With eyes that were no longer eyes, the thing that had once been human looked down upon the sleeping town. Below the hill a ribbon of moonlit river gleamed, delineating the town walls. Higher up, the castle’s dark mass against the night sky blocked the stars.
Both horse and rider, so perfectly still that they might have formed an equestrian statue, blended into the darkness of the forest. The only movement was the occasional flap of the tattered, rotting cloak and hood in the night breeze. Bony shoulders rose like folded bat wings beneath the cloak. What face the rider had was hidden deep within the hood.
It sat astride a travesty of a horse, as insubstantial as its rider. The rider had once been human but was now no more than a tool without a mind of its own, capable of little except obedience.
It made a mental connection with another mind. — I have found her, Master.
The other mind responded instantly, conveying anticipation mixed with alarm. — How did this occur? She has her protective spell in place at all times. Your finding her must have been pure accident.
— I do not know, Master. But she is near. I can sense her.
— Which means she can sense you too and will take precautions. There was a lengthy pause; then the second mind resumed. — I see now where you are, and it is cause for concern. If she is there, it may mean she has discovered that the girl is the key to reversing the spell. He whom she would release must not be allowed to return.
— No, Master.
— Not that I need be too concerned. The spell can be reversed only in the place in which it was cast. She would not dare to bring the girl here.
— No, Master.
— Yet she has become more powerful over the centuries. She may have means at her disposal that I do not suspect.
— You are more powerful.
— True. Nevertheless the threat must be eliminated, and the simplest way is to eliminate the girl, since he has no other progeny.
— I cannot enter a town.
— No, you are of limited use to me. I shall find other minds. Leave that place now. Find your way back to me.
— Yes, Master.
The connection was broken. The first faint light of dawn showed on the horizon. For some time horse and rider remained motionless. Then, without disturbing so much as a blade of grass, both slowly sank beneath the earth.
Chapter One: Adela
The girl wore satin slippers, but she strode the room as if she wore boots. From wall to marble wall she paced, kicking her long, heavy skirts ahead of her with each stride. From time to time she stopped and glared at the stout wooden door set deep in the wall. When it remained shut, she resumed her pacing.
Bright sunlight streamed in, bouncing off the pale marble walls that gave the town of Whitecastle its name, so that the corridor-like room was lit up in cheerful contrast to the girl’s expression. Her shadow on the far wall shrank and expanded as she moved. Across the floor lay the long, still shadow of the middle-aged woman who sat in the window seat, watching the girl with pained disapproval.
“Do sit down, Adela. You are not helping my headache at all.”
The woman pressed her fingers to her temple and squeezed her eyes shut. She bore a distinct facial resemblance to the girl, but in all other respects Lady Grainne was the exact opposite of her niece. Elegant in her carriage and dress, she represented the ideal to which all Whitecastle matrons aspired—hair elaborately coiffed and intertwined with beads and pearls, dark green gown in the latest fashion, and as many rings, necklaces, and bracelets as she could comfortably wear without falling over. Like all the ladies of Whitecastle, Grainne would no more think of appearing in public without these accessories than of appearing naked, although she retained enough of her beauty not to be in need of any of them.
Her niece, on the other hand, wore her wine-coloured gown as if it were a burden. Adela’s silver-blonde hair was too short to do anything with, having been hacked off inexpertly so that it swung no lower than her cheek. Instead of obeying her aunt she continued pacing, bright blue eyes blazing, mouth set in a pout.
“Why is he keeping us waiting, Aunt Grainne? Does he think we’ve nothing better to do?”
“Hush, child. Your uncle is busy with affairs of office. Or do you think the thanedom runs itself? And remember, if you please, that this summons was brought about partly by your own behaviour.”
The younger woman threw her hands in the air. “What a waste of time! I was supposed to go hunting today with my friends.”
“That is precisely the sort of unladylike behaviour I’m speaking of, Adela. And this meeting will certainly not be a waste of your time, as you will agree when you hear the good news your uncle has to tell you, news which you will find very exciting…”
Before Grainne finished speaking, Adela threw herself to her knees beside her and grasped her aunt’s hands. Her eyes were wide. “Good news—about my father? Has he been found?”
“Oh! No, my darling. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to raise your expectations. No, it isn’t about your father.”
Adela’s face fell. Grainne’s gentle eyes, which even during her most cheerful moods always seemed on the point of tears, misted over. She squeezed her niece’s hands. “But it is exciting news nevertheless. I know you’ll be pleased.”
“I would love to, my dear, but your uncle wishes to tell you himself.”
“So I’ll pretend to be surprised.”
Knowing that her aunt was far too afraid of her husband to think of disobeying him, Adela jumped to her feet. She would have resumed pacing if Grainne had not held tightly to her hand.
“Please, Adela. For the sake of my head, don’t stride about. Sit down.”
She spoke with more authority this time. Adela sighed and flopped onto the seat beside her aunt in a sprawled pose.
Grainne reached over and fingered her niece’s hair, making clucking sounds. “Why did you do this to yourself, dear? You look like one of the page boys. It’s a perfect ruin now, and it used to look so pretty when you wore it long.”
Adela shrugged. “It got in the way.”
“You could have worn it up. Most young women do.”
“I know, but I haven’t got time to sit for an hour while Lyssa fiddles with it.”
Grainne raised her eyes heavenwards but said nothing. After a long silence Adela grew uncomfortable, knowing she was being watched. She turned to find her aunt inspecting her with a puzzled frown.
Adela raised both hands in query. “What?”
“Why didn’t you wear your lovely blue gown?” her aunt asked.
“I gave it to the alms house.”
Grainne turned away, stunned. “Well, I must say, what an odd reputation Whitecastle must have, when the beggars are better dressed than the thanedar’s daughter!”
“It was ripped anyway,” Adela said.
“Oh, no! How did that happen?”
Adela muttered something inaudible, and Grainne had to ask her to repeat it.
“I did it myself. I couldn’t climb into my saddle the way it was.”
Grainne put her head in her hands and shook it slowly. “Adela, sometimes I despair of ever teaching you to be a lady. You have a perfectly good side-saddle if you would only use it, instead of riding astride like a man so that your legs are exposed right up to the knee for anyone to see. You have no sense of decency. And look at you. You sit like one of the town louts. Have you any idea how to behave like a girl?”
Adela pulled a face. “You want me to act like Wendolyn, or Lyssa? I can do that if you want.”
“Then I wish you would. They are at least feminine. You could do worse than model yourself on them.”
Adela resumed her sprawl, and nothing more was said by either woman for a long time. It was Adela who broke the silence.
“You know what’s going to happen in there, don’t you? My uncle will lecture me and ban me from hunting and swordplay again. He’ll start yelling, then I’ll yell back, and—”
“No!” Grainne gave a little moan and squeezed her temples.
Adela winced in sympathy. She stood up, removed her aunt’s hands, and gently massaged her temples for her. “I’m sorry, Aunt Grainne. But you know it’s true.”
“No, Adela. You promised me.”
“I know, I know. All right, I won’t yell back, I promise. I’ll listen quietly and won’t say a word out of place. How’s that? But that doesn’t mean I’ll take any notice of him.”
Grainne was about to explain, as she had so many times, that her husband had Adela’s best interests at heart, but she was interrupted by the opening of the door. Lord Malgone’s chamberlain, a tall man with a gaunt face, bowed to the two women and indicated that they should enter.
Adela took her aunt’s arm and helped her to her feet. “Come on, Aunt Grainne. Let’s get this over with. I’ve things to do. Anyway, you’ve made me curious about this exciting news.”
While Adela might hoped and prayed that her father was alive and would one day be found, her uncle Malgone was quite content for his wife’s brother-in-law, Thessland’s national hero, to remain missing, preferably dead. The ship on which Tarris Jenn had set sail on a diplomatic mission to the empire of Kesh three years ago had never arrived at its destination, and Malgone fervently hoped that it was resting on the ocean bed somewhere, with all its crew and passengers. As long as Tarris Jenn was missing Malgone would remain acting thanedar, and in time the rank would be confirmed by the King’s Council. Then he would no longer be a mere tharl; he would be Thanedar of Averia, one of the seventeen thanedoms that constituted Thessland.
As his chamberlain left, Malgone, a sombrely dressed, sharp-featured man, stood with his back to the fire in his office. Malgone’s personal tastes were simple to the point of austerity. Aside from the four high-backed chairs grouped near the fireplace, the only furniture was a large wooden desk strewn with parchments and two tall, locked cupboards which contained such things as the household accounts and the records of the thanedom’s income and expenditure. The income came mainly from town and farm rents and the tolls from traffic on the River Marl, all of which Malgone collected with an unsparing rigidity. The expenditure, on the other hand, was as sparing as he could make it and consisted of the castle’s upkeep and the pay and maintenance of its garrison.
Originally a border fort during the war against Thessland’s northern enemy, Tyrum, Whitecastle, along with the rest of Averia, had been granted to Adela’s father, Tarris Jenn, by a grateful nation for his part in the victory ten years earlier. Tarris had given the town its name and begun the building of one of the more attractive castles of Thessland.
Malgone had chosen this room in preference to the more luxurious one that Thanedar Tarris had used because its window overlooked the main part of the building work. Whitecastle was still a work in progress, and the work went faster if the workmen thought they were being watched by the acting thanedar. The room had a lived-in appearance, thanks to the already worn rug in front of the fire and the blackening of the white stone fireplace from smoke. The local marble was clearly a poor choice for a hearth, and the discolouration irritated Malgone afresh each time he looked at it.
He heard his wife and niece enter but did not acknowledge them immediately. What he had to say to Adela was important, and he had to consider how to put it. The girl was headstrong. In the three years he had been her guardian, he had never learned how to handle her. That she disliked him was irrelevant. That she argued with him and disobeyed his orders infuriated him. That she was one of only two people in the thanedom who was not afraid of him—this confused him.
When he had at last formulated what he would say, he turned to the women. He was surprised to find Adela sitting demurely beside her aunt in a ladylike manner, with none of the usual defiance on her face. That was a promising start. As he cleared his throat to begin, he took note of her appearance. Yes, there was promise there too, as long as she cooperated in his plan. The rowdy sixteen-year-old he had taken on as his ward was now, three years later, an attractive young woman. The rowdiness had hardly diminished, but if she could keep it in check from now on, all would be well. He cleared his throat.
“Adela, you have in the past given me much cause to upbraid you on your appearance and behaviour.” He put up a hand to forestall the expected retort and was surprised and relieved when she remained silent. Only a slight tightening of her mouth gave her away. Reassured, he continued. “Your Aunt Grainne and I take our responsibility towards you very seriously, and whatever we decide is for your own good. No, don’t smile, Adela. It’s the truth. You have not always been as cooperative as you might have been, but when you hear what I have to say it will become clear why your behaviour must change.” He paused for effect before continuing. “Whitecastle is to have a most important visitor. In fact, two important visitors.” He paused again to judge her reaction, but Adela showed curiosity rather than excitement. “We are to be honoured,” Malgone continued, “by the presence of Prince Lucharon himself.”
“Lucharon?” At the name Adela showed some interest, but still no excitement. Any other woman in Thessland would have been in raptures at the thought of meeting the heir to the throne. What was wrong with the girl? Grainne, seated next to her, showed more delight, even though she had already known.
“Yes. Prince Lucharon. His Highness is making a tour of all the thanedoms and will be accompanied by a large retinue. The task of accommodating that retinue will not be easy, and your aunt will expect your cooperation.”
Grainne grasped her niece’s hand. “Didn’t I tell you it was exciting news, Adela? And that isn’t all! He is accompanied by someone I know you always used to like: Prince Dinadar.”
“What?” Malgone demanded.
“No—no, not you,” Adela stammered. “I mean…I used to call Dinadar ‘Uncle’ when I was little.”
“Well, you will not be calling him that while he’s here. You are not related to the royal family. Your presence at the palace as a child was tolerated only because of Prince Dinadar’s friendship with your father. While Their Highnesses are our guests, you will not treat them with familiarity. You will treat them with the respect and deference due to their positions. Not only that, Adela—you will be on your best behaviour at all times. Lady Grainne has been informed of my instructions for you, and this time you will listen. You are to dress as she recommends. You are to behave as she recommends. In short, you will present yourself as a lady in all respects. Boisterous behaviour will cease. This means no hunting, no weaponry, and—unless Their Highnesses request your company—no riding.”
Again he raised his hand, for Adela appeared about to explode. When she remained silent, stiff as a board but quieted by her aunt’s soothing strokes on her arm, he continued.
“And now, Adela, I will reveal the main reason for this meeting.” He strode up and down in front of the fireplace. “I said before that you were not related to the royal family. That is true, but there is talk among the thanedars and tharls that this tour of the thanedoms has a particular object. It is well known that King Benathar is old and sick. Prince Lucharon is being groomed to succeed him, and there is much pressure on him to find a consort and produce another heir.” Malgone smiled. “Now do you understand, Adela?”
Adela frowned, looked at her aunt, then looked back at him with a puzzled expression. Finally she realised what he meant, and her eyes and mouth opened wide.
“Yes, Adela,” her uncle said, “the daughter of the celebrated Tarris Jenn would be a popular choice. I see no reason why you cannot be the next Queen of Thessland.”
Chapter Two: The Dungar Fair
The noise could be heard over a tremendous distance. It echoed off the low hills that surrounded the town of Dungar, scattering the birds from the trees and startling the rabbits into their holes. Later, when the noise became continuous, the birds settled and the rabbits ventured out again. They didn’t understand it, but they knew where it came from. The Man town.
In the town itself the roar was close to deafening, and the dust churned up by the horses hid from the spectators much of what they had come to see. The crowd stood ten deep around the perimeter of the tournament field: men, women and children, dressed as colourfully as they could afford. Small children perched on the shoulders of fathers. Older children jumped up and down or stood on tiptoe to catch a view, or cheekily squirmed between legs to the front row. The clash of iron weapons on armour or shield, the neighs of frenzied horses, together with the roar of the crowd—all this made conversation impossible.
It would soon be over. The combatants had been at it too long and were exhausted. Only three of the original thirty were still horsed, while another three, having lost their mounts, continued to fight on foot. The rest had staggered off the makeshift arena, been carried away, or still lay trampled in the middle somewhere, obscured by dust. Riderless horses had to be caught and subdued before they did damage to the spectators. The dust was thinning as the number of fighters reduced, but it was still difficult to see the action when it moved to the further side of the field.
On one side of the tournament area, a short distance behind the crowd, rows of stalls had been set up, and aromas of food mixed with those of dust, leather, sweat, and manure. Hungry-eyed children dressed in rags stared longingly at the tasty pies and dumplings filled with delicious meat and fruit. At other stalls cooked fowl and hare, pieces of beef and mutton sliced from whole carcasses roasting on spits, bowls of hot stew, and mugs of ale and wine were available to those with coppers to spare. Yet more stalls sold household items, clothing and footwear, exotic novelties, and simple wooden toys. There were few customers while the excitement of the melée held the attention of the crowd, but the stallholders knew that in the interval between this bout and the next there would be more customers than they could handle.
At a discreet distance, brushwood frames screened separate latrine areas for men and women. Relief of a different kind was available nearby, where an enterprising whoremistress had set up her tents, positioning her more enticing girls outside. Business was slow but would pick up in the evening when the alehouses closed. The only businesses doing well at present were the betting stalls, where rivers of money flowed into their proprietors’ leather pouches.
On the field’s far side, a raised platform accommodated the official party in considerably more comfort than the rest of the spectators. Here some twenty cushioned seats had been provided for the notables of the town and their ladies, set in tiers and protected from changes in the weather by a gaily coloured canopy.
The noise from the crowd grew louder than ever as the men fighting on foot were knocked to the ground and trampled under the hooves of the heavy horses. One of the riders fell from his mount in sheer exhaustion. The remaining two continued to batter each other with ever weakening blows from their blunted swords, until one of them dropped his shield and, with a two-handed blow, unbalanced his opponent and sent him crashing to the ground. The victor, unbalanced himself by his blow, retained his saddle only a moment longer before he too fell.
It was enough. The tournament field swarmed with cheering people. Laughing, whooping, squealing, they scooped up the fallen victor and carried him from the arena.
The tharl of Dungar, Lord Jeiran, a frail old man with watery eyes, looked down from his seat and saw only bright, moving blurs. “By all the gods, I wish I could see this!” He elbowed the man beside him, the theron of one of the tharl’s villages, who was supposed to be giving him commentary but in the excitement had forgotten.
Jolted into his duty, the theron shouted in the old tharl’s ear, “The man on the big grey is victorious, Sire. They bring him before you now for his wreath and purse.”
At closer range Lord Jeiran’s sight was more reliable, and he was able to discern the arrival of the cheering crowd in front of the platform. The victor’s armoured body was being carried on their shoulders in a most undignified way, head back and legs in the air. At the base of the platform he was let down; stewards helped him mount the steps. When he reached the top, his tired and wobbly legs gave way and he collapsed to his knees before the tharl.
The stewards began to unfasten his helmet straps. While they were thus engaged, the marshal of the joust gave Lord Jeiran the casualty figures. Four horses put down, being too badly injured. Two men killed, one a youth in his very first melée, unhorsed and trampled after the initial charge, the other a man who should have known better than to enter at his advanced age. Otherwise few serious injuries, though most would carry scars proudly for years.
All I had at first was a setting, something vaguely medieval, but no characters or plot. For inspiration I studied the three young people in the room with me and imagined them in my setting. My beautiful daughter, Jenny, with her no-nonsense, “no man is going to tell me what to do” attitude, would surely be a warrior princess. My son Michael, darling of the girls with his flowing blond hair, was definitely a handsome barbarian hero. Pretty Joanne, their friend, in her goth stage at the time, with black make-up and clothing, would be perfect as a sorceress.
I had my characters; now for a plot. I’d never believed it when writers said things like “The characters write the story,” but I discovered that if I put each of my protagonists into some kind of trouble, they’d react according to the personality I’d given them, and that would dictate the next chapter. The story went on from there to become a trilogy.
When the evil sorcerer Gruagh Brenga captures Thessland’s adored national hero, Tarris Jenn, the country is his for the taking. After all, Thessland is divided by civil war and the sorcerer’s army is vastly superior. But Tarris has a daughter, and when Adela Jenn wants something it’s best to get out of her way. Nothing will prevent Adela from rescuing the father she loves—not men, not monsters, not even the gods themselves. With three companions she endures horrors beyond imagining as she fights her way across a continent to enter Ghast Henom, the sorcerer’s fortress. But even if they succeed in rescuing Tarris, it may be too late. Gruagh Brenga’s invasion has already begun.
I wanted to write a fantasy trilogy with a strong-willed female protagonist, and with Adela I think I succeeded. It’s something a bit different from the usual fantasy, so there are no prophecies, magical objects, dragons, or elves, and the magic is more mind-power than fairy-tale. My writing is inspired by such writers as David Eddings and Raymond Feist.
Barry Riley was born in England where, to please a loving but extremely Catholic mother, he spent most of his teen years in a junior seminary. At eighteen, terrified by the spectre of a life of enforced celibacy as Father Riley, he escaped to Australia, where he quickly became the other sort of father five times over to compensate. His memories of the seminary are mostly happy, Hogwarts-style ones. He’s still working on the Catholic guilt bit. After winning $1,000 in an essay contest, he decided that being a writer was a quick and easy way to fame and fortune. He knows better now. He reads everything, from corn-flake packets to Homer. He has published both essays and short stories and has completed several novels, which are soon to be published as ebooks. Barry and his wife, Patricia, live on the Central Coast, north of Sydney.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020