Those who move to the unseen music have always been thought to be insane.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
Fighting back a yawn, Hanna watched Viscount Baldur from her high-backed chair, her hands folded on her lap and blonde hair spilling down her back. It was quite ridiculous that she had been commanded to appear here at such an hour, and it mattered not that the Viscount’s wives, Lexi and Jenny, hovered just behind their husband’s chair. It was unseemly, not to mention she was not his to direct. As long as Erik still breathed. . . . You have to wake up, Erik. You have to.
Baldur’s brown eyes flicked from her to the roaring fireplace, decorated in winding black serpents. The last week had aged the Viscount terribly, and he was unlikely to ever regain his former vigor. He sat hunched forward in his chair, leaning on a wooden cane. Half of his face hung lifeless, which caused his speech to be slurred when he spoke. His eyes moved from the fireplace to roam the white, wooden panels, carved in large trees and frolicking children, that covered the black stone walls of his apartments.
“This really is quite unacceptable, my Lord,” said a man to Hanna’s right, dressed in a long, white-beaked vulture mask, a black top hat, leather gloves, and a flowing red, linen robe. “We’ve been kept from Prince Erik’s side long enough.”
Hanna turned to regard Læknir Myrkvi fully, she did not so much stare at him as stare through him. She kept her breathing even and her face blank, allowing him to feel the entire weight of her disdain. She had little love for the Læknar—an order of Vindurian men of healing, specialized in the use of leeches and bloodletting—on the best of occasions, but Erik’s situation made the man’s request an impossibility. Until the Prince regained consciousness, no one could be allowed to touch him, less they discover his secret.
Baldur pointed at the door with a bony finger. “Go.”
“My Lord?” Læknir Myrkvi shifted to the Viscount, his voice scandalized.
Baldur graced the man with his full attention, and Lexi and Jenny rubbed their husbands back soothingly, but it did not seem to relieve the tension that had surged into the room. If anything the Viscount was suddenly more menacing, despite his feeble appearance and his wives soft coos.
“My Lord. My ladies.” Myrkvi gave a quick bow and left the chamber with his pride in tatters.
“Now, what am I supposed to do with you, my dear?” Baldur asked Hanna. “You know what will be said if the Prince dies while you refuse to let the Læknar attend to him? What will befall me if that happens, and I refused to force you?”
“I understand the difficult position I’ve placed you in, my Lord, and I beg your forgiveness.” Hanna tilted her head downward ever so slightly and appeared anything but contrite, at least in her own mind. Men such as the Viscount respected nothing so much as courage, feigned feminine fragility would do no good here. “But I beseech you to consider what my husband will do to you if you use force to enter my bedchamber. Because that’s the only way the Læknar will step foot inside our apartments. After all, he burned alive the last man who dared place his hand upon me.”
Lexi and Jenny hissed in unison as displeasure clouded their matching blue eyes. They really did have the most delightful soured expressions. Like twin daughters thrown into a pond by a mischievous father. Hanna had thought them better at the Game of Faces, if not so skilled as herself. The smoldering hate etched in their jaw-lines made her reconsider that theory. Displaying their resentment now served no larger purpose, at least not that she could see.
Baldur laughed, an act that seemed only to increase the level of his wives enmity. “My dear, if I were a younger man, and you were unwed. . . .” He trailed off and gave another bark of laughter.
Hanna stopped the color that threatened to flair in her cheeks by concentrating on a memory, a memory of herself strolling through a garden in full bloom. A hacking sound pulled her focus back onto the here and now. The Viscount’s face burned as his amusement caught in his throat, transformed into a whooping, wheezing cough that only worsened by the second. He gasped, his eyes watering despite his wives pounding his back with delicate fists.
Hanna rose from her seat before her satisfaction could leak through her facade. She curtsied, the quintessential model of grace and decorum. A grin crept along her lips, with her back to the room’s other occupants and her hand reaching for the door.
“My patience has come to an end,” Baldur panted from behind her; Hanna froze. “Come first light, the Læknar will enter your chamber one way or another.”
Hanna closed her eyes. What was it? The Viscount must have sensed her joy at his malaise—but how? The smile. Her momentary lapse must have revealed itself in her shoulders or. . . . A dozen possible tells unfurled in her mind.
Stupid. All that work ruined.
Hanna opened her eyes and took a guarded breath. The past could not be changed, only mined for lessons. She stepped out of the Viscount’s apartments without bothering to respond and moved past the two Lightbenders that towered at either side of the doorway.
Sir Tandri leaned against the wall across from her personal attendants, Rikka and Óla, eying them like a wolf might it’s latest meal. The cherry flaring in the serving women’s angular faces told Hanna that they were well aware of the man’s predatory stare.
“My Lady,” Tandri greeted her with a toothy smirk.
Hanna ignored the man and motioned to the women. With indignant glances sent Tandri’s way, they straightened their immaculate dresses and ushered Hanna down the hall.
“Bad news then,” Tandri said, falling in beside Hanna.
Hanna counted her steps. It seemed despite her best efforts, she had become an open window, exposed to the machinations of any passers by. She unclenched her hand.
“You’re too hard on yourself. You’re better at the game than most, but when you’ve lived as long as I have, you learn to see through the little parlor tricks nobles use to conceal their emotions.” Tandri spoke to Hanna like a father passing knowledge to his favorite daughter; she had never wanted to hit anyone more. “Very few can mask their heart palpitations from my ear.”
“Thank you for the lesson, Sir Tandri,” she told him in a voice chalk dry.
The Lightbender chortled to himself, probably because he knew nothing would needle her more. Hanna would not put it past him.
“I assume you’re stalking me for a reason?” she inquired in the same tone of voice.
“Is your hate for the Læknar that strong? Why not capitulate?”
Hanna rounded on him. “Your precious Læknar almost murdered my brother soon after we arrived at Vetur. I’ve seen the ill their bloodletting and leeches can do. They will touch my husband over my dead body.”
“I doubt their best efforts could harm the Prince as he is now?
Hanna’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Tandri gave Hanna an elaborate bow, flippant for its lowness—a commoner would not bend to such a degree for the King of Vindur, much less a Lightbender to a Princess of nothing—then he left, his topknot swaying behind him.
Rikka clicked her tongue, and her freckled cheeks flushed with color. “My mother told me most men are in need of a good beating from time to time.”
“He’s over due for one, I reckon,” Óla replied just as vexedly, tapping a finger against the small mole on her upper lip. A nervous habit of hers.
Hanna said nothing, but she was thankful for the women’s supportive chatter. It helped relieve some of the anxiety knotted in her stomach. They made the rest of the journey in silence.
Outside Hanna’s personal apartments, three Lightbender’s stood guard, the last living member’s of the military escort that had traveled with her husband from Vetur to Hjörtur. When the trek to the citadel first began, these same men had loathed heeding any of Erik’s commands, but now they had begged her for the honor of protecting his door. What a difference four months made.
Inside, Hanna’s other serving woman, Súla sat with Kai, an armored man, beside the hearth fire. They leaped to their feet after she entered hot on Rikka and Óla’s heels. She turned a blind eye to the hint of embarrassment that stained the pair’s countenance, as if they had been caught misbehaving, and strode over the bright colored carpets that covered the anteroom in layers. She stopped in front of the bedchamber and turned to Kai.
The man cleared his throat. “My Lady?”
“Assemble as many of your brethren as you can,” Hanna said. “The Viscount means to force entry into this chamber at first light.”
“My Lady,” Kai mumbled, his eyes going wide.
For a long time, Erik stood there practicing his attacks, with his arms transformed into long scythe-like blades, watching Matangi smile down at him. It did not seem to be amusement. From time to time she stirred, muttering to herself in a low voice, “Something old made new. . . .” Then her words would trail off into a deep sigh. Was it not enough? She still looked deathly ill from her tormentors’ last visit. Every day like clockwork, they would arrive to start her torture anew, despite his best efforts. I will stop them this time. I will!
After perhaps a minute, Matangi lurched upright, her chains clanging like tower sized bells. Fresh tears shone in her eyes. “I will humor you in this, child,” she said, raising her four arms as if about to strike, “but even if we join hands, we are no match for the Raat Eegal. The only way to stop them if with the gola. Their key.”
“We can but try.” Erik dropped his razor sharp limbs to his side. “I can’t watch you suffer through that again. I can’t.” He felt exhausted, the brutality of Matangi’s daily torments had drained him of something vital. “Teach me.” She only nodded as he rushed her with his scythe-shaped arms extended, their glossy black surface glittering in the ethereal light that bathed the clearing.
To Erik’s surprise, when Matangi struck the very air howled. Her seemingly slow moving fist built pressure, leaked hissing steam, glowed with fiery heat. Eyes wide, he hurled himself out of the path of destruction, smashed back first into the ground, choked on stomach clenching fear. No sound stirred but the harsh noise of his ragged breath. He rose to face her, staring wonderingly into her three dark eyes. A gust of wind whipped her long black hair back from her blue shoulders.
Neither one of them spoke while he caught his breath; then Matangi shook her head and said, “Perhaps this was not the best of ideas.” She lowered her arms to her side. “I have been many things, but none of them have equal my ability as a warrior. I’m a true destroyer. It’s unfair to expect you to match me blow for blow.”
“I’ll do better next time.”
Matangi tilted her head to the side and sent him a glance—she seemed able to communicate an entire conversation through her glances—telling him as clearly as if she had spoken that he was too weak. That he was too feeble to hope to spar with such as her.
Her pity, her disdain made Erik’s blood burn with sudden fury. His eyes narrowed and his insides twisted. He took a step forward, sensed his body swell until they stood eye level. She no longer loomed, no longer towered.
Matangi sighed. “It won’t be enough.”
He charged her, his heart thumping with a pitiless sound. Doubt. Doubt that she might be right, that he would always be weaker than he hoped. His scythe-shaped limb whirled toward Matangi’s face. She shifted her head back the instant before the blade could cleave her cheek in two, made him seem a turtle warring a leopard. It frustrated him, laid bare the depths of his inadequacy.
Erik growled in his throat, pushed himself faster. The air keened as he spun, as his arms slashed toward the Earth Mother. She smiled and moved. Back and forth they went, him reaching, always reaching. A dance of sorts. Yet at the last moment, always at the last moment, she shifted like sand beneath his feet, like time slipping through an old man’s gnarled fingers. He was a witless youth chasing after something that could never be had.
She giggled the way a young girl might and pulled him into a kiss. Bewildered, Erik stumbled back, lurching to keep himself upright.
“Always so petulant in your anger. Like a child.” Matangi laughed louder, brushing a strand of black hair from her eye with a blue finger. “I think that’s what I like best about you.”
“Why did you do that?”
“The mood took me,” she said. “Did you not like it.”
“No . . . I. . . .”
And again she crackled, this time with all the warmth of a hearth after a long day trudging through snow covered banks. “I suppose I should teach you to dance before I teach you to sing.” She beaconed him with an open hand. “Again. This time try not to let your rage control you. Reason trumps passion, or so I was once told. I’m not sure I agree, but for now, let us pretend.”
“I don’t understand why,” he said. “There’s something in me that burns.”
Erik shuddered and glanced down at his strange arms. They twisted, warped in on themselves until they were once again made of flesh. He flexed fingers, balled hands into fists.
“Dance with me child of Man,” Matangi smiled. “Dance and forget your worries, dance for the simple joy of dancing. There is beauty in it. The storm comes, you feel it in your bones as I do, but it is not here yet. So dance.”
Erik nodded, and not so much rushed toward her as flowed. His hands struck out, sometimes closed, sometimes open, and Matangi waltzed before him. Rising on the tips of her toes, she held herself erect, the chains around her wrists limiting her movements to a small circle, but it was enough. More than enough. Her eyes sang with a joy that made his own blood quicken, made his heart cry out in exultation.
He could not say how long they whirled within that tight space, almost but never touching, with the clanking of iron the melody to their jig. He wept tears of elation and pressed her ever faster. The air shrieked before his fists. The ground groaned beneath their feet.
Doom approached as it had countless times before. Erik heard it in the sky, the buzzing of metallic wings, the approach of the Raat Eegal. Yet he did not gaze upward, did not pause his onslaught. The dance was all that matter, the glory of it. The beauty of it.
Ghostly notes of a string instrument slithered into the clearing from the forest, half heard, half recollected. Memories stirred and Erik faltered, his arms slowing, his legs pausing their rhythmic stomps. He knew that melody, knew that song. But from where?
A jolt of lightning coiled around his spine. “I remember,” he said, “I remember.” He turned from the Earth Mother, from the Dark One’s sad smile. “You’re the Mother of Lies, the Great Destroyer. I remember.” His eyes scoured the wooden pillars where swirling mist now reigned. “Hanna.”
“Go,” the Dark One said, her voice quivering with melancholy so deep it made him want to weep. “Go.”
And Erik ran toward the fog strewn trees, not looking back even as screams rose behind him. Matangi’s torment had started anew. Shame pulled at his heart as well as dread, then the mist had him.