The Daemon Princess stood in the open Courtyard of the castle, her fair hair tangled beyond repair, her fine clothes torn and muddied. Beyond the castle, winter now held the rolling plains in thrall – the grass snow-bitten, the black trees stark and jewelled with hoar frost – but she cared nothing for the hardness of winter. She had a strident voice, which demanded, ‘I want to ride Lyren!’
Bryce, the corral-master, lifted his eyes to the sky and though he swore under his breath, his voice was mild, laced with the guttural twang of the native Morthian. ‘The King’s mount is too strong for you, Princess.’
‘Now!’ she yelled, stamping her foot.
‘Damned if I do, damned if I don’t,’ Bryce muttered.
Perhaps he should do the kingdom a favour and let the wild-caught beast snap the Daemon Spawn’s head off. The ungainly, squat creature hissed, narrowing its bulbous yellow eyes, then rose up on its back legs, stretching inadequate wings, blowing a cloud of defiance into the bitter air.
There were those who hoped Lyren would one day turn on the Daemon King, but that secret wish lay deep in the heart, for it was more probable that the Usurper would outlast them and many generations of their offspring. This half-breed whelp of the King’s was a nuisance and an anomaly besides, for what Daemon had brought a human to child-bed before? Morthians served her through fear of her father, but as her own father viewed her with something akin to cold curiosity.
One was not expected to even pretend to like her, but Bryce harboured a tiny streak of pity, as he would for any animal that had not been cared for. His breath caught, now, as she danced within easy reach of the wicked teeth.
‘Lyren won’t hurt me, see?’
The cantankerous gaetyn, his scales reflecting the chill winter sky, nuzzled her hair playfully, his baleful yellow eyes hooded. This was not the first time Bryce had noticed her strange affinity with the dangerous animal, but it still shook him. ‘He pretends to be nice until you’re off your guard,’ he warned. Just like your father. ‘He’s killed twice and injured many since coming here.’
Aspen’s unnaturally pale complexion turned a darker hue in the face of opposition. ‘I’ll have you flogged for disobeying me!’
‘Princess, you have that power, but you may not ride him.’
He tried to reason, knowing it was an impossible task. The girl was a wild animal herself, wilful and dirty, existing alongside the dogs and the dross, and had the Daemon King not demanded the brat be suckled, she would surely have died squalling in the mess of her birth, along with her mother, for no Morthian would have taken on that task willingly.
So, the squalling brat survived and learned all too soon the power of her birthright. Despised by Daemon Breed and Morthians alike for being neither one nor the other, she was still the Princess. It was strange, though, that after bringing her into the world and insisting she be nurtured, her father viewed her from afar with something akin to cold curiosity. He was probably waiting to see whether she carried the Daemon Gift, but if she did Bryce had never seen sign of it.
His hand itched to teach her some manners. If she were his daughter! He took a deep breath and tried again. ‘There are gaetyn bred in the corral, lady. Let me fetch Aeren for you, or the hatchling piebald, they both need exercise, and have been defanged.’
Aspen’s temper, not held easily, erupted. With a squeal of anger, she leapt at the bar-gate and grabbed the pin. Bryce hesitated for no more than the whisper of a thought. He grabbed her before she could do herself any damage or free the flightless dragon from his cage. His blunt weapon-worn hands and hard-sinewed strength clutched her around her middle and held her at arm’s length.
Shocked at his own action, he held her for a moment as she struggled and twisted, screaming with astonishment and impotent anger. Damnation to the dead Seer! Why could he not just let her kill herself, and rid them all of the problem? With nothing to lose, for he would get a whipping now, he carried her over and dropped her in the icy water-trough. She surfaced with an explosive wail of shock and the only way to silence her was to put his broad hand on her head for a couple of seconds. When he hauled her up by the rat’s nest of her hair, she gasped loudly for breath in the silence. She stared at him with disbelief, as did the few other people in the Courtyard. Her lower jaw hanging, chest heaving, dripping water, she well and truly resembled the Daemon Spawn she was likened to.
In all of her ten years she had never been treated so.
He lifted her out over the edge of the wooden trough and dumped her back on her feet. Her slight frame shook with fury or cold, and she was drawing breath with difficulty. He held his hand out and said gruffly.
‘Come over to the mess before you freeze.’
She backed fractionally, then, like a whipped cur that had been offered food she sidled towards him almost fearfully.
Bryce scowled nearly as dreadfully as she had earlier. ‘By the suns, child,’ he muttered in a low voice. ‘What are they rearing you for?’
Neither for marriage, nor queenship, nor even, it seemed, for life. Rumour had long been whispered amongst the Morthians that the child was cursed at her unnatural birth and would not live to be a woman. Bryce’s gaetyn were given more care than this whelp. Knowing he was already past redemption, he reached out and lifted her into his broad arms, crushing her against the hard leather of his jerkin and marched into the stone building. A fire raged in the grate and nine pairs of eyes widened in shades of consternation as he carried the sodden child towards it.
The woman who tended the fire gave a shriek and dropped the tongs. ‘Bryce,’ she wailed. ‘What have you done?’
‘Get me a blanket, woman and shut your nagging,’ he grunted. He wrapped the coarse blanket around the child and sat down near the fire, holding her close. She stared up at him in wonder, and it occurred to him that no one had ever done that before.
The long, low building with its grey stone walls, low, slated roof and vast fireplace, was warm. It was homely enough for the soldiers: rough-hewn benches, the smell of fresh bread and plentiful barrels of dark, malted beer. Now, in the midst of winter the shutters were closed against the bitter cold.
‘I only did what I would have done if she’d been my own,’ Bryce said defensively after a moment. ‘It was time someone did.’
The child asked curiously, ‘Would you have put your own daughter in the trough?’
Bryce smiled. ‘If she had no manners, yes. There are a lot of things in the world that don’t matter, but children should learn to have manners and respect for other people.’
‘But you’re just a servant and I’m Daemon,’ she stated, assessing him candidly.
He dumped her from his lap and stood. ‘You’re only half Daemon. The other half is Morthian, like me. Perhaps that’s the part you should try to be proud of.’
‘Bryce!’ the serving woman gasped.
‘Well, it’s true,’ he muttered, wrapping his arms around his torso, anticipating the cruel sting of the lash. He cursed himself for his lack of forbearance. They had all been tempted to strike the half-breed at some time, never mind giving her a well-deserved dunking, but why did it have to be him?
He had attended many whippings, of course. All who dwelt within the castle walls had, for the Daemons thrived on fear. Whilst the Morthians blanched with each blow, the Daemons grew stronger with each shred of ripped skin, each scream of pain, each drop of spilled Morthian blood.
The end door flapped open and crashed against the wall, light and a breath of cold winter wind howled through the gap. The sergeant and his men stamped down the long stone floor, faces carved from granite.
The captain said, ‘Bryce, I’m sorry –’
He shrugged. ‘What’s done can’t be undone.’
At ten Aspen was uneducated, but unchildlike in her serious, lonely contemplation of the small world around her. She was not stupid. She’d seen men die in training, of illness, cold and hunger. She’d also seen men die beneath the whip – life was harsh. But her lonely existence did not provide friends, and Bryce was one of the few who spoke to her.
‘Tell my father I fell in the trough, and Bryce rescued me,’ the little princess ordered. ‘He will not be whipped.’
For a reason Bryce couldn’t fathom, the Daemon King chose to accept the lie. Perhaps he, too, realised it was time someone took the child in hand.
The sun shone over the distant mountains on a chilly day in spring, when Bryce stood in the training ring, tutoring Aspen in the saddle. At fourteen years, her body had stretched upward with pre-pubescent promise. By accident, Bryce had become her mentor, almost a friend, inasmuch as a commoner could befriend one of the ruling Daemon Breed.
Under his tutelage she’d blossomed.
She’d been living in a twilight world, privileged, but isolated, almost from life itself. When he’d dumped her into the freezing water, her decision to save his life had changed hers. She’d learned something that no true Daemon Breed could comprehend; that saving a life brought greater satisfaction than ending one. She was still not easy to like, and he had a wary regard for her temper, but there had been progress. Before, she’d been truly obnoxious, now there were possibilities.
Sitting easily to the saddle, she had a command over the gaetyn that was the envy of many a soldier. He wondered whether she did have Daemon Gift hiding in her blood, but maybe she was just good with animals.
‘Sit up straight, girl!’ he snapped.
‘What’s the point, when I’m never allowed out?’ she bit back.
‘You know why you have to stay in the castle.’
‘Of course, I know. Everyone wants to kill me. I don’t care.’
‘Well, you could always learn to be a Lady. Marriage would be a way out.’
Backing the unwilling gaetyn in a zigzag pattern, she said, ‘Wear dresses and do fine embroidery, you think?’
There was a glint of humour in her eyes.
‘There are other skills required for a Princess, and a wife.’
The gaetyn lunged. She held her hands high, bringing it under control with an easy flex of youthful strength.
‘I don’t want to. Besides, I’m the half-breed bastard, who would want me? Do you think I don’t know what they say? I want to ride on the hunt with father and learn fight with a sword. You teach the boys. Teach me, too.’
‘Princess, I dare not.’ Her mouth began its mutinous pout, but as Bryce lowered his brows, and it faded into disappointment. ‘If you get your father’s permission, I’ll teach you. But if he says no, that’s that.’
When a smile lifted the perpetual scowl, he thought she really was quite lovely.
To Bryce’s surprise, the Daemon King acceded to that strange demand, glancing down coldly at the Corral Master from the back of his wild-caught gaetyn, holding the devilish creature easily to command with his cursed Daemon Gift.
His words were warning enough.
‘Teach the whelp, why not? Maybe it will keep her from plaguing me; but keep her alive.’
It wasn’t parental love that prompted this command. The Daemon King was incapable of such a human failing. Aspen was an object, a tool that might be turned to use one day, as they all were.
Elphic wasn’t totally sure why he kept the whelp alive, either, but shared this with no one. Over the years he harboured a vague suspicion that she would be of use at some stage. And if not, well, he could always dispose of her. He was used to keeping his own counsel, a trait that had not let him or his people down in a reign that stretched far beyond the span of several human lifetimes – save for one near-disastrous error in judgement many years before.
He didn’t make many mistakes, but the unexpected added spice to a long life. Perhaps that was why his half-breed interested him. She had vitality and a passion for life that had overcome the obstacles of her birth and the twin hatreds of her blood kin on both sides. There was a determination about her that amused him, reminding him of a life before the lethargy of twilight years had descended on his people.
They had not always been this way.
The nomadic Daemons had a tumultuous past that had given birth to a legacy of legend and prophecy, most of which was based around some kind of long-term destiny of a resting place they were supposedly seeking, where earth-force was plentiful and they could dwell there in peace for ever without subjugating yet another human enclave.
To a man of Elphic’s eclectic taste, however, that would be a sentence rather than a prize. He thrived on adversity. The reason he was Daemon King, and had been for many hundreds of years, was that he was not afflicted with the ennui most of his subjects, including the Daemon Queen, delighted in.
The other reason he kept the whelp alive, of course, was the prophecy, screamed from the rack by the Morthian minstrel, Mostyne, who vowed that Elphic’s progeny would die on her twenty-first birthday. He’d thought that strange at the time, as he’d sired no progeny in hundreds of years. He was curious to explore that strange outburst farther, but the minstrel had inconveniently died. Only when Elphic’s seed flourished in the body of the Morthian noblewoman he’d been bedding at the time, did it return to puzzle him.
So, it was morbid fascination that prompted his strange decision to let the half-breed live. He stared at her in odd moments, debating whether it would be in his best interests to slay her himself rather than leave fate to do its work, but uncertainty in a certain world was what made a long life worth living.
Quite simply, he was curious to see what would happen.