GOLDENFIRE: PROLOGUE AND CHAPTER ONE
‘So you understand now,’ the dark-velvet voice said. ‘You understand what you have to do.’
‘Yes.’ Kai resisted the urge to peer through the shadows cast by the single oil lamp. The Brotherhood kept their identities a closely guarded secret. Seeing one of their faces – accidentally or otherwise – would be a swift route to a slow death.
‘Repeat your instructions.’
Kai swallowed a nervous catch that threatened to become a cough. It wasn’t the job; that would be the fulfilment of a long-held desire. It was the faceless man who was so unsettling – specifically, the note of implacability in his voice.
‘I am to go to Mirrorvale. To Arkannen. I am to find a way into Darkhaven. And once there –’ A pause to give proper recognition to the significance of the task. ‘I am to kill Ayla Nightshade, the last living Changer.’
‘That is not strictly true.’ The dark-velvet voice now held a little less velvet. ‘It is possible that other Changers live. But they are far from attaining their majority. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Kai said.
‘There is a child in Darkhaven who may be one such. If you can dispose of him at the same time, all well and good, but your focus must be the woman. Again, do you understand?’
‘Good. Then take the weapon.’
It sat on the small table at Kai’s left elbow, gleaming gently in the light from the lamp. The question rose up without volition.
‘You’re sure this can kill them?’
‘We are always sure.’
Of course they were. Reining back sudden reluctance, Kai picked up the weapon. It was cold and smooth, surprisingly heavy for something that size. A small thing to destroy a monster.
‘You will change your identity, of course,’ the man said.
‘Of course.’ Certainty came flooding back. Kai tucked the weapon into an inside pocket and stood ready to depart.
‘Have you considered how you will get inside?’
Kai smiled. ‘With respect, sir, I think it best if you know as little as possible.’
‘Indeed.’ Through the shadows, the silhouette of a man inclined his head. ‘Then go. There will be no need to send word when it is done.’
On days like this – red-gold and glorious – her ability to Change seemed to Ayla Nightshade to be the only thing she could ever require.
As she flew over the forests and fields to the west of Arkannen, she noted the signs of autumn’s approach: the turning leaves, the tang of woodsmoke, the crops ripe in their rows. Farmers and labourers, toiling in the afternoon sunshine, raised their arms in salute as she passed overhead. She was aware of their respect, and accepted it as her due, but made no acknowledgement; she was too intent on the sensation of her wings beating the air, the joy of her own swift flight. And so she passed over her people as a fleeting shadow, a cinnamon-scented breeze, a flash of gold against the sky.
She heard the mine before she saw it: the rumble of the atmospheric engines – lifting water from the seam and powering the lifts – carried a long way on a still day, particularly to her sensitive ears. The small town that had sprung up close to the mine came next, a jumble of mismatched roofs, and then she was at the mine itself. Its towers spilled across the ground below her as if they had been extruded from the earth. Up close, the noise and smells were almost overwhelming: soot and steam, the clanking of the coal trucks, the roaring engines. Even the thuds of the miners’ picks, down in the tunnels, though she doubted any human ears could hear those at this distance.
The land around the mine was churned up and torn, blackened with coal dust, but beyond it was a small hill – and that was where the people had told her they would wait for her, beside the lookout point at the top. Ayla scanned the hill: just below the summit was a small grove of trees with a clearing at its heart that would make a perfect landing spot, both convenient and secluded. She flew over the mine, snorting at the prickle of the smog against her skin, and descended into the clearing.
As she landed, she Changed; that swirling sensation like pins and needles inside her bones that heightened to an intense explosive shiver, as if her entire body were turning itself inside out. Shifting from human to Alicorn was an expansive process, an opening up and a gaining of freedom, whereas Changing the other way always felt like being squeezed back into a skin that was too small. Her bones shortened, four swift legs becoming clumsy human limbs. Her body shrank and softened. Her wings vanished, leaving only the ghostly memory of flight. Yet it wasn’t just her physical self that altered. In creature form she retained all her intelligence, but her focus was somehow … sharper. Less cluttered. Whilst in the air, she’d been thinking about nothing but her immediate goal; if she had been attacked or something had gone wrong, she would have approached the situation with the same single-minded intent. It was only after the Change that she was assailed once more by tomorrow and yesterday and what if and maybe: the complicated web of emotion, memory, conjecture that made up a human life.
She could understand why more than one of her ancestors had retreated into creature form for good.
Still, the desire to do so herself was only fleeting. There was Tomas, for one. And Myrren’s child. Besides, a Mirrorvale ruled by a Changer creature in perpetuity would be a starker and more fearful place. That was the balance required of her, of all the Nightshade line. The creature side was for retribution. The human side was for mercy. Her people had to know they could expect both. Only then could they respect as well as fear her.
And respect her they did. Ayla recalled the workers she had passed in the fields, this time with a touch of gratitude. After three years, the people of Mirrorvale were used to the sight of a golden unicorn with feathered wings in the skies above them. After three years, Ayla herself no longer felt ashamed. Her father had done his best to destroy the joy she took in her gift, but time and common sense had rebuilt it. The average Mirrorvalese was as awed by a winged horse as by a Firedrake. Only within Darkhaven had there ever been an obsession with purity: the idea that her hybrid form was somehow wrong, that only the five elemental forms taken by her ancestors – Firedrake, Hydra, Unicorn, Phoenix, Griffin – were acceptable. And with the help of her new Captain of the Helm, even Darkhaven was becoming more enlightened.
Ayla was a creature of ice and ebonwood: beautiful, cold, relentless; wise, resilient, self-renewing. And she had finally learned to be happy with that.
She took a deep breath, stretching out arms and legs, feeling her way back into her human form. Everything around her was muted, now: the sounds of the mine a dim roar, the colours of the leaves faded, the smells of soot and steam almost gone. She could no longer taste coal dust in every breath she took. Of course, her senses were still sharper than most people’s, but compared to what they had been just a few moments before … Ayla shook her head, ears still ringing with echoes. Usually she found her return to human form almost unbearably empty of sensation, for a little while, but on this particular occasion she thought she was probably glad of it.
From the small bag she always carried with her, she withdrew her clothing. It had taken her some experimentation before she’d hit on the perfect outfit – one that fell in the sweet spot between elegance and practicality. The soft trousers and tunic were quick to put on and take off, yet they were made from a high-quality embroidered fabric that proclaimed her status. Most importantly, they emerged from the bag barely more crumpled than when they’d gone in, which meant Ayla could go about her business without feeling self-conscious.
Of course, her father wouldn’t have cared. Her father would have Changed in full view of everyone – walked naked through a crowd – held a formal state meeting wearing just a cloak. But though Ayla had learned a lot since his death, that insouciance was a step beyond her. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to emulate it. Her father had enjoyed making people uncomfortable; if she wandered around naked in public, the only person she’d discomfit would be herself.
Fully dressed, she stepped out of the grove and looked back down the hill towards the mine. It didn’t take her long to pick out the dull gleam of the parallel rails that stretched from the towers that housed the steam engines and lifts to the preparation plant on the outskirts of the town. A steam-powered train. Ayla had already discussed with several engineers the possibility of laying similar tracks all the way to Arkannen; currently coal was delivered to the city’s greedy factories by canal, but it was a slow journey. Admittedly a cross-country railway would be far longer than this one – longer, too, than Arkannen’s tramways, and with more difficult terrain to cross – but she had hopes that it was possible. Mirrorvale was a small country; to hold its own against its neighbours, it needed to outpace them in industry. For centuries her family had encouraged their subjects to rely on Changer creatures as the only defence they needed against the grasping hands of the wider world, but if the Nightshade line were to fail –
No. She pushed the thought aside. You don’t have time for all that now. Focus!
Trying to draw on some of her creature-self’s single-mindedness, she turned her back on the mine and climbed to the top of the hill. Three people awaited her there: a richly costumed man to one side, a more shabbily dressed man to the other side, and a neat-looking woman between them. Their positioning made it easy enough to identify them. The woman in the middle would be the local magistrate, which made the wealthy man to her left the mine owner, and the man to her right the worker who had laid the complaint.
This sort of thing was usually quite straightforward. Though most grievances could be resolved by local law enforcement, there were always a few people who refused to comply with a magistrate’s judgement – at which point, the magistrate had the right to request help from Darkhaven. More often than not, seeing a Changer creature up close was enough to convince the recalcitrant to obey the law. And if that were not so, Ayla could impose harsher punishments than any magistrate. For a start, Darkhaven’s overlord was the only person in Mirrorvale who could sign a warrant of permanent incarceration or – if necessary – execution.
Her father had been known to carry out the latter before the ink was dry on the page.
Still, that was unlikely to be relevant here. It was a simple case: the mine workers had laid a claim that the owner was cheating them out of a fair wage, the magistrate had found in their favour, and yet the owner had refused to pay the difference. Ayla was here to convince him otherwise. With any luck, it would turn out to be one of those cases where the guilty party simply wanted to have his sentence confirmed by the highest power in the land, either because he wouldn’t submit to a lesser authority or – which was sadly all too common, and wasted far more of Ayla’s time than she cared to think – because he fancied a good look at a Nightshade.
Yet as she walked towards the little group, her hope of an easy resolution began to fade. The man she’d identified as the owner was fixing her with a belligerent glare; not at all the conciliatory expression of a man who had been cowed by the sight of a Changer creature. He was a big man in both height and girth, and he was using it to make his presence felt – all folded arms and looming shoulders. She found it rude enough that she deliberately ignored him for a while, greeting the magistrate first and then the worker before finally turning to the mine owner and greeting him in turn.
‘My lord,’ the man replied. There was mockery in his smile, but Ayla couldn’t call him on it. The ruler of Mirrorvale was its overlord; there was no female equivalent. Which says a lot. Though most people in Darkhaven had enough sense to address her as Lady Ayla, my lord was technically the correct form of address.
Ayla doubted the man before her intended it as a point of etiquette.
She asked the magistrate to set out the case, then listened politely and without impatience as the woman went through the same points that Ayla had already read in the written record. It was important that everyone present should hear the official version of events, to prevent dispute later. When the magistrate had finished, Ayla turned to the mine owner.
‘It’s straightforward enough,’ she said. ‘These expenses you have been docking from your workers’ pay are unlawful. You have no right to make them pay for the tools they use in your service. Nor for the care of a physician, if they suffer injury in the course of their work. And you certainly have no right to force them to work longer without additional pay. You know the law.’
He scowled. ‘Your father –’
‘Would have made the same judgement,’ Ayla said briskly. And it was true: Florentyn had always upheld the rights of his workers. Perhaps that and his swiftness to punish those on the wrong side of the law were two sides of the same coin. But the mine owner shook his head stubbornly.
‘He’d have understood that a man has to turn a profit. And I can’t do that if I’m to pay for every damn miner who knocks his elbow or stubs his toe down there.’
‘You can if you run your mine efficiently and with the welfare of your workers in mind,’ Ayla said. Then, deliberately, she looked him up and down, taking in the embroidery on his coat and the lace ruffles at his wrists – as fine as her own clothing. ‘But my guess is that you’re too interested in filling your purse to worry about that.’
His face darkened. Taking a step forward, he gripped her by the upper arms as if to remonstrate with her. And Ayla reacted automatically.
Twist out of the way. Knee to the groin. Punch him while he’s weakened. The lessons dropped into place without conscious thought. Only when he staggered to his knees in the dirt in front of her did she realise what she’d done, and then it was all she could do not to smile.
After what had happened to her three years ago, she’d insisted that Tomas teach her how to fight. As she’d discovered to her cost, it wasn’t always possible for her to Change in order to defend herself, not without causing injury to innocent citizens or bringing a building down on her own head – and in human form, since her father had refused to send her for weapons training as he had Myrren, she’d found herself pretty near powerless. But she’d been determined not to stay that way. If another Owen Travers came along – a man who sought to impose his will on hers through physical strength alone – she’d make damn sure she knew how to deal with him.
And so Tomas had trained her. She was small, but her Nightshade blood made her stronger than she looked; with the right knowledge, Tomas had said, she’d be able to hold her own even against a trained soldier like Travers – or himself. And so it had turned out. Of course, to begin with he’d been gentle with her, even timid, until she’d pointed out tartly that no attacker would be so kind. After that, he didn’t hold back, and she went to bed each night with an impressive collection of bruises. Still, it was briefly worth it for the first time she disarmed him on her own merits. She’d whooped and cheered like an excitable child until he brought her back down to earth, quite literally, by knocking her feet from under her.
Never let your guard down, he’d told her sternly, pinning her to the ground with ease. Even if you think you’re safe. Now, let me show you how to counter this grip.
Since then she’d been practising, and sometimes she could beat him. Admittedly it was more not than often, but at least it wasn’t never – and the fact that she didn’t make it easy for him gave her confidence now. After all, there was a big difference between Tomas Caraway, Captain of the Helm and one of the most skilled swordsmen of the fifth ring, and a mine owner who’d probably never picked up a weapon in his life.
The question was, really, how far she was going to take it.
Grasping the mine owner’s shirt in her fist and giving it a twist to constrict his throat, she looked steadily into his wide, sweating face. This was what her people expected from her: a Nightshade overlord ruled as much through physical dominance as anything else. If anything, she was being kind. Presented with anyone who dared to be this insubordinate, her father would have taken his Firedrake form and ripped the offender to pieces without a second thought – she’d seen him do it to a man in Darkhaven once, all blood-spatter and entrails and high-pitched screaming. In Florentyn Nightshade, the balance between retribution and mercy had been askew. Or was it that Ayla erred too far on the side of forgiveness? Would she lose that hard-earned respect as a result of what could be perceived as weakness?
No. I have to stop comparing myself to my father. He was what he was. I am what I am.
Now, where are those pressure points Tomas showed me …?
She tightened her grip on the man’s throat until the hint of fear in his eyes became the predominant emotion. Then, with a shove, she let him go. He sprawled on the ground, gasping.
‘Pay your workers a fair wage,’ she said. ‘I am letting you live for the sake of their livelihoods. If I hear ill of you again, I won’t be so lenient.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ The reply was hoarse. Ayla looked up and gave the magistrate a nod, which the other woman returned after a moment’s hesitation. The workers’ representative was staring in unabashed amazement: no doubt one more story would be added to the local people’s repertoire tonight. That was no bad thing. In general, the more stories were told about Changers and their abilities, the less likely people were to commit a crime.
‘Let me know if you have any more trouble,’ she told the magistrate. Then, because one lesson she had taken on board from her father was that it was always wise to leave people a little on edge, she turned away without another word and walked back down the hill.
When she reached the clearing, she undressed quickly and packed the clothing into her bag, before Changing back into creature form. Her body still hadn’t forgotten the shape of it from her journey here; she settled into it as if it were a favourite gown. A toss of her horn picked the bag up and settled the strap over her head. Time to go home.
Once she was back in the air, she circled round and flew upwards, following the slope of the hill. The three people at the top were temporarily cast into shadow as her form blocked out the sun. To add to the effect, Ayla flung her head back and sent forth a Unicorn’s battle cry: a high, sweet, piercing note that resonated deep in human bones.
That should reinforce the day’s events in their minds.
Satisfied, she left them behind with a single sweep of her wide wings, and headed back to Darkhaven.