DARKHAVEN: CHAPTER ONE
It had been weeks since Ayla last felt a breeze touch her face. As she slipped through the door into the shadows of the square, the scents of a summer night caressed her with their familiarity: aromatic pine, horse manure, the dragonlilies that grew outside the tower. Above her, the patterns of the stars were unchanged. She hadn’t been locked up that long, after all. It just felt like forever.
There will be no-one patrolling the square. She repeated her brother’s words to herself. Go straight across. The postern will be open, and you’ll find supplies there to help you. After that I can do no more.
She hesitated, skin crawling with tiny spiders of unease. The darkness on the far side of the square was too heavy for the moonlight to penetrate; anything could be waiting for her. Yet Myrren’s instructions hadn’t failed her so far. When she’d tried the door of her cell at the seventh bell, it had been unlocked just as he’d promised. And the two men in the guardroom had been deep in the oblivion of sleep, not stirring even when she crept past them to climb the flight of steps that was the only way out. Her brother’s words were her compass. She had to trust them.
Straightening her spine, she stepped into the illuminated patch at the centre of the square, forcing herself to walk as though she were unafraid. Her ears rang with the silence, straining to hear any sounds of pursuit; her muscles quivered with the need to flee. She didn’t think she could bear another day trapped in that tiny room with its one barred window, where desperation bled from the walls like damp. If they found her now it would be better to run, to Change, to fight until they had to kill her to subdue her … yet no-one came. The shadows on the far side of the square reached out to enfold her, wrapping her in darkness once more – and then she was standing in front of the postern gate.
Quite calm now, floating in a numb place beyond fear, she lifted the latch. The gate creaked softly as it swung open; she glanced back over her shoulder, fighting to control the harsh gasps of her breath. But the square remained empty, and no vengeful light flared in the windows of the tower. After a long, frozen moment, Ayla stepped through the gate and pulled it closed behind her.
She hadn’t gone far when her foot caught on something, sending her stumbling forward. Heart racing so fast it made her dizzy, she crouched down and searched through the charcoal shadows at her feet until her hands brushed rough fabric. A sack, tucked into the space between gate and wall: it must be the supplies Myrren had promised her. She picked it up and hurried away down the hill towards the city, navigating each bump and hollow by the light of the waxing moon. That same light had poured in through the windows of Darkhaven, the night they arrested her. A whole month. Had it really been that long? In her cell, with no daily routine to cling to, it had been hard to tell. Time had stretched to eternity one moment and shrunk to an instant the next, leaving her adrift.
Leaving her with nothing to do but replay, in a futile loop, the events that had brought her there.
As was fast becoming their habit, she and her father had started that evening by arguing. They’d always argued, of course, but not like this. Not as if each would rather kill the other than concede the fight. Ayla knew she couldn’t beat Florentyn in a real fight, either in human or in creature form, but she hoped this battle of words would be different. Her father probably wouldn’t go so far as to physically chastise his wayward daughter.
She had to keep trying, anyway, for Myrren’s sake.
‘You can’t do that to him,’ she said for the tenth time in as many days. ‘He is your true heir, your pure-blood son. I’m only half a Nightshade.’
On the other side of the desk, her father sat motionless and in shadow; no need for light when only Changers were present in the room. Ayla resented the fact that he’d summoned her into the library as if he had every right to control her movements. That he’d made her stand in front of his desk like a stripling awaiting punishment, not a fully grown woman. She resented a lot of things. But she had to concentrate on the one that mattered.
‘You can Change.’ Florentyn’s face showed no more emotion than the ancestral busts adorning the bookcases to either side of him. ‘Myrren cannot. I have no choice but to disinherit him.’
‘I won’t take his birthright away from him, Father.’ She lifted her chin, but he was as impervious to her defiance as his Firedrake form was to steel.
‘You will start accompanying me on state visits. It’s time you began to learn what is required of Darkhaven’s overlord.’
Ayla bit her lip. Always he dangled that in front of her: the chance to meet people, different people, not just her family and the Helm. To see and be seen, rather than be kept hidden away like a secret. She yearned for that. She could almost taste the tang of it. But she had her brother to think of.
‘Myrren is your heir,’ she repeated. Then, knowing she’d sound like a child, but unable to help herself, ‘It’s not fair.’
Abruptly, Florentyn pushed his chair back and stood. Palms flat on the desk, he leaned forward, towering over her. For an instant she saw Myrren in him – all Nightshades looked alike, hair the colour of a moonless night and eyes like deep pools of spilled ink. But her father’s face was far crueller than her brother’s.
‘Fair? Fair has nothing to do with it,’ he said, every word as sharp-edged and clear as broken glass. ‘Else I’d have two true-blooded children, not one who Changes into some mongrel creature no-one’s ever seen before and one who is incapable of Changing at all.’
Ayla’s hands curled into taut fists. She was all too aware that her creature-self was an unusual one, not one of the pure forms of power her ancestors had taken – Firedrake or Griffin, Phoenix, Hydra or Unicorn. Her mother had been an ordinary woman, a common girl from the city; no doubt that blood had weakened the Nightshade strain. Yet the knowledge didn’t make the contempt in Florentyn’s words hurt any less.
She wanted to retreat. She wanted to seek comfort with her brother, who at least loved her wholeheartedly. But instead she gripped the desk herself, matching Florentyn’s stance.
‘You married outside the bloodline after Myrren’s mother died,’ she said in a voice that shook. ‘If you don’t like what I am, you have only yourself to blame.’
She heard the crack of his hand across her face before she felt the sting. Belatedly she stumbled backwards a few steps, fingers pressed to her cheek. Guess I was wrong about the physical chastisement.
‘I had no choice.’ Her father’s demeanour hadn’t changed; it seemed hitting her was of no more import to him than swatting a troublesome fly. ‘Otherwise you can be sure I wouldn’t have done it.’
That hurt worse than the slap. ‘But you loved my mother,’ Ayla said desperately.
‘Love?’ A shrug disposed of that. ‘Had I known what you and Myrren would become … but no matter. Without a Changer at its head, the Nightshade line will lose its grip on this country. And so in the absence of a real Changer, you will have to do.’
At the undercurrent of venom in his words, Ayla finally understood. Florentyn was doing what he considered to be right for his country, but he hated it. More than that: he hated her, for being the only logical choice. For forcing him to pass on his legacy to a half-blood freak.
In the crackling silence that had fallen between them, the sudden pounding at the door made them both start.
‘My lord!’ The deep male voice was muffled by the door, but the urgency in it was clear. Florentyn remained frozen in position a moment longer, gaze fixed on Ayla’s face. Then he straightened up from the desk and clicked his fingers, bringing the oil lamp on the desk to sputtering life.
‘Enter,’ he snapped.
Ayla turned to see four men of the Helm marching into the room, solemn-faced and self-important with news. They threw her sly glances, but she paid them no heed. She knew how little some of the Helm respected her; they looked at her and saw her mother, her tainted lineage. Even more than the Nightshades themselves, the Helm were obsessed with protecting the bloodline’s power. That was why they’d let her mother go to her death without lifting a finger to prevent it.
‘My lord, last night a priestess was set upon in one of the sixth-ring temples,’ the foremost Helmsman said to Florentyn. ‘She passed out during the attack, but before that …’ His gaze rolled to Ayla. ‘She claims she saw a creature, all shadows and fire.’
What? Ayla opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again as Florentyn turned on her. His voice burned with righteous ire, but underlying it was an unsettling hint of satisfaction. ‘Did you do this, Ayla?’
‘Of course not. I wouldn’t do something like that.’
‘Not even to show me how unfit you are to rule?’ Red light flared briefly in his eyes, the Firedrake within him stirring. ‘Or perhaps it wasn’t deliberate. Perhaps that travesty of a creature you turn into is uncontrollable. Either way, you’d better be put somewhere safe until we get to the bottom of this.’
‘No!’ Ayla glared at him. ‘If you want to punish me then at least be honest about it. Don’t use some trumped-up charge without a shred of proof –’
‘I will ask you the question one final time, Ayla,’ Florentyn interrupted. ‘Will you do what’s best for Mirrorvale?’
She hesitated. The choice was clear: obey him, or be arrested like a common criminal. She didn’t want to think how long he’d let her cool her heels in the cells – and even once he released her, it would only be to offer her the same bargain. In the end, she’d have to give in.
But Myrren deserved better.
‘I won’t betray my brother,’ she said softly. ‘Darkhaven’s throne is his by right, and I will not take it.’
‘In that case,’ Florentyn replied, ‘this crime must be investigated to the fullest extent of my power.’
He held up a hand, and the Helm hustled her away to the cells.
At first she attempted to measure the passing time by counting the meals she was given, but the food was always the same; no indication whether it was intended as an evening meal or the breaking of her fast. Bathwater and clean clothes were brought to her at apparently random intervals. Sleep was no better as a guide, since each time she woke she had no way of knowing whether she had lost days or moments. When the wind was in the right quarter she could hear the bells chiming the changes in the sixth ring of Arkannen: one, night’s end, the beginning of a new day; two, time to start the morning’s lessons; five, her father and brother would be sitting down for their evening meal. Once she had understood her life by the ringing of those bells, but now they meant nothing. Slowly but surely, she began to lose her grip on reality.
Then Myrren came to her. It was the first time since her arrest that she’d set eyes on any member of her family; seeing her brother in the doorway of her cell sent her giddy with relief.
‘Myrren!’ She jumped to her feet and ran to him. ‘What’s happening? How much longer do I have to stay in here?’
‘Little sister …’ His taut grip on her hands told her far more than his carefully controlled expression. ‘Please, just do as he asks. You have the gift. I don’t. It’s really that simple.’
She shook her head stubbornly. ‘No. I won’t do it. He can’t bully us any more, Myrren. This nonsense about an attacked priestess –’
‘But it isn’t nonsense. That’s the trouble. There really was an attack, and all the evidence points to a Changer creature.’
‘What?’ She closed her eyes for a moment as the world seemed to sway around her. ‘But I didn’t do it!’
‘I believe you,’ Myrren said. ‘But except for Father himself, there is no other possible culprit. And since you will not cooperate with him …’ His fingers tightened still further on hers. ‘He has set the trial for two days’ time, Ayla. And he is going to find you guilty.’
‘What is the penalty?’ she whispered.
‘Incarceration.’ A hint of pain clenched his jaw. ‘You will never be allowed to Change again.’
No. No no no – Ayla swallowed, fighting to remain on her feet until the dizzy ringing in her ears subsided. When she spoke, she was proud that her voice remained steady.
‘I will claim the right to die at my own hand. It will be better that way.’
‘Ayla, no!’ A sudden fierce intensity in his eyes, Myrren drew her closer. ‘It won’t come to that. If you really are determined not to give in to Father, there is an alternative.’
‘You hide for a while. Go into Arkannen, conceal yourself there. I’ll try to make Father see reason.’
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug, infuriated by her own helplessness. ‘But how can I get out of here? He’ll know if I Change.’
‘I’ll help you,’ Myrren told her. ‘But you must do exactly as I say …’
And so she had, and here she was: walking down the hill to her freedom. Ayla just wished she’d been able to thank him properly. There was no way of knowing when she would see him again.
When she was far enough away to believe herself safe, halfway between the tower and the wall that separated it from the city, she stepped aside into the cover of some thorn bushes and tipped out the sack’s contents. First was a thick woollen cloak, with a hood to conceal the telltale black of her hair. Wrapped in the cloak were a serviceable knife and a pouch containing a few coins. There was also a smaller bag that held food and water.
Don’t forget. Myrren’s final words lingered at the forefront of her mind. Once outside these walls, you can no longer be Ayla, royal daughter of Darkhaven. You must be a shadow, a whisper, a breath of air. Any more than that, and they’ll find you and lock you up for good. His hand had brushed over her hair, a feather-light touch, before he turned away. Be careful, little sister. I’ll send word when it’s safe to return.
Ayla pulled the cloak tight around herself, lifting the hood to cover her head. She added the knife and money-pouch to her belt, then swung the bag of food onto her back. Her chest ached with the knowledge that it might be a long time before she could return to her other form, but she ignored it. Better to be an ordinary woman and free than a Changer in a cage.
She glanced back at Darkhaven, looming against the moon. A shiver ran across her skin, as though she had been brushed from head to toe by a cold, invisible hand. It was the sensation she felt when her father Changed, an awareness of the family gift that all the Nightshade line possessed – the reason she couldn’t Change now herself if she wanted to avoid discovery. Fearful, she gazed at the sky above the tower, half expecting her father to come bursting out in his Firedrake form and roar after her; yet all remained dark and quiet, only the stars awake.
Lifting her chin, she started down the slope towards the seventh gate, and Arkannen.
Myrren was awoken from an uneasy dream by the sudden clangour of bells. With a gasp, he sat bolt upright, tilting his head in search of the sound. It wasn’t the temples in the city; it was nearer and louder, an erratic jangling that cut right through him. The old warning bell, proclaiming disaster.
The thought sent him stumbling out of bed, to push aside the heavy curtain that barely stirred in the breeze from the open window. A relieved sigh escaped him at the glimmer of daylight on the horizon. The new day had begun; Ayla ought to be well away by now. The noise must be because the Helm had discovered her escape. He should speak to his father before they did, confess what he’d done. The idea made him more nervous than a grown man had any right to be, but better that than be discovered in a lie.
He turned away from the window, then wavered as dizziness swept over him. It hardly felt as if he’d slept at all. No doubt part of him had been awake all night, fretting about Ayla, hoping she was safe. He knew how much it meant to her to be able to Change; he couldn’t bear the idea that she might be denied her gift for good. If he could Change, he would hate to be locked up more than anything … but he pushed that thought aside. Some things were too sour to linger over.
With the prospective visit to his father in mind, he dressed with especial care. Florentyn would never look on him with approval, but at least he could present the appearance of a true Changer child. So he put on his best pair of breeches, a snowy white shirt, a black coat slashed with inky dark blue the exact shade of his eyes – all the while rehearsing what he was going to tell his father. Excuses and explanations wouldn’t be acceptable, he knew that. He’d just have to state the facts and take the consequences.
‘My lord Myrren!’ The knock at his door came just as he was pulling on his boots, startling all his carefully planned words out of his head like so many butterflies. Why had anyone come to him? It was his father who should be informed of Ayla’s escape.
Unless Florentyn had learned of his part in the matter, and sent the Helm to arrest him in her place …
In two quick strides, he was at the door and yanking it open; better to pull the splinter than to let it fester. The Helmsman on the other side was pale, his forehead glistening with a sheen of sweat. Myrren’s guts clenched in painful anticipation. Perhaps it wasn’t Ayla’s escape that had set the warning bell ringing. Perhaps it was something far worse.
‘My lord,’ the man said again, staring through Myrren as if seeing a series of images sent straight from his darkest nightmares. ‘Your father.’ He passed a shaking hand over his face, then took a deep breath and looked Myrren in the eye. ‘He’s dead.’