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Cephrael’s Hand: A Pattern of Shadow & Light Book One
by Melissa McPhail
And within the pattern of the realm of Alorin, three strands must cross:In Alorin…three hundred years after the genocidal Adept Wars, the realm is dying, and the blessed Adept race dies with it. One man holds the secret to reverting this decline: Bjorn van Gelderan, a dangerous and enigmatic man whose shocking betrayal three centuries past earned him a traitor’s brand. It is the Adept Vestal Raine D’Lacourte’s mission to learn what Bjorn knows in the hope of salvaging his race. But first he’ll have to find him…In the kingdom of Dannym…the young Prince Ean val Lorian faces a tenuous future as the last living heir to the coveted Eagle Throne. When his blood-brother is slain during a failed assassination, Ean embarks on a desperate hunt for the man responsible. Yet his advisors have their own agendas, and his quest for vengeance leads him ever deeper into a sinuous plot masterminded by a mysterious and powerful man, the one they call First Lord…
In the Nadori desert…tormented by the missing pieces of his life, a soldier named Trell heads off to uncover the truth of his shadowed past. But when disaster places him in the debt of Wildlings sworn to the First Lord, Trell begins to suspect a deadlier, darker secret is motivating them.
5-star praise for Cephrael’s Hand:
Excellent read – left wanting more
“…a story filled with magic, adventure, love, seduction, chaos and complexity right from the start…Each revelation, each twist had me on the edge of my seat…”
an excerpt from
by Melissa McPhail
‘To know love is to know fear.’
– Attributed to the angiel Epiphany
The skiff bobbed on icy waves as two sailors rowed in tandem. A crescent moon looked down upon the little boat and limned a silvery trail back to the hulking shadow that was the royal schooner Sea Eagle. The air was damp and pungent with the scent of brine, but the sky shone uncommonly clear, and the wind carried an exhilarating sense of promise.
Or at least Ean thought so as he stood with boots braced in the prow of the skiff watching the dark expanse of the Calgaryn cliffs growing taller, broader, vaster, until they towered over the little boat. They’d no lights glimmering from the great crags to tell the rowing sailors where beach ended and deadly rocks began, neither lighthouse nor lantern to serve as a beacon across the blanket of ebony ocean, only Ean’s ears, keen to the roar of the waves upon a familiar shore.
“There,” he said, pointing with arm outstretched, “two degrees to port.” The blustery wind whipped Ean’s hair, lifting and tossing it in wild designs while his cloak flapped behind him, so that he seemed a figurehead as he stood in the prow, a sculpture of some undersea godling.
“Aye, Your Highness,” said one of the sailors as he and his partner adjusted their rowing to shift course.
“’Tis strange,” said the skiff’s fourth occupant, seated on a bench behind Ean, wrapped in an ermine cloak. Ean’s blood-brother since childhood, Creighton Khelspath had sealed his destiny to Ean’s, to go where the prince went, to serve, and to protect. Now he and Ean had both gained their eighteenth name day, the age of manhood that brought new titles and new responsibilities, yet neither felt quite ready to face the world beneath the mantle that accompanied their new statuses.
“What’s strange?” Ean shifted his head slightly to maintain his focus on the minute sounds of the surf.
“Strange to be coming back here after so long,” Creighton answered; simple words that yet shouted his anxiety. He shifted his gaze to the smudge of darkness towering before them, but it wasn’t the treacherous shoreline that troubled him. He added under his breath, “Strange to think of ourselves as the King’s men again, instead of just the Queen’s.”
“Would that there was no need for such distinction,” Ean muttered. He’d spent five long years arguing with his Queen mother about her relationship with his King father—the entire time he’d been sequestered on his mother’s home island of Edenmar, in fact—and the disagreement had created a flood of bitterness. That he’d been sequestered there to protect his life after both his older brothers were lost to treachery seemed ill consolation for being ripped from all that he’d known and loved, or from his father’s beloved side.
Now all that had changed—at least, that was the expectation. Two moons ago Queen Errodan and her entourage had returned to Calgaryn to make peace with King Gydryn in the name of their only surviving son. Ean hoped his name would be enough to bridge the canyon between his estranged parents; a great part of him feared nothing could span so immense a distance.
Suddenly the little boat surged upwards, and the crashing sound of waves gained in volume.
“We’re here!” Ean shot Creighton a look of sudden excitement as the waves lifted them again, and moments later he leapt from the boat and sloshed through hip-deep surf to stand, dripping, upon the shore.
Jutting cliffs sliced into the bay on either side, while between them lay a swath of sand that sparkled faintly in the moonlight. Ean opened his arms and spun around to embrace the air of his homeland, breathing deeply of its fragrance.
The sailors took the skiff all the way in, surfing the last wave until the flat-bottomed boat scraped the shore. Creighton swept up his ermine cloak and stepped across the bow onto the beach, turning to face the waves as his boots sank into the soft sand.
Above the dark waters spread another sea, this one a starry splay of jewels surrounding the moon. Just above this eyeless crescent, high within the arch of sky, a seven-pointed constellation flamed. Creighton swallowed.
“Ean,” he murmured, pointing with his free arm. “Look.”
Ean lifted his gaze to follow along Cray’s line of sight. His ebullient expression faded when he saw the grouping of stars. “Cephrael’s Hand.”
At this utterance, both sailors lifted faces to the heavens.
“’Tis an inauspicious omen for your return,” Creighton observed, unable to hide his sudden unease.
One of the sailors grunted at this, and the other spat into the sand and then ground his boot over the mark.
Ean cast him a withering look. “Ward for luck if you wish, helmsman, but we make our destiny, not superstition.”
“Epiphany’s Grace you’re right, Highness,” replied the sailor, “but you won’t begrudge me if I keep my knife close tonight, I hope?”
Ean caught sight of Creighton loosening his own blade in its sheath and stared at his blood-brother in wonderment. “Creighton, you and I both have studied the science of the stars. How can you believe the stars have any power over our fates—”
Creighton spun him a heated look and hissed under his breath, “How can you not?”
Ean pushed a chin-length strand of cinnamon hair behind one ear and folded arms across his chest. He couldn’t discount the terrible events that had each happened beneath the taint of Cephrael’s Hand—two brothers lost—even if he chose not to believe in the abounding superstitions surrounding the fateful constellation. The memories evoked a sigh that felt painful as it left his chest. “We blame the gods too often for things no one controls.”
“That’s your father talking.”
Ean shot Creighton an aggravated look. “Sometimes he’s right.”
A gusting breeze brought the stench of seaweed and wet rocks, and something else, some proprietary scent seemingly owned by that beach alone. Ean remembered it well—it and all of the memories it harbored, memories carried like autumn leaves spinning in funnels across the sand. “I said goodbye to both brothers upon this very spot,” he observed quietly, recalling a much younger self who watched as first one brother and then the next was carried away toward an awaiting royal ship at anchor, much as the Sea Eagle was now. Neither brother had returned from their journey south, one lost to treachery, the other claimed by the Fire Sea. Now Ean stood upon this shore not as a boy but as a man, and he’d never been more aware of how different his life had become, how much the fingers of tragedy and obligation had molded and changed him.
“The Maker willing, we shall meet them again someday in the Returning,” Creighton said respectfully, repeating a litany they’d both recited too many times already in their young lives, “and know them by Epiphany’s Grace.”
“Aye,” Ean agreed, feeling unexpectedly hollow.
“Aye,” intoned the sailors, who couldn’t help overhearing.
Ean grimaced and turned his gaze upon the Sea Eagle and the tiny flame of a lantern on its mainmast. Once, a royal schooner could always be seen at anchor just off these cliffs, awaiting the King’s command for his pleasure, but after the loss of the Dawn Chaser and Ean’s middle brother five years ago, King Gydryn sailed no more. Memories of his lost brothers had stolen what joy he’d summoned for his homecoming, leaving naught but unwelcome emptiness in its place.
“Come,” the prince said, affecting a happier tone to help shake off the clinging cobwebs of loss. “Let’s see how far we can get before my mother’s men spot us.”
Creighton set off with Ean across the beach, muttering, “I only hope they’re not inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. There’s nothing like a bolt in the shoulder to sour one’s homecoming.”
“No one could mistake you for a brigand in that outfit,” Ean noted.
Creighton adjusted his ermine cloak and straightened his shoulders. “You never get a second opportunity to make a first impression.” He smoothed his velvet jacket and pressed out the long line of ornate silver buttons that glittered down the front—indeed, Ean had watched him spend many an hour polishing said buttons in preparation for their homecoming. “And Katerine’s favor is worth any effort.”
The prince chuckled. “A first impression? Correct me if I’m mistaken, but wasn’t it Katerine val Mallonwey who looked raptly on as you tried to escape that sea skunk on this very beach?”
Creighton cast him an aggravated look. “How was I to know it was mating season?” He shook his head and scowled at Ean’s back. “I had to burn that cloak. The smell never would come out of it.” Ean laughed again, and Creighton lifted his head and glared sootily at him. “I do believe you take perverse pleasure in my misfortunes.”
“Creighton, the entertainment value alone is priceless.”
They navigated around and between two hulking rocks that muffled somewhat the crash of the sea, and the prince reached for his blood-brother’s arm. “Now then.” Ean leveled Creighton a look full of amusement. “You swore you would explain once we were ashore. Why all the pomp? The cloak, the endless polishing of buttons? I notice you’ve even cut your hair, though Raine’s truth, a blind monkey could’ve made a straighter job of it.”
Creighton couldn’t stop the foolish grin that split his face. “Tonight, upon our return to Calgaryn, I’m to see Katerine.”
Ean grabbed Creighton’s arm. “You told her of our landing?”
“No—of course not!”
“You know the threat upon our lives—never mind the precarious situation of my father’s throne! If you told Katerine or anyone, Creighton—”
“Ean, I swear, I did not.”
Ean dropped his arm and gave him odd look. “Surely you don’t expect to wake her in the wee of the night. So how…?”
A faraway, love-struck look beset his friend, and a moment passed before Creighton confessed, “It’s like I can sense her, Ean.” He dropped his eyes with a sheepish look. “I know it sounds foolish, but after so many years of letters back and forth, of secrets shared across the intimacy of Mieryn Bay…years of imagining her eyes and smile as she read my words and wrote to me in return…” Creighton shrugged. “I can’t explain it, but I feel in my heart that when next I set foot within Calgaryn Palace, Katerine will be there to meet me.” His distant look faded, replaced with Creighton’s boyish smile. “So,” he concluded with a glance down at his finery, “I’ve come prepared.”
“I see,” Ean said, even though he didn’t. He started them walking again. “I take it that you mean to propose then.”
Creighton grinned. “Am I so transparent?”
“It was the ermine that betrayed you.” Ean winked, adding, “It begged me save it from a torturous hour of maudlin rhetoric. Ode to Katerine…” He placed a hand dramatically upon his heart. “Were I but able to describe thy beauty, shall I compare thee to a thistle?”
Creighton looked injured. “It wasn’t to be that sort of thing at all. I wrote her an epic allegorical poem…”
Upon which confession Ean really laughed.
Frowning at the prince, Creighton reached inside his vest and withdrew a velvet pouch. He emptied its contents onto his palm and held it out for Ean to see. “I was going to give her this.”
Sobering out of consideration for Creighton’s earnest admission, Ean took the ring and looked it over. A single ruby glinted amid delicate silver filigree fashioned in the shape of a rose. “It’s beautiful,” Ean offered by way of apology. “It must be very old.” He handed the ring back to Creighton.
“It belonged to an Avataren Fire Princess,” Creighton murmured while returning the ring carefully inside his vest.
“Ahh…” Ean winked in understanding, for he knew now who had surely given Creighton the ring to use in this marriage proposal. “So…my mother and her Companion Ysolde are in on this farce then. I’m hurt I wasn’t entrusted with the secret.”
“Only for your own protection, Ean. We wouldn’t want any rumors going about that you were planning to propose.”
Ean snorted. The truth was there were so many rumors about him that he couldn’t keep them all straight.
The boys turned their attention back to the climb then, which became ever steeper, and Ean grew pensive in the silence that followed. His mind wandered back to Creighton’s earlier confession. His friend had spoken truth. It was strange to be returning as men to these places where they’d played as children, to the very beach where he and Cray had so often sought refuge from Ean’s eldest brother Sebastian, who’d had a penchant for throwing pie tins full of mud and rocks when he was in a temper; where all the boys had come to devise new ways to torment their tutors, secretly and momentarily united against a common foe. Strange to find comfort on a chill and treacherous shore, yet it was there he’d fled when first one brother and then the next was taken, snatched away by the pitiless snares of Fate.
And stranger still to find comfort lingering there, like an old friend waiting by the wayside.
Ean didn’t want a formal acknowledgement as the crown prince—Raine’s truth, how could he desire a crown when it only fell to him though tragedy and betrayal? Never had he felt the loss of his brothers more than in the sure knowledge that he’d taken their place in line for the throne. Yet the cold fact remained: Ean was the family’s last hope of retaining the Eagle Throne, and he shouldered that responsibility as any good son should, though he wept in the knowledge of what had passed to lay the promise at his feet.
“My prince, is that you?”
The boys drew up short.
Footsteps approached from the path above, and soon a soldier’s mailed form solidified in the moonlight. “Why it is you, Your Highness,” the man said as he neared. Queen Errodan’s silver coat of arms glimmered on his breast in the moonlight, a barely discernible trident on his dark green surcoat. “And you also, Lord Khelspath, Fortune bless you’re both safe. Her Majesty is most aggrieved about these circumstances, but Your Highness’s safety necessitated the subterfuge.”
Never was understatement uttered so blithely. “I understand,” Ean said. “It’s good to see you, Eammon.”
Eammon nodded. “Aye. Let’s be off then. This way if you will, my lords.”
They took the rest of the climb in silence. As they neared the crest, the unwelcome sound of battle floated down. Eammon held up his fist to halt them. “Stay here!” he hissed, and then he was sprinting up the last switchback in the trail.
Creighton gave the prince a wide-eyed look. “Ean, we can’t just—”
“Of course not!”
Ean darted after Eammon, and Creighton followed close behind.
A battle indeed greeted them at the crest, where the moonlight revealed a writhing frenzy of soldiers. Green-coated Queen’s Guard fought red-coated palace soldiers, and other palace soldiers fought each other.
Ean stared open-mouthed as he tried to make sense of the scene. This is madness!
Creighton grabbed his arm. “Is…is it your parents fighting again?”
“No,” Ean whispered, suspecting treachery had turned soldier against soldier, not their monarchs’ whims. He motioned Creighton to follow, and they ducked through the tall sea grass looking for an opening into the fray. As yet they hadn’t been spotted, and the prince hoped he might find an opportunity to intervene—
Suddenly Ean felt the cold press of steel against his neck. Ean stilled beneath the blade.
“I have him!” shouted a voice next to his ear.
In the clearing, the fighting slowed. Among the men Ean recognized, Eammon looked down the wrong side of a deadly blade, and Ean suspected with failing hopes that his allies were on the losing side.
“Good work,” said a burly soldier dressed in the king’s livery. He pushed his way through to where Ean stood. The prince couldn’t turn his head to look around, but he suspected Creighton stood nearby, held in much the same fashion. “Let’s see his weapon,” the leader said as he reached for Ean’s sword. He looked only at the hilt and the deep sapphire set as the pommel stone.
“That’s a kingdom blade all right,” confirmed the man holding Ean.
“Aye, but the other lad has one too,” said someone else.
The leader frowned over at Creighton, who stood at sword-point a half-step behind Ean, and then back again. He grabbed Ean’s chin roughly and turned his face from side to side, the knife at his throat barely loosening in time to avoid garroting him in the doing. “Can’t tell. He could be the right one.”
“You’d think the other’d be him,” grumbled another of the men, also in the uniform of the palace guard. “Look how he’s all gussied up.”
“Just so,” the leader noted. He narrowed his gaze at Ean. “Well then, which are you? The prince or his dog?”
“I am Prince Ean!” Creighton declared before Ean could respond.
“I am Ean val Lorian,” the prince said evenly, holding the man’s gaze with angry eyes. “And you’re a corpse when my father learns of this.”
The leader laughed and spun his arm to the others. “Aren’t we all soiling ourselves now, men?”
Eammon spoke up to be heard over the round of raucous jesting that followed this remark. “You may have fooled us,” he said while disdainfully eyeing the blade aimed at his heart, “but the King’s Own Guard is coming even as we speak. Be certain they will know you for the knaves you are. Release us now, and I will beseech Their Majesties for mercy, though ’tis undeserved.”
“I just can’t be certain which one you are,” the leader remarked, ignoring Eammon completely. He lifted his gaze to the man holding Ean. “Best to kill them both.”
“Agreed,” said the man, and the prince felt the blade’s deadly sting against his throat even as Eammon and Creighton both shouted, “No!”
Ean slammed his heel onto the bridge of his captor’s foot and spun into his embrace. The blade bled his neck, but then he had his hands on the weapon and was forcing his captor backwards into the long grass. Fighting broke out behind him as others joined the struggle. Ean struggled to gain control of the dagger. His assailant’s black eyes bored into his with ruthless menace as they wrestled. Ean realized he couldn’t overpower the other man, but he was spry and agile and determined not to lose his life that night. When the man stumbled over a jutting rock, Ean used the momentum to force him backwards—just four quick steps and they reached the cliff’s edge. Ean wrenched free of his hold as the man fell with a howl.
Heart racing, Ean drew his sword and turned to dive back into the melee.
It was the first time the prince had ever swung a blade with mortal intent, and he felt powerful and righteous in the doing. His years of training held him true, and within moments he took a man through the chest. The traitor fell to his knees, and Ean backed away, covered in the other’s blood, his own chest heaving, both repulsed and exhilarated in the same terrible moment. He was the first man Ean had ever killed, but he was not the last that night.
Ean had just felled a third man when strong arms grabbed him from behind. They wrapped around his arms and chest and squeezed inward and upward, choking the breath out of him with a pressure so great that Ean was forced to drop his weapon. Needles pricked his hands and arms where the man had them pinned against his sides. He dragged Ean, kicking and grunting, into the long grass and threw him down. Ean rolled, but the man pounced on top of him just as quickly. Knees pinned the prince’s shoulders into the sandy earth and legs pushed his arms painfully into the ground.
With his heavy weight crushing the prince’s chest, the man pushed a hand hard over Ean’s mouth. “Now then,” he whispered, pulling a bundle from within his surcoat. “We’ll do this the right way.”
Dark eyes watched Ean with hungry anticipation as the man unwrapped a dagger with his free hand. “This is Jeshuelle,” he said, showing the blade to the captured prince while Ean struggled beneath him. “She’s named after the first slut I slew. She was a fighter, she was, nearly bit my ear off while I was bedding her. I dug out her heart when I finished and filled the dead hole with my seed.” He scraped the point of the blade against Ean’s chest, making an X across his heart. “That’s the only way to be sure, you know.” He gave the prince a grim smile. “Take out the heart, and no Healer can bring a man back.”
Ean fought against desperation. If only…if only…
Laughing, the man raised his dagger—
It was the keening that stopped him—froze him actually in place as a wild look of recognition came into his gaze. The sound stopped everyone, in fact; soldiers on both sides of the conflict cringed, their senses immediately scrambled, ears protesting that terrible cry. It grew in volume, a horrid, uncanny wail that resembled nothing in nature. It was a cry from beyond the grave.
“What in Tiern’aval is that?” someone was heard to ask, but none other found voice to marry with words.
“Shite,” hissed the assassin atop Ean. While all others stood transfixed, he leapt off the prince and scuttled low through the long grass on hands and knees like all the daemons of thirteen hells were chasing him.
Benumbed by the strange turn of events as much as by the terrifying howling which only grew stronger and louder with every passing moment, Ean pushed to his feet. His head swam, his chest ached, and his neck bled fiery warmth into his collar. He pushed one hand over the gash, retrieved his sword, and stumbled back toward the clearing.
He met a strange scene. The soldiers stood immobile with their blades leveled at one another, as if in silent agreement to first discover the source of the wail.
Had Ean been wiser, had he not just been nearly suffocated, garroted and stabbed, he might’ve thought to follow the one man who seemed to know what approached and himself run far and fast. But like so many of the others, Ean’s curiosity to learn the source of that dreadful, ear-splitting cry rooted him to the scene.
A cloud moved off the moon, and they came.
Moonlight bathed the clearing in silence, its arrival seemingly shepherded by a cloaked man who was approaching through the meadow. Even as Ean watched—and had he not been watching from the very start he never would’ve believed his eyes—deep shadows began rising up from the low blanket of night; solidifying, congealing darkness unto themselves until they at last coalesced into creatures of legend and myth.
It cannot be!
Ean denied the image his eyes so clearly witnessed. Half as tall as horses, entirely black with eyes like darkly golden fire, they lifted their paws out of the night-shadows that birthed them and gathered around their cloaked master, red tongues lolling.
Had it been daylight and sunny, still they would have cast no shadow, for darkhounds were shadows—made real.
And then the stranger reached the clearing, and Ean became intimate with a new kind of terror.
“You men,” said the cloaked man, pointing to Eammon and the other of the Queen’s soldiers, “bind each other.”
Several hounds trotted forward on soundless paws, and Ean saw that they carried ropes in their mouths. He wondered why no one protested, why no one turned to fight, why no one moved in challenge. Wondered, that is, until he tried to speak out himself and found he could not.
The stranger turned toward Ean then as if feeling his questioning thought. Pushing back the cowl of his hood, he locked gazes across the distance with the prince, and Ean knew he was dreaming. A Shade and his darkhounds? Is this some twisted jest?
“Look at me but once, Prince of Dannym,” said the stranger with the silver face that gleamed like chrome, metal yet living flesh, “and I have the power to bind you to my will.”
Even as the stranger spoke these words, Eammon and the others wordlessly took the ropes and began binding each other’s wrists. They moved stiffly, and their eyes were wild.
Ean tried to find his voice, pushing against the confines of his throat, but though he screamed inside, not even a squeak emitted. He tried to lift just one finger, and the effort left his heart pounding and the sound of blood throbbing in his ears. Only his eyes moved freely, and he searched the darkness for a sign of Creighton, but either his blood-brother had fallen, or he was out of Ean’s line of sight.
The heavy thunder of horses brought meager hope, but all too soon Ean saw it was not the foretold King’s Own Guard that approached. Two dozen men reined to a halt in a scramble of hooves, and the Shade spun his head to fix them with a stare. “You’re late.”
“We had to elude the King’s Guard,” the man in the lead said breathlessly. “We led them for a chase, but they’ll be here soon.”
“Get the prince on his horse and be off then.” The Shade pinned his gaze once more on Ean. “Go with them, Ean val Lorian.”
Ean found his legs suddenly moving quite without his volition. More frightening still, he couldn’t even affect a jerking motion in the pretense of fighting against the stranger’s will; his legs simply no longer belonged to him.
As Ean neared the horses, a man came forward with a moon-pale stallion in tow. The prince’s fine destrier had made the crossing with the Queen two moons ago, and the horse Caldar seemed so out of place among this strange night that Ean almost didn’t recognize him.
Before he knew it, however, he’d sheathed his sword and had one foot in his stirrup and the other slung across Caldar’s back. Only as he settled into the saddle did he realize that he could now move his arms freely. His legs remained so leaden, however, that he marveled they were still attached to his body and actually caught himself looking down just to be certain.
In all, the entire night seemed far too incredible to be believed. Struggling to make sense of it all, Ean looked to the heavens, to the constellation of Cephrael’s Hand gleaming brightly above him. It all felt so impossible that Ean held onto a desperate hope that this must be an elaborate deception, that a court magician had been solicited to create the illusion, or that they were all somehow made to hallucinate the same appalling vision. Everything had happened so unexpectedly—each unlikely moment opening onto the next, such that Ean felt he watched some disjointed farce populated by actors whose wild improvisation led the entire performance into appalling directions.
The Queen’s men had just finished binding each other when the hounds began their unnatural keening again. This time an unmistakable hunger resonated in the whine.
Ean shuddered reflexively.
The Shade’s dark gaze flitted across the assembled soldiers, statues made of flesh and bone. “Spare none.”
The darkhounds attacked with predation, and men screamed like children. Horribly, the Queen’s men alone were allowed their voices as the hounds swarmed in and around them, sating their deep hunger on those who’d meant Ean ill, leaving Eammon and his men untouched save by the blood that soon washed the clearing. Ean found something unbearable in that observance—to die such a death without being allowed even the grace of voice to give vent to the fear and pain in one’s last moments…
The prince shuddered and looked away. Wicked they might be, and with malicious intent, but they were men. No man deserved such a fate.
“Creighton Khelspath!” commanded the Shade, his clear voice rising above the ravening din. “Attend!”
Ean swung his head to look for his blood-brother, for he had still not seen him among the group.
At first he saw only the horrible hounds sating their hunger on the living, but then a form rose up from among the long grass bordering the scene. Creighton wore a horrified expression, as if death had already claimed him, and he walked with a staggering gait, clearly in pain. Ean wanted desperately to call out, to give words of encouragement and hope—even if they were impotent—but voice was still denied him. So he watched helplessly as his blood-brother crossed the distance, miraculously passing untouched amid the feasting darkhounds and their flailing prey.
Tears came unbidden to Ean’s eyes, and he reached for his sword with sudden desperation that he might do anything to stop this, but his fingers couldn’t close upon the leathered steel. The sword hung encouragingly at his side, yet it might’ve been aboard the Sea Eagle for all he could use it.
Creighton halted in front of the Shade. His face was ashen, his expression now void of emotion, as if already defeated. The Shade stared at him for a long moment, and then he shook his head. He slowly drew forth a sword from beneath his dark cloak. “Kneel,” he commanded.
Creighton dropped to his knees.
The Shade walked to stand behind Creighton, and Ean saw his sword gleaming with a silver-violet sheen. He placed the tip against the back of Creighton’s neck, and Ean thought he might lose his mind. No! No! Noooooooo!
“It was not meant to be this way with you,” the Shade murmured. Then he spoke for a long moment in a language Ean didn’t understand. Creighton never looked up, never turned to Ean though, yet Ean imagined he heard his voice as clear as day in his mind.
Tell Kat that I love her. Tell her I will always love her. Tell her I’m sor—
The voice ended with the Shade’s two-handed thrust.
And Ean found he could scream after all.
“Reyd,” the leader of the horsemen called the Shade’s attention to where he stared anxiously toward the road. The rising thunder of horses said more soldiers would soon be upon them.
“Yes, go.” The Shade still held the sword that impaled Creighton so horribly, the latter’s body slumped and twisted like a broken marionette. “Go!”
The horsemen peeled away, and Caldar leaped into a canter, following the other horses without Ean’s prodding. Indeed, the prince was tumbling amid crushing waves of pain and loss and could barely conceive of anything else.
Three brothers, was all he could think as his world spun and his gut twisted and his chest heaved with silent heart-wrenching sobs. Three brothers lost.
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