They arrived at the castle just after nightfall, a solemn aura there to greet them. No sooner had he gotten through the gates to the palace proper, Nolan leaped from the saddle. Taking the steps two at a time, he swiftly flung the doors open as he hurried to Andraes’ chambers.
The chancellor met him in the fore-room. Murmuring apologies, he didn’t try to stand in his way as Nolan threw open the last set of doors. Inside the room it was dark. The curtains had been drawn and lit candles surrounded the still figure on the bed.
Nolan stepped forward hesitantly, knowing that the Lord-King, his father, was dead.
“My lord!” came the hushed cry of Parla, the palace Mender. She hurried over from where she had been kneeling at Andraes’ side to drop at Nolan’s feet. “I am so sorry.”
Almost numbly, Nolan took her by the arms and pulled Parla to her feet. “If he was this sick, why was I not told?” he hissed.
“When he at first fell ill, it was merely weakness. He would not eat and took little water. It was all I could do to have his favorite foods prepared and laced with herbs to stimulate his appetite. He was beginning to recover after word had come that you had found Erinael.” Her eyes then cast about, seeking for her student. “Where is she?”
“She is safe.” Nolan insisted, taking her face in his hands. “Now what happened?
“It was like no illness that I have ever seen before. It struck quickly, debilitating him first with weakness and fever. Then he fell into a coma and never awoke. That was only two days ago…” She was interrupted as Marisandra burst into the room. “I do not trust her.” Parla whispered.
“Nolan! I was not told that you had come.” She took his hand and tried to touch his face. “I am so sorry!”
Nolan brushed her away, finding himself to have no patience with her at this moment. “Broga!” he yelled, only to turn and find him and Morena standing silently in the doorway. He approached Morena then, his face twisted with grief. “Did you foresee this?” he demanded.
She did not shirk or shy away as he painfully grabbed her by the arms and shook her. “No.” she said quietly. “I could see nothing of this. Not of the Lord-King’s death, nor of this very moment.”
“Do not lie to me!” he snarled.
“If you feel that I am lying to you,” Morena drew a knife, then raising the point to her jugular and taking Nolan’s hand and wrapping it around the hilt. “Then kill me.”
Looking into her eyes, Nolan saw the earnestness there and threw the knife away. Then, in a move that surprised her, Nolan pulled Morena to him and held her tightly. He pressed his face against her shoulder, shuddering with sobs. Morena held him and gently stroked his hair as he grieved.
“What is the meaning of this?” Marisandra demanded, hands on her hips.
“Calm yourself, my lady.” Broga murmured, taking her by the arm.
“Do not touch me!” she shouted, jerking from his grasp. “Who is she?”
Nolan moved to address her, Morena urging him to ignore the outburst. “Someone of more noble bearing than you, Lady Marisandra.”
“How dare you!”
“How dare I? How dare you address the heir to the throne of the Mountain Clans!” He bore down on her then, Morena and Broga both begging him off.
“You fool.” Marisandra said, her fair features twisting into a sneer. “You involve yourself in things that you have no comprehension.”
Her face contorted as her form began to change. Her skin darkened as it became leather-like and scaly. The seams of her form-fitting gown first began to stretch, then split apart as her musculature began to change. Sharp talons clawed at the back of it as her wings sought to unfurl themselves.
Nolan drew his sword, then, unsure of what it was that he faced. “Demon!” he cried, lunging forward.
Before he could strike at Marisandra, Broga knocked him to the floor. At the same moment, Morena drew back her bow and loosed an arrow. It struck the scale plating of Marisandra’s shoulder and splintered into useless fragments.
Screaming rage, Marisandra leapt into the air. She slashed for Morena’s face before then swooping down to the bed. She effortlessly lifted the body of the Lord-King and then crashed through the stained glass window. From the courtyard, a flight of arrows lit after her as she disappeared into the night.
“You let her get away!” Nolan roared, pushing Broga from him.
“You would not have stood a chance.” Broga hissed showing shards of the shattered arrow.
Nolan turned in order to pace, but saw Parla kneeling to tend to Morena. “I’m alright.” the girl said quietly.
“Blessings that she missed the eye.” Parla said, pressing a bandage to Morena’s face.
By then, Dead Hunters and palace guards had flooded into the room. Broga explained to them what had happened, ordering that word to be sent to all available Dead Hunters.
Parla had Nolan hold the bandage to Morena’s wounded cheek as she went for her medicine bag. The girl smiled meekly, more of a grimace. Nolan lifted the cloth aside to see how bad it was. From temple to jaw, were four slashes. Parla had been correct that it had been a blessing the eye had been spared. Had Morena not ducked as soon as she had, she would have undoubtedly lost the eye as well as had her face cut to ribbons.
There was much that needed to be done. The Lord-King’s body needed to be recovered and final rites performed. The chancellor was sure to press for a coronation as soon as possible. But all Nolan could concern himself with in that moment was seeing to Morena’s care.