The Dark One’s Lady
The Shepherd of Night and her lover entered Aysgarth in search of an inn. “Will we make it out alive?” the Shepherd, Aria, asked.
“I hope so,” Darza said. She squeezed her hand. “We’ll be okay, darling.”
“I’m not sure about that. I think you say that to make me feel safe.”
“I’m sworn to protect you.”
“You’ve taken no vows.”
Aria drew her hood over her head. “There will be a storm soon.”
“I can smell it.”
Thunder boomed overhead. Aria nestled her head against Darza’s shoulder. “When do you think Mattias will be back?”
“Soon enough, sweetling.”
“Nobody would attack us with Mattias around.”
Nobody will attack you with me around, Darza thought. She thought to the ancient proverb Mattias had taught her. Where the Shepherd of Night goes, her Lions follow.
She caught an elderly passerby eyeing her. She made sure to display the sword at her hip, wordlessly. Her travels had made her all-too familiar with ogling eyes. Most people in the land were white as parchment, and rarely ever got a chance to see a woman with such a dark complexion. They found it exotic.
Darza found it annoying. Men of four decades should not be looking at one who has not seen two.
The two wove through the crowds in an attempt to find shelter before the storm. “Do you have money, princess?”
Aria slapped Darza playfully on the arm. “I told you not to call me that!”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I can buy us a room for the night.”
Darza nodded. She glanced at an inn down the road. Paint chipped off the sign so that whatever picture once adorned it was long gone. She could just descry the words, The Silver Serpent. “Will that do for the night?” She pointed.
“Then let me go in alone for a moment.”
“Alone? But what am I to do?”
Darza looked her lover in the eyes and kissed her. When they parted, she was close enough to feel the Aria’s breath on her lips. She smiled, and her lover mirrored it. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. I won’t be long.”
Her entrance into The Silver Serpent was greeted by a smell like mildew and something of the privy.
The only drinkers were three Valuri seamen in a corner, growling at each other in a rough language that was alien to Darza.
The proprietor came as soon as she sat down. She was a woman, round and pale as though she had been sculpted from dough.
Darza bought a cup of wine. “I’m looking for a man called Averon Thorn,” she said.
“Averon Thorn? Comes in most every night.”
“If you would nod when he comes in I’d be thankful.”
The proprietor bit her lip. “How thankful?”
Darza put a Copper Dragon on the table between them. The other woman scooped it up and left.
She tried the wine. It was oily on the tongue and there was a hair floating in it. Darza thought back to Winespring Village, where she and her lover had traveled from not three days ago.
Men had tried to assault Aria in a back alley. Darza had come in time to see her eyes turn milky white. She’d snapped a man’s neck with a look. The others had spat names at her. “Shepherd of Night,” they called her. “Dark Queen,” and, “The Dark One Reborn.”
Which she was, but Aria never liked being called that.
From there, the minds of Shepherds before her started whispering in her head. From what Aria had said, she gathered that the argument was quite convincing.
Convincing enough to reduce Winespring to rubble.
Darza never knew how to tell Aria what she did to Mattias, once it had ended. Aria’s memories tended to blur when her past selves took over. That aside, Darza hoped that if she didn’t tell Aria, somehow it would make her lie true, and they would see him again.
But she had seen the stake fly through his chest.
Before he died, he had scrawled a few words in the sand. Aysgarth. Serpent. Averon Thorn. Rivenrock. She knew they would be safe if they followed those instructions. Mattias always kept them safe.
Just then a ragged, sharp faced man stepped into the Serpent. He gave the Valuri sailors a quick look and Darza a longer one, then approached the proprietor. “Wine,” he said.
The woman gave Darza a look and nodded.
“I’ll buy your wine,” she called out, “for a word.”
The man looked her over, squinting. “A word? I know a lot of words, darling.” He sat down on the stool across from her. “Tell me which one the pretty woman wants to hear, and I will say it.”
The man’s eyebrow shot up like a taut bowstring. “Careful, girl,” he cautioned. “There aren’t many in these parts who know that word. I don’t know much of that language—the Lord of Morning’s forbidden it, you see—but does it by chance mean Shepherd?”
Darza nodded. “It was taught to me by a man named Mattias. A Lion of Night.”
The ragged man sipped his wine, thinking. “You’re asking me if I know this man? That’s some serious business. I’ll have you know the Lions of Night are proud to serve their Shepherd.. Someone could get in trouble for admitting any affiliation. Who is it that wants to know?”
“A White Dragon,” She put a coin on the barrel between them, white as bleached bone, with a dragon rampant emblazoned on the center.
“Does it now?” The man took the coin and spun it. He smirked. “Might be I know this Mattias of yours.”
“Was there a girl with him?”
“Two girls,” the man said, “I never seen the sweet ones. But it seemed important business. Important enough not to warrant a letter for years.”
“Do you know of Rivenrock?”
“Might be I do. I have to be careful what I say. The Lord of Morning has men everywhere. And him being reborn and all gives his followers an excuse to go kill the Lions of Night. I’d rather have my head on my shoulders, thank you very much.”
Darza ignored this. “Do you remember how to get there?”
“I’m not sure.” He snatched the spinning coin off the table as it began to slow, and made it vanish. “That’s the kind of information that could get a man killed. Rivenrock was the home of the Shepherd of Night for generations.” Belatedly, he added, “At least that’s what people say. But the Shepherd has always had help from a one of her followers to get there.”
“What sort of help?”
“The sort that costs more than one White Dragon.”
“Tell me, and you’ll have another.”
“Show me, then.”
She put another coin on the barrel. He spun it, smiled, and scooped it up.
“There’s a place. Up a mountain you have to go. And only the right guide can take you there.”
Goosebumps rose along Darza arms. “And you and Mattias? You’ve been there?”
“Aye, I took him there. Used to be a whole company of us would go there, til the Lord of Morning found us. Only he and I escaped. Might be I could take them two girls in his place.” He chuckled “Only problem is finding them.” He scratched his nose and leaned forward. “You happen to know where they are?”
“I’m sure I can get them to you. They’re in dire need of direction.”
“Are they, now? Poor little things. I wish I could give them such. Rivenrock can’t be found in maps or words. Only shown.”
“Where?” Darza slapped another White Dragon down.
He flicked the coin back at her. “Someplace no White Dragon ever found…..though a golden one might.”
Darza raised an eyebrow, unsure of how to answer.
“No? Oh, that’s trouble. Rivenrock is hard to find. You’ll need a guide. What’s wrong? All out of money?”
“Interesting. Y’see, a Golden Dragon can get lonely doing such hard work. Ten, now…”
“Ten dragons are a fortune. Do you take me for a fool?”
“No. I take you for out of options.”
“I’ll give you six Gold Dragons if we find the castle.”
“Six will serve.”
“Good. Then let us make haste. We need to go before—”
“Before you’re found, I know. Go to your friend. I saw her outside. Draws more attention to herself than she knows. She’s the Shepherd of Night, isn’t she? Meet me by east gate at first light. I need to see a man about a horse.”
They left the next morning. East of Aysgarth the hills rose wild, and the pines closed in about the three riders like a company of green soldiers.
Averon Thorn had said the coast road was the shortest way, so they were seldom out of sight of the bay. The towns and villages along the shore grew smaller as they went, and less frequent. At nightfall they would seek an inn. Averon would share the common bed with other travelers, whilst Darza took a room for her and Aria.
“Cheaper if we all shared the same bed, my lady,” Thorn would say. “You could lay your sword between us, if it came to it. Mattias trusted me for a reason. Chivalrous as a knight, I am.”
“Mattias trusted you,” Darza responded, “Look what happened to him.”
“I could just curl up on the floor, my lady.”
“Not on my floor.”
“A man might think you don’t trust me.” His smile was thin enough to cut glass.
“A man would be right.”
“As you say, my lady,” said Thorn, “but up north the road is going to give out, and if I wanted to take your gold at swordpoint, who’s to stop me?”
“Need I remind you who I’m traveling with?” She shut the door between them and stood there listening until she was certain he had moved away. “Aria,” she said, “there will come a time when there are no more inns to shelter us. I don’t trust our guide. When we make camp, will you watch over me as I sleep?”
Aria started forward and hugged her from behind. “You know I will,” she muttered, and kissed Darza’s neck.
Darza was dimly aware that she had tilted her head back. “Mmm. You’ll keep me safe?”
Aria guided Darza to the bed, and climbed on top of her. “I’ll stay awake—all night—if I have to,” each phrase was punctuated by a kiss. “All night—” she continued, “And if—he tries to hurt you—I’ll kill him.”
Darza pulled away. “Kill him?”
Aria frowned. “What would you have me do?”
“You can’t kill him,” Darza protested.
“I will keep you safe,” Aria said. “To whatever end.”
“No,” she said sternly. “You are not to fight him. All I ask is that you watch him. If he does anything suspicious, wake me quickly.” She grabbed either side of her face. “Do you think you can do that?”
The hard lines along Aria’s face softened. “Like I said, I can stay up all night.”
“Thank you,” Darza said, and she pulled Aria’s face towards hers.
The next morning, they breakfasted quickly and were on the road by sunrise. Thorn would often sing as they rode along together; though never a whole song. He jumped from verse to verse from what few he knew, going in a circle of phrases.
The inns diminished as they went further east, until at last there were none. That night, they took shelter in a fishing village. A few Copper Dragons allowed them to bed down in a hay barn. She claimed the loft for Aria and herself, and pulled the ladder up after them.
But Averon would not let them have an advantage without protest.
“It’s going to rain tonight,” he said. “You and the Shepherd will sleep all snug and warm, and poor old Averon will be shivering down here by himself. I never knew such a mistrustful maid as you.”
She was dimly aware that the arm she had draped around her lover had tightened. A maid has to be mistrustful, else she will not be a maid for long.
She fell asleep to the sound of rain on the rooftop.
It was still raining the next morning. As they broke their fast on bread and cheese they had pilfered from The Silver Serpent, Averon suggested that they wait for it to stop before continuing on.
“When will that be?” Aria asked. “Tomorrow? A fortnight? No. We have cloaks, and leagues to ride.”
It rained all day. The path they followed soon turned to mud beneath them and squelched beneath their horses’ hooves. It turned their fallen leaves into a sodden brown mat. Their cloaks were soaked through. And in time, all were shivering.
Darza watched Thorn, noting how he bent his back, as if huddling low in the saddle would keep him dry.
There was no village close at hand when night came upon them. Nor trees to give them shelter. They were forced to camp amongst sparse mud and rocks a few yards from the tideline. The rocks at least would keep the wind off.
The wood was too damp to light, no matter how many sparks Darza struck off her flint and steel. She managed to make more smoke than fire. With a scowl, she settled down with her back to a rock, pulled her cloak over herself, and resigned herself to a cold, wet night. Aria laid her head on her chest, which gave her some comfort. Her lover’s hair was splayed in her face. It was wet and smelled like the sea.
For days they journeyed on, sleeping amidst rocks and mud. Their only sound was Averon’s half-remembered songs.
Presently, the road had dwindled to a pebbled thread. Within hours it came to an abrupt end at the foot of a wind carved cliff. Trees leered at them from above.
“What do we do?” Aria asked.
Averon’s smile was thin as a blade. “Climb.”
The way up proved to be a steep stony path hidden within a cleft in the rock. When they were halfway up the cliff, Aria spoke. Anxiety tinged her voice. “Darza. There’s a rider.”
“On the road below. He’s following us.” She pointed.
Darza twisted in her saddle. They had climbed high enough to see for leagues along the shore. The horse was coming up the same road they had taken, two or three miles behind them. She glanced at Thorn.
“Don’t squint at me,” Thorn said. “He’s nothing to do with my poor soul, whoever he is. Nobody’s fool enough to ride a horse in these parts. They’re too easily spotted.”
“No,” Darza agreed. Reluctantly, she dismissed it. They were over the cliff before they saw him diverge from the path.
As they crested it, pines rose up about them. He raised a hand to call for a halt, and then leaned forward in hi saddle, studying the suggestion of a path ahead. “We’re nearing Pine Forest. But my ladies need not fear. Your guide knows these parts.”
That was what Darza was afraid of. The wind was gusting along the top of the cliff, but all she could smell was a trap. “What about that rider?” He would soon be coming up the cliff.
“What about him? If he’s some fool from Aysgarth, he might not even find the path. And if he does, we’ll lose him in the woods. He won’t have no road to follow there.”
This, too, Darza feared.
Pines rose up about them. Towering, green clad spears thrusting toward the sky. The forest floor was a bed of fallen needles as thick as a castle wall and littered with pinecones. The hooves of their horses seemed to make no sound, and left deep impressions in the earth. Deep tracks. Easy to follow. The smell in the air was sharp.
The going was much slower in the woods. Darza prodded her mare through the green gloom, weaving in and out amongst the trees. It would be very easy to get lost here, she realized. Every way she looked appeared the same. Even the air itself seemed gray and still. Pines scratched against her arms and legs. The stillness grated on her more with every passing hour.
It was obviously bothering Averon Thorn as well. Late that day, as dusk was coming on, he tried to sing, but his voice was as scratchy as the bark of the trees.
“This is a bad place,” Aria muttered. “I can sense it.”
“What better a place for the Shepherd of Night?” Thorn japed. A look from Darza silenced him.
Darza felt the same, but it would not let herself admit it. “A pine wood is a gloomy place, but a wood’s a wood. There’s nothing here that we need fear.”
The hills went up, the hills went down. Darza found herself praying that Averon Thorn was honest, and knew where he was taking them. By herself, she was not certain she could find her way back. Day or night, the sky was solid grey and overcast, with neither sun nor stars to help her find her way.
“We’re close now,” Thorn said one night. “See, the woods are thinning out. We’re near the sea.”
The revelation made Darza realize just how weary she truly was. She felt heavier, and the ground seemed to tug at her. If Averon Thorn meant to murder them, she was convinced it could happen here, on ground that he knew well.
It may be that I will need to kill him, she told herself one night as she paced about the makeshift camp. The notion made her stomach turn. Mattias had always questioned whether or not she was hard enough for battle. “It is one thing to train with a blunted sword in hand, and another to drive a foot of sharpened steel into a man and see the light go out of his eyes.” Mattias had said. “To be a warrior your heart needs training most of all.” Mattias had set her to work killing piglets all day. By the time the butchering was done Darza’s clothed clung to her as if she’d bathed in blood. But Mattias had clung to his doubts.
“A pig is a pig. It is different with a man. I once saw a soldier disarm and drive his foe to his knees, but he flinched on the killing stroke. His foe slipped out a dirk and found a chink in his armor. His strength, speed and valor, was worth less than a man’s seed on his bed, because he flinched. Remember that, girl.”
I will, she promised her mentor’s spirit. I will remember, and I pray I will not flinch.
The sky was gone when they resumed their ride, blanketed by gray clouds.
The castle came upon them without warning. One moment they were in the depths of the forest, with nothing but pines all about them. Then they rode around a boulder, and a gap appeared ahead. Fifty yards onward the forest ended abruptly. Beyond was sky and sea and an ancient, tumbledown castle, abandoned and overgrown on the edge of a cliff.
“Rivenrock,” said Thorn. “Have a listen. You can hear Shepherds come and gone.”
“No,” Aria said. “No you can’t. I can. They’re in my head all the time and they never leave. You’re hearing the sea. Nothing more.”
Averon took a sudden interest in his boots, afraid to lock eyes with Aria.
Moss grew thick in clefts between the rocks, and trees were growing up from the foundations. By the look of it, the castle held little else.
Darza walked her mare to the cliff’s edge and tied it to a tree. She edged as close to the precipice as she dared. Fifty feet below, the waves were swirling in and over the remnants of a shattered tower
“That’s the old beacon tower,” said Averon Thorn as he came up behind her. “It fell long before Mattias and I first came here. Most mistake it for mere rocks. See?” He put one hand on her back, and pointed with the other.
One shove, and I’ll be down there with the tower. She stepped back. “Keep your hands off me!”
Thorn’s eyes went wide. He groped empty air in search of words “I was only—”
“I don’t care what you were only! Where’s the gate?”
“Around the other side!” He said, hurriedly.
They made a circuit of the walls and Darza saw more trees inside where the forest had breached the castle.
They found the postern gate on the north side of the castle, amidst half hidden thick foliage. The berries had all been picked, and half the bush had been hacked down to cut a path to the door. “Someone’s been through here.” Darza said.
But she had to have a look. It could be the Lions of Night. Or the Bringers of Morning. “I’m going in,” she said. “Thorn, you’re with me. Aria, stay with the horses.” You’ll be safe there.
“I want to come too. I can fight.”
You can destroy. Darza thought, but she said, “I know you can. That’s why I want you to stay here. There may be outlaws in these woods. We dare not leave the horses unprotected.”
Aria scuffed at a rock with her boot. “If it’s for the best.”
Darza shouldered through the foliage and pulled at a rusted iron ring. The postern door resisted for a moment, then jerked it open. Its hinges let out a bloody wail.
“Go on, my lady,” urged Thorn, behind her. “What are you waiting for?”
What was she waiting for? Darza told herself that she was being foolish. But she was sure she heard voices. She listened, and swore she could hear Shepherds long passed muttering to each other.
“He should have brought his bow,” one of them was saying. “You heard what happened in Winespring. His morningstar will be as useful as my little finger.”
Another voice protested. “What could the fool have done with the bow?”
“Shoot them from a distance, most like. Then collect their heads. Imagine how much the Lord of Morning would pay for the Shepherd’s head.”
Darza went back to the portcullis, and whispered to Aria. “Sweetling, There’s a sword and scabbard wrapped up in my bedroll. Bring them here to me.”
“Why? What are you—?”
“I’ll be back.”
“A sword?” Thorn scratched his head. “You got a sword in your hand. What do you need another for?”
“This one’s for you.” Darza offered him the hilt.
“You mean this? No jest?” Thorn hesitated, expecting a trick. “The mistrustful maid’s giving old Thorn a sword?”
“You do know how to use one, don’t you?”
“I am a member of the Lions of Night,” He snatched the longsword from her hand. “I got the same blood as Mattias—or you. Figuratively speaking, of course.” He slashed the air and grinned.
When Aria returned, she held Darza’s sword as gingerly as if it were a child. She presented it to her, and Thorn whistled at the sight of it. But even he grew quiet when she drew the blade and tried a cut.
“With me,” she told Thorn. She slipped sideways through the postern with Thorn on her tail.
The bailey opened up before her. To her left was the main gate, and the collapsed shell of what smelled like a stable.
Saplings were poking out of half the stalls and growing up through the dry brown thatch of its roof. To her right she saw rotted wooden steps descending into the darkness of a dungeon. The yard was all weeds and pine needles. Dark red leaves sprouted from an oak’s reaching branches. Beyond was the emptiness of sky and sea where the wall had collapsed—
—and the remnants of a fire.
Darza knelt to examine it. She picked up a blackened stick, sniffed at it and then used it to stir the ashes. Someone was here more recently than I thought.
“Helloooooo,” called Thorn. “Anyone here?”
“Be quiet!” Darza snapped.
“Why? Someone might be hiding. Wanting to get a look at us before they show themselves. Best let them know we know they’re here.” He walked toward the dungeon steps, and peered down into the darkness. “Hellooooo,” he called again. “Anyone down there?”
Darza saw a branch sway. A fat man slid through the bushes holding a broken longsword in a sweaty fist.
Everything seemed to happen in a heartbeat. A rider came down a hall perpendicular to the one she led Thorn through. The one who followed us…. She thought.
He swung down from the saddle, braying laughter. He was garbed in motley that was so weatherworn that it looked both dark and darker shades of brown. In place of a jester’s flail he had a triple morningstar, three spiked balls chained to a wooden haft. The bells on his jester’s hat jingled with every step.
A third man slipped over the lip of the well, making no more noise than a snake slithering across a pile of wet leaves. He held a short spear in hand.
“Averon Thorn!” Every word the jester spoke came through laughter. “It’s been a long time. How’s Mattias?”
He means to kill me, Darza thought. She leveled her sword at Thorn. “You know this man?”
“He knew all of us,” said the jester. The group crowded about them. She was not sure where to point her sword. Thorn backed into a tree, his sword at his side, forgotten.
“Mattias and I escaped the Lord of Morning,” he muttered, “We thought he killed the rest of our company. Ninth Hell, what did he do to you?”
“Fixed me right up! Drove those bad, bad thoughts far from my head. Ha ha!”
From behind Darza came a rustling, and a head poked down through the red leaves of an oak that Thorn was presently standing underneath. He looked up and saw the face.
“Thorn,” she called, “to me.”
The slender man dropped from the oak, a rusty dagger in hand. He advanced upon Thorn, drawing the man’s attention towards him so that he did not notice the jester behind him.
The jester swung his morningstar hard and low, and one of Thorn knees exploded in a spray of blood and bone.
“That’s funny,” the jester crowed as Thorn fell. The sword she’d given him went flying from his hand and vanished in the weeds. He writhed on the ground, wailing and clutching at the ruin of his knee. “Do you still belong to the Lions, Thorn? Down on your luck, looking to rebel against the rightful authority?” He laughed so hard he turned red in the face. “I don’t think I can let you live, Thorn. The Lord of Morning would be awfully upset with me.” The jester pointed to a patchwork sigil on his breast—that of the White Hand of the Lord of Morning.
All about her were White Hands, well-worn and threadbare. Looted off corpses, by the look of it.
“The Lord of Morning pays a high price for the heads of traitors,” the jester said.
“Please,” Thorn whimpered, “please don’t, my leg—”
The jester puckered his lips. “Awww. Does it hurt? I can make it stop. You got any Golden Dragons on you?”
“Forget the coins!” said the man with the broken sword. He was picking through a thorn bush for Thorn’s sword. He didn’t seem to notice his own bloody fingers. “Loot them when they’re dead.”
“DON’T!” shrieked Thorn, lifting bloody hands to shield his head. The jester whirled the spiked ball once around his head and brought it down in the middle of Thorn’s face. There was a sickening crunch.
“Idiot,” said the man who’d come creeping from the well. The jester danced from foot to foot and spun his flail. “Ohhh look! We’ve got ourselves one of those exotic girls from across the sea!” He squealed. “I’ll bet she came here for me. I’ll bet dreams of me. Dreams of me every night, when she sticks her fingers up her—”
The faded embers of the fire roared to life, and the flames licked the air. The outlaws darted back from the sudden funnel of flame, but a hand of fire reached out and consumed the slender man who had dropped from the oak. His dagger fell from his hand, and Darza retrieved it as he went screaming off the cliff’s edge.
She turned to see Aria in the entrance, eyes glazed over with a milky haze. “I will kill you if you touch her!” She stood stone still, then, as she fought the minds that were not hers from seizing her power.
Darza hoped Aria would hold out long enough.
The man with the broken sword had retrieved the one she gave Thorn. He was circling around, forcing her back toward the ragged edge of the cliff. He sent the sword down upon her in wild arcs. She parried blow after blow.
She evaded the man’s swipe and leveled her blade at his neck. “Stay away,” she warned him.
“Drop that pretty sword and we might go gentle on you, woman,” he said. “What’s your choice?”
“This.” She threw herself toward the man.
He jerked his blade up to protect his face, but she had feinted the blow, and went low. Her sword bit through leather, wool, skin, and muscle, into the man’s thigh. The man cut back wildly as his leg went out from under him. His sword scraped against her chainmail before he landed on his back. Darza stabbed him through the throat, gave the blade a hard turn, and slid it out, whirling just as a spear came flashing across her cheek. I did not flinch, she thought, wiping away the rivulet of blood. Did you see that, Mattias?
“Your turn,” she told the spearman, as he readied a second spear. “Throw it.”
“So you can dance away from it and charge me? I’d end up as dead as my friend here.” He kicked the corpse at his feet. “Do you take me for a fool?” He advanced on her.
The jester was behind her, the spearman in front. No matter how she turned, one was at her back.
“Kill her,” urged the spearman. “And you can do what you will with the corpse.”
“You know what I’ll do.” The morningstar was whirling.
That could mean many things, and Darza did not want to think about a one of them. She glanced at Aria, whose eyes were still white. It was plain that she was presently occupied with not tearing the castle down upon all of them.
Choose one, Darza told herself. Choose one and kill him quickly.
Aria shrieked. Or was it the wind? An arrowhead flew from the ground and hit the jester, drawing a thin streak of red up the length of his forehead.
Darza didn’t hesitate. She flew at the spearman.
He was better than the other man, but he had only a short throwing spear, and her blade danced in her hands. It came at the outlaw in a gray blur. He caught her in the shoulder as she came at him, and in return she slashed off half his cheek and then hacked the head off his spear.
He stared mutely at his useless weapon, and she put a foot of steel into his belly. He was still trying to fight as she pulled her blade from him, its fullers running red with blood. He clawed at his belt and came up with a dagger.
So Darza cut his hand off. A pig is a pig.
“Ninth Hell, have mercy,” the spearman gasped, blood bubbling from his mouth and spurting from his wrist. “Finish it, you bloody bitch.”
The jester looked dazed as he fumbled for his weapon, and then stopped when he saw the arrowhead inching across the grass toward his eye. “No…please. Please don’t.”
“Aria, I can do this.”
The arrowhead inched further.
“Aria, you’ve done enough, let me finish him!”
There were tears running down his face now. “Mercy! Please! I yield! I yield!”
The arrowhead stopped a needle’s width from his eye. The jester stared at it, frozen in fear.
Darza turned back to Aria, whose eyes were still white. “Darza…help.”
Darza came upon Aria, and held her close. “Sweetling, come back to me. Please. Follow my voice.”
“They’re in my head.” Aria sounded distant. “The minds that aren’t mine.”
“Don’t listen to them. Listen to me.”
“They say I should rend this tower.”
“They’re filthy liars. Please, don’t do this!”
Aria screamed, and collapsed to the ground. “Aria?” she choked. “Please…follow my voice. Stay with me, Aria. You can do this. Come back to me. Come back to me.”
Slowly the whiteness faded, and Aria breathed deep.
“Better?” Darza asked.
Aria grabbed Darza cheeks and kissed her. It was enough to take her breath away. When they parted, Aria whispered, “Better.”
And then lines on her face hardened. Aria stood, not as the timid girl that Darza knew. She was the Shepherd of Night, and she marched over to the jester. “I am tethered to all things. I know you yet live. You will dig a grave. There, beneath the oak tree.”
“I…I have no spade.” The jester protested
“You have two hands.”
“But why bother? Leave them for the crows!”
“Your friends may feed the crows. But Averon Thorn will have a grave. He was of the Lions of Night. This is his place.”
It took the jester the rest of the day to dig down deep enough. Night was falling by the time he was done, and his hands were bloody and blistered. Darza had sheathed her blade, gathered up Averon Thorn, and carried him to the hole. His face was hard to look on. I’m sorry that I never trusted you. I don’t know how to do that anymore.
She laid the body in the grave, and turned to see that the jester had picked up a jagged rock. “Aria, look out!” She called.
In half a heartbeat he was upon her, the rock held tight in his hand.
Darza was surprised by the assurance with which she dealt with the jester, for as he came upon her, she summoned a wisp of smoke and it turned into a dagger in her hand.
Aria knocked his arm aside and punched the steel into his bowels. “Laugh,” she snarled at him.
He moaned instead.
“Laugh,” she repeated, grabbing his throat with one hand and stabbing at his belly with the other. “Laugh!” She kept saying it, over and over, until her hand was red up to the wrist and the jester’s death stink was like to choke her.
He never laughed. The sobs that Aria heard were all her own. When she realized that, she let the knife dissipate into smoke and she shuddered. Darza laid a hand on her shoulder.
She helped Aria to her feet and grimaced at the sight. “Come on. Help me cover Thorn up.”
Aria helped lower Averon Thorn into his hole. By the time they were done the moon was rising. Together, they shoved the dirt on top of their guide as the moon rose higher in the sky, and when they finished they departed the ground filled with Lions of Night and whispering Lords.
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.