Read a sample from THE HEIR OF NIGHT by Helen Lowe


The Keep of Winds

The wind blew out of the northwest in dry, fierce gusts, sweepingacross the face of the Gray Lands. It clawed at the close-hauled shutters and billowed every tapestry and hanging banner in the keep. Loose tiles rattled and slid, bouncing off tall towers into the black depths below; as the wind whistled through the Old Keep, finding every crack and chink in its shutters and blowing the dust of years along the floors. It whispered in the tattered hangings that had once graced the High Hall, back in those far-off days when the hall had blazed with light and laughter, gleaming with jewel and sword. Now the cool, dry fingers of wind teased their frayed edges and banged a whole succession of doors that long neglect had loosened on their hinges. Stone and mortar were still strong, even here, and the shutters held against the elements, but everything else was given over to the slow corrosion of time.

Another tile banged and rattled its way down the roof as a slight figure swarmed up one of the massive stone pillars that marched along either side of the hall. There was an alarming creak as the climber swung up and over the balustrade of a wooden gallery, high above the hall floor—but the timbers held. The climber paused, looking around with satisfaction, and wiped dusty hands on the seat of her plain, black pants. A narrow, wooden staircase twisted up toward another, even higher gallery of sculpted stone, but the treads stopped just short of the top. She studied the gap, her eyes narrowed as they traced the leap she would need to make: from the top of the stair to the gargoyles beneath the stone balcony, and then up, by a series of precarious finger- and toe-holds, onto the balcony itself.

The girl frowned, knowing that to miss that jump would mean plummeting to certain death, then shrugged and began to climb, testing each wooden tread before trusting her weight to it. She paused again on the topmost step, then sprang, her first hand slapping onto a corbel while the other grasped at a gargoyle’s half-spread wing. She hung for a moment, swinging, then knifed her feet up onto the gargoyle’s claws before scrambling over the high shoulder and into the gallery itself. Her eyes shone with triumph and excitement as she stared through the rear of the gallery into another hall.

Although smaller than the High Hall below, she could see that it had once been richer and more elegant. Beneath the dust, the floors were a mosaic of beasts, birds, and trailing vines; panels of metal and jeweled glass decorated the walls. There was a dais at the far end of the long room, with the fragile remains of a tapestry draped on the wall behind it. The hanging would have been bright with color once, the girl thought; the whole hall must have glowed with it, but it was a dim and lifeless place now.

She stepped forward, then jumped and swung around as her reflection leapt to life in the mirrored walls. A short, slightly built girl stared back at her out of eyes like smoke in a delicately chiseled face. She continued to stare for a moment, then poked her tongue out at the reflection, laughing at her own fright. “This must be the Hall of Mirrors,” she said, pitching her voice against the silence. She knew that Yorindesarinen herself would have walked here once, if all the tales were true, and Telemanthar, the Swordsman of Stars. But now there was only emptiness and decay.

She walked the length of the hall and stepped onto the shallow dais. Most of the tapestry on the rear wall had decayed into shreds or been eaten by moths, but part of the central panel was still intact. The background was darkness, rimmed with fire, but the foreground was occupied by a figure in hacked and riven armor, confronting a creature that was as vast as the tapestry itself. Its flat, serpentine head loomed out of the surrounding darkness, exuding menace, and its bulk was doom. The figure of the hero, dwarfed beneath its shadow, looked overmatched and very much alone.

The girl touched the battered figure with her fingertips, then pulled back as the fabric crumbled further. “The hero Yorindesarinen,” she whispered, “and the Worm of Chaos. This should never have been left here, to fall into ruin.” She hummed a thread of tune that was first martial, then turned to haunting sadness as she slid forward, raising an imaginary sword against an unseen opponent. Her eyes were half closed as she became the fated hero in her mind, watching the legendary frost-fire gleam along her blade.

Another door banged in the distance and a voice called, echoing along silent corridors and through the dusty hall. “Malian! Mal—lee-ee—aan, my poppet!” The Old Keep caught the voice and tossed it into shadowy corners, bouncing echoes off stone and shutter while the wind whispered all around. “Where are you-oo-oo? Is this fit behavior for a Lady of Night? You are naught but an imp of wickedness, child!”

The door banged again, cutting off the voice, but the damage was done. The bright figure of Yorindesarinen faded back into memory and Malian was no longer a hero of song and story, but a half-grown girl in grubby clothes. Frowning, she smoothed her hands over her dark braid. The hero Yorindesarinen, she thought, would not have been plagued with nurses when she was a girl; she would have been too busy learning hero craft and worm slaying.

Malian hummed the snatch of tune again and sighed, walking back to the stone balcony—then froze at a suggestion of movement from the High Hall, two storeys below. Crouching down, she peered between the stone balusters, then smiled and stood up again as a shimmer of lilting sound followed the initial footfall. A slender, golden figure gazed up at her through the twilit gloom, his hands on his hips and his sleeves flared wide, casting a fantastic shadow to either side. One by one the tiny golden bells on his clothes fell silent.

“And how,” asked Haimyr, the golden minstrel, the one bright, exotic note in her father’s austere keep, “do you propose getting down from there? Just looking at you makes my blood run cold!”

Malian laughed. “It’s easy,” she said, “especially if you’ve been trained by Asantir.” She slid over the balustrade and made her way back down the finger- and toe-holds to hang again from the gargoyle. She grinned down at the minstrel’s upturned face while she swung backward and forward, gaining momentum, before arching out and dropping neatly to the stairs below. The staircase swayed a little, but held, and she ran lightly down, vaulting up and over the second balcony, then scrambled through its wooden trusses to descend the final pillar. The minstrel held open his golden sleeves, scalloped and edged and trailing almost to the floor, and she jumped the last few feet, straight into his arms. He reeled slightly, but kept his balance, catching her in a brocaded, musical embrace. A little trail of mortar slid down the pillar after her.

“I had no idea you were due back!” Malian exclaimed, her voice muffled by the brocade. “You have been away for-ever! You have no idea how tedious it has been without you.”

Haimyr stepped back and held her at arm’s length. His hair was a smooth curve along his shoulders and no less golden than his clothes, or the bright gleam of his eyes. “My dear child,” he said, “you are entirely mistaken. I have every idea how tedious it has been, not to mention dull and entirely unleavened by culture, wit, or any other redeeming quality. But you—I go away for half a year and you shoot up like a weed in my absence.”

She shook her head. “I’m still short, just not quite as short as I was.”

“But,” he said, “every bit as grubby and disheveled, which will not do, not if you expect to embrace me in this wild fashion.” He looked around with the lazy, lambent gaze of a cat. “This is a strange place for your play, my Malian—and what of the danger to your father’s only child and heir, climbing about in that reckless manner. What would any of us say to him if you were to fall and break your neck?”

“Oh, he is away at present, riding the bounds and inspecting the outposts,” said Malian. “You would all have time to run away before he got back.”

Haimyr regarded her with a satirical eye. “My dear child,” he said, “why do you think your good nurse and the maids are all out hunting for you, high and low? Your father is back.” Mockery glinted in his smile. “On the whole, my Malian, I think that it would be better for you and your household if you were on time for his returning feast.”

Malian pulled a face. “We all thought the patrols would be away another week at least,” she said, with feeling. “But thank you for coming in here after me. You’re right, I don’t think anyone in my household would brave it, even to prevent my father’s anger.” She grinned again. “That’s why I like it, because no one else ever comes here and I can do what I want. They think it’s haunted,” she added.

“I know,” said Haimyr. “They have been telling me so since before you were born.” He shrugged, his tall, fantastic shadow shrugging with him on the wall. “Well, folk have always liked to frighten themselves, by daylight or by dark, but they may be partly right about this place. The shadows of memory lie very thick here.”

“It is a strange place,” Malian agreed, “but I don’t think it’s dangerous. It seems sad to me, because of the decay and the silence, rather than frightening. And the memories, of course, are very bitter.”

The minstrel nodded. “All the histories of your people are tragic and shot through with darkness. But the memories here must rank among the darkest.”

“You are not afraid to come here, though,” she said.

Haimyr laughed, and the sound echoed in the high stone vault overhead. “Afraid? Of the past’s shadows? No. But then, they are not my shadows. They are your blood heritage, my Malian, not mine.”

Malian frowned. “I am not afraid either,” she declared, and Haimyr laughed again.

“Of course not, since you choose to come here,” he said. “And rather often, too, I suspect.”

Malian smiled in response, a small secret smile. “Quite a lot,” she agreed, “especially when you and Asantir are away.” She drew a pattern in the dust with her foot. “It has been very dull without you, Haimyr. Six months was far too long a time.”

He smiled down at her. “I apologize for condemning you to a life of tedium. Will you forgive me if I say that I have brought back something you value, to make up for my neglect?”

Malian considered this. “New songs and stories?” she asked. “Then I may forgive you, but only if you promise to teach me every one.”

Haimyr swept a low, extravagant bow, his sleeves tinkling and his golden eyes glinting into hers, one long slender hand placed over his heart. Malian smiled back at him.

“Every one, remember,” she said again, and he laughed, promising nothing, as was his way.

It was only a few hundred paces from the old High Hall to the gate into the New Keep, which was barred and soldered closed, although there was a locked postern a few yards away. Malian’s customary means of coming and going was a narrow gap between the apex of the gate and the corridor’s arched roof, but she was resigned, rather than surprised, when Haimyr took the postern key from his pocket. “Oh dear,” she murmured, “now I am in trouble.”

Haimyr slanted her a mocking smile. “Didn’t you hear poor Doria, calling to you? She summoned the courage to put her head around the postern for love of you, but even a lifetime’s devotion wouldn’t take her any further. Nhairin, of course, is made of sterner stuff, but we agreed that I was better suited to hunting you out.”

“Because you could hope to catch me if I ran?” she inquired, with a smile as sly as his. “But I cannot see you scaling the walls, Haimyr, even to save me from my father’s wrath.”

He closed the postern behind them, locking it with a small, definite click. “You are quite right. Even the thought is an abhorrence. The ghosts of the past are one thing, but to scramble through the rafters like an Ishnapuri monkey, quite another. I would have absolutely no choice but to abandon you to your fate.”

Malian laughed aloud, but sobered as they turned into the golden blaze of the New Keep. Darkness never fell in these corridors and halls where jewel-bright tapestries graced the walls and the floors were patterned with colored tiles. Pages sped by on their innumerable errands while soldiers marched with measured tread and the vaulted ceilings echoed with all the commotion of a busy keep. Malian’s eyes lit up as the bustle surged around them. “It’s always like this when my father comes home,” she said. “He sets the entire keep in a flurry.”

Haimyr’s laugh was rueful. “Do I not know it? And now I must hurry, too, if I am to prepare my songs for the feast.”

“Everyone will be eager for something new,” Malian agreed. “But only after you have sung of the deeds and glory of the House of Night—for are we not first and oldest?”

“Oldest, first, and greatest of all the Derai Houses on the Wall, in deeds and duty if not in numbers,” a new voice put in, as though reciting indisputable fact. A spare figure rose from an alcove seat and limped forward. She was as dark and reserved as the minstrel was golden and flamboyant, and her face was disfigured by the scar that slashed across it from temple to chin.

“‘For it is the House of Night that holds the Keep of Winds,’” Malian chanted in reply, “‘foremost of all the strongholds on the Shield Wall of Night.’ It was you who first taught me that, Nhairin.”

The newcomer’s dark brows lifted. “I have not forgotten,” she said, taking the postern key from Haimyr. She had soldiered once for the Earl of Night, until the fight in which she gained both limp and scar, and she liked to say that she soldiered still in the Earl’s service, but as High Steward of the Keep of Winds, rather than with a sword. “I do not forget any of the few lessons that did not have to be beaten into you,” she added meditatively.

“Nhair-rin!” said Malian, then a quick, guilty look crossed her face. “Have I caused you a great deal of trouble, having to look for me?”

The steward smiled, a slight twist of her mouth. “Trouble? Nay, I am not troubled. But I know who will be if you are not clean and in your place when the feast bell strikes.” The smile widened at Malian’s alarmed look. “That bell is not so very far off, so if I were you I should be running like the wind itself to my chamber, and the bath that is waiting there.”

Haimyr clapped Malian on the shoulder. “The good steward is right, as always. So run now, my bold heart!”

Malian ran. Her father held strict views on the conduct appropriate to an Heir of Night, and exacted the same obedience from his daughter as he did from the warriors under his command. “We keep the long watch,” he often said to Malian, “and that means we are a fighting House. The Wall itself is named for us, and of all the fortresses along its length, this one stands closest to our enemy. We cannot let our vigilance or discipline waver for an instant, and you and I must be the most vigilant of all, knowing all others look to us and will follow our example, whether good or bad.”

Malian knew that upholding discipline included being on time for a formal Feast of Returning. Her nurse and the other maids knew it, too, for they did not stop to scold but descended on her as one when she ran through the door, hustling her out of her grimy clothes and into the tepid bath-water. Nesta, the most senior of the maids, caught Malian’s eye as she opened her mouth to complain, and Malian immediately shut it again. Nesta came from a family that had served the Earls of Night for long generations, and she held views on the value of discipline, tradition, and truancy that were remarkably similar to those of Malian’s father.

Doria, Malian’s nurse, was more voluble. “An imp of wickedness, that’s what you are,” she said. “Running here, and running there, and never in sight when wanted. You’ll be the death of me yet, I swear—not to mention the wrath of the Earl, your father, if he ever finds out about your expeditions.”

“We’ll all die of fright on that day, sure enough,” said Nesta, in her dry way, “if nothing worse happens first. But will our fine young lady care, that’s what I ask? And none of your wheedling answers either, my girl!” She struck a stern attitude, with arms akimbo, and the younger maids giggled.

“Well,” said Malian meekly, “it hasn’t happened yet, has it? And you know I don’t mean to be a trouble to you, Doria darling.” She hugged and kissed her nurse, but poked her tongue out at Nesta over Doria’s shoulder.

The maid made a snipping motion with her fingers, imitating scissors. “Ay, Doria knows you don’t mean to cause her trouble, but it won’t stop trouble coming—especially if we don’t get you down to dinner on time.” She held up an elaborate black velvet dress. “It had better be black, I suppose, since you welcome the Earl of Night.”

“Black is good, thank you,” agreed Malian, scrambling into it. She waited, as patiently as she could, while Doria bound her hair into a net of smoky pearls.

“You look just like the ladies in the old tapestries,” the nurse sighed, as her fingers twisted and pinned. “You are growing up, my poppet. Nearly thirteen already! And in just a few more years you will be a grand lady of the Derai, in truth.”

Malian made a face at the polished reflection in the mirror. “I do look like a scion of the oldest line, I suppose.” She kicked the train out behind her. “But can you imagine Yorindesarinen wearing anything so restrictive?”

“That skirt would make worm slaying very difficult,” Nesta observed, and Malian grinned.

Doria, however, frowned. “Yorindesarinen is nothing but a fable put about by the House of Stars to make themselves feel important.” She sniffed. “Just like the length of their names. Ridiculous!”

“They’re not all long,” Malian pointed out. “What about Tasian and Xeria?”

The nurse made a sign against bad luck, while Nesta shook her head. “Shortened,” the maid said. “Why should we honor that pair of ill omen with their full names?” She pulled a face. “Especially she who brought ruin upon us all.”

Doria nodded, her mouth pursed as if she had filled it with pins. “Cursed be her name—and completely beneath the attention of the Heir of Night, so we will not sully our lips with it now!” She gave a last tweak to the gauze collar, so that it stood up like black butterflywings on either side of Malian’s face. “You look just as you should,” she said, not without pride. “And if you hurry, you’ll be on time as well.”

Malian kissed her cheek. “Thank you,” she said, with real gratitude. “I am sorry that I gave you all so much trouble.”

Nesta rolled her eyes and Doria looked resigned. “You always are,” she said, sighing. “But I don’t like your gallivanting off into the Old Keep, nasty cold place that it is. Trouble will come of it—and then what the Earl will do to us all, I shudder to think.”

Malian laughed. “You worry too much,” she said. “But if I don’t hurry I really will be late and my father will make us all shudder, sooner rather than later.”

She blew a butterfly kiss back around the door and walked off as quickly as the black dress would allow, leaving Doria and Nesta to look at each other with a mixture of exasperation, resignation, and affection.

“Don’t say it,” the nurse said to the younger woman, sitting down with a sigh. “The fact is that she is just like her mother was at the same age—too much on her own and with a head filled with dreams of glory. Not to mention running wild, all over the New Keep and half the Old.”

Nesta shook her head. “They’ve been at her since she was a babe with all their lessons, turning her into an earl in miniature, not to mention the swordplay and other skills required by a warrior House. I like it when she acts like a normal girl and plays truant, for all the anxiety it causes us.”

Doria folded her arms across her chest. “But not into the Old Keep,” she said, troubled. “That was her mother’s way, always mad for adventure and leading the others after her. We all know how that ended.” She shook her head. “Malian is already too much her mother’s daughter for my comfort.”

Nesta frowned. “The trouble is,” she said, pitching her voice so that no one else could hear her, “does the Earl realize that? And what will he do when he finds out?”

Doria sighed again, looking anxious. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I know that Nhairin sees it, plain as I do—and that outsider minstrel, too, I’ve no doubt. It’s as though the Earl is the only person who does not see it.”

“Or will not,” Nesta said softly.

“Does not, will not,” replied Doria, “the outcome is the same. Well, there’s nothing we can do except our best for her, as we always have.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Nesta. Her dark eyes gazed into the fire. “Although what happens,” she asked, “if your best is not enough?”

But neither the nurse nor the fire had any answer for her.