Ravens hand, p.18
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       Raven's Hand, p.18
 

          
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  Finally, however, Horatio asked her in thought the question that had been waiting. Shalindra smiled when she perceived his query. “Who is she and how will you know?” she voiced for him. “She is a Daughter of Eliam. When I am no more, she will come suddenly to the temple in the Brine Wood. There you will find her. You will know her by her hair which is the color of a raven’s wing.”

  Upheaval

  Killian and I had gone not to the gate of the city, but to his home in search of his family. Despite Esmeralda’s presence in the palace stable, Killian had hoped beyond hope to find his father, Radden, safe at home. However, only his mother remained when we arrived.

  The woman, middle-aged but still quite beautiful, ushered us inside as soon as she realized her son had come home.

  “What has happened?” she asked almost hysterically. “There are soldiers everywhere. Your name is being circulated around. It will only be a matter of time before they come here looking for you. And where is your father?”

  Killian attempted to calm her down. “Please, Mother,” he said. “Let me explain.”

  Then she saw the gown I was wearing. Her expression became panicked as soon the royal crest caught her attention. She knew what I was.

  Her index finger wavered in my direction. She was unable to actually speak for a moment. Then it came.

  She looked at Killian. “What have you done? Do you not know who this girl is? The Queen will have us all executed just for harboring her!”

  “Mother, she has been abducted by House Rainier,” Killian said. “This is the girl I have seen in my dreams for months. This is Raven.”

  “This girl is the bond of Prince Nathan!”

  “I am a slave!” I said, interrupting. I did not mean to disrespect the woman, but I had had enough.

  “Where is your father?” she said without acknowledging me.

  “I believe he is still at the palace,” Killian said. “We found Esmeralda there. I intend to rescue him, Mother.”

  “You intend? There can be no intention….You must go straightaway,” she insisted.

  “He will have been taken into custody by now,” I pointed out.

  Killian’s mother shot me an angry look that said, do not interfere. I ignored this. We had no time for emotionalism.

  “We will need help, especially against Kane, Evelyn’s assassin,” I said. “He is possessed of a Malkind Spirit.”

  Kane nodded to me and then held his mother’s imploring gaze. “We are going to Shalindra.”

  “The priestess? But she never leaves the Brine Wood.”

  “She knows more about what is going on in this world than anyone,” Killian said. “She knows Eliam’s plan for the kingdom.”

  His mother laughed harshly. “Plan? What plan? I see no evidence of any plan. The Malkind worshippers rule us. That has not changed for centuries.”

  “This sword is evidence of something that is coming; a change in the world,” Killian said touching the hilt of the sword. “Eliam bonded the weapon to me instead of the prince. I saw him in a vision, or at least I was held in his presence.”

  “A dream my son,” she said.

  “It was no dream,” Killian retorted. “Shalindra said as much.”

  “Then a collective hallucination,” she answered. “I don’t know. All I do know is that your father’s life is in jeopardy. I cannot lose him, Killian.”

  “If Killian attempts to face Kane alone, you will lose them both,” I interjected. “We must have the priestess’s help in order to have a hope of rescuing your husband.”

  Killian nodded his agreement, and his mother seemed to finally concede the point. She slumped down upon a chair. Tears began to run down her cheeks.

  “In the meantime,” Killian added, “you must leave our home. The queen’s soldiers will come here. I cannot undertake two rescues. Father would kill me for letting anything happen to you.”

  This drew a slight smile from his mother. She nodded. “I can go to Hagar’s home on the southern wall. They would not know to look there. As a matter of fact, Hagar can probably let you down the wall from one of her windows. If you can evade the night watchers, then you should have no trouble arriving at the Brine Wood by morning light.”

  Killian smiled. “Then we must make haste and be away, all of us, while we still can.”

  Shalindra remained with Horatio’s until the inevitable happened. Her large friend had still to this day never admitted to the fact that he fell asleep every time his mistress stroked the sensitive scales of his muzzle. She had attempted on numerous occasions to convince him, but he had always claimed to have been awake the entire time.

  When Shalindra walked away from him, Horatio remained asleep on his large pad of soft grass. Steam hissed gently around them, venting at various places among the surrounding rocky ground. Horatio snored gently, dreaming dragon dreams.

  Smiling, Shalindra turned from the great white dragon. She waved her hand in the air, creating a portal like a pane of shimmering glass. Beyond its surface, she saw the temple at home in the Brine Wood.

  Here with Horatio, it had been night for hours. There it was already early morning. Dawn light was just spilling through the trees. Shalindra turned to look at her friend one final time.

  “Goodbye, dear Horatio,” she said and walked through the portal, immersing herself in the energy that connected these lands with home.

  Arriving at the temple, she allowed the portal to dissipate behind her. The air was crisp and cool at this early morning hour. Normally, the calls of waking birds would have resounded in the Brine Wood around the temple. However, this morning those same raucous fowls remained silent.

  They knew something was wrong here, and so did Shalindra. She had not seen the future, exactly. Eliam had not given her that ability. Though she had seen visions relating to particular events, her own fate was not included. Still, she did understand that whatever she was about to face would lead to her end as Eliam’s priestess, one way or another.

  The tumbled-stone ruin of the old temple stood around her as always, but now there was a new scent on the breeze. Animal and man combined. The Cindermen had come to the Brine Wood. They had come to end her, and this time Eliam would allow them to succeed. Change was coming, and her time had ended.

  It had been Shalindra’s predecessor by two previous high priestesses who had been Eliam’s servant when the terrible sorcerer, Cinder, had first conceived the abominations known now as Cindermen. He had hoped to build an army and thus overtake the great houses of the time. Had Eliam not defeated his purposes through his high priestess, Cinder surely would have prevailed and taken over the entire kingdom.

  Shalindra could not help but feel a little envious. Eliam had allowed her predecessor to defend the kingdom in her day and drawn down terrible power against the wizard. Now, she was about to give her life and leave the kingdom in peril before a gathering enemy. Her only consolation was the knowledge that Eliam had chosen Killian Radden-son as a defender, and another priestess would come after her.

  Little did Killian, or almost anyone else for that matter, know just how important he was. The royal line was safely hidden away in more than just those living within the palace. Even a half-born son carried the bloodline in his veins. A grandson to the king himself was no different.

  Radden knew this, but getting him to talk about it was next to impossible. She had attempted to discuss the matter with Killian’s father on a number of occasions. Prince Nathan was not the only heir. He wasn’t even the oldest heir.

  But Radden would never commit to the truth that Shalindra already understood. Radden was the bastard heir to the throne. He had been born to one of Steven’s concubines before he ascended to the throne. Had Evelyn ever known of his existence, she would have had him hunted down and killed.

  Fortunately, Steven had been young, and Radden was nearly the queen’s same age. She had no idea, and Radden, though knowledgeable, wasn’t talking. He was perfectly happy to remain anonymous and, as he argue
d, keep his family safe.

  After her last effort to persuade him, Radden had stopped coming to have weapons blessed. Killian, it seemed, would become his stand-in. He was making it clear that the topic was closed.

  Shalindra had even heard the ridiculous story he had concocted for the sake of his family—some impropriety during a ritual as the result of his wife’s cooking. As disappointed as she had been at the time, she still laughed when she heard the false story of their falling out.

  Whatever Eliam’s plan concerning the kingdom, it almost certainly had something to do with Killian. Why else would Eliam have charged the boy and given him the weapon necessary to fight against the Malkind?

  Alas, none of these matters concerned her any longer. Her time in Eliam’s service was coming to an end. Shalindra did not fear passing through death. She had no desire for experiencing pain, but there was hardly anything she could do about that. Her enemies were here somewhere. There was no going back.

  Even from so great a distance, she could feel Horatio’s distress. He had awoke since her departure moment’s ago. She had bonded herself to the dragon years before. In her mind’s eye Shalindra could see him flying at breakneck speed toward the Brine Wood. However, the distance was far too great. He had no hope of arriving in time to fight for her.

  Dark figures began to move out of the shadows of the trees surrounding the temple. Faces out of nightmares appeared from behind the ancient ruined walls. The abominable children of the dark sorcerer, Cinder, had come for her.

  Swords tarnished with dried blood and rust hung in claw-like hands. Wild visages came toward her in the forms of lions and reptiles and wolfs and bears and tigers. Their teeth gnashed and saliva foamed in anticipation of tasty human flesh. They not only intended to kill her, they meant to savor the prey after the deed was done.

  Eliam had decided. Yet, that didn’t mean Shalindra had to go quietly. Her power came to the surface of her being instantly. She called for the trees to come to her aid.

  Branches swung down to swat at the Cindermen. They cried out in surprise as boughs batted them off their feet. Some of them attempted to counterattack with swords, chipping out pieces of wood, but to no avail. The majority simply rushed at Shalindra, escaping the trees altogether for the relative safety of tumbled-stone walls.

  Lightning forked out from her outstretched fingertips, as a line of Cindermen charged across the cobblestones. Several went down, but the others rushed over their fallen comrades unabated. She had hoped that they might halt out of fear, but these abominations were known for rarely showing fear at all.

  Spears were hurled in her direction with expert precision. Shalindra waved a hand and dashed some of the wooden shafts to splinters against the stones. Still, there were too many. She was quickly forced to flee back through the temple.

  Arrows spat against the walls, clattering like a handfuls of stones. Shalindra evaded, attempting to make herself invisible to them, but still they followed. She remembered that they could smell her as well as see her. Invisibility wouldn’t work.

  For the first time in what seemed like an age, Shalindra felt the pangs of fear. Again, she cast lightning and killed some. Others came after, like an unstoppable wave.

  She did not want to resort to fire, though she knew it might have pushed them back. Setting her surroundings ablaze might inadvertently set the forest on fire as well. Despite her mounting fear, she could not do that.

  Shalindra came to the place where Killian had stood in order to present the sword to Eliam for the blessing of his power. She stood, hands outstretched, as the horde of monsters closed in around her. They held bows ready with arrows nocked, swords held before them, and teeth bared ferociously.

  They were coming for her. She could unleash wind perhaps, or another volley of lightning. Shalindra felt confused now—a draining on her power. She felt so tired. Her heart thudded in her chest, and stars danced in her vision. She couldn’t concentrate on her attackers. So light-headed. She felt like she might faint at any moment.

  Something roared behind her. Shalindra turned to find a lion-like man directly in front of her. She recognized the Cinderman leader, Judah, immediately.

  His clawed hand shot out, seizing her by the throat. Her eyes went wide for a moment, but then Judah faded from view. Shalindra saw a glorious light. Her spirit hovered over her body. She saw the Cindermen around her physical form. She saw their leader, Judah, holding her by the throat. However, none of these things mattered to her anymore.

  Around these, she saw the temple surrounded by floating beings of light. The Mithrial servants of Eliam had come. Invisible to mortal eyes, her enemies had no idea of the glorious army present at the temple. Yet, these did not attack. Instead, they came to welcome her—to escort her away from this place. The Mithri had come to deliver her spirit into the very presence of Eliam.

  She knew that she had passed from her mortal body, but this knowledge did not disturb her in the least. Eliam had not suffered her to feel any pain. Or, at least, she wasn’t aware of any memory of pain.

  Her attention left the happenings below her in the Brine Wood Temple. The glory of Eliam surrounded her. She surrendered to the Mithri as they came to lead her away from the battle. All fear over the attack and the next priestess, with what she would face in Shalindra’s absence, disappeared. She knew only peace and contentment now.

  Judah lashed out as Eliam’s witch turned from his men to face him. His hand took hold of the woman’s throat, his claws piercing her dark skin. Warm blood gathered around his fingertips and then dripped onto her sand-colored garments.

  Shalindra’s body went limp in his grip. He held her up, using the tremendous strength of his arm to hoist her higher for his men to see. The entire crowd of Cindermen became tense with anticipation.

  Judah pulled her to him, sinking his fangs into her throat. The taste of warm blood invigorated him further. He held her body high in one arm. The life had gone from her, but Judah did not care. This was an unheard of victory and he would savor it.

  He had hoped to find the young woman and the boy with her. He had supposed that a Daughter of Eliam would surely have come here to have the priestess harbor her from House Rainier, but there was no sign of her. No matter. He would find the girl and then use her as a bargaining chip toward greater power.

  Judah roared ferociously with Shalindra’s blood staining his maw. His men raged excitedly before him. He tossed the body to them, and the feeding frenzy began.

  Passage

  For the sake of keeping down suspicion, Killian’s mother had chosen to leave by a separate means for her friend’s home upon the wall. Esmeralda had carried her and we took another horse. However, Killian’s mother then arranged to have Esmeralda brought to us outside the wall. Killian had insisted upon leaving the horse with his mother, but she had refused.

  “She might as well be your father’s mistress, as much as the beast loves him, but there truly is no finer animal to bare you with haste to the priestess,” she had said.

  We left before nightfall, when the gates were still passable, though we had been let out a secret way, as his mother had earlier indicated. The guards posted at the gates were noticeably increased in number. Evelyn was definitely looking for us. Our battle at the palace had brought these repercussions, but I couldn’t make myself sorry for having fought my way to freedom.

  Killian’s mother, Melinda, had procured me new clothing to replace the bonding gown I had been given by Evelyn’s servants. The quality of that clothing along with its garish crest of House Rainier in silver emblazoned across the breast had made me an instant target. Now, I wore the plain robes of a commoner. Truth be told, I felt far more comfortable in these than the former.

  Killian pressed Esmeralda hard for speed but she never showed any sign of complaint. I rode in the saddle behind him, holding on for dear life. Truth be told, holding on to him was my favorite part. Despite my powers and abilities as a Daughter of Eliam, I still feared the Malkind. Yet,
having Killian with me gave me strength and hope.

  I knew that without the sword he would not have been able to battle Kane and the terrible spirit using the man’s body, but his courage in the face of that danger was inspiring. Killian appeared to have no great understanding of the weapon, or its power, but he fought without fear just the same. I had power, but he had real courage. No matter what came for us, I knew somehow that everything would be all right. We might even die together fighting for our lives, but at least we would be together.

  When dawn finally broke through the trees of the Brine Wood, we had stopped to refresh ourselves and allow Esmeralda to drink her fill from one of the small streams crisscrossing the forest. That was when I felt it—something was terribly wrong. There was danger in the Brine Wood.

  My vision became blurred. As I attempted to cry out to Killian, I lost sight of him. Esmeralda and this glade by the stream also disappeared from view. I knew already what was happening, since this wasn’t my first time experiencing a vision.

  However, my transport did not take me far. I was still in the Brine Wood, but now a ruined stone edifice stood all around me. A woman with dark skin and sand-colored robes also stood in this place, but I did not know her. Yet, I had the distinct feeling that she was also a Daughter of Eliam. Could this be the priestess, I wondered?

  Near her, a portal dissolved. I knew what it was, for I had studied the nature of them, but I did not know how to create one myself. Surely, this woman had to be the Shalindra of legend I had heard about. Not only had Killian and his mother spoken of her, I had learned of her existence at the abbey from Hannah.

  She stood there for a moment. I knew she would not be able to see me—or would she? I tried to speak to her, to wave my hands. Perhaps, she might be able to hear or see me like Killian had during his stay at the Mangy Cur. Yet, for all of my efforts, Shalindra did not acknowledge my presence.

 
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