Her Prophecy Child
Nila Mirané Rahl curled herself tighter into her armchair, her pink slippers peeking out incongruously from under the skirt of her heavy, D'Haran red robe. They were her favorite slippers, one of the few things of her own she'd managed to carry with her from what remained of Eldoria, and one of the fewer in her bride trousseau that her husband, Panis Rahl, had not appropriated for himself, and his slave women.
Nila's lip curled, thinking of them. Everything in D'Hara was red, from their uniforms to the tapestries on the walls, from her wardrobe to her husband's. Their auras were redder even than the Rahl family crest.
They frightened her, at the same time such a gross distortion of the natural ebb and flow of a person's Han disgusted her. She had been taught better.
Not that Nila had much opportunity to use her learning here in D'Hara. Panis wasn't interested in the lost history of the Eldorian religion, or the basic nature of dragons (D'Hara had hunted its dragons to extinction, years before; Panis didn't believe in researching what he didn't consider a threat).
What passed for magic in D'Hara would have made Nila's mother, the High Priestess, stare in scathing disbelief. Her husband's friend, Zeddicus, who had later cursed their son to die—only one of the slave women's breath saved him, for Nila had still been hovering near death herself (the birth had been difficult)—had magic, but he had seemed to Nila to have no idea how to properly channel it.
Alas, the true secrets of healing might yet die with her, if she could not pass them on to her son.
Nila's hands were numb, holding her book—she shook herself, took off a pink slipper and tapped it against her cheek, in a habitual gesture…she was too often lost in thought.
There was no reason to fear—Zeddicus had been banished from the kingdom. No doubt he still hid in the recalcitrant Midlands, but that was far from the Palace. He wouldn't be able to affect Darken from that far away, not with Nila's protective enchantments traced over his young skin…she had taken every precaution.
There was a sudden rustle, and then a low murmur of voices, from the entrance to the library.
Nila stiffened, her head aching at the mere thought of discouraging another would-be cicisbeo. Did they truly believe Panis would not take swift revenge on any who courted his Queen? (Were they right to so little fear reprisal? What, after all, was she worth to him now? But no—she was the mother of his son. That must grant her something.)
She drew the curtains (red, of course) shut around her alcove, her back to the smooth stone, one slipper still on, the other clutched in her lap with her book, A Brief History of D'Hara (it did not live up to its promise of brevity).
Uncomfortable, she nonetheless remained still, hating the feeling of being an intruder in her own home. She was this Palace's chatelaine, and nothing could make her abandon the dignity due her place.
"He can't do more than light a candle!" It was Panis—Nila heard him pacing near her alcove. "He is a disgrace to the name of Rahl!"
"My Lord," a second voice—General Something?—protested, "young Master Darken is only five years old. You must give him time to grow into his powers."
"Time?" Panis sneered. "My son is a magical cripple! I should've let him die, all those years ago—didn't Carracticus warn me?"
"The prophecy said he would be the most feared tyrant in the land, my Lord," the general said diffidently. "Might he not yet succeed to those talents you yourself so successfully embody?"
Nila stifled a snort at that; Panis had no great power, save illusion. Illusion was what had kept her marriage together this long.
But her mind was spinning—Panis had told her it was Zeddicus who had tried to kill Darken—she barely remembered Carracticus—if Panis thought Darken had no Han, he was surely mistaken—what prophecy?
"The prophecy also says I shall have another son," Panis said gloatingly. "A son who will destroy his brother, and unite D'Hara!"
Nila felt faint—she had stopped breathing. Panis was going to have another son? Who would destroy Darken?
Darken, the one good thing that had come into her life since she'd been banished to this inland cultural backwater?
Darken, her son, an innocent five-year-old? Whose latent magical powers might well shock his father, she thought.
She must lose no time—she would have to take Darken and flee!
But where? Eldoria was too far to return, and in any case if she went back she would invalidate the treaty. She couldn't let Panis bring war to her parents' doorstep.
There had to be somewhere in this benighted place where a young Queen and Prince might find sanctuary.
Nila waited until Panis and the General had left, then scurried out of her alcove, her whole mind on how she might escape the Palace.
In her haste, she forgot one of her slippers in the alcove. Bright pink against the red cushions, it stood out like an Eldorian princess in D'Hara—and made an interesting discovery for her husband, returning to the library for a book on D'Haran ballads for one of his Mord'Sith to practice.
"Honey, we need to go now," Nila told her son. He sat stubbornly, arms crossed, glaring at her while she threw clothes and books into a leather bag. Eldoria was warm enough that they wouldn't have needed the heavy cloaks folded over her arm, but Nila was a long way from home.
"Why?" Darken protested. "I don't want to go!"
"Your father," Nila said viciously, and then wanted to bite her tongue. Criticizing Panis would only make Darken throw a tantrum, and they didn't have time for that.
Not if Panis really thought he was going to have another child, who would be the death of Nila's son. How anyone could even think such a false prophecy just cause for murder—!
"Where're we going?" Darken asked, interest creeping into his voice.
Nila looked up from her packing, momentarily stymied. Where could they go?
Home was out—even if it weren't for the treaty, the Mother only knew she didn't desire to take a five-year-old across half D'Hara and the Strait of Sorrows all by herself, and she could trust no one here.
But could she trust no one anywhere? "Aydindril," she said, nearly at random. Panis was always going on about how it was no wonder the Midlands were so easily overrun, when all they had were those witch-women to protect their interests.
The rebellion was a far-off threat to Nila, but she knew enough to know the women of Aydindril were no friends of her husband—might they not take pity on her and on Darken, who was only a child and surely an innocent?
Darken wrinkled his nose. "Ayd-dril?" he said disdainfully. "The women there'll steal your soul!"
"Nonsense," Nila said absently. "I won't let them steal your soul."
Just as she had finally got herself and Darken ready, his little hand trustingly in hers and the bag containing all the worldly possessions she'd managed to scrounge together over her shoulder, Nila remembered her lost slipper.
"Oh, Father's fires!" she cursed—not only were they her favorite pair, but that was her favorite alcove, and further pink was not a popular color among the ladies of the court. Panis would know—
But not if they left precipitately—
And she'd need some boots—however did she manage to forget she was wearing only one slipper? Panis had put her in such a fury—
"What do you think you're doing?" his voice was ice against her skin.
Nila had never missed nearly tropical Eldoria more. She hated the cold.
Lies raced through her mind—"Taking our son for a walk," she said levelly.
Panis raised her slipper and tapped it against her cheek in a cruel parody of her habitual gesture. "I think not, wife. What did you hear?"
She raised her chin. "Enough. I will never bear you another son, to nip at Darken's heels like some sneaking viper—!"
"He will bless this land, by ridding it of an evil tyrant!" Panis yelled.
The patent absurdity of calling a five-year-old an evil tyrant might have made Nila laugh, had she not been so furious.
"Who will?" Darken demanded imperiously. "Am I getting a brother?" He sounded hopeful.
Nila, fury beating through her veins like some strange drug, glanced down at him. "Your father would give you enemies as yet unborn," she said bitterly. "I—I would give you peace."
"You dare turn my son against me," Panis whispered, stepping forward fully into the room and grabbing Nila's arm. Her leather bag fell hard off her shoulder and against his elbow, and Darken's fingers slipped out of hers.
"I?" began Nila furiously, but Panis seized her throat next, almost choking her—
"Foolish woman! I don't need you to bear me another son! Where is your so-great magic now? Your son can barely light a torch with his thoughts alone—"
"I th-thought it was a c-candle," Nila choked, and watched Panis's face redden.
He flung her from him and drew his sword—"You dare take my son from me—" he hissed.
"Father—!" Darken cried—
Nila sought to gather power in her hands, real fear making her tremble now, but all she knew were spells of healing, prayers of thanksgiving to the Mother and the Father—and this, she thought wryly, is the trouble with being the daughter of a civilized culture—
Darken saw his father raise his sword, madness in his face—saw his mother, cowering weakly against the bedpost—saw himself, too small, too slow, too young—
He shut his eyes and prayed this was only another quarrel like his parents often had, that would soon turn to icy silences and mocking looks.
But he knew it wasn't.
"Good riddance," Father sneered, and Darken shrank back against the wall and opened his eyes.
What he saw found a place in his nightmares, for a time. Then it was replaced by other things.
Father stepped to the door. "Help!" he cried, "there's been an accident!"
His voice underwent the most astonishing change when he was talking to someone who wasn't Darken or Darken's mother…
"You, boy," he added contemptuously, "get back to your lessons. I expect to see a perfect image of old Canton Rahl, the founder of our House, in a pool of water by tomorrow."
Darken didn't move.
Maybe if he didn't move, it wouldn't be true—his mother wouldn't be—
Gone. The only person who had ever loved him was gone.
In time, he no longer saw her death as it had actually occurred. In his nightmares, the Keeper made her say things to him, things his Mother never would have said…in his nightmares, it was her hand that held the sword, and plunged into her chest…there was no sword, only a long illness and a sudden absence…he had never really known her at all, never felt her cool kiss on his brow, never heard her tell the story of the Mother and the Father in the beginning of the world…
In his most secret dreams, it was Panis, not Nila, who bled to death on the bed, red blood staining red sheets…
And one day, Darken made that dream come true.