The Shadowed Throne
Arenadd Taranisäii, infamous leader of the Northern people, has vanished. Only his half-breed daughter Laela knows what happened to him. Left to rule her father’s Kingdom, Laela is all that stands in the way of the war her cousin Saeddryn wants to declare. But Laela faces a far more dangerous enemy: the Night God herself wants Laela dead.
Faced by enemies on all sides, Laela must learn to rule, and survive, with her griffin partner Oeka by her side. As allies come from unexpected places, someone new will enter Laela’s life: the mysterious shapeshifter Kullervo.
But soon the Night God will send the most dangerous enemy of all—the deadly Shadow That Walks, an invincible murderer created to fulfill only one mission: kill Laela.
Looking Back and Forward
The inn had stood by the road that ran between the Northgate Mountains and the city of Withypool for more than twenty years. Travellers on their way between Withypool and the North often stayed there, but the place had been built specifically to serve as a stop-off point for griffiners travelling from Eyrie to Eyrie. Those who could afford it could hire a pair of rooms, one for the human and one for the griffin.
Most of the time, the majority of the inn’s patrons were ordinary travellers. But now that had all changed. The Eyries were at war, and griffiners were on the move.
Over the last few months, the owners had seen several of the great lords and ladies come and go, each one accompanied by a haughty and demanding griffin. Some were veterans, travelling to new commands. Others were junior griffiners, or apprentices, or even untrained nobodies who had only been chosen when extreme circumstances forced unpartnered griffins to drop all standards and claim whatever human was available.
So it wasn’t unusual to see plenty of griffiners about, or to see unconventional sorts coming by to take a room. But the pair that had arrived that night still managed to stand out from the crowd.
Not just because the griffin was middle-aged and wild-looking. And not even because her partner was grey-haired despite her youth and spoke and acted as if she had very little experience or patience with other people. Or because she was heavily pregnant.
Mostly it was because the two of them had an entourage.
An enormous one.
The innkeepers had seen them coming from a long way off, and the sheer number of them made them fear the worst and run to hide their possessions, then themselves. But when they saw that the “army” of robed men were unarmed, collared, and following a griffin with a rider, they began to relax.
Sure enough, the griffiner called a halt and came to knock on the inn door, where she tersely explained that she and her slaves would be staying the night. She purchased rooms for herself and her partner and bought food for the slaves, who made camp all along the road and in the field behind the inn. They seemed peaceful enough, but the head of the family that owned the inn privately decided that he would be much, much happier when they were gone.
The silver-haired griffiner seemed completely unflustered and locked herself away with her partner the moment they had both eaten.
In private, the ageing griffin lay down by the fire in her partner’s room and idly groomed her wings. Her partner sat nearby, squatting awkwardly in a chair and shifting restlessly from time to time. She touched her swollen belly and winced.
The griffin looked up from her grooming. “When will you lay?”
“Soon.” The woman shuffled around in her chair again.
“It is a long way back to the mountains,” the griffin pointed out. “There will be no good nesting places for many days.”
“I know,” said the woman. “I have decided to stay here until I have laid my clutch.”
The griffin cocked her head. “You think that you will lay eggs, Skade?”
“I do not know.” Skade grimaced again. “Hyrenna, I am . . . not certain.”
“You are human,” said Hyrenna. “And have mated with a human. Surely you will give birth to a human pup.”
“I did not think that we could make young at all,” said Skade. “He is not a living man any more, and surely . . . the dead do not father eggs.”
“Who can say how this should work?” said Hyrenna. “No human has ever walked without a heart before. But if you did not mate with any other male, then he must be the father.”
“He is,” said Skade. “I knew I was pregnant before we left.”
“Did you tell him?”
“You know why not,” said Skade. “It is not the way. We say nothing until after the egg is laid and has hatched. An egg counted before then will die. And besides, I am not certain of what I will lay.”
Hyrenna clicked her beak. “Arenadd will be pleased when we return, and you show him his young.”
“I think he will be,” said Skade. “He once told me that he wished he could have a family but did not believe it could be possible.”
“And you are his favourite female,” Hyrenna added.
“Yes,” said Skade. She sounded dispassionate, but inside she was thinking of Arenadd. Her love. Her human love. The only reason she did not care that she had been condemned to live in this body forever. He had sent her away to bring back the slaves to join his cause, but she knew he had sent her in particular to keep her safe. It mattered just as much to him as the freedom of his people. Maybe more.
She hoped that she could bring him their child back as well. But she was uncertain. And afraid, more afraid than she would admit to Hyrenna. She had never been pregnant before and knew very little about how it should be, but part of her told her that this was not right. The thing growing inside her hurt whenever it moved. It almost felt as if it had claws. She had bled, more than once.
She wanted to protect her young, wanted to have Arenadd’s child. But part of her was afraid that if she did, then she might not survive.
But it was not her way to share these fears, or any of the fears she might have. She was human in the body now, but she was still a griffin on the inside, and griffins did not show fear. She would bear this out and see her pregnancy through to the end—whatever that end might be.
So she stayed at the inn for the next several days, resting from her journey. Following her instincts, she built a nest for herself on the bed provided, lining it with straw and feathers taken from Hyrenna. The huge, soft bowl shape made her feel better, and she spent a lot of time curled up in it, breathing slowly and wincing from time to time as the child moved inside her.
Outside, the slaves kept up the routine they had learnt during their travels across the country. They ate the rations they’d brought with them and the food their master bought from the inn. When the last of her money finally ran low, they paid the bills in labour— organising themselves into teams that tended the garden, fed the animals, and made any repairs that needed to be made around the inn. Several of them even dug a new well, with all the efficiency of men whose entire lives had been controlled by never-ending labour.
Theirs wasn’t the only labour that took place at that inn.
On the fourth day after her arrival, Skade’s child began to be born.
She prepared for it in the griffish way, retreating into her nest, where she stayed for an entire long day, struggling alone. Hyrenna, knowing what should be done, left the inn altogether and wandered here and there, watching the slaves at their work.
Skade’s labour continued into the evening and then the night, with the child showing no signs of appearing. Despite the intense pain, she made almost no sound at all—but she made enough. The innkeeper’s wife, coming to bring her food, heard it and cautiously investigated. The moment she had seen what was happening, she ran out of the room.
Skade was not the only guest staying at the inn that night, and it saved her life. The innkeeper’s wife returned with another woman—a woman who carried a bag of leaves and powders, and who sent for hot water and old cloth at once.
If the midwife had come earlier in the day, Skade would almost certainly have driven her away, but by now she was too exhausted to do anything than gasp out a threat, which went ignored.
With help from the innkeeper’s wife and two others roped in from elsewhere in the building, the midwife laid Skade out on a table and gave her a draught that dulled some of the pain and helped her to rest. While she dozed, the midwife examined her—feeling her belly and checking the birth canal without embarrassment.
“It’s going to be a hard one,” she remarked eventually.
The contractions came again after a short while, waking Skade up, and the birth resumed. The midwife stayed on hand, doing whatever she could to help, and when at last something began to show, she reached in and helped guide it out.
Or began to. As the first part began to emerge—what should have been a head—she screamed and lurched away. The others there came to see what she had seen, and most of them cried out as well. The innkeeper’s wife began to pray aloud.
Skade didn’t seem to notice. She opened her mouth wide and snarled. Clawlike fingernails gouged the table beneath her, and one last mighty heave moved through her body, finally forcing the thing out and onto the blankets.
It was not a baby.
The thing that Skade had given birth to was something pinkish white and formless, vaguely oval. Veins branched out over its surface, pulsating slightly.
Very carefully, the midwife approached it. Moving as if it might bite her at any moment, she reached down to touch it. It was soft and flexible under her fingers.
“What is it?” one of the others there almost whispered.
“It’s warm,” said the midwife. “And . . .” She ran her hands over the thing’s bloodstained surface, and her eyes widened. “And . . . it . . . it’s got a heartbeat.”
“A what?” the innkeeper’s wife stopped praying, and came closer to see. “Are you sure?”
“Yes.” The midwife felt the object with more certainty now. “See the veins there pulse? There’s a heartbeat making that happen.”
“But what is it?” one of the other two there asked.
“I don’t know.” The midwife prodded it experimentally. “I never saw anything like this before in my life.”
“But it’s alive?”
“Yes. Must be, with a heartbeat.”
They glanced at Skade. She seemed to be asleep, or unconscious.
“How could she give birth to this?” asked the innkeeper’s wife, with a kind of wonder.
“I don’t know.” The midwife gently eased her hands in under the object, as if it were a baby, and lifted it. Instantly, it began to move, squirming weakly in her hands like a grub. To her credit, she didn’t drop it, and only grimaced.
“It’s alive!” One of the two helpers backed off sharply.
The midwife, however, had begun to look a little more certain. “There’s something inside,” she said. “I can feel it—look! See there, you can see something pressing from the inside!”
Sure enough, as the innkeeper’s wife leaned in to look, she saw the thing bulge and stretch—as if something were trying to get out.
“It’s a membrane, that’s what this is,” said the midwife, putting it down again by Skade’s side. “I saw something a tiny bit like this once before—a child was born with a sheet of skin over her face. A caul, we call them. It just peels away. This—this is something like that, I’m sure of it.”
“But there’s no cord!” the innkeeper’s wife put in. “No afterbirth.”
“That might come later,” said the midwife. “But . . .” She looked at the thing lying innocently by Skade’s side. “But if there is a child, it’s inside that . . . skin.”
“Should we cut it open, then?” one of the onlookers suggested. “It might be drowning in there.”
“Maybe—” The midwife took a step closer and reached out to touch the thing.
Skade’s eyes snapped open, and she hissed weakly. “Do not . . . touch it.”
The midwife stood back and folded her hands to show she was harmless. “It’s your . . . child, my lady. There’s a membrane on it, and I think it should be removed.”
Skade’s head lolled to the side, and she peered at the thing. Her hand moved to touch it. She felt it, brushing it with her fingertips, and finally fell back with a sigh. “No. My egg . . . must be incubated in the nest. Do not touch it, or I will kill you.”
“‘Egg’?” repeated the innkeeper’s wife.
The midwife blinked slowly. “An egg.” She half-laughed. “Gryphus take me, she’s right. It’s an egg!”
“Don’t be daft!” said an onlooker. “Eggs have hard shells on ’em, everyone knows that!”
“Bird and griffin eggs do,” said the midwife. “But I’ve seen lizard and snake eggs as well, and they’re different. Their shells are soft, like this.”
“But people don’t lay eggs! It’s a mem-thing, like you said. We should open it up, see what’s inside!”
The midwife shook her head. “My mother always told me, don’t interfere with what you don’t understand. I’ve done my part, and now it’s up to the mother to decide what to do. And if she says to leave it, we will. For now, we should put her back to bed and leave her to rest. She needs it.”
“I’ll help,” said the innkeeper’s wife.
“And me,” said one of the onlookers, reluctantly.
The midwife approached Skade cautiously. “My lady,” she said. “We’re going to put you back into your bed to rest. We’ll put your . . . egg next to you. Don’t worry, we aren’t going to do anything to it. It’s yours.”
Skade opened her eyes a crack. “It stays with me. Nobody shall touch it.”
“All right, then.” The midwife put her hands around the egg, and helped Skade to lift it onto her belly. Skade held it there with both hands, keeping it steady, as the four humans took her up off the table and lowered her back into her nest. She rolled onto her side and pulled the egg with her, cradling it in the curve of her body.
The midwife put a blanket over the pair of them and silently gestured at the others to help her clean up. Afterward, they left together and let Skade sleep.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: