This section is the opening scene in Echo of the High Kings. Echo of the High Kings will be released on 1 August 2014.
Lady Katarina Emberhill
Castle Emberhill (Ducal Seat) Duchy of Masov
Twenty Seventh of Idran, Cycle 993 Post Sundering
Katarina ducked under the swing of her opponent and swung wildly in return. Her hit connected with his shield, but he grabbed her arm, lifted, and threw her flat on her back to the cold, muddy ground of the stable yard. Katarina felt the air woosh out of her lungs and for a moment, stars danced before her eyes. She caught her breath with a gasp and scowled up at Jarek, “You cheated.”
He smiled down at her, his brown eyes merry. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you wanted me to train you the prim and proper methods of fighting. It’s not like you’re going to duel someone.”
Katarina groaned and sat up. She felt the chill mud of the stable yard through her leather riding clothes and as she ran a hand through her raven black hair, she realized that she had more there… in addition to the sweat from the past hour of impromptu ‘training’ from Jarek.
Jarek looked behind her and his face went pale. Katarina saw him snap to attention, his wooden practice sword discarded, “My lord.”
Katarina felt her heart drop. She stood as quickly as she could manage and turned. As she’d feared, Lord Peter, Duke of Masov, sat on his horse at the stable yard entrance. Her father had no expression on his face, but she could see the irritation and disappointment in his eyes. Worse, she saw a half dozen mounted men behind him, many of them dressed in fine furs and robes on the blustery fall day. Their expressions ranged from amusement to disgust.
Katarina gave the best curtsey she could manage, “Father.”
The slight pinched expression he showed then suggested that he almost didn’t want to admit his connection to her. Katarina bit the inside of her lip at that realization. It wouldn’t be the first time, she thought, although finding me in this state, breaking my promise not to try to train in fighting is sure to reach a new level.
“Jarek, I will speak to Lord Elaisz about this, you may go,” Duke Peter said as he dismounted. Katarina winced at that. Lord Eliasz was the Baron of Zielona Gora, Jarek’s father, and her own father’s closest adviser. One of the stable boys ran out to catch the reins of his horse. Duke Peter walked forward to stand in front of Katarina. She was almost his height, a fact that did not instill any confidence in her. “Katarina, we will discuss this later. Get yourself cleaned up and come to my study.” The lack of emotion in his voice hurt even more than the cold look in his gray eyes.
Katarina managed a curtsey to her father and a polite nod at the noblemen and then hurried away from the scene as her eyes welled up. I just wanted to learn, she thought, angrily. Her brother, Peter, had already begun training. She had heard that women in other nations, even Marovingia, learned at least some weapons training. Her father had denied it to her, with multiple reminders that proper women did not find interest in such things.
Half in tears, she almost ran into her little brother as she raced through the corridors of the keep. He blinked at her, “What’s wrong? How’d you get so muddy, you better get changed before someone sees you.” Behind him she saw his armsman, Zeno.
Katarina pushed past him and rushed to her room. She heard him behind her, “Kati, what’s wrong?”
Katarina turned, “Father’s back. I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you.” She couldn’t help the vitriol in her voice. With Father, Peter can do no wrong, she thought, while I can do nothing right.
She saw the look of shock on his face. Katarina wiped at the tears on her face and sighed. She miserably spoke, “I talked Jarek into teaching me how to fight, in the stable yard because we thought it would be mostly deserted. Father showed up right after Jarek dumped me in the mud.”
Peter winced, “I told you I could train you what I’m learning…”
“No,” Katarina said. She looked around the hallway and dropped her voice. “Peter, you’re the heir. You can’t be seen disobeying father, or there will be half a dozen people who will spread rumors about you.” Katarina sighed, “I’m his too strong-willed daughter, who rides horses and reads books.” She didn’t know if Peter understood. People didn’t talk as freely around him as they did her. In some ways, being considered the outcast meant she heard much more of the gossip and talk, in part because people didn’t care what she overheard.
“Look, just trust me, it was better that I do it that way. Besides, I’m five foot tall, you’re only three feet tall. Jarek’s a better match for me.”
Peter scowled, “I bet he’s in trouble, huh?”
Katarina winced again, “Yeah, Father said he’s going to tell Lord Eliasz.”
“Well, if you don’t want Mother to see you like that, you should probably head down the back stairs, she’s on her way up to make sure that the guest wing is prepared for the guests,” Peter said. He still looked confused and a little hurt that she hadn’t involved him. But the things she’d heard some of the noblewomen talk about… she didn’t want to make things more difficult for her family. She had intended her little training session to be a secret. Next time, I’ll do it in some of the hidden passages, she thought, assuming there is a next time.
Whatever trouble Jarek got into, she was certain she could talk him around. Though she had the feeling he wouldn’t be too fond of her for the next week or two until his father forgave him. Like Peter’s relationship with their father, Jarek and Lord Eliasz were close and Katarina felt certain that whatever punishment Jarek received, he’d be more upset by his father’s disappointment in him than anything else.
Katarina gave Peter a nod, “Thanks, Peter. Father will no doubt tell her soon enough, but I’d rather not have the confrontation right now.” She turned away and rushed to her room. She felt more than a little grateful that her father hadn’t moved her out of the children’s wing yet. Really, at her age, it was customary that she be moved to adult quarters in Estera Tower. But Estera Tower’s bathing rooms were designed around proper adult women who never got muddy or dirty at all. The children’s suites all had access to the larger bathing chamber, because even noble children got messy.
Katarina bathed quickly and then rushed back to her room. She frowned when she found two of her father’s armsmen outside her door. The older one, Tomek gave her a nod and a slight smile, “Lord Peter wanted someone down here to keep watch.”
Katarina managed a nod and continued past them into her room. Tomek was one of her father’s oldest armsmen, he had served her grandfather, from what she’d heard. She thought, briefly, to ask what had happened to her last armsman, Covle. She thought better of it though. Neither looked comfortable down here, away from their main charge. For that matter, Covle had disappeared so suddenly and without any fanfare that Katarina felt certain it meant he’d done something dreadful.
His disappearance had made her more recent adventures possible. Without an armsman to follow her around, she had been able to explore the hidden passages within Emberhill Castle for hours and even had time to convince Jarek to train her a bit on fighting. Combined with the fact that Armsman Covle Darkbit always made her feel uncomfortable, she hadn’t asked many questions about his departure. He would always get those weird smiles on his face when he thought no one was looking, Katarina remembered, like he knew some secret that no one else did.
She found her maid, Linsey, awaiting her, a disapproving frown on her face. “My lady, I warned you that you’d get in trouble.” Katarina pinched her lips together against a retort. She didn’t know why her mother had assigned the skinny woman to her. Linsey was the keep’s most poisonous gossip. Katarina had little doubt that half the castle would know about the incident before evening.
“Not a proper thing for a Lady to do, you ask me,” Linsey said. “For that matter, riding isn’t even proper, not unless you’ve some place to go, and then a carriage or palanquin is far more proper…” the woman continued her tirade and Katarina made polite noises as Linsey helped her into a dress. Katarina was tall and thin for her age, at six cycles, though she wouldn’t be considered of age until nine cycles. Katarina still had a ways to grow for that matter, a fact which quite vexed Linsey. This newest dress was already too short, and in another few weeks Katarina wouldn’t fit into it at all.
As she stared into the mirror, Katarina realized that she looked more and more like her mother. She had the same curly black hair, the same pale skin, and her thin face with sharp nose and arched eyebrows. She was fast catching up with height, for her mother towered over most people in the Duchy of Masov. Perhaps, she thought enviously, I’ll even grow into her curves.
As if on cue, the door to her room opened and her mother swept in. Katarina rose and curtseyed, and her mother gave her a slight sniff and a nod. She glared at Linsey, “I told you to ensure she was presentable to our guests. I’m holding you responsible for that incident in the stables.”
Katarina winced. Linsey would take that out on her. The maid had a joy of using a brush to dig into her scalp and yank at her dark hair when she was angry. Besides, it wasn’t as if Linsey had known the Duke would be back so soon. Even for her dislike of the maid, she spoke up, “Mother, Linsey didn’t know that the Duke would be back, she couldn’t have warned me.”
“She did, indeed, know that,” her mother said. Lady Alexia scowled at Linsey, “I told her that Duke Peter would return this morning.” Anger cut sharp lines into her mother’s face, and Katarina realized with a shock that her mother had aged much in the past few years. Lines of gray worked through the dark curls of her hair. “And I specifically told her not to let you go out riding, much less get into this kind of mischief.”
Linsey looked away, “My lady…”
“We will speak of this later,” Lady Alexia snapped. “You are dismissed.” She waited as the maid left, then turned her blue eyed gaze on Katarina. “You look much more presentable, though I doubt anyone will look at you now and see aught besides the mud spattered girl they first laid eyes on.”
Katarina lowered her head, “I’m sorry, Mother.”
“I can’t be angry at you, my dear,” Lady Alexia said. “I might as well be angry at water for being wet, the Viani for being mysterious, or Auir for shining.” She gave a sigh. “But you do try my patience.” Lady Alexia took a deep breath. “Your father wished to keep this… quiet, but the purpose of this event tonight was to show you off… for potential betrothal.”
“What?” Katarina asked in shock. She had known, theoretically, that she would be betrothed and married someday… but that day had seemed a distant thing.
“Half the Duchy’s nobles have come, along with their heirs. We’ve even a couple noblemen from Boir, Lord Hennings and Lord Anhalt,” Lady Alexia said. She saw the expression of shock on Katarina’s face and sighed. “Child, I know that this is a rude awakening, but it is… was, a good thing. Things are, uncertain right now, and growing more so. A betrothal could prevent bloodshed, could stabilize things somewhat.”
Katarina nodded. She’d heard some of the rumors and she knew her duty, yet she had hoped for greater freedom. For a brief moment, she wished she’d been born a boy, so that she could learn to fight, so that she’d have her father’s love and respect. So that she wouldn’t be some prize to be sold off to build a political alliance. “Very well.”
“Look,” her mother sighed, “You know that… your Father and I, our arranged marriage has not been the best example.” The two almost never spoke, Katarina knew. Though how much of that was due to the fact that her father was Starborn and so would still be youthful and young long after her mother died of old age was uncertain. Katarina had never heard them argue, yet there seemed some underlying bitterness that meant that they barely spoke in private.
Even so, they were publicly a team, a strong marriage. Though Katarina knew that her mother’s place of birth was something that many noblewomen held against her. Lady Alexia came from Marovingia, so she was seen as an outsider. Would Katarina face the same fate, she wondered? Would she go to some distant land in order to build an alliance?
Katarina gave her a nod. Her mother smiled slightly, “My dear, it will be alright, I promise you.” A distant look went over her face, “I will do everything I can to make certain that you and young Peter will be cared for, no matter what it might cost me.”
Katarina frowned at that in confusion. Her mother sighed at the expression on her face, “Katarina, we’ve wasted enough time. Your father is in his study. Go see him, accept whatever punishment, and do not further aggravate him. He has enough worries, now.”
Katarina left. Her footsteps carried her out of the children’s wing and down the lone access corridor that led to the Duke’s quarters. Her father’s two armsmen followed her, their faces somber. She paused outside the library door. The library had always been her favorite room in the keep, even before she found the hidden passages that connected to it. She used to spend hours of her childhood, seated in one of her father’s oversized chairs and reading the history books. She’d particularly liked the stories of the times when her father’s people, the Starborn, had arrived to Eoria. She was fascinated by the thoughts that other worlds awaited beyond her own and of the brave men and women who had shaped this world and had raised the banners of civilization and brought an end to the generations of war. The Starborn had established their Codes to prevent disease and outbreak, introduced concepts of crop rotation and fertilization, and and established their Laws which applied to all, noble and peasant alike. In the two thousand cycle reign of the Starborn High Kings, their civilization had spread across the Five Duchies and even to the distant continent of Aoriel. They had even, briefly, maintained outposts on Eoria’s twin world, Aoria.
If the High Kings still ruled, I’d be free to pursue my own dreams, Katarina thought bitterly. But then she buried that thought. The High Kings had been gone for almost a thousand cycles, brought down by betrayal and bloodshed on a scale that had nearly eradicated civilization entirely. She couldn’t call on their justice, they were dead and gone, so long ago that even their spirits were silent. Katarina took a deep breath and worked up the courage to pushed the library door open. The two armsmen took up positions outside. Inside she saw that the study door was partially open, and she heard raised voice from within. She recognized Lord Eliasz’s voice first. “…Baron Oltsztyn is willing to use that to his advantage. Particularly after you embarrassed him by releasing his bastard son from the Ducal Guard.”
“Can you blame me?” Duke Peter asked, his voice harsh. “Darkbit came to me and insisted that I give him my daughter’s hand, in exchange for his ‘services.’ He all but said it was a bribe to keep his mouth shut.”
Katarina felt a chill as she realized what that meant. Her stomach twisted with revulsion at the thought. Covle Darkbit wanted to marry me, she thought. All of the man’s odd smirks and arrogance took on a new light. No wonder her father had dismissed him.
“Still, it’s a good thing he’s estranged from Oltsztyn, otherwise he might try to make some deal with him,” Lord Eliasz said. “Worse, he might try to take this to Lord Estrel of Longhaven.”
“Doubtful,” Duke Peter said, his tone bitter. Katarina didn’t have to wonder at that. She had heard the rumors of how poorly mismanaged Longhaven was. Lord Estrel was her cousin, the eldest son of her grandfather’s youngest brother, and after Peter and herself, he was the next in line for the inheritance. “Estrel would love the opportunity, but he hasn’t the money to tempt Covle Darkbit. Besides that, don’t forget Lord Hector is his military commander, with orders to try and set things right with their defenses.”
“Hector?” Lord Elias asked. “Your bastard nephew?”
“The same,” her father said. “Though Estrel has him on a tight rein from what I hear. I just hope it’s enough to stabilize Longhaven. A cycle or two is all we need to fix some of this,” Duke Peter said, his voice tired. She moved closer to the door, though she gave a nervous glance over her shoulder at the library door. It would be… awkward to be caught eavesdropping on her father and his chief adviser, especially after the earlier events of the day. “You’ll have to punish Jarek,” he said, his voice sad. The change of topic confused her. With the discussion of politics she’d almost forgotten about her own misadventure.
“I know,” Lord Eliasz said. “I’m thinking I’ll send him back home. Ancestors know I need someone to look after things. My other boy… well you know, he’s not fit to rule. Jarek can get some experience looking after things and keep Rodik out of trouble, hopefully.”
“I thought it was good at first at how well they go along, but they’re both too demon-spawned eager to get into mischief,” her father said. “I can’t blame Jarek, not really. Katarina though…” Her father sighed. “Well, there’s nothing for it. She’s basically upset the entire betrothal discussion in one act. I’ll have to bend over backwards now, to get the concessions we’ll need… which might well give up more than we can afford. Thank the High Kings she wasn’t born a boy or she would be a disaster.”
Katarina felt tears well up in her eyes. She stumbled back from the door and went as far away from the study as she could go. She found herself at the back corner of the library, next to the thick history books which she’d so enjoyed. I’d be a disaster, would I? She looked at the books and her fingers traced the spines. She had disappointed her father, caused him pain, and she didn’t know if there would ever be a way to earn his trust back… she could see that now.
She wouldn’t bother, then. If he so hated her, if she was this disaster, then she would live life her way… and to hell with the consequences.
In Eoriel, the High Kings are legend: rulers who once stood against the darkness and ruled the world for two thousand turns of peace and prosperity. In the long turns since their fall during the Sundering, Eoriel’s civilization has faded. Dark men and darker beings have torn down and destroyed the old works. While some have held out against the grind of history, other places have been reduced to primitive tribes of savages, worshiping dark spirits and demons as their gods.
Yet a spark of hope remains. Some still believe in the old legends, some still fight to restore the old ways, and some will stand against the darkness, in an echo of the High Kings.
Echo of the High Kings will be released on 1 August 2014