Authors: Pauline M. Ross
THE PLAINS OF KALLANASH
An epic fantasy
Part of the Brightmoon Annals
by Pauline M Ross
Published by Sutors Publishing
Copyright © 2014 Pauline M Ross
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction.
Thousands of years after a magical catastrophe reshaped the world and pulled the moons out of alignment, the secret of magic has seemingly been lost. At the centre of the vast, forbidding Plains of Kallanash lies a land ruled by a secretive religion, whose people fight a never-ending war against the barbarians in the wilderness beyond the border.
Amongst the nobility, double marriages are the norm. Junior wife Mia always dreamed of attracting the attention of the dashing lead husband, but never dared to compete against her lively older sister. Hurst has spent ten frustrating years as junior husband, longing to test his skill with a sword in battle, longing for his beloved Mia to turn to him.
The mysterious death of Mia’s sister thrusts the marriage into turmoil. As Mia and Hurst struggle to adjust and find out what happened, they uncover sinister truths abou
t the ruling religion. But the gods are unforgiving; even Mia’s innocent questions carry a terrible punishment. Hurst is prepared to risk everything to save her, even if it means taking up his sword against the barbarians, his own people, and the gods themselves.
Books in the Brightmoon Annals:
The Plains of Kallanash
The Fire Mages (expected publication spring 2015)
The Mages of Bennamore (expected publication mid 2015)
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The hour bells sounded, reverberating through the tower, then faded to silence. Mia and both her husbands were on time. Tella, her co-wife and sister, was late.
Hands folded in her lap, Mia sat perfectly still.
Across the table, Hurst tapped his fingers on the polished wood. Jonnor rose, paced twice round the room, pausing to look through the tower window at the everyday life of the Karning below, then took his seat again. Although they were cousins, the two men were not alike. Hurst’s rough features and plain brown jacket made him look like an ordinary Skirmisher, rather than a Karningholder. Beside him, Jonnor looked like a prince from the old stories, his blue woollen coat enhancing his figure.
Mia forced herself to take her eyes off him. She smoothed away a crease in her russet tunic, then stilled her hands.
“Do you think perhaps we should begin without Tella?” she said.
“Let’s wait a little longer,” Jonnor said. “She’s only just back from the Ring, so she’s bound to be a bit unsettled today.”
“Did she tell you what the Voices wanted?” Hurst asked.
Jonnor’s hands clenched for a moment. “We… discussed it.” Discussed! That was a mild word for the shouting Mia had tried very hard not to listen to. “She wasn’t very forthcoming.”
“I imagine it was just the usual,” Mia said quickly. “She missed her interview last winter, because of the baby.”
“The usual interference, you mean,” Hurst said, one eyebrow raised.
Mia clucked at him, scandalised. “The Voices are there to help us. They have to ask searching questions.”
Hurst grunted, shifting his bad leg to a more comfortable position. “If you say so. I’d just like to know if anything out of the ordinary came up.”
“Gods, Hurst! You do go on. She’d
us if there was anything to worry about,” Jonnor said, rubbing his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept well, but then he was just back from a difficult skirmish, and that always made him a little tetchy.
Mia wished she could soothe him, but he rarely accepted her help. Still, she knew countless little ways to increase his comfort. She would order his favourite dishes for meat that evening, and have plenty of good northern wine to hand. That always helped him to relax and return to his affable self. ‘
Ah, there’s nothing finer life can offer than red meat, red wine and the company of both my wives.’
How often had she heard him say so?
The small bells sounded, and they too faded to silence.
The door flew open, and Mia’s co-wife stood framed in the doorway, her curves clad in shimmering green silk.
“Hello, little sister,” she said languidly, nodding to the two men. “Husband. Husband.” She crossed the room to a window, skirts swishing. A faint haze of perfume drifted after her.
Hurst leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “Right, now that we’re all here, let’s talk about Tella’s interview.”
Mia opened her mouth, then thought better of it. She’d seen that determined look on Hurst’s face before.
Jonnor shook his head, his lips pressed together.
Swirling to face them, Tella sighed. “What is there to talk about?”
Mia looked from one to the other, pressing her hands together. If only they could pretend nothing had happened, then they could all be easy.
Hurst pressed on, his tone even. “Why you were summoned to the Ring at mid-summer, for one thing. What was so urgent it couldn’t wait for the winter quiet?”
She hesitated. “Nothing that need concern any of you.”
“They’re not going to break the marriage, then?” Hurst asked. “Or change the skirmish schedule?”
Mia’s heart fluttered in alarm. Break them? Split them apart and give their Karning to another set of Karningholders? That dreadful possibility had never occurred to her. She shivered.
Tella laughed, a dry, brittle sound. “Oh no, you’re quite safe. The marriage will go on. You can carry on with your precious skirmishes and… Oh, who cares anyway?”
Jonnor got up, and walked across to Tella, putting his arms round her. “Dearest, we only want to help.”
She pushed him away and folded her arms, her gaze sweeping the room. “You can’t help! It’s done with, finished, you understand? Interviews are always evil, but whatever went on, it’s my business, not yours, and I’ve dealt with it. None of you can help, so you can just stay out of my affairs. All of you.”
“Of course,” Mia put in quickly. “Interviews are a private matter.”
No one spoke. Mia held her breath, blinking hard to keep the tears at bay. They mustn’t quarrel, not today, not when the other three had only returned the day before. Surely they could have a few days of calm?
It was Hurst who broke the silence. “I’m sorry, Mia. We’re upsetting you. Shall we deal with other matters?”
She breathed out. When she looked at Hurst again, he was smiling at her, his harsh features softened.
They worked methodically through the list of items prepared by the secretaries for their attention. Food shortages, servants employed, dismissed or sick, taxes received, charity to be disbursed, petitions allowed or refused. Mia read out each item, she and Hurst agreed what was to be done, and she noted it down. Then on to the next. The repetition soothed her, and gradually she calmed down. This would all blow over, and they would be peaceful again.
All the while, Tella paced silently from one window to the other. Back and forth, back and forth, never still.
Jonnor sat at the table watching her every move, turning his head to follow her. He contributed little to the discussion until a problem concerning the roof of the great hall was mentioned.
“That sounds like fun,” he said, brightening. “I’ll talk to the builders, shall I?”
“If you’re sure it won’t be too unpleasant for you,” Mia said. “You’re only just back from the skirmishes. You should be resting, not clambering about on roofs.”
“Oh, I like to help out when I can. You have enough to do, little Mia.” He gave her a beaming smile which made her warm inside.
“Well, that’s the last of the Karninghold business,” Mia said. “Just the villages now, and only one for a change. Village Twelve Fifty-Six Eighteen has swamp encroachment again.”
“Twelve Fifty-Six Eighteen?” Hurst asked. “Remind me?”
“The locals call it Red Bear. It’s about half a day’s ride south of here, just west of the road.”
Tella stopped pacing. She stared out of the window, although there was nothing visible from there except the golden dome of the Karninghold temple. “So small,” she said in a quiet voice.
Mystified, Mia glanced across at Hurst, who gave the tiniest of shrugs.
“Dearest?” Jonnor said, frowning.
“From here, they look so small,” she whispered. “The Slaves, scurrying about down below like so many tiny grey mice. Rushing here and there, into the temple and out again, so busy. Busy little mice. So small, so
They were all silent. Mia’s head spun at the abrupt change in mood.
Tella swung round to face them. “This village – I’ll go.”
Mia’s eyebrows flew upwards. “
Tella lifted a languid shoulder. “Why not? I’m bored, I could do with a decent long ride.”
“My love, you’ve only just returned from the Ring.” Jonnor jumped up and strode across to her. “You’ll be exhausted… and it’s too far…”
!” She raised her hands and slipped out of his grasp. “I need to get away from this place, and a swampy village is as good an excuse as any other. Are we finished? Can I sign now?” She strode to the table and picked up Mia’s pen.
In silence Mia slid the paper to her. Tella scrawled her signature, and with quick steps left the room, her embroidered slippers making no sound, only a thread of perfume trailing behind.
Jonnor scribbled his name and skidded out of the room after her, his long coat flying, boots echoing on the stair.
all about?” Hurst raised his hands in entreaty. “When did Tella ever take an interest in village affairs?”
Mia could only shrug.
“She’s very secretive about this interview,” Hurst went on.
“Are you really concerned about it?”
“A little. Our skirmish results have been so poor lately. The Voices are bound to wonder why. Then there’s the two of us – still downstairs, still no more than glorified servants.”
Mia concentrated on straightening her sleeves. “That’s not so unusual. Some second husbands and wives never move upstairs.”
“True enough. Although now that Tella’s got her three children, I’ve been half-expecting things to change. But so long as everyone’s happy with it.” He paused, watching her.
Happy? After ten years of marriage, they were all contented enough, weren’t they? Tella and Jonnor had their quarrels, but they’d had three children together, and they got along pretty well as lead husband and wife. Better than many Karningholders, anyway. It wasn’t easy to marry someone chosen for you.
As for Mia herself, she had no particular expectations of happiness. There were the quiet satisfactions of her life to sustain her, like watching the children grow, the company of her Companions, the temple rituals and the daily round of her Karninghold duties. Whatever hopes she had, she kept to herself. So she made no answer to Hurst’s gentle probing.
“I’d just like to know what that interview was for,” he went on.
“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. Sometimes what happens at the Ring… what the Servants of the Gods and their Voices do… it seems very strange to us, but it comes direct from the Word of the Gods.”
She pushed the paper across the table to him. “There. Sign your name, and then I can tell you about one of the petitions I heard yesterday while you were riding back from the lines.”
He drew his chair closer to hers, bending his head to listen with a little smile, and his face softened. Hurst was not a good-looking man, and had none of Jonnor’s style or grace. He wore Skirmisher’s uniform whenever he could, but even in formal dress he looked rumpled, as if he’d just come from the training yard. He was a good man, though, and never complained about his withered leg, although Mia knew how much pain it gave him. A good man, and a good friend, too. No more than that, but then she had never wanted more from him. Friends they remained, helping to rule the Karninghold, but not quite a full part of this marriage.
She moved nearer to Hurst, and leaned forward. “This petition
– I wasn’t sure what to do, but you always say that I should trust my intuition, so I did.”
He nodded, listening intently, and slowly she relaxed. Hurst was such a comfort to her.
That afternoon, Mia was in the family hall, reading to the older children, the hum of conversation around her. A gaggle of servants murmured over their stitch-work, two of the younger children chased each other squealing around the work table, some of the Companions giggled together. The afternoon sun radiated through high windows, painting blocks of colour over the stone floor and reflecting from polished wood and mirrors.
Then the afternoon peace was shattered like glass.
The death alarm sounded. It rumbled, low and sonorous, through the Karninghold, the tone so deep that even the stone walls seemed to shudder.
Mia froze, the book sliding from her fingers, fear clutching her heart. How she hated that sound! Unlike the welcoming chime of the arrival bells, or the frantic wail signalling a fire, the death alarm was slow, deep and dreadful.
It could only be tolling for one of the family. Yet who? And how could the Gods take one of them, who had all woken that morning young, well and filled with life?
She spun, scanning the room, her eyes flitting from face to face, counting. All around her, activity had ceased. Mouths gaped, eyes widened, hands clutched throats. White-faced servants turned to face her, waiting for orders. Her three Companions moved protectively around her. The children looked from one adult to another, puzzled. She tried to count them, her numb mind struggling. One, two, three… where was the baby? There! Thank the Gods, they were all in view.
Who else? Tella had ridden off to that village to the south, and must be far away by now. So it couldn’t be her.
It must be one of the two men. Something must have happened in the training yard, some accident – a wayward arrow, perhaps, or a badly wielded sword.
She turned and ran.
Jonnor! Sweet Gods, let it not be Jonnor! But it would be just as bad if it were Hurst. She didn’t want to lose either of her husbands.
By the grace of the Nine, preserve us all from harm this day.
Too late for that.
On and on the alarm tolled, the slow beat of death.
Through the guest hall she ran, gasping for breath. On to the inner and middle halls. Servants jumped aside for her, white-eyed. Guards snapped to attention.
She had just reached the great hall when Hurst entered at a run through the opposite door, dishevelled and sweating. His limp gave him a strange rolling gait, but it didn’t slow him down. He crossed the room in great strides, and swept her into his arms.