Book 1 of "Children of the Rock"
Marguerite Krause & Susan Sizemore
(From Five Star Speculative Fiction - November 2003)
"There's no other choice. We'll have to kill her."
From his position by the door in the small audience chamber, Dael, captain of the Rhenlan guard, looked on helplessly as King Hion made his pronouncement. Now he understood why this meeting of the king's council had been convened here, rather than the more public space of the great hall of Edian Castle. Better to announce this decision in comparative privacy, and let the public spectacle wait for the death itself.
Light streamed in through the tall windows on the southern and eastern walls, drawing unexpected glints and sparkles from the king's jeweled belt and the silver inlay in his son Damon's dagger hilt. Ledo, Hion's brother, wore so much gold thread that his sleeves glowed in the sunshine. In contrast, Vissa's black gown was enlivened only by its red sash and the embroidered patterns on sleeves and hem that indicated her rank as first among the Redmothers of Rhenlan. The Brownmother beside her wore a brown-marked robe far less elaborate than that of the court Redmother, but her manner conveyed similar dignity. Next to the stately women, the three men looked like bright-hued butterflies.
Not one of the king's councilors spoke up to protest Hion's decision.
Dael swallowed, his mouth dry even though he had no right to be surprised. He had seen this tragedy coming. He had also been fool enough to hope that somehow the situation would change, or that someone on the council would make the effort to find a way to avoid this logical, but heartless, solution.
Prince Damon fixed his steady gaze on the king. "You realize, Father, that she's hardly more than a child."
"She's a Shaper, the daughter of a ruling house." Hion leaned forward in the oaken chair that served as this chamber's throne, and rested his hands on his knees. "If her mother had taught her the first thing about responsibility and loyalty we wouldn't be facing this crisis." His gaze traveled the circle of his advisors; first Damon, then Ledo, Brownmother Thena, and finally Vissa. "Isn't that so, Redmother? According to tradition?"
"It is a very new tradition, Your Majesty," the old woman replied, her expression pinched with disapproval. "But technically, you are correct."
"No one asked how old the law was. It's a law. That's all that matters," Damon said. "Surely there are precedents."
"There is no precedent in my memory." Given the perfection of a Redmother's trained memory, the statement was inarguable, and Damon fell silent.
In spite of himself, Dael felt a faint stirring of hope. Prince Damon inevitably supported his father's policies; any protest he made would, in the end, only clarify and bolster Hion's original intentions. Duke Ledo rarely said a word in council meetings, for fear of losing favor with his brother or nephew. Brownmother Thena clearly felt out of her depth in this discussion; her areas of expertise and responsibility were the health and welfare of the citizens of the town, not the fate of foreign princesses. Dael himself was not an official member of the king's council, so his opinion would not be welcome in this discussion. He attended the meetings only to provide information when requested, and because it was the most efficient way for Hion and Damon to keep him informed of decisions that he, as captain of the guard, would have to enforce.
Redmother Vissa, however, possessed the wisdom, and perhaps the strength of will, to change Hion's mind.
"Before the fire bear plague, this situation would never have occurred," Vissa said, her mouth a thin, bitter line. "Before the plague, Keepers were content to keep their lands and herds, and Shaper families were honored to govern their own small kingdoms. No one argued over ownership of land!"
Ledo's eyes widened at the tone of Vissa's critical words. Dael's brief surge of hope faded into despair once more. He agreed with the Redmother-life had been safer and saner, a person's duty to the gods clearer and easier, before the plague. Unfortunately, Dael had observed over the years that appeals to tradition rarely worked with Hion. Vissa had never learned that lesson. Perhaps she couldn't. Her life was devoted to maintaining the continuity of their culture; to her, old ways were, by definition, always better than new.
"We live after the plague," Hion replied, "not before it. New situations require new traditions. Redmother Vissa, you are old enough to remember the villages that had to be abandoned, the chaos that threatened until the Eighteen Kingdoms were consolidated into three larger, more manageable tracts. We must not allow that chaos to threaten again. Recite the terms of the law."
The Redmother grew still, her expression blank as she searched her mind for the words the king sought.
"In the event of a border dispute," Vissa recited at last, "in the absence of a high king or queen, and to avoid disrupting the lives of the Keepers of either kingdom, the Shaper families concerned will either exchange goods for land, exchange land for land, cede the territory in question to an adjacent neighbor, or arrange a union of their families in marriage and bequeath the territory to the offspring of that couple. If either side proves false to its vows in this matter, both land and life are forfeit."
Damon shook his head. To Dael, his expression seemed sincerely regretful. "If only Queen Dea had been reasonable."
Hion scowled. "She's not fit to rule. Anyone can see she'll never make proper use of that forest. We made a more than generous offer, and how were we repaid? With treachery."
Ledo cleared his throat. "Are we quite convinced that Princess Emlie was part of the plot?"
"Tell him, Captain," Damon commanded.
Dael braced himself and took a single step forward, away from his unobtrusive post by the doorway. Leave it to Ledo to ask that question; one for which Hion had already determined the answer. In the spring, a pair of merchants from a tiny village in Dherrica, only a stone's throw across the border from Rhenlan, came to Edian to ask for assistance in driving off a band of Abstainers. Hion sent two guard patrols to take care of the matter, a generous and sensible response to a common threat. What Dael hadn't expected was that Hion would then claim the village and its surrounding lands for Rhenlan, on the grounds that he was obviously better able to protect the population. Dea obviously hadn't expected it, either. She sent Princess Emlie with arguments to counter Hion's demands, and for a while, a peaceful settlement, perhaps marriage for the two heirs, had seemed imminent. Then negotiations had broken down, and Dael had been forced to deal with the results.
"Several men in the force that attacked our patrol were members of the princess's escort," Dael told Ledo. "When I confronted her, she admitted that she had sent them to the border, to secure a way for her to leave Rhenlan."
"Without our knowledge," Damon said, "and in spite of our efforts to negotiate a reasonable settlement of our differences."
Dael nodded. He did not believe that the young princess had a malicious intent to deceive Hion and Damon; she had simply been overwhelmed by an impossible situation, and sought to escape her responsibilities. However, to say that Emlie hadn't meant any harm did nothing to change the consequences of her decisions.
"There's no denying two of our guards are dead," Hion said bluntly, and dismissed Dael to his post with a wave of his hand.
"A clear breach of the truce," Damon agreed. "We must respond accordingly."
"It will accomplish nothing." Vissa turned away from the young prince and appealed directly to Hion. "If Emlie dies, how will you ever reach an agreement with Dea? Once there is blood between you-"
"There already is," Hion snapped.
Dael clenched his fists at his side, torn between his loyalty to Hion, and his conviction that, in this instance, his king was making a mistake. Hion had dedicated his life to protecting all of his people, from the lowest guard to the richest merchant, and held all ruling Shapers to the same high standard. Dea had failed to defend the villagers, and Emlie had failed to properly exercise her authority over the guards under her command. Queen and princess both had, however briefly, forsaken their vows. When vows failed, only law could provide a semblance of justice-but Dea and Emlie, in their refusal to accept any of Rhenlan's offered terms, had turned their backs on the law, too.
"What else can we do?" Damon asked the Redmother, his words an uncanny echo of Dael's tortured thoughts. "As her mother's representative in Rhenlan she has full authority over her people. With authority comes responsibility."
"It is wrong to shed blood over a question of jurisdiction."
"The forest was never the issue."
"Sometimes it's necessary to prove a point," Hion said. "How we designate territory as the charge of one royal house or another is part of our Shapers' responsibility. Such decisions must be reached through reason and compromise, and the decision-making process cannot be abandoned on a whim, or replaced by a show of force. Dea may continue to refuse us the forest for now, but the princess's death will remind her that the law cannot be ignored."
The council recognized that the king's decision was final. Hion leaned back in his chair. "There is nothing more to say. You are dismissed."
Dael stepped aside to let Brownmother Thena pass. Damon approached the doorway more slowly, one hand on his uncle's arm, speaking into Ledo's ear with great intensity. As they reached the door the prince looked at Dael and smiled. "My father and I appreciate your support, Captain."
"Thank you, Highness." Dael bowed his head in respect, and because he did not want the prince to see the doubt in his eyes. It was his job to support his king's decisions, but he wasn't very happy with this one.
Damon and Ledo swept past him and departed. Dael remained where he was until he felt eyes on him once more. He looked up to find the Redmother standing in the doorway, her old face filled with hatred.
"This situation is despicable." Despite her anger, she kept her voice low. "Emlie never plotted against anyone in her life."
Dael glanced past her at the silent figure on the throne. Hion, lost in thought, either couldn't hear them or wasn't bothering to listen. "The evidence, Redmother, suggests otherwise. His Majesty has no other choice."
"This court should be concerned less with evidence and more with justice."
There was no answer Dael could give. Vissa passed him and stalked away, her black skirts swirling around her ankles. Dael waited until her footsteps faded away before addressing the throne. "Orders, Your Majesty?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Vray could not hold anything in her memory this morning. She couldn't even remember from moment to moment whether the sky outside the study room window was cloudy or clear. Trying to commit the family histories of every person in the city of Edian to some storehouse in her head was impossible. Her tutor's voice buzzed like a fly, and made as little sense. Study and work held no meaning for the young princess. All she could think of was her father's council meeting.
What will they decide? The tower walls of the castle seemed to dissolve around Vray as anxious speculation, instead of family records, filled her head. What could they decide? She knew what Damon wanted, and why. Nothing mattered to him more than the prestige and security of the kingdom of Rhenlan. Whatever best served Rhenlan-a border war to prove who had jurisdiction over a border village, marriage with an unwilling bride to cement an alliance with Dherrica, a public execution-was the course of action he would pursue with all of his energy. Yet, how could he? How could Father allow it? No show of power was worth the price of the princess's life.
She wished her mother was in Edian Castle. Mother is never here, a bitter voice far in the back of her mind reminded her. Vray kept that angry little girl with her red braids and tear-stained face very deep inside her, usually. Her mother never listened to her, and rarely involved herself in the affairs of the kingdom. Vray was used to taking care of herself. Everyone said she was very mature for a fourteen-year-old.
Parents were supposed to make everything all right. But Queen Dea had sent her daughter into an enemy's castle, while Queen Gallia of Rhenlan cared more for her purebred horses than for her duties as wife and mother. Vray had learned that lesson well early in life. The nurses and teachers had quietly whispered it to each other, as if she, with her sharp ears and talent for observing, hadn't been just across the room when the servants gathered to gossip. No, it was only to be expected that Mother would be absent from Edian during this maddening crisis. Even if she were here, she would probably do nothing to interfere with Damon. Vray clenched her fists in frustration. Mother never interfered with Damon. She just smiled, as if his self-indulgence was amusing.
And I'm not just a jealous little sister.
Father-and Dael-insisted that it was not her place to question Damon's decisions as heir. Dael told her to stay out of Damon's way, while Father told her to be a dutiful princess. But the things her teachers told her about duty contradicted everything Damon did. They were ruling Shapers, sworn to protect and guide their people. Damon was only to happy to give orders. He did not, in Vray's opinion, care how his decisions affected the people he led; all he cared about was being obeyed.
Well, she was a dutiful princess. As was poor Emlie. Vray squirmed restlessly in her chair, checking the weather outside the diamond-paned window once more. She saw only clear blue sky, and a flight of birds in the distance, rising from one of the fields beyond the outskirts of Edian.
Vray's stomach tightened with worry, and the ache in her head grew worse. If she was so afraid, how must Emlie be feeling?
"I have to talk to Emlie," she said. The words came out as a dry rasp, and she heard a gasp from her tutor, Danta. Vray realized that she had been talking to herself. She looked at the startled Redmother and was surprised to see that Danta's fleshy, wrinkled face had gone pale. Vray's anxiety for Emlie transformed to anger at the thought that Danta might forbid her from seeing the jailed princess.
"You don't think it's wise?" Vray demanded.
Danta's gaze dropped. She bowed her head, her plump fingers fidgeting with the black material of her skirt, but she made no answer.
Sometimes I think I can be as scary as Damon, Vray thought as she rose from her chair. She patted Danta affectionately on the shoulder but didn't pause long enough to apologize for being harsh with her. Danta was in no danger. It was Emlie who needed a kind word while the ruling shapers downstairs debated her fate.
Vray rushed down the tower stairs, her blue skirts hitched up and red hair flying. As she reached the bottom, Dael's familiar voice bellowed, "By the great crumbling Rock!" For once, he wasn't chastising her. If Dael had left the audience chamber, then the council meeting was over. She followed the sound of the curse around the corner and saw him, already halfway across the stone-flagged courtyard, probably on his way to the guard barracks. She ran to intercept her friend.
"Not now, Kitten," the guard captain said as she planted herself squarely in his path. When she didn't move, Dael gave a most perfunctory bow, then straightened, swinging his long golden braid back over his shoulder. He tried to step around her, adding, in a voice dull as unpolished pewter, "Please, Highness."
His eyes, blue as the deep lake beyond the town, avoided hers, his face an impassive mask. Vray recognized the look. He was hungry for some comfort but too angry with himself to ask. Her hands automatically came up to clasp his upper arms.
"What's happened?" she asked him.
Dael closed his eyes and swallowed, clamping down hard on whatever had torn that curse from his lips. Her brother, probably. Dael trusted her, but he also tried not to rouse her quick temper where Damon was concerned.
"It's no use, Kitten," he said. "The law is the law, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it now."
He took a deep breath. "Princess Emlie must be held accountable for the actions of the guards in her service."
"That sounds like one of Damon's arguments," she said angrily. "I've heard them all before." She began to turn away, and it was Dael's turn to grab her.
She stood stiffly in his grasp and glared at him. "She's barely two years older than me. She still likes to play in the garden with the kitchen cats!" Then the implication of his words struck her. "Execution?"
"They're going to kill her?"
He nodded again. She tried to pull her arm from his grasp, but he held her easily, looking around in case there were servants or guards about to see them. She was fourteen, gangling and thin, and he was captain of the king's guard, no giant but big and strong enough to hold one stubborn girl. She knew that it embarrassed him when their arguments escalated into public shouting matches, or when he had to physically restrain her from doing something he didn't consider wise. He would not let her rush off to confront her brother; not unless she could convince him that she knew what she was doing. Dael worried more about her impetuous behavior than she did.
"King Hion has decided to take firm action in the matter."
"King Hion decides nothing!" she snapped back.
"Hush," he warned, shaking her. "Think-and keep still, Kitten." He'd given her the pet name during the years he'd helped raise her. He hardly ever used it now, not since she'd discovered the sport that was possible between men and women and decided that he would be an ideal partner. The fact that he used the name now proved showed how distracted he was. He would never admit it in so many words, but she was dear to him, and he didn't want to see her do anything foolish.
"How can I keep still?" she demanded. "Someone has to speak up against this. You know it all comes back to my brother's pure, blind ambition!"
"Your father doesn't see Damon the way you do."
"Then I have to show him!"
"There's a glint of battle in those eyes of yours." He shook his head, fluffing out the hair surrounding his face. "No. There's nothing you can do."
"Am I not even permitted to try?"
He thought for a moment before answering carefully. "You're a princess. Hion's daughter. Damon's opposite. Perhaps you can be of some influence on the king. More likely not, but who am I to keep you from trying?" He released her and stepped aside. "Go to your father," he told her. "He was still in the audience chamber when I left. Go, if you must. I have work."
She let him by and watched him hurry out of sight, through the door to the guard barracks. He had a great deal to organize if the execution was to take place without any difficulties. An execution that he would have to oversee.
Vray's heart tightened with anguish.
"No," she whispered hoarsely. She ran for the audience chamber.
I've been dying for years now, Hion of Rhenlan thought as he slumped in his seat, letting the pain have its way with him for a few minutes, using it to take his mind off his latest decision. He was alone, as he liked to be, his son and counselors gone about the business of concluding the matter. A long time dying for any man, he complained to the silence. He would have to make it swift and painless for that poor lamb Dea sent him. Foolish, stubborn woman. He hunched forward, resting his head in his hands. The pain was very bad today. He had barely been able to make it through the meeting without showing his weakness.
He had been a heroic king once, a proud and conscientious shaper, responsible for freeing his country from the ravages of the last of the fire bears. Fire-bear wounds were poisonous, a cumulative poison. Hion had been wounded more than once in his combats with the creatures. The last time had been fatal, a slow fatality that even Greenmother Jenil could not prevent. She could only slow his dying, coming to Edian every year or so to perform what healing magic she could. Her talent kept the pain damped down to something he could live with. She always apologized because there was no cure for him, and wondered, solicitous in her silly dreamer way, that he lived at all.
Jenil couldn't cure him, but at least the Greenmother's magic kept his heavily-muscled body from turning into barrel-chested fat. She masked the ravages of the pain, keeping his blond hair from going white too quickly, his blue eyes alert instead of dulled from pain-numbing herbs.
"I'm a stubborn man," he had told Jenil more than once, and repeated the words into his hands now. Have to be stubborn, have to live until Damon learns enough to take my place.
Hion jerked upright, and found Vray on her knees before his chair. Her cat-eyed face was full of worry.
"What are you doing here?" he asked gruffly, more annoyed than usual at the girl's resemblance to her mother, whose slender grace and feline features he'd once found so attractive.
Vray sat back on her heels, looking up at him anxiously. "Are you ill?"
Gathering his strength about him, Hion sat up straight, squaring his shoulders and masking his face with a scowl. "Silly child."
Odd how neither of his children resembled him. Damon looked more like Hion's sister, pale-skinned and raven-haired. Vray was the image of Gallia and her whole red-maned family. The guardsman Dael, blond and blue-eyed, looked more like him than his own flesh.
Thinking of Dael and looking at Vray reminded Hion of something. "What's this I hear about you at the Golden Owl?"
Vray blushed. "It's a perfectly respectable inn."
"Where my guard captain spends much of his off duty time. Leave the man alone, child. If I hear of him dragging you home once more-"
"That's not important now," she cut him off, and got to her feet. Before he could gather enough air into his lungs to thunder at her disrespect she hurried on. "I have to talk to you about Emlie. You can't kill her, Father."
Vray was a stubborn, difficult child, and he had neither strength nor inclination to fight with her now. Nothing held her attention for long; he would answer her questions, and she would go away and forget the whole unpleasant incident. "It's the law, girl. The dispute's not been settled within any of the precepts the law allows. Dea delegated her authority to her daughter, and now the girl must pay. I'm only trying to prevent more deaths."
She stared at him. "Prevent death by killing? How, Father?"
"It's no affair of yours, Vray. Go to your studies." She stubbornly remained where she was, her expression pleading, and let the silence build between them. Hion finally grew uncomfortable enough to growl, "Well?"
She cupped her elbows in her hands, pressing her arms close to her body. "Father, there is no honor in this."
"And what do you know about it?" Hion demanded. Before the fire bears came, the world had been full of honor, and laughter and security and magic and all the other frivolities of those prosperous, untroubled times. By the time Hion became king, honor and tradition were luxuries that took time and energy away from the immediate fight for survival. Damon understood the sacrifices demanded by necessity, but his daughter never would.
"You're training me to be a Redmother," she reminded him angrily. "Damon's Redmother....not that he'll ever listen to anything I have to say. Not that you listen to me."
"Your childish arguments have no place in the council chamber."
"I'm fourteen. Emlie's just sixteen, unmarried. Doesn't that make her a child, too? Will you kill a child?"
"She plotted treachery against me! Against our people!"
"I don't believe that." She walked away into the shadows near the hearth, then paced back to confront him once more, chin up, eyes glaring. "I don't think Damon believes it, either. The girl is a poor negotiator, that's all, and Damon's pride was hurt when she refused to marry him. That's the real reason he wants her dead!"
"Your brother's only concern is the welfare of our people. You would do well to learn from his example."
"What about Emlie's welfare? What about Queen Dea?"
"Enough! I've made my decision." He could no longer concentrate on her naive, jealous accusations. The pain was consuming him. He wanted to go to his chambers where he could be alone to scream the agony away. He wanted even more to be rid of this hornet and her stinging words.
"Be gone, Vray. Now."
"You've made a mistake." Her words held the tone of a Dreamer's prophecy. Light fell on her from the room's high windows, turning her hair to flames, hurting his eyes. "You can stop it, or we can all suffer for it."
Hion clutched the chair arms and heaved himself to his feet. Tottering unsteadily he lunged at his daughter, open palm striking her across the face.
"I said, be gone!" he roared.
She whimpered and collapsed into a blue heap before him, silenced. For now. Hion gazed down at her. Her huddled figure roused a dim, guilty memory of the laughing three-year-old daughter who had enticed him into games of hide-and-seek, and clambered into his lap in search of affection. He remembered the first time her innocent exuberance pained one of his old wounds, and her tears at his anger when he sent her away.
He shook his head to banish the memory. An explanation or excuse would have been useless then, and would be useless now. Dear Gallia had taught him that.
The girl raised her head and touched a cut one of his rings had made in her fine-skinned cheek.
"Be gone," he repeated once more, and slumped back into his chair.
Shame and sadness mingled in her whispered, "Yes, Sire." Without looking at him, she pulled herself to her feet and fled from the room.
Copyright © 1999 by Marguerite Krause & Susan Sizemore