by Sarah Ann Watts
Chapter 7: Castle of the Sabre
Voices rouse me. The sound of a door closing. I open my eyes, and it makes no difference. If anything, the gloom intensifies. I see nothing, hear breathing in the dark. They have shut someone in the cell with me. Straw rustles, muffles the sound of footsteps. A clang as they bolt the door. I wonder, Is there air enough for both of us?
I huddle back against the wall, groping for a stone, anything I can use as a weapon. A glow of flame cupped in hands, reflected in eyes above. The flame flickers and goes out, and now I can see less than before. I am dazzled, and they know where I am.
I fumble for the knife I lost. My voice, a whisper in the dark, ‘Who are you?’
I close my eyes, searching for any glow of vision lingering from the circlet. There is nothing. I can feel the blood pulsing beneath my eyelids.
‘Who are you?’ I’m disconcerted to hear my voice shake.
Silence answers me.
* * *
Shaken awake, dragged to my feet, I open sticky eyes. Grey light in a cell, a high window looking out on a sky flecked with scurrying clouds.
The guards holding me are wrapped in furs against the cold. One is tall while the other barely comes up to his shoulder. My breath mists in the air. ‘Where am I?’
The taller, whom I take to be the leader, grabs my chin. ‘Hold your tongue. You’ll find out soon enough. Kin slayer!’
That’s direct enough, but I jerk my chin away. ‘Tell me where I am.’
He raises his hand.
‘Vitor! The queen said to deliver him unharmed.’ The words are quiet and the sound of a woman’s voice startles me but Vitor defers to her, and the blow doesn’t fall.
I smile and say, ‘Did the queen tell you to threaten me?’
‘You’re in the Castle of the Sabre, and the queen does not like to be kept waiting.’
I sit down again on the rough pallet. ‘That’s a pity. Perhaps I might have water for washing and clean clothes before I attend her? And perhaps you might let me know whom I am addressing and why I have the honour of enjoying her Majesty’s hospitality.’
I cast a pointed look round the bare cell which, crowded with the three of us, contains the pallet I was resting on and a bucket in the corner. No chains or rats; these lodgings are palatial compared to my father’s dungeons.
Vitor clenches his fists and looks to his colleague for inspiration. She casts me a cool glance, and I’m thinking I relied too much on the queen wanting me unharmed.
‘My name is Lia. You shall call me ‘My Lady.’
My name is Kyran. You may call me ‘Your Highness.’ I’m not quite fool enough to say it. Murderers have no names.
‘You are detained at the queen’s pleasure and will in all things obey her will.’
I bow in polite acknowledgement. If nothing else, I’ve bought a little time even though I know little more than I did before.
‘You will accompany me now.’
With Vitor at her shoulder it seems likely I’ll obey. I shrug and pull myself to my feet.
The queen’s guards bundle me out and up a stair, climbing higher until we emerge in a courtyard ringed by flint walls. It’s all I can do not to fall, and they give me no respite to catch my breath.
Finally, they hammer on carved doors to a royal hall. Inside it should be dark, but an arched window opens on nothing, a gateway to the sky. Cressets light the walls, casting pools of light on shimmering mosaics.
I clutch my torn tunic around me. There’s a huge fire pit, but the warmth doesn’t touch me. Stone sentinels, Aither and his sister, Hemera, children of the old goddess of Night, dwarf their human descendants. Their goddess is not my Goddess. Firelight reflects from the blades of drawn swords.
A door opens behind the throne. A young woman in a robe the colour of the sky comes in quickly and takes her seat at the foot of the tall throne. She wears a silver circlet at her brow. Swords clash on shields as the guards salute her. A mailed hand on my shoulder forces me to kneel.
‘Is this the falcon?’ Her voice is soft yet raises the hairs on the back of my neck. I’ve seen those hawk-like eyes lit by flame in the night. I thought I was dreaming.
My guard from the village, dressed like a nobleman, steps forward. He carries the bear mask on his wrist, and I’m level with its eyes. ‘I found him at the village near the crossroads.’
So they were looking for me. Fool that I am, I walked into a trap.
The girl and the axe man emerge from the shadows and bow. They too have shed their masks: lion and wolf. I remember the lion girl pouring water for me. The same water that made the villagers and dogs sleep so soundly. No wonder my dream was haunted here, where the Night goddess is worshipped. She is known to pursue the guilty. The lion girl turns her head and for a moment our eyes meet. I still don’t know her name.
The queen leans forward. ‘Are you sure this is the one, Lorcan?’
‘He bears the sign, My Lady.’
She descends from the dais and comes towards me. Vitor pinions my arms and pulls back my shirt to reveal the mark on my shoulder.
She says, ‘You have the sight?’
I hesitate and feel a blade graze my skin through the fabric of my shirt. She smiles a little as I flinch.
‘I had the sight, My Lady. They took my circlet in the village.’
‘So you are useless to me.’
‘The circlet could be recovered. Set me free and I’ll find it.’
She laughs then, a thin high cry like a bird. Her form shifts and she blurs into feathers, unfurls her wings and flies from the gateway. I hear the beating of wings, one last caw and she is gone. She is free as I will never be free again. I could weep but the eyes of the guards are on me and I won’t give Vitor the satisfaction.
I’m staring after the queen and I take a step towards the open gateway. Vitor’s hand falls on my shoulder.
‘Restrain him.’ Lorcan issues a crisp command.
‘Do you think I’ll fly away?’
Lia takes my wrist and clasps iron around it. Vitor fastens the chain to the base of the stone throne. My three captors from the night before would rather stay to make sure I’m secured than leave me alone with my new guards.
Strange to say I feel a curious sense of abandonment as they leave, as though they have surrendered me to my fate. I suppose they have.
Vitor and Lia stand guard, mirroring the divine sentinels. After a while I have to ask, ‘Do the people accept the rule of a shapeshifter?’
Lia lifts an eyebrow. ‘Queen Daria is respected by all. This is a civilised kingdom. The gifts of the sky are honoured here.’
This gives me much to think about. In all my studies I’d never discovered that there were lands where my kind might still be accepted to rule. Neither have I read of this queen or her kingdom. It occurs to me that maybe not all history is recorded in the temple library.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts