Chapter One of Stormlord Rising, out on 1 March 2010
Breccia Hall, Level 2
The man lying next to Lord Ryka Feldspar was dead.
His eyes stared upwards past her shoulder, sightless, the vividness of their blue already fading. For a while blood had seeped from his wounded chest onto her tunic, but that had slowed, then stopped. She did not know his name, although she had known him by sight. He’d been a guard at Breccia Hall. Younger than she was. Eighteen? Twenty?
Too young to die.
The man on top of her was dead, too. He was a Reduner. His head lay on her chest and the beads threaded onto his red braids pressed uncomfortably into her breast, but she didn’t dare move. Not yet. Around her she heard Reduner voices still; men, heaving bodies onto packpedes, talking among themselves. Making crude jokes about the dead. Coping, perhaps, with the idea it could so easily have been them. Death or survival: even for the victors, the outcome was often as unpredictable as the gusting of a desert wind.
Reduners. Red men from a land of red sand dunes, flesh-devouring zigger beetles and meddles of black pedes. Drovers and nomads and warriors who hankered after a past they thought was noble: a time when rain had been random and they ruled most of the Quartern with their tribal savagery. A people who had recently returned to a time of slave raids, living under laws decided by the strength of a man’s arm and dispensed with a scimitar or a zigtube.
Ryka had been a scholar once, and she spoke their tongue well. She could understand them now as they chatted. ‘Those withering bastard rainlords,’ one was saying, his tone bitter and angry. ‘They took the water from Genillid’s eyes while he was fighting next to me. Left his eyeballs like dried berries in their sockets! Blind as a sandworm.’
‘What did you do?’ another asked, a youngster by the sound of him.
‘For Genillid? Killed him. That was Sandmaster Davim’s orders. Reckon he was right, too. What’s left for a dunesman if he can’t see?’
‘I heard he went around the men afterwards and killed everyone who was like to lose a hand or a leg as well. No place for a cripple on the dunes, he said.’
Ryka felt no pity. They had taken her city. Killed her people. Cloudmaster Granthon Almandine, the Quartern’s ruler, its bringer of water and its only true stormlord, was dead, she knew that. His son, Highlord Nealrith, the city’s ruler, had been taken and tortured. He’d died in a cage swung over one of the city gates. She knew that, too. She’d heard Jasper Bloodstone had killed him to save him the agony of a slow death.
Poor Jasper. She’d seen the respect and affection in his eyes when he spoke to the highlord.
Gentle, kindly Nealrith. She had grown up with him, gone to Breccia Academy with him, attended his wedding to that bitch, Lord Laisa. Oh, Sunlord receive you into his sunfire, Rith. You did not deserve your end.
‘Did we get all them bastards?’ the same youth asked.
‘The rainlords? Reckon so. I hear exhaustion finally sapped their powers, leaving them defenceless. My brother killed one of them rainlord priests. Still, not even a sandmaster can tell one from an ordinary city-grubber. They don’t look no different.’
‘I heard some of them are women.’
The first man gave a bark of laughter. ‘One thing’s for sure, we can slaughter any force that has to use women to fight a battle!’
Ryka wanted to grit her teeth, but couldn’t risk even that slight movement. Blast Davim’s sunblighted eyes. The tribes of the Red Quarter had been leaving their violent past behind until he’d come along to twist their view of history.
Sandmaster Davim, with his vicious hatreds and his brutal desire for power, had taken away her scholarly life. He’d shattered the Quartern’s peace, mocked the cultures not his own, destroyed the learning, all in a couple of star cycles. His men had killed her father. Watergiver only knew what had happened to her sister and her mother. And Kaneth?
No, you mustn’t think he is dead. You mustn’t lose hope.
Strange even to think of the life she’d had; it was all gone now, spun away on the invaders’ swords and the shimmering wings of their ziggers, like sand whirled into the desert on a spindevil wind. A wisp of her hair tickled her cheek. She ignored it. She mustn’t move. Not even a twitch. She had to live through this, for the baby. For Kaneth.
Sunlord, I know I don’t really believe in you, but let him be alive, that wonderful, gentle bladesman-warrior of mine. Father of my child. She longed to raise her head and look for him. Perhaps he lay somewhere beneath her, still alive. Or dead. Her hand longed to move to cover her abdomen where their son stirred. She knew his water and thus his maleness. Oh, Kaneth, we had so little time …
The memory of her last moments with him replayed over and over. The battle in the waterhall. His last conscious act had been to protect her with his body. Could she have done more? Done something differently? She had used the last of her power to stop his bleeding, to dry the horrible wound exposing the bone of his scalp as he floated face down, senseless, in the cistern. She had kept pure the bubble of air around their faces so they could both breathe. But mostly she’d just had to float there, eyes almost closed, hoping the invaders would leave the waterhall so she could pull Kaneth out of the water and take him to safety.
A futile hope, easily splintered. The Reduners had slung them both out of the cistern. They had dumped Kaneth, unconscious — or dead — on the floor; the sound of his body thudding onto the paving echoed in her head still. She’d landed on top of him a moment later. It had taken all her courage to allow herself to fall like a dead body. Not to stretch out a hand to break her landing. Not to open her eyes, not to touch him, not to look to see if his wound was bleeding again.
More waiting then, more futile praying that the Reduners would leave the waterhall, more begging a boon of a Sunlord she didn’t believe in. A little joy, too, when she’d felt the baby stir within her.
She’d tried speaking to Kaneth, whispered words of encouragement and love, but he had not replied. She thought she’d felt the movement of his breath faint against her cheek, but she couldn’t be sure.
Several runs of the sandglass later, the guards had received fresh orders. She’d heard and understood: ‘Take the dead outside. Load them onto a pede and dump them outside the walls.’
Her heart had leaped within her. A chance. A chance for both her and Kaneth — if he lived. Please let it be so …
More rough handling when she was thrown over a man’s shoulder and carried, her face bumping against his back, only to be dumped once more, onto this heap of the dead. She wasn’t outside the city walls; she knew that much. Cracking open an eyelid, she’d recognised one of the Breccia Hall courtyards. Hampered by the confounded short-sightedness that blurred the details of anything more than ten paces away, she saw enough to know the last bastion against the invaders had fallen. They had lost the city to the Reduners.
And so it was that she now lay motionless, cushioned by lifeless bodies, her clothes drying out in the heat of the afternoon sun, as she listened and awaited her time to move.
Sunlord, but she was tired! She needed to eat, and eat well. Without food she had no energy, and without energy she had no water-power, no way of fighting back. Her sword was gone and she doubted she could have lifted it anyway.
Some more desultory conversation, laughter, and then a voice answering an unheard question. ‘No. It’s the dead burning outside the city wall you can smell.’
The words sent fear stabbing into her bowels. They were burning bodies.
‘Are we eating them now?’ someone asked, amused.
‘You sand-tick, Ankrim! The sandmaster ordered all the dead burned as soon as possible. Easier, I suppose, than burying them, when we have all those bab palms to fuel the pyres.’
‘Nah. More to teach a lesson to the living, I reckon. Here, let’s get this pede loaded.’
She stopped listening. Burned! Sandblast the bastards — if Kaneth was unconscious, then … Being taken outside the wall began to sound like a rotten idea.
The packpede was loaded, but no one approached the heap of dead Ryka was on. The nearby voices were gone, leaving only far-off screams and shouting. She risked opening her eyes. No one. Cautiously, she raised her head and looked around. She was in front of the main entrance to the pede stables adjoining Breccia House, and as far as she could see, there was no one in sight. As she climbed down, bodies squelched under her sandaled feet and the odours of death intensified. Rot, shit, piss, blood. She gagged.
Boys, some of them. Not all soldiers, either …
In death, there was little difference between those who had their skin stained red by desert dust and the fair-skinned Scarpen folk like herself.
Her feet reached the gravel surface of the courtyard and she stood up. She was sore all over, and stiff. She moved like an old woman. After another swift glance around to make sure she was unobserved, she poked through the piled corpses. The Reduners she ignored, and those wearing a guard uniform. Kaneth had never been one for uniforms. ‘If I am going to fight, I want to be comfortable,’ he’d said as he chose his oldest tunic and trousers. She’d joked that he looked like a brass worker from Level Twenty, but she had followed his lead and worn clothes more suited to a labourer than a woman of her class.
She couldn’t find him. Tall, broad-shouldered, muscular, long-limbed — he was hard to miss. And that sun-streaked fair hair he kept tied at the nape, it would stand out among the Reduners.
Again she searched, even more carefully. He wasn’t there. There had been a second pile of bodies, but it had disappeared. If he’d been among those …
Panicking and weak and thirsty, she swallowed back a surge of dizzying nausea.
‘Looking for something?’
The voice, and the accompanying sound of a weapon being drawn from its scabbard, dulled her fear for Kaneth, smothered it in more immediate terror. Her heart skipped, pounded. Slowing its beating by force of will, she turned to face the speaker. A Reduner man, for all he spoke the Quartern tongue with a strong Gibber accent. He’d just stepped out of the stables. Slim, athletic, armed, his red skin streaked with dust and blood. His dark red braids were untidy with beads missing or broken. His sword was blood-drenched.
The darkness of his eyes contained no hint of mercy, no hint of anything. She guessed he was at least ten cycles younger than she was, but he carried himself with assurance. His belted robe was elaborately embroidered, so she knew why: he came from a wealthy and important family.
Probably learned his Quartern tongue from his Gibber slaves, she thought, her bitterness deep. Reduners had been raiding the Gibber, almost with impunity, for more than four years. Kaneth and his men had done their best to curtail the raids, but their success had been limited.
‘My husband,’ she said, keeping her voice level and respectful — but not meek; she would not grovel, even though she knew she was a finger’s breadth away from death. Or worse.
He held his scimitar up and took a step towards her, the blade pointed at her chest. She did not move.
‘Find him?’ he inquired, his tone deceptively mild if the sword was to be believed.
‘You’re supposed t’be in the big room.’ He waved his free hand towards the hall. ‘In there. How did y’get out?’
The point of the scimitar came within a whisker of her left nipple. She refused to look down and held his gaze instead. ‘A woman will risk much to serve her husband.’
Something flared in his eyes then, but she wasn’t sure she could read it. ‘Not in my experience,’ he said, his lip curling in cynicism. ‘These folk,’ he added, indicating the heap of bodies, ‘came out of the waterhall. Your husband — guard, was he? Fighting up there?’
‘He was up there,’ she said, ‘but he wasn’t a guard. He was a brass worker from downlevel. He went to help.’ She did not have to feign grief; she knew it was written on her face and captured in her voice for anyone to see and hear. ‘He brought me up here for safety. He knew nothing about fighting.’
‘Then I think you can be certain he’s snuffed it. Everyone in the waterhall died.’
No, they didn’t. I’m here.
She didn’t move. Every piece of her being concentrated on not showing fear. Reduners valued courage and despised weakness, even in their women. Not, of course, that he would think twice about lopping off her head with his blade if it pleased him. ‘Doubtless you’re right,’ she said, fighting her nausea, ‘but I would like to know one way or the other.’
‘What’s your name?’
I shan’t make you a present of that, you bastard. If he realised she was a rainlord, she was dead — and someone among the Reduners might know the name of Ryka Feldspar. ‘Who wants to know?’
He stared at her as if he couldn’t believe his ears. ‘My name’s Ravard,’ he said finally. ‘But what should count with you, woman, is the weapon I hold t’your body. What’s your name?’ The blade tip brushed her nipple this time, then traced a pattern up to her throat.
‘Garnet,’ she said, appropriating the name of the cook in Carnelian House and then adding another gemstone at random, ‘Garnet Prase.’
‘Dangerous for a woman t’be out on the streets after a battle,’ he remarked with heavy mockery. ‘You never know what nasty thing might happen. There’s men wanting their rewards for a battle well fought, and they’ll take them anyhow they please.’
‘So your men are out of control already?’ she asked, and then bit her tongue. Why could she never learn to keep silent when it counted!
His eyes narrowed. ‘You play a dangerous game, woman, with your Scarpen arrogance. Perhaps you care nothing for yourself.’ The sword point dropped to her abdomen. ‘But what about the brat you carry?’
This time she couldn’t control her shock. ‘How —?’ she began, and then closed her mouth firmly, though her hand dropped to cover the roundness of her belly, as if she could protect her son from his weapon. If only I had my water-power —
‘I have eyes in me head,’ he said. ‘Suggest you keep a still tongue in yours, Garnet, ’less you want t’lose your life and your man’s get, as well. I’ll take you to the other women in there. Tonight you sleep with a man who’s not your husband, or you’ll lose more than your man. Think on it.’
He turned her roughly and started her walking in front of him towards the hall’s main door. She hugged her arms about her to stop the trembling.
A complete stranger works out I’m pregnant at a glance? It took Kaneth nearly half a cycle to wake up to it! This fellow was strange.
When she slipped in a patch of blood on the gravel, he grabbed her by the arm, wrenching her upright before she hit the ground. ‘Careful, sweet lips,’ he said in her ear. ‘We want you undamaged, don’t we?’
Ryka gasped in pain. The sword-cut on her upper leg — not deep but raw and throbbing nonetheless — had opened up.
He hadn’t noticed it before because the cut in her trousers was almost covered by her tunic, but he saw the fresh blood now and gave an exasperated grunt. ‘Why didn’t y’tell me you were hurt?’
He pulled up the hem of the tunic and looked at the wound. A makeshift bandage around her thigh had long since come loose and fallen off. ‘Hmph. Maybe not, but needs covering nonetheless, t’stop that bleeding.’
He left her where she was and went back to the heaped-up dead. With his scimitar, he slashed at a dead man’s tunic and brought back a piece of the cloth. She wanted to take it from him, but he ignored her gesture and knelt to wrap it around her thigh himself, over the top of her trousers. She braced herself for an intimate touch, a leer or a sneering remark, but all he did was bandage her.
As he tied off the ends, he said, ‘When you get a chance, wash the wound ’n’ put a clean cloth ’bout it. Even a small cut like that can kill you if it gets dirty.’
Perhaps that would be best, anyway, she thought. To die.
The thought must have been reflected on her face, because he said harshly, ‘Listen t’me, you water-soft city groveller. Living’s what counts, understand? Your man’s dead. Probably your whole withering family’s been snuffed. Your city’s fallen. Your rainlords are rotting in the sun. Soon there’ll be no more water in your skyless city. Take your chance with us. We’ve not got rainlords, but our sandmasters and tribemasters can sense water on the wind. Our dune gods protect us.’ He pointed to her abdomen. ‘That young ’un of yours? It can grow up Reduner, a warrior or a woman of the tribe. Reduners don’t make no difference ’tween folk. Out there on the dunes, we’re all red soon enough. Being alive, that’s all that matters. That’s all.’
She stood facing him. Wasn’t there more to life than that? Yes, of course there was — but you had to be alive to achieve it. Sandblast it, she thought, despairing. How did we Breccians ever come to this?
She nodded to the man. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You are right.’
‘Now, get going, Garnet. I don’t have time t’waste on you.’
Kaneth, I will be strong. I promise, for the sake of our son. You’re on your own, wherever you are. And so, damn it, am I.
And then, just a whisper in her mind, to a man who was probably dead: I love you.
Chapter two will be posted on 22 January.
Copyright © Glenda Larke 2010
The right of Glenda Larke to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her under the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000. This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced, copied, scanned, stored in a retrieval system, recorded, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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