Prophecy

The Blurb

After the death of her father, Princess Sylvalla swears revenge. An oath the wizards Capro and Jonathan fear will unleash terrible power. Sylvalla has no time for their prophecies, she must take up the mantle of Queen and save Avondale — but first she must survive the coronation.

Princess Sylvalla has faced dragons and proven herself a hero—but her greatest trials are about to begin. Phetero, the king she accidentally kidnapped, is determined to have vengeance—and the threat of marriage to Prince Francis looms. Francis may be sweet, have proven he can draw swords from stones, and be the only prince in all the Seven Kingdoms who will have her, but Sylvalla is not the marrying kind.

Terrifying as it is, the threat of marriage is soon the least of Sylvalla’s problems as King Phetero’s grudge turns from war into something more sinister.

The prophecies are dire, but what help can they be against the ancient horror King Phetero plans to unleash?

Read an Extract of “Prophecy”

Prologue

The ancient paper crumbled beneath Jonathan’s fingers. This Maretta Prophecy, like all prophecies, was stuffed with uncertain meaning and bloated with doom. And yet the words felt as if they were written for him. That was ridiculous; Maretta had been dead a thousand years.

Words lie—
Twisted upon themselves,
Open to the void,
Open to the chasm,
To the noisome pits of hell.
For in this battle
words are
the darkest shadows of all.

Jonathan swallowed down his irrational fear. Just looking at the prophecy was like taking a knife and twisting it into his stomach. Uneasy, he asked again, “So, I am to visit her gravesite tomorrow?”

Mr Capro Goodfellow Senior was bowed under the weight of his head and the overgrown beard dangling from it. “As do all Bairnsley students on their second equinox,” he mumbled through mouthfuls of hair.

Jonathan frowned, forcing himself to think of his father as his university lecturer—and one of the best magicians of this age. And not, as he’d once thought, a charlatan who thought he could do magic.

“We need to show our respect,” Mr Goodfellow Senior continued, “and bless the suffering girl in the hope her soul will find peace.”

Jonathan shook his head. “Girl?” He couldn’t stop picturing a very different girl. Sylvalla. Had she played her role in prophecy, only to be left to rot in a castle? Or did the Maretta Prophecies hold more?

Mr Goodfellow Senior stopped, peered at Jonathan over his reading spectacles, and gave a sly wink. The wink was not meant to reassure Jonathan, not really. More a, Son, you’ll find out later, eh? That’s why you’re going, kind of wink.

Jonathan turned away until he could trust his voice. “I am here to learn,” he said, rising and bowing from the room like a good Bairnsley student.

“Jonathan—don’t forget the correct words for the blessing: Rest in peace, little one, find the paths north of the moon and south of the sun. Rest in peace, hide from sight. Cast aside shade and embrace the light.”  

“I still think it’s…strange,” Jonathan demurred.

What would a prophetess like Maretta think of the wizard’s use of the clumsy rhyme in their blessing? Best not to say anything. It might annoy Capro. The thought of being given yet more fasting and contemplation of poetry was too much to bear. Another night of this and he’d be speaking in tongues.

“I have explained it to you.” Mr Goodfellow Senior sighed. “Such large burdens should not be for children to bear. Her sight—however useful to us—was, to her, a curse. Nothing more. We, who most profit from her burden, bless her so she may be free.”

Jonathan nodded. This was his cue to start his pilgrimage, now, while the night was at its darkest.

He made his way to the kitchens. The large brick hearth was cold, the smell of baking stale, the ashes… The ashes hold the sword… The Sylvalla Prophecy burst into his head. But that prophecy had been fulfilled, hadn’t it? Everybody said so.

Must just be the silence, he thought. The sad echo of his footsteps replaced the usual clatter of dishes, the brassy impact of Cook’s voice across the room, and the babble of fellow students. All gone. He left alone, barefoot and carrying only a satchel of bread and water, as was the custom.

§

I was lucky enough to be among the senior staff, discreetly watching as Jonathan stepped out onto the Bairnsley paths, hands carefully folded inside his robe to prevent accidental travelling. We set Jonathan on the correct path, and watched until the smooth stone around the university transformed into the rough gravel and mud paths frequented by country people.

§

Jonathan walked through a day and a night, and on through the next day, until he reached the gravesite nestled in the lee of snow-capped mountains. It was little more than a wooden marker buried in a tangle of blue and white flowers and surrounded by a jumble of steel rings, straw dolls and simple toys, intended to make Maretta’s spirit happy and help her look kindly upon the living.

Long ago, silver and even gold had decorated the wooden marker proclaiming Maretta’s resting place. Those riches were long gone. Only the inexpensive charms remained.

Standing vigil wasn’t so bad. Anything, but read another dusty prophecy. Tumbling through the sky, the angry sun blazed a trail. Villagers gathered. They pointed at him, and muttered about his odd clothes and the danger of wizards. One whispered that it was dangerous it was to sleep with one, lest any offspring be two-headed. Another quipped that wizards were anatomically different, anyway.

It was all nonsense.

At last, the first rays of the sun’s gentle sister, the moon, fell upon the wooden grave-marker. The soft light glinted on the steel rings wrought to trap evil spirits and guide good ones to the realm of the dead in time for their rebirth. Superstitious twaddle, the wizards called it. And yet the wizards seemed to have their own superstitions.

Behind him, the villagers were silent, as if holding their breaths.

Say the words.

Words are important. All Bairnsley wizards know this. They must know how to split infinities, fragment sentience, and understand the full potential of the spoken word, the ships of power that sail the world.

It was such words that Maretta had so famously cursed in her prophecy, The Twins.

Words Lie.
They are the darkest of shadows.

Or was it all prophecy that she’d cursed? There had been so very, very many. And perversely, Maretta—a girl no older than ten—had issued most of them.

Say the words.

Not the words of prophecy, Jonathan told himself. The words of the anti-prophecy: the words of the wizards’ poorly-structured blessing. But the wrong words lay on his tongue, black and thick, and yes, evil.

Was this temptation? Perhaps that was all this girl and her prophecies were. A test. A wizard held power and responsibility. He had to remember to control it. Always. That’s what all his lecturers had told him anyway. If only he could…

The words of one of Maretta’s least-known prophecies came unbidden to his mind.

Prophecy,
Cursed prophecy,
An unclear glimpse into an uncertain world.
Shun them all you please
Disavow
And remain ignorant until the end
Until the things once prophesied come true
And terror stalks in the wake of words,
The ships of power that sail the world.
If it haunts thee
This prophecy
Perhaps it is merely an Omen of things to come.

Jonathan curtailed his rash impulse to say the prophecy aloud, and instead blessed Maretta’s spirit as he’d been taught—the benediction every student before him had used over the last thousand years. “Rest in peace….hide from sight. Cast aside shade and embrace the light.”

A sigh of relief echoed through the small crowd. Distantly, he could hear them chattering again.

The benediction hadn’t helped Jonathan. The words of prophecy remained there in his mind’s eye; he could not seem to push them back. And the picture of Sylvalla, the feisty, irrepressible Sylvalla came with it.

Shun them all you please.

“I am not asking. I did not come to ask—” No–that was untrue–a lie he’d told himself. But he hadn’t asked, and he’d been given an answer. An answer he never expected:

An icy breeze fell on him, as if from the frozen mountains themselves.

White and blue and black orbs floated in front of him… Eyes.

Of course those blue eyes were involved. They always were.

The princess Sylvalla!

…one must awaken to the night…

Jonathan’s stomach stabbed with pain. His head swam, and he collapsed to the cold hard earth.

§

A malnourished girl in a torn dress approached Jonathan, her mouth pursed in a determined moue. Her brown eyes sad in the moonlight, her bare feet bleeding on the dusty road.

Her dog, Radag the Faithful, cringed along beside her. A surprise, that. He’d been taught that the dog of the ancient child-prophetess was merely folk-legend.

Even more of a surprise was the shadow that swirled around the girl’s shoulders like a cloak. An absence of light in darkness, the fabric was almost impossible to see.

With a flick of her wrist, the ghostly child jerked the cloak.

Velvety gloom fluttered toward him, and, for just a moment, he caught the shadow in his hands.

A scream tore from his throat…a prophecy.

Mighty are the fallen three
Death stalks, evil walks,
My words,
My gift to thee.

Jonathan spasmed. His eyes bulged, and flicked from side to side, as if he were watching visions they could not see. His mouth moved. Mumbling words that tumbled out, unheeded.

Villagers came running. Someone tried to pick him up. Dust him off.

His fingernails broke as he clawed the dirt. His tongue protruded.

And then they realised what he was saying…

“Flee the tempest when it finds thee
“And bound to paths that cannot win free
“Lose all there is to lose
“From your victory will come ashes–”

Hands over their ears, the villagers backed away in horror. Then they ran, ignoring the stooped long-bearded man who pushed purposefully past them.

§

Mr Goodfellow Senior stopped, leaned heavily on his staff, and stared at the scene in front of him. He shook his beard in disbelief. Should he interfere? Were his instincts overly protective? He was supposed to be lecturer, not father, here. His job was to follow the pilgrim secretly, and only reveal himself in great need.

It was traditional. Five hundred years ago this trip had been dangerous. Students had died. Now it was thought to be barely more than a rite of passage for young wizards to gain strength, courage and wisdom, through the simple act of thinking of someone smaller and less fortunate than themselves.

Jonathan spasmed, words tearing from his throat, as if in agony.

Mr Goodfellow Senior cursed in fear. “By the gods, why now?” He reached out.

At his touch, Jonathan fell silent.

Mr Goodfellow Senior picked up his boy in arms that looked too thin and weak to carry anything heavier than lunch. Then, faster than anyone would have believed possible, he ran back down the path, and opened a shortcut. In moments he was knocking at the university door.

§

Days later, Jonathan half-woke. His father sitting in silent vigil by his bed. Jonathan squeezed his eyes closed and opened his mouth. He wanted to say something difficult and painful and terribly, terribly important…

But Mr Goodfellow Senior spoke first, “Foolish boy, what were you thinking? The ways of magic are too strong for someone who knows so little. You were there to observe. To say the benediction. Nothing more.”

Jonathan almost cried in reply. He had an Answer. It was on the tip of his tongue–but he couldn’t quite say it. He had forgotten. Forgotten everything but the staggering importance of it all. Instead, all he said was, “Capro, I am no longer a boy. I can do a little more than Granny’s Cure All now. I’d have thought that would make you happy. I’d have thought you’d let me tell you about the girl.”

“Girl?” Mr Goodfellow Senior enquired.

Eyes shut closed against the world, Jonathan said, “The girl was really important.”

“Which girl?” Capro asked, roughly shaking Jonathan by the shoulders. “Which girl? Damn that Prophetess for getting under your skin. Did you mean Maretta? Or was it Sylvalla? Which girl?!”

Jonathan frowned. Forcing himself up from the pillows. “Girl?” he said. “Was I talking about a girl?”


Trouble: Part 1

Arg, but Chaos is a Mighty Enemy

It Delights in Bad News

On the Wings of Butterflies.

NAME:             Sylvalla.

CLASS:             Ruling.

FAMILIAR:     With horse and sword.

SPECIALTY:    Escapism.

RÉSUMÉ:         Princess Sylvalla’s unseemly behaviour is the talk of the kingdom.

The tales of Sylvalla’s wild adventures, wandering the countryside with ruffians and wizards are no doubt, exaggerated. As is the outlandish nonsense about her killing monsters and even dragons.

Still, all this might have been hushed up, except for the demands from the neighbouring kingdom of Scotch Mist that she be brought to justice. The crimes she stands accused of are as follows: threatening a King; attempted Regicide; threatening an innkeeper; inciting riot; thievery; murder; mass murder by way of ordering the death of twenty-five fully-armed and armoured peasants; and improperly controlling her liege-man, Dirk, who stands similarly accused.

Sylvalla’s parents still hope the King of Scotch Mist will forgive her once she has thrown her childish fantasies of adventuring aside and settled down to the pastimes that befit a young princess. To this end, they have betrothed the young lady to the handsome Francis, long lost and very-recently-discovered Prince of Havendale, whose worthiness was proved by pulling a sword from a stone.

Sylvalla’s parents have also employed, at great expense, Mahrawyn, an exemplary young lady in waiting, in the hope that her guidance will make a positive impression.

PASSED:          KILLING, SWORD FIGHTING, HAND TO HAND COMBAT & ARCHERY. Under protest she also scraped through: DIPLOMACY, DEPORTMENT, READING, WRITING & ARITHMATIC. (Arithmatic being a fancy word for a subject that is little more than addition, subtraction and multiplication and so shouldn’t be confused with arithmetic and the more advanced concepts of mathematics.)

FAILED:           TAPESTRY, ETIQUETTE, TAPESTRY, ETIQUETTE, SEWING, ETIQUETTE, ETIQUETTE, ETIQUETTE.

§

Sylvalla stood on the battlements of Avondale, digging her fingers into the rough stone of the crenulations. Her gown, and her golden hair—held by a few delicate golden pins—catching the wind. She’d stood at this spot all morning, waiting for the hunting party to leave. She twisted her matching golden handkerchief around and around her fingers, determined not to wave them goodbye—not even to commit the smallest gesture that could be misinterpreted as such. For it was not love that kept her here, the very picture of a princess newly-betrothed. No last lingering glance at her beloved that kept her rooted to the spot so long after her mother had slipped back into the castle to enjoy the unaccustomed peace and quiet.

“Fools,” Sylvalla said to nobody as the dim winter sun, its light stabbing through grey clouds, finally reached its zenith. “The slack-jawed, know-nothing idiots didn’t take me. Wouldn’t take me.”

Sylvalla cursed some more as the horses wheeled and the men set off. Biding her time was such a good idea—Francis had said so. Dirk as well—only they didn’t have to wait about in a draughty old castle with nothing to do.

Sylvalla gripped the unforgiving stone until her fingers ached. It was such a horrid thing to call a person a girl and take away the rights afforded to the other half of the world.

When the men were gone—and the last mote of dust had settled—Sylvalla unwound her golden handkerchief.

“Sylvalla!” Mahrawyn’s voice cut through her reverie.

Sylvalla let the handkerchief fall free. It fluttered over the battlements catching a ray of light, before being snatched up by the wind and carried away.

“Sylvalla, there you are. It’s time for your lessons.”

§

Sylvalla clutched the quill, scraping it across the parchment in blotchy scratches. “I cannot be bothered with this nonsense,” she said, not entirely to Mahrawyn, who grimaced and concentrated harder, either on ignoring Sylvalla, or improving the already perfectly neat rows of figures beneath her pen.

Sylvalla tried to take a calming breath and failed utterly. Which instrument of torture she should throw out the window—the pen, the parchment, or the ridiculous corseted dress?

“Please, Sylvalla.” Mahrawyn grimaced momentarily before forcing a smile. “We’ll soon be done and then we’ll see your brother. He’s so cute, I think…”

Sylvalla flinched. Her quill she was holding broke with an inaudible snap, spattering ink over the page. And the stupid dress. “Damn it all to Hades,” she cursed, not caring that this was the sort of curse favoured by loud brash males proving to the world how unshockable and daring they were, and not the curse of a princess about to marry her dashingly-handsome prince charming.

“By all the Hounds of Hades!” Sylvalla continued, while her lady in waiting quailed and covered her ears. “I’ve travelled the realm and killed a dragon. This is not living! Say, instead of dallying with my spoilt little brat brother, why don’t I break the monotony and teach you a little hand-to-hand combat? One day you might need it.”

“How can you say such terrible things?” Mahrawyn demanded. “It may be forgivable for a child, but now you’re about to be married it’s…it’s unseemly.”

Sylvalla looked directly at her companion. Mahrawyn meant well, but could she really believe bad language would stain her reputation? Probably. She was a sweet person who believed in fairy tales, righteousness, and happily ever after.

“Better had I been eaten by the dragon than sustain this bitter torment day after day with no remise.” Sylvalla sighed.

“My Lady,” the dark-haired beauty murmured, head tilted to hide her smile. “I think you meant respite.” Mahrawyn hesitated, as if about to say something more–probably her theory that Sylvalla’s dragon-slaying was a result of the vapours.

Sylvalla observed Mahrawyn’s hands. Moments ago, they’d aspired to protect her ears. Now they fluttered like nervous butterflies over her corset-elevated bosom. She managed to bite back the observation. After all, it wasn’t entirely Mahrawyn’s fault that she was an empty-headed nag, with nothing better to do than expose her attributes and then pretend to cover them, in an unseemly display that emphasised her abundant bosom would erupt if she were to move any faster than a snail.

She had used those exact words to Francis yesterday. Francis had smiled. A tactical error on his part. Sylvalla frowned, remembering the conversation, trying to untangle her feelings. At the time she’d been quite angry, and even more so when he changed the subject to the hunting trip. A trip he was going on—without her—while taking Dirk, her liegeman and sole remaining friend.

“Gods-dammmit-all.” Sylvalla muttered. It was enough to send Mahrawyn flouncing from the room. She’s probably looking for my blasted mother. I’d save us both, if only I had had the nerve to…

Sylvalla’s thought stopped as Mahrawyn burst back inside.

Why was she back so soon?

Then her mother swept through the door, the picture of fury. The ink drying on Queen Tishke’s beautifully manicured fingers was their only similarity. The Queen’s eyes flashed, dark and bright as the black and white pearls that subdued her mousy hair. Her sharp jaw was accentuated by the mounds of frilly lace overwhelming her tiny frame.

Tishke took one look at Sylvalla and threw her hands up in the air. “For goodness sake! Mahrawyn is your lady in waiting. If you must ruin the accounts and use gutter-language into the bargain, why don’t you go to the stables and talk to the boys there?”

“Why, thank you mother for your perceptive advice. What a wonderful idea.” Sylvalla darted through the door, the eyes of her mother and her lady-in-waiting drilling into her back. Sylvalla could almost feel the quadruple set of holes they were making as she scurried away, her ears deaf to their countermands.


Trouble: Part 2

NAME:             King Phetero

CLASS:             Ruling

FAMILIAR:     With several ladies

SPECIALTY:    Familiarity

RÉSUMÉ:         King Phetero has ruled Scotch Mist for twenty years. Until recently, he was considered a strong and able ruler. At least, strong and able enough to defend the city where the famous Siegian Decist met his downfall.

The history books say Decist was about to take the city, when one of its infamous scotch mists sprang up. The locals used the obscuring mist to creep into Decist’s encampment, sabotage his siege equipment and steal his army’s supplies.

Its wall, its mists, and its reputation protected Scotch Mist until 13/3/305, when King Phetero encountered princess Sylvalla. Since then, there has been increasing disquiet in his court.

There are whispers King Phetero has been seen wandering the castle, blood dripping from his hands. That his loyal noblemen and women discreetly ward off evil with the Eye of Protection when he walks by. And, in his new drive for power, day by day, his army grows stronger.

PASSED:          READING, WRITING, ARITHMETIC, DIPLOMACY, and KILLING.

§

Exquisitely expensive, Phetero’s bedroom outdid itself. The floor was carpeted with luxurious gold and purple rugs. Diamond chandeliers dripped from the ceiling, and even the insect-nets shimmered with gold thread. It was a world away from that tawdry inn where he’d met the much-cursed Sylvalla.

So why could he hear her mocking laughter?

She’d not laughed, not truly. And yet, like bagpipes, the sound followed him wherever he went. Was he not a king? A man who could have whatever he wanted?

Why should revenge on this one small slip of a girl be so difficult?

Covering his ears, Phetero left the room via a not-so-secret door in his wardrobe, wondering briefly if the castle Avondale boasted similar secret passages. If so, he would use them to his advantage. His new allies should make them easy to find.

He would invade her home, and see how much she liked it.

Hands clenched around a smoky torch, he tramped the short way down the dark and dusty corridor to an even more secret safe-room. Men had died to keep its secret. A wasted precaution. It had been discovered by the palace children long ago—its wall-sconce triggered entrance as unimaginative as the many other not-so secret corridors scattered throughout the castle. (Phetero never heard the soft padding of the children’s feet, only the thud and shuffle of his own heavy boots on cold stone.)

The heavy door swung open to a once comfortably-sized bolthole, made claustrophobic by the addition of bookshelves. The smoky torchlight seemed so right for what he was about to do that he laughed. A mistake. The noise was oily, thicker and heavier than the smoke that blurred his vision. It echoed around the small passage, a parody of itself, a parody of hollow laughter. The mocking laughter of a chit of a girl.

Never again. Phetero focussed on the shadows dancing among the musty tomes of long-forgotten gods. Gods that had lain un-worshipped for so long, gods with powers as yet untapped. He wanted to use those powers—whatever the cost. He had the money. He had willing subjects—and unwilling ones as well. None of them could say no, not if they wished their heads to keep company with their shoulders. He would prove he was strong and put an end to the whispers behind his back.

But the books were so dull. So full of archaic language and pompous narration. He soon pulled out his silver, butterfly embellished ceremonial knife and placed it on the silk-covered altar. Desperately wanting to please his new gods, he wondered if he should use the diagrams from Hazard’s Omnicon, or Potter’s Grimoire? He settled on placing the purple candles in a simple triangle of grave-dirt and lit them, muttering prayers from both books before pricking his finger carefully with his ceremonial knife.

His blood hissed and sizzled onto the wax.

A shadow rose from the table, writhing to reveal a vision—a stag pulled down before its time.

Surely, it could only mean one thing? Rufus dead.

A good sign. With Rufus gone, Sylvalla would be at his mercy.

Phetero’s eyes gleamed in triumph—reflecting candlelight and malice. His chubby fingers curled into grasping fists. “The time is nigh. I will be triumphant. Soon, she will be in my clutches—and I will break her, sending her into the abys of eternal torment.”

He laughed.

The echo returned, distorted and yet horribly familiar.

No matter, he thought, punching his hands against the stone wall until his knuckles bled. Soon, her laughter will turn to screams.


Trouble: Part 3

NAME:             Dirk.

CLASS:             Fighter.

SPECIALTY:    Fighting.

RÉSUMÉ:         Doer of Greate ande Noble Deedes. In other words, Dirk has killed anAWFUL LOT OF PEOPLE—and a baby Morpholag (dragon). He is currently employed by the renowned Princess Sylvalla—whose fame is only surpassed by her infamy.

Dirk invites ridicule by scorning his livery at every opportunity and displaying his egg-shaped muscles—sharply defined fat-free zones that fail to give him the gravitas of a traditional fighter. With touchy pride and a ready sword, nobody dares laugh in Dirk’s vicinity. A safe mile or two behind his back, courtiers have been known to flaunt superior smiles and muffled laughter. But, even at such a distance it is muffled. Just in case.

PASSED:          FIGHTING.

§

It’s a crazy world, Dirk thought, when I can’t leave Sylvalla for a day or two without the nagging feeling that I should be by her side.

It was foolish. She was feisty enough, strong enough, and clever enough to look after herself. Moreover, she had the sword Mr Goodfellow Senior had crafted her, hidden upon her person. And she could use it.

There are always assassins.

There is always risk.

Besides, what am I doing on this ridiculous hunting trip, anyway?

To that last question, at least, there were solid answers, no matter how much he disliked them. Firstly, Sylvalla had ordered him to look after Francis. Secondly, logic dictated Francis was in more danger than Sylvalla. Thirdly, was the small matter of propriety. It was unseemly for him to rush back to Sylvalla. There were already too many rumours—and for no more reason than he almost never left her side.

But his instincts, instincts that had never put him far away from adventure, were screaming, Go back to the castle!

Except if he returned now, the whole court would think he was sneaking back to a lover.

Sylvalla’s already tattered reputation would be dead, and so, most likely would her fiancé, Francis.

Finally, the answer to his dilemma crept into his head.

I must take Francis with me.

§

NAME:             Mahrawyn

CLASS:             Upper

FAMILIAR:     With etiquette, silks, satins, laces and other expensive materials.

SPECIALTY:    Deportment.

RÉSUMÉ:         A young lady to a good family, even if they are country aristocracy, and thus not as upset as most of the Avondale nobility would be to allow their only daughter to wait upon the Sylvalla of such dubious fame.

Truly gracious and well-rounded, this young lady is someone to whom the flower of Avondale’s womanhood can look for inspiration and encouragement.

PASSED:          READING, WRITING, DEPORTMENT, SEWING, ETIQUETTE, TAPESTRY & NEEDLEWORK.

§

Exhausted, Mahrawyn made her way back to her rooms after yet another tiring day chaperoning the princess. “Why is Sylvalla so dreadfully difficult?” she wondered, her deep brown eyes turned toward the heavens as if for divine insight.

“The girl is Fey,” one of the guards had muttered, although surely he must have known she wasn’t asking him. “She was bad enough before, but when she called at the city gates covered from head to toe with dragon’s blood, the look in her eye was not human. She’s no princess, but a creature of the other-world.”

His partner had nodded. “Ach, I heard the wench is cursed.”

The first guard touched thumb and little finger together in an effort to thwart evil.[1] “So it be. An’ I pity the lad who’s to marry ’er, if the gods cannot save him from his fate.”

But when Mahrawyn had mentioned the incident, Sylvalla had only laughed. “Let them,” she’d said, her eyes alight. “At least they’ll give me a wide berth. I only wish more would do so.”

Mahrawyn continued on her way, remembering how excited she’d been when her parents had told her about her new job. “Chaperoning a princess is an honour. It will be just like having a younger sister of your very own.”

Little sister indeed! Mahrawyn shuddered. No little sister of hers would ever behave in such an unladylike fashion. The switch was what any ordinary child would receive—but as Sylvalla was a princess, all anybody ever did was look heavenward for salvation.

Mahrawyn was too upset to notice the muffled shrieks behind her…or the tread of footsteps echoing hers.

That very evening at tapestry, Sylvalla had lain down her needle with a final ultimatum. “I do not sew.” Clutching her necklace with the miniature sword, she’d laughed. “My hands will only bleed for my Dragonslayer.”

Mahrawyn had ignored the jibe, just as she’d ignored all the hurtful comments about the importance of learning hand to hand combat, and other inappropriate pastimes. What else could she and the other staff do?

The pity of it was, that although the girl fell well below expectations for a princess, or indeed almost any girl, she didn’t seem to care.

Maybe she relished her notoriety? Too often, the dress Sylvalla was expected to wear for an occasion would be found cut to ribbons. The princess would be standing over the tatters, grinning. “Oh dear, my hand must have slipped. I am so terribly clumsy.”

A shout echoed down the hall, but Mahrawyn was remembering dinner, recalling how the princess’ knife had danced whenever the Queen’s eyes were diverted. And this very day she’d gone so far as to invite Mahrawyn to fight with a sword!

It was not right. Sylvalla might be a princess, and Mahrawyn might be nothing more than a foreign dignitary, but this chance should have been looked into more thoroughly, before her parents allowed their daughter to be subjected to…to…such a frightening monster.

From the way she caressed the wrong types of metal, to the careful way she watched everyone around her, Sylvalla was dangerous. A man could not be any more dangerous. Or crude of tongue. Well, maybe Dirk—the pair were like caged tigers. They would jump at the chance to bite the hands that fed them.

Not for the first time Mahrawyn resolved—I must get out of here before my reputation is stained forever.

Mahrawyn opened her door slowly, looking about to make certain the young princess wasn’t hiding somewhere. Too often Sylvalla would jump out, laugh at her stifled surprise, and ask if she was ready to defend herself.

Satisfied there was no princess, Mahrawyn breathed deeply, straining her beribboned corset as she shut her door on her tiresome day. She wanted nothing more than to go home. Perhaps repeating the words of those guards would help convince her parents; although they’d be shocked Mahrawyn had consorted with such lowly types at all. Perhaps a more polite version might do the trick.

Mahrawyn looked heavenward, ignoring the clank of metal and, thinking how noisy the castle was tonight, she worked hard to phrase the words just right—without all the profanity. Surely her parents would see reason? The girl had a nasty fate waiting for her—and woe betide the fool who stood in its path.

The knock on her door was not entirely unexpected. There was a young man of a worthy family who seemed to have definite intentions, and who was comely enough. Mahrawyn was prepared to accept his tokens, if not his love. Not yet, at any rate. She was nothing, if not proper.

“Mattiew,” her voice lilted. She managed a smile as the moon peeked through the glass, its nimbus silvery-soft and hazy as down. It was the same full moon to which her many admirers often compared her, quoting beloved favourites like: “Thou art more lovely than the day,” and “The moon in all her lustrous beauty could not shine so beguilingly as the smallest smile from you.” There was no doubt in Mahrawyn’s mind, Sylvalla was the day they were talking about, and no man wanted his woman so sharp…

She opened the door…

It was not Mattiew, but a knight in armour.

Given Mahrawyn’s earlier thoughts, the attack should not have been so unexpected. But despite Sylvalla’s attempts to train her—and for all that she was compared to the night, Mahrawyn was no creature of stealth, or intrigue, or darkness.

She stared, wide-eyed, as the blade slashed her throat. Overcome, not with remorse, but with the bitter understanding that she really had been standing in the path of Sylvalla’s fate.

Mahrawyn’s eyes closed forever.

But this night of death was not over. The deaths had barely begun. And although I mention them not, there were many other tragedies and murders, no less cruel and pointless than this one.


Too Late

Death has no remedy

Sylvalla had gone to bed early, but could not sleep.

When she’d been younger and she’d begged her father to go hunting, he’d informed her: “You’re not a man. You cannot do the things men do.” This time he’d snapped, “Men only—and that does not include you.”

She dragged her sheet up to her chin and tried to forget the idiot who’d sniggered, or that the king had done nothing about it, except pretend he’d not noticed the insult.

She thumped her pillow.

Half the castle was out on this hunting trip designed to intimidate Francis, the stable boy who’d pulled a sword from a stone and been declared prince. And her husband-to-be. It was a farce.

But whatever anyone thought of him, Francis could look after himself with that bow of his. And maybe even hold his own with that fancy sword Capro had made him. And if he couldn’t, Dirk could. There wasn’t a person in Avondale who could intimidate Dirk.

Sylvalla tossed and turned, angry one moment, worried the next.

Footsteps echoed down the corridor.

It was too dark to be morning. The hall outside her room should have been empty.

Sylvalla sat up, clutching her nightgown. Her breath caught. Her imagination had armoured men stalking the corridors with death in their wake.

Perhaps paranoia is catching.

Dirk had voiced worries about leaving her alone, recounting a multitude of murderous scenarios—in detail. He’d finally relented when she’d pointed out that if someone should bear Francis a grudge, there’d be swords and arrows on all sides–whereas in the castle she had strong walls, with eyes, arrows and murder holes protecting her.

Now, she didn’t feel quite so safe.

Skin prickling, she pushed back the bedclothes.

A chill wind crept through her room, tempting her to snuggle back under the covers and think of other things.

She heard a clink. Could that be padded armour? Or was it just her imagination?

Sylvalla’s hand reached for Dragonslayer—the sword Capro Goodfellow had magically shrunk to the size of a pin, and hidden as an ornament on a gold chain. Where had it gone?

She couldn’t see it. She could hardly see anything. The shafts of moonlight creeping through expensive slivers of window-glass did not fall on the bedside table. Dragonslayer should be on her dresser, hidden amongst the stuff required by a princess. Mr Goodfellow’s voice echoed in her ears, “Keep it secret, keep it close.”

Something crashed against her door.

Sylvalla jumped, putting her hand right on top of the sharp steel. “Ow!”

Noise erupted all around: screaming; wood splintering; and worse.

Sylvalla’s curses were hardly silent; they didn’t need to be. Not now. She grabbed Dragonslayer, struggling to hang its golden chain around her neck and stumble out of bed.

Again, something crashed against her door—the thunk of steel biting into wood. The solid oak creaked in protest as a heavy blade was pulled free. Another blow thundered against the door. Splinters flew across the room. The metal glint of an axe reflected moonlight.

“By the Hounds!” Sylvalla ducked as more splinters flew. She had no illusions about her prowess with a sword. She was good, yes, but fighting an army alone wasn’t a winning option.

Heart thumping, she glanced at the tiny castle window. It promised fresh air and escape, as well as a nasty, and likely-fatal, fall to the flagstones below. A risk worth taking if she could be sure the courtyard wasn’t already occupied by enemy soldiers.

No.

There would be no escape outside. Her only option was the secret door inside her wardrobe.

She rushed toward the wardrobe, and opened its slatted door.

Behind her, the shriek of twisting metal heralded the destruction of the oak door’s hinges.

It’s a terrible shame, Sylvalla thought, in a moment of stupid clarity. That door had always made Dirk happy. He’d always said, “That’s a solid door with decent hinges, it’ll take a good few seconds to smash through.” Sylvalla had been horrified at the time, but his estimate had been correct.

A loud grunt from outside. An ear-splitting crash. The door toppled to the ground.

Slamming her wardrobe closed, Sylvalla fumbled for the secret door within. Stay calm, she ordered her trembling fingers.

The heavy tramp of boots neared.

Behind her a man shouted, “In here.”

His mailed fist smashed through the wooden slats of the wardrobe door as she found the latch. She scrambled through the secret door into absolute darkness.

Hand to the wall, she fled.