Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013 and Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three) is forthcoming in January 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.
SF Signal is the home of my “Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World” post-series – so when it came time to share the opening chapter of my forthcoming Daughter Of Blood (The Wall Of Night series, Book Three) and meet the first of its heroines, SF Signal was the obvious destination! Fittingly, too, this character is the title’s Daughter of Blood, who has been waiting in the wings of the Wall of Night story since its inception, but only now steps into the stage.
As those who follow my Fantasy Heroines’ series may have detected, I appreciate variety in my heroines. So whereas the series’ main character, Malian of Night, is a leader and action heroine, the young woman you are about to meet is a very different person. Nonetheless, I hope you may enjoy the first appearance of Myrathis of Blood.
Background to the Story So Far:
The Wall of Night is an epic tale of an aeons-old conflict against an external enemy, and an Alliance fractured by internal strife. The Prologue, featured on SF Signal in November, introduces some of the players in the larger game, although the leading characters throughout have been Malian of Night and her friend and ally, the twice-exiled Kalan.
In The Heir of Night (WALL #1), Malian and Kalan were caught up in the first enemy attack in generations. Finally, they were forced to flee their fortress home to find a safe place to develop their magic and a means of reuniting their faltering people. In The Gathering of the Lost (WALL #2), they had to evade enemy assassins while building alliances that would allow them to return to the Alliance. From outlaw-infested border country to a great tournament at midsummer, danger lurked in every shadow. Now, as Daughter of Blood opens, those shadows are closing in – but many in the Alliance remain focused on their internal divisions and ambitions…
Read on for the excerpt!
Outside, the latest Wall storm had blown itself into a brief respite of calm weather, but inside the Red Keep the storm that had been raging between the ruling kin for weeks continued to generate acrimony and raised voices. Although, Myr thought, wrapping her arms around her drawn-up knees, “raised voices” was only her former governess Ise’s way of being polite. Anyone else would say shouting, usually over the top of whoever else was yelling at the same time.
She stared out over league on league of cloud wrack and bitter peaks toward the dark smudge that concealed the farthest limit of the Wall of Night. Sometimes, when the sky was more overcast, she caught the flicker of lightning through the smudge and would shiver, thinking about all those who kept watch over that dark boundary. Today, though, the sky was as close to clear as it ever got on the Wall of Night.
Peaceful, Myr told herself, thinking of the dispute that still rumbled in the keep below her. It was not a comparison she had ever thought to make in favor of the Wall, even if all eight of her strong-willed siblings were resident in the keep at one time. Yet argument seemed too mild a term for the tempest that had broken the moment their father, Sardon, the Earl of Blood, announced that one of his daughters would marry the Earl of Night before the year was out. Myr knew the marriage was only happening because the Earl of Night’s Outsider leman was dead. Assassinated, Ise had told her, by members of the Earl’s own Honor Guard—and Myr couldn’t blame her older sisters for not wanting to marry into a House so lost to the Derai Code.
After very brief consideration, she amended the latter reflection to exclude her two eldest sisters. Hatha, the Earl’s eldest, warrior daughter, had guffawed when she heard the news and observed that she doubted the Earl of Night envisaged a battle-scarred veteran like herself arriving in his wedding caravan. The Heir of Blood, Kharalthor the Battlemaster, had roared with answering laughter and punched his twin on her mailed shoulder with a gauntleted fist. From what Myr could tell, watching from as close to the door of the council chamber and flight as possible, that confirmed the Earl of Night’s bride wasn’t going to be Hatha. And she did find it impossible to imagine Hatha ever wearing anything but armor, or living anywhere but in a barracks. In fact, mostly Hatha didn’t live in the keep at all, but served with Kharalthor on Blood’s borders.
The bride was not going to be Liankhara either, because the Earl’s second daughter had served as a Blood spymaster since she was younger than Myr was now. Neither the Earl nor his council would countenance her loss from Blood’s ranks, or the potential subversion of her loyalties, no matter how strategic the marriage offered. So that left Sardonya and Sarein, as well as Myr herself.
Myr grimaced, because she knew no one would contemplate her for the role. Not that she wanted to be considered, but she was weary of hearing “weak” whispered behind her back. One of her former household guards, Kolthis, had not even bothered to whisper when he called her the Half-Blood. To be fair, he had been dicing with his cronies at the time and probably not known that she was close enough to overhear. Myr was not sure he would have cared, though, even if he had. And although the House of the Rose was just as much part of the Derai Alliance as the House of Blood, Myr would never dare utter that small defiance aloud. Not even when alone and on the pinnacle of the Red Keep’s tallest watchtower as she was now. Besides, it would not change anything. No one would consider her suitable for the role of Countess of Night, with its unprecedented opportunity to further Blood’s sway within the Derai Alliance.
I’ve only just come of age anyway, Myr told herself. Blood might use strategic marriage to seal its alliances, but the ruling kin always served within their own House for at least five years after reaching their majority. With her eighteenth birthday only a month behind her, Myr had not even endured the public celebration yet, let alone chosen the role in which she would serve her House. She had assumed that her half-sister Sarein would be the Bride, since she was not only five years past her majority but already an adept player in Blood’s councils. Since the Earl’s remaining daughter, Sardonya, had made the last strategic marriage into the House of Swords, that also made it Sarein’s turn …
Except Sarein was refusing the honor—or rather, dishonor, as both she and Sardonya had been saying at length and volume for weeks now. Offers of gold, jewels, and ongoing revenue from Blood’s mines had failed to appease either sister, although eventually, Myr supposed, one of them would have to give in. Once an agreement between Houses had been signed, especially a marriage contract, breaking it would not just mean a loss of honor and prestige for the defaulting party, but heavy reparations, and possibly blood feud or even war.
The Derai Alliance can’t afford that sort of schism between Blood and Night, Myr reflected somberly. “I wonder what they’re holding out for, before deciding the matter between them?” She murmured the words to the vast expanse of the Wall, her voice falling away into emptiness. Given what had already been offered, it must be staggeringly large, and Myr wondered why her father had not just issued a command weeks ago and ended all the disputation right then. As for the Earl of Night, Myr’s secret opinion was that if he only knew what the next seven years held for him with either Sardonya or Sarein, he’d be praying to all Nine Gods for Blood’s arguments to remain unresolved.
A boot scraped at the foot of the lookout stair, followed by ascending footsteps. “Lady Mouse.” Myr recognized the voice before she saw Taly, one of the guards assigned to her household. Taly’s watch partner, Dabnor, had coined the nickname “Lady Mouse”—but Taly, new to the keep and with an equally new ensign’s knot on her shoulder, had taken over a year to begin using it. Now she squatted on her heels beside Myr, studying the bleak terrain. “Dab said he’d seen you heading this way.” Myr suspected Dab would have said “scampering,” but even at her most relaxed it was not a term Taly would use, or repeat, in relation to one of the Earl’s children. “It is quiet up here today,” she added.
By comparison with the inner keep? Myr wanted to say, but knew Taly would just clam up, her expression stolid as the stone in the keep’s walls.
“Your sister has sent for you,” the ensign continued, when Myr did not speak. “Captain-Lady Hatha wants to see how your weapons’ practice is progressing.”
Myr groaned. “Do I have to?”
Taly’s expression did not change. “She said I was to flush you out, wherever you were hiding. And that my failure would not be acceptable to her.”
I hate the way Hatha does that, Myr thought: makes it clear that Taly, Dab, or whoever else she corners will get punishment detail if I don’t do what she wants. “I loathe weapons practice,” she said, and caught Taly’s slight headshake before the guard checked the gesture.
“You’re a Daughter of the House of Blood, Lady Myrathis. You need to know your weapons.”
Myr pulled a face, because she much preferred learning how to treat others’ aches and bruises, rather than sustaining them herself. The arts of Meraun, she thought, rather than those of Kharalth, the Battle Goddess. But Blood followed the latter, not only first among the Nine but largely ignoring the rest, so forswearing the arts of war was not an option for a Daughter of Blood.
“Your eye-hand coordination is good, you just need to apply yourself more.” Taly stood up. “Dab thinks so, too, and Captain-Lady Hatha is a good teacher.”
For you maybe, Myr thought, although she stood up as well, shaking out her skirts. “She loves sparring with you,” she said aloud. “I wish I could dress you up in my clothes and add a glamour, so she thinks you are me. Then everyone would be happy.”
Taly put out a mailed arm, blocking the entrance to the stair. “Never say such a thing again, Lady Mouse, not even in jest. I’ve heard of folk exiled for less, including those of high blood.” A shadow touched the ensign’s hazel eyes. “And darker stories, too, from some of the hardline holds: whispers of those with even a hint of the old taint, including children, being murdered rather than exiled.”
Myr swallowed. “My father would never allow anyone to harm me—” she began, but stopped at Taly’s expression.
“And your siblings?” The guard spoke softly. “The Lords Anvin and Parannis? Lady Sardonya or Lady Sarein?”
Myr shivered. “All right,” she said, but Taly did not lower her arm.
“What if I refused to let you leave? What if I said I was in the pay of your enemies, the House of Adamant or the House of Stars? Or I could be a Swarm minion, ridden in on the back of a storm and secreted here? What would you do then?”
“I’d be dead anyway,” Myr told her. “No matter how much I practice, I’ll never be anywhere near as good as you.”
Taly clicked her tongue. “You’ll be dead because you think that way. The more you practice, the more likely you are to find a way to survive.” She lifted her arm clear. “After you, Lady Mouse.”
At least, Myr reflected, Taly did not try and trip her as she went by, the way Kolthis had liked to do, before the happy day when he and his cohort had been rotated into her brother Huern’s guard. Now she held up her skirt to avoid stumbling on the steep stairs, only speaking once she reached the first landing. “Besides, the demons that ride the storms are just fireside tales, everyone says that.” In fact, she was not sure Mistress Ise supported the popular view on storm demons, but she wanted to delay getting to the training hall, in the hope Hatha would grow tired of waiting. “I’ll have to return to my rooms and change if I’m going to train,” she added, when Taly remained silent.
This time the ensign did reply. “I sent Dab to fetch your attendants and your training clothes.” Myr did not need to look back to know she would be grinning. Sighing inwardly, she resigned herself to an afternoon of misery.
Hatha was nowhere to be seen when they reached the training hall, and it was Mistress Ise, rather than one of Myr’s attendants, who waited beside Dab. The guard towered over the diminutive Rose woman, who had been governess and was now senior companion to Myr, exactly as she had been to her mother, Lady Mayaraní of the Rose. Myr could not see any training clothes, but she did catch the hand signal Dab flashed Taly. She had worked out enough of their hand codes to know it was a warning, although not the finer shadings that would have conveyed what the warning meant. But Ise’s presence had already told her there was trouble, even if the old Rose woman’s tone and expression were as noncommittal as Dab’s lean countenance.
“Where’s Hatha?” Myr asked, and was pleased with the calm way her voice came out.
“She has been summoned to attend your father.” Ise spoke in the formal, well-modulated tone she had tried to instill in Myr. “As have you, Lady Myrathis.”
“Just with Hatha?” Myr asked, clinging to a thread of hope. “Or—”
“I believe all your family will be there.”
“Nine!” Myr ignored the old woman’s reproving look. According to Ise, only the poorly brought up invoked the collective numeral for the Derai’s Nine Gods. “Are they all still shouting?” She could feel her head start to ache, just thinking about being in the same room.
“Your sister was already shouting when she left here,” Dab said, straight-faced. Ise’s reproving look shifted to him, although she said nothing as Taly placed one hand on Myr’s shoulder, turning her toward the door.
“Best not keep your father waiting, Lady Myrathis.”
No, Myr thought, although she desperately wanted to drag her feet. She straightened her back and tried to imagine that she was as physically strong as Hatha, or subtle like Liankhara. Or even, she added tartly, as self-serving as Sardonya and Sarein. Her resolution lasted until the first sounds of shouting reached them, at the far end of a long somber corridor that led to her father’s war room. The granite walls dwarfed them all, and the lamps were set so high on the evenly spaced columns that little light reached the floor of dark polished stone. Myr stopped, gazing along an avenue of ancient war banners, their colors quenched in shadow, toward the stony expressions of the honor guards outside her father’s door.
Kharalthor, she thought, listening to the Heir’s familiar roar. The subsequent bellow was Anvin, shouting back. Taly’s gloved fist rapped her shoulder gently. “Heart up, Lady Mouse.” Myr sighed, but started forward, very conscious of her guards’ stolid presence and Ise’s cane, tapping its rhythm against the stone. Blood’s hydra emblem was carved above the war room door, and Myr felt as though every one of its nine heads was staring directly at her. She was so busy trying to avoid the stone stare that she almost walked into the Honor Lieutenant on duty. He stepped swiftly away, saluting, and she recollected herself sufficiently to incline her head in acknowledgment.
The shouting hit her like a wall as soon as the door opened. Her father was sitting back in his great chair with his eyes closed, but he opened them as she entered. Huern and Liankhara both looked around, and Hatha nodded from where she sat, using a small dagger to clean beneath her nails. Kharalthor and Anvin were still shouting, and Sardonya and Parannis had joined in while Sarein watched them all with her chin on her hands. Myr envied her companions, who got to wait outside, and wondered if she dared slip into a chair close by the door. She hesitated—and her father waved her to a place between Sarein and Sardonya. Myr bowed to him, the deep salute that even a Daughter of Blood must make to the head of her House, but fixed her eyes on the tabletop as soon as she was seated.
“It’s only a seven-year contract.” Kharalthor pounded his fist against the carved arm of his chair. “That means in seven years’ time one of you can return here a very wealthy woman.”
“We’ll have to live there for seven years first,” Sardonya yelled back, “in a keep where honor guards have murdered a member of their Earl’s household.”
“Put down his Outsider bitch, you mean,” Parannis said, below the roar. Sarein mimed applause.
Anvin rested both fists on the table, glaring at Kharalthor. “What better sign that the rot’s really set in, when an Earl forgets himself to the extent of rutting with outsiders and his guards realize they’ve no honor to defend anymore? Yet you ask one of our sisters to enter such a den?”
“I’m not asking!” Kharalthor’s fist pounded again, and Myr wondered how long the chair would survive such treatment. “The contract’s been signed. Blood’s honor is at stake!”
“And what about Sarein’s and my honor?” Sardonya flung back. “Perhaps our father should have thought about that before putting his name and seal to the agreement.” Her glare was wasted, though, because the Earl had closed his eyes again, his expression unyielding as a slab of stone.
Why does he let them rage at each other like this? Myr wondered. Is it a test, to see who is strongest, or most determined, or simply the most virulent? Almost involuntarily, her gaze slid to Parannis and Sarein, although she kept her lashes lowered like a protective veil. The younger pair of twins had their heads close together, whispering behind their hands. Myr looked away, feeling a headache begin to press. She knew the drug Ise would prescribe for it, and where to find it in the Rose woman’s store, but that did her no good now. Instead she focused her breathing into the rhythm Ise had taught her, trying to stave off the worst of the pain until she could escape.
Sardonya had continued to scowl at the Earl’s unresponsive face, but now she tapped her foot. “Besides, I’ve already made one marriage of convenience outside of Blood. It’s someone else’s turn.” The gaze she turned on Liankhara was steel. “Yours, perhaps, Sister Spider?”
“The Earl of Night’s clearly not particular.” Parannis began cracking his knuckles. “Perhaps he’d take you, Kharalthor, since you’re so keen on the match?”
Hatha chuckled, but the look her twin leveled at Parannis was hard. “Huern, Anvin, and I have all made strategic marriages, cementing our line’s bonds with Blood’s satellite holds—something you have yet to do. So step carefully, little brother.”
Parannis shrugged, but did not respond. Even Hatha, Myr knew, had made a marriage of policy when she was younger, and had a son growing up in his father’s Hold. Liankhara looked around the table. “The agreement specifies a child from the union, an Heir for the House of Night. I think Earl Tasarion may prove quite particular about that.”
This time Parannis sniggered, while Sarein pursed her lips—but until the meeting got down to serious business, Myr knew she would leave the talking to her twin.
“He should have shown his particularity a little sooner, then.” Sardonya spoke more quietly than before, although every word was acid-etched. “I don’t see how you can expect either Sarein or me to bed, let alone bear children to an Earl who has sullied himself with an Outsider. We’d spend another seven years after we got home cleansing ourselves of the pollution.”
“More like fourteen!” Anvin scowled from Kharalthor to Liankhara.
“No amount of wealth,” Parannis added, “could be expected to compensate either of my sisters for that.”
His comment had come just a little too quickly, Myr decided. That suggested Sardonya and Sarein must be working together, either to carve out more concessions, or simply to win a decisive round against Kharalthor and their older siblings. In which case they were playing a dangerous game, with the agreement between the two Houses already signed. She concentrated on keeping her breathing calm and the headache’s pain dull as Kharalthor spread his great hands wide.
“For the Nine’s sake! The child would be heir to the Derai Alliance itself, not just the House of Night.”
Huern spoke for the first time since Myr arrived, his tone reflective. “And if anything should happen to the father, the mother becomes regent.”
“And would then have to dwell in the Keep of Winds until her child was of age.” Sardonya curled her lip at him. “Marrying the Sword Earl’s brother and living in their keep for three years was more than bad enough.” She paused, her expression growing thoughtful. “Mind you, if the contract had been with the son rather than the father …”
“Only it wasn’t. And no one in the Keep of Swords showed any desire to prolong your stay once the three years were up.” Liankhara regarded her sister dispassionately. “Try not to show yourself up for a fool, Sardonya. A Daughter of Blood standing as regent to the Heir of both Night and the Derai Alliance—we’ve been awaiting an opportunity like this for centuries.”
Parannis and Sarein smirked in unison as Sardonya’s expression darkened, but it was Anvin who replied. “Do you intend to make sure it bears fruit, Sister Spy?”
Liankhara raised one shoulder in a half shrug. “For now, the alliance itself is sufficient for our purpose. The Heir of Night will be our blood relative, and if we bind his or her marriage back into our own kinship web as well …” She shrugged again, her smile thin. “A circumstance the child’s mother will undoubtedly be able to influence. If we play the hand this marriage deals us well, we shall see the leadership of the Derai pass to our bloodline within a generation.”
“Where it should be,” Kharalthor agreed. His heavy gaze swung between Sardonya and Sarein. “A true Daughter of Blood would put the good of her House before self-interest.”
Sardonya snorted, but Anvin was frowning. “What of the taint? How can we keep our line free of that?”
He sees the greater advantage, Myr thought. Possibly because they were the children of the Earl’s second wife, Paranna of Oath Hold, and half-siblings to the rest, Sarein and Parannis were only ever for themselves. But Anvin might be won over—and despite Liankhara’s accusation, Sardonya was no fool. She would detect Anvin’s potential defection and the advantage shifting to Sarein, who could rely on her twin’s unswerving allegiance. Myr’s headache pulsed in anticipation of Sardonya’s fury, darkness hovering at the periphery of her vision. Doggedly, she concentrated on a scratch in the tabletop and pushed both pain and darkness back.
“The taint came into their line from Earl Tasarion’s first, Sea House wife.” Kharalthor was dismissive, but Parannis laughed.
“How glib you are, brother. Earl Tasarion also has a Night kinswoman with the taint, one who resides in the Keep of Winds’ Temple quarter. So the only sure way to keep our line and House pure is to make no marriage and allow no child that will expose us to risk.” His smile widened as Sarein extended a hand, crooking long fingernails into his forearm. “Although we could argue that the integrity of our bloodline has already been compromised.”
Myr’s head throbbed as Kharalthor surged to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor. “How dare you insult our father!” Two more chairs grated back as Anvin and Parannis leapt up, too, the latter laughing—until Earl Sardon spoke above the uproar, flat as iron.
“Sit down, all of you.” He waited until they were seated before leaning forward, his stare boring into Parannis. “Be warned: I will not tolerate your barbs—or those your sister has sharpened for you—on this matter. As for the rest, I am out of patience with your interminable arguments.”
Liankhara bowed from her chair. “The matter must be settled, my Father, otherwise word of our reluctance may trickle back to Night.”
“Does that matter, Sister Spider?” Now Parannis was cool, and Myr’s stomach muscles clenched. “Perhaps they need to know how little we care for what they think.”
Earl Sardon held up his hand, commanding silence. “Not before this marriage is secured and the advantage it will bring us consolidated.” He frowned around the table. “I said that I would have a decision today and I mean it. Sardonya, Sarein: ask for whatever gilding will sweeten this bargain for you and I will consider it favorably. But be very sure, if you do not reach a decision between yourselves, then I will choose for you.”
Sardonya, spear-straight in her chair, tossed back her long auburn hair. “Perhaps, Father, you should have consulted with us before pledging your honor and that of our House to this path. You may compel all you like, but neither of us will go willingly.”
Myr did not dare look at her father, but despite the pain behind her eyes she did turn at Sarein’s delicate cough. “We have heard that this Night Earl, amongst his many peculiarities, is a stickler for our Derai law.” Her half-sister’s tone was demure. “Laws that forbid any Derai being forced into marriage, even to aid the cause of Earl and House.”
The silence that followed was infinitely worse than the shouting had been, and even Sarein, Myr noticed, was not quite brave enough to meet their father’s stare. “So you both refuse?” The Earl’s voice was a blade, and the pain in Myr’s head cut deeper. Across the table, Huern and Liankhara made an elaborate show of looking at each other.
Of course, Myr thought, the deal makers—and felt sure that any scheme these two proposed would have been dreamed up long before. The only question was who else they had enlisted to back their play, since they would not show their hand until certain it would win the game. Despite the headache, she made herself focus as Liankhara spoke. “One of our line must make the sacrifice for Earl and House.”
Here it comes, Myr thought, keeping her eyes on the tabletop.
“So if Sardonya and Sarein continue to refuse their duty …” Liankhara’s pause stretched—until Myr’s head lifted to find not only her sister’s gaze, but Huern’s and the Earl’s, fixed on her. Mesmerized, she stared back.
“Then,” Huern finished smoothly, “the Bride must be Myrathis, now that she’s old enough.”
I’m not … Myr struggled to stay upright, to continue breathing evenly despite all their eyes fixed on her. I can’t … I haven’t … No— Darkness wavered at the edge of her vision again, but odd details intruded: Hatha’s little knife, hanging motionless above her sister’s nails, and Sardonya’s scornful look.
“Her?” Sarein said finally. “The Half-Blood?”
“Who can barely use a sword,” Parannis added, “and dabbles with healing under the ill-advised tutelage of the Rose crone? You cannot be serious.”
The silence endured an instant longer before all her siblings’ voices clamored, shouting over the top of each other. Unable to move or speak, let alone think coherently, Myr gave in to the hovering darkness and fainted.