Tromblast Keep stood like an ancient crown on the western-most point of the isle of Tromb. A woman approached a window high in the North Tower, her bare feet cold upon the stone. Wind drove the frayed clouds of a spring storm across the moonless sky. The constellation of Eaon hung low over the sea, drawing the hour well past midnight. Far below, the black, glistening tide rolled foam along the strand.
A raven landed on the rock, released a deep-throated cry then rose into the air and wheeled away, blending with the night. The priestess watched his form against the stars until she could not see him anymore. Then she picked up the knife.
The same dream again, leaving her wide awake and knowing nothing.
A book slammed, enshrouding her in dust.
The warrior knew. A ray of sun, a glint of steel, distant as a star she could only see by not looking directly, he came to her each night, sometimes as a raven, other times as a man. He showed her a book smelling of old leather and earth, beautifully illustrated in fading ink. Rhinne could never recall what it said.
She closed her hands over her arms as a familiar shiver touched her flesh. He stood in the corner between the hearth and the window, his glimmering form not changing the shadows on the wall. Strong and deep-rooted as a hardwood forest and clad in trappings of war, he had wavy golden hair and eyes the most startling shade of wintry gray. “You must leave Tromb,” he said. He appeared before her, his breath warming the flaming tangles of her hair. “Quietly as the owl.”
“No one leaves,” she replied to the empty room.
Rhinne of Tromb, North Born of Ragnvald and Sentinel of the Realm. Where would she go?
Rhinne withdrew from the sill and returned to the room. The orange nimbus of a dying fire hovered in the hearth. Carved into the wall above the great stone mantel loomed the standard of the North Tower: the winter constellation of Meilos surrounded by a symmetrical tangle of bare trees and creatures that ruled the dark side of the year: wolves, ravens, foxes. Such had the people of Tromblast become; to survive, one had to be a predator, a raider of carcasses or exceedingly clever.
Rhinne poked at the fire, and placed more wood on it. The light danced upon a brass urn sitting on the edge of the hearth. It contained a dried bouquet of flowers a lover had given her last year, before the darkness came. Rhinne plucked the crackly stems from the urn and tossed them in the flames. Lovers were hard to come by nowadays.
Mortal ones, anyway.
Her warrior continued to whisper. The Riven God has returned to protect his secret.
The Riven God. A political fabrication designed to frighten her people into submission. Winter was the only god, here.
The book is bound to you. You will find it in a library. You must take it from the isle.
As she knelt before the flames, it occurred to Rhinne that if she actually saw the book, then she would be closer to knowing if her warrior had more substance than mere visions.
You must not let him find it.
Easier to believe she had gone mad. But it was worth a try.
After banking the fire, she stood and padded quickly across the room, dragging her nightdress over her head. The cold caressed her as she pulled open the bottom drawer of a tall armoire, rummaged around in the perfumed depths, and snatched out a warm smock and a soft woad-blue tunic she had borrowed from her older brother Wulfgar when he was a lad, and never returned. She put them on, donned some leggings wrapped in wool, and her hunting boots. Pausing, she dug deeper, withdrew a strap holding a knife and tied it onto her thigh. Then she opened the door to the cabinet and took out a heavy, dark brown cloak with running hounds stitched along the edges.
How far to go with this? Lowering the cloak, she reached past the dresses into the back and grabbed her sword. The ancestral blade of the North Born, it was intricately inscribed and clad in a fine leather scabbard embossed with knotted animal patterns. Wulfgar had trained her to fight. But despite his powerful confidence, Rhinne had never felt worthy of the inherited blade. She put it on and cinched the strap in weary defiance. One could never be too careful.
She put on her cloak, fighting off a nervous prickle in her gut. It would not go well for her to be seen armed in the middle of the night. But dawn would come eventually. If anyone questioned her, she could say she was going hunting, and hope no one noticed the absence of her bow and quiver.
As she opened the door, a vision fled over her mind with the force of a riptide. She paused and turned, settling her gaze on the drawer in the table by the bed. Releasing a breath, she stomped to the drawer and opened it. She pulled out an amulet her mother had given her when she reached womanhood: a black circle of leaves surrounding a serpent entwined in the shape of a triangular knot. At the apex, the serpent had its tail in its mouth. A single star shone in the center void. The queen had asked her to wear the amulet and never take it off. She had not said why. Rhinne put the iron circle around her neck, making sure to bury it well beneath her clothes. Then she left the room, easing the door closed behind her.
She stole down the hall like a thief, clenching her jaw in irritation. When had her mother ever explained anything? A snakepit of secrets, the Queen of Tromb, hiding in Graylif Forest with her veiled warnings like a little girl in a story using imaginary powers against something real and that much greater. The irony of Rhinne’s annoyance turned a cold eye. Cloaked in dreams, hiding knives and magical amulets, running from her own bed at the warning of a vision to hunt for a book that did not exist, she had become an icon of this forsaken keep in ways her position as North Born would never serve.
She slipped into an adjacent passage so as not to alert the guard at the far end of the hall. Wulfgar had posted men all over the high complex of the North Tower, to look after her. She had asked them to keep a distance. Small comfort, in the middle of the night, a man at her door. Rhinne trusted few; and she fought as well as some of them did, for all that.
In retrospect, her request had been prudent. No one knew these halls as well as she did, having explored every door, passage and drape of the place since childhood. Eluding her watchers, Rhinne hurried through the corridors, heading east. She descended in the direction of the library. According to Wulfgar, a seasoned warrior who had traveled to other lands, it was not much of a library. But it served Tromblast well enough.
Few torches lit the way, and it was unearthly quiet. As she moved along, Rhinne thought about foxes. Over the last sun’s cycle, things had changed in Tromblast that neither warrior nor wiseman could refute. It was generally believed that evil had come to the isle by the absence of a fourth son, and that it had spread into the keep from beneath the North Tower, where the North Born would have stood.
It was always close, this shame, like a shadow cast by a sun too bright to bear. For centuries, the sons of Tromb had been born to hold the Towers, to embody the Four Winds, their presence giving strength and balance to the people of the island. So bred into the family line was this occurrence that four or more sons were always born to the king, and the eldest four reflected the traits of the winds’ directions. Somehow, Tromblast itself reached into the fabric of creation to bring forth its own protection from the wombs of the queens.
Not anymore. Queen Lorelei’s last child was to have been the Sentinel of the North. But Rhinne could not claim this title: the Sentinels had to be men. It was ancient, this law, like so many other things about this dreary place, decrepit, their meaning lost in the cobwebs of time. Even so, her people looked upon her with suspicion, something weird, even enchanted. They called her a witch, a disparaging term referring to anyone practicing magic outside the tenets of the Keepers of the Eye, wizards who watched and wielded the deeper powers of the world. Common witchcraft was not a crime. But the term was a convenient one, smeared without thought into the open sores of ignorance. Rhinne knew nothing of the craft, aside from her visions and shady instincts, which could have been anything.
She had one consolation. King Ragnvald was not able to bind her in marriage, something she resisted with the hostility of a wild animal to a chain, especially considering the sort of men he might choose for her–warlords, warlocks, who knew what else–someone under his control, no doubt. But Rhinne’s mother, to whom she had never been close and trusted only slightly more than her father, had dared to bring forth an old law, something about women in her bloodline. Rhinne could not imagine how the queen had managed to uphold this, what kind of threat or spell she had used to force Ragnvald to stand down on the issue. But he did.
Rhinne knew better than to put her trust in hope. She did not believe her mother had the power to make anything shine in the darkness devouring Tromblast. Ragnvald had repeatedly altered the laws of Tromb to suit his desires. Most likely, he did not consider his wayward daughter to be worth the trouble. And so, driven by survival instinct and by Wulfgar’s insistence, Rhinne had taken the way of the fox: studying the warrior’s arts and keeping a low profile. Many did not consider the first appropriate for a princess who had cursed the realm, but they abided the second. For the most part, she was left alone.
She moved through the passages and stairwells, her stormy thoughts flitting in her mind like the bats that lived in the sea caves in summer. She was alert, but too distracted to notice the cold in her lower abdomen as she passed into the wide corridor that led to the library.
She stopped as a man appeared in her path, seemingly from the shadows, silent as mist. He was cloaked in black, with gray leather strapped over his head, and thorn-laden branches sewn over his legs and arms. His boots were stained with salt.
Oborom. Warlocks. A dark order that had claimed the undersides of the island, they were under the command of Ragnvald, who had seen fit to outlaw the very thing he now grew beneath the keep like a festering sore. When the executions began, the people of Tromb quickly learned to live with this double standard–unless they wanted to go below and enlist.
In the beginning, for some reason, the oborom were not able or allowed to come above the lowest levels of the keep, where no one right in the head would venture even without them. But since the autumnal equinox, the black-cloaked warlocks had been spotted above more and more. In the beginning, there had been talk of reporting them to the Keepers of the Eye, whose ruling seat in the Gray Isles lay on Mimir not a day’s journey east. But the Beryl Waeltower of Wychmouth had grown much farther away than miles. Rhinne recently heard a rumor that the Keepers who lived peacefully on Tromb had enlisted with the oborom. No one knew why. Rhinne shuddered to think.
By his dress, this one appeared to be a priest. So they called themselves. Priests of what, that was the question.
“What is your business in this hall?” he inquired. His features showed age, but his eyes were older, deep set, and too dark to discern their color. His voice sounded like a body being dragged over gravel.
Priests of thorns, Rhinne thought. Her amulet clung to her breast like hard frost. She lifted her chin in challenge. “How about I ask you that question. I belong here.” She said this with steely conviction, but it was empty. As Sentinel of the North, Rhinne had the authority to question anyone in Tromblast. But even if she managed to get recognition through some grudging formality, she knew it would not come from an oborom priest.
He stepped forward. His cloak swirled around his feet, stirring a moldering scent. Rhinne gathered her warrior’s calm beneath her ribcage as Wulfgar had taught her. She became aware of her weapons, her body, the bulk of her adversary and the size and texture of the chamber around her. She envisioned Wulfgar’s face, his red-gold hair, ruddy cheeks and blue eyes glittering as he told her never to assume she could engage the oborom and win. Though patience and emotional restraint were not Rhinne’s strong points, she mustered them now, knowing that this could not possibly be a chance encounter.
Without a word or a glance, she moved around the man in her path to continue on her way. But she was ready for him when he took her arm in a grip that would have killed a hare. She shook him off, then stepped back a pace and looked him in the eye, moving her hand to her sword hilt.
It did not require her brother’s warning to see where this was going: they intended to question her. They used that term, but very few questions were asked of or answered by anyone taken below, particularly under the charge of witchcraft. She would never been seen again.
Her amulet grew heavier.
Rhinne undid her cloak and shrugged it to the floor. The priest raised his brow with an oily smile. In the instant of his hesitation, Rhinne drew her blade, gripped it comfortably in both hands and held it forth, imagining a geometric array of attack line arcs enclosing her. “I don’t need trouble with you,” she said, her body trembling with battle tension. “Let me pass.”
His response was in another language. It rippled over her like fog, causing the serpent at her breast to recoil. The sea rose inside of her womb, whisking away the thorns. But it did not extend to her sword as an invisible force wrapped around the blade and jerked it from her hands. It clattered to the floor with a hollow sound that filled the space beneath her breastbone with cold fire.
Rhinne swung out with a tight fist and cracked the priest on the jaw. He took the blow with all the response of a sand bag. She spun up for another–but then he did something that made her wish she had heeded her brother’s advice.
The blow came so fast that she never got the chance to act. A cataclysm of shock struck her in the gut below the navel, knocking out her breath and exposing her to another hammer-blow on her back as she doubled over.
She went down as darkness swallowed her from the womb out. The priest rolled her over with the tip of his boot. She was too scattered to take advantage of this; he had hit her woman’s space with something virulent. “Circle whore,” he grated. “I’ll spare you for the Master. He’ll have what’s left of your sputtering fire.”
Master? Is that what they called him now? Arrogant brute! Horror and shame consumed her cheeks at the thought of these smarmy priests knowing Ragnvald’s intentions. She had become adept at avoiding her father during the years of her womanhood, a fox shapeshifting beneath his gaze as he looked her up and down with unlikely warmth in his eye.
Master, indeed. She shifted her hips and thrust a kick towards the priest’s crotch with focused determination. She missed the desired target, but hit him on the thigh near his groin hard enough to make him stagger. She rolled out from under his fist as it came down with skull-shattering force. He checked it at the last moment.
Her gut weeping with pain, she got up, just avoiding a knife as it flashed across her sight. A curly red wisp of her hair spiraled to the floor. She knocked the dagger from priest’s hand. Then she threw a solid kick at his solar plexus.
He stumbled back, then coiled up and struck her. Fire flared out on her jaw, spinning the walls. He swiped her feet from under her, causing her to land on her rump hard enough to rattle her teeth. He descended on her, his wiry fingers groping the tunic at her neck. He ripped it open, exposing her breast and the amulet pulsing there. With a rough sound of recognition, he wrapped his fist around the iron circle and yanked it off, causing her head to snap up and slam into the floor. The priest threw the amulet aside as it if sickened him.
He spoke in his black language again, enshrouding Rhinne’s mind with fog like a venomous bite. Paralyzed, she could not think or move. From a distance, she felt the priest’s hands move down. His erection burned her thigh.
Her amulet had left her, but watery power gathered in her womb, beneath the pain. Writhing in the depths of the sea, she said, “I don’t think your Master has it in mind for you to soil me.” She clawed at the lust on his face to tear it off. His free hand closed around her throat, pinning her down. “Son of a–” she choked, knocking his arm out from under him. With her other hand, she found the knife on her thigh. The sea swelled and the darkness laughed as she drove it into his side. He stiffened and twisted off the blade.
In one move, Rhinne tucked and rolled up to her knees and then slammed the knife into his chest, nearly hanging on it to sink it through his leather hauberk and into his heart. Assuming he had one.
The fog cleared as he went limp, his cavernous eyes filled with hatred. “He knows who you are,” he hissed, his hands clutching the fatal wound in his breast. Then he crumpled around his death like a spider, and grew still.
“Idgit,” Rhinne muttered, breathing heavily. She staggered to her feet and kicked the corpse in the side to release her rage.
Her fight had gone unnoticed, but she dared not leave that to chance. She considered the corpse at her feet. An oborom priest. Her heart missed a beat as it settled into her mind what she had just done.
Wulfgar had taught her that a warrior must stay strong despite pain. Rhinne took a deep breath. Right. Pain would wait.
Holding her belly and shaking her head to clear the haze, she retrieved her sword and sheathed it. Her knife protruded from the priest’s breast. She yanked it out, wiped it off with shaking hands and returned it to her thigh.
Her amulet lay on the floor by the wall. She limped over and picked it up, studied it briefly for a moment with a blank mind, and then tied it back around her neck. The frost-sea weight of it had vanished.
At the far end of the hall, the door to the library stood partly open. Golden light cast a beam on the floor. Strange, she had not expected the place to be lit. She plucked the priest’s knife from the floor where she had kicked it. Holding it as if it might infect her with something, she dropped it on his chest. She folded his cloak around him to avoid leaving a bloody trail on the floor. Then she grasped the leather fold at his neck and pulled. The pain in her back nearly gagged her.
One good thing about the library of Tromblast was that it did not get many visitors.
She pulled the body in spurts of strength that gave way quickly. Her heart raced and sweat dripped down her temple. She breathed, stayed focused, and kept moving. When she drew near, she dropped the body, then entered the chamber and moved around the rows, dormers and alcoves to find a remote place. She glanced at a window. It was still dark out. Relieved, she returned to the hall. This escapade would get more complicated once the sun rose.
As she inhaled the pleasing scent of books, she remembered her original mission. You will find it in a library. Rhinne could not imagine anything less likely, now.
She got the priest through the door and hauled him into a far corner, beneath a section of books about plants that grew on Tromb. Another deep breath. Stay focused. Rhinne wrestled the priest into position, blocked him from view with a reading chair, and hurried for the door. She limped down the hall, breathing heavily, then stopped as she reached the mess of blood where the priest had fallen. She looked down at herself and swore. She had enough blood on her hands without soiling her clothing too.
She returned to the library. With a creep on her spine, she half expected to find the priest gone when she reached the alcove. He was still there. She divested him of his cloak and returned to the hall, mopped up the blood as best she could, and returned to the library. As she tossed the cloak over the priest’s body, she hesitated.
The book. After going through all this trouble, she might as well see about it. Starting with the row hiding the priest, she began hunting through the volumes, every row, high and low, for the book she had seen in her dream. But it was not in plain sight, and she did not have time to keep searching. She blew out the lamp burning on a table in the center of the room. As she swept into the hall, she heard the warrior’s voice, whispering softly.
You must leave Tromb.
If the warning had not meant anything before, it did now.
Ascarion, Book Four in the Chronicles of Ealiron, Double Dragon Publishing.
An epic swords-and-sorcery tale of what the gods are willing to do for love.
© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.