King Jethron walked through a dark corridor, his footsteps echoing in the silent space. Around him were bare stone walls, interrupted at regular intervals by tall arrowslit windows that let the moonlight in. Even if there was nothing recognisable, Jethron knew he was dreaming of the Fortress of Alimbar. He hadn’t been in it since he was a lad of eighteen. In the real world, after having been abandoned for more than twenty years, the fortress was on its way to becoming a ruin, but in dreams things didn’t often appear as they really were. Like the fact he was alone. When he was growing up, the stronghold had been constantly crawling with servants, soldiers, courtiers and dignitaries. None of them were in sight now, and he didn’t like it.
Jethron stood still, trying to remember which part of the fortress he was in. Glancing outside a window, he saw he was on one of the lower floors, just above a courtyard lit by the full moon. He didn’t recognise the courtyard. Both ends of the corridor disappeared into darkness. Jethron resumed his solitary walk in the same direction as before. One way or another, the dream would show him his future. It seemed strange, however, that a prophetic dream would bring him back to a dismantled and forgotten fortress. But maybe he was there because the fortress had been important to his ascent to the throne of the Two Kingdoms. It was in that same building that he had killed his father.
The corridor opened into a hall. This was much easier to recognise—the throne room, the place where his father used to receive guests and vassals, supplicants and ambassadors. The old man liked to keep it decorated with the heads of animals he hunted and killed himself, or so he claimed. They still hung on the walls—deer with long branching antlers, boars with sharp fangs protruding from dark lips, bears with their mouth open and ready to maul—exactly like Jethron remembered. Except that their hides were rotten and smelt of decay while fat moths fluttered around them. Distracted by the dead animal heads, Jethron didn’t immediately notice the figure slumped on the sturdy, wooden throne where his father used to sit.
It was dark, but Jethron saw an old man with long white hair and a thin body covered by a tattered nightshirt. He had never cared much for his father, but that didn’t mean that any beggar had the right to use his throne as a chair. Unsheathing the sword he found strapped at his side, Jethron marched against the intruder.
“Stand up in front of your king, you maggot!”
The old man remained seated, and he even dared to make a derisory chuckle.
With a few long strides, Jethron was in front of the throne and grabbed the beggar’s collar. He looked into his eyes, his face so close to the old man’s, he inhaled the foul smell of rotten teeth emanating from his mouth.
Jethron froze. “You cannot be here,” he whispered. “You’re dead.”
Another chuckle. The man was old, older than his own father had been when he died. His hair and beard were long and tangled, and a smell of dirt and sweat drifted from his wrinkled skin. But his face was unmistakable. It was identical to his father’s face.
“Yes, you should know that, since you were the one who killed me.”
“No one cried for you.” Jethron spat. “I did what was right.”
This time, the old man burst into uncontrollable laughter, his flaccid belly undulating under the nightshirt.
“Do you think this is funny?” Jethron shouted. His fist clenched the hilt of his sword, the blade now horizontal with its tip pointing at the old man’s abdomen. “I will kill you again. It doesn’t matter how many times I have to do it. I will be rid of you!”
He plunged his sword into the man’s flesh.
But his father didn’t stop laughing. If anything, he laughed even louder.
Jethron sat up in his bed, drenched in sweat.
His bedroom was warm, the fire still going. The witch Shaleeni reclined on a long chair in front of it, only covered by a silk dressing gown and smoking that long pipe of hers. Her pupils were so large that her eyes were black. She looked no more than twenty, even if she was at least ten years older, with a beautiful heart-shaped face, full lips and dark doe eyes framed by long lashes. Her flaming hair tumbled down her shoulders in long curls. She was exactly in the same position when he had fallen asleep.
Shaleeni smiled lazily at him. “Did you learn anything?”
Jethron snorted. He wanted to tell her that the spell hadn’t worked, that he had seen a corrupted version of his past instead of the future, but it seemed too much of an effort. The room was too hot and he was sweating. He stood up, patting his greying hair and forcing it back to its usual shape.
Shaleeni exhaled smoke. “Remember that sometimes the past repeats itself.”
“Do you know what the dream was about?” He stared at the smoke twisting between her red lips while Shaleeni shook her head.
“Only you can know that. But you mentioned the Fortress of Alimbar while you were dreaming.”
Jethron turned and looked outside the window. “Is one of my sons plotting to murder me?”
He had always known that it could happen. He certainly wasn’t the first in his family to have murdered a father who was no more than a hindrance. He didn’t expect to be betrayed by his first son, Jekon, but his second and third sons—who looked so much like their mother—he knew he could not trust.
“It’s not so simple to kill a king,” he muttered to himself. “And I’m not as useless as my father was.”
The wolves had howled of the battle all night.
When Iir reached the camp, the sun was rising and the sky was the colour of ripe peaches. The air was icy cold, but the clouds had moved away, giving some respite from the snow that had been falling for days.
Ravens had already made themselves at home in the glade where the men of the king had built their camp the previous night, not far from the path that snaked through the woods and near a brook with crystal clear water. Iir was not surprised by the number of dead men. The wolves had said that many had fallen. But they were an eerie sight, nonetheless.
Seven black ravens walked amongst the dead men, their large beaks prodding the bodies, searching for good places to start their feast. They kept an eye on her, although her presence didn’t disturb them too much. Most of them had seen nyvans before. Iir crouched at the edge of the camp to watch the scene more closely while pushing strands of black back under her hood.
The dead soldiers wore the black and red uniforms bearing the insignia of the bleeding swan on a black field of King Jethron Bloodthorne. The uniforms of the few dead korros amongst them carried no insignia. Maybe they were mercenaries, but that was unusual. There weren’t enough rich men to attract korros warriors in that part of the kingdom. And which mercenary would attack the king’s soldiers? It was not worth the trouble. It also wasn’t likely they had accidentally stumbled across the camp. Their attack had been well organised, since in front of her were the signs of a carnage rather than a battle. The korros had surprised the soldiers in their sleep.
There was a keep not far from there, watching the mountain pass, called White Hart Pass. The two carriages in the middle of the camp probably carried supplies for the keep that had remained isolated during the winter months. It was spring now, and even if the snow was still falling, the road to the keep was accessible again. The korros could have waited in the area, knowing that the provisions were coming, but that seemed strange too. Waiting for days just to sack military supplies was a waste of time and certainly not something that korros usually did. They were specialised warriors, with skills that sold well, not common bandits.
Iir counted ten dead men, some lying on the ground, other sitting against tree trunks or carriages. The cold had hardened their bodies, and they could almost be mistaken for resting soldiers, their heads down on their chests like they had just dozed off, the cold wind making their clothes and hair sway gently. The ravens were not easily fooled, however. They strutted amongst the bodies with the confidence that no one would chase them away.
Iir had been running away from the king’s soldiers for two years, and the sight of their uniforms always made her feel on edge, even if these soldiers were no longer a threat to her. The korros who had slaughtered them, on the other hand, could come back. The wolves had said that they had moved further west and up the mountain, towards the keep. Iir had no idea what they wanted to do there. The keep was just a military outpost between the Two Kingdoms and the Kingdom of Yumereh, and the peace treaty between them still held, as far as she knew. But the korros would come back at some point, since they didn’t finish taking the spoils of their victory. They never left anything behind. Maybe, they were just moving part of the merchandise before returning to take the rest, which probably meant that they weren’t travelling in large numbers. The minimum necessary to slaughter a group of soldiers in their sleep. The few korros who had lost their lives in the attack, three in total, were all males, all wearing dark garments, the coppery runes and glyphs etched on the skin of their bald heads fading quickly.
A raven flew on her shoulder. He was relaxed, which meant that the attackers were not close. Korros were not kind to animals, and the animals of the forest knew it. They also found the magic hardening their bodies repulsive and easy to sense. The raven cawed, warning her not to linger.
“I know, little brother. I won’t stay long.” Iir gently smoothened the feather of his head with a finger.
She called him “little brother,” but with her nineteen years, she was actually younger than he was, a huge raven who had seen twenty-five springs. She took a walnut kernel from her satchel. The raven had enough food available already, but he gladly accepted her gift.
There was nothing Iir could do for the dead soldiers. Their kin would probably bury them and prevent the ravens from marring their bodies. Her own people didn’t bury the dead. But, even if she wanted to honour these soldiers, it wouldn’t be possible to dig the ground, as frozen as it was, even if she had tools. Going to the keep was out of question. Aware of the bounty on her head or not, both korros and the king’s soldiers were enemies to her, likely to shoot her with arrows as soon as they spotted her nyvan dark-green skin before even considering listening to what she might have to say. The best she could do was bring news of the massacre to the closest village. She should go right then, but her gaze lingered on the two carriages.
One was still standing while the other had fallen on one side, partially crashed. The poor donkeys that had pulled them had been killed, and their bodies, with bloated bellies, lay in the snow. The standing carriage still contained several wooden crates. Iir was tempted to check them for anything she could salvage, but she didn’t think it was worth the risk of getting caught. Her eyes moved to the overturned carriage. From the scorch marks on the wood, it appeared that the korros had tried to burn it. The carriage had partially collapsed under its own weight, but the wood must have been too wet after the recent snowfall, and the fire had died before it could consume it. Iir felt curious. Why burn that carriage and not the other one?
She stood up, while the raven flew onto the ground, and walked around the toppled wagon. A dead officer was sat with his back against what had been its bottom, his head resting on his chest. The top of his skull was missing, cut away by a sharp blade. What remained of the man’s brain poked out of the fractured skull like a pink sponge matted with the man’s long hair. The officer’s hand rested near the handle of a sword that had sunk into the snow. A Styllian sword. Those were very precious weapons. The korros who had orchestrated the attack must have not noticed it, half-hidden as it was by the snow that only now was melting, or they would have taken it. In front of the officer was the body of one of the few dead korros.
Styllian swords didn’t belong to just anyone. The officer had to be an important man, too important to be in charge of mere shipping goods to a remote military outpost. And too important to sacrifice his life in the effort to protect supplies.
Iir knew it was better to leave the carriage alone and continue her journey, especially considering how late she was. The snow had stalled her for days, making her stay in the smugglers’ cave for longer than she had intended. She had accepted the job at the last minute and thought she could manage it quickly. The pay was good, and she and her sisters needed the money badly. Few people were willing to smuggle goods across the mountains when the snow was still falling. It was something that only a nyvan could do without risking getting lost. But she had told her sisters that she was coming back the first day of spring, and it was now almost a month after that. She was close, but she still had to walk for another couple of days at least. Whatever was or had been in that carriage was not meant for her and she should leave it alone. But she still didn’t move, too curious to let it go.
Maybe she could get a quick look before moving on. Iir placed her satchel on the ground, lay flat on the soft snow and squeezed under the carriage. Through the cracks in the wood planks entered enough light for her to see several blankets and other similar objects that had tumbled on the ground, nothing of particular value. But there had to be something else. She smelt the scent of medical ointment that partially covered the more repugnant smell of raw blood. Only wealthy men had access to that sort of medicaments. Iir crawled a bit further and spotted a thin cloud of vapor emerging from under a blanket. There was one more body there, one that was still alive, and someone had taken the pain to wrap it in thick blankets. Iir inched closer and, with some careful manoeuvring, she knelt next to the unconscious man and peeled back the blanket covering his face.
Underneath the protective layers was a man of twenty, with a sharp jawline and braided blond hair. He was older now, but she knew his face, and now Iir understood why a high-ranking officer had given his life to protect the carriage’s secret.
“What are you doing here, White Prince?” Iir murmured.
Large bruises marked his forehead and left cheek. Likely, he had been struck on the head before he had the time to put on his armour and helmet. With the practicality of someone who had seen injured men before, Iir checked for other lesions while she removed the blanket. Chest and abdomen seemed to be fine, but there was a penetrating wound on the outer side of the prince’s right thigh, just above the knee. With that wound, he could not stand. His men must have managed to hide and defend him before his attackers could finish him.
His wounds may not have been enough to kill him, but the cold and the lack of food would if he stayed there, not to mention that the korros were still around. He was probably the reason why they had tried to burn the carriage. They would certainly notice that the fire hadn’t finished him. And, in that case, he would be better off dead. Iir almost felt sorry for him, but she felt sorry for having been so curious too. What was she going to do with him now?
Staring at the prince’s pale face, his skin as white as the snow on the ground, Iir almost wanted to leave.
Your father killed mine.
Of all people, she had to find the son of King Jethron Bloodthorne.
But this man was not his father, and she had a debt to repay to him. She couldn’t leave him to die alone in the cold.
She covered him again with the blanket that smelt of wet soil and dried blood. Better to keep him as warm as possible while she looked around for what she needed. She was twisting around to move out from under the carriage when his hand shot up and clamped around her wrist. Iir gritted her teeth. For a dying man, he had a lot of strength.
His grey-blue eyes opened—the left one was bloodshot—and stared into her bright-green ones with intense ferocity.
Raising her free hand, palm open, Iir said, “I just got here. I didn’t kill your men.”
She couldn’t tell if he understood her. Whatever energy he had, it left him as quickly as it had entered his body. His eyes closed again, and his right hand dropped on his chest.
Iir waited, her breath forming little white clouds that dispersed quickly. If he woke up, it may make things easier for her. A lame man was better than a man who could not walk at all. But the prince remained unconscious, and Iir crawled out of the carriage, resigned to making a stretcher. She’d better do it fast.
Iir built the stretcher with blankets, tree branches and a rope that she could strap around her shoulders. She also took a few provisions, a bow and a quiver full of arrows. She would have preferred not taking anything at all, but her situation had changed. If she had to care for a sick man, she needed extra food and, since the korros were likely to follow them, weapons. The axe she had with her was not going to be enough.
She walked to the dead officer and stood in front of him. The sun was higher in the sky and its light hit the Styllian blade that reflected it with a bluish hue. The metal hummed while it warmed up. That was an invaluable weapon, but Iir couldn’t just take it.
She knelt in front of the dead soldier. “You were brave. Please allow me to take your sword and use it, like you did, to kill korros.”
She bowed her head, touching her knees, and wished rest for the dead soldier who had fought courageously. Then she took the sword from the ground.
The soldier didn’t move. She didn’t expect him to, but soldiers could form strong bonds with their favourite weapons, especially magic ones, and sometimes that bond stretched across other realms.
Holding the sword by the hilt and in front of the soldier, Iir added, “Don’t think I’m stealing it. Consider me a tool for your revenge.”
There was no answer. The hilt of the sword felt warm in her hand despite the fact that the weapon had been lying in the snow. Iir took it as a sort of approval.
She wrapped the sword in a blanket. Its scabbard was still attached to the officer’s waist, and Iir didn’t want to remove it. It felt too disrespectful. Soldiers should leave this world with their weapons. He may have granted her the use of his sword, but she didn’t want to take from him any more than was strictly necessary.
Iir put the sword with the other things she had collected and crawled under the carriage once again. Taking the prince out took longer that she had thought—perhaps why the korros had preferred to just burn the carriage. It wasn’t easy to manoeuvre his unresponsive body in the narrow space, especially because the man was lean but tall and long-limbed. The ravens chattered amongst them, and Iir found the sound reassuring. If the birds were relaxed, it meant that the korros weren’t near yet.
The prince was eventually extracted from the carriage and positioned on the improvised stretcher. Iir adjusted the blankets around his body then wrapped another and placed it under his head to provide some padding. She pulled the rope around her shoulders, the ravens watching her, and began her slow walk down the mountain slope.
Dee squeezed in the narrow space between the oven and the cupboard. It was warm there, and dark. But the brothers knew by now where her hiding place was, especially as there weren’t many places in the kitchen where a girl her size could hide.
Widow Laksha, the innkeeper, would usually scold the two scullions if they bothered her, but when the inn was full, like that day, the woman was too busy to pay attention to them. They were younger than Dee, twelve and thirteen, and shorter, but the fact that there were two of them gave them an unfair advantage. And a vision was about to start. Dee could feel her hold on reality slip away.
A snigger came from the other side of the kitchen. “Hey, dumb frog!”
They called her frog because of the dark-green colour of her skin. They always called her names when no one was around and sometimes even when someone was present. Every place she and her sisters went, there were always people who disliked nyvans.
“She’s too stupid to even know her own name,” Alim, the oldest, said.
From her hiding place, Dee couldn’t see his expression, but she heard the disgust in his voice.
The brothers tiptoed to the gap into which she had squeezed and looked down at her in the same way they would stare at a rat. They were very similar, both with black, spiky hair and chubby faces.
“Maybe we should leave her,” Lusim, the youngest, said. “She’s looking creepy again.”
“She’s no witch,” Alim snorted. “If she could do magic, she would have done it already.”
“Her sister, though…” Lusim whispered.
Alim grabbed her arm and tugged it angrily, trying to dislodge her from her shelter. Dee took hold of the edge of the cupboard with her free hand and resisted him, but then her attention was drawn to a korros entering the kitchen. He was so tall that he had to bow his head to cross the door. His expression was grim, and the huge greatsword in his hand dripped drops of fresh blood that formed a trail on the wooden floor.
Dee’s mouth slacked while she watched him swipe the table with his arm, making crockery and kitchen tools fall and clank on the floor. Her hold on the cupboard loosened and the next tug from Alim succeeded in pulling her out of her niche. Dee lost her balance and fell on her knees, her body limp. She tried to focus on what the brothers were saying, but their voices were just a distant echo now. There were other voices closer to her. Many people screaming in fear and pain.
“Leave her,” Lusim said to his brother. “It’s not even fun when she’s like that.”
Dee covered her ears with her hands, even if she knew that the screams weren’t inside the inn but in her head. They were somehow real, but they hadn’t happened yet. Maybe they never would. Sometimes, she was able to change what she saw in a vision. But not always. Certain things were just too big for her. And this thing was certainly a very big one.
Someone grabbed her arm again, and Dee pulled it forcefully back while lashing with her other hand to a face hovering over her.
“Dee!” Yarrow whispered, outraged.
Dee blinked. The brothers were gone and her sister Yarrow was leaning over her, staring at her with pretty blue eyes that were so similar to their mother’s and, right now, filled with concern.
“Dee, are you all right?”
Confused, Dee nodded and rose from the floor. Her mouth was dry.
“I’m sorry, Yar,” she murmured. “Alim and Lusim were here just a moment ago.”
“Is it a vision?” Yarrow whispered, and Dee nodded.
She wished it wasn’t. The innkeeper was happy with Yarrow’s work, but she always thought that Dee was too strange. If not for Yarrow, the woman would have sent her away already. “Sorry I slapped you.”
“Don’t worry.” Yarrow helped her to sit on one of the stools that stood around the kitchen table. “I know you didn’t mean it.”
Yarrow’s beautiful face was creased by wrinkles of worry. She was concerned about Dee, but also about their work in the inn. It was a busy night and she had no time to check on her.
“What did you see?” Yarrow asked.
“A korros warrior walked into this kitchen. And people outside were screaming.”
Yarrow’s eyes widened, but she didn’t say anything and tried to hide how scared she was by busying herself filling a tankard with water. She turned around, looking slightly more composed, and offered the water to Dee.
“Thanks,” Dee said and drank with long gulps.
“What do you think happened in your vision?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s finished yet.”
“That may be a problem,” Yarrow said. She was still whispering, even if, with the hall full of customers speaking loudly, it was unlikely anyone would hear her. “But… Korros warriors? Here?”
Dee shrugged. “That’s what I saw. I have no idea if it will really happen, or when.”
“Was there anything about Iir in your vision?”
Dee shook her head. She too wanted to know if Iir was all right, but her visions didn’t work that way. “No, I didn’t see her.”
“Let’s hope it’s a good thing,” Yarrow said. “Can you still work?”
“Can you prepare two trays with soup and mead?”
Dee nodded again and managed a small smile. “Right away!”