SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t read Book 2, Rebellion, I recommend you don’t read this.
THE TAINTED REALM TRILOGY
BOOK 3: JUSTICE
Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2013
Tali was holding the disembowelling knife so tightly that her knuckles ached. She looked into the eyes of the man she loved, the man she had to kill, and her heart gave a convulsive lurch. She tried to swallow but her throat was too tight.
‘It has to be done,’ said Rix dully. ‘It’s the only way.’
‘That doesn’t make it any easier.’
It was ten minutes past dawn and they were in a meadow by a pebble-bottomed stream, a pretty, peaceful place. A band of ancient trees clothed each bank, forming a winding green ribbon across the surrounding grassland. White flowers dotted the short meadow grass; in the distance, a range of snowy mountains ran from left to right. Behind them, on the plain beyond a low hill, four armies prepared for slaughter.
Their mad, ruined friend Tobry was chained to the largest tree, its trunk two yards through the middle. His shirt had been torn open, revealing a trace of reddish fur on his chest. His eyes were caitsthe yellow, the mark of the incurable shifter curse. To Tali’s left a brazier blazed; beside it sat a paper-wrapped packet of powdered lead. The one sure way to kill a caitsthe was to burn its twin livers on a fire fuelled with that deadly substance.
‘Now!’ said Rix.
‘I thought he’d died three months ago,’ Tali said softly, putting off the evil moment.
‘We saw him thrown from the tower.’
‘I ached for Tobry, wept for him.’ She slipped her fingers into her short hair, caught a handful and clenched until her scalp stung. ‘And finally, I came to accept his death. Then he came back as a shifter, doomed to madness …’
‘There was nothing to be done. No one’s ever cured a full-blown shifter.’
‘He told me to turn away.’ Her voice went shrill. She moved closer to Rix. ‘Tobry knew he’d die a mindless beast, and I couldn’t accept it. ’ Tali’s pale skin flushed to the roots of her golden blonde hair. ‘I did shameful things, trying to save him. Wicked things …’
‘Out of love,’ said Rix uncomfortably.
He thrust his sword into the soft ground, bisecting a white daisy, and stepped away, scrubbing his dead hand across his eyes.
Tali looked up at Rix – she was a small woman and he stood head and shoulders above her. ‘He doesn’t know us; he’ll kill us if he gets the chance. He’s got to be put down and I … just … can’t … bear … it.’
He put his good arm around her shoulders. The shifter snarled. Rix pulled away and, with a jerky movement, plucked his sword from the grass.
‘He’s a beast in torment. We have to do our duty by him.’
‘Yes,’ said Tali.
‘Ready?’ Rix’s jaw locked.
‘Yes,’ she whispered.
‘It’s hard to kill a shifter.’
‘When I strike it’ll probably turn him, and in caitsthe form he’ll be three times stronger. A caitsthe can heal most injuries in seconds by partial shifting. You’ll have to be quick.’
‘I know.’ Tali’s fingers tightened around the hilt of the knife. She rubbed her knuckles with her left hand.
‘Cut straight across the belly, left to right, then heave out –’
‘Get on with it!’ she screeched.
Rix swallowed audibly, rubbed a large signet ring on his middle finger, then raised the sword in a trembling hand. But before he could strike, someone came belting through the trees towards them. A pale, skinny girl, about nine.
‘Stop!’ she screamed. ‘I can heal him.’
‘Not in front of Rannilt,’ Tali hissed.
‘What kind of a man do you think I am?’ Rix snapped.
Tali dropped the knife and ran to grab Rannilt. Even chained, Tobry was too powerful, too dangerous. Rannilt stopped.
‘You can’t heal anyone,’ said Tali, spreading her arms wide. ‘You lost your healing gift when Lyf attacked you in the caves that day. He stole your magery, remember?’
‘He didn’t, he didn’t!’ cried Rannilt. ‘You’re lyin’.’
She darted around Tali, under Rix’s outstretched arm, and ran towards Tobry.
‘Stop her!’ said Tali.
Rannilt, a little, waiflike figure, reached out to Tobry. Her arms were scarred, her skinny fingers crooked from having been broken repeatedly when she’d been a bullied slave girl.
‘I can heal you,’ Rannilt said softly, standing on tiptoes and gazing earnestly up at Tobry. The air between them seemed to smoulder. ‘I got to heal.’
Tobry made a small, yearning movement, as if allowing her to try, but came up against the chains and let out a roar. Rannilt jumped backwards, her thin chest heaving. After a few seconds she took a small step towards him.
‘You got to let me try,’ she said to Tali. ‘Tobry’s my friend.’
‘No one can heal him,’ said Tali. ‘Rix, grab her.’
Rix sprang and tried to drag Rannilt away. She kicked him in the shins, drove her bony shoulder hard into Tali’s breast, knocking her off her feet, and ducked past.
‘You’re not killin’ him!’
Rannilt shoved the brazier over, scattering coals across the ground, then took hold of the packet of powdered lead and tries to tear it open. The tough paper did not give. She took it between her sharp little teeth.
‘Put that down!’ roared Rix. ‘It’s deadly poison.’
Rannilt spun on one foot and hurled the packet against a rock. It burst open, scattering lead dust everywhere.
‘You’re not murderin’ Tobry,’ she shrieked.
The ground shook so violently that she fell to one knee. The quakes and tremors had been coming for days now but this one seemed different. Stronger. Tali turned to Rix.
‘Was that –’
‘The Big One?’
The land heaved and a crack opened fifty yards away, squirting dust into the air like a fountain. Rannilt let out a squawk.
The earth gave forth an enormous, grinding groan. A wave passed through the ground, tossing the three of them off their feet. A larger wave followed, and a third, larger still. Tali was thrown backwards across the grass; her head cracked against a stone and dust filled her eyes and nose. A series of wrenching roars were followed by ground-shaking thumps. She opened her eyes but could not see.
The earth groaned like a giant in torment. Rannilt screamed and bolted.
Rix roared, ‘Look out!’
He heaved Tali into the air, carried her for four or five long strides, then dived with her as the ground shuddered one final time. There came a colossal, thundering crash.
She wiped dust out of her eyes and looked around. Rix was on his knees a couple of yards away, gasping. Many of the trees along the stream had been toppled.
‘That was too close,’ he said.
She sensed something behind them – huge, blocking the morning light. Tali turned slowly. The gigantic tree had been wrenched out by the roots and its trunk lay in a deep indentation in the soft ground only a few yards from her. Tobry’s chains ran around the trunk and disappeared below it. The crown of the tree had been smashed and broken branches were scattered across a large area. Bees buzzed frantically around a dislodged hive. Rannilt was nowhere to be seen.
Tali wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the fatal spot. It had been so quick. She sagged.
‘Do you think, even a shifter –?’ she began, not looking at Rix. She was afraid to see the truth in his eyes.
‘No,’ said Rix. ‘No chance at all.’
An ache formed in her middle, a vast upwelling of loss that spread all through her. Her eyes stung. ‘It’s for the best, isn’t it?’ But she wanted to scream and pound her fists into the dirt.
‘He wouldn’t have felt a thing.’
Rix took her right hand with his good hand. It enveloped hers completely. They bowed their heads for a minute, remembering Tobry as he had been before the shifter curse took him.
Rannilt! ‘Where’s Rannilt?’ Tali pulled free, ran the length of the fallen trunk and clambered onto the highest branch, staring around her. Her voice rose. ‘Rix, I can’t see her.’
‘How do you know?’
‘She ran that way as the tree fell.’ He pointed west across the grassland.
‘I’ll go after her …’
But Tali slid down and plodded back to Tobry’s chains. Her legs felt so heavy it was an effort to walk. She stared at the chains as if her gaze could penetrate the ground to the body beneath. Her eyes filled with tears. She wiped them away. ‘You’d better get going – you’ve got an army to command.’
Rix swallowed. ‘Assuming I can. I’ve never led more than fifty men before – and that ended in disaster.’
‘Rubbish! You led hundreds of people when Garramide was besieged – you saved the fortress.’
‘It’s not the same as leading an army of five thousand into battle.’
Before the chancellor died, last night, he had outraged his generals by giving the command of Hightspall’s army to Rix.
‘The chancellor despised me for betraying my own mother,’ Rix went on. ‘And rightly so.’
‘You had no choice. She committed high treason – and murder.’
‘And yet, she was my mother,’ Rix said bitterly. He paced across the grass, then whirled. ‘Why did he give me the command?’
Tali knew that Rix had always been troubled by self-doubt. He had to pull himself together, fast. ‘You earned his respect. He believed you were the only man with a hope of leading our army to victory.’
‘Then he was a fool!’ Rix snapped. ‘Lyf’s army is fifty thousand strong. Axil Grandys has ten thousand hardened veterans, and a genius for leadership. All I have is five thousand men who’ve known only defeat … and three failed commanders who hate my guts.’
‘The Pale are on our side.’
‘Five thousand former slaves, mostly small, undernourished, untrained and poorly armed.’
‘I’m also Pale,’ said Tali softly. ‘Also small, undernourished and untrained.’
Rix managed a fleeting smile. ‘So you are – yet you led the slaves’ rebellion in Cython, and won their freedom. You’ve changed our world. I have to be just as positive.’
His grey right hand, from which he had gained the name Deadhand, twitched. He froze, his lips parted.
‘What is it?’ said Tali.
‘I dreamed about the portrait last night …’
‘The one you painted for your father’s Honouring?’
The portrait, which portrayed Lord Ricinus killing a wyverin – a winged beast like a two-legged dragon – had been intended to symbolise him vanquishing House Ricinus’s enemies. But sometimes Rix’s paintings held messages about the future, and the portrait had contained a hidden divination – that Rix’s father and his house would fall.
The Honouring had begun in triumph. House Ricinus had been raised to the First Circle – the greatest and oldest families in Hightspall. But the night had ended in disaster, with Lord and Lady Ricinus condemned to death by the chancellor for high treason, the fall of House Ricinus, and Rix utterly disgraced.
‘But in my dream the picture had changed,’ said Rix. ‘The wyverin was only pretending to be dead; it was rising to kill Father. And the Cythonians say …’
‘What?’ said Tali.
‘When the wyverin rises, the world ends.’
‘Whose world – ours, or theirs?’
‘I don’t know. But there’s more to the portrait than I ever intended. There’s something I’ve missed …’