Ravens hand, p.6
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       Raven's Hand, p.6
 

          
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  Those who came to their lady’s aid from the other wagons were dealt with quickly. Swords stabbed through their leather armor. Pikes gouged at their legs from a distance and then were rammed into their middles after they fell to the ground. For all their effort to defend Lady Rainier, they failed miserably against the cunning and prowess of the Cindermen.

  They moved like a pride of lions or pack of wolves. Their strategy was superior. Their strength and speed during the fight was overwhelming. I had heard their brutality was beyond compare. If they were acting in the interests of a rival house, then there would certainly be no mercy. Lady Rainier would be either ransomed or killed. Celia, as the intended bond of the prince, could not be allowed to live.

  It had to be their knowledge of her presence in this caravan that had triggered the attack. Evelyn could have been attacked at any time before arriving at the abbey. Celia was clearly the intended target. I longed to weep, for that connection with my own body sitting by the fountain. I knew my friend was about to die in my place. I should have been the one in that wagon.

  The Cindermen had mortally wounded the human guards surrounding the overturned wagon, but they left most of them alive, writhing in agony upon the ground. The young soldiers cried out for their wounds, looking for help that was not coming. Blood welled around their trembling hands as they attempted to stop the flow of life from their torn bodies. Others, ripped open by Cinderman swords, tried desperately to hold organs and entrails within their bellies. They prayed to their Malkind gods in vain. No one answered them. No spirits came to their aid.

  The Cindermen reached Lady Rainier’s carriage. Even now, the guards from some of the other carriages attempted to fight their way through the Cindermen without success. The way had been cleared for these to get to the Lady and Celia.

  I could do nothing but watch as they rent the doors away with chains attached to one of their war elephants. The pachyderm made quick work of the steel frame. The Cindermen went into the carriage on Evelyn’s side, but soon emerged empty-handed. I was shocked to find the Lady missing.

  These beastly men were surprised also; though they found Celia easily enough when they went into the other side of the carriage. My young friend was clearly dazed and confused when one of them dragged her out. She didn’t even have the awareness left to scream.

  Celia stumbled and fell as she was thrust among the Cindermen gathered around the wagon. One of them, having a lion’s features, stepped toward her. He grabbed her hair and jerked her head up without pity. I ran to her in my incorporeal form, but I could do nothing but fall to my knees at her side.

  She cried out.

  The lion-like man pulled a dagger from his belt, holding it aloft for the others to see, and then dragged the blade unceremoniously across Celia’s throat. Her pitiful scream was instantly silenced. Her lifeblood issued out onto the ground. I was screaming now, but no one heard me. The Cinderman jerked her head around to make sure Celia was dead. Satisfied, he let go. Her head dropped onto the ground.

  I fell beside her, my eyes opened in shock. I could not speak. I could not think. Celia’s lifeless eyes stared toward me. I searched them helplessly, but she was gone. Celia was dead.

  I should have died in her place. It should have been my blood spilled here upon the dusty ground. By my stubborn questions, I had killed my dearest friend.

  Moments later, the scene on the road, where soldiers lay dying and wailing in pain had faded. The Cindermen were still killing the young men when the face of my dead friend vanished. I was left upon the cold, ancient flagstones by the coy pond. The fish jittered and played as they had before my influence had overpowered their natural whimsy.

  I couldn’t move. My limbs were like great stones, unyielding. I wanted to run, to cry out for help. We had to pursue Lady Rainier’s caravan immediately. Perhaps, it was not too late.

  However, I did nothing. I could do nothing. My body was still reeling from the scene of carnage and death. Then, all at once, I returned fully to myself.

  My chest heaved in deep breaths, and the sobbing began. My tears flowed almost violently. I was drowning in them. I convulsed with the effort of relieving my pent-up sorrow.

  Most of the girls were working the vineyard today. There was no one near enough to hear my crying. All that I could not express during the vision flooded forth.

  Celia was dead. I already sensed, without reservation, that I had witnessed these events unfold in real time. She had just left me in the world. I was alone.

  Killian’s face came into my mind. He attempted to console me. I longed for my dream to take real life and comfort me; hold me so that I could cry upon his breast. He would never let me go. He would protect me from the horror I had just witnessed. He would assure me that everything would be all right.

  If only he had been real.

  Vanishing Act

  The carriages were still burning from flaming-pitched arrows a half hour after the Cindermen retreated. They had fallen upon Lady Rainier’s caravan like vultures upon a carcass. The wagons were all but destroyed. Only a very few of the transports had survived the ordeal. Even those that had survived had arrows protruding from them like oversized pin cushions.

  As bad as the situation was with the carriages and wagons, the matter was even worse for the men hired by House Rainier to keep its lady safe. Many of the soldiers were now dead, or dying with no hope of a surgeon to save them. It fell upon the survivors to search the ruined caravan for the Lady herself.

  Throughout the attack, the survivors had seen no sign of Lady Evelyn Rainier. Her armored carriage had been pummeled by a Cinderman war elephant, but the soldiers never had laid eyes on her and neither had her attackers. From the heap of twisted armor plating only the girl had been discovered by their enemies.

  This bond from among the Daughters of Eliam had been dragged from the wreckage, dazed and confused, and put to death by the leader of the Cindermen, a lion-faced brute called Judah. Though none of the soldiers here had seen him before, the stories of the Cinderman chieftain were already legendary. Surely, this beastly man was the same person.

  “It was foolish for Lady Rainier to be sent so far without her personal bodyguard,” one of the soldiers remarked as they stared at the battered carriage.

  Other men kneeled around the young girl. They examined her carefully. Clearly, she was quite dead. There was no salvaging her even by Malkind magic, as far as they could observe.

  Another soldier standing near the carriage turned at the remark from the first. His arm was bleeding from a grievous looking wound. A sword had hacked into the meat of his upper arm. Only a torn piece of shirt fabric, taken from a fallen comrade, had slowed the bleeding to something more manageable. Nodding, he said, “Kane would have killed them single-handed. I’ve personally seen him fight twenty men at once.”

  The half dozen other guards standing around nodded their agreement with this man’s statement. They had all either seen the former assassin in action, or they had heard the stories. No one in Rainier, or any other great house for that matter, was as deadly a man as Kane.

  The men were startled from their musing by the creaking of metal coming from the direction of Lady Rainier’s armored carriage. The men who still carried weapons raised them in alarm, searching for the source of the noise, hoping the Cindermen had not returned. Inside the half lit carriage, something moved. A door groaned upon warped hinges. An arm was seen, then a leg and another.

  Slowly but surely, a figure wearing Lady Rainier’s clothing emerged from a compartment beneath the carriage floor. The soldiers were all staring at her dumbfounded when she crawled to the door. They had no idea such a compartment was incorporated into the armored carriage’s design.

  Evelyn emerged in the carriage doorway, looking every bit as disheveled as her pitiful band of soldiers. There was a bruise upon her cheek and forehead, but no blood. Lady Rainier had survived the attack of the Cindermen.

  “Don’t just stand their gawping, you fools,” s
he said finally, when none of them moved to assist her. “Help me out of this contraption!”

  Her tone snapped them to attention. Instantly, the whole group, as well as the wounded, moved into action, attempting the best way to extricate their mistress from the wreckage of her armored carriage. In moments, they had her out, standing on her own two feet next to the dead body of Prince Nathan’s intended bond.

  Evelyn sighed heavily but did not speak right away.

  One of the higher ranking men among her injured officers—a man wearing leather armor with Rainier’s silver crest upon the breastplate—offered his report. “It was the Cindermen, Mistress,” he said uneasily.

  Most of the survivors understood the implications of the girl’s death. House Rainier was now vulnerable. Because of the king’s poor health, they stood in need of his heir to ascend to the throne in order to lead and show strength before the other great houses. Otherwise, the throne would be at risk. A war might even erupt among the houses as they vied for position.

  Evelyn continued to stare at the girl’s dead body. The ground around her was stained with blood.

  “My lady?” the officer asked hesitantly. “Your orders?”

  She looked at him for the first time now, her expression considerate. “Gather what resources we have left, including as many operable wagons as possible,” she said. “We must return as quickly as possible to Rainier.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” the officer replied, preparing to set the other men in motion.

  “However,” Evelyn continued, “I want your best horse and most capable rider to return to the abbey. Inform the matron of what has happened and instruct her to prepare the oldest girl, Raven, for her journey to Rainier. My son needs a bond in order to ascend to the throne and he will have one.”

  The officer nodded his understanding. “Yes, my lady,” he said. “It will be done as you require.”

  She turned to another soldier standing next to the officer. “See that my belongings, at least all that are salvageable, are placed into one of the carriages for the trip to Rainier.”

  “Yes, my lady,” he said.

  The soldier began to depart with several others in tow before turning again, looking at Celia’s body. “Ma’am, would you like us to tend to the girl’s body first?”

  Evelyn brushed back her straying strands of hair, pausing to look at the body. “A waste of our time, young man,” she replied.

  “Ma’am?”

  “The ravens will tend to the dead,” she said. “See to my things, at once. We must be on our way.”

  The men looked at one another and then obeyed the Lady’s wishes. Evelyn did not spare Celia’s body another glance. She turned toward what was left of her caravan and walked away.

  Blessings and Prophecy

  Killian bent low at the waist before Priestess Shalindra. Even Esmeralda made her best attempt, bowing her head in respect to the woman. Bright green eyes stared back at them. Shalindra nodded ever so slightly, but waited for Killian to begin to speak before suddenly interrupting him.

  “Killian, Son of Radden,” she said. “I have seen you as you’ve made your journey to the Brine Wood.”

  Killian tried not to smile. “Indeed, my lady,” he replied respectfully. “My father has sent me with this sword.” He removed the bundle from Esmeralda’s saddle. “It is his hope that Eliam will bless the blade with special power.”

  “I know what he hopes,” Shalindra said. “The blade is meant for the prince of House Rainier.”

  Unsure what to say in reply, Killian simply nodded in agreement. Her tone remained devoid of emotion, but something about her words set him on edge. Would she refuse to bless the blade in Eliam’s name because of the one who commissioned its creation? He wouldn’t have thought so, but now Killian wasn’t sure. Something seemed wrong here, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

  “Does it trouble your father that such a Malkind follower as Prince Nathan should receive a blade blessed by Eliam the Creator?” Shalindra asked, now seeming somewhat peeved.

  Killian frowned, unsure how to respond. Finally, he said, “All of the great houses are led by Malkind worshippers.”

  A hint of a smile played at the corners of Shalindra’s mouth. There came a twinkle into her eyes. “You’re right,” she said, “they are.”

  “But you have blessed other weapons my father has produced,” Killian added quickly.

  “Not I,” Shalindra countered, wagging a finger at him as though correcting a naughty child.

  “Then Eliam,” Killian replied with a little agitation now. “Eliam blessed each weapon with special power. Surely, he knew each one would go to a Malkind follower.”

  She smiled openly now. “He did,” she confirmed.

  Killian paused, feeling a little exasperated by this turn of the conversation. “Then I’m afraid I don’t quite understand your point, mistress.”

  Shalindra nodded approvingly. “You may not be at your destination yet, Killian Radden-son, but at least you’ve set your foot on the road.”

  Killian looked at Esmeralda who looked also at him. He sensed the same bewilderment in her that he felt himself.

  “What road are you referring to?” Killian asked.

  “The road to change,” she said, beginning to walk around among the ancient tumbled stones of the temple. “Do you believe in Eliam, child?”

  “Of course, I do,” he said reverently.

  Shalindra grinned as she meandered around a pillar, drawing ever closer to the place where Killian stood beside Esmeralda. “What do you believe about Eliam?” she asked.

  Killian paused for a moment and then began to answer with what he had been taught from his youth. “Eliam is the one true God and the Creator of all things. He is all powerful, all knowing and present in every place.” When he finished his recitation, he examined his answer and felt satisfied with what he had said. Though odd, it seemed Shalindra was in the mood to test him.

  “And the Malkind?” she asked, winding around another pillar of stacked stones.

  Killian answered even quicker this time, remembering his mother’s lessons with more fluidity now. “The Malkind are created beings. They once served Eliam, but rebelled against him after man was created. They now seek followers from among men and seduce them to worship by the promise of power in the world.”

  Shalindra came ever closer, now walking directly toward him. “And who, young Radden-son, is the greater between Creator and created?”

  Killian paused once more. This wasn’t a question that had ever been posed by his mother during their fireside lessons. He glanced at Esmeralda and then returned his attention to the priestess. “Eliam, as Creator, must be greater.” He puzzled over the matter again and his answer, finally coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t a trick question, but still not comprehending where all of this was leading.

  Shalindra stopped in front of him. “Obviously,” she said. “So why then does Eliam allow matters with the Malkind to stand as they are in the world?”

  To this question Killian had no ready response. He stood there with Shalindra’s gaze resting upon him, but he could not answer. In all honesty, he couldn’t recall such a question ever entering his thoughts.

  After a few moments of awkward silence, Killian shrugged his shoulders. “I cannot say, mistress. Perhaps, you can enlighten me?”

  “Eliam has a grand plan that will ultimately end with the judgment and destruction of the Malkind and their followers,” she explained. “However, those who follow Eliam will live forever.”

  “So our lives are a test?”

  “In a manner of speaking,” she said. “Perhaps, opportunity is a better word. Creation rebelled against its creator, and now we have an open invitation from Eliam to return to him.”

  Killian nodded thoughtfully, considering Shalindra’s explanation. “In that case, I only have one question.”

  “What would that be?”

  “What does this have to do with me coming here to have Pri
nce Nathan’s sword blessed by Eliam?”

  “Nothing…or everything, depending on you,” Shalindra replied.

  “I don’t understand,” Killian answered. “Am I supposed to do something?”

  “You will do something. It only remains to be seen what?”

  Esmeralda raised her head. “Priestess, with all due respect, what are you speaking of? We do not understand what you are referring to.”

  Shalindra smiled. “I’m speaking of change that is coming to the world, noble Esmeralda.”

  “And I’m involved somehow?” Killian asked.

  “More than you can imagine.”

  Before Killian could process her answer, Shalindra raised her hand. The sword lunged from Killian’s grasp into hers. He jumped back in surprise. Shalindra only grinned.

  Killian regained his composure quickly, watching Eliam’s priestess as she examined the sword. Shalindra turned it over in her hands repeatedly, testing the weight and balance. Her gaze roamed over the steel, scrutinizing every intricate detail.

  “Excellent craftsmanship, as is usual with Radden,” Shalindra finally said. “All this talent and breeding to boot.”

  “What?”

  Shalindra did not repeat her statement. She released the sword from her grip, letting it lay upon her open palms. The blade rose, as though lifted by invisible hands, and then floated across the space between her and Killian. When it reached him, Killian took hold of the weapon. He didn’t know what to think of the exchange. The extent of Shalindra’s power was unknown to him.

  “Interesting,” she remarked, watching as the sword returned to Killian. “It has chosen you.”

  “Chosen me?” Killian asked.

  Shalindra nodded. “We shall perform the blessing of power now.”

  Killian smiled, offering the sword back to her. After all, he had seen the process performed before. Shalindra always held the weapon to be blessed while the short ceremony took place. However, Shalindra held up her hand to refuse his offer.

  “I don’t understand,” he said.

 
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