120. The Stillborn Queen’s Blessing

“Yes,” the shadow says with a flicker of the long-gone fire in his voice. “By Ingharad’s dark craft was my curse achieved. Her blessing, she calls it. Many of her servants have received it willingly, fools that they are, thinking it a boon beyond imagining. Others were cursed with it against their will. Yet they obey the fiend, in hopes that she may one day deliver them from it in exchange for their servitude.”

“And you are neither a fool,” Nevynne says, “nor hoping for deliverance?”

“I can’t deny that I was a fool,” the shadow says. “Not to foresee the true depths of Ingharad’s devilry. That mercy or release would come from her I never was witless enough to believe. No, I had no hope for myself, save that in the course of my errand, I might find the chance to convey my warning to the Prince. That alone is why I obeyed the queen’s command to act as guide to her henchmen. I meant to find a way to rid myself of them in the end, and speak to the Prince alone.”

“And yet you did not approach him when those wretches lay dead,” Nevynne says. “Instead you turned and ran. Something’s not right in this tale of yours!”

“I was terrified, my thoughts in turmoil. Think of it, child! I knew not at the time if the Prince had escaped with his life or not! I could not bear the thought of the shame had he or any of you come to harm through my hesitation. And so I fled. Only later did my roiling mind settle, and I realized the chance I almost wasted, and set out once more in pursuit of you. But I had lost time. When I regained your trail, you were far ahead of me, and riding in a mad flight without rest. I was unable to match your haste, but I soon realized that you were headed for the Sundrance of Silence, no doubt to seek healing for your injuries. I followed you here, and waited outside the walls, for I did not wish to reveal myself to the friars. The next day the soldiers came. When they left, I waited near the road. I spied the Prince riding among them, but you were no longer with him.”

“You saw the Prince?” Stellia bursts out. “What of our companion, who approached you in the Pass of Talvain? Was he with them, as well?”

“I did not see him,” the shadow says. “But there is no more time for questions. You must reach the Prince, and tell him what you witnessed here! A grim threat has arisen in Baramond, a malevolent power beyond the reach of ordinary men. As yet it moves in secrecy and darkness, but it is all the more dangerous for that. Whatever rift you suspect between Prince and Guardian, it must be mended if this evil is to be countered. Faith and Crown were ever joined together to protect our world, and it will need their protection sorely before long. You must deliver my warning!”

“We would love nothing more than to ride after the Prince,” Nevynne says. “But on what horses? Ours are stabled in the Sundrance, and unreachable. The nearest place where we might find others is a day’s ride away.”

“I will leave you now.” The shadow retrieves his sword from the forest floor and sheathes it. “Once I am gone, walk up this slope for about two hundred paces. You will find my steed there, and those of the assassins in whose company I rode, along with their cloaks and supplies. Take them, and ride swiftly.”

“May the Shaper bless your soul,” Frithil stammers in disbelief. “Whoever you may be.”

“A moment, yet,” Nevynne says. “If the need to warn the Prince is as urgent as you claim, why do you not come with us, and tell your tale to him and the Guardian yourself? The demonstration you gave us of your predicament would do much to convince them.”

“It would, no doubt,” the shadow says. “No doubt also the Guardian would declare my existence an offense to the divine order, and call for my destruction. Even Prince Ansil could not save me then.”

“What of it? Would your destruction not be a small price for the delivery of your warning, and a blessing to you, since you claim that your existence is such torment?”

“Nevynne!” Frithil cries. “Have you no heart at all?”

“You doubt me,” the shadow says. “But you are right. I would welcome oblivion. Were I certain that the Guardian could grant it to me, I would not hesitate to accompany you, and go gladly to my end. But I am not, and there are tasks before me yet undone, as well. I must travel my road a while longer, and alone.”

“What if the Prince does not believe us?” Nevynne asks. “What if he wants proof?”

“Then what surer proof could he require, than the word of Nevynne of Combray, daughter of Ellyan, who was ever a loyal friend to the Lords of Hestia? Surely he knows this! But perhaps you have yourself forgotten who you are, and the noble house from which you hail?”

“I have not.” Nevynne exhales in frustration. “I wish only you told us who you are. Are we to put our trust into a stranger watching from the shadows, without revealing himself? You ask for much.”

“I wish it could be otherwise,” the shadow says. “But though I am Ingharad’s slave no longer, I have been broken by her darkness, and that can never be undone. I would still aid those who walk in the light, but I am myself now no more than a shadow, and among shadows I must remain.”

Something about his words, his voice, touches Stellia in a way she cannot explain. A great sadness fills her heart. “Are there others like you, who would resist the queen?”

“There must be, though as yet I have met none. The Stillborn Queen rules through deception, and her power to conceal the truth from mortal minds is vast. Those who worship her feel blessed by her dominion over them, never seeing that in truth they are less than slaves to their mistress. Yet even those who know the queen for the fiend she is are blinded by her power, deeming themselves alone in boundless despair, and seeing enemies in all who surround them. The very man standing next to them may think as they do, yet each will be afraid to bare his heart to the other, to risk trust, for fear of the queen and her servants. And who can blame them? There are worse fates than death, and Ingharad is a master at devising them. But now make haste!”

Already the cowled figure withdraws into the night.

“The sooner you speak to Prince Ansil, the better for us all. Farewell, Nevynne of Combray. I will follow your journey from afar, whenever I can.”

“Wait!” Nevynne calls out. The word rings almost like a plea. “Who are you? Will you not tell me?”

But the shadowy figure is gone, leaving in its place only the darkness that lingers heavy and silent between the towering trees.

NEXT: Pursuing the Soldiers