skandar rebelled. Saeddryn belonged to his son, Aenae, and besides, Skandar did not like her. She argued with Arenadd, made him angry, tried to stop him doing what he wanted. It was not her place to do that, when he was dominant over her. Fighting with him meant that she wanted to challenge him for his position as dominant human, and Skandar would not allow that. Aenae had wanted to challenge as well, had wanted to fight his own father and take his place. But Skandar had defeated him easily.
No, Skandar wanted nothing to do with him, or with Saeddryn. He wanted Arenadd with him, but if Arenadd was too ill to do that, then Skandar would go without him until he was better. He had had enough of waiting. He was coming back to Malvern now, back home to resume his place as supreme griffin, and nobody would stop him. He even relished the possibility that someone might. Killing them would be the fastest way to display his might to anyone who had lost respect for him while he was away.
Malvern was close now. He recognised its shape just ahead, and flew eagerly toward it.
Before long, the outer walls passed beneath him, and he made for the tallest tower of the Eyrie. At the very top, an opening beckoned to him—an archway much bigger than any of the others that dotted the sides of the tower. Faint light showed through it and helped him come in to land on the floor of his old nest.
He was pleased to find it unoccupied, and with only the faintest, oldest scent of another griffin. The straw hadn’t been changed in some time, and the water trough had gone dry. Good, that meant nobody else had been using it.
Skandar took a moment to groom and sauntered off through the curtain and into Arenadd’s bedroom.
There was someone in it. A human, sitting by the fire. For an instant, the black, curly fur on its head made Skandar tense, but then the smell hit his nostrils and he huffed sharply and shook his head. Not Arenadd.
The human reacted with fear when it saw him, but it did not back down far. “Skandar!” it said. “It’s you!”
Skandar took an aggressive step toward it, but then he finally recognised the scent and stopped. He knew this human; it was Arenadd’s friend, and had always done what he told it to. Therefore, it was not a threat or a challenger but a useful inferior. It had even helped Skandar once, by finding Arenadd when he was lost.
Skandar gave a friendly flick of his tail. “You human,” he said. “You wait for me here?”
“I didn’t think you was gonna come back,” said the human, in fractured and clumsy griffish not that different from his own.
“Have,” said Skandar. “I come home to be Mighty Skandar again.”
“That’s good,” said the human—Laela, that was her name. “Where’ve yeh been?”
“Have been with human,” said Skandar. “But now come back. Human come back later.”
“Skandar, Arenadd’s not comin’ back,” said Laela. “He’s dead.”
Skandar snorted; humans were all so stupid. “Human come back,” he said. “Come back soon. Human is magic. Human never die.”
“But he’s dead now, Skandar.”
Skandar decided to ignore that. It didn’t matter if she understood or not. “Am home now,” he said. “And will not leave again.” Then, remembering; “Where you griffin? Where Oeka?”
“She’s . . . gone,” said Laela.
Skandar chirped. “Oeka leave you?” He opened his beak wide in his amusement. “You weak human, if she leave! What you do? You make Oeka angry?”
“No,” said Laela.
Skandar wasn’t listening. He watched the human, enjoying the sheer pathetic idea of this. It was rare for a griffin to actually abandon its human; the death of either human or griffin was one thing, but for a griffin to actually leave . . . well, that only happened if the human had done something truly stupid or weak. He wondered what this one had done to make the little runt Oeka fly away.
“Listen,” said Laela. “Skandar. I got an idea.”
Skandar cocked his head. “What idea?”
“You ain’t got a partner now,” said Laela. “Neither do I. You wanna rule Malvern again. I’m tryin’ to keep on ruling. So why don’t we work together? Yeh know, help each other?”
Skandar just stared at her.
“Make me yer human,” said Laela.
Skandar hissed. “Have human already! Not need you!”
“Then let me help yeh!” said Laela. “I helped you an’ Arenadd before, didn’t I? Let me do it again. I can go with you an’ help yeh the way Arenadd would while he’s gone.”
Skandar huffed softly; this idea sounded interesting.
“There’s somethin’ I should tell yeh,” said Laela. “The Unpartnered—remember them? Well, they’ve left. They went to Warwick an’ then Fruitsheart, t’fight my—Arenadd’s enemies, an’ now they won’t come back. They won’t fight any more.”
Skandar hissed. “Why not fight?”
“They won’t fight without a griffin t’lead them,” said Laela. “You, Skandar. Only you can lead them.”
Skandar hissed again, louder. “They not leave! Not sit and groom when there are enemies!”
“They need you to go to them,” said Laela. “But they won’t listen if yeh don’t have a human. Take me with yeh.”
“I go,” Skandar growled. “I make them follow, and we fight again! You—you human come, too, you come to help.”
“I will,” said Laela.
“Good! You good human, to help. We fight enemy together!” Skandar paused. “What enemy?”
“Saeddryn,” said Laela.
Skandar cocked his head. “Why fight Aenae’s human?”
“She wants to take over,” said Laela. “She wants all yer power, Skandar. To rule Malvern like Arenadd di—does.”
Skandar screamed his rage. “Human not rule! Aenae not rule! I rule! Arenadd rule!”
“That’s right!” Laela shouted over his din. “Saeddryn doesn’t rule the North; you do! An’ her son, Caedmon, an’ his partner Shar—they’re helpin’ her.”
“I kill,” said Skandar. “I bring Unpartnered, and I kill. Kill anyone who challenge. Kill you.” He thrust his massive black beak toward her, glaring straight into her tiny white face. “Kill you if you challenge. Human hear this?”
“Yes. I won’t challenge, Skandar. Promise. Oeka won’t either.”
“If she challenge, she die too,” Skandar warned.
“Is good, then,” said Skandar, pulling away from her. “I go sleep now. Human bring food, water.”
“I will,” said Laela.
Skandar retreated into his nest.
Once the curtain had fallen back into place behind him, Laela punched the air and did a little jig. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Hahahahah!”
She flopped down on the bed and tried not to laugh like a lunatic.
Her journal was under the pillow. On impulse, she pulled it out and went to the desk. There she sat down, and scratched out another entry. It was very short.
Skander is back an were gonna wipe those basterds off the map. Caedmon is finnished.
Heath’s journey back to Skenfrith with Saeddryn was much shorter than the one that had taken him to Malvern. Much shorter. But then, he was travelling Saeddryn’s way this time around.
He didn’t enjoy it much. Again and again Saeddryn would drag him into the shadows, and there would be nothing but a horrible, stumbling rush through a darkness that seemed to suck all the warmth out of his body. In between times, they would stop and rest in the light, but Saeddryn seemed desperate to get back to Skenfrith as fast as possible, and she gave Heath almost no time to eat or even sleep. She herself didn’t seem to need it at all. Heath was too intimidated by her to complain and did his best to put a brave face on it. After the first day or so, he stopped wanting to eat anyway, but he wanted to sleep more and more. Only sheer terror of the darkness stopped him from dozing off while Saeddryn pulled him through it, and the rest of the time she constantly woke him up before he had had the amount of sleep he needed.
Also, his face hurt. Before long, it began to itch as well, and the ache behind the itch got so bad that it kept him awake even when he got the chance to sleep.
And all the while there was the darkness.
Heath soon grew to hate it. He felt weak and sick every time he came out of it—unlike Saeddryn, who looked stronger and healthier with every trip. She was massively strong while they were in the darkness, too; there was no chance of her ever losing her grip on him, thank the gods. When Heath slept, he had recurring nightmares where she let go of him and left him to wander alone in the darkness until it sucked the life out of him forever.
By the time Saeddryn told him they were close to Skenfrith’s walls, he barely cared any more.
“Can we just walk the rest of the way?” he mumbled. He hadn’t used his trademark smile in some time.
“All right,” said Saeddryn. “It’s not far.”
“Thank goodnesh,” said Heath. His mouth felt clumsy.
“Here.” Saeddryn offered him her arm. “Ye’ve done well all this way, an’ when we get there, ye’ll have a nice rest. I’m sure they can heal ye, too. Ye don’t look so good.”
“Don’t feel so good,” said Heath. His mind felt all tangled up.
He stumbled the rest of the way along the road, letting Saeddryn guide him until she made him stop. As if in a dream, he heard her talking to someone and caught a glimpse of the gates of Skenfrith. After that, he walked some more, along what he thought were streets, until there was a door and some stairs, and there was Caedmon, and his friend Myfina.
Saeddryn let go of Heath and embraced her son.
Heath turned, and saw Myfina looking at him in shock. “Heath? My gods, what happened to you? Heath?” Her voice sounded distorted.
Heath tried to grin, and groaned when pain lanced through his face. “I’m fine,” he said. His voice sounded distorted, too.
Another voice. “Heath? Dear gods.”
Caedmon. Heath took a step toward him. “Back and all . . . all finished . . . sir,” he said. The words felt thick and clumsy in his mouth. “Found your mother, she’s fine, but I think I need . . .”
Caedmon’s hands grasped his shoulders. “Heath? Heath, are you all right?”
“Need to sit down,” Heath managed.
“All right. It’s all right. Come this way.”
Heath saw the chair and managed to grab the backrest. “Thanks.”
Caedmon let go of him. “You just sit down and rest, Heath. You’ve done brilliantly.”
Heath sat, but the chair seemed to be moving underneath him. “Caedmon,” he said, trying to catch him by the arm and missing. “The darkness . . . you’ve got to . . . darkness takes the . . . takes the life . . .” His voice faded away in his ears. “Takes the life away,” it said, so faintly he could barely hear it, even though it was his own. “Stay away from . . . dark . . .”
Myfina cried out in horror as Heath fell off the chair and crumpled onto the floor. “Oh no!”
She and Caedmon ran to his side and tried to wake him up, but he didn’t answer. He was unconscious, and his skin was burning hot. On his face, the wound stood out horribly, red with swelling that had spread outward and pushed one eye shut.
Saeddryn knelt by his head and put her cold hands on his forehead. “Oh no . . .”
“That wound’s infected,” said Caedmon. “It’s made him sick; he’s burning up with fever.”
Saeddryn looked up, and she sounded as cool and detached as she looked. “This man saved my life. He saved all our lives. Brought me back from madness. An’ this is how I repaid him.”
“We have to get him to a healer, now,” said Caedmon, running for the door.
Myfina stayed by Heath’s side as he was lifted onto a stretcher and followed him to the infirmary. Caedmon went, too, but stayed outside when Heath went in, catching Myfina by the elbow to stop her following.
“Stop,” he said. “You’ll only get in their way.”
Myfina stood beside him, shaking her head gently. “No,” she murmured. “Please Night God, don’t take him.”
Caedmon, watching her, felt a cold stab in his heart. But all he said was, “I’m sure they can help him.”
“They will,” Myfina said fiercely. “He can’t die. He’s Heath.”
“Yes.” Caedmon smiled. “Heath of no fixed name and no fixed abode. One day, I’m going to make him tell me his real name.”
“Me too,” said Myfina. “But he’ll always be Heath to me.”
“There’s nothin’ ye can do for him now,” said Saeddryn, from behind them. “An’ we have things to talk about.”
Caedmon turned to her. “You’re right. Let’s go to the council chamber, and you can tell us both what happened.”
The three of them hurried off there and shut themselves in before Saeddryn told them her story.
“Got into Malvern, an’ did some talking. Gathered followers, instructed ’em on what to do when we come back there. They told me some nasty things about what’s been goin’ on in the Eyrie. Said the half-breed’s partner, Oeka, had been doin’ something in there. Working some sort of magic that killed anyone who got too close. They also told me about what happened to yer father, Caedmon. An’ I wouldn’t tell ye, but it’s important that ye know.”
Caedmon’s mouth tightened. “What is it?”
“The half-breed had set things up t’kill him the usual way, but that didn’t happen. When they brought him out, Oeka did somethin’. Spoke into people’s minds. Everybody there heard her, in their heads.”
“She can do that?” Myfina interrupted.
“Aye,” said Saeddryn. “It’s a rare power, but she’s got it. Power over the mind. An’ it does worse than just talk. She used it. On yer father, Caedmon. Did it t’show everyone what she could do.”
“What did she do?” asked Caedmon, very quietly.
“Broke his mind,” said Saeddryn, grim but steady. “Crushed it so bad it killed him. Then she warned everyone that she’d do the same to them. When I was in the city, people warned me it’d happen to me next, but I got into the Eyrie fine. I found the half-breed, an’ I was about to kill her, and then . . .”
“Then what?” said Caedmon.
Saeddryn spread her hands. “I don’t know. I don’t remember anything that happened after that. I just remember pain, in my head, an’ after that I didn’t know what was goin’ on any more. People told me afterward I jumped out the window an’ fell all the way down the tower. Luckily, one of my new friends found me and snuck me out into the city. They did their best t’look after me until yer friend came along. He cured me.”
“Thought on his feet,” said Saeddryn. “He built a circle an’ made a ritual to the Night God. Called her up an’ prayed to her t’help me. She woke me up. After that, I got us both out of Malvern an’ back here.”
“How did he get hurt like that?” said Myfina. “What happened to his face?”
“I did it,” said Saeddryn. “By accident. When I woke up, I got confused an’ thought I was still fightin’. I cut his face without realising I’d done it.”
“I hope he’ll be all right,” Myfina said sadly.
“Look,” said Saeddryn. “What we need t’be thinkin’ about here is this. I did my best t’do what ye asked me, Caedmon, but I failed. An’ as long as that griffin is there in Malvern, there’s no way I can do it. It’s only sheer luck I wasn’t caught. The only way we’re gonna kill the half-breed is if she goes somewhere away from her partner, but I don’t think she’s gonna do that. She ain’t stupid; she knows about me now, an’ she must know that griffin is her only protection from me. I’m sorry, Caedmon. But at least I got back here, an’ now I’m ready. So tell me: What are yer orders? What do ye want me t’do next?”
Caedmon frowned. “This is going to be harder than I thought. And don’t worry; I’m not going to send you back there. The half-breed can fester in Malvern while she waits for us to come to her. But things aren’t as bad as they might seem to you. I’ve had some news from Fruitsheart. The Unpartnered are there; they went with Iorwerth to get us, but obviously we’d gone by then. After that, they might have come on to here, but they haven’t. Instead, they’re staying in Fruitsheart, and Iorwerth and Kaanee have gone back to Malvern without them.”
Saeddryn’s eye narrowed. “Why?”
“I’m not sure,” said Caedmon. “But I’ve been told that they’re not doing anything in Fruitsheart; just flying around and eating all the food. My guess is they’ve rebelled. It was incredible that they agreed to leave Malvern in the first place; by the looks of it, they’ve changed their minds now. Maybe this Oeka isn’t as powerful as she seems.”
“Obviously,” Myfina put in. “Without the Unpartnered, Malvern has lost the advantage. We can march on there now, and the entire Council has agreed that if the Unpartnered aren’t there to defend the city, we should be able to take it without much trouble.”
“What about Oeka?” asked Saeddryn. “She’s the only real threat left in that case.”
“She can’t kill all of us,” said Caedmon. “Not an entire army of us. All it’ll take is for one person or griffin to get close enough, and she’s dead. No more threat.”
“I say we do it, then,” said Saeddryn. “Is everything ready?”
“Almost,” said Caedmon. “We’re recruiting as many as we can, and some reinforcements are coming over from Fruitsheart. We’re also trying to find a griffin with the power to break open the gates at Malvern. There should be one somewhere; Shar’s interrogating them now. We weren’t going to march until we knew what had happened to you, but that’s not a problem now.”
“When can we leave, then?” said Saeddryn.
“In a couple of days if everything goes to plan.”
“Good. That should be soon enough. If that’s everything, I’m gonna go clean up.”
Caedmon nodded. “You can go.”
“I’m going to go and see how Heath is,” said Myfina.
“I’ll come with you,” said Caedmon.
* * *
Laela and Skandar left Malvern the day after his arrival and, more than anything else, Laela gloried in simply being able to leave the city after such a long time cooped up. She had grown more frustrated than she realised, forced to stay in her Eyrie while things happened out of her reach. Once she had thought that she would be able to leave when Oeka grew big enough to carry her, but now she knew that would never happen.
But she gloried even more in having Skandar with her. She had flown on his back a few times in the past, but always with Arenadd there, and Skandar had only carried her under sufferance and because his human insisted. Now he was carrying just her, willingly, and Laela was as close to being partnered with him as she ever would be. Just knowing that was a thrill. And knowing what they would be able to do together was even more exciting.
Every time she thought of it, she wanted to laugh the same cold, bloody laugh her father had used the day she saw him slaughter an entire crew of Amorani pirates. He had not done that alone; he had done it with Skandar, and now it was Laela’s turn to take her father’s place by the giant griffin’s side. Now she would be the one to strike terror into her enemies, and with Skandar there, even Saeddryn didn’t scare her any more. She revelled in the prospect.
For now, though, there were the Unpartnered to deal with. Iorwerth and Kaanee had come, and a couple of fighting griffiners served as an escort—more for the look of the thing than for any other reason since Laela didn’t believe that anyone would need an escort with Skandar present. Skandar ate his enemies, for gods’ sakes.
Fruitsheart, predictably, was a mess. The Unpartnered had spread through the city, nesting on rooftops and claiming entire buildings for themselves, forcing the original occupants to put up with them or move. They were eating anything they found: stealing animals from the city and venturing into the farmlands around it in search of bigger prey. The griffiners living in the tower had made some attempts to bring them under control, but with only a small Hatchery and few other places made for griffins to live in, the Unpartnered were everywhere. And they were done with taking orders.
Laela, Skandar, and the others landed at the governor’s tower, where they heard all this. Iorwerth, who had obviously heard it all before, looked grim, and Laela groaned.
Skandar, however, only blinked and shifted his massive bulk slightly.
Laela turned to him. “Skandar, what should we do?”
Skandar turned his head toward her, and for a moment it looked like he was going to do what he usually did: stand there looking uninterested and wait for the nearest human to think for him.
But then he spoke. “Easy to do. Unpartnered have stronger griffins among them, dominant griffins. I find them, make them bow heads to me. Then every griffin who bow to them, bow to me also.”
Laela stared in surprise. “An’ where would those griffins be?”
Skandar clicked his beak. “Tower is best place to nest. Higher is better. Strongest Unpartnered will be sleeping there. I go find them now.”
He loped off. Laela shrugged and grinned at Iorwerth before following. She had to trot; Skandar was surprisingly fast for his size.
The giant griffin seemed to know his way around since he didn’t hesitate or wander at all but went straight out and into the griffin nesting chamber on the top level, which was supposed to be home to the governor’s partner. Now, though, just as Laela had been told, the proper owner had been driven out by one of the Unpartnered. When she entered, she caught a brief glimpse of a great, hulking creature dozing in a heap of straw before Skandar made his move.
Without even breaking stride, Skandar pounced on the other griffin.
Caught by surprise, it fell heavily onto its side. Skandar didn’t give it any opportunity to recover, but hurled himself on top of it like a dark-feathered avalanche. The other griffin, who was still quite large though smaller than Skandar, pushed back, and for several tense moments the two huge beasts grappled with each other, hissing and snarling.
But Skandar was the stronger, and the fight did not last long before he had the other griffin cringing and bowing its head in submission.
“You, griffin!” he screeched. “What you do here? You not do what meant to!”
“I am meant to do nothing!” the other griffin retorted, apparently not completely cowed after all. “I have decided to live here, so I have taken this nest.”
“You not have nest!” said Skandar. “You Unpartnered. Have no human. Griffin with no human not have nest. Not allowed! You nest in Malvern, or in tree. Not in tower.”
“I can do as I please!” said the other griffin—Laela saw now that it was a female, but she had a hulking, thick-limbed build that made her look a bit like Skandar. “And besides that,” the female went on, “Who are you to tell me what to do? I see no human with you!”
Skandar hit her in the head with his talons. “Am Mighty Skandar! Am master of this land, master of griffin. You do as I say, not what you want, or I tear off head!”
“You are not mighty any more,” said the female. “You have lost your human.”
This time, Skandar hit her hard enough to draw blood. “Have human! Human only not here now. Have brought this one instead.”
“You cannot do that,” the female persisted. “A griffin can only have one human. It is the law—”
Skandar’s beak snapped shut on the joint of her wing. He pulled, and began to shake it violently, wrenching it in its socket. The female screamed in pain, but he kept going mercilessly. “What say now?” he screeched. “You say what I do now? You argue with no wing? Argue now?”
“No!” She tried to free herself, and Skandar stopped shaking the wing though he didn’t let go.
The female slumped, her flank trembling. “I will not argue any more. You are right. Please, do not hurt my wing . . . Mighty Skandar.”
That seemed enough to satisfy him. He gave her wing one last, agonising wrench, then let her go. “You strong,” he admitted. “But not strong enough to fight Mighty Skandar.”
The female wisely stayed on her side. Her wing stayed outstretched, the joint wet with blood. “No,” she said. “I am not strong enough, Father.”
Skandar snorted. “Knew you come from Mighty Skandar egg. You big! But none of Skandar’s chicks are bigger than him. Now, you come. You bow head to me. Other Unpartnered do same.”
“Yes, Father,” said the female. “None of them will dare to fight you. I am the strongest of them, and they know it. I fought many of them for this nest. When they see that you have beaten me, they will remember their respect for you.”
“Is good!” said Skandar. “We leave before dark. Go fight enemy.”
The female stood up and managed to loosely fold her wing. “Where shall we fight them?”
Skandar grunted and looked toward Laela.
“Skenfrith,” she said quickly. “They’re in Skenfrith.”
The big female tossed her head. “You are the Mighty Skandar’s new human?”
“Er . . . yeah,” said Laela. “Yeah, I’m his human now.” When Skandar didn’t disagree with her, she felt her chest swell a little with pride.
“Then you are the lead human of the North?”
Laela nodded. “I’m the Queen. Laela’s my name. What’s yours?”
The female seemed bored already, but she paused long enough to reply. “I am Seeak.”
Skandar had already begun to leave. Seeak followed—limping slightly—and Laela went, too. Iorwerth and Kaanee, who had waited back in the governor’s audience chamber, joined them along the way. Skandar, ignoring them, went straight up the ramp to the roof.
There he went to stand at the very edge, overlooking the city. Kaanee stood beside him, a little farther back, and Seeak took up a place on the opposite side. Laela stayed away with Iorwerth, and the two humans stood and watched, both knowing that neither of them had a part to play. This was a griffin thing.
Skandar braced himself and sent out a call. It was a different sound from the usual griffin screech. It sounded like a mixture of eagle scream and lion roar, as with every griffin, but this was a territorial call, modulated to include words.
“Mighty Skandar! Mighty Skandar! Mighty Skandaaaar!”
He called again and again, announcing himself to the world and claiming Fruitsheart as his territory, where every other griffin must submit to him or prepare to fight. It was a challenge, then, but Laela didn’t realise it until she saw several griffins flying toward the tower. At first she thought they were just coming to investigate, but as they landed she took one look at them and their demeanours and felt her heart begin to flutter. Big griffins. Rough, tough-looking griffins, mostly males, and all advancing aggressively toward Skandar. Beside him, Kaanee and Seeak quietly moved out of the way.
Kaanee went straight to his human. “Come,” he said. “We should not be in the way.”
“They’re going to fight?” asked Iorwerth.
“Yes, and Skandar must defeat all of them to be master of the Unpartnered again. Laela, you should come with us.”
Laela was more than happy to obey. Kaanee herded her and Iorwerth back into the opening they had first come through, and together the three of them took shelter and waited.
Laela couldn’t see past Kaanee’s wing, but she heard enough to make her cringe. Screeches and snapping beaks, and the thud and slap of massive bodies smacking into each other and the ground. Talons on stone—and once an ugly, wet tearing sound that could only be a serious wound opening. And, during a brief silence, she heard the worst sound of all: the low, wheezing, whimpering voice of a dying griffin.
But a moment later, the sounds of fighting resumed, and Laela breathed easy again.
After a long, tense wait, Kaanee decided it was safe to emerge. Laela ran out with him and found a nasty sight.
Skandar was there, his sides heaving as he stood and bled. The Unpartnered who had fought him were now only three; the rest must have flown away. Two lay on their bellies at Skandar’s talons, and a third was on his back a short distance away, breathing slowly and painfully as his life flowed out through an appalling wound in his throat. Seeak was still there, at a safe distance, having apparently stayed away from the fight.
Skandar turned his head toward Laela. “Have fought well,” he panted. “Have won. Am now leader of Unpartnered again. These here will tell them, and we leave today!”
Laela bowed to him, with complete sincerity. “Yer everything the stories say yeh are an’ more, Skandar, an’ now I’ve seen it for myself. When this is over, I’ll make a statue of you, right in Malvern.”
“We leave now,” said Skandar, as if he hadn’t heard her. “Come now, on Skandar’s back.”
“Are yeh sure?” said Laela. “Don’t yeh need some healin’ or somethin’?”
“No,” Iorwerth interrupted. “Don’t ask questions, my Lady. The Unpartnered will come now or never. Do as Skandar says.”
“Right.” Laela went straight to Skandar, and climbed onto his shoulders as he bent down to let her on. He straightened up at once, and she quickly wrapped her hands around the harness he wore and held on tight.
Skandar walked to the edge of the tower again. The two defeated griffins had already flown off, and he waited a short while to let them fly over the city and call their message. Then he added his own voice to theirs, making his territorial cry as he had done before. This time, nobody challenged him.
Laela watched, astonished, as griffins rose into the air. Everywhere, the city disgorged more of them—from the walls, the houses, the civic buildings, and even the lakeshore beyond the walls. Skandar continued to call them, and they came, adding themselves to a great flock now forming over the city.
When the flood of griffins had slowed, and most of the Unpartnered were on the wing, Skandar took off from the tower. Kaanee and Seeak followed close behind him, riding on his slipstream, and the Unpartnered left the city under the leadership of the only griffin in the country who could ever be powerful enough to be their master.
They flew straight for Skenfrith, and Laela flew with them. And now she finally did give in to the urge she had had, and laughed with the same savage glee her father would have done, seeing bloodshed ahead and delighting in it. All her frustration and anger had built up to this, and there would be no more waiting, no more negotiating, no more trying to be clever. She would show them she was a true Taranisäii.
In other words, she wouldn’t spare a single one of them.
Heath was dangerously ill.
Just as Caedmon had guessed, the infected wound on his face had spread poison into his blood, and the doctors now taking care of him said there was a chance he might not survive. For once, Heath had nothing to say; he stayed in his sickbed, delirious with fever, his face bandaged after the doctors had reopened the wound to drain it.
Myfina was the very image of concern, and in between her duties, she spent a lot of time by his side, trying to comfort him when he became distressed and started to ramble in his half-conscious state. Caedmon visited, too, when he could, but he knew there was nothing to do, and despite all he had done for them, Heath was only one man. No matter how much Caedmon cared about him, he had too much else to do those days.
He was glad to have Saeddryn back at his side. She was a great help, inspiring his followers and using all her old fighting experience to help refine the plan for the assault on Malvern. Shar was another great ally, of course, and it was she who had found the griffin they needed: a deceptively slight male, one of the few unpartnered griffins living in Skenfrith, who had the power to break down Malvern’s gates. She had made him give a demonstration for both her and Caedmon, and it had satisfied them both. They had promised him whatever reward he wanted in return. The griffin had replied that he wanted the best human partner available, and nobody was unhappy with that.
Now, Caedmon judged, the time had come. They were as ready as they would ever be, and Malvern was waiting.
Myfina looked slightly unhappy at the news. She said nothing, but Caedmon noticed.
“What is it?” he asked her. “Don’t you want to go?”
She nodded. “Of course, but . . . oh, never mind. It’s silly.”
Caedmon moved closer to her. “Come on, you can tell me,” he said warmly. “I won’t laugh.”
“Oh . . .” She shook her head. “I just had some silly idea that Heath might get better in time so he could come with us.”
Caedmon blinked. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” Myfina said sadly. “It’s just . . . it feels like that now it’s the three of us. You know what I mean? You and me and him.”
“I know what you mean,” Caedmon admitted. “I like him, too, Myfina. He’s a good friend, and we couldn’t have done this without him. And I’m sure he would have come to Malvern with us if we’d asked him. By now we both know he wouldn’t say no to something exciting!”
Myfina smiled. “I never thought he could do all those things he did.”
“He surprised us both,” said Caedmon. He smiled back. “But don’t worry about him. He’ll be safe here, and by the time he gets better, he can come and meet us in Malvern for the celebrations! He’ll like that. Maybe we could even let him sit with us since he’s a hero now.”
Myfina nodded cheerfully. Many of Caedmon’s followers were indeed calling Heath a hero. The dangerous wound collected in the line of duty helped add to that image.
Caedmon, watching her, felt his heart seem to grow bigger inside him. It almost hurt. He reached out for her hand. “Myfina,” he said, “I—”
The door burst open. “My Lord!”
Caedmon turned, letting go of Myfina’s hand. “What? What is it?” The words came out angry when they didn’t need to be.
The man who’d opened the door bowed hastily. “My Lord, ye must come now. Lady Saeddryn is above waiting for ye.”
“I’m coming.” Caedmon waved at Myfina to follow him and ran out of the room.
They had been near the top of the tower, so it was a short dash to the roof. Saeddryn was indeed there, with Shar, and Myfina’s partner, Garsh.
“Caedmon!” Shar bounded toward them. “Caedmon, the Unpartnered are coming! I have called a warning.”
“What?” Caedmon looked quickly at his mother, as if hoping she would say something different. “How could this happen, for gods’ sakes?”
“I don’t know,” Saeddryn said sharply, “And now ain’t the time t’be askin’ questions like that. Go with Shar. Get everyone ready! Now.”
Caedmon pulled himself together. “Myfina, you come with us,” he said. “We have to get the defenders on the wall organised, and fast.”
She had gone pale, but she snapped out of it and ran to get onto Garsh’s back. Caedmon climbed onto Shar, and the two griffins flew off for the walls with all speed, leaving Saeddryn to organise those in the tower.
As Caedmon flew with Shar, he looked out at the horizon beyond the city and saw all the proof he needed that she was right. The sky northward was marred by a patch of moving blackness that couldn’t be anything but a flock of griffins.
He felt sick. In his head, the question asked itself again and again: How could this happen? How could this happen?
Before Shar even reached the wall, Caedmon had realised the situation was worse than dire. There were plenty of his followers in Skenfrith, and giant bows on the walls ready to shoot down the attacking griffins, but with few griffins on their own side, the defenders had very little chance of even surviving, let alone keeping the city. The Unpartnered could decimate a city. They had done it in Warwick, and only a handful of the rebels there had escaped to tell the tale. And Skenfrith was smaller than Warwick. It did not have the same good defences, and it had fewer antigriffin bows on the walls.
Shar landed, and Caedmon jumped down and ran to give his orders to the commanders on the wall, but as he did it, he knew what he must do. Prepare the city to evacuate, and fast. Otherwise, none of them would make it out alive.
* * *
Laela saw the walls of Skenfrith and braced herself for the attack. Her heart had begun to pound sickeningly despite Skandar’s reassuring bulk underneath her.
She hadn’t made any plans for the assault at all other than thinking over how she was going to handle herself. Skandar was the master of the Unpartnered, and he was in charge of this battle. There was no way for Laela to make his followers do what she wanted, let alone make Skandar follow instructions. Griffins did not plan.
Neither, of course, did Skandar. He flew in straight over the walls, ignoring the defenders on top of it and striking out over the city toward the governor’s tower. Behind and around him, the Unpartnered spread out to attack wherever they chose, but Kaanee stayed with him, and the two big males landed on the tower-top.
There, Skandar lifted one foreleg and unceremoniously tipped Laela off his back. “You fight human now,” he told her as she lay sprawled on the bricks. “I go kill griffin. Come back here later if not dead.”
He flew off.
Iorwerth had also dismounted, and he helped Laela up. “Stay with me, my Lady, and I’ll keep you safe.”
Laela watched Kaanee fly off with Skandar to attack the handful of enemy griffins in the sky. “Ain’t they gonna stay an’ help us? All right, I didn’t think Skandar would stay for me, but Kaanee’s yer partner, ain’t he?”
Iorwerth already had his sickle ready in his hand. “Of course, but no griffin will fight in the air if they have a human on their back, and their enemies are all in the sky here. Other humans are for us to deal with. Let’s go into the tower, but not too far in. We don’t want to get trapped inside.”
“Right.” Laela drew her own sickle—the same one that had once belonged to her father. It had stars and a triple spiral engraved on the blade, and Arenadd had kept it beautifully sharp and polished.
The tower had been designed to be pretty similar to the one in Fruitsheart though smaller. Iorwerth headed down the ramp and into the building, with his sickle at the ready, and Laela stayed close behind him. Going inside with just the two of them would be dangerous, of course, but much less so than staying outside, where even a griffin from their own side could kill them both by accident. Besides that, most of the tower’s occupants were too busy trying to deal with the Unpartnered assault to worry about a couple of humans. Most of them had never even seen Laela before, and she had sensibly avoided wearing the crown, opting instead for a leather breastplate and bracers on her arms and legs.
She had also armoured her throat, which hadn’t quite healed yet from Saeddryn’s attempt to kill her. She wasn’t making that mistake again.
The first enemy they ran into was no challenge. He was caught by surprise, and Iorwerth killed him before Laela had the chance to do anything.
“Come this way,” he told her before the corpse had even stopped moving. “If we go into the governor’s chamber, we might find one of the people we’re after.”
“Got it.” Laela pushed forward to stand beside him, sickle at the ready.
The governor’s chamber was right at the very top of the tower, as expected—large and well furnished, with plenty of room for griffins to move about. There didn’t seem to be anybody there.
Iorwerth made a quick check behind the furniture and looked out the window. He shook his head sadly as he came back to Laela. “It’s chaos out there. The poor bastards don’t stand a chance.”
Laela looked as well and couldn’t stop herself from going wide-eyed. The Unpartnered had covered the city like a swarm of locusts. Everywhere she looked, griffins were tearing at rooftops, rampaging through streets, or swooping to snatch up running humans and drop them to their deaths. Others were fighting the defending griffins, who were pitifully outnumbered but putting up a good fight. One or two fires had already started at different points.
“Holy gods, they’re gonna rip the city to bits!” Laela exclaimed.
“It can’t be helped,” said Iorwerth. “Let’s move on and see if we can end this any faster.”
They left the chamber and made their way down the tower, room by room. In one or two of them they found human fighters who were using the tower as a shelter from which to send arrows at the rampaging Unpartnered. Iorwerth and Laela fought them together, but Iorwerth somehow managed to both fight and keep himself between Laela and the enemy, leaving her to do not much more than watch while he took care of them himself.
Laela quickly grew frustrated. She had had nothing to do at Malvern but practise with her sickle, and if this kept up, she wasn’t going to get to use the damn thing in a real fight at all! Damn Iorwerth; she was the daughter of Arenadd Taranisäii and was going to prove it today no matter what.
On the next level, they found a closed door. Iorwerth reached for the handle, but Laela pushed him out of the way and kicked it open herself. Beyond, she found a room full of beds.
And a young woman, pointing a spear at her. “Get out!”
Laela took a moment to get the measure of this new challenger. The woman was about her age, and pretty, but she was dressed for battle, and her face was full of fury.
Right. Laela thrust out an arm to hold Iorwerth back. “I’ll take care of this.”
The woman jabbed the spear toward her. “I said get out,” she snapped. “I’m not fighting here, so leave me alone.”
“Who are yeh?” Laela growled.
The woman drew herself up proudly. “I am Lady Myfina of Caerleon . . . half-breed.”
Laela sneered. “A griffiner, then, are yeh? Then why are yeh standin’ around in the infirmary while everyone else does the work?”
Myfina smiled nastily. “Waiting for you.”
Iorwerth nudged Laela in the back. “My Lady, just leave her! I know her, and she doesn’t know how to use that spear. She’s just trying to distract us. We have to move on, or Caedmon will escape.”
“Good point.” Laela took a step toward Myfina. “Where’s Caedmon gone?”
“The King of Tara has gone to protect his friends,” Myfina said. “And now I’m going to protect them . . . from you!” She lunged forward with the spear.
Laela dodged it without much trouble, but as she stepped aside ready to attack she tripped over something on the floor. Unable to rescue herself, she hit the ground hard. When she opened her eyes, she found herself face-to-face with Iorwerth.
His eyes were wide open and staring into hers, but his face was white and splattered with blood.
Laela rolled and got up, but a hard blow came from nowhere and sent her tottering sideways. She spun around, lashing out with the sickle, but there was nothing there to hit. Myfina was standing in the same place as before, holding her spear across her body to protect herself.
And a voice came from the air. “I am the shadow that comes in the night . . .”
Laela tried to pull Iorwerth to his feet. “Iorwerth, for gods’ sakes, get up!”
“I am the fear that lurks in your heart . . .”
Iorwerth’s head lolled, blood still leaking from the slash in his throat.
“I am the woman without a heart.”
Laela dropped Iorwerth’s body and backed away toward the wall. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit . . .”
“I am the Shadow That Walks.”
Something unseen hit Laela hard in the face, and everything turned red. She got up, clawing at the blood that rained into her eyes, trying to defend herself against an enemy she couldn’t see, an enemy as strong as death.
Myfina began to laugh. “Run, half-breed, run!”
She didn’t care where she was running to, or what might be ahead. Terror made her blind and stupid, and she ran as if death itself were on her heels . . . which it was.
But no matter how far or how fast she ran, Saeddryn was always just behind her—not seen, but heard, and felt. Her voice taunted from the darkness, never sounding strained or breathless, and when Laela slowed, a stab or a cut would send her running off again. Here and there ordinary enemies showed up in her way, but Laela’s fear was too deep to include them as well. She kicked them out of the way and slashed with the sickle, not stopping to fight properly or finish any of them off. None of them seemed inclined to go after her.
Saeddryn chased her lower and lower in the tower, away from those places where there were openings through which a griffin could enter. Away from where she could call Skandar to help her.
And then, finally, a room with a door. Laela slammed it shut behind her, and ran for the window, ignoring the few startled defenders around her. She looked out the window. It was big enough to climb through, and didn’t look that far off the ground . . .
Behind her, the door broke apart. And there was Saeddryn, at last, appearing out of the darkness with her sickle in her hand and a hideous smile on her face. “Don’t ye understand, half-breed?” she said. “There is no escape. Not from me.”
Laela said nothing. She grabbed hold of the window-frame and kicked out the glass, climbing through without even noticing the cuts that opened on her hands.
Then she fell.
She hit a rooftop and slid off it to land on the ground, winded and groaning.
But pain didn’t matter. She got up with a strength that managed to surprise her, somewhere in the back of her mind, and ran off into the city.
Where Caedmon had been waiting for her, all this time. He stepped out of a doorway, armed and armoured, his black eyes glittering in a way that made him look horribly familiar even though Laela had never seen him before.
She stumbled to a halt. Blood gummed around her eyes, making her squint. “A . . . Arenadd?” she faltered.
Caedmon did not smile. “Not Arenadd,” he said. “Just his successor.”
But he looked so much like him, Laela thought dully. The same curly hair, the same neat beard, and she knew in that moment that this was Arenadd’s real son. This was what his son should have been, not Kullervo. This was the child of Arenadd that the world had wanted and the heir it had wanted. Not her. History had twisted, and she had been the one to do the twisting, she and Kullervo. The man in front of her now was how things had been supposed to go. But they hadn’t.
And now he was here to put everything right.
Laela glanced up and saw the Unpartnered swarming around the tower. They must have entered it as soon as they had finished fighting the other griffins in the sky, ready to wipe out the human defenders in there.
There was no sign of Saeddryn.
“Yeh planned this,” said Laela. “She chased me here, so you could put things right. Didn’t she? You wanted t’fight me yerself. So it’d be your victory, not hers. Right?”
“Yes.” Caedmon nodded. “I am the rightful ruler of Malvern. My mother knows that.”
Laela tried not to let him see her wincing. “So now we fight, then, an’ you get t’be the hero what killed the nasty ole half-breed, right? ’Cause that’s how it is in your story. I’m the villain here, an’ villains die.”
Caedmon smiled very slightly. “You’re smarter than you look.”
“Kill her, Caedmon.”
Laela did not turn around when she heard Saeddryn’s voice, but she did stiffen slightly.
Saeddryn appeared, slipping out of the shadows to stand by her son. “Don’t try an’ run any more, half-breed,” she said. “It ends here.”
Despite everything, Laela smirked. “Yeah, right, if I was a lot stupider than I look.” She bent and picked up a piece of broken brick from the ground. “You’re dead, Saeddryn.”
“I know,” said Saeddryn, grim-faced.
“An’ I’m gonna make yeh wish you’d stayed in yer grave,” said Laela. “That’s a promise. Oh—Caedmon?”
He drew his sickle and went into a fighting stance. “Yes?”
“Catch.” Laela hurled the piece of brick. It hit Caedmon square in the head, and an instant later she was on him, following it up with a punch to the jaw. Completely ignoring her sickle, she hit him again in the stomach, then kneed him in the groin, which had the extra effect of knocking him over. Before he could get up, she brought her boot down on his ribs and was rewarded with a nasty, cracking sound.
Caedmon yelled with a mixture of shock and pain, but he wasn’t defeated yet. He shoved Laela away and managed to get up. His sickle had fallen out of his hand, so he attacked her with his fists, punching her in the face.
This was not how it was supposed to be. Caedmon had spent his whole life being trained to fight with weapons, but Laela was made to fight with whatever she could get her hands on, and she had no scruples whatsoever. She kicked Caedmon in the kneecap, and when he caught her by the arm, she head-butted him in the mouth hard enough to make him let go.
But Caedmon was not a weak opponent by any means, and Laela did not have the advantage for long. He pushed her away, and as he took an instant to pick his next move, Saeddryn appeared by his side, silently putting his sickle back into his hand.
Humiliated, and suffering from a severe ache in his ribs, Caedmon snarled and darted in close, sickle aiming for Laela’s throat. It bounced off the thick leather, but he struck again quickly, cutting her across the inside of her elbow.
Laela still had her own sickle, and she fended his off as well as she could, but she was not a defensive fighter. She struck back, laying open the back of Caedmon’s hand and dodging his attempt to hit her in the face.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Risen Sun trilogy
“[The Shadow’s Heir] showcases the author’s impressive ability to create a nicely developed world populated by complex characters…I look forward to seeing what new developments are birthed from this author’s labyrinthine imagination!”—Night Owl Reviews
“K. J. Taylor has the rare gift for a fantasy writer of knowing how to keep the story moving…I am eagerly looking forward to book two in the series.”—SFFANZ
“The Shadow’s Heir forms a great basis for an epic new story, one that I am looking forward to following. I’ve said it once, but I’ll say it again: K. J. Taylor is a talented author who continues to bring us spellbinding stories, and if you aren’t already reading her books, then you should remedy that!”—Speculating on SpecFic