This week I thought I'd give you an excerpt from Cephrael's Hand. This chapter provides our first glimpse of the constellation and its ominous implications.
“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 damp air smelled 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. No lights glimmered in the great crags to tell the rowing sailors where beach ended and deadly rocks began; neither lighthouse nor lantern served as a beacon to guide them across the blanket of ebony ocean. They’d only Ean to guide them, his ears keen to the roar of the waves upon a familiar shore.
“There.” Ean pointed with arm outstretched. “Two degrees to port.” The blustery wind whipped his 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, and he and his partner adjusted their rowing to shift course.
“’Tis strange,” noted the skiff’s fourth occupant, who was 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. They’d both passed their eighteenth name day, that 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 status.
“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’s tone shouted his anxiety. He added under his breath, “Strange to think of ourselves as the King’s men again, instead of just the Queen’s.”
“Would there was no need for such distinction,” Ean muttered. He’d spent five long years arguing with his queen mother about her estranged relationship with his king father—the entire time he’d been living on his mother’s island of Edenmar, in fact—and the enduring disagreement had created a flood of bitterness on the matter. His mother had sequestered him in Edenmar to protect him after both of his older brothers were lost to treachery, but this truth provided ill consolation for being ripped from all that he’d known and loved.
Yet…now all that had changed—at least, Ean hoped it had. 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 mututally embittered parents; a great part of him feared nothing could span so immense a distance.
Abruptly the skiff surged upwards amid a rising roar of crashing waves.
“We’re here!” Ean grabbed the side of the boat for balance and shot Creighton a knowing look, while the waves dragged them towards the muted gleam of beach, and excitement churned in his chest like the crashing surf.
Then he could stand the anticipation no longer and leapt from the boat. He sloshed through hip-deep waves to stand, dripping, upon the shore. Jutting cliffs sliced into the bay on either side of the wide swath of sand, which sparkled faintly in the moonlight. Ean opened his arms and turned around to embrace the air of his homeland, breathing deeply of its familiar scent.
The sailors rode the waves all the way in, until the flat-bottomed boat scraped the shore. Creighton swept up his ermine cloak and stepped from bow to beach. He joined Ean’s side and turned to face the crashing surf and the broad blanket of night.
Far above the dark waters spread another sea, this one a starry splay of diamonds surrounding a smiling moon. Just above this gleaming crescent, high within the arch of sky, a seven-pointed constellation flamed.
Creighton blanched. “Ean.” He pointed with his free arm. “Look.”
Ean lifted his gaze to follow along Cray’s line of sight, but his ebullient expression faded when he saw the grouping of stars. “Cephrael’s Hand.”
At this utterance, both sailors lifted their faces to the heavens.
“’Tis an inauspicious omen for your return,” Creighton said uneasily.
One of the sailors grunted at this, and the other spat into the sand and 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 and stared at his blood-brother. “You and I both have studied the science of the stars. How can you believe that constellation has 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 happened beneath the taint of Cephrael’s Hand—both of his brothers had died while that constellation shone in the heavens—but neither could he believe in the superstition surrounding the fateful stars.
Ean looked away, his jaw suddenly tight. The memory of his lost brothers 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 Cray 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 carried like autumn leaves spinning in funnels across the sand. “I said goodbye to both of my brothers upon this very spot,” the prince 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 had been 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 felt more aware of how different his life had become, how much the fingers of tragedy 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. He turned his gaze towards the Sea Eagle and the tiny flame of a lantern topping 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 Ean had summoned for his homecoming, leaving naught but unwelcome emptiness in its place. The prince tried to summon a happier tone to help shake off the clinging cobwebs of loss. “Come on.” He clapped Creighton on the shoulder and started off through the sand. “Let’s see how far we can get before my mother’s men spot us.”
Creighton followed Ean across the beach. “I only hope they’re not inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. A bolt in the shoulder is no fair homecoming gift.”
Ean shot him a sideways grin. “No one could mistake you for a brigand in that outfit.”
Creighton adjusted his ermine cloak indignantly. “You never get a second opportunity to make a first impression, Ean.” He smoothed his velvet jacket and pressed out the long line of ornate silver buttons that gleamed down the front—indeed, Ean had watched him spend many an hour polishing said buttons in preparation for their return. “And Katerine’s favor is worth any effort.”
The prince chuckled. “A first impression? Wasn’t it Katerine val Mallonwey who looked raptly on as you tried to escape that sea skunk on this very beach?”
Creighton grunted. “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 at this, whereupon Creighton glared sootily at him. “I do believe you take perverse pleasure in my misfortunes.”
“If only your misfortunes were not so entertaining.”
As they navigated between two hulking rocks that muffled somewhat the crash of the sea, the prince reached for his blood-brother’s arm. “Now then.” Ean leveled Creighton an arch look. “You swore you would explain once we were ashore. Why all the pomp? The cloak? The endless polishing of buttons?”
A foolish grin split his friend’s face. “Tonight I’m to see Katerine.”
Ean’s smile vanished. “You told her of our landing?”
“No—of course not, Ean.”
The prince frowned. “You know the threat upon our lives, Creighton—never mind the precarious situation of my father’s throne. If you told Katerine or anyone—”
“Ean, I swear I did not.”
Ean gave him an odd look. “Surely you don’t expect to wake her in the wee of the night. So how…?”
A faraway look beset his best friend, and a moment passed before Creighton confessed, “It’s like I can sense her.” He dropped his gaze sheepishly. “I know it sounds foolish, but after so many letters back and forth, secrets shared across Mieryn Bay…years of imagining her eyes and smile as she read my words and wrote to me in return…” Creighton looked back to Ean and shrugged. “I can’t explain it. I just feel in my heart that when next I set foot within Calgaryn Palace, Katerine will be there to meet me. So…” he glanced down at his finery, “I’ve come prepared.”
“I see,” Ean said, even though he didn’t. He frowned and then started them walking again. After a moment, he shot Cray a sidelong glance. “I take it that you mean to propose.”
As if with grand ceremony, Creighton reached inside his coat and withdrew a velvet pouch. He emptied its contents onto his palm and extended it towards Ean. “I was going to give her this.”
Ean paused to take the ring and look it over. A large ruby glinted within petals of delicate silver filigree fashioned in the shape of a rose. “It’s beautiful.” He handed the ring back to Cray. “It must be very old.”
“It belonged to an Avataren Fire Princess,” Creighton said significantly as he returned the ring to its pouch and the pouch to his coat.
“Ahh…” Understanding suffused the prince while a smile overcame his tense expression. “So…my mother and her Companion Ysolde are complicit in this farce. I’m hurt I wasn’t entrusted with the secret, too.”
“Only for your own protection, Ean. We wouldn’t want any rumors going around that you were planning to propose.”
Ean snorted caustically. “Everyone knows better than to whisper unsanctioned rumors about me.” Ironically, there were so many rumors circulating about himself, Ean couldn’t keep them all straight, but he felt certain not a one existed that hadn’t been invented by his father’s Spymaster, Morin d’Hain.
The trail steepened as they reached the cliffs, and the boys turned their attention to the climb. In the night’s deepening quiet, Ean’s thoughts wandered back to Creighton’s earlier observation.
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 ingenious methods of torturing them 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 had been 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.
He had mixed feelings about his return. Seeing his father, coming home again, these things filled him with a warm excitement; but the reason he’d returned…
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 treachery and tragedy? Never had he felt the loss of his brothers more than in the sure understanding that he’d taken their place in line for the throne. Yet the cold fact remained: Ean represented the family’s last hope of retaining the Eagle Throne. 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 at the voice from above.
Footsteps approached, and a soldier’s mailed form soon solidified higher along the path. Queen Errodan’s silver coat of arms glimmered on the man’s breast, a barely discernible trident on his dark green surcoat. “Why it is you, Your Highness. And you also, Lord Khelspath. Fortune bless you’re both safe. Her Majesty is most aggrieved about requiring you to come ashore under these circumstances, but Your Highness’s safety necessitated it.”
Ean sighed. Never was understatement uttered so blithely. “It’s good to see you, Eammon.”
The soldier nodded. “Aye, and you also, Your Highness. This way then, if you will.”
They took the rest of the steep climb in silence, which was fine with Ean. His frame felt twice as heavy carrying the weight of his thoughts. As they neared the crest, noises disturbed the night, and suddenly the unexpected yet unmistakable sounds of battle came floating down.
Eammon held up his fist to halt them and hissed, “Stay here!” He sprinted up the trail.
Ean and Creighton exchanged a wide-eyed look. “Ean…we can’t just wait—”
They darted after Eammon.
At the crest, the moonlight revealed a writhing frenzy of soldiers. Green-coated Queen’s Guard fought red-coated palace soldiers—could the Queen’s men really be fighting the King’s? Ean stared open-mouthed as he tried to make sense of the scene. Not even his parents’ enmity explained why their respective men would’ve come to blows.
Creighton grabbed his arm. “Is…is it your parents fighting again?”
Ean worked the muscles of his jaw, feeling dismayed. “I think something else is going on.” He motioned for Creighton to follow, and they ducked through the tall sea grass skirting the edge of the fray. The prince’s eyes sought an opening, an opportunity to intervene—
Suddenly cold steel pressed sharply against his neck. Ean caught his breath and stilled beneath the blade.
“I have him!” shouted a voice, close and painful in his ear.
In the clearing, the fighting slowed. Among the men Ean recognized, Eammon looked down the wrong side of a blade.
A burly man dressed in the king’s livery pushed forward to where Ean stood pinned between an amored man and the razor edge of a dagger. “Good work.” Dark eyes in a beareded face looked Ean over. “Let’s see his weapon.” He reached for Ean’s sword, sheathed at the prince’s hip, and examined the hilt and its sapphire pommel stone.
Ean’s captor pressed his face close to the prince’s ear. He could almost feel the man’s leering grin as he remarked, “That’s a kingdom blade all right.”
The man’s breath smelled as foul as the rest of him. Ean couldn’t believe the king’s men would’ve sunken to such low standards—he didn’t believe these were the king’s men at all.
“Aye,” said another man standing nearby, “but the other lad has a Kingdom blade also.”
The burly leader straightened to frown over at Creighton, who stood at sword-point just behind Ean. The prince could barely see him out of the corner of his eye. Looking back to Ean then, the leader grabbed the prince’s chin and roughly turned his face from side to side. “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 king’s men. “Look how he’s all gussied up.”
“Just so.” The leader narrowed his gaze at Ean. “Well then, which are you? The prince or his dog?”
“I am Prince Ean!” Creighton declared immediately.
“I am Ean val Lorian.” The prince held the man’s gaze with angry eyes. “And you’re a corpse when my father learns of this.”
The leader laughed and extended an arm towards the others. “Aren’t we all soiling ourselves now?”
The men’s remarks in reply brought an angry color to Ean’s cheeks.
“You may have fooled us,” Eammon’s voice interrupted the laughter, “but the King’s Own Guard is coming even as we speak. Be certain they’ll know you for the knaves you are.”
The leader continued his inspection of Ean’s face. Returning his gaze, Ean wondered if being gone from the kingdom so long that no one recognized him would prove a blessing or a curse. “I just can’t be certain which one you are,” the leader remarked. “Best to kill them both.”
“Prob’ly so,” said the voice with the sour breath at Ean’s ear. The prince felt the blade cutting into his flesh, and instinct extended a desperate hand. He slammed his heel onto the bridge of his captor’s foot and spun into his embrace. The dagger sliced along the side of his neck with an instant of icy fire, but then Ean had his hands on the weapon and was forcing the blade away and his captor backwards, deep into the uneven grass. Fighting and broke out behind him.
Ean and his captor wrestled nose to nose for control over a slender slice of steel. The cliff drew precariously close as they struggled for dominion, teeth clenched and muscles locked. Suddenly the soldier stumbled. Ean felt his weight shift and pushed harder into this momentum. The cliff’s edge reared up—
Ean wrenched free. The man shouted a furious curse as he fell.
Breathing fast, Ean braced a hand on one knee and another over his bleeding neck. His heart was racing, while his stomach felt sick. He knew he had to go back and help the others, but death suddenly felt far too real and close.
He wiped a slick and bloody palm on his cloak, claimed his sword and returned to help his mother’s guard. A stranger dressed in his father’s livery reared up out of the melee to challenge him. Ean ducked his swing and thrust his blade through the man’s gut. The traitor slid off the blade as he fell to his knees, and Ean backed away covered in his blood, both repulsed and stunned in the same terrible moment.
Suddenly strong arms wrapped around him and squeezed with a pressure so great that Ean couldn’t keep hold of his weapon. He struggled, but the man’s arms felt an iron vice. He the prince into the long grass once more and threw him down. Ean rolled, but the man pounced on top of him. In seconds he’d pinned the prince’s shoulders beneath his knees and the rest of his body into the sand. It felt like a bear was sitting atop him.
The man stuffed a foul rag into Ean’s mouth and then drew a dagger from inside his coat. “Now then. We’ll do this the right way.” He showed the blade to Ean, though it seemed barely more reflective in the clouded night than the man’s dark eyes. Moonlight or no, however, there was no denying the hungry anticipation in his gaze.
He licked his tongue along the blade and grinned wickedly at Ean. “This is Jeshuelle. She’s named after my favorite slut—a fighter, she was. Nearly bit my ear off while I was claimin’ her. I dug out her heart and filled the dead hole with my seed.” He scraped the point of his blade across Ean’s chest, making an X over his heart. He gave the prince a grim smile. “That’s the only way to be sure, you know—take out their hearts. Healers can’t raise the dead.” He chuckled at his own joke and raised his dagger—
A sudden keening stopped him—froze him, actually, while a wild look of recognition slid like a film across his dark gaze.
Ean cringed, ears protesting that terrible cry. It grew in volume, a horrid, uncanny wail that resembled nothing in nature.
What in Tiern’aval is that sound?
“Shite,” hissed the assassin. Abruptly he rolled off the prince and scuttled away on hands and knees, low through the long grass.
Puzzled and dismayed, Ean spat out the rancid cloth and pushed shakily to his feet. His chest ached from bearing the assassin’s weight, and his neck was bleeding a fiery wetness into his collar. He pushed one hand over the gash again, unsteadily retrieved his sword from the grass, and stumbled back towards the clearing—
To meet an inexplicable scene. Soldiers from both sides stood immobile as if actors frozen in some grotesque mimicry of battle. None moved, no one spoke.
Had Ean been wiser, had he not just been nearly garroted, suffocated and stabbed, he might’ve thought to follow the assassin, who seemed to be the only one with any understanding of the threat that approached. Instead, Ean stood rooted, grimly enthralled by that dreadful, ear-splitting cry.
A cloud moved off the moon…and they came.
In the silver light, a cloaked man 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 coalesced into creatures of legend and myth.
It cannot be!
Ean denied the vision his eyes were so clearly witnessing. Half as tall as horses, entirely black with eyes like silver 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, still they would’ve cast no shadow, for darkhounds were shadows—made real.
And then the hooded stranger reached the clearing, and Ean became intimate with a new kind of fear.
He’d wondered why no one yelled in challenge—that is, until he tried to speak out himself and found he couldn’t.
The cloaked stranger waved a finger at Eammon and the other of the Queen’s soldiers. “You men. Bind each other.”
Several hounds trotted forward on soundless paws carrying ropes in their mouths.
The stranger turned his hidden gaze directly to Ean as if he knew him on sight. Pushing back the cowl of his hood, he locked gazes across the distance with the prince, and Ean knew he was dreaming.
“Look at me but once, Prince of Dannym,” said the man with the face like mirrored silver, “and I have the power to bind you to my will.”
Shade and darkness! The curse took on a sickening new meaning.
While Ean strained to find some desperate understanding, Eammon and the others took the ropes from the darkhounds’ mouths and began binding each other. They moved stiffly, and their eyes were wild.
Ean tried to shout, but his voice merely pushed against the confines of his throat. He tried to lift his hand; the effort left his heart pounding and the sound of blood throbbing in his ears. Only his eyes remained free, so he searched the moonlit night for Creighton. But either his blood-brother had fallen, or he stood out of Ean’s periphery.
The thunder of running horses disturbed the binding darkness, and Ean’s hopes soared—could it be the foretold King’s Own Guard who approached? Moments later, two-dozen rough-looking men reined to a halt in a scramble of hooves and steaming mounts.
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 shifted agitatedly in his saddle and aimed a narrow-eyed look over his shoulder. “They’ll be here soon.”
“Get the prince on his horse and be off then.” The Shade looked once more to Ean. “Go with them, Prince of Dannym.”
Ean found his sword back in its sheath and his legs suddenly moving quite against his volition. More frightening still, he couldn’t even pretend to fight the Shade’s command; his legs simply no longer belonged to him.
As Ean neared the horses, a man came forward with a moon-pale stallion in tow—his stallion, Caldar. The prince’s fine destrier had made the crossing with the Queen two moons ago, but Caldar seemed so out of place among this strange night that Ean almost didn’t recognize him. Yet before he knew it, he 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 upper body freely. Ean looked up, to the constellation of Cephrael’s Hand gleaming above him. He held onto some desperate hope that this must be an elaborate deception, that a court wielder had been solicited to create the illusion of these creatures of myth…or that they were all victims of some magical hypnosis to believe the same appalling vision.
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.
The Shade’s dark gaze flitted across the men who’d been posing as the king’s guards—statues now, made of flesh and bone. Their faces were frozen in varied rictuses of disbelief, fury or fear.
The Shade looked back to his hounds. “Spare none.”
The darkhounds attacked, and men gave their lives to sate the predatory hunger of insubstantial shadows. Ean couldn’t decide which was worse—that the men were being eaten alive, or that this gory death was given them amid a silence broken only by the snarling of feeding hounds. Even seeing his mother’s men safely ignored did nothing to lessen the horror.
The prince swallowed and looked away.
“Creighton Khelspath!” The Shade’s clear voice rose above the hounds’ ravening din. “Attend me!”
A pang of fear gripped Ean, and he searched for his blood-brother, for he still hadn’t seen him. Finally, a form rose up from the long grass bordering the scene. Creighton. Ean’s blood-brother 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, but the Shade’s working denied him his voice. So he watched helplessly as his blood-brother crossed the distance, miraculously passing safely through the feasting darkhounds.
Fury clenched in Ean’s chest. He reached for his sword with sudden desperation—could he not do anything to stop this?—but his fingers couldn’t close upon the leathered hilt. The sword hung encouragingly at his side, yet it might’ve been aboard the Sea Eagle for all it would aid him.
Creighton halted in front of the Shade. His expression looked void of emotion, as if he knew already he’d been defeated.
The Shade stared at him for a long time. Then he shook his head and slowly drew a sword from beneath his dark cloak. “Kneel,” he commanded, motioning with it.
Creighton dropped to his knees.
The Shade walked behind Creighton and lifted his sword, the steel of which gleamed 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!
The Shade seemed to clench his jaw. “It was not meant to be this way with you.” Then he spoke a long chain of words in a language Ean couldn’t understand. Throughout,
Creighton never looked up, never turned to look at Ean, yet Ean imagined he heard his voice as clear as day in his mind.
Tell Kat that I love her, Ean. 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 riders called the Shade’s attention toward the road. A distant thunder of running horses warned that the king’s soldiers were coming at last. And too late.
The Shade still held Creighton impaled horribly upon his sword, his body slumped like a broken marionette. Ean couldn’t bear to look. “Yes, go. Go!”
The horsemen peeled away, and Caldar followed without Ean’s prodding—which was just as well, for the prince was tumbling amid crushing waves of despair.
It was all Ean could think of as the world spun and his gut twisted and his chest heaved with desperate grief. Three brothers lost.