Read Chapter One
Dawn crested over the top of the hill. Fingers of light crept through the tall grasses and turned the dead grass a burning orange, as if they were ablaze. A mounted rider came over the rise. Silhouetted against the dawning day, he stopped at the top of the hill and looked around at the landscape stretched before him. Three more riders followed him up, and they flanked him on all sides. The first held up his hand in a fist, signaling the others. The men reached for axes strapped to their shoulders, and one man tightened his grip on a spear. Their horses stamped their hooves and twitched their ears with agitation. A hawk cried in the distance, and the men swiveled their heads in its direction. The bird of prey rose up into the sky and reeled overhead. The leader snapped his head back to the forefront.
A hooded figure had emerged from the shadow cast by the hill and approached them on foot.
The leader gripped his axe tighter and shouted out to the trespasser in a rumbling baritone, “Identify yourself.”
The hooded figure stood downhill from them, perhaps a few paces. He remained within the edge of the shadow, and the four men could not see his features beneath his cloak.
“Speak, stranger,” the leader barked again when the man neither answered nor moved closer.
“You are searching for me?” the stranger said. His voice was cold, with a hint of menace beneath his careful annunciation.
The horses whickered in dismay. They must have sensed the men’s unease, or perhaps it was the stranger himself that disturbed them.
“Why are you travelling through these lands afoot? What clan are you from?” the leader asked. He held onto his horse with his knees as the animal shifted from foot to foot while throwing its head and flaring its nostrils.
“I do not need conventional means to travel,” the stranger replied.
The leader adjusted his grip on his axe and studied the dark stranger further. “You did not answer my question. What clan do you hail from? What business do you have with the Stone Clan?”
The sun was rising beyond the horizon now, and the four men could be seen in the light. They had a similar cast to one another. They all had nut-brown skin and long dark hair, which they either tied loosely or left flowing wild and tangled over their shoulders. The leader had a feather tied in his forelock. His shoulders were broad, and his arms well muscled. His face was covered in a long black beard. Their weapons, upon closer inspection, seemed crude in the dawning light. The axes looked to be carved from stone sharpened to an edge, and the spearman had a long shaft carved from dark wood, with a stone spearhead tied with something that looked like leather.
“My apologies,” the stranger said, but there was no trace of remorse in his voice. “I am not from this land, but I have come a long way in search of someone.”
“And who is that?” the leader asked.
“I am looking for the king of the Biski.”
The men glanced at one another. They muttered and stole glances at the hooded stranger. The leader, however, did not take his stare off him. He leaned forward in the saddle and tilted his head in a presumable attempt to look beneath the man’s hood. He must have noticed because he turned his head just enough to keep his face shadowed.
The leader sat back in his saddle. “There is no such thing as a king among the tribes.”
“Oh?” the stranger said and did not elaborate. He simply stood with hands folded in front of him.
The men waited for him to question them further, but he said nothing more.
After several tense moments of silence, the leader ventured, “If there were a king of the Biski, to what ends would you be searching for him?”
The stranger shrugged. “Does it matter, since there is no king? I have searched in vain. No matter, I will return to my home country; they may find use of my offer.”
The stranger turned to walk away. The leader frowned and glanced at one of his comrades who had moved forward beside him. They shared a look and conferred in low tones.
“Wait,” the leader called out.
The stranger stopped but did not turn around. “Yes?”
“We have a leader, as such, but he wears no crown. He is revered among our people, and he leads the largest clan among the tribes. Is this the man you seek?”
The stranger was silent a moment. “Yes, I believe he may be the one.” His face was still hidden, but the smile could be heard from his tone. It was not a warm smile but something more akin to being dunked in a bucket of cold water.
The men shifted uneasily. The leader and his companions shared another worried glance. Then the leader spoke. “If this is the man, then tell us, what business do you have with him?”
“I have a proposition for him. One that I feel will be to his benefit.”
“And what is this proposition? Our clan leader would not want to be bothered by a wandering vagabond.”
It was apparent by the power the stranger exuded that he was no mere vagabond. The leader seemed too intrigued to let him slip away without another word—he could be dangerous. The animals even seemed to sense a wrongness about him.
The stranger turned back around and faced the four men. They were gripping their weapons and watching him with hooded eyes. The sun pushed through the cloud cover, further lighting the scene. The man had stepped closer and into the light, as if he had heard their thoughts and was revealing himself to them. Now that he was out of the shadows, the men could see his pale skin and long-fingered hands.
“You are Danhadine?” the leader accused. He tightened his grip on his axe.
“That was the country of my birth, but I am an exile from that land,” the stranger intoned.
The men moved forward to make a line against the stranger. They drew their weapons against the man, though he was unarmed. “What would a Danhadine man want with the Biski?”
“I am here to help your ‘leader’ gain a crown. I want to make him king.” The man smiled a thin-lipped smile.
“Why would you do that?” the leader snarled.
The man pushed back his cloak and revealed a head of white hair, pale as fallen snow. His eyes were black as night, set into a long pale face. “Because I am the prophecy reborn, and I have come to reunite the kingdoms once again.”
I woke up gasping for air. I clutched my chest as I tried to steady my breathing. The dreams had been coming for weeks since Johai’s transformation. Ever since the specter had taken over control of Johai’s body, I saw him in my dreams. I watched him as he travelled by air and over land. This was the first time he had interacted with others. When I saw him journeying, I thought he was headed for Keisan. I imagined he would try to overthrow Adair and take his throne. The specter was power hungry. This was an unexpected turn of events. He had gone to the Biski, to the place I would soon journey to learn more about my powers. What are you planning?
The room was hushed. Dawn was still hours away for me in the west. That gave me an idea of where he was. He must be nearly to the coast, somewhere south of Danhad. He had travelled far in a few weeks’ time. I suppose I should not have been surprised; this was the power of the specter. I sat up in bed, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness around me. Outside my chamber, I could hear servants padding about, preparing the palace before the courtiers awoke.
Three weeks had passed since the Neaux rebellion, since Arlene had forcibly taken the throne. I had been staying in the palace since the night of the uprising. I dared not return to the villa where I had lived with Jon, both for my own protection and because I couldn’t bear to return to the place where Jon had died. I rubbed my face and sighed. Both my body and mind were weary.
Since the day of the rebellion, Johai had not been far from my thoughts, or my dreams. The dreams were so vivid it was as if I were witnessing them alongside him. I felt his presence even in my waking life, like a burning light in the distance, as if I could close my eyes and see his life energy waiting for me, beckoning me to him. When we met once again I would either be his salvation or his destruction. I was not sure anymore. Elenna was certain he could be saved, but she did not dream of him. There was nothing left of the man I had known and loved anymore. Was I wrong to let him go?
The dreams in themselves were troubling, but they were the least of my worries. Reestablishing order in Neaux was paramount. Many had been killed in the uprising, and even more had been tried for treason in the aftermath. The Danhadine soldiers that had not fled were being held captive, and we had yet to receive a diplomatic replacement for Jon to open peace discussions between our two countries. I feared the worst; there were grumblings about the halls of war—it was my worst fear; what I had fought to prevent may yet come to fruition. It was the only thing keeping me here, the attempts at peace talks, that and Queen Celeste’s trial.
Today was the day, the remaining members of the council would see to the former queen’s judgment for the death of King Reynard and for the death of her husband, King Reginald. Over the past several weeks, the conspirators and members of the Order of the Oak in Neaux had been found and executed. I, as witness, had attended every trial. The death count upon my shoulders weighed heavy against me. When I was not dreaming of Johai, I had nightmares about those who had died along the way, Count Braun and his daughter who had conspired to assassinate Sabine, those who had died in the struggle for the Neaux throne, countless conspirators, and most of all Jon, who had died defending me. I had not trusted Jon at first, I thought he wanted to use me, but I had been wrong about my onetime husband. He had protected me when Celeste had meant to kill me.
I rose from bed and washed in a basin of cold water by my bedside. The splash of cold water against my skin was a shock, but it helped clear my mind. I did not want to wait for a maid to do my hair, so I tied it in a knot at the nape of my neck and slid on a simply cut gown. The receiving chamber that connected my room with Elenna’s was not empty as I expected it to be.
Elenna sat in a chair, her legs curled up beneath her. Her dark curtain of hair was tied in a braid down her back, and the flickering of a single candle on the side table made dark shadows of her eyes. The window faced the mountain ranges, and during the day, it was a breathtaking view. From my angle, I could see nothing but the darkness of early morning. It would be another hour or so before the sun would breach the mountains and fill the valley with light.
“Having trouble sleeping, as well?” I asked her as I sat down in the chair opposite her.
Elenna turned her dark eyes towards me. Her expression was hard to read. I had found her mysterious before, but she seemed more of an enigma with each passing day. I was desperate for insight into her thoughts.
“No, I find it difficult to be comfortable within these stone walls.” She motioned about the room.
I nodded, but I did not really understand it. Elenna was one of the Biski, the same wild peoples Johai had approached. They lived south of Neaux and Danhad. They travelled in nomadic bands across a vast stretch of plains that were their domain. Once upon a time, Elenna had trained to become one of their spiritual leaders, her people called them du-toath. She had all but finished her training when a woman her people called the oracle foretold a destiny that Elenna refused. Elenna had fled the prophecy and come to live in the Neaux capital of Sanore, where I had met her working as a player in a playhouse.
She had guided me and Johai in our search to stop the specter and break Johai’s curse. She had also been the one to stop me from killing Johai. I thought killing him was the only way to stop the rise of the specter—and I was partially right—but Elenna believed there was a way to stop him and save Johai’s life. So I let Johai go, possessed by the specter, and now he was trying to find the king of the Biski; to what end, I had no idea.
“I did not sleep easy, myself,” I replied, looking at my reflection in the pitted glass of the window. There were bags under my eyes from lack of sleep.
“Did you dream again?” She touched my elbow.
I hesitated. I found it difficult to confide in others about my dreams. Trust came hard-won for me. It was an aftereffect of a spell that had been put on me by Johai. When I had first dreamed of the prophecy and the rise of the specter, I had wanted to find a way to stop it. I had hoped for a way to save Johai from the pact he had made with the specter. Johai had convinced me that forgetting about him would help me to be able to do what was necessary if I failed to find a way to stop the prophecy. The spell backfired, and I lost all memory of my past, including the prophecy. By the time I had discovered the truth, it was too late. The man I trusted, Prince Adair, had killed his uncle, the king of Danhad, and framed me for the murder. It had set in motion the events that led to Johai losing himself to the specter inside him.
Elenna was still regarding me, and her dark gaze seemed to penetrate my thoughts. I decided to answer indirectly, “Is there a leader among your people?”
“There are many leaders. Each clan has its own elder who speaks for them at council.”
“And is there one who reigns over all of them?” I asked, though I knew the answer from my dream.
She did not answer straight away, and I saw a strange emotion flicker behind her eyes. “No, there is not.” She paused. “Did you dream of a leader for my people?”
“No. I dreamed of Johai. I believe he is in the Biski territories. He was speaking with some Biski men and asked them about a king. They mentioned a leader, and Johai told them that he was the prophecy reborn. What does it mean?”
Elenna was pensive for a moment. “I do not know who this leader is, but there is an old legend among my people. They talk of a man made of winter who will lead my people back to the lands of the north once more.”
“You mean Danhad and Neaux?”
“Yes, long ago we were all one people. We worshipped the same Goddess, our Mother. Then war broke out, and the peoples were divided. Those who became the Neaux created their kingdom in the west and fought with the Danhadines who landed on our shores beyond the mountain ranges. My people, the true children of the earth, were pushed back behind the forest ranges to the endless grass plains. The first oracle saw that one day a great winter would come and wipe out all of the false children and make way for our return home. ‘They will be led by a man born of winter, with hair like moonlight and eyes like the night sky. He will ride a white horse and the ground will run red with the blood of his enemies.’”
I clutched my hand to my chest. Is this what the specter meant when he said Johai was meant for him? Is he planning to lead the Biski north to make war on Danhad and Neaux? Whatever his plan, I knew what I must do.
“I have to stop him,” I said as I grasped the fabric of my bodice.
Elenna touched my shoulder, and I relaxed under her touch. “You will in time. But first you must learn.”
I sagged a bit. Elenna had promised to take me to the oracle, a mystic who had powers like mine that would be able to help me hone my gifts so I could find a way to save Johai. The very idea both thrilled and terrified me. I had never had formal training, and I relished the idea of learning from someone like me, while I feared the truth would not be what I wanted to hear. Every attempt before to save Johai from the specter had ended in tragedy. Could the oracle tell me any different?
“That is all very well, but we still await Arlene’s leave. If she does not give it soon, we may have to escape into the night like phantoms.” I laughed, but at the back of my mind I feared Arlene would never let me leave. She had hinted at giving me a position in her court as an advisor. My place was not here. I belonged to the prophecy, and I felt its pull growing stronger every day, like the link between Johai and me.
Much later, my maid came and dressed me for the trial. I wore a somber brown gown with a high neckline and long sleeves that flared at the bottom. My thick black hair was plaited and then curled into a ball at the nape of my neck. Damara was also being housed in the palace. She had been restored her status and was no longer forced to pretend to be a maid to Countess Lorelle. Damara’s chambers were close to mine. She, along with Elenna, Beau, and Hilliard, awaited me in the receiving room. Though Damara, Beau and I were considered traitors in Danhad, we were treated with deference and respect here in Neaux.
It was in part because we had aided Arlene during the revolution. It was a two-sided coin. Those that supported Arlene deferred to us as equals while those in Arlene’s opposition watched us with malice in their eyes, and the air was charge with threats. Which is why I never went anywhere in the palace without either Hilliard or Beau joining me.
“Are you ready?” Damara asked. She squeezed my elbow, and I tried not to lean too much on her support. I knew she worried about me, but I was trying to be strong.
I took a deep breath. This was the last trial, but potentially the most difficult for me. I would need to testify against the former queen. There had been much speculation as to what sort of punishment Queen Arlene would mete out against her mother. I did not know Arlene well, but I hoped she would be gracious to her mother and exile her.
“I am as ready as I will ever be,” I replied, and I forced a smile. Damara squeezed my elbow once more and let go. I didn’t want to rely on her, but I knew I needed her. What would I do without her steady presence beside me in these trying times? The duties of court still weighed down upon me. My part in the prophecy not only lay in action, but in careful maneuvering of politics, it seemed.
We left as a group, three women walking together, in a solemn processional, our guards trailing behind. The audience hall was where the trial was to be held. We entered and were shown to the front and waited beside the throne. The lords who had been faithful to Arlene during the rebellion were also present, and they winged either side of her seat. The rest of the chamber was filled with minor lords and those of the common folk who could find their way in. The chamber was crowded and hot from the press of so many bodies in one place. Unlike the other trials, this one was an open forum, in part to dispel any question about the judgment against the former queen.
A trumpet blared. “Now entering, Her Majesty Queen Arlene D’ Aux,” the crier’s voice rang out and silenced the assembly.
The people as one fell down on bended knee. Arlene walked in. She wore breeches and a surcoat with the rearing horse of the D’Aux royal family emblazoned on her chest. From her shoulders hung a long crimson robe, which was dragging on the ground behind her. Many had been scandalized to see her wearing men’s clothes, but she refused to heed her advisors. She had close-cropped curly black hair, which had grown out to curl around her ears, and a few locks fell into her eyes.
Had she not been announced as queen, many might have thought her the king. She was, in fact, the first lone female ruler on the throne of Neaux. In the past, the crown had passed from father to son. The late king Reginald, Arlene’s father, had no sons, and when his late brother had briefly taken the throne before being killed by the queen’s plots, Arlene had seized control as the firstborn of the late king. On Arlene’s arm was her younger sister, Marie-Celeste, the middle daughter of the royal family and heir to the throne as declared by Arlene upon her crowning. The queen and princess walked through the crowd and took seats on the dual thrones in front of the crowd.
Arlene helped her fragile sister to take her seat. Princess Marie-Celeste had always been of poor health, and in the past couple of weeks, she had only grown weaker. Her dark skin was ashen, and her cheeks appeared sunken in. It was a wonder she had the strength to come to the trial at all. I worried she was being poisoned as the late king Reginald had been. Arlene had her trusted physicians working on her sister, but Marie-Celeste appeared to have a wasting sickness none could cure.
Arlene’s throne was precarious. She had no heir, and she had a flimsy grasp upon the throne. Executing the traitors and giving out fair punishment was her last chance at gaining a firmer grasp on her throne. And then there was my role. As a diviner, I was considered impartial despite the fact that I was from Danhad. My powers were thought to supersede nationality.
Arlene called the assembly to stand. They did so with a rustling of cloaks and gowns. Arlene looked over the crowd; despite her strange choice in garment, she had a commanding presence.
“Good people, we are here today to hear testimony for the trial of former queen Celeste D’Aux for murder and treason against the crown of Neaux. I shall hear arguments for and against her innocence. When all have spoken who wish to do so, I will hand out my judgment.” She paused and scanned the crowd. “Bring in the prisoner.”
The double doors at the back of the room opened with a heavy creak. The crowd parted to let the former queen through. She was led by a pair of stiff-faced guards who wore the royal red and gold. Celeste stood in the center, her long black hair braided down her back, and she wore a gray, rough-spun gown. Her hands and feet were shackled, and they clanked as she walked. The crowd murmured as she walked by, and the whispers were agitated.
Celeste kept her head held high and her gaze forward, fixed on Arlene, who stood at the edge of the dais. I thought back to my own trial in Danhad and for a moment sympathized with her. I could imagine how terrified she was. But she is guilty of her crimes, and you were not, I had to remind myself. She came to a halt and stared at her daughter with a defiant tilt of her chin.
“Celeste D’Aux, you are accused of treason and murder. How do you plead?” Arlene asked. She gazed down at her mother, her face a mask of indifference.
How can she look down upon her mother without compassion or feeling?
Celeste smiled. One would think she was having a conversation in a parlor rather than standing trial for treason. “Not guilty,” she replied.
So the trial began. There were a host of witnesses, lords who were close to Arlene and who spoke of Celeste’s affair with Prince Reynard. They told the tale of how the queen had tricked her husband’s brother into poisoning King Reginald so she could control the throne herself. How she had used many people to her own ends. Most damning of all was her onetime advisor Lord Eeland Yette. Celeste’s face blanched when the betrayer took the stand; it was the only time she ever showed a reaction. He told the court of how the queen had instructed him to find poison, and sent secret orders to kill the poison maker. The crowd chattered at this reaction, and Arlene had to silence them to bring order.
Then finally it came my turn to speak.
“Lady Diranel, we would hear your account.” Arlene motioned for me to move forward. Damara grabbed my shoulders and squeezed before I stepped forward to give my testimony.
I stood before the lords and faced Arlene with my back to the former queen and the crowd. My body trembled, and I held my hands close to my hips to hide their shaking.
“Your Majesty, my lords, many of you know who I am and what I am. For those of you who do not, I am Maea Diranel, the last of the Diranel diviners.” There was a small gasp from the minor lords and the common folk alike. I continued on, “I was exiled from my homeland of Danhad because I knew too much. I learned of a plot to bring both Neaux and Danhad under one rule, the rule of King Adair of Danhad. When I came here seeking asylum, I discovered that the plots had already reached your kingdom as well. Celeste D’Aux plotted with King Adair to hand him the Neaux throne. She conspired with him and her companions to kill King Reginald and King Reynard in order to make way for a new king—a Danhadine king.”
The people shouted and cursed me and my people. I did not turn around. I addressed the lords who were scrutinizing me; Arlene watched me intently.
I took another deep breath. “But I must beg you, Your Majesty and lords of the council. Despite what Celeste has done, I must ask that her life be spared.”
The voices were shouting now, and my own voice was drowned out. Many people had jumped up and were arguing. I chanced a glance at Celeste, and she was smiling at me. The knowing look on her face made my stomach turn. I could not ask for this woman’s blood on my hands, not after so many were dead because of me.
After much shouting, Arlene regained control once again. “Celeste, do you deny this woman’s claims?”
Celeste smiled at me again and said, “What she said is true.”
The crowd irrupted again, but the shouts were much more easily squashed this time. I was dismissed, and I returned to my companions. I felt ready to collapse and swayed a bit. Beau came up and let me lean against his shoulder. I glanced at him, but his expression gave nothing away.
“Who will speak in this woman’s defense?” Arlene addressed the crowd.
There was a deafening silence following Arlene’s question. No one would step forward to defend a woman who had proclaimed herself a traitor.
“If none will defend her, then I will make my judgment.”
I was shocked. Should she not confer with her council first? Decide on a fit punishment? And then I saw the determined set of Arlene’s jaw. She had come to her decision before the trial had even begun.
“I declare Celeste D’Aux guilty of all charges. You shall be beheaded at dawn.”
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