The Shadow's Heir
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Laela Redguard was born with the black hair of the Northern kingdom and the blue eyes of the Southern people, forever marking her as a hated half-breed child of both. When her only family tie is severed, the fierce and strong-willed Laela decides to leave her adoptive father’s home in the hopes of finding acceptance in the North, where the ruthless King Arenadd and the dark griffin Skandar rule.
While Laela’s Northern features allow her to blend into the crowds of the King’s seat at Malvern, she cannot avoid falling victim to a pair of common thugs. When a stranger saves her life and gives her a place to stay, Laela is shocked to learn he is Arenadd himself—a man said to be a murderer who sold his soul to the Night God—the King without a heart.
Arenadd is unsure what compels him to help this girl, but there is something about her that seems familiar, something he cannot remember—something that may rise up to banish the darkness forever…
She knew what it meant. She had always known what it would mean. In a way, she had been waiting for it her entire life. But nothing could have prepared her for it. And nothing could have dulled the shock. But what possibly could have?
She sat on her stool by the front door of their house, slowly whittling a piece of wood. It had been much larger when she had started, but by now it resembled a very thin carrot. Curled wood shavings were piled up between her feet. Some had caught on the rough wool of her dress, but she couldn’t summon up the energy or interest to brush them off.
She couldn’t keep her attention on her knife, either; she let it slide away toward the sky and stared vacantly at the white clouds drifting over it. It would be another fine day tomorrow.
The knife slipped, and she started at the sudden blossoming of pain in her hand. It woke her from her reverie, and she put the knife down and hastily covered the cut with the edge of her skirt.
As if the pain were a kind of release, she let go of her hand and started to cry.
The tears didn’t last long. She fiercely wiped them away on her sleeve and bit back her sobs until they left her shuddering with them before they died away. The anger she felt toward herself gave her strength, and she stuffed her knife into her belt and strode over to the rain barrel.
The cold water made her feel a little better. She splashed it over her face until her fringe was dripping and took several deep breaths. As the water’s surface stilled again, she looked down into it and saw her own faint reflection rippling there.
Pale skin, with a scatter of freckles over a pointed nose. Her eyes were blue, but above them her eyebrows were jet-black, and the long, curly hair she tried to keep tied back and covered was black as well.
She stared at it and shuddered again. Gryphus help me, if only I could cut it all off. If I could only hide it!
She had tried, many many times. She had tried dye, but there was no dye that could overpower pure black. Cutting it short only made her look like a freak . . . more of a freak. And covering it still didn’t hide the other signs. The signs on the outside, or the inside.
She let out a sudden, wild scream, and punched the water, shattering her reflection. The anger bubbled inside her as she turned away, and she wanted to scream again, or hit something else, but she knew it wouldn’t help anything.
No point to anything, said the cold, rational side of her mind. Never was, never will be.
But this was her fault. Always had been.
Stop it. He needs you.
The voice was right. She straightened up, forcing herself to breathe deeply, and went inside.
Her father was there, hunched in his favourite chair by the fire. For a moment she thought he was asleep, but then he stirred and coughed.
She went to him. “Dad, how’re yeh feelin’?”
He peered at her. “Like shit. Where’ve yeh been?”
“Just outside, Dad. Not far.”
“Yeh know y’ain’t s’posed t’go out there, girl,” he reminded her. “Temptin’ fate ain’t what yeh need t’be doin’ just now.”
Laela looked away. “Well, I won’t have much t’worry about there soon, will I? May as well get used to it, right?”
Her father sighed. “Laela, we ain’t sure this is it. Yeh can’t be sayin’ that now.”
Laela softened and touched his hand. “But yeh know it is, Dad. Even if yeh ain’t ready t’say it out loud yet.”
He coughed again, and shivered. “I never was much of an honest man, Laela. Yeh know that.”
She managed a smile. “Yeah, I know. Yeh won’t tell me my mother’s name, will yeh? Or his name, either.”
Her father looked away. “Yeh know my name, girl. Branton Redguard, that’s yer dad’s name.”
Laela straightened up impatiently. “Oh for the gods’ sakes, stop it! Yeh know I ain’t buyin’ that, Dad, I ain’t bought it for years! I love yeh, but yeh ain’t my father, an’ you know it, an’ I know it. My mother wasn’t no Northerner, an’ neither are you. So if she wasn’t, my dad was, an’ he ain’t you.”
Bran rose slightly in his chair. “An’ who raised yeh, Laela?” he snapped. “Eh? Tell me that. Who raised yeh? Who loved yeh? Who kept yeh safe all this time?”
Laela backed off. “You did, Dad, but that ain’t what we’re talkin’ about. I’m talkin’ about my other father. The one who bedded my mother. The one whose blood’s in me. I love yeh, Dad, an’ I always have, but yeh ain’t my father by blood.”
He subsided again, suddenly exhausted. “An’ so what if I ain’t? What’s it matter? Yeh mother’s gone, Laela, an’ so’s yeh father.”
Laela stepped closer, suddenly excited despite herself. This was the most he had ever said about her father. “So he’s dead?”
Bran rubbed a hand over his face. “Bin dead nearly twenty years.”
“Are yeh sure?”
He looked her in the eye. “I saw him die, understand?”
“How did he die?” Laela asked quietly.
“He fell to his death,” said Bran. “Tryin’ to escape from . . . us.”
“Us? Who’s us? Yeh mean . . . Dad, did you kill him?”
“I was a guard captain. Yer father escaped from prison, an’ we were chasin’ him. We had him cornered, an’ I told him to surrender. It was right at the edge of a high platform, at the top of a mountain. He gave up, but he fell before I could pull him back. That’s how he died. End of story.”
“What was his name?” said Laela.
Bran squinted. “Can’t remember any more.”
“But how did he meet my mother?” Laela persisted. “Why would she bed a Northerner? He didn’t . . . ? Did he . . . ? Was that why he was in prison, Dad? ”
Bran sat back and closed his eyes. “I dunno that much about it either way, but yer father was a criminal.”
Laela looked away. “So that’s how it happened.”
Bran kept his eyes shut. “That’s how it happened, girl. Yer parents are gone, an’ there’s no point dwellin’ on that. I’m yer family. Now . . . I’m tired, an’ I want t’sleep. Could yeh help me t’bed?”
“Yeah, I’ll do it. “’Course I’ll do it.”
Laela helped her adoptive father to his bed, supporting him with her arm around his waist while her mind reeled.
So that was it. That was all it was. The secret Bran had kept for so long was . . . nothing. No terrible secrets, no shocking heritage, no dramatic revelation. Her mother was a Southern girl who had been raped by a Northern criminal. And Bran had told her the story so matter-of-factly, so briefly. Just as if it wasn’t anything very important at all.
Later, when he was asleep, she sat in his chair by the fire and poked at the ashes.
In all her life, Bran was the only family she had ever known, and her only friend, too. Nobody else wanted to know her. When she was small, other children had been happy enough to play with her, but as they grew older, things changed. The opinions of parents moved on to their children, and suddenly play turned to bullying. Suddenly, she found herself learning new words. New meanings.
Blackrobe. Half-breed. Freak. Darkwoman.
That was when she truly began to understand.
Now her thoughts turned toward her father, as she looked at her lap and the long, thin fingers he had given her.
“Bastard,” she muttered aloud. “Gods-damned evil bastard. Yeh raped my mother. Yeh turned me into this. Yeh made me a gods-damned half-breed. I swear by Gryphus’ flames, if yeh weren’t dead, I’d find yeh an’ do it with me own hands.”
Strangely enough, her anger helped to sustain her over the next few days.
She stayed close to home, as always, preparing food for her adoptive father and keeping the house tidy.
There was nothing she could do for him directly. Even if she had been a healer, he was beyond the help of any medicine. Years of bad living and heavy drinking had destroyed his body from the inside out.
Neither of them mentioned their conversation again. Laela thought of bringing it up, but she felt guilty over it now, and she kept her silence. Her adoptive father didn’t need to talk about painful things any more.
She did her best to keep him comfortable and happy, staying by his side whenever he was awake and talking to him as cheerfully as she could, or even singing. He’d always liked it when she sang. Bran didn’t say much himself, but he’d never been very talkative. Sometimes she felt afraid that he resented her presence, but one evening when she was hesitating over whether she should leave him alone, he reached for her hand and gave it the gentlest of squeezes.
“Yer a good girl, Laela, yeh know?”
She looked down at her hand, almost lost in his big, rough fist, and bit back a sob. “I’m sorry what I said before, Dad. You was right; it din’t matter who my real father was. He was a criminal what raped my mother. You was the good man what looked after me, an’ that’s what counts, ain’t it?”
Bran’s tired face crinkled in a smile. “I’d say so, Laela. I’d say so.”
“I’d like t’know more about my mother, though,” Laela added. “What was she like?”
“Aaahh . . .” Bran sighed. “I don’t remember that much, girl. Yeh know that.”
Laela didn’t believe him. “I know, but if there’s anythin’ . . . anythin’ at all. If yeh don’t tell me soon, yeh never will.”
“I know,” said Bran. “Well . . . yer mother.” He sighed again. “Ain’t thought about her in years, yeh know. Well . . .” A long pause.
“What?” said Laela, eagerly. “What d’yeh remember, Dad?”
“Yeh mother was a merchant’s daughter,” Bran said slowly. “Had the most beautiful eyes, she did. Blue like a summer sky.” He squeezed her hand. “Like yer own, Laela. Like yer own.”
Laela smiled. “Always bin proud of ’em, Dad.”
“She was a fierce one,” Bran added in distant tones. “Beautiful as a rose, an’ just as thorny, Arren used t’say.”
“Who?” said Laela.
Bran started. “What?”
“Who’s Arren?” said Laela.
“What? Oh. Friend of mine,” said Bran. “Long dead. Knew yeh mother, same as me. We used t’go drinkin’ together. By Gryphus but we couldn’t’ve known what would happen to us . . .”
Laela leaned close to listen. “What happened?”
“We grew up,” Bran said briefly. “Bad things happened t’all of us. That was just before the war started.”
“What bad things?” said Laela.
Bran’s brown eyes narrowed. “Bad things,” he repeated. “Young Gern, he died in a fight. Yer mother . . . pregnant out of wedlock, to a Northerner. Arren, he . . . he died, too.”
“How?” said Laela, mostly driven by morbid curiosity.
“Murdered,” said Bran. He sighed. “My best friend, was Arren. Him an’ me, always together.”
Great Gryphus, thought Laela. No wonder he took to drink.
“So yeh took me after Mum died,” she said. She paused. “But what happened t’her?”
Bran coughed. “Laela, there are some things . . .”
“Tell me!” Laela almost shouted. “Dad, I’ve got t’know! It’s all I’ll have of her, so give me that, at least!”
“She was murdered, too,” said Bran. “When yeh were still in the cradle. Died defendin’ yeh.” His voice broke. “I came in right after it happened. The murderer . . . he’d slit yer mother’s throat wide open with . . . she was dead right by the cradle, with you in it. I came in . . . the murderer ran away, an’ I took yeh and left. Never went back there.”
Laela withdrew, suddenly cold all over with shock. “Oh, Gryphus . . .”
“So that’s it,” Bran muttered, as if he were ashamed. “That’s how she died, an’ there’s no reason t’look back. It’s over, girl. Over.”
“Who did it?” said Laela. “Who killed her? Why?”
Bran said nothing.
“Who?” said Laela.
“I’m tired,” said Bran. “Let me rest now, girl . . . get t’bed and rest yer own head a while. Yeh’ve earnt it.”
Laela stood up. “What was my mother’s name, Dad? Please, can yeh tell me that?”
But Bran didn’t reply, and she knew he wasn’t going to tell her, whether he remembered it or not.
“Well,” she muttered. “G’night, then.”
Bran opened his eyes again and smiled sadly at her. “I’m sorry, Laela. For everythin’.”
She touched his cheek. “Yeh ain’t got nothin’ t’say sorry for, Dad, so stop that. Now, get some sleep, an’ I’ll see yeh in the mornin’.”
She left him and went to her own bed, which was actually nothing more than a straw pallet near the fire. They’d never had much money, especially recently, since Bran had been forced to leave his job because of his illness.
Laela snuggled under the blankets, thinking. She had never had anyone apart from Bran, and soon she was going to lose him, too. And when that happened . . . what then? She could stay in their house, but how would she support herself? And how long would it be before someone decided to take it away from her?
No . . . she couldn’t stay. But if she left, where would she go?
It doesn’t matter where I go, she thought bitterly. Everyone knows I’m a half-breed the moment they see me. No-one here’s gonna welcome someone like that; it’s worse than bein’ a bloody blackrobe. Oh, Gryphus, Dad, why did yeh have t’die now?
She fell asleep with those painful thoughts circling each other in her head.
Uncomfortable dreams followed her.
She dreamt of her mother—an indistinct figure, but one whose blue eyes were kind. A dark shape reared over her, holding a dagger, and after that, blood splattered over Laela’s face. Murder. But she felt no fear.
The dark figure turned toward her, dagger raised.
Laela backed away. Leave me alone, curse yeh! I ain’t done nothin’!
The murderer only laughed. Go. Go . . . go . . .
You can bloody go, yeh bastard! Laela yelled back. I ain’t goin’ nowhere, see?
Go, the murderer repeated. Go back. Go back.
Go back . . .
Laela ran at him, lashing out with her fists, and he faded for a moment but then returned, his darkness parting to reveal the mocking faces of the village children.
Blackrobe! Go back to the North, blackrobe!
Go back to the North!
Go . . . go . . .
Laela woke up shivering in the grey light of dawn, the dream still lingering in her ears. It felt very cold in the room.
The fire had gone out.
Laela stood up, intending to rekindle it, but almost as soon as she had stood up and the cold air embraced her she felt—not a premonition—but hard, bitter certainty.
Walking as if her feet had turned to stone, she moved toward her father’s bed to check on him.
Bran lay on his side, his face turned toward her. His skin looked grey in the dim light, and his eyes were half-open.
Laela reached out to touch him. He felt cold and rigid under her finger-tips.
He was dead.
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