Paperback Spotlight: Fortune’s Blight by Evie Manieri

Fortune's BlightOnce a month, we’re spotlighting a Tor book that will soon become available in paperback. Today, we’re featuring Fortune’s Blight  by Evie Manieri, to be released October 6.

Fortune’s Blight, the second in Manieri’s Shattered Kingdoms novels, continues the conflict begun in Blood’s Pride. King Daryan struggles not only to maintain peace for the Shadari people, but bring to a halt an unknown murderer killing anyone with magical powers. The foundations of Shadari and Norland begin to crack, all while a mysterious figure watches from Rivindal Castle, knowing that her years of patience will soon be rewarded. Please enjoy this excerpt.

Chapter One

Lahlil sat on the carpet beside her nephew’s cradle, waiting and willing something to happen. The light filtering in through the sailcloth tent had faded down to nothing and the hush of twilight had replaced the noises of the Nomas camp outside, but she hadn’t yet lit the lamp. Oshi looked up at the ceiling of the tent with his round silver-blue eyes shining faintly in the darkness, indifferent to her presence. She reached into the driftwood cradle to adjust a fold of his swaddling and accidentally set the finely balanced vessel rocking. The clinking noise of the little suns and moons dangling over it drifted through the tent. A dozen versions of herself winked back at her from the twisting medallions, illuminated by the pale gray glow of her skin: the smooth oval eye-patch, the nicks and tiny scars, the jagged line pulling up her lips at one corner.

At least the sleeve of her Nomas sailor’s blouse hid the scaly pink scars that ran over her left forearm—scars nearly as old as she was herself.

Let all so afflicted be numbered among the damned.

For three months she had been waiting, holding on to the elixir’s promise that somehow Oshi was going to take all of her broken pieces and put them back together, but here she was at the end of another monotonous day, and still nothing—nothing—had changed.

A feeling like tiny needles jabbed her behind the eyes as Oshi wriggled in his cradle: he was just about to cry. He owed his Norlander ability to communicate without making any noise to his father, Lahlil’s brother Eofar, and got the vocalized crying from his Shadari mother, Harotha. She lifted Oshi up against her shoulder, patting his back to calm him before his upset could turn into shrill, nerve-shredding wails. She felt him trying to lift his head—he could still only just manage it—and his soft hair brushed against her ear as she started off in the well-worn circuit around the tent. On the tidy side were Oshi’s little things, the washbasin, the low chair on rockers that Callia had demanded she get, and the cold lamp hanging from its sun-emblazoned stand, while her side of the tent still bore the hallmarks of her seizures: bedlinen in a tangled heap, table knocked onto its side, shards from a broken cup sticking up from the carpet. She paused for a moment by the door and looked down at her over-full pack, weighed down by all of the supplies she and Oshi were going to need for their journey—everything except for the medicine she needed to withstand the attacks that came on her every day at dawn and dusk. Without something to at least keep her alert and breathing, she would be putting Oshi’s safety at risk.

She couldn’t deny that her fits were getting worse, any more than she could deny the bits of pottery crunching under the soles of her boots or the cuts on her hastily bandaged hand. Sunset had only just passed and she was already dreading tomorrow’s dawn. She had come back to the Nomas caravan with the thin hope that her return would somehow placate the two different gods to whom she had accidentally been consecrated. Instead, Shof, the sun god worshipped by the men of the Nomas caravans, and Amai, the moon goddess worshipped by their sea-faring women, had pushed their claims on her further and further. They were quarreling over her like two children wrestling over a rag-doll until it was spoiled past wanting.

She might have appealed to her own Norlander gods for protection, if they had not decided to make her a plaything of their own for having the affront to go on living with the scars that should have mandated her expulsion and death. She had gambled on the constant movement of the caravan to keep those cold gods from catching up with her, even while knowing, like all gamblers, that losing became more certain the longer she played. She was quite sure Onfar and Onraka enjoyed twisting her life into knots too much to stop the game now.

She made her way back to the cradle and set Oshi down, pulling her hands out from underneath him only when she felt him slide down into a deep sleep. Then she knelt down next to the cradle and drew out the parchment from her shirt pocket. The crack along the fold would split soon; the crumbling edge had already nibbled at the fading ink. She didn’t need any light to read it. She knew the text by heart.

Let all so afflicted be numbered among the damned.

She traced her finger along the edge of the watery blue stain darkening the corner.

Let them not remain among you, for they will be your destruction; let them be stripped of their garments and set out in the wilderness, for by these marks on their flesh, their twisted limbs, the corruption issuing from them, our brother Valrig has claimed them and will have dominion over them. He will bring them to his hall of Valrigdal in the deep forbidden places, and they shall be his Army of the Cursed. Then be ready against the day they will rise up and strike at the Righteous. On that day let a Hero be prepared with the sword we have given you, to subdue them, lest they corrupt all that is pure in this land.

Her mother had taught her to read from The Book of the Hall. Lahlil had drawn chalk maps on the floor of her hidden room and reenacted the battle poems with her toys. She had read the story of Lady Onraka breathing life into the twelve genderless progenitors after Lord Onfar, her brother, had fashioned them out of snow. She had imagined the blood of her own progenitor, Eotan, spilling from his wounds as he battled ice-trolls and sea monsters, and every drop springing to life as the first warriors of the Eotan clan. She had pored over the stories of Lady Onraka outwitting Haggah the she-wolf, and Lord Onfar wrestling the last leviathan out of the black sea.

The sound of clinking bracelets came tinkling through the tent wall.

Yet as Lord Onfar is merciful, and as Lady Onraka is just, if the afflicted be found worthy, so their wounds shall be healed and their steps guided back to the fires of their clan. For by this sign, they are to be embraced without prejudice. Then let the wine be abundant and the rejoicing long and full of praise for the gods and the progenitors. Let the clan make rich sacrifice from the hunted beasts, and all of that fellowship partake in the burned flesh.

The tent wall behind her rustled as someone lifted the flap. She folded up the parchment and put it back in her pocket.

“Why is it so dark in here?” asked Callia, wiping her feet on the rug and shaking out the wet, sandy hem of her pink dress.

“Oshi’s sleeping.”

“No he isn’t.”

Lahlil got up and lit the lamp. As the wick caught, Callia’s dark eyes swept over the mess. She made her way over to the cradle, her great round belly sailing before her, leaving streamers of scent in her wake.

“He’s hungry. If a Nomas like me can feel that from halfway across this marsh, a Norlander like you can certainly feel it sitting right next to him.” Oshi began to cry again as he sensed the proximity of his next meal and Callia scooped the baby out of the cradle with a smooth competence that Lahlil could never emulate.

“He was asleep. You woke him up,” said Lahlil.

“Crying babies,” said Callia as she settled him on her shoulder, “an army of them. That’s what I’d send against you in battle, not soldiers. Quickest retreat in history.” The impending Queen of the Nomas made some ridiculous clucking noises as she settled down in her rocking chair to nurse. “You didn’t give him that goat’s milk again, did you? If my milk’s good enough for the son of a god, it ought to be good enough for this little sprat.”

Lahlil started picking up the pieces of broken pottery and tossing them into the rubbish sack. “Idrian women don’t nurse when they’re pregnant. They say it makes the baby come early.”

“Good thing I’m not from Idria, then,” Callia said tartly. “Mairi told you to tell me that—don’t bother denying it, I know her meddling ways right enough. I’ve had just about enough of that potion-pusher and her bad temper and the way she fusses over everything. No one asked her to leave the Dawn Gazer to look after me. You’d think I hauled her ashore like she was the catch of the day, the way she complains about being here. But this is Shof’s baby in my belly and if a god can’t see his own son into this world in one piece then we ought to chuck him overboard and catch ourselves a better one.”

The material pulled tight over Callia’s belly rippled as her baby rolled over; perhaps the little demi-god was jealous of another child stealing his mother’s milk. Lahlil sometimes wondered exactly how Shof went about fathering the Nomas kings, but only the women chosen by the goddess Amai as her proxies had that knowledge and Nomas’ tact kept anyone else from inquiring. Jachad had come into this world in the same way, though Callia and his mother, Queen Nisha, could not have been less alike.

“Where are you going?” asked the girl.

Lahlil had only just picked up her cloak. “Jachad’s, to look at the maps.”

“Oh,” said Callia, packing a whole trunk-load of insinuations into the syllable. Lahlil knew better than to respond; it only encouraged her. “When was the last time you changed that shirt?”

Lahlil looked down at the soft gray linen, a gift from Nisha herself before she sailed for Norland on the Argent. A spot or two she hadn’t noticed before stared back up at her. “I don’t remember.”

Callia sighed and shook her head, her big gold earrings flashing in the lamplight. “You do it on purpose, don’t you, just to torment me?”

“No one asked you to leave the Dawn Gazer either.” Lahlil pulled the cowl up over her head and adjusted it to make sure it concealed her face.

“And live with the smell of fish all night and all day? Not hardly. I could stand it before, but now…” She sniffed the air scented with her perfume, then stuck out her pink little tongue. “Anyway, you couldn’t cope without me. You’ve been too used to getting your own way, that’s your problem. You need someone to tell you what’s what. Admit it.”

“Next time I need a vain little chit to talk my ear off, I’ll come find you.”

“Lahlil Eotan!” Callia cried in mock astonishment. “Do I have water in my ears, or did you just make a joke? Be careful not to hurt yourself, now. Start slow. I have a few limericks I can teach you when you get back.”

Lahlil turned back for a last look at the baby. Every time she left him she was afraid she would miss the moment—like a highwayman bending down to take a stone from his shoe while a fat merchant rides right by him. As she ducked out of the tent, she heard Callia serenading the suckling infant with one of the most brazen limericks she had ever heard.

She walked through a stand of squat trees toward the heart of the camp. The lights of the tiny town of Wastewater twinkled in the middle distance and she remembered old King Tobias telling her that Wastewater was the kind of place where retired purse-snatchers and cutthroats came to die of boredom. Inside the tents, the men of Jachad’s caravan were sitting down to their evening meal with their children, brothers, fathers and friends, their shapes moving across the canvas like a shadowplay as she passed. Plates and cups rattled; someone plucked the strings of a harp.

A shriek cut through the background hum and a little girl in a striped robe darted out from a patch of tall grass with four or five other children in hot pursuit. She was smaller than they were but faster, moving over the sandy ground as smoothly as a snake. Lahlil tracked their procession until they blundered into one of the shallow pools right in front of her and splashed her with water.

The children froze, and the hectic rise and fall of their little chests reminded her of a family of mice after the box under which they’d been hiding had been whisked away.

“Sorry,” squeaked one of the boys.

She went around them and continued on her way.

“Where’s your sword?” asked the same boy.

“In my tent.”

One of the girls asked, “Why did you leave it there?”

“I don’t need it right now.”

They were trailing behind her now, taking courage from each other. She picked up her pace.

“Besides, anyone from Wastewater would know she wasn’t one of us if they saw her with it,” said another boy. “Did you really kill the striders? All of them?”

“Yes.”

“But they weren’t hurting anybody, were they?”

“The emperor wanted the striders to work for him.” She stopped next to a tree blotched with dry yellow moss and turned to the children. They shrank back, shifting closer together. “The striders said no.”

“Why didn’t they just stride away?” asked the girl in the striped robe.

Before she could come up with an answer, one of the other children grabbed the girl’s arm and whispered, “Triss, your dad’s coming.”

“Triss!” Behr the wagon-master called as he hurried up the path with his robe hitched up and displaying a pair of knobby ankles. “What are you all doing here? Go and wash your feet and get ready for bed. Come on, now, get going.”

The little huddle broke apart and Triss trudged off with her head lowered, but Lahlil didn’t see much penitence in her expression.

“Sorry if they were bothering you,” said Behr. “They’re just curious.”

“Forget it,” said Lahlil. She started off through the trees, then a memory of Behr as a strong, wiry-haired boy with gentle eyes and a shy smile made her turn back around. “She looks like you.”

The shy smile returned and he mumbled some awkward acknowledgment before jogging after his daughter and putting his arm around her slender shoulders.

Mairi, the only other grown woman in the caravan besides her and Callia, had wedged her tent on a ridge between two trees. An untended fire smoldered in front of it, and a band of lamplight marked out the tent flap in the deepening gloom. Mairi glanced up as she entered, then immediately returned to the task of scraping the skin from a gnarled purple root into a bowl.

“Why are you here? Isn’t it time for your thingummy? Your fit?”

“The sun is down. My seizure is over.”

“Move out of my light.” The healer waved her into a corner while she measured water into the bowl, counting each drop under her breath.

Lahlil pulled back her cowl and stepped away from the lamp, but she couldn’t move any further because of the collection of things from Mairi’s cabin aboard the Dawn Gazer: clay pots, wooden bowls, gourds made into bottles, dippers and mortars sat on every flat surface. Casks of wood bound with iron bands were pushed almost to the tent walls, and garlands of dried plants hung from the supports or sat heaped in baskets. Lahlil nearly upset a shiny clay vessel in which a thick, oily sludge was reducing over the flame of an unshielded candle. As she watched, a heavy bubble glugged up to the surface and burst with an odor so foul it made her eyes water.

“And don’t touch that,” Mairi called out sharply, finally looking up. Her eyes were bloodshot and stormy with frustration and fatigue. She reached across to a low wooden chest and tossed a clanking missile to Lahlil—her silver flask—not some base metal polished up or covered in a thin sheet of silver but real, solid silver. She felt the weight resting in her hand, heavier than she remembered.

“That’s what I’ve got: nothing,” said Mairi. “I can’t lay hold of half the ingredients, and I can’t find substitutes for more than a third. I told you it was hopeless from the start. If you need more of it so badly, then go back to where you got it in the first place.”

“I can’t,” she said. “I need you to keep trying. I have to have it before the caravan leaves for Prol Irat.”

“You think I’m not trying? Believe me, you don’t want to go half as much as I want you to leave.” Storm clouds swept across Mairi’s face. “We’re going to have a new princeling in a few weeks and, Amai help us, a new queen-in-waiting. No one expects Jachi to marry Callia, but he’s the baby’s near-father, like it or not, and he has responsibilities.”

“That’s nothing to do with me.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Mairi. “Then go away and leave him alone.”

Lahlil tossed the flask back to her. “Make me something that works and I will.” On her way out of the tent the candle caught her eye and she stood for a moment, watching a drip of hot wax slide down and solidify into a white tear. In its depths she saw fields of snow under a slate-gray sky.

She walked along the paths until she came to Jachad’s tent, just south of the dead tree.

“Come for supper?” he asked after he bade her enter, half-rising from a meal neatly laid out on a folding table in the corner. Even in the lamplight she could pick out a dozen different shades of red and orange in his hair. He had grown a wiry beard in the months since they’d left the Shadar, but his freckles still made him look barely older than the boy who had shared his tent with her after his near-father, old King Tobias, rescued her from a burning death in the desert. “Pull up a stool. There’s too much food here for one person—there’s some bread, and stew, though not as good as my mother’s, I’m afraid.” He trailed off as he read her mood, then dropped his napkin onto the table beside his plate. “The maps, then. Help yourself.”

She flipped open the top of the tall map-box by his desk and located the one she wanted. Rolling out the vellum on the desk, she anchored the corners with a plate of fruit and a silver ewer.

“Where’s Oshi?” asked Jachad.

“With Callia.”

“Better him than me,” he sighed. A few sparks played around his fingers: the gift of fire from his sun-god father. “Why couldn’t she have stayed on her ship? She’s always on about something, and those clothes—she’s like a refugee from a Thacovian wedding party. How Shof could choose her after my mother, I can’t fathom, any more than I can understand why you—of all people—are the only one in my caravan who can tolerate her.”

She found the Ranjar River on the map and traced it south: rivers, hills, forests, and then the massive bog. She’d never met anyone who’d been south of Balt; at least, no one who’d ever come back. “She reminds me of someone.”

“Callia reminds you of someone you know? Who could that possibly be?”

“No one important. A mercenary.” She lifted up the ewer and the map rolled itself up. She put it back in the box and brought out a different one. “Her name was Nevie.”

“Was? What happened to her?” asked Jachad. He paused. “On second thought, don’t tell me.”

He got up from his unfinished meal and came to stand beside her. The desert had woven itself into the fabric of his robe and the air felt suddenly warmer for the scent. He took a sprig of berries from the dish by her hand and she caught a hint of their sourness as he bit into the fruit. “I love these. They’re the best part about the caravan coming here. Do you remember Wastewater, when we were little?”

She remembered the squat trees, the insects, the pools with sucking sands at the bottom, and the smell of dry grasses, reeds and decay. She remembered the snapping lizards hiding by the edge of the water, and how she had lain on her belly alongside Jachad with the other Nomas children to catch them by their tails. She remembered running with the reeds waving over her head, swatting the blood-sucking insects away from her face; running because Jachi was chasing her and just for the sake of running. She remembered the time they’d blundered into a stand of knife-grass, and how sternly Tobias had scolded them as he’d dabbed some stinging sap on their shallow cuts, and then spoiled them with cake and warm spiced milk for supper. She remembered lying in her cot and listening to the insect chorus as she looked up at the striped silk of the tent above her, and how Jachad had pretended to be asleep in the cot beside her.

“I remember the lizards,” she told him.

He made a faint sound in his throat that might have been a stifled sigh. “That’s a map of Norland. I thought you wanted to go south.”

“I am going south.”

“Decisive, as always,” said Jachad.

“A bad decision is better than none at all. Hesitation loses battles.”

“Are we in a battle? Someone should have told me.” He ran his knuckles across his beard. “Do you still think you’re taking Oshi with you?”

“He’s got to stay with me.” The mapmaker’s spiky mountain peaks blurred. “Harotha gave him to me for a reason. I’m going to see it through.”

“I don’t care what the elixir promised you, Lahlil. You can’t take a helpless infant with you into Shof knows what. Not even you could be that selfish.”

“Other people have done it,” she said, refusing to flinch; he had called her “selfish” before. “Settlers. Refugees.”

“Of which you are neither,” Jachad pointed out. “You can’t take that child out into the wilderness and make him run from your past. If you want to keep him with you, you’ll have to stay with us.”

“I’m leaving before the caravan goes on to Prol Irat.” She automatically noted the quickening of her pulse and the dryness in her throat; a habitual awareness drilled into her by a lifetime of relying on her instincts. She stepped back from the desk. “They’ll be looking for me there. There’s a price on my head.”

“Not on your head—on the Mongrel’s. That’s not who you are any more.”

“I’ve done things I can’t take back, Jachi,” she said, “and that’s not going to change because we want it to. It’s not that simple. Anyway, you knew from the beginning I couldn’t stay.”

“I knew nothing of the sort, and neither did you.” He pushed himself away from the desk, rattling the brass hinges on the folding top. The water jug tilted, spun on its edge, and then dropped onto the carpet. Water glugged out from the narrow mouth and turned the rug’s blues to black and the reds to scarlet, but neither of them bent down to retrieve it. “You were content enough just to have Oshi, and us, after that mess in the Shadar. You weren’t expecting some great change to happen. Maybe the real reason you don’t want to leave Oshi behind is because you love him. People do love their babies occasionally, you know.”

“Don’t make this about Oshi,” she said. “I’ve tried staying in one place before. It didn’t work. I’d be putting everyone here in danger, including you.”

“You don’t have faith in anything, do you?” asked Jachad. Little tongues of flame were twisting around his fingers. “Not even me.”

“Faith is dangerous.”

“Why, for Shof’s sake?” he asked.

“Because it makes you drop your guard.”

He smiled, but the light didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, there it is, isn’t it?”

Jachad turned away from her and went back to his cold dinner. She rolled up the map of Norland, retied it, and placed it back in the partitioned box. The hinged lid clicked shut.

Lahlil took a sprig of berries from the dish before she left.

The darkness outside had deepened and clouds of tiny glowing insects swarmed from one patch of tall grass to another. She crushed one of the berries between her fingers, feeling the wet juice as the skin broke open. A stringy, yellow-eyed nightwing shot out of a patch of reeds and alighted on a leafless branch over her head. Some small rodent dangled from its curved beak, dripping blood onto the branches below. The bird eyed her for a moment, then tipped its head back and gulped down its prey in one bite.

Mairi was never going to be able to make her medicine for her. It wasn’t the healer’s fault; Lahlil had always known that medicine could only be made in Norland.

Norland. She still remembered every detail of that day on the snow-covered plain, sitting down by her fire to skin the dappled hides off the two lagramor she’d bagged that morning. The instant she had taken out her knife, the grachtel that had been following her for more than a week swooped down and dug its talons into the crust of ice on the other side of the fire, tracking the stroke of the blade with its white-rimmed eyes, until Lahlil had tossed it a few scraps of offal. She could almost hear Nevie’s voice calling out to her, but Nevie was long dead …

* * *

“General! Surprised to see me here, eh?” Nevie’s mercenary patois sounded even more garbled than usual: she was eating one of the hard green fruits that grew in the hot spring dells, chewing the fibrous flesh with her usual unhurried grace. She had always said that the only advantage of being from Marshmere was that there was nothing she couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. Her figure had come into view long before she reached Lahlil. The two shortswords at her waist and easy swing of her shoulders made her easy to identify; but, of course, it was always going to be Nevie.

“Knew you were tracking me,” Lahlil answered economically, feeling the cold burn her throat. There was a reason Norlanders communicated without opening their mouths.

“The emperor—he found out about the bloody striders, you know,” Nevie told her. “Just like you told us. Eoban put a big price on your head. Big price. That why you take this crazy job, eh? Kill him, before he kill you?”

“Close enough.” She stuck the spitted meat into the thawed ground by the fire, then walked out across the snowy plain to meet her visitor while the grachtel took wing in a streak of bright blue against the gray sky. “We could kill him together. We’ve done it before.”

“Like King Carder? Nah. Kill one of them assholes, you just get another. You know it.” Nevie tossed the pit of her fruit out onto the snow, making a black pockmark in the unbroken whiteness, then wiped her sticky gloves on her thighs. “Better to kill you instead. Nothing personal.”

“By yourself?”

“Too much gold, this job,” Nevie sighed, as if expecting her to commiserate. “I bring a crew, they turn on me, sure as a swamp witch got tits.”

“A full share of nothing is still nothing.” The slate-gray Norland sky was beginning to darken to a starless, moonless black and she could feel her seizure beginning. Even here in Norland, where the sun and moon were little more than ideas—things she had seen once in a dream, and then forgotten—there was no escaping the Nomas gods’ tug-of-war. Her muscles were already beginning to weaken. She had battled straight through it before, but not against someone as deadly as Nevie. Soon she would be at her most vulnerable, and Nevie knew it.

Lahlil circled around with the snow pulling at her boots, watching Nevie’s hips. Her hips would move first. The mercenary’s dark eyes took on a gleam without warmth, like the twilight sky reflected in the snow, and she chuckled. Her hips didn’t move after all, only her arm. The throwing motion was little more than a clever flick of her wrist, but the sword whirled out with impressive accuracy.

Lahlil twisted out of the way, but the weakness in her legs made her just a fraction too slow, and the tip of the blade caught her thigh as it flashed by. She felt a warm burst of blood and then pain, but Nevie dived at her before she could bother about it. Too late to block, Lahlil dropped her sword and writhed sideways, then grabbed for Nevie’s sword-arm, forcing the mercenary’s next blow wide of her body. But the edge of it caught Lahlil in the face, opening up a gash at the corner of her mouth. Blood trickled down her throat.

She managed to throw Nevie off and used the respite to fish her sword out of the snow. This time when Nevie rushed her, Lahlil had enough time to bring her blade up to block. She pushed whatever strength she had into her trembling arms and fought off the Marshmere woman, not trying to gain the offensive, not yet, instead getting first to her knees, then to her feet. They launched into a volley of sword strokes.

“You not doing so good, General. Not the same. I see it, after the striders.” Nevie’s blows came quickly, efficiently; she was testing her exactly the way she would any other opponent even though they had fought side by side a hundred times. Lahlil knew her reactions were slow and her thrusts weak. “I think you know it. I think maybe you come to Norland to die. I make it easy for you.”

“Stop now, and you can go.” Blood welled out from the gash in Lahlil’s mouth and down her chin, and her wounded leg was as responsive as a chunk of wood. No one had hurt her this badly in a long time. “You’re a pawn. The Norlander gods are using you.”

“What for?” asked Nevie.

“To punish me.”

The light dipped, and snow began falling in fat, heavy flakes. Lahlil strained her good eye as Nevie’s shortsword darted through the whiteness with a bright agility she couldn’t match. She was too late on one parry and had to fall back one step, then another. On the third step she put her weight on her injured leg and it folded beneath her.

Nevie had been so focused on Lahlil’s leg that she had not seen her draw her knife. She charged, fully committed.

Lahlil pivoted out of the way at the last moment and saw Nevie’s sword slide past within an inch of her chest, but by then she was punching her dagger straight through Nevie’s breastbone. The mercenary’s terrible rattling cry flew out over the plain. Lahlil caught her in her arms before she fell and sank down with her into the snow.

“General.” Nevie’s chest heaved under the knife and blood flecked her gaping mouth.

Lahlil bent her head low to make sure her voice found its way into the dying woman’s ear. “The Norlander gods wanted to make me kill you,” she said. “To prove how much I disgust them.” Her own dark blood ran over her lips and pattered down onto Nevie’s face. “You were the closest thing I had to a friend.”

Nevie’s death came as a restoration of the heavy Norlander silence. Already the snow was working to bury the evidence of their intrusion, covering over the blood and settling in the hollows of Nevie’s half-lidded eyes. The snowy plain tilted to one side and wouldn’t go straight again. The fight had drawn her thirty paces away from the fire, and with her affliction draining what remained of her strength, it might as well have been fifty leagues. With no way to seal the wound in her leg, she would soon be dead as well. She had gone from freezing to being uncomfortably warm—so warm that she would have taken off her coat if she’d had the strength—and she could no longer feel either the cut on her leg or even the leg itself.

As her sight faded away to nothing, she moved her eye-patch to uncover the silver-green Norlander eye on her left instead of the brown Shadari eye on her right. When she saw the figures walking toward her through the snow, she thought it was Lord Valrig’s minions—the cursed—finally coming to claim her. When they were close enough for her to see their scars and missing limbs, she was sure of it.
Copyright © 2014 by Evie Manieri

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