Monday, October 15, 2012

Excerpt: Cephrael’s Hand by Melissa McPhail


Ean hugged the shadows as he tried to find his way back to le Comte’s estates.  He feared they’d hurt his head worse than he thought, for he was disoriented to the city and uncertain where he was.  He was sure he’d passed the last street corner already once, and he had an uneasy feeling that he was walking in circles.

Trying to break the cycle, he turned into a long and shadowed alley, immediately spotting a streetlamp at the other end.  He was perhaps halfway through the alley when he saw a strange lump barring in way.  Abruptly a form reared out of the shadows, and Ean reached for his sword.

“…Ean?”

The prince halted with his hand around his sword hilt.  “Fynn?”

“Balls of Belloth!” Fynnlar crossed the distance between them in a rush and grabbed him by both shoulders, giving him a shake.  “What are you doing out here, you wool-brained fool?” he hissed.

“I might ask the same of you.”  Ean looked past his cousin to the lump lying a few paces beyond.  The man must’ve been dead for some time, for his blood had soaked into the earth, and he was well past odiferous.  Pushing a hand to his throbbing head, Ean closed his eyes.  He’d seen so much death since the last moon…so many lives lost, and for what?  He couldn’t fathom the events that spun violently around him, only knowing he was somehow caught in the whirlwind.  At least a soldier knew what he was fighting for, but this…this was madness.

“Ean, are you unwell?”

“Hit my head pretty hard,” the prince murmured, lifting tired eyes to refocus on his cousin.  “I’ll be all right.”

“I thought he was you,” Fynn said, indicating the dead man.  He sounded both relieved and immensely annoyed.  “It’s what drew me into the alley.  Come on.  We’d best keep moving.”

The prince shook off the numbness edging his thoughts and followed, leaving the nameless man to rot in peace.  As they headed out onto the street, neither of them noticed the shadow leaping from rooftop to rooftop in silent pursuit, nor the tawny eyes gazing down from a high, shadowed alcove across the way.

The fog began rising from the river as they walked back toward the villa, fat fingers snaking up the hill to leach the color from the night.  They reached a corner, and Fynn turned them onto a long boulevard winding uphill.  There he paused and looked warily up and down the road.  The cobbled street vanished around a bend several blocks ahead, the way lined with three-story flats whose windows were shuttered and dark. 

“Fynn, what—” Ean began.

But Fynn grabbed his arm to halt his forward motion with a warning look—and almost too late.  Sudden movement directly before Ean made him rear back with an intake of breath in the same moment that Fynn cried, “Wait!”

Something barely missed the prince as it darted past, leaving only the impression of its passing with a breath of wind.

“What was that?” the prince hissed in alarm.  His vision sought to find the thing that had streaked by, searching for substance among the night.  He could feel blood warming his neck, his head throbbing with every beat if his heart.

Fynn drew his sword wearing a dismal expression of impending doom.  “He’s toying with us,” he growled grimly.

“Who is?” Ean whispered.  He drew his sword as well and held it before him, though he doubted his reflexes with his head bleeding as it was.

“The Tyriolicci,” Fynn murmured. 

“The what?” Ean spared a fast glance at him.

It was then that a strange whispering began, a whisk of silk across the rough edge of glass.  It grew into a harsh whisper, angry and abrasive.  The sound had prickly tentacles that pierced into the soft flesh of Ean’s ears and twisted there, making him cringe. 

Fynn hunched his shoulders and gritted his teeth.  Shade and darkness, but I hate Whisper Lords!” he snarled.

Something dark flew out of the shadows and darted across the street faster than the eye could follow.  Ean swung his head after it in amazement.  “What in Tiern’aval was that?”

Fynn narrowed his gaze as he held his sword before him.  “A Whisper Lord.”

Ean never imagined a man could move so fast.  He swallowed his apprehension and prayed for clarity.  The pounding in his skull seemed to lessen somewhat, but he feared it was only in comparison to the agonizing sound in his ears.  And the whispering continued…tormenting, growing soundlessly louder until it shrieked inside Ean’s mind, shattering his focus. 

The Whisper Lord shot out of the shadows again, but this time Ean saw the man—tall and lithe, dressed in loose garments and a shredded black cloak that hissed as he ran.  Ean swung his head to follow the man’s path, refusing to blink lest he lose sight of him again.  He forced his eyes to focus on the shadows where the man had gone.

There.

He saw him now, lurking against the wall, smiling around big white teeth.  His leathery skin was black—so black that it looked charred—and his eyes were golden like the desert sands.  His nose was as long and pointed as his chin, a mummer’s mask made into flesh.  The man locked gazes with him, and—

Suddenly they were nose to nose.  Ean felt the heat of his breath in the same moment that the sting of steel pierced his flesh.  Only when warmth began spreading across his chest did the prince realize he’d been marked.   

Shade and darkness!    

“Ean, he cut you!” Fynn grabbed him by the arm, but the prince shook him off. 

“It’s not deep,” he said, startled as he gingerly probed the wound.  He looked back to the shadows while his chest stung tightly, adding with grim determination, “He just wanted me to have a taste of what’s to come.”

“Shadow take the abominable creature,” Fynn complained.  As if in answer, the whispering swelled in intensity, eliciting groans from both men in unison.  “Be ready!” Fynn warned through gritted teeth, and the prince watched Fynn rush to meet the advancing Wildling head-on.

The next few minutes were a blur.  The Whisper Lord fought with long, stiletto daggers that speared like claws out of his gloves.  His hands crisscrossed with amazing speed, never failing to find their mark on Fynn’s person, while his body twisted and spun to avoid each of the latter’s thrusts—which in turn only seemed to meet with the slashed silk of his garments.  So fast did the Whisper Lord dart and cavort that Ean at first felt helpless to join in, for he could barely see the Wildling move until after it had happened, as if the sight had to bounce off the back of his eyes…as if he could only see the man’s reflection. 

Then Ean found his focus and rushed to help Fynn.  Several fast strides took him into the battle. 

The Whisper Lord marked him before he even got his blade around, a long swipe at the joining of neck and shoulder that burned bitterly.  Ean realized that trying to use his sword alone would get him killed, so he pulled his dagger and dove in again with dual blades swinging.  The Whisper Lord dodged like a jumping spider and managed in the same maneuver to slash a deep cut across Ean’s thigh, his daggers flashing first with the silver of steel and then dark with blood.  Ean snarled a curse and staggered into the wall, teeth clenched against the pain, for the wound was angry and deep.

Fynn wasn’t faring much better.  His shirt was shredded, his chest crisscrossed with bloody cuts, and though he fought as Ean did with a blade in each hand, he was tiring.  The Wildling dodged and darted like the wind, spinning and striking with the ferocity of a viper with its tail pinned.  The sound of their flashing blades connecting was a frenetic click and clatter, the scrape of steel upon steel as fast as a chef sharpening his knives.

Abruptly Fynn hissed a curse and threw himself backwards to avoid a deadly thrust that would’ve surely speared him through.  Those spine-like blades sliced a chunk of flesh out of his side instead, a mortal cut that sent Fynn sprawling onto the stones.  The royal cousin clenched his teeth and held one hand to his midriff, using the other to pull himself out of reach. 

Desperation fueled Ean, bringing clarity at last through the dulling headache.  He dove at the creature with renewed determination, his battered head forgotten in his haste to keep the man away from Fynn.  His leg felt sluggish, however, and his foot was hard to control, but he forced through the pain and pushed the Whisper Lord back.

Yet even before they’d made much distance, Ean’s arms were burning and his hands were slick with blood.  He was perspiring as though they fought beneath the desert sun, and sweat stung his eyes, urging him to blink—but he dared not, knowing such was all the Wildling needed to make an end of him. 

The man wore a malicious grin as they battled, and his golden gaze was flecked and sparkling against his face of leathery pitch.  Sensing Ean’s failing strength, he grinned even broader and began to chant in a voice like sand, “Tur or’de rorum d’rundalin dalal!  Tur or’de rorum d’rundalin dalal!” Over and over while he pressed Ean now on the retreat; gleefully, like a madman. 

And then he made a sudden thrust, and Ean jumped to avoid the slashing daggers that nearly missed his throat.  He came down unevenly on his bad leg, and his knee buckled.  Faltering, he barely spun out of reach, stumbling and hissing a curse, and still the man bore down on him.  A swipe of his hand as Ean scrambled away, and three spiny daggers cut deeply across his back with their sharp fire.  The Wildling’s other hand darted for his throat again, but the prince veered and twisted so the blades caught his chin and cheek instead.  Ean rolled and thrust his sword upward, but the Wildling merely laughed and arched out of his way; the weapon met only the whisper of silk. 

Ean was exhausted.  His dagger seemed lost along with his will, and desperation was no longer enough to drive him on. 

Noting his defeated stance, the Whisper Lord advanced slowly, his grim smile the face of Death above ten spiny daggers raised for the kill.  With the shrieking noise still accosting his skull and the loss of blood and nausea in his stomach, Ean felt only numb acceptance.  Shaking, he lowered his head— 
A tall form pushed past him, knocking Ean aside as it rushed to engage the Whisper Lord, driving the Wildling back and away, taking the battle out of Ean’s hands. 

Ean fell onto his side, gasping, the last of his strength bleeding out of him.  He lay watching his rescuer take offensive control, knowing it was all he could do. 

The woman’s brown half-cloak floated behind her as she advanced with long, fast strides, forcing the Whisper Lord on the retreat.  She wielded two short swords in a flashing figure-eight maneuver that reminded Ean strangely of the zanthyr’s battle form. 

The Wildling smiled no longer.  Every thrust and swipe of his daggers was blocked by the woman’s whirling black blades.  She matched him stride for stride, spinning when he spun, darting as he did, dodging as he lunged.  They performed a ferocious, twisting dance of death where both knew the steps intimately and took them with ease.

As Ean watched, the Wildling slashed his daggered gloves in a motion that would’ve gutted the woman had she been any less of a swordsman, but she spun out of his reach and opened her stance in a toe-to-toe acrobatic leap, thrusting long as she landed.  Her sword met with the flesh of his side, drawing a hiss as he jumped back.  He glared malevolently at her and pressed one palm to his side.

“Merdanti,” he snarled in surprise, his golden eyes hot as they assessed her black blades.  Ean saw then that the short swords were identical in make to the zanthyr’s own, if half the size.

Arching brows with a predatory smile, she twirled her blades and lunged for him again, and once more the dance began, the meeting of their deadly weapons a rhythmic beating that seemed in time with Ean’s still-racing heart.

And then—

Ean thought he must’ve dreamed it, his tortured mind inventing an impression for what clearly defied explanation.  The woman and the Wildling seemed to shift and slow, their cloaks floating as if suspended on the wind.  Then the woman launched out of her turn so quickly that Ean lost sight of her, only to spot her again as she stood squarely before her opponent, blades crossed.  With naught but a grimace of effort, she chopped her short swords crosswise through the Wildling’s neck, removing his head completely.  His body toppled to the stones at her feet, paying respects to her skill.

Silence hung in the street, a palpable blanket sewn of incredulity fringed with pain.

The woman lowered her dripping blades and leveled amber eyes on the prince.

“Ean…”  Fynn’s voice was faint.

Ean tore his gaze from the wondrous stranger and struggled to rise.  Pushing one hand against his bleeding leg, he hobbled to Fynn’s side. 

The royal cousin looked wan, and he lay in an ever-widening pool of blood.  Ean swallowed against the nausea in his stomach, feeling bleak.  “What can I do?”

Fynn grimaced, and his breath was labored.  “How…bad is it?”

Ean looked at his cousin’s wound and found a well into his abdominal cavity.  “Well,” he managed, forcing a steady voice to cover his dismay, “the good news is you don’t have any important organs on that side.”

“No—” Fynn gasped, “…just unimportant ones.”

Feeling a desperate pain for his cousin, Ean stripped off his tunic and pressed the cloth to Fynn’s side, but blood soon soaked through.  Suddenly he remembered the presence of the strange woman and turned to ask her aid, but the clatter and rumble of galloping hooves drowned out his words.  An instant later, Matthieu, Rhys and a host of soldiers came trampling down the street.  Ean closed his eyes as relief swept in.  He only prayed they were in time to save Fynn. 

Thank you, blessed Epiphany.  And thank this stranger, whoever she is. 

Rhys was at his side then, and Bastian and Cayal at Fynn’s.  Matthieu came over as the Captain was lifting Ean in his arms.  Mon dieu!” announced the wide-eyed officer upon seeing Fynn and Ean’s condition.  He spared a glance around, his gaze taking in the headless Wildling and the inscrutable woman standing grim-faced over him.  “What has become of my quiet posting?  Fires and kidnappings and battles with Wildlings in zee wee hours before dawn…I think you would send me to retire early, mon ami.”

Ean was too weak to form a retort, but he managed a rueful smile in return.  With Matthieu’s help, Rhys mounted up and drew Ean close, holding him in his arms.  The prince caught the Captain’s dour look and knew Rhys didn’t trust himself to speak.  Closing his eyes, Ean leaned back against his captain and let darkness take him while the horse carried them away.

Get Cephrael's Hand on Amazon

"All things are composed of patterns..." And within the pattern of the realm of Alorin, three strands must cross:

In Alorin...three hundred years after the genocidal Adept Wars, the realm is dying, and the blessed Adept race dies with it. One man holds the secret to reverting this decline: Bjorn van Gelderan, a dangerous and enigmatic man whose shocking betrayal three centuries past earned him a traitor's brand. It is the Adept Vestal Raine D'Lacourte's mission to learn what Bjorn knows in the hope of salvaging his race. But first he'll have to find him...

In the kingdom of Dannym...the young Prince Ean val Lorian faces a tenuous future as the last living heir to the coveted Eagle Throne. When his blood-brother is slain during a failed assassination, Ean embarks on a desperate hunt for the man responsible. Yet his advisors have their own agendas, and his quest for vengeance leads him ever deeper into a sinuous plot masterminded by a mysterious and powerful man, the one they call First Lord...

In the Nadori desert...tormented by the missing pieces of his life, a soldier named Trell heads off to uncover the truth of his shadowed past. But when disaster places him in the debt of Wildlings sworn to the First Lord, Trell begins to suspect a deadlier, darker secret motivating them.


About the Author

Melissa McPhail is a classically trained pianist, violinist and composer, a Vinyasa yoga instructor, and an avid Fantasy reader. A long-time student of philosophy, she is passionate about the Fantasy genre because of its inherent philosophical explorations.
Ms. McPhail lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, their twin daughters and two very large cats. Cephrael's Handthe first novel in her series, "A Pattern of Shadow & Light," won Best Fiction and Best SF/F from the Written Arts Awards and was a ForeWord Book of the Year Finalist. The second novel in the series, The Dagger of Adendigaeth, will be released this fall.


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