In the land of Dorthar, the Storm Lord reigns as king.
According to law, the Storm Lord’s youngest son will be the rightful heir. His queen, the cunning and ambitious Val Mara, intends her young son, Amrek, to be that heir.
But fate has other ideas. When the Storm Lord abducts a Lowlander priestess, conceives a child with her, and then dies in mysterious circumstances, the unborn baby of that union suddenly becomes the heir to a vast kingdom—a situation that Val Mara is eager to rectify.
When his mother also dies, the infant, Raldnor, must be taken far from the Storm Lord’s stronghold to escape the queen’s murderous wrath, forsaking all knowledge of his royal heritage.
Raldnor grows up among the people of the Plains, but he is set apart from his friends and neighbors by the mystery of his past. Meanwhile, Amrek has taken the throne as his mother intended. If Raldnor is to reclaim his destiny and defeat the usurper who has taken his place, he will have to survive trials of strength, political sabotage, and threats against his life, regaining his birthright as the true Storm Lord of Dorthar.
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The great upturned bowl of the Plains’s sky was drenched with the blood of sunset. The sun itself had fallen beyond the Edge of the World. Now, before the rising of the moon, only a single scarlet star gemmed the cloak of gathering twilight.
A group of about twenty men were crossing the arid slopes—hunters, but not of the Plains. They rode thoroughbred animals, with here and there a light hunting chariot of Xarabian design, yet they were not Xarabians. They moved with a special, almost a specific, arrogance, which pronounced them alien to this landscape far more than did their black hair and black-bronze burnish of skin. Yet it was the scale markings of their metal that told the precise nature of their menace, for they were Dortharians, dragons, and they carried a High King in their midst.
Rehdon, King of Dorthar, the Storm Lord, that god-given title which essentially meant mastery of the entire continent of Vis, this now darkening planet: a king, ruler of kings. Even the hunting helm bore the spiked Dragon Crest. Beneath it, age had infected, with its own reptilian markers, a pair of eyes that were staring upward, toward the gem of the scarlet star.
Zastis. In Elyr, the withdrawn and euphemistic, they called this the time of marriages. But it was more vile and prosaic. It was the time of greatest sexual need, the tyranny of the flesh, strong in all, but in the royalty of Dorthar a domination brooking no denial, a bizarre badge of the line of Rarnammon.
The moon rose. A moon red from the star.
Rehdon’s charioteer glanced back at him, a thin graceful man with a face which, at no time, said anything, except where the long narrow slits of eyes led down into a machinery of intellect. His position as chariot driver was misleading. This man was Amnorh, King’s Councilor, the Warden of the High Council of Koramvis, in certain ways the nearest power beside the throne.
“Amnorh, we’re far from Xarar,” Rehdon said suddenly. He had a king’s voice—deep, resonant. He had in fact every appurtenance suited to a king, but it ran shallow. Amnorh knew this well.
“My lord’s restless? There’s a village near here. The serf we questioned mentioned it, you’ll recall.”
“This accursed No-Land. Why do we hunt so far from the borders of Xarabiss?”
“I hoped your lordship would get better sport here in the Lowlands. The borders of Xarabiss are hunted out.”
“This place,” Rehdon said again. The star made him uneasy, peevish, as always. “What name did you give it before?”
“Oh, the native name, my lord. The Shadowless Plains.”
Abruptly the land dipped. They were among sparse grain fields, blush-colored from the red moonlight. A small shrine appeared between stalks and was gone—probably a field altar to the Plains goddess Anackire, half woman and half serpent. Amnorh knew of such things. He glanced back again, this time beyond Rehdon, to the place in the party where the Prince Orhn rode with his men. Orhn, Rehdon’s cousin, had little time for Xarabiss and her elegant ways. He would be happy enough to pitch a camp here for the night. As for Xarar, Rehdon’s visit of courtesy to his king-held fiefs was almost at an end.
Presently, Amnorh made out a flicker of lights.
It was one of the Lowland villages indeed, an uneven track, groups of poor dwellings, a dark religious building with a grove of red trees.
The hunting party drew to a halt.
Three or four women stared from the grove. Unlike the Vis, the master race, the Plains People were pale, light-haired, yellow-eyed. No children showed themselves, and no men. Perhaps a disease had taken them or they were away, hunting plain wolves—those the Dortharians had unsuccessfully tracked all day—or the venom-clawed tirr that shrieked from the forests at the Edge of the World.
“Where are your men?” Amnorh called out.
The women remained blank-faced, and immobile.
“We are Dortharians,” a voice said harshly. “You’ll give us the best you have to offer for the night, and be honored.”
Amnorh turned and saw Prince Orhn. The racial intonation amused Amnorh, also the great and powerful body on the granite-black animal, a symbolic strident aggression, achieving apparently nothing. More softly, Amnorh said:
“We’re in need of food. And the Red Moon troubles us.”
The women stared unflinchingly back, but he guessed this threat might have touched them. The Lowlanders were immune to Zastis, it was said.
Rehdon moved impatiently behind him. The reptilian eyes ran over the women, already hungry, already dissatisfied. Irritably, he turned his head.
He saw, framed by the uprights of the temple doorway, a girl.
Motionless, expressionless, she seemed carved from white crystal, translucent eyes, like discs of yellow amber, open wide on his, the tawny cloud of hair fixed as frozen vapor.
“You. Girl,” he said. “Come forward,” and his voice held all the majesty of thunder, was even echoed by thunder low above the dune-dark slopes. If it spoke power to her she did not show it, but she obeyed him. “Tonight you lie with me,” Rehdon said. There was the briefest pause, a drop of silence, like the first drop of a great rain.
“Yes,” she said then. And strangely, for there was no other answer she might give, her voice carried all the meaning, all the accepting in the world.
* * * *
They pitched their camp at the edge of the straggle of village, small owar-hide campaign tents; the grooms and charioteers would sleep in the open. They had taken what they wanted in the way of food and drink, careless that their demands would make the thin yield of the fields harder for the village to bear. Vis servants had slaughtered a cow in the temple square, and roasted it whole above a pit of coals.
But, unlike their King, they did not take the women, although the need was already on them. Even the coarsest groom had shied away from a vision of white-limbed passivity and wide eyes. Plains women, it was rumored, knew strange arts. Knew, too, how to stare in at a soul stripped naked by the pleasure spasms of the flesh. So the women slipped unmolested away, and not a light showed from their hovels, not a sound came out.
In Rehdon’s tent the meal was finished. Amnorh leaned forward, filling the King’s goblet with the stolen bitter potent Lowland wine. Orhn was absent—his animal was lame and must be seen to, he had said, but it was Amnorh’s presence he abhorred. Amnorh half smiled at the thought. Orhn Am Alisaar, waiting on a tyrannical sire who would not die and give up his kingdom for his bevy of sons to fight for. Orhn sought power rather at the side of his cousin, and Amnorh, sly Amnorh, came between them in subtle ways. And not only between cousin and cousin, for there was also the matter of Rehdon’s Queen.
The man posted outside the tent showed himself.
“Storm Lord, your pardon. There’re priests here from the village, asking for audience. Do we send them packing, my lord?”
“They were hiding in their temple until now,” Rehdon said. “What reason to emerge?”
“The girl your lordship honored with speech.”
“Your lordship might be amused by them.”
Rehdon, oblivious of most things save his waiting lust, nodded to the guard.
The man ducked out. A moment later the priests entered, three in all, long black robes, faces blanked out by shadow from their hoods. Priests in Dorthar were gaudy, vivid with their oracles and their miracles and the corruption of a thousand greeds. These intruders carried their own mystery, they seemed to have no presence, as if some smell of humanity were absent from them.
“We thought no men were in the village tonight,” Amnorh remarked smoothly.
“Among us a priest is not numbered as a man.”
“So we see. Well, you’re here. What causes you to trouble the Storm Lord?”
Without seeing them, he sensed the six eyes of the priests fixed on him. He was not as contemptuous as he seemed, knowing as he did of certain powers sometimes manifested in these serfs, and peculiar magics. He wondered if they now conferred together inside their heads as they were reputed to do.
“Your lord desires to lie with Ashne’e. We ask him to take another woman from the village.”
So she was called Ashne’e. A common enough name among Lowland women.
“The woman belongs to our temple. She is ours, and Hers.”
“Hers? I take it you mean your serpent goddess.”
“Ashne’e has been given to the goddess.”
“So. The Storm Lord will pardon you that the girl’s no longer virgin. I imagine this is what you intimate.”
He thought they would speak again, but they were silent.
“Go back to your temple,” Rehdon suddenly snarled at them.
In the bowl sky, thunder burned.
Without a word the priests turned; making no sound, they slipped one by one into the dark.
* * * *
The fires were almost out, smears in the night world, when they brought the girl to Rehdon’s tent.
In the half-light she was unhuman. The low flame of a tent torch filled one eye with gold, freckled her cheek as though she wept fire.
The men sidled out and were gone.
Rehdon trembled with his need. He took the edge of her robe in his fingers, recalling what Amnorh had said to him.
“You’re from the temple, Ashne’e?”
“Yes.” There was no color in her voice.
“You know the bed lore of the temple women then.”
He pulled the garment from her. She stood before him naked. His hand moved on her, hesitated on her chill breasts. He drew her to the torch, examined her. An evanescent beauty, which a very little would swiftly destroy. High breasts, cold, for they were capped with gilt. In her navel a drop of yellow resin spat. The resin excited him unreasonably; it might have been a third eye, this time of her sex. He cupped her sexual hair, rough as the spun metal it resembled.
“Are you afraid of me?”
She said nothing, but her eyes expanded as if with tears.
Unable to resist the impulse of the star he pulled her down with him on to the couch, but somehow she twisted as she came and was above him. He saw then the expansion of her eyes was pure luminosity, they were glowing, awful as the eyes of a tirr, or a banalik crouched now to suck out his soul.
His head reeled with amazing fear, but he found in a second more that she knew those things which Amnorh had promised. He could not evade her will, floundered gasping in her snake’s coils, until the night became a dream of fire between the surges of which came the intoxicated thought he must keep her by him forever after, to terrify and delight him and pull him struggling and groaning into the spinning pit of her womb.
* * * *
Dawn came, cool before the day’s heat, with a beat of bird’s wings over the trees.
Amnorh folded back the flap of the King’s tent, and stood a moment regarding the sleeping girl, her face turned into the cushions, first light licking her bone-pale back.
The King lay on his side, apparently locked deep in sleep, yet, as Amnorh had already noted, his black eyes were wide open. Amnorh crossed to him, reached and shook the Storm Lord’s shoulder, presently slapped the bloodless mouth. The glazed eyes were fixed far beyond this insolence. Rehdon, Dragon King, whose new heir had lain two months in the body of his queen at Koramvis, whose other earlier heirs by lesser queens slunk about the palace courts in dozens, lay dead apparently from a casual Zastian coition.
Amnorh left the tent. He cried out wordlessly into the morning air, rousing men bleary-eyed from the embers of their fires. Two guards ran to him.
“In the tent,” Amnorh said harshly. “Our Lord Rehdon is dead. The bitch-witch is still sleeping. Bring her out here.”
He saw the horror start up in the guards’ eyes. They ran into the tent, the flap did not fall back into place. He saw them balk at Rehdon’s corpse, then lean and drag Ashne’e from the couch. She seemed limp, yet when they dropped her before him on the ground, her eyes came open, staring up into his. She made no move either to rise or to cover herself.
“Abomination,” Amnorh hissed at her, “you have murdered a King.”
One of the guards lifted his spear.
“Wait!” Amnorh rasped. “There’s more to this.”
Amnorh glanced up and registered the tall figure of Orhn Am Alisaar, fully alert, a drawn knife ready in his hand.
“What’s this panic for?”
“The Storm Lord is dead,” Amnorh said, his eyes reduced to slits.
“Damnation take your tongue. I’ll see that first.”
“My lord prince is very welcome to judge for himself.”
Amnorh stepped aside from the tent mouth; Orhn strode by him and inside. Amnorh watched him shake Rehdon’s body, speak to it and finally let it subside. Orhn straightened, turned and came out. He glared for the first time with dry pitiless eyes at the girl Ashne’e.
“A whore from the temple. Has your lordship forgotten—”
“Yes. I’d forgotten.”
Orhn kneeled abruptly, caught her face in a cruel grip so that her eyes were forced to his.
“And what did you do, temple witch? Do you know who this man was before you killed him? Storm Lord, High King—Look at me!”
Her gaze had slipped to Amnorh, and then, suddenly her eyes turned up and the lids fell over them as if in a fit. Orhn felt her skin grow chill under his hand and let her go, thinking she had fainted. Amnorh knew otherwise, said nothing.
Orhn got to his feet.
“No time for ceremony,” he said, “I’ll dispatch her now.” He stared upward at the pale sun newly risen, which already masked the inflamed star. “The Red Moon was a curse to Rehdon,” he said. “He was no longer a young man.” The knife shone in his hand.
“However, lord prince, there’s one thing we forget,” Amnorh said softly.
Orhn looked full at him.
“I don’t think so.”
“Oh, yes, my lord. It’s possible—merely possible—that Rehdon’s child is planted in this inferior body.”
A deeper, more intense silence fell around them. The men stiffened in attitudes of almost superstitious unease.
“She may have used the way of women to stop it,” Orhn said.
“How can we be sure? There is no suitable test, lord prince. And permit me to remind you, my lord, that the last child conceived before the death of the king becomes, by the laws of Rarnammon, his ultimate heir.”