Rosa 26, 1077
Skree Atronji stood upon the South Talon Cliffs, looking down into the windward side of Sophren Bay, watching the waves break against the stalwart stone. Every instinct in the big triton seamage screamed for him to jump into the sea, to find the safety of his kind. Such a jump – two hundred feet – would have killed a human, but it would have been nothing for Skree to achieve. What held him back was the child on his hip.
The four-year-old child had light copper skin, black-hair and green, slitted catkin eyes that danced with intelligence far beyond his years.
Leathery, sea-green scales covered the seamage, except for the palms of his hands, the bottoms of his feet, and his lips – reminiscent of a reptile, which he was not; his long hair, green to the edge of black, hung loose about his shoulders, draping the delicate lace-work of gills that ran from the back of his jaw down his long neck.
Skree gave a long, booming shout at the sea in a vibrant, basso baritone, which echoed from the cliffs. "The child is mine. The child is good. I will defy the gods themselves to protect him. The child is mine."
"Skree?" A gentle tenor turned Skree to face the mon who had joined him on the cliffs.
The newcomer wore golden armor, chain mail and breastplate, carried a shield on his arm and a longsword at his shoulder. His device on the breastplate and shield confirmed the triton's long held suspicions concerning the mon and the muscles crawled beneath his scales: a mighty eagle clutched a blue rose in each of its claws. A god had heard him crying his defiance and the Rose Warrior had come.
"Friend or foe, Dynarien?" Skree demanded.
"Friend. Always." Dynarien flicked back a strand of his red gold hair that hung to his narrow hips.
"You know what Wolff is?"
"More than you do."
"He's sa'necari born. He's a prodigy. He has had his fangs and an appetite for living blood for two years now."
The roar of the sea and sharp scent of brine filled Skree's nostrils as he waited for Dynarien's reaction.
Dynarien was yuwenghau, a demi-god and divine knight-errant. He reached out to touch Wolff and Skree stepped back from him.
A slow smile spread across Dynarien's almost feminine features. "He's far more than that. The child has both sides of the gift."
"I know that. He healed my mate."
"Protecting him will not be easy, Skree. Have you ever asked yourself why so many assassins have tried to kill him? Why he's been hunted since the day of his birth?"
"He's Prince Mephistis de Waejonan's son. The rightful King of Waejontor."
"Well, at least you figured that much out." Dynarien chuckled.
For the past four years, Skree had believed Dynarien to be a battlemage, married to a pair of taverners. Realizing that the gods had been watching him all that time made the triton uneasy, and that pricked his pride. "What more is there to know?"
"You hold in your arms the Sacred Child, who will restore the shattered souls and give peace to the dead. If he survives long enough, of course. But that's up to you."
Skree turned his face to the heavens, struggling to breathe as the fullness of the burden he had accepted four years ago came crashing down upon him like an avalanche. "Will you help me protect him?"
"The Sacred King of Rowanhart is taking her army to Merkreth's Crossing tomorrow at dawn and I am pledged to go with her."
"Then what becomes of Wolff and his brother Fauxx without a divine guardian?"
"That's up to you. However, I'll make a suggestion. In fact, I'll make two. First talk to Amberlyn Willidar at the Manticore Bones. Second, if you're forced to flee this place, go in search of Isranon Dawnreturning."
"I will do that."
"And another thing. Don't stand on cliffs shouting. Next time the wrong god might hear you. The king is due to pass here in a few minutes. She's on her way to the temple to pray at her husband's sepulcher. I would keep Wolff well away from her, if I were you."
Golden light enveloped the godling and he vanished, leaving behind a circle of blue roses.
Skree shifted Wolff around, pressing the boy tight to his chest. His lips drew back from his shark-like teeth. "Though gods and myn desert us, my son, we will manage."
The jingling of spurs and armor announced that the king's company neared the crest long before Skree could see them. Sound carried far on the South Talon Cliffs. He walked to the ledge overlooking the wind-swept path that wound its way around and along the cliffs, and gazed down.
To his left, Skree could see the spires of the Azure Circle Mage School sitting on the summit of a low rise at the edge of Rowan City. Wolff gave his foster father a questioning look. The child tugged Skree's hand lose from his back, stuck the triton's finger in his mouth and bit it. Skree barely noticed the sting, having become accustomed to it, and ignored Wolff's sucking as the boy consumed the blood that kept him healthy. Wolff could not live on blood alone. It was not a conventional food source for him, and Skree had not yet been able to identify what component of living blood Wolff needed.
Thrusting spiny fingers into the light, patches of scrub oak and twisted pines lined the road. It had become well-trodden, as more and more pilgrims made the journey to the new temple atop the South Talons highest summit. Skree made out the forms of the king and her company riding.
He did not need to be close enough to see her gray eyes to know the light they held. Every few weeks, the haunted look would grow like a weed until it dominated them. Since the death of her husband, Josiah Abelard, there was very little left of the mon he had first met five years ago. The fairness and compassion had gone out of her, leaving only bitterness, anger, and – although he disliked calling it that – an unremitting hatred.
Once she had been human. Then she had drawn one of the nine sacred swords from an altar and it had transformed her. She had grown azure wings with scarlet tips, and her copper skin had turned sapphire blue. Skree wondered if the transformation had been more than physical.
He had known that she was going to the temple that day, since it would be the last time for many months before Aejystrys could pray beside her husband's sepulcher. Tomorrow she and her army were leaving for Gormondi to rendezvous with King William Gryphonheart. Until six months ago, Gormondi had been known as Gormond's Reach. King William had annexed neighboring Darr, and renamed his kingdom as sign of the changes.
Aejystrys had vowed to show no mercy to sa'necari, whether children or adults. Skree's people were much the same. The destruction of the sa'necari was a central theme of the triton religion, which centered upon Nerindalori of the Waves as their liege-god.
The seamage watched the king's company pass beneath a natural arch of wind-eroded stone and emerge onto the cliffs. Skree's moment of decision had arrived. He could either retreat into the rocky outcroppings until they passed, or go forth to greet his king.
Uncertainty gripped him. He faded back behind a rocky outcropping, and then slipped into a grove of bristlecone pines that dotted the bluffs in small clusters. Skree waited for the company to pass, and followed them. An hour's walk brought the triton and his son within sight of the king's destination: the Temple to Kalirion Sun-Lord. It rose in glowing splendor atop the highest point on the cliffs overlooking the southwest side of the city. The ivory columns of fluted marble supported an open gallery that wrapped the sides.
The Ha'taren Guard stood before the temple, holding the reins of their wynderjyns – unicorn-horse hybrids – which only the paladins of Aroana, Lady of the Walled Cities, could ride. They gave Skree polite nods as he climbed the temple steps, deferring to his rank. Skree was Admiral of the Rowanhart fleet, which mostly made him their head negotiator with the various triton kingdoms of the nearby islands. The king depended upon him to cross the cultural and linguistic gaps between their two species, and he did it well. The Rowanhart fleet had only ten warships. The various triton princes protected the trade routes from the pirates of Brundstrat and harried them along the coast line, since the opening of trade between their realms and the humans of Rowanhart benefited their peoples; so there was no need to build more warships. The end result was that Skree spent more time mediating disputes over fishing rights than on the decks of the clumsy human vessels. The humans had sails, but were still clinging to their oars.
Skree wondered, as he entered the temple, how many suspected the relationship between his twin sons and the king. From the brief flashes of odd looks, he felt certain that some knew. Two long rows of pews filled the center of the temple with open wings and alcoves to either side of it. Conchoidal arches filled it like a marble forest. To his left, close to the front, stood the sepulcher. The priests of Kalirion had interred the remains of Josiah Abelard Stormbird, last descendent of his legendary namesake's male lineage, within the temple itself as an honor to his courage and devotion.
The triton's throat tightened for an instant. Josiah had been his god-son, and as much as he had been able at the time, Skree had loved him. He felt partly responsible for Josiah's death. Skree had become disappointed in Josiah, and turned his back upon him in the moment of his god-son's greatest need. He would not repeat that deed with Wolff.
The king knelt beside the sepulcher, her head bowed in prayer. Skree could see the tears running down her cheeks. They both had their griefs and guilts over Josiah. Aejystrys had, for a time, been as harsh and unforgiving toward Josiah as Skree had been. However, she had forgiven Josiah while he still lived.
He waited out her prayers before approaching her.
King Aejystrys ran her hands over the marble likeness of her slain mate atop the sepulcher. "Josiah." Her tears worsened.
Skree kept an impassive face throughout it. He had not yet seen the prayers fail to comfort her.
Aejystrys mastered herself with obvious effort and rose to her feet. She turned, noticing him for the first time. "Skree?"
Her hand went out to ruffle Wolff's hair, her eyes fond. Yet Skree had to steel himself not to draw back and take the child beyond her reach.
That Wolff was lifemage born gave Aejystrys great pleasure and a sense of irony, considering that her sister and the child's sire had been both sa'necari. Aejystrys could only guess that the life magic must have come from the boy's womb-mother Dree. The Sharani were triadic requiring three parents to produce viable offspring: sire, bloodmother and wombmother.
Aejystrys' hand drew back as she stiffened and turned to face someone approaching from behind Skree. The triton glanced over his shoulder.
Dynarien had returned. The signs of his divinity had been set aside, and the yuwenghau seemed no more than a simple warrior mage in his chain mail, tunic and surcoat. He gestured for Aejystrys to come with him deeper into the alcove.
She followed him like a dog, stiff legged with anger. "If you have come to talk to me again about the Dark Brother, Dynarien, I don't want to hear it. He's sa'necari. Both sides of the gift or not, he's still sa'necari."
Skree tensed, his grip tightening again upon Wolff.
"Aejys, Talons is alive because of him." Dynarien flicked back a strand of red-gold hair.
"I don't want to hear it. Sooner or later, sa'necari will turn."
"I would kill my own blood if they were sa'necari. I have killed my own blood. So I will certainly kill this mon, this Dark Brother as you call him. Both sides of the gift or not. Now, Skree is there something you wanted to talk to me about?"
"It wasn't important, Aejys." Skree walked away, clutching the little boy tightly to his chest to conceal the fact that Wolff had again bitten the triton's finger and was sucking the blood.
"Skree…" Dynarien joined him, walking beside him, adding his body to Skree's to better hide the child's actions. "I told you to keep Wolff away from her."
"I had to ask her a question."
"She answered it without my asking." The need for blood had begun when an assault by assassins left Aejystrys' na'halef, Tamlestari, wounded. Wolff healed her – using blood from Skree's hand to strengthen his powers. It shocked Skree speechless; fortunately, the only ones present had been himself and his mate, Taun, besides Tamlestari who had been unconscious. Skree swore Taun to secrecy and then struggled with his conscience. The child was both damned and sacrosanct and in the end his fierce love for the boy won.
Dynarien followed him to the far edges of the courtyard in silence.
Skree halted. "I fear for him, Dynarien. He has not harmed anyone. It is not anyone's fault, but I never dreamed it could manifest when I adopted him."
"From what Isranon told me, it is a matter of rearing. Just raise him right, Skree."
"I will, my friend. I will. First I must keep him alive long enough to grow up."
The child healed the bitten finger, raising his eyes to Skree's face worriedly. Wolff bad? The boy signed.
"See?" Skree frowned at Dynarien. "He understands everything. I can hardly speak in front of him. No, my son, you are very, very good." Skree hugged him fiercely, walking faster, soon he was almost running. Dynarien had to trot to keep up.
"I could Jump us."
"No. If you do that, then he will know how to do it. That's how he learns. The moment he sees a spell done, he knows how to do it."
"I suspect so. Tremendously precocious. You have given me hope. I don't want to lose him. Dear Gods, I – I could not bear to lose him. If Aejystrys found out what he was … or my own people…. They would kill him." Skree had covered the boy's ears tightly as he said this, extending his powers to shield his words from the child's hearing. He did not know how much longer he would be able to accomplish this, for Wolff's powers grew swiftly.