About Me

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I am a writer, editor, reviewer and dance teacher based in Perth, Western Australia. You might enjoy my books - The Dagger of Dresnia, the first book of the Talismans Trilogy, is available at all good online book shops as is Book two, The Cloak of Challiver. Book three, The Seer of Syland, is in preparation. I trained in piano and singing at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. I also trained in dance (Scully-Borovansky, WAAPA) and drama (NIDA). Since 1987 I have been writing reviews of performances in all genres for a variety of publications, including Music Maker, ArtsWest, Dance Australia, The Australian and others. Now semi-retired, I still write occasionally for the ArtsHub website, and I still teach dance at Trinity School for Seniors, an outreach program of the Uniting Church in Perth.

My books

The first novel of my trilogy, The Talismans, is available as an e-book from Smashwords, Amazon and other online sellers. I do have paperbacks of The Dagger of Dresnia at the low price of $AU25 including postage within Australia. I also have a short story, 'La Belle Dame', in print - see Mythic Resonance below. Book two of the trilogy, The Cloak of Challiver, will be available again shortly. The best way to contact me is via Facebook!

Buy The Talismans

The first two books of The Talismans trilogy were published by Satalyte Publications, which, sadly, has gone out of business. Book one, The Dagger of Dresnia, is up on the usual bookselling web sites as an e-book, and I have a few hard copies to sell to those who prefer Real Paper. Book Two, The Cloak of Challiver, will be available soon. The easiest way to contact me is via Facebook.

The Dagger of Dresnia

The Dagger of Dresnia
Want a copy? Contact me at satimafn(at)gmail.com

The Cloak of Challiver, Book two of The Talismans

The Cloak of Challiver, Book two of The Talismans
Available as an e-book on Amazon etc!

Mythic Resonance

Buy Mythic Resonance

Mythic Resonance is an excellent anthology that includes my short story 'La Belle Dame', together with great stories from Alan Baxter, Donna Maree Hanson, Sue Burstynski, Nike Sulway and nine more fantastic authors! Just $US3.99 from Amazon. Got a Kindle? Check out Mythic Resonance.

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Places I've lived: Manchester, UK

Places I've lived: Manchester, UK

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Wednesday, 29 August 2018

The Cloak of Challiver, Chapter Four



Chapter 4 ( I hope you're all still following!)

* * *

Lyrien yawned as she squinted into the morning light. Her harness jingled with her pony’s trot and on her left, Ullavir’s tack played a deeper counterpoint. Behind them, two or three of her ladies were singing. Strange, it was, the way the fine weather made people want to sing. Lady be thanked, the weather was holding fine for their journey. In two days she would be home. It was quite an honour, really, that her father sent her on courtesy calls to his eldermen. It showed he thought her mature enough to discuss matters of state with discretion and confidence. But this expedition to the elderman in Chitterven, minor though her task was, had proved long and tedious, and she would be glad to be home. They were nearing the Midlands border. Tonight would see them at Midlands Castle, and tomorrow they would continue on to Rannerven.

She turned to the old trouper at her side. ‘Is it far to Kettering, Ullavir?’

‘Just round this bend, your highness. If we take no more than an hour to break our fast, we’ll make Gellatherak by dinner time and Midlands Castle by sunset.’

‘That’s good. I’m hungry. Oh look, you’re right!’ They had rounded the bend and suddenly, the highway, which had taken a steep downhill turn, had become the beginnings of Kettering’s main street. ‘Where’s the inn?’

‘The one your father always stops at is on the other side of the township, madam. Have patience: it’s less than half a mile now, and the men we sent ahead will have ordered a meal and cleared the taproom.’

Lyrien grimaced. ‘I feel uncomfortable, ordering other travellers to make way for our party.’
‘There won’t be many people on the road this time of year, madam, and those that are won’t be put out for long.’

Ullavir was right, but his words did nothing to lessen Lyrien’s discomfort. Sometimes she wished she’d been born common so she wouldn’t have to inconvenience anyone or feel self-conscious because of the fine clothes she wore and the high-stepping palfrey she rode. That was one of the worst things about being a royal. People had to give way to royals, even sick people, and old ones, and mothers about to give birth. Still, at least it meant she always had enough to eat, and right now she was hungry! Ullavir had insisted that they leave Chitterven at dawn with nothing in their stomachs but a bite of bread and a beaker of warm, weak, ale.

‘There we are, your highness. I told you it wasn’t far.’ Ullavir pointed to a half-timbered building fifty yards down on the left. Considerably more substantial than the wattle and daub of nearby cottages, the place looked clean and well cared for, with its brightly painted sign depicting a sheaf of grain blazoning forth a welcome. As they approached, grooms hurried to take their mounts and the landlord himself stood on the step, bowing, his hair slicked back and a fresh white apron girthing his bulk.

Ullavir dismounted and was about to hand over his horse to one of the men when, all at once, the orderly welcome was turned on its ear. A stray goat, its keeper hard on its heels, charged in front of Lyrien. Her horse shied and whinnied and someone on her right grabbed her reins.

‘Whoa there, girl, it’s all right.’

Lyrien was about to retort that thank you very much, she could handle her mount herself and would whoever it was please let go, when she looked down. Her voice promptly deserted her, for she was staring into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. The beautiful orbs were set in the handsomest face, which was topped by wavy golden hair that put the primroses to shame. The hand that held her reins was lean and strong-looking, with clean, trimmed nails. Its owner, clad in mail topped by a surcoat that bore an unfamiliar device, was no groom.

‘Wretched animal,’ the mail-clad vision said with a smile that showed off two rows of perfect white teeth. ‘Here, my lady, let me help you down.’ And before Lyrien could gainsay him, those fine strong hands were encircling her waist and she found herself lifted to the ground.

She was unable to step back, for the stranger knight had her trapped between himself and her horse. He did not take his hands from her waist at once and his eyes were brimming with admiration. Lyrien blushed.

‘Excuse me, sir. I thank you for your assistance, but I must join my ladies.’

The hands removed themselves at once and the golden hair moved back a pace. ‘I crave pardon, my lady. I was overwhelmed by your beauty. Pray forgive me.’ He looked around. ‘Your party is already entering the inn. Shall we join them?’ He offered his arm and it was the easiest thing in the world to take it and let him lead her to where the landlord was waiting and her guards and ladies were crowding through the door.

‘Your highness!’ The landlord bowed lower than ever. ‘Permit me to welcome you to The Oatsheaf. Rooms have been prepared for you and your party to refresh yourselves before breakfast.’ He turned to the golden-haired vision of knighthood at her side. ‘Sir Pirstad! I did not realise you were waiting for her highness. Come in, come in.’

Lyrien could not find it in her heart to protest that she had no idea who her companion was. After all, it wasn’t really improper, was it? He had done what knights are supposed to do in looking out for her welfare. And he was so handsome…

When they reached the door of the chamber where her women were waiting, the heroic vision squeezed her hand. ‘I’ll see you at breakfast, your highness,’ he whispered.

‘Of course, Sir Pirstad.’ Lyrien’s heart was beating faster than if she’d run all the way down the spiral staircase that led from her bower to the Great Hall at home. What a beautiful, beautiful man!’

Her ladies fussed over her hair and gossiped as they always did, but strangely, no one mentioned Sir Pirstad or the runaway goat. But when they made their way down to the taproom, and Sir Pirstad was waiting for her by the door the ladies-in-waiting were all blushes and coy smiles. A delightful shiver ran up Lyrien’s arm when he took her hand. As he led her to the head of the long table, Lyrien was sure she was glowing more brightly than the sunshine that reflected from the polished table tops. He handed her to her place at the head of the table and took the seat to her right just as Ullavir strode in.

The old guardsman stopped short at the sight of the strange knight, but only for a heartbeat. He marched over to Lyrien and confronted Sir Pirstad, hand on his sword. ‘Who are you, Sir Knight? I had no orders that we were to meet anyone here.’

Lyrien felt sorry for Ullavir. His job was to protect her from harm, and a stranger attaching himself to a royal entourage had to be challenged. But how to challenge a man who already seemed familiar with his charge? Poor Ullavir was obviously nonplussed.

‘It’s all right, Ullavir,’ she began, but Pirstad interrupted by rising to his feet.

‘Sir Pirstad Stormshore at your service, Sir Ullavir. I took the liberty of assisting her highness in a most unfortunate incident with a runaway goat and she was kind enough to invite me to dine with your party.’

‘Yes, where were you, Ullavir?’ Lyrien joined in the game with glee. ‘A goat spooked my horse and I could have been thrown.’ She regarded Ullavir reproachfully. ‘It’s fortunate Sir Pirstad was there to help.’

Ullavir faltered. ‘Pardon, your highness. I… I did not see the animal. It must have been while I was giving orders to the grooms. And I thank you, Sir Pirstad, for your timely intervention.’

Sir Pirstad inclined his head graciously. ‘I am honoured to have been able to help.’ He made room for Ullavir to sit beside him and quickly engaged him in conversation. It wasn’t long before Ullavir was also under Pirstad’s spell and the meal proceeded with much merriment. Over a pint of ale at the end, Pirstad led them all in singing The Flowers of Sproutingmonth, casting admiring looks at Lyrien whenever the chorus rolled around.
If all the flowers of Sproutingmonth
Were growing by my door
There’s only one that I would pick
And keep forevermore.
Every time they sang the line ‘There’s only one that I would pick’ Sir Pirstad smiled at Lyrien and she blushed pinker and pinker with every passing verse.
There was no question but that Sir Pirstad should ride with them as far as Gellatherak, where, he said, he was to visit a friend’s manor. He rode at Lyrien’s left all the way. They chatted about music, and Lyrien was delighted to find they had similar tastes.

‘I really like the work of that Aristandian troubadour, Goffray de Mardell,’ Lyrien confided. ‘His Dream of the Golden Valley is my favourite song!’

Sir Pirstad agreed. ‘A lovely piece indeed, although I’m also fond of his Love in an Autumn Forest. Have you heard it, your highness?’

Lyrien hadn’t, so he sang it for her. After that he went back to The Flowers of Sproutingmonth, and Lyrien blushed more than ever.

When the town of Gellatherak loomed into view Lyrien’s heart sank. Her hero was leaving! But as the party reined in to bid him farewell, he took Lyrien’s hand and kissed it.

‘I shall see you again your highness,’ he whispered. ‘Very soon, I promise.’

* * *

Lyrien awoke the next morning to the dawn sounds of a country estate. Cows lowed as they were driven in to be milked; doors banged and voices shouted instructions, all over a chorus of birdsong. Her first thought was of Pirstad. Smiling sleepily, she turned towards the window and resumed her fantasy of the night before. Even though he wasn’t a prince, maybe her father would look favourably on Pirstad if he was of good family and repute and would make an elderman…

Lyrien got up and began to dress. It was still early. No sign of her ladies yet. That was good. Having people fuss over her was another of the trials of being royal. Being an elderman’s wife would be much less constraining.

But what if Pirstad really didn’t like her that much? The thought was too alarming to countenance. Of course he liked her. And hadn’t he said he would see her again, very soon?

Dressed in a simple stuff gown for another day in the saddle, and her hair neatly plaited, Lyrien made her way downstairs. Uncle Dristed’s talk was all of hopes for a better harvest this year than last, and the relative prices of oats and barley. Boring! Lyrien continued to daydream of Pirstad’s blue eyes and the feel of his hands at her waist.

Perhaps they would meet Pirstad along the way. They would have to stop somewhere for dinner, after all. She giggled behind her goblet. Maybe there will be another stray goat…

* * *

After three or four hours on the road, Lyrien was just getting hungry again and starting to think about dinner. It was wild, forested country and they had not passed a village or even a farm for some time.
‘Ullavir, where will we stop for―’ She was interrupted by shouting from behind, followed immediately by the clash of steel. Before she could turn to see what was happening, a similar fracas assaulted her ears from the front of the column. Lyrien’s heart lurched and she broke out in prickly sweat. Swords drawn, the men in front were engaging fighters on the ground. Just behind her, ladies were screaming.

Whinnies from the horses quickly became shrieks of fear. Her mount wheeled one way then the other, pulling at the reins. It was as much as she could do to hold her seat. Glimpses of fighting behind and before told her both ends of the column were being attacked, but her eyes refused to believe what they saw. Men, dozens of them. But were they men? They were man-shaped, but short, less than her own height. What they lacked in height they made up for in girth. Dark shaggy hair hung to their naked shoulders and what looked like wolf pelts covered their hips and upper legs. Some were firing slingshots from among the trees while others at close quarters were laying about them with swords.
Dwarves. Surely not! Dwarves belonged in stories. They didn’t just appear out of nowhere, firing slingshots...

The guards fought desperately, but they were hopelessly outnumbered. Several were felled by stones from slingers in the trees, their comrades were unhorsed, their mounts slain by dwarves on the ground. The harsh tang of blood filled the air and Lyrien’s horse panicked. Desperately, she clung to the reins as the animal bolted back down the road the way they had come. A dwarf grabbed at the bridle as she passed but the horse reared and he backed off. Another tried, and was trampled for his pains. Lyrien closed her eyes and hung on, screaming.

Then all at once there was calm. Her mount stood still, head down, its breath heaving. Someone had hold of her bridle, murmuring words of endearment.

‘It’s all right, Lyrien, my little princess. It’s all right. Come now, come with me.’ She opened her eyes to find Sir Pirstad lifting her from her own saddle and onto his mount, where she clung to him, sobbing. He turned his horse’s head towards a gap in the trees where a narrow path opened before them. The noise of the fighting receded as they made their way into the forest.

‘Where are we going?’

‘Somewhere safe,’ said Pirstad. ‘Just relax and let me take care of you.’

‘What about the others? What about Ullavir?’

‘Ullavir can take care of himself. It’s what he does for a living, remember. Just be glad you are safe. You aren’t hurt, are you?’

‘No. At least, I don’t think so.’

‘That’s good.’ A gentle kiss brushed her brow. ‘I wouldn’t have you hurt for the world.’ Pirstad’s left arm tightened around her waist and she snuggled against his broad chest. How strong he was, and how kind. 

‘I was lucky that you happened along at just the right time, Sir Pirstad.’

‘I told you I would see you again, didn’t I? Rest now. It’s not far.’

Lyrien lost track of time and distance. The motion of the horse, the jingle of the harness and the crunch of leaves under the horse’s hooves were calming. She found herself dozing. At one point, her dress must have caught on a branch. She heard the tearing sound and what sounded like a muttered curse from Pirstad, but he pulled the fabric free and pushed his mount through the encroaching undergrowth.

‘Look, here we are, safe and sound.’

Lyrien lifted her head and looked around. They were entering an enormous clearing, in the centre of which stood a sturdy timber building. Lyrien guessed it was a hunting lodge. Her father owned several similar ones in various parts of the country.

‘Whose is it?’ she asked.

Again the fluttering kiss to her forehead. ‘Ours, for now. Hold on while I dismount. It’s a long way to the ground.’

It was indeed a long way, but Pirstad lifted her, light as a feather, and carried her the rest of the way, up to the door of the lodge. It wasn’t locked.

Once inside, Pirstad set her on her feet. They were in a cosy hall with a dining table and several comfy-looking padded chairs. The only window was set high in the wall over the door, clerestory-style. An inner door opened off to one side, while opposite, an archway led to another part of the house.

It was as if they were expected. A fire glowed in the hearth and there was food on the table: cheese and fruit and nuts and pastries as fine as anything she’d had at any castle in the Islands.

‘Sit down, my princess,’ said Pirstad with a gallant bow. ‘Shall I pour us some wine?’

Lyrien realised she was terribly, terribly thirsty, and she drank the wine Pirstad poured almost in one draught.

Pirstad pushed a plate of pastries toward her. ‘Here, eat something, your highness. It’s not good to drink so much wine on an empty stomach.’

Lyrien took a pastry and bit into it. It tasted delicious, and she took a second bite. Something was niggling at the back of her mind, something about Ullavir and the rest of her party, but it all seemed a long way away and so unimportant…

She finished the pastry but realised she was more tired than hungry. So tired, all she wanted to do was close her eyes…

‘I’m sorry. You’ve had a bad experience, and you’re weary.’ Pirstad pushed himself from the table and held out his hand. Come, I’ll show you where you can rest.’

Obedient as if she was six years old and her nurse was calling her for bed, Lyrien stood up with a sleepy smile and, clasping the proffered hand, she allowed Pirstad to lead her through the inner door.

* * *

Restlessness assailed Ellyria. Perhaps she’d stayed in Syland too long. As they always did when this mood came upon her, her thoughts turned to the Dark Spirit. She was no closer to finding out its true name. And what of Fiersten and Norduria? They had also vanished. Apart from Jedderin’s brief sighting, no one among either elves or ordinary mortals had heard news of them in years.

She briefly considered scrying for them but dismissed the idea. What was the point? They were gone, hidden by Norduria’s filthy magic somewhere in the wilds of Challiver, and Ellyria told herself that she didn’t care where they were.

But I do care. I should care. Where they are, there lie the Dark Spirit’s plans.

Maybe she should try again…

Sighing, she set up her scrying bowl, knowing she would be no more successful than before. The water lay obdurately clear, showing only the smooth bronze of the bowl’s inner surface. She was about to give up when suddenly, the surface clouded.

But when the milkiness cleared, it did not show Fiersten and Norduria. It showed Ullavir, beside a forest-lined roadway, battling a dwarvish raider.

Lyrien

Ellyria gabbled the spell, and the space-shifting vortex seized her up and carried her away.
She opened her eyes to a scene of carnage. Horses reared and screamed and somewhere behind her, women were screaming too. A dead man lay at her feet, his head half severed. He wore the livery of Beverak’s guard. Barely an arm’s length before her, Ullavir ran his sword through his opponent’s belly. The dwarvishman screamed and fell to the ground.

Ullavir stepped over the dying dwarf. ‘Your majesty, he panted hoarsely. ‘You should not be here.’

Ellyria did not reply. She was busy creating the biggest binding spell she’d ever had to cast. And where was Lyrien? There was no hope of finding her, dead or alive, amid this mayhem.

Ullavir turned to face another dwarvish fighter just as Ellyria’s spell took effect on those closest to her. She could not possibly stop the battle all at once. She had to tackle it little by little, starting with the individual fights close at hand and gradually widening the spell’s net.

And little by little, it worked. Dwarves froze in full fight or flight, while Ullavir’s men lowered their swords in amazement.

Ullavir looked around at her handiwork and then gazed at her, awe-struck. ‘You’ve frozen them, your majesty. Are they dead?’

‘No, Ullavir. At nightfall they will move again. May the gods grant they return to their underground caverns and not come back to harm anyone even one more time.’

Ullavir, however, was not listening. He was turning this way and that, looking for something. Or someone. ‘The princess — where is she?

Ellyria’s eyes already sought the familiar tawny hair and rosy cheeks of her granddaughter, but there was no sign of her. One of the women limped up, weeping. ‘Where is your mistress?’ Ellyria demanded. ‘Where’s Princess Lyrien?’

‘Her h-horse bolted, madam, quite early in the attack. Last I saw it was tearing back up the road towards Midlands Manor.’

‘She could have been thrown!’ Not waiting for a response, Ellyria began to run in the direction the weeping woman had indicated. Ullavir was hard on her heels, but she managed to lose him by dodging through a group of frozen dwarvishmen at the first bend in the road. She took refuge in a thicket as Ullavir thundered past. Then she took starling form and flew.

Half a mile down the road, a riderless mount grazed the verge. With her starling’s eyes, Ellyria glanced past the horse to an overgrown path. It had obviously seen little use: branches overhung from both sides and the path itself sported grasses high enough to mow for hay.

But someone had gone up there recently. Snapped twigs hung from the branches and the grass beneath was slightly flattened, as if a by a single horse.

There was magic about. Strong magic: she could almost smell it. Someone wearing a glamour…

The trail was easy enough to follow. Away from the edge of the wood, hoof prints in the sandy track led ever onwards and upwards. Some distance up the path, something hanging on a bush that overhung the path caught her eye. It was a piece of brown stuff. Along one edge fragments of floral embroidery still clung.

Alighting on the path, Ellyria resumed her own form and retrieved the scrap of fabric. She held it up to the dim light. It could be from Lyrien’s brown riding dress.

Heartened, she hastened along the path, even though it was growing steeper by the stride and thorny twigs grabbed her at every step. Two bends later, she pushed her way into a large clearing with a substantial building in its centre. From within came the sound of sobbing.

Ellyria mounted the steps in two bounds and tried the door, without success. It took several repetitions of an unlocking spell to gain entry. She raced across the hall, calling her granddaughter’s name, and flung open the inner door.

Lyrien, naked, lay hunched atop an elaborately carved bed. She raised her head and stared at Ellyria with terrified, unseeing eyes. Ellyria sat beside her and tried to take her in her arms, but Lyrien screamed and pushed her away.

‘Lyrien, my dear child, can you hear me? Lyrien, look at me!

The sobbing became great gasping breaths punctuated by whimpers. ‘Grandmamma?’ Oh Grandmamma, he hurt me.’

Ellyria put an arm around the shaking white shoulders and this time she was not repulsed. Lyrien turned and collapsed into the embrace, sobbing again, more quietly this time. There was a smear of blood on her thigh. ‘Lyrien, who did this to you?’

‘A m-man, Grandmamma. A knight.’

Half releasing the shivering Lyrien, Ellyria pulled the bedcovers up. ‘Did you know him?’

Lyrien shook her head. ‘Not really. I met him only yesterday. He seemed so nice… but he planned this, Grandmamma. He told me, even as he…’ Lyrien bit her lips and screwed up her eyes.

Ellyria squeezed her shoulder. ‘Go on.’

‘He said to tell you that he can also play the horse breeder, that there are already plenty of little cuckoos. And that Nor-Nordelia? A strange name…’

‘Norduria?’

‘Yes, that’s it. Norduria.’

Ellyria folded Lyrien in her arms as she began to cry again, soft, despairing sobs that told a tale of heartbreaking disillusionment and loss. ‘Did this man tell you his name?’

Lyrien’s whisper was so soft even Ellyria could barely hear it. ‘He said he was Sir Pirstad 
Stormshore.’

Pirstad. Pierstan. Fiersten. Back on form, now the Dark Spirit is back… Ellyria stood up and retrieved Lyrien’s clothing. Some pieces lay on the bed, some on the floor, all in disarray. The hem of the riding habit was torn, matching the piece Ellyria had found on the bush, but the bodice was ripped to the waist, as was the undershirt.

A little magic mended them. If only broken lives could be as easily rendered whole. Ellyria’s jaw clenched. ‘He will pay for this, Lyrien. And have no fear; there will be no cuckoo in this nest. I shall see to that.’

She stroked Lyrien’s belly in a downward motion, seven times, murmuring a spell as she did so. ‘Come along, my darling. Let’s get you back where you belong.’

It was a long walk back to the road. Ellyria was tempted to space-shift at once to take Lyrien directly back to Rannerven, but that would cause complications. Ullavir and his men, to say nothing of Lyrien’s women, must be hunting for her high and low.

‘Lyrien, my dear, it’s probably best if your party returns to Midlands Manor. I’ll come with you if there’s a spare mount.’ Ellyria bit her lip. Of course there would be a spare: several of Beverak’s men were dead. ‘It might be wise to tell Ullavir and the others that you hid in the forest to avoid the dwarves, without mentioning Sir Pirstad.’

Lyrien just nodded. Her crying had given way to a sad silence that was almost worse, but all Ellyria could do was walk beside her, sending waves of compassion and reassurance and hoping that was enough.

Halfway down the path, they met Ullavir. The relief on his face as he caught sight of them was palpable. ‘Madam, you’ve found her. Praised be all the gods! Your highness, are you hurt?’

Lyrien shook her head. ‘Thank you, no, Ullavir. When my horse finally calmed down I thought it best to shelter in the forest for a while, and Queen Ellyria just happened to be passing. I am quite unhurt, as you can see. We must return to Midlands Castle. Prince Dristed should hear of this attack as soon as possible.’ She turned to Ellyria. ‘Will you accompany us, Grandmamma? I take it your servants have returned to your manor.’

Ellyria regarded her granddaughter with admiration. Where had the weeping, terrified girl gone? This was a different Lyrien, one who had very quickly grown in strength and dignity. ‘Indeed I will, granddaughter, if Ullavir can find me a mount.’

By the time they reached the scene of the battle, the dead and wounded were tied to their horses and Ullavir’s sergeant was readying the party to move off. Ellyria rode with them back to Midlands Castle, where she left Lyrien and her party in the care of Dristed. Then she space-shifted to Rannerven, to explain to Beverak and Tammi that their daughter had been raped.

* * *

‘Who was it?’ Beverak snarled as he stood up on hearing the news. ‘I’ll hunt him down and have him strung up by the balls.’

Tammi took his hand. ‘My love, whoever it was, there is nothing we can do without ruining Lyrien’s chances of marriage. We must keep this quiet. Surely you can see that?’

Ellyria stayed silent. She could not bear to tell Beverak the same elvishman that had seduced Polivana all those years ago had also raped Lyrien. Beverak still occasionally showed long-harboured feelings of fear and suspicion of her people, and knowing that his daughter had been forcibly deflowered by one of them could well be the last straw. Perhaps he would even turn her out, his own mother… The possibility of never seeing Beverak and Tammi or their children again was unbearable. 

She held her peace while Beverak ranted and Tammi soothed, then quietly excused herself, went to her room and wept.

She fell into a restless slumber, only to be awakened by the feeling that someone — or something — was in the room with her. She opened her eyes to see a familiar shape flickering in the firelight. She sat bolt upright. ‘You! This was your doing, wasn’t it?’

The Dark Spirit smiled its lazy, supercilious smile. ‘Of course. Surely you aren’t surprised, little queen. You must have known I was back.’

Ellyria hugged her knees and stared back into the spirit’s unfathomable eyes. ‘Of course I did. I saw my spell undone in front of my very eyes. I’m surprised it took you so long to surface.’

The Spirit yawned. ‘Oh, I’ve been around, my dear. Laying plans, finding my minions and making them a few promises. Hence the sad business with your granddaughter. Fiersten is easily pleased: just wave a pretty piece of flesh in front of him and he is happy. But Norduria — now, she’s a cut from different cloth. Power is what she’s after, and that makes the game so much more interesting.’

‘What about Nustofer?’

The Spirit shrugged. ‘He wants power, too, but he’s easily diverted by smaller rewards for the time being. But really, my dear, you can’t expect me to share my plans with you. I may be clever, but I cannot read your mind — to me, the fun of this game lies in guessing what you will do next and foiling your plans. Sometimes I have to distract you with side issues, and that might often tie in nicely with the small rewards I give my minions.’

Bile rose in Ellyria’s throat. How could this creature be so evil, so conscienceless? ‘Why didn’t you just take Lyrien as your second payment, and have done with it?’

‘I like to prolong the game, little queen. I might indeed take her another time, but I must congratulate you. Your trinkets are doing their job well, and so far I have been unable to take either of your granddaughters. Fear not: your spells are strong, and providing me with much sport as I try to break them. For break them I shall, you know. It’s only a matter of time.’ And with that the Dark Spirit faded from view.

* * *

Beverak pushed aside the pile of papers that required his attention. One of them was a tentative offer of the hand of a Kyrisian princess as a wife for Linvar.

He stretched to ease his aching back. It still troubled him, but not as much as the nagging awareness that the succession would not be assured until Linvar had a son. Better yet, two or three sons. Not all children, even pampered royal ones, would reach adulthood.

But he did not want to marry Linvar to a foreign princess. Oh, he’d been lucky himself in that regard — Tammi was the very best wife he could have had, and there was no likelihood that any of her kinsmen would try to take the throne of Dresnia. All the same, a good local girl would be a safer bet for Linvar, preferably one who had no brothers…

There was a knock at the door and Beverak cursed under his breath. Hadn’t he told them a hundred times to leave him alone when he was working? ‘Who is it?’

It was Lyrien. A pang of sorrow pierced Beverak as he watched her cross the room. She held her head high, but she’d been looking sad and withdrawn for days, ever since that cursed attack in the forest and her suffering at the hands of some stray knight. The worst part was that he couldn’t even seek the bastard out and have him die under the knife that a butcher would take to his balls. Hell, he’d wield the knife himself, given the chance. But Tammi was right. If word got about that Lyrien had been raped, it would ruin her chances of marriage and cast disrepute on the family. It was high time she had a husband. Just as soon as Linvar is safely wed…

Lyrien stood in front of him, hands clasped. That was strange; normally she would take a stool and sit at his feet. He’d never stood on ceremony with his children, and they were always at ease with him. 

He regarded Lyrien seriously. ‘What is it, child?

Lyrien swallowed. ‘Father, I want to be a nun.’

‘You want what?’ Beverak almost fell from his chair in surprise. ‘Lyrien, is your brain addled? You are my only daughter. You can’t become a nun. And what sort of life do those women have anyway? Most of them are girls from families too poor to give them a decent dowry, or else they’re sick or deformed and can’t find husbands. We can do better for you than that. A lot better. Why, only last week the Falrouvian ambassador hinted that the king’s uncle was looking for a second wife. Once we’ve found a wife for Linvar——’

Lyrien broke in angrily. ‘Father, it will be obvious to anyone I marry that I’m not a virgin. Have you thought of that?’

‘Don’t be silly, Lyrien. Any old wise woman knows how to fake virginity. A bit of chicken’s blood in the right place and the man will be none the wiser, unless you tell him.’

‘I will tell anyone who comes to court me,’ Lyrien replied. ‘And if he persists, I shall spit in his face. I will never marry. Never. You might as well let me go to the godhouse right away.’

Bile rose in Beverak’s throat and his hands started to shake. He thumped the desk and roared at Lyrien. ‘You just listen to me, daughter! You have been pampered and given advantages all your life, because you are my child and thus a bargaining chip in trade. Your dowry is sufficient for any prince on the continent, or indeed, any in the world. This is what you’ve been bred for and you’ll marry where I tell you!’

‘Is that all I am to you, Father? A bargaining chip?’

Beverak’s anger evaporated as quickly as it had arisen. He put his head in his hands, elbows on the desk, and took a deep breath. ‘Of course not, my pet.’ He paused and looked up again. ‘But princes and princesses have certain duties. Why else have you been cosseted and given every advantage? We have to pay for these things in our duty to the country. And one of those duties is making useful alliances with other lands. Surely you’ve always known that.’

Lyrien turned away and looked out of the window. ‘I did not seek those advantages, Father. In fact, I despise them. Why should I ride while others walk? Why should I always take the best feather bed at any inn in the country while poor people sleep on straw or worse? And have you considered, Father, that if you marry me off to some foreign prince, my sons might one day seek to take the throne of Dresnia?’

Beverak felt himself blanch. This was, indeed, the very thing he feared when it came to foreign alliances. The dagger of Dresnia was long lost and his mother had intimated that the Dark Spirit was back. Her words of two decades ago rose to mind as clearly as if she’d only just now spoken them: there will be illness, famine and war within and without the kingdoms…

‘Are you threatening me, daughter?’

‘No, Father, just stating a simple fact. Until Linvar has sons enough to ensure the succession, it might not be prudent to have nephews on foreign soil.’

Beverak stared at his daughter. Suddenly, she seemed years older. Indeed, she was old enough to know what she wanted. And should he ever decide that it was politic for her to marry, dispensations from vows were not hard to buy…

‘Have you mentioned this idea to your mother, Lyrien?’

‘I have, Father, and she has no objection as long as you give consent. She said she would rather have me close by in Rannerven than over the seas and far away.’

Her father sighed. ‘Very well, daughter, I will consider your request. Now be off with you and leave me to my work.’

Lyrien closed her father’s door behind her and leaned against it, breathing a sigh of relief. It might take another talk or two, but she’d already won. Lady be thanked, she would never have to lie with a man again.

* * *

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