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About Ungiven Land
Table of contents
A Queen Returned
Silvery, Soft Target
A New Child of Puri
For the Sake of Others
Not So Alone in the Deadlands
Rae Meets the Tribes
In Defence of Home
To the Victor the Spoils
To Thine Own Self Be True
Love, Honour and Choices
Power for the Taking
The Knowledge of Pain
The Reality of Seeing
The Word Comes
Facing up to the Facts
A Prison of Despair
On the Line
The Truth Be Told
The Aftertaste of Hate
To Thine Own Heart Be Awkward
The Time for Forgiveness
On the Road, Again
Friends that Are Foes
Deals and More Deals
The Nitty Gritty
A Waste No More
About Donna Maree Hanson
Preview of Shatterwing, Dragon Wine Part One
The Silverlands Book Three
Donna Maree Hanson
Ungiven Land is the exciting conclusion to the Silverlands Series and follows Argenterra, Book One and Oathbound, Book Two.
Sophy is not looking for a talisman: she is the talisman!
Sophy is snatched from our world during a ghost tour. Landing in the lush world of Argenterra, she’s the odd one out. She can’t use the land’s native magic, the given, even though her friend Aria, and everyone else, can.
Worse still, she’s a faded version of herself and doesn’t fit it at all.
Abandoned by Aria who marries a handsome prince, Sophy travels the land with Oakheart, the high king’s ambassador, to explore the mystery of why there is a crystal leaf growing inside her.
Then the accidents start to happen and she realises a dark force wants her: alive or maybe just dead...
We have some time before the Ancient Evil can reach into Argenterra. We are not the Ungiven Land yet…
Sophy lies trapped within Rufus’s jewelled prison. Because she is protected by her oathbond to Oakheart, Rufus cannot touch her, but her crystal form is draining Argenterra of the given. Oakheart has to leave Sophy behind because he is bound by his promise to return Gillcress to his mother, Princess Aria, at Valley Keep.
The weakening of the given has repercussions: oaths are fading and darkness has festered in Prince Dellbright’s heart. Oakheart fears for Aria and Gillcress, but he must return to the Lower Warrens and free Sophy—and before the jewel she is trapped within drains the given completely from the land. Accompanied by an adept and the forest folk, he sets out to rescue her. The order from Crystal Mountain Retreat is, if Sophy cannot be freed, she must be destroyed…The Silverlands Series Overview
In a land where oaths can’t be broken be careful what promises you make.
To break the binding oath is to risk the very magic of Argenterra.
Vorn and the First Comers fleeing death and destruction came to Argenterra through the Crystal Gate. On arrival, they made a binding oath to not kill—and in return the land gave them the given, a native magic. For over a thousand years they have prospered but now the Ancient Evil seeks Vorn’s descendants and reaches a hand into the land.
Oaths are bound with the given and every promise must be kept or the land’s magic will compel completion of the oath or prevent its breaking. Only a murder can sunder the binding oath, which would make the given fade. In his later years, Vorn prophesied that a time would come when the land would be ungiven. That time is near…
First published by Aust Spec Fiction (Donna Maree Hanson) in 2017.
Copyright © Donna Maree Hanson 2017.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations) in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the author.
CIP National Library of Australia
Title: Ungiven land / Donna Maree Hanson.
ISBN: 9780648041504 (paperback)
Series: Hanson, Donna Maree. Silverlands ; bk. 3.
Subjects: Fantasy fiction, Australian.
Creator: Hanson, Donna Maree, author.
Ebook format ISBN: 978-0-9757217-9-7
Edited by Kaaren Sutcliffe.
Cover design by Les Petersen.
To report a typographical error, please email email@example.com
To love. May its magic bring us the happiness we desire.
About Donna Maree Hanson
Preview of Shatterwing, Dragon Wine Part One
Wind rippled a strip of her torn and scorched clothing as she lay inert on the ground. Another gust dumped grit onto her head and spilt dirt onto her face. With a splutter, she woke, wiping at her nose and mouth and licking her dry lips. Sitting up, she coughed and then groaned as a sledgehammer of a headache slammed behind her eyes. She knew only pain—toes, fingers, knees, elbows, and even the tips of her ears radiated agony.
Wincing, she cracked open her eyelids. Blinking was like rubbing broken glass against her eyeballs. She was in a strange, barren place. Empty and dead. Nothing moved, only the dust. She hadn’t stumbled far from where she’d found herself at first…but what about before that? Her memory was a blank wall of nothing, impenetrable. She just knew there was something before, before this.
As she scanned her surroundings seeking a place to hide, she fought against a rising panic. Who or what did she hide from? All around was a dirty, grey landscape, streaked with sulphurous yellow smears. Barren, dry and lifeless. Probably toxic, too. The same muted colours smothered the sky, the worn, pallid rocks, and distant haze obscured the hills. An inhalation of stale, tainted air added weight to the feeling that death and isolation. This was a nothing place, a forgotten place. She could breathe the atmosphere, but there was no indication that anyone else lived here; no sign of life.
How long would air alone keep her alive? She exhaled, the taint of old smoke lingering on her tongue. She continued to scan the landscape, coughing a few times as her lungs drew in more of the left-over air. The pull of tender ribs, cuts and scrapes all over her body made her wish her cough would ease. What had happened to her? A quick inspection revealed scraps of clothing, looking burnt and torn. But when she tried to remember her head only ached more. It looked like she had fallen. From where? She angled her head up to the sky. Nothing except the stringy strands of dirty-looking cloud. She was just here.
When her eyes adjusted to the light and the texture of the place, she discerned more geographic features. Behind, the land rose up to form a scarred ridge, marked with clefts and tiny holes. Hidden behind the yellow-grey clouds was a sun that did little to lift the miasma of old smoke. Not far away, she saw a pale, blurred patch. It looked like a wood, except there was no suggestion of life or abundance. No green leaves. White, spindly growths speared out of the ground, stretching up to the sky like the limbs of drought-stricken trees.
The wind picked up, nailing small pebbles into her arms and legs. She scrambled up, shielding her eyes, and yelped as each little missile pricked her skin. With three dust devils at her heels, she aimed for the shelter of the ghostly wood. Sharp rocks cut into the soft soles of her boots, hampering her progress. At times, she crawled with eyes scrunched shut against the wind-blown debris, picking her way carefully through the rocky obstacles and occasionally falling, only to leave drips of blood on the stones along her path.
Whimpering, she reached the edge of the wood and panted, relief coursing through her as the wind was less in the shelter of the trees. The air cooled around her and, shivering, she took in her new surroundings. The distorted trunks made her think of tortured, naked bodies. Edging further in, she picked her way carefully around roots and holes, like puncture wounds in the ground. Clawed roots clung to the ground as if someone had tried to rip them out and they hung on for dear life. Dry twigs crunched under her feet and dead leaves rolled out of her way as she trod carefully. Dry brown vines and long fingers of dead leaves reached down from the sparse canopy, like a testament of a once vibrant past.
Large folds of roots created waist-high valleys, dark hollows that appeared to lead to burrows beneath the trees. These dark gaps unnerved her, made her think she was being watched. She avoided looking into them. A faint memory of lightless, closed-in spaces made her shiver anew.
Choosing a large, thick root to park herself on, she decided to check the damage to her toes and the soles of her feet. Slipping off her tattered boot, she began to clean her big toe with a bit of spit on her finger. It hurt but that particular spot did not appear too bad.
The longer she sat, the more her injuries advertised themselves and the wearier she became. The light grew dim, a slow leaching of day. With dusk, the tree trunks glowed brightly, illuminating everything. With a yelp, she jumped up. Staring around her in amazement, she saw the leaf mulch was black against glowing roots grasping soil. She stepped further into the wood, pressing through black drapes of leaves and vines. Scanning alternately overhead and along the ground, she searched for life. Nothing moved. Ahead was a large tree with thick, raised roots that embraced a bed of leaves like loving arms. She headed to it and, kneeling, checked there was nothing living in it and then lay down to sleep.
When she next woke, stiff and sore, it was morning. The tree trunks no longer glowed and the pallid sky indicated the sun was up. What had woken her? She drew in a breath. Sounds assaulted her ears: click, click, clicking. Her heart skipped a beat. What was that? Swinging her head around, she tried to detect where it was coming from. Behind her, beside her, in front of her, beneath her: it kept changing, moving.
Surging to her feet, she pushed her hair out of her face and scampered over the roots, heading deeper into the wood. Soon she was surrounded by pale, dead trees. The sound of her panting was overly loud. Turning in a full circle, using her hand on a high, fat root to balance herself, she looked to the tops of the trees, seeing nothing except the empty, grasping limbs. The click, click, clicking returned, more deafening than a forest full of chorusing cicadas in mid-summer. Trying to calm her panic, she put her fingers in her ears. The sound would not be shut out.
What was it? Where was this place? Who was she? The memory of who she was hovered there, just out of reach, if only she could grab it and hold it for long enough. The sounds overwhelmed her, stopped her thinking, and filled up her mind with fear. The noise grew even louder and she screamed for it to stop. Her voice was drowned out and she despaired, but abruptly the crescendo of clicks stopped. Her breathing relaxed and her ears ached.
Into the empty space she heard a voice calling a name. It was coming from a long way off. Surprised, she began to make her way out of the wood. Her progress was slow, hindered by the roots that had to be navigated or climbed over. The voice was deep and drawing closer. “Sophy. Soooophhyy?”
A familiar voice—she didn’t understand her reaction to it. Her stomach clenched and fluttered as if hundreds of butterflies were taking flight. Sophy? That’s me! That’s my name.
The voice was now in the wood. The trees deflected the sound, making it hard to pinpoint. The clicking sounds were rising again, over the sound of crunching twigs. Whatever was approaching was large enough to smash its way through the trees. She heard a ripping sound, then a crash followed by a mindless screech. A sound that made her shake uncontrollably. She no longer headed towards the voice. It was moving in her direction. She turned and ran.
The click, click clicking drowned out the encroaching voice. Her eyes darted around. She could hear movement around her, like cockroaches swarming. Then a tree collapsed near her, bringing down another one with it. Panicked, she kept running, then stumbled. Looking down, she expected a tree root was the cause, but there was a multitude of tiny brown hands around her ankles.
“Argh!” she cried as horror swept through her. Yelling, she tried to stamp her feet but as soon as she lifted one, the hands tugged and she dropped to her knees. A scream escaped her when she saw the gaping black hole she was being tugged into. She did not want to be pulled down into the ground, down into the dark places.
Between her panicked screams, she heard the approaching voice again, the one that ignited a strange fear. The ground-hands tugged urgently. Now thigh deep, her legs were dangling into the empty space beneath the trees. The hands pulled at the strips of her clothing, pinching her thighs, her buttocks. She dropped into the hole, just managing to snag the root above her head with a desperate grasp to halt her fall. She gritted her teeth, fighting the pull of the many hands.
A crash sounded as another tree fell. In the aftermath floated that voice, caressingly soft, yet loud enough to hear. “Sooophyyy! Come to me. Come to your angel.”
As if they too were listening to the voice, the clicking noise the creatures made subsided but the grip of the hands strengthened.
“Sooophy,” said the sweet angelic voice. “Come to me, my sweet. I know you are there waiting for me.”
Sophy let go of the root in preparation to cup her hand around her mouth to call out a reply. But before she could draw breath, the hands jointly yanked her down into the dark and hands covered her mouth, stifling her voice. Eyes wide in the dark, she sensed hundreds of creatures were there with her, moving around her and on top of her, crowded in. As one they hushed as the creature with the seductive voice drew closer. Through the gap made by her passage, she could see the world, as if on a television screen. As he came into view, she saw a tall, grey-skinned, hairless being, with bat wings and red glowing eyes. Saw him sniff the air with a rat like nose. “Know you are here, little one, little jewel. Come to me now.”
When she gave no answer, he sniffed again. Did that mean he could smell her?
“You may hide for now, little jewel. But you will come to me eventually. There is no life here, no food, no shelter. I am your only hope. She wants to talk to you. Only talk. No harm will come to you if you come now and freely.”
Even if she had wanted to go with him, the hands held her firm and quiet. The image of him was familiar. The memories came back, painfully and slowly; she had to fight to get them to the front of her brain. Rufus. His name was Rufus and he meant danger. There was more there, she could tell, but she couldn’t remember other than the sensation of danger and of past history where he had abused her, hurt her and those she loved.
Loved? There were people she cared about. A vision of wide green eyes loomed large. She could not remember the details and could only recognise the gap in her life where these others she cared for had existed. Perhaps other memories would return, like the one of Rufus. Now at least she knew her name: Sophy.
A loud thump drew her from her reverie and then another. More trees crashing to the ground marked the passage of Rufus as he ploughed through the wood. After a while the wood grew quiet. The air smelt stale in the dark place and she could feel the little creatures moving against her, like a wave of rats. Revulsion at the thought of rodents made her thrash and one by one the hands dropped away from her mouth. The creatures began to click again, soft, gentle clicking.
They had saved her, prevented her from giving herself up to Rufus. That meant they had intelligence—and a prior knowledge of this Rufus. Perhaps this was where Rufus came from. More memories were hovering, but they splintered and drifted out of reach. No point in forcing it or being angry with herself. If the memories were there then they would return. They had to.
Now that she had recovered from her fright, the sound of the little creatures relaxed her. Her panting eased, her heart ceased thumping painfully and echoing against her rib cage. Without sunlight, she could not see the creatures but she could sense them, hundreds of them. Yet they did not move to harm her, or bite her, or make any other threatening gestures. So, what next? She couldn’t stay down in this little hole forever.
Before she could assess her surroundings, the hands snatched at her again, dragging and pushing her flat on the ground. Then lifting her, they tugged her along what appeared to be a tunnel, her body running over hands like a conveyor belt. Her nose brushed the ceiling, and occasionally an elbow or knee caught the earthen sides. Fear took hold of her, particularly when fine grains of dirt rained down on her face, so she closed her eyes and let the little creatures take her. It wasn’t as if she had a choice. A scream perched in her throat, waiting to pounce.
Time passed slowly. She scrunched her eyelids shut as she was trundled along like a parcel in some automated post office, the smooth transfer from little hands to more little hands appearing seamless. Then came a change: the air felt cooler, fresher, and the feel of the soil being so close subsided.
Opening her eyes, she found that she was in a small cavity dug into the ground, suffused with dim light. The hands lowered her to the ground and the creatures moved away. She sat up, her head gently brushing the ceiling, in time to see the tail ends of the creatures disappear into a multitude of holes. She shook her head, not sure what she had seen. Curling into a ball, she huddled, waiting for what came next. An hour passed, maybe more. There was nothing except the occasional soft hissing click. She could, if she tried, stretch out here and lie flat. There was only enough room to stand doubled over. Better to crawl, she realised, if she wanted to move around. As her eyes adjusted to the low light, she saw about twenty dark holes in the sides, roof and ground, which appeared to be tunnels leading away—a dark, tiny labyrinth. At the base of the opposite wall was a small pool of water.
On all fours she shuffled forwards. The creatures stared out at her from the tunnel openings, a series of small glowing lights that she reasoned must be their eyes. She could hear the soft clicking noises they made. Were they afraid of her? Why? They had grabbed her and dragged her down here, so why would they be afraid of her?
“Hello?” she said quietly. “Is anybody there?”
A rising choruses of click, click, clicking responded. None of the creatures dared to put in an appearance. “Bugger,” Sophy said to herself. “I guess I’ll have to sit here while you guys work up the nerve to let me go or at least talk to me.”
Her stomach grumbled loudly. “I’m hungry. Is there food?” No answer, not even one click. Using a hand-to-mouth gesture she mimicked eating, exaggerating the movements and making noises. Then she paused, looked around the tunnels and saw lots of glowing eyes staring at her. Had they got the message? “A bit of food would be nice. Steak, medium rare, roasted potatoes and don’t forget the gravy.” Scooping out a seat for herself in the soft soil, she sat down. Another suggestion came to mind while she was fantasising about food. “A pizza maybe—with the works.”
Once seated, she eyed the pool. Dipping her fingers in, she licked the tips. It tasted a bit musty. Her mouth was dry. She rubbed some of the water on her dry lips. Her tongue darted out. She may as well drink. Cupping her hands she scooped more water into her mouth, and then drank deeply. It eased her hunger, lifted her mood slightly. She wasn’t going to die today, which was a nice thought to have.
More clicks and then the sound of scampering feet echoed around her. She wondered what they were doing. Could they have understood her? Sophy was tired and her fear had lessened somewhat. Yet if she thought it through, there was not much hope. She was in a strange land, with barely any idea who she was or why she was there. These creatures had provided some shelter, or was it an early tomb? Without food she wouldn’t last long. At least her headache had eased somewhat.
“Think, think, damn it. How long can you last on water alone?” She stared at the pool, wondering. Yet what point was there staying alive anyway? What was going to happen? What was she to do? A black wall of nothing in her mind was her only answer. Rufus was looking for her. He knew who she was and why she was there. Instinctively, she was afraid of him. Yet he seemed to be the only way ahead, unless she regained her memory. Casting a look around the little hollow, she reminded herself of the world above. She wasn’t going to last long in this place.
Curling herself up into a ball again, she tried to sleep, or at least nap. The sound of Rufus’s voice tormented her as soon as she closed her eyes. The recollection of the trees shattering and crashing to the ground made her jump and twitch in her sleep. She groaned once or twice, trying to clear her head. Well rested, she might be able to deal with her new circumstances. Danger, she understood, but the loss of memory made things more difficult. There was something she should be doing, but for the life of her couldn’t remember what. Someone needed her but she didn’t remember who or why.
Maralain followed the adepts who carried Jeff’s body to the retreat. He was Prince Daken of Valley Keep, but had been Jeff to her so long that that was the name she held in her heart. Jeff stood for the life they’d lived in another world far from Argenterra—and from oaths that couldn’t be broken. After Sophy had vanished through the Crystal Gate, and the gate itself had dissipated in a swirl of colours, they had found Jeff lying dead just below where the gate had been.
The adepts, only knowing him as Prince Daken who had vanished long ago, carried him to a room in the lower floors of the retreat. An adept turned to her, causing her to pause. An older man, with a grey beard and soft blue eyes, the adept bowed to her. “Please wait while we see to him.”
The adept’s words barely registered as she watched Jeff’s body being lifted onto a table inside the room and the door closing her out. She stood in the hallway in a daze, conscious that her face was wet from tears. Her body and mind were numb.
“Mum?” Aria’s voice sounded from behind her. Aria’s hand reached out and squeezed hers. “I can’t believe this. I’m going to miss him so much.” Her daughter’s voice was clogged with tears. Jeff had been a father to her; the only one she had known. Aria stepped closer, put her arms around Maralain’s neck and wept.
Maralain held herself distant, fortified with barriers. Too much pain. Too much hurt. But Aria’s sobbing broke down her defences. A sudden wail leapt out of her mouth and she bent her head to weep on her daughter’s shoulder. Life-crushing sobs, such that she had never experienced. He was gone. There was no way to comprehend that. It was sudden and violent and unexpected. All she could understand was that life was different now.
The door opened and the adept stood poised, waiting until she lifted her head. He beckoned her in, his cream-coloured robe rippling with his gesture. Aria waved for her to go first. The adepts had tried to tidy his body up, to cover his wounds. She touched his foot, ran a hand up to his knee, and then touched his shoulder with her other hand. The burn marks where his eyes had been were hidden by a cloth and her gaze rested on his lifeless face, composed now in deathly slumber. How she wished that he was asleep, that he would wake, but she knew he never would. He was gone. Gone forever. She snatched at his hand. “Jeff!” And then the tears flowed. “Oh Jeff!” she wailed.
Aria cried quietly beside her. Maralain lost track of time. Her sobbing eventually eased to silent anguish. She was alone: Aria must have gone. Mutely, she stared down at her dead lover and her mind lost itself to memory.
“Will you retire now, my lady queen?” the adept asked as he returned to the room. “We shall prepare him.”
“No. I will stand vigil tonight. Bring me fresh water and towels, and a robe. I wish to bathe and dress him.”
The adept bowed and left the room. “Now, my love,” she whispered. “We say goodbye.” She stripped off his clothes and thanked the adept who unobtrusively brought her a bowl of water and towels. As the widow, this was her duty. His skin was cold to the touch, but she wiped him with warm snow-melt, scented with rose oil. When she was done, she dressed him in white adept’s robes for burial. While she worked, she talked to him, to the spirit of him that remained, and told him all the things she had kept hidden: the secret pain of leaving her son; the unspoken dreams and the longings for family and her home in Argenterra. She spoke also of the love and life they had shared and how dear those memories would always be. Sprinkled amongst those truths were tears of grief.
When they came to take him for burial, Maralain was standing still, looking down on his face, not a thought left in her head. She was empty.
Then he came: Dellbright. Maralain could not look at him. He did not speak to her, nor approach his father’s body. He watched. Dark, brooding Dellbright. When the procession moved, she tried to make eye contact, but he refused to even meet her eye. Aria would have come to say goodbye if not for Dellbright. Maralain did not blame her daughter for not coming, not after such strange violence. There was more to their situation than met the eye, but she couldn’t engage with it, not then. Not until she said goodbye. Not until the pain lessened.
Cocooned in a burial cloth, Jeff was carried to the burial place, which was outside with the mountains towering above them and a breeze cutting through their clothes, shredding warmth and words. Steel-grey clouds roiled above them. A dull roar of distant thunder presaged a storm.
An adept said the words of parting. Maralain crinkled her brow. Were they meant to console her? Well, they didn’t. The adept told her that Jeff was to be interred in a cave, for the ground was too rocky and cold to bury the dead. So Jeff would join the adepts at their rest.
Then when it was done. All trace of Jeff was gone from the surface of the world, she turned to the retreat. She had a lot to do.
“My children and my home need me.”
Oakheart had wept on and off during the night, overwhelmed by all that had occurred and his inability to act as he chose. Duty and honour warred with his heart. Now, in the morning light, he lay back on the sheets and stared at the ceiling, a mind-numbing emptiness opening up inside. Sophy! The comforting tether of their bond was gone—as if it had been savagely cut from him.
Too tired and sore to get up, he lay listless on his bed. His body ached as if he had been tumbled down into one of the Glassy Mountains’ many gorges and then dragged up the other side. He acknowledged this mood as a depression. Expected, he supposed. It was a frame of mind he did not have time for. Had he been light of spirit, perhaps his physical aches would not loom so large.
Sophy was gone through the Crystal Gate. That was a cold, hard fact. That might not have been so bad if he had been able to follow directly, but the gate had snapped firmly shut behind her. None at the retreat could open it again, despite his urgings and pleadings. What use was all their learning if they could not do that one simple thing? Previously in his heart, he had cherished admiration for the adepts. Of late, that had crumbled to dust. Too much had happened. Now, he could only look upon them with a jaundiced eye, perhaps seeing them for what they really were: flawed.
Then began the debates about what had really happened, about where Sophy actually had gone. Had she been taken or had she left of her own accord? He ground his teeth. He knew what had happened, despite his mother opining that Sophy had gone home to her own world. There was no argument as far as he was concerned: Unesta’s minion, Rufus, had snatched her. He longed to believe that she was safe at home, despite in accepting that story it would be a mark of her rejection of him. He dared not believe it to be true. His fist clenched. Rufus!
But now there was war and duty to add to this ineffectual situation. Word had come from Silverdale that the Puri had made war on Argenterra and, duty-bound, he must go with speed to their aid. He could not help Sophy. By the given it was more than he could bear. Three times he had failed her. First, when he failed to stop her falling into Rufus’s trap in the Lower Warrens, second through weakness after her retrieval so that just when he needed to be strong, he allowed her to be snatched away by Nasheen. And now a third time through inaction. He could not follow: thus he could not save her. To fail her again. How could she ever forgive him? How could he forgive himself?
A knock at the door sent him diving for his clothes. He was doing up his breeches when his mother came in. Now that she was here, he found he resented the intrusion and the expectation she appeared to have that he would accept and respect her without any recriminations about her past actions. “Lianal sends word that Veld calls on the talkstone. Will you come?”
“Straight away.” Drawing on a shirt, he noticed his mother inspecting him. He lifted an eyebrow. “Mother?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.” However, she lifted her shoulders and tilted her head. “It’s just you’re so like your father, but I see me in your eyes. You’re a man now. It’s hard to take in.”
Oakheart closed his eyes. Her manner of speaking was so like Sophy’s it made his heart clench. “You chose to leave. There is little use in repining to me.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in a wounded look. “You’re heartless,” she replied, voice low. “I didn’t expect that from you.”
“What did you expect? Love, honour, obedience?” Oakheart barked out a laugh.
Her expression hid her thoughts and she turned away. “Hurry. Veld is waiting to speak to you.”
Oakheart studied her face. Red blotches indicated she’d been crying. Then he knew he’d inadvertently missed Daken’s funeral. He had not shown his mother the courtesy of witnessing her grief. “I am sorry for your loss, mother. I…I did not absent myself from Daken’s burial on purpose. I was…indisposed.”
She lifted her gaze to his, her expression distant. “He’s gone now. There’s much to do.”
“I am sorry for speaking to you roughly. You are new to your grief, as I am to mine. Forgive me.”
Her gaze passed over him. “There is nothing to forgive. I realise he was nothing to you but the source of your pain.” She turned away.
Oakheart repressed a sigh as he followed after, wading through a rising tide of mixed emotions and remnants of past trauma.
Oakheart entered the room where a large crystal hung suspended in chains, hovering over a stone pedestal. An adept viewing a smaller stone acknowledged him with a nod and rose to pull up a chair. The high king was called and soon his face loomed in the stone.
High King Veld had aged since Oakheart had last seen him. Although the old man tried to hide it, Oakheart saw the tear drops smattering his ruddy cheek when he spoke of Mara’s return. He knew his father still loved his wife, knew that he would forgive her for all she had done. Brokenly, Veld had passed on words of welcome to convey to her and charged Oakheart to ask Mara, if she would so have it, to garner fighters around her, then to make haste to Silverdale to assist in their defence.
“Father. There is more.”
A white eyebrow lifted. “More?”
“Aria, the Gift of Crystal Tree Woods. She is my sister.”
Veld recoiled. “Sister? But…but that means Mara…”
“Yes, Mara carried your child out of Argenterra. She said as much. Seeing her and knowing her, I know this to be true. Aria is your child.”
“And married to Dellbright?” Veld’s voice was strained.
“Yes, and there’s more.” Oakheart looked down at his feet, hating to tell his father the next part. “All is not well with their marriage, father. Dellbright abused Aria, raped and beat her. He took their child away and withheld food and freedom. Such a wrong has been done to her that it could not be disguised. You know she ran away from him and is here at the retreat?”
Veld let out a sob. “My dear child! My dear daughter? Such a mess. By the given I will see her soon. And her child? My grandson?”
Oakheart squeezed his hand into a fist. “Yes, Gillcress is your grandchild. I have not seen the child since I returned him to Valley Keep. Aria says she was not allowed to be with her son.”
“He has no right to do this, to take the child from her. What ails the man that he should do this to one he loves?”
“I do not understand it, either. Something dark has influenced him, lives within him. The loss of his mother in such a violent way has wounded his spirit.”
They regarded each other in silence. Veld brought a cup to his lips and drank deeply.
Oakheart waited and then ventured to speak again. “My king, I will come to your aid as soon as I can but Sophy, my wife, is lost beyond the Crystal Gate…”
Veld sat back, his face drooping with shock. Too much bad news all at once, on top of the situation in Silverdale. Oakheart was frustrated not to be there to support his king, but torn because his duty was to Sophy, too. Never had his role in life been such a burden. “My son, I know not what to advise you. I can see Sophy is dear to your heart. You want to go to her. But I need you here. Soon. I am trapped within a nest of spiders and doing my best to hold them back so our people will be safe.”
“Is it really Hanal and his Puri horde?”
Veld nodded and wiped a hand across his forehead. “Perhaps I should have harkened to your earlier advice and allowed you to marry Lyant, thereby giving Hanal of Puri what he wanted—an alliance. What I did, I did for the best and based on my own understanding.”
Oakheart lifted an eyebrow, which Veld caught.
His father looked sharply at him. “Yes, yes, you are right, I will admit it. My own prejudices blurred my thinking. There, I can see the error of my ways, late though it is. Yet, I find it hard to regret that one denial. You have Sophy, who is more important than a mere Puri ally. Perhaps I could have offered Lyant another: Fern, for instance. Too late to repine now.”
Oakheart’s heart pounded at the mere mention of Sophy. “You know that Sophy held a portion of the land’s given within her? Thus, with her taken from here, Argenterra is weakened, perhaps for good?”
Veld nodded. “I do not know how we will live with a decrease of the given. Already there is panic here as the lessening spreads to the Upper Plateau. The Puri may want what we have, but the fact is what they want may no longer exist.”
“It is more than just the given being harder to work. Oaths are weakening. The Puri raiders have not killed in the past. They have hurt, they have stolen property and abducted women, but never slaughtered. They have always held true to the binding oath, father. If that oath weakens much more then there could be killing.”
Veld shook his head, shoulders slumped in misery. “I know.”
“How did they manage it?” Oakheart asked.
Veld lifted a fist. “They came from the north and Glasshiver warriors ride with them. No oath binds those from Glasshiver—before or now.”
Oakheart started. “The north?” he blurted. “How is that possible?” All their plans for the defence of Silverdale centred on Brightfalls and possible attacks from the Unknown Lands. They had thought Silverdale unapproachable. The Upper Plateau should have been sufficient to deter any invader. Glasshiver too. They had always been a remote but friendly trading partner.
“Our scouts report that Glasshiver warriors had been working on excavating a pass, in a box canyon in the Fortitude Ranges.” He checked a document that was shown to him. “Glass Cutting Canyon, we think. The canyon wall was known to be thinner there, but no one thought that it could be breached. The north has always been secure.”
Oakheart pulled on his lower lip. “Then there was no warning. No declaration of intent either?”
“No. Hanal did not make a declaration. The Puri just appeared and started running the farmers off their lands, coercing them by taking their women, burning homes.” Veld rubbed his hand over his face. Oakheart had never seen him look so worn, so defeated.
“So far there is only a handful of Glasshiver warriors. My scouts estimate one thousand Puri.”
Oakheart considered the threat. It was severe, but not insurmountable. “That is not a lot of warriors.”
“In a surprise attack and through the north, it is plenty. We could not deploy a force to fight them when they swarmed over us. We could only bring people inside the walls and prepare for a siege before they reached the gates.”
Oakheart rubbed his cheek as he thought of possibilities. “Still, they are few in number. We could—”
“I see what you are thinking,” Veld said, shaking his head. “There will be no easy victory. All I can hope for is that you can raise an army to come to our aid.”
“Of course, I will do all I can. Have you any word from the By-way? Is it clear?”
“I have no news. But be prepared, Oakheart. Hanal is no fool. He will secure the By-way and cut you off. They are tightening the noose.”
Oakheart bit his lip. The defence of Silverdale was always built around the impregnability of the Upper Plateau and control of the By-way that allowed access to it. A narrow switchback pathway up the face of the plateau, it was of strategic value. From the top of the By-way, any attack could be repelled by only a handful of warriors. Argenterra’s one strategic advantage had been turned against them. Once the Puri controlled the By-way, there was little that could be done to provide relief. Some serious thinking would be required to make any headway. Hopefully, there were some military-minded men to be found outside Silverdale.
“Time is of the essence,” Veld said, leaning forwards so that his face dominated the talkstone.
“Then we will leave as soon as we can. Tomorrow, I think. But I have not many men with me. The adepts may lend us a few fighting men and women. We must gather warriors as we ride.” Oakheart was going to insist that those fighting adepts who had fought against him when he searched for Sophy be included in his forces. Maybe they would teach him the technique with the given. It was still hard to understand how the given could be used as a weapon. Maybe it would give them an advantage.
“We both know who has the most fighting men outside of Silverdale.”
Oakheart’s head jerked up and he ground his teeth. Dellbright! He narrowed his gaze at his father. Should he warn him how the change in his cousin may affect the discussions?
“Leave that negotiation to me.” His father looked to the side, distracted by someone entering the room. “I must go. Something urgent has come up.”
“Before you go, may I ask a boon of you, father?” Oakheart asked, gazing steadily at his father’s image in the talkstone.
“Ask,” Veld said, head held in his hand as if it ached beyond measure.
“When we have gathered fighters and delivered them to you, allow me to return here to find Sophy. The retreat is looking for a way to operate the gate. I do not know when it will be, only that I must come when the way is found. One less man fighting will not change the outcome.”
Veld looked up, mouth agape. “You do not wish to fight for Silverdale?”
“I do, father, but I cannot leave Sophy to her fate. If, as Mara says, she is free and happy in her own world, then I will leave her there, if that be her wish, and return straight away. But I believe Rufus has her and, if so, she will be in danger, suffering needlessly at his hands. I must do all I can to save her, however late I may be.”
Veld nodded. “I agree, though it grieves me. You have a way to galvanise the men and you are a great leader and warrior in your own right. It will be a disadvantage for us but I will not hold you back. When the time is right, you may go. Will your mother come to Silverdale, do you think?”
“Yes, I am sure she is already rallying those adepts who will fight by our side and is busy organising supplies for our journey. We should be able to leave tomorrow morning.”
“I will speak to you again after I deal with this problem that has arisen here. I will speak to Aria too.”
After saying farewell, Oakheart left the room where the talkstone stood. Outside the door Mara waited for him, an impatient look marring her features, twisting her mouth. “What word do you have?”
“I told him we would leave tomorrow.” He started to walk away, and she trailed after him. “We need to gather troops and supplies. I must speak with Lianal to see what adepts he can spare.”
“Wait!” She grabbed at his shoulder, then withdrew her hand. “I want to talk to you.”
Oakheart turned. Maralain stood very still, chin high, her bearing regal. He let out an impatient sigh. “We leave tomorrow on a journey of many weeks. We will have plenty of time to talk then.”
He stalked away but she followed him back to his room. “Oakheart! Wait.” Short of shutting the door in her face there was little he could do to exclude her. With a slight bow, he let her pass inside. Once in his room, Mara strolled about, looking at his things, touching them with the tips of her fingers and surreptitiously casting her gaze at him, sizing him up. “I thought perhaps you would join Aria and me for breakfast.”
Oakheart rolled up a shirt and placed it in his pack. Wasn’t time supposed to be of the essence? “You invite me to eat with you and my sister?” He let out a sigh, realising that he was being boorish. “That I would gladly do.”
Mara nodded, her face solemn. “You don’t forgive easily, do you, son?”
A breath huffed out of him. He thought he was doing a good job of being civil and hiding his feelings. “I do forgive you, mother. ’Tis just not easy to adjust. So much has happened and there are so many calls on my duty that I can barely think straight. Of course, I would like to get to know you again. But I worry about the possible impact you might have.”
Her gaze leapt to his. “What do you mean?”
“I worry that you will hurt father. He never stopped loving you, you know.”
“Pfah! What did he ever know of love? What did he care then? I was a thing, a necessary thing. He was oblivious to me.”
Oakheart finished organising his gear so he could join them for breakfast. “You will find that you are mistaken, and perhaps your recollection is obscured by emotion and time. He suffered greatly when you left. Still does.”
“You’re only saying that to make me feel guilty. I won’t be forced to take the blame; it’s as much his fault as mine.” Bristling with anger, Mara preceded him out of the door.
Oakheart repressed a groan. She had to understand that she was still a beautiful woman and still capable of breaking his father’s heart all over again. Yes, she grieved for Daken. Yes, she said she did not love her husband. Perhaps she did hold many grievances against the high king. He was not privy to what had gone on between them, only what he had witnessed as a child. But she was here now. Her oath was still there, weaker perhaps, but still in force. She could take no other, and Veld would never force her to do anything she did not want. There was ample opportunity to break Veld’s heart all over again. He feared such a happening: it would be the end of Veld.
Aria played with her hair while she waited for the rest of her family to join her for breakfast. Her grief at the loss of Jeff was still with her. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to see him buried, not when he was there too. Her jaw ached from the blow he’d dealt her, even after receiving healing from adept Aran. It had to be enough, supporting her mother and sharing her grief. And Sophy was gone. Just like that. Leaving her here to deal with everything, leaving a hole in her life. Oh Sophy, I hope you’re okay. Please be okay.
Aria had other problems. Dellbright was still at the retreat—a fellow guest, as she was. She could feel his evil presence nearby, like a throbbing ache smack in the middle of her head. It was probably her oathbond that gave her that feeling. Her sensitivity to the given was increasing and as the oathbond was something made of the given, it was natural to assume that this was so.
More than anything she wanted to be gone, far away from Dellbright. His presence this close weighed her down, brought back memories, gutted her confidence. Clenching her fist, she pressed it against the table. It was necessary to fight these feelings or she would never be free of Dellbright and the effects of his abuse.
In her own right she was a princess, with intelligence and a talent with the given. None of that she owed to Dellbright. Damn him for being there. His brooding presence complicated everything.
Her and Fern’s original plan for leaving Argenterra had been that they would return to her world, then go to her mother and live with her until they sorted their lives out. But Maralain’s sudden appearance through the Crystal Gate and the consequent revelations of her true identity and past events changed everything. Yes, she still loved and wanted Fern, but it was all so complicated now. Fern had not taken the change in their situation well, and Aria hadn’t had much time to talk to him about it. They had both been caught up in a swirl of activity ever since the surprise arrival of her mother and the loss of Sophy through the gate. How she wished Sophy was there to advise her with her good sense. When she did try to talk to Fern, he was sullen and uncommunicative. That made her angry and hurt. Why couldn’t he be more understanding?
It was enough to convince her that men were not worth it and that she had abominable taste in the opposite sex. It made her question her assessment of her intelligence. But smarts didn’t relate to emotions, did they? A long, slow sigh escaped her.
A knock at the door broke her out of her reverie. The door opened and an adept came in, followed quickly by another. Together, they laid covered platters of food on the table. “Thank you,” she said to the one who entered first.
She thought she saw him tremble when he nodded to her. “I am sorry, but are you all right?” she asked him. His companion inclined his head and left the room.
“Yes, princess. I am called Rany. I will be joining you to fight for Silverdale.” Her gaze rested on his hands. When he noticed, he held them up closer to his eyes. “Oh!” He threw her a grin. “I am shaking because I am excited, that is all.”
Aria nodded again and smiled. “How very brave of you. I thank you.”
The young adept blushed and quickly shut the door behind him. Aria lifted a lid on one of the covered platters just as her mother and Oakheart came in.
“Morning,” Aria said with more brightness than she felt. Her mother’s expression was strained and Oakheart had dark shadows under his eyes. Yet he moved with grace and more strength than he had in the weeks since Rufus nearly snuffed out his life. That lifted her heart. He was finally returning to his normal physical strength.
“Looks like hot toffelporridge and syrup,” she added after finishing her inspection.
Her mother’s eyes brightened. “Toffelporridge? I never thought to taste that ever again. Jeff—I mean Daken—loved a good bowl of it and often yearned for it in the mornings...”
Aria blushed and glanced under her lashes at Oakheart. He had sat down and started heaping some porridge into his bowl. He didn’t appear to react to the reference to Daken. Maralain dabbed at her eyes. Her grief was still close, as was to be expected. Aria leant across the table and squeezed her hand. “I’m so sorry. Jeff was a good father to me.”
Oakheart’s head shot up and his eyes flashed. “But he was not your father, was he? You were effectively stolen away from your true father, your family, your home. If only we had known who you really were, events would have taken a different course. You would not be in the situation you are in now, or made to suffer at the hands…”
When Aria’s mouth fell open, Oakheart lowered his head and dropped his spoon to clench his hand. She had rarely seen him so tense. That he thought of her touched her. For a fleeting moment, she wondered what her life would have been like growing up with him as her brother.
Closing her gaping mouth, Aria slid her gaze to her mother, whose face was clouded with anger. “You cannot change what has happened!” her mother began hotly. “I told you before, I did not know I carried Aria when I left here.”
“And would that have changed things? Would you have stayed if you had known?”
Maralain paused in lifting her spoon, an angry expression twisting her mouth. “I repeat, the past cannot be changed. I did what I thought was best at the time.”
“Best? For you and your womanising lover? Face it, mother, you acted selfishly without regard for any of us. Did you ever spare me or father or Aurore a second thought when you took Daken to your bed in your new world where oaths are nothing?”
Aria gasped as she saw the colour leak from her mother’s face. “Oakheart, you shouldn’t talk like that...” Aria whispered urgently. “Maybe…calm down…a little bit.”
“It’s okay, Aria,” her mother said. “I understand Oakheart’s difficulty.”
“Really? How can you? If only you had told Aria who she was, or at least what Argenterra was, so that she knew something of her history when she came here.”
Maralain bit her lip and Aria thought there were tears in her eyes. “I…”
“Better still,” Oakheart went on. “You have been through the Crystal Gate. Perhaps you know of its workings. Perhaps you can help me fetch my wife.”
Her mother shook her head. “Jeff was the one who studied it.” Maralain screwed up her napkin, fingers working with nervous tension. “He was able to predict when it would arrive.” Her glistening eyes met Oakheart’s angry gaze. “I know nothing about—” She shrugged, and let go of the napkin, which slowly expanded from its tight ball shape.
Oakheart stood up, scraping his chair on the floor as he pushed it back. “Forgive me. I fear that I am upset by events.” He tossed down his own napkin.
Before Oakheart could do or say anything further, an adept rushed in. “Please, Oakheart. High King Veld is back on the talkstone.”
He acknowledged the adept with a nod. Turning to Aria, he bowed quickly. “Please excuse me, I must speak with Veld.” He did not look in his mother’s direction.
Aria was so stunned she couldn’t say anything as Oakheart stormed out of the room, with the adept hurrying after him. Maralain started to cry as soon as he was gone. Forgetting about her breakfast, Aria went to comfort her mother. Oakheart’s words blazed across her heart. Selfish, he said. Did he mean her too? She had been going to leave Gilly behind and run off with Fern. Oh lord, I’m so confused.
She respected Oakheart and wanted to always be held high in his esteem. Never had she witnessed him so angry before, so out of control. Did the loss of Sophy affect him that much? With a sinking heart she realised it did. Just when he’d thought he had got her back for good, she was snatched away. Talk about a difficult love life. To top it off, Sophy had indicated that she hated the idea of being a princess and was livid that he, her husband, was the high king’s son and heir. Sophy had been very angry at Oakheart—and Aria—for keeping that fact from her and asking others to do so. Of course, being Sophy she would have gotten over it and forgiven them, such was her nature.
As Aria soothed her mother, she reminisced about when Sophy had been caught in Rufus’s trap. Oakheart had fulfilled his oath and placed Aria’s abducted son, Gilly, back in Aria’s hands, and then he went straight back to the Lower Warrens and risked his life yet again to save Sophy. Indeed, his life had been attached to his body by the merest ethereal tether as he lay helpless, mortally weakened by Rufus. So, Sophy had been taken and Oakheart had dragged himself across Argenterra to find her. Of course he must be conflicted now.
She had to consider his words just now about what might have been if she had known who she was. Would she have married Dellbright if she’d known she was a princess of Argenterra? Not straight away, as she had. She looked down at her mother, feeling a twist of the knife of regret. Then Sophy would have been the bride. No, that was never going to work. Sophy and Dellbright never liked each other. Aria and Sophy would have both gone to Silverdale with Oakheart and things would have been different. But it was best not to walk down that path. She couldn’t change it now. What was done was done. Damn that cliché. It is so fitting!
Poor Oakheart. He must be devastated that he could no longer feel his oathbond. Lord, I wish I didn’t feel mine. That otherworldly bond still existed between her and Dellbright, forever a reminder of their connection. She managed to dampen it down, to exclude his malice. Her oath tether was enough to let her know he lived, and if she lowered her defences she’d taste the dark wall of emotion and anger. Just the thought of what lay beneath the surface of him made her shudder with revulsion and, she had to admit, fear. Would she ever be free of her terror of him?
Too much was happening to let herself be drawn into the complexities of “what if”. She had to accept Adept Aran’s offer to teach her basic healing and anatomy while she was at the retreat. That was the best use of her skill. Then even without access to Sophy’s power, she could treat casualties with the given.
Once back in her room, Maralain lay down on her bed and stared at the plain walls and lost herself in reminiscences. The breakfast meeting with Oakheart had not gone well, she thought sarcastically. In fact, it was over before it began. Aria understood her better. She supposed that was right: she was her daughter, a daughter who faced similar decisions in life. And Maralain had been there for her for all of her life until she had been snatched way by the wanderer and brought here to Argenterra. However, if she were honest, there had not been a day since she had first left Argenterra that she hadn’t thought about Oakheart, hadn’t grieved for her bonny son, so strong and clever—and so very left behind.
Jeff was dead. Tears came again. They’d had nearly twenty years together, happy years, enjoying each other, escaping from the trouble of their lives in Argenterra. Other than missing her son, Maralain had not reflected much on her previous Argenterran life. Jeff had the philosophy of living in the now and pursuing dreams, and she had followed along. It was only her insistence that they seek out Aria that had led him to summon the Crystal Gate. She had no one to blame for his death but herself.
In her not-so-secret heart, she had hoped that Vorn had died, leaving her free. Was that such a bad thing? However, as soon as she stepped through the gate, the oath had snapped shut around her. Funny that it was Daken who had felt no bindings or echo of his oath. Aurore was dead, leaving him free. It had been a brief instant of happy realisation for him before his life was prematurely taken. And she barely had time to register his passing before other things intervened: Sophy stepping through the gate, leaving her son broken-hearted; Aria holding hands with that upstart Fern; Dellbright hurling accusations and sneering at them all, and news of Puri raiding Silverdale.
Puri in Silverdale? Unthinkable. That was her home, the home of her ancestors. Funny after being away so long how quickly the old loyalties were rekindled. Daken would not see it again. Not that they had made such plans. Her yearning to know her daughter was safe had driven them to return and led to his death. It had been her fault, all of it.
Hanal stood at the entrance to the canyon, taking in the unnatural sight of severed stone and plundered earth, and wondered what he was doing there. Licking his lips, he wiped at the sweat on his forehead and tried to quell the turbulence in his gut. What had led him here? His thoughts took him back to that day. The day he touched Sophy’s power and everything changed.
That day in the summer tents…
Hanal had blinked but had been unable to move his arms and legs. He was not quite sure he could breathe as every muscle was locked tight. Shouts! Cries. Footsteps outside. A groan escaped his lips as he focussed his vision. Umri lay across from him unconscious; blood stained her clothes. He tried to move but it hurt. He radiated hurt. Was that blood in between Umri’s legs?
Sophy’s power. He’d touched it. Pure given magic he was sure. It was on his tongue. His mind was white with the power. Slowly as he breathed painful breath after painful breath, the power bled away, leaving him empty.
The blood. He blinked. Why was Umri bleeding? Legs crossed his line of sight. “Hanal?” said a panicked voice. More people came in. Some went to Umri. Another, his brother, Tarkel, came to him, helped him to sit up. “What ails you, brother?”
Hanal groaned. It hurt to move, even though he made no effort to engage his own muscles. Being moved hurt. He focussed. Sophy was long gone. She’d slipped through his fingers. Rae had helped her. Rae had betrayed him. Rae! He would never forgive her.
Awareness of his surroundings came slowly. Hanal looked into his brother’s dark eyes. “Your child. I’m sorry.”
Tarkel nodded, sparing Umri a brief glance. “There will be others. My wife is hale.”
Hanal looked up as Umri was carried out. “Rae?”
Tarkel shook his head. “Gone. We await your orders to pursue.”
“Why are you waiting?”
Tarkel steadied Hanal as he drew him to his feet. “An envoy from Glasshiver. There is news.”
Hanal shook his head slightly. “Glasshiver?” His mind wasn’t working right. There was something he couldn’t quite remember.
“Yes. An ambassador.”