Chapter One

 

Nazh-rndu’ul, the impenetrable fortress of Qhabir Sama’ad, stretched across the ocean horizon. Cowled beneath brooding clouds, its blackened silhouette lay hounded by a cold and bitter sea. Colossal waves broke upon its cliffs, the distant boom a sound few captains ever wished to hear. Yet, approaching from the north emerged a ragged merchant ship, heavily laden and surging irrevocably closer against the wind.

          Na’ilah, blood heir to the mind of Husam al-Din, stood upon its deck. She stared at the island’s craggy ridgeline as it scraped the belly of the sky, and shuddered at the sight of Nazh-rndu’ul’s towering cliffs. She’d heard rumours of Sama’ad that struck fear in her heart, but as she approached she felt a darker fear, something more compelling. For somewhere on that island, two stones of al-Din remained, if Hallen’s journals could be believed.

          A rumble echoed in the air as waves thrashed and broke, amplifying Na’ilah’s unease. Feeling weary, she clung to the rails lining the ship’s bow as it lurched forward, impatient for her journey from Njall to end. As she prepared herself for what lay ahead, a foul wind claimed the sailors’ shouts. Ominous, swelling waves boomed against the beckoning cliffs as the young captain approached, sodden wet and full of dread.

          “We must reach the harbour by nightfall!” he called.

          Na’ilah looked to the western horizon. The sun had almost set, and in another hour the throes of darkness would consume them. Light dimmed as evening fell, the waning sun seemingly glad to abandon Nazh-rndu’ul to night’s grim hold.

          “We must clear those headlands,” the captain continued, pointing to the eastern most ridgeline. “If we don’t, we’ll be torn to pieces against the shoals. From what Lady Elsa has said, the harbour gates will close after nightfall. We don’t have enough time. We should return to the open sea and approach at dawn.”

          “No,” Na’ilah immediately replied. “I’ll not be turned away. Do what ever it takes, Captain Tarly. I must get on that island. Tonight. Your reward will line your pockets and warm your bed as soon as we reach the safety of the inner harbour.”

          Na’ilah’s patience had worn thin. Fear and greed had stranded her along with Loviisa, Terttu, Mihja, Elsa and Lena in Njall for longer than she’d anticipated. All captains had safely secured their boats within Hejveld’s great harbour during the Collection Storms while awaiting a bountiful trade with Sira’an after the merchants had left for the desert. She’d tasked Terttu with finding a compliant captain willing to lead them to Sama’ad’s shores. It took little time to discover Tarly’s weakness, his lust for Lena barely contained, yet it proved more difficult to assure him of the great reward for his allegiance. Convinced he would not fail her, Na’ilah rested a gentle hand upon the young captain’s arm.

          “I have faith in you, Tarly. Come for me when we arrive.”

          Na’ilah turned and went below.

 

         Stepping down a narrow set of slippery, wooden stairs, Na’ilah entered the quarters she shared with the others. From the glow of a dull ochre firelight, five faces met her with questioning eyes.

         “Have we reached the harbour?” Loviisa asked, to which Na’ilah could only shake her head. Lena emerged from the shadows, faring the roll and pitch of the sea with ease.

          “We haven’t even cleared the headlands.”

          The others looked at her, but Lena’s eyes locked upon Elsa’s.

         “The sea within Nazh-rndu’ul’s harbour is calm. It may have been a long time since we were here, but I’ll never forget the waters that surround our home.”

          “Home?” Elsa cursed. “This will never be our home, Lena. Have you forgotten how our families abandoned us? Or have the years soothed those wounds so much that you come here offering forgiveness?”

          “I will never forgive them,” Lena whispered in painful memory. “You know that, but I cannot say it’s not without some joy that we finally return. It has been too long. I vowed I would never miss this place, but now that we are almost here….”

          Na’ilah’s eyes narrowed as Lena’s voice faded. She stared at Lena, then at Elsa, wondering what their lives would have been like had they remained as children of the ruling families. She recalled the night she shared with the two girls and Ohrl during Brúnn’s Mid Summer festivities at the university ball, where their joyous dancing had so effectively lifted Ohrl’s troubled soul.

          “Do you remember when you came to me?” she asked Lena, her voice soft and protective. “Baeta and I looked after you, both of you, taught you how to be strong. We taught you how to defend yourself, to never fear weakness.”

          Na’ilah moved to stand in front of her youngest aide. “We are your family now, Lena. You will never know such pain as long as we remain loyal to each other.”

          Lena lifted her gaze. “I am loyal.”

        Na’ilah stared intently at her. Lena’s eyes brimmed with tears, but Na’ilah knew they were not tears of sadness, nor of a childish hope seeking reunion with a family that cast her aside. The red that stained Lena’s eyes had filled with revenge. Na’ilah knew there was an anger buried deep within this young girl, and she would soon unleash it upon the ruling families dividing Sama’ad’s island. She kissed Lena softly upon her lips, then turned to address the others.

         “We have one purpose upon Nazh-rndu’ul. According to Hallen’s texts, two stones of al-Din rest there. We must discover anything we can that may lead us to finding the stones. Elsa and Lena, you will return to your former homes. Years have passed since your exile. Your return will be a shock. Keep to your story of hiding within Hastunnd. Play on your families’ guilt, if they feel any at all. Loviisa, Terttu, and Mihja will remain unveiled until we discover who truly governs power within the ruling families. None must know of my existence until I am ready to announce myself. Elsa, I will act as your handmaiden for now, under the name of Daniiya. You will not acknowledge me as heir of al-Din, ever. Do you understand?”

          No one spoke, yet each bowed their head in silent reverence. A rap on the door startled them, as Captain Tarly entered the room.

           “You need to see this.”

           Although Na’ilah was incensed at his intrusion, she concealed it with a curt nod.

          “Remain here,” she said to the others. Tarly moved to step aside but halted, casting a wanton glance at Lena before Na’ilah ushered him outside.

 

          When she reached the top deck, Na’ilah realised they were still far from clearing the headlands. Night had almost fallen. A darkening blue inked the sky, and save for a distant glow on the horizon, there was little light left with which to see.

          “Over there,” Captain Tarly said in hushed tones. His quietness unnerved her, and she realised they were drifting in the dark. The crew had doused all firelights. They remained still, their anxious faces fixed on the floating horizon. She looked to where Tarly pointed, and upon the rolling seas she saw a score of ships nearing the great port of Nazh-rndu’ul, their sails unfurled, moving rapidly toward the harbour. Only their silhouettes showed, etched black against a quickly fading sky.

          “Raiders,” Tarly cursed. “We could not have arrived at a worse time.”

          Tarly scanned the horizon for more ships, turning to look at the northern sky.

          “No light falls behind us. Our presence should be concealed by the darkness.”

          “They’re part of a returning fleet,” Na’ilah whispered, as though her voice could carry across the sea. “They must have been patrolling the northern waters, or those to the east.”

She looked toward the island, searching for an entrance to the harbour, but caught nothing under the frail light cast by the newly emerging stars.

           “Once we lose them against the cliffs, we’ll have no chance to follow,” she warned.

         “Follow?” Tarly almost choked. “We can’t follow a squadron of Sama’ad’s raiders right into his own harbour. Without the light of day to guide us, I cannot breach the great gate. We must make for deeper waters and ride out the night.”

          Na’ilah stared intently at the imposing fleet. Their long, pointed tips surged through the water, sleek and deadly. She knew Tarly’s ship would be no match should any of them decide to attack.

          “Get close to the last raider and remain in her wake,” she commanded. “They’re headed straight for the harbour. If we lose sight of them, there might not be another chance.”

          “We can’t move so fast,” Tarly said, casting a glance above. “We lack the wind. I’m taking her out.”

          Tarly moved to order his men to turn the boat out to sea, but Na’ilah gripped his arm with an unbreakable force.

          “Do as I say, Tarly, or you will die in these waters.”

          The hair on Tarly’s skin bristled as the winds gathered behind Na’ilah’s piercing stare. He looked up to see his sails fill once more, and felt his ship lurch as though it desired to launch into battle.

          “Control your fear,” Na’ilah said a little more gently, coaxing Tarly into action. She saw his jaw clench before he twisted free to signal his men. The sails tightened, their speed increased, and under a silent veil of apprehension they moved to intercept the wake of the trailing ship.

 

         If any on board the raiders saw them approach, no alarm was raised. They sailed behind the fleet, barely catching their frames against the cliffs ahead. Protected from the harrowing seas, the only sound was the gentle boom of each raider’s bow breaking the surface of the water. Several stars began to breach the night, but there were still too few to light their way. All Tarly could use was the white wash rippling from the raider ahead which, alarmingly, was getting further and further away.

          “We can’t keep pace,” he whispered to Na’ilah. “Without guidance we’ll be smashed against the cliffs.”

          Na’ilah looked skyward, seeing the black silhouette of the cliffs looming high above. “We’re being funnelled into one of the gorges, between the great fingers of rock,” she whispered encouragingly.

          Tarly glanced forward. “This is the only way into the harbour, and our last chance to turn back. Once we’re caught in the gorge, there’ll be no room to escape.”

          Na’ilah looked ahead. In the gloom she felt her own fear, an unknown confrontation against the might of Sama’ad. She turned to look beyond their stern, toward an open expanse of ocean and freedom, yet she cast all thought of retreat aside.

          “Sail on, Captain. We finish what we’ve begun.”

          They watched in silence as the cliffs closed around them. Still no alarm came from the raiders, and Sama’ad’s ships slowly disappeared as they drifted into the gorge. Their trailing wash showed the fleet had turned, arcing ever so subtly to port.

          “They are masters of these waters,” Na’ilah heard Tarly mutter as he turned the wheel, desperate to follow in their wake. Na’ilah was fully aware that if he deviated in the slightest from the course set by those ahead, the submerged, jagged cliffs would rip their boat apart. Na’ilah felt trapped as they straightened, the encroaching walls of stone obscuring the stars above.

          She could do little more than wait. As she stared into the darkness, she became uncertain of her feelings. She could sense the lure of the stones emanating from somewhere on this island, but an evil presence hung in the air. Her power had grown, ever since Ohrl had uncovered the stone of Nasir al-Din. Now, in the throes of darkness, she could see the souls of the dead slipping just out of reach between the shadows. She could hear them whispering, calling her by name. They were no longer part of her dreams, but of her waking sight and, as she stared beyond at the vast, rising cliffs, thin wisps formed, goading her deeper into the chasm. Her heart faltered, for the dead mocked her, showing no fear before disappearing once more into the depths.

          Tarly roused her from her visions.

          “We’re catching the fleet,” he whispered. “They must be slowing.”

          Her eyes refocused and saw, not thirty yards in front, the blackened wood of a raider’s stern looming out of the darkness. Tarly signalled his men to silently loosen their sails, allowing them to float behind the trailing raider. No one made a sound as they slipped closer. Fearing Tarly had drifted too far, Na’ilah froze as she heard a low rumbling horn echo through the canyon.

          “They’ve seen us,” Tarly rasped, but Na’ilah quietened the young captain with a steadying hand.

          “Remember what it is you carry. We have the right to be here should we be questioned.” She looked ahead. “If they know we follow, they show no concern.”

          The echo of the horn faded, and all on board their boat held their breath. As silence fell, a crack of splintering stone filled the air. Far in the distance, ahead of the foremost raider, a thin line of blue light appeared running up the right hand side of the canyon wall. Its width grew, brightening as the sound of stone grating against stone rumbled through the gorge. Light spilled across the surface of the stone, easily twice the length of Tarly’s ship, silhouetting Sama’ad’s fleet as the gigantic wall of rock disappeared into the mountain.

          “The great gate of Nazh-rndu’ul,” Tarly gasped.

          Na’ilah stood in silent wonder, as the gate was winched to one side, sliding into a crevasse within the cliff. Slowly, more firelights became visible, lighting up the fleet of raiders. Some of Tarly’s men hid as their ship drifted out of the oppressive gloom, afraid of their fate once they were discovered, yet still no alarm was raised.

          Beyond the wall lay a protected anchorage within the hollowed remains of a vast spire. Towering walls rose around them, higher even than the gorge through which they’d just sailed. Na’ilah saw a solitary ship floating far beyond the great gate, and even from this distance she could see it was much larger than the raiders that approached it. Black and ominous, its speared bow pointed directly toward the oncoming fleet.

          One lone ship would not be all that protects Sama’ad’s island, she thought, sensing the call of the dead in the dark recesses of rock, yet one by one the fleet sailed inside, making straight for the waiting vessel.

          “They know we’re here,” she murmured, scanning the rim of the cliffs. She knew they were being scrutinised by watchful eyes hidden above and from the waiting ship. All the raiders had sailed beyond the great gate. As Tarly’s ship crossed the threshold, a second horn resonated throughout the anchorage, and the gate began to close. Behind them, the gorge leading back to the open sea was an empty black hollow, and it gave Na’ilah little comfort. There was no other way off this island, and the boom as the gate winched shut sealed her fate. Now her freedom would only come once she’d dominated Qhabir Sama’ad, and the stones of al-Din were in her grasp.

          “A hundred raiders wouldn’t fill this harbour,” Tarly rasped, forgetting they were now clearly visible to all. One by one the raiders were challenged, a call hailing from the solitary ship. The distance was too great to mark the faces of the men on board, but as each raider cleared, it moved on.

          “Look, they’re making for those chasms on the furthest cliff,” Tarly called.

Na’ilah focused her gaze, watching as, four deep and in perfect alignment, the raiders formed into five rows. Oars slid from the sides of each raider as they manoeuvred into each of the chasms. One by one they disappeared, until the spire wall swallowed all twenty. The chasms sealed as five colossal slabs of stone dropped, then silence fell. All that now remained within the anchorage was their small boat drifting helplessly toward the vast awaiting ship.

          “Remember your charge,” Na’ilah whispered to Tarly before the approaching ship drew too close. “You must convince them of the cargo you bring. Do this, and I will make sure you enjoy your reward for many years to come.”

          Na’ilah saw Tarly swallow hard as he looked ahead, dedicated to his task once more. She turned from his side and disappeared below deck.

          “Elsa. Lena,” she said urgently as she entered their small cabin. “The Harbour Master approaches. Ready yourselves. Once we’re on deck, you shall have no more instruction from me.”

          Na’ilah stared into their eyes, receiving nothing but determination in return. Satisfied, she turned to Mihja, Loviisa and Terttu. “Remain with me. If we separate for any reason, your mission does not change. Undermine the ruling families, discover the stones.”

 

          From beyond the cabin, Elsa heard the Harbour Master’s call. “Bare your banner for the guard of Nazh-rndu’ul.” She’d not heard it in such a long time, yet the voice sounded familiar. As her breathing calmed, she felt Na’ilah take the others into the far corner, their presence claimed by the darkness. She and Lena were left commanding the room, and it wasn’t long before a sailor burst through the door. Elsa turned to him, and immediately he bowed.

          “You are requested above, my ladies.”

Without giving Na’ilah a second glance, Elsa climbed the stairs to the deck above, her childhood friend trailing behind. Their crew stood nervously on deck, their faces doing little to mask their fear. Captain Tarly alone stood to face the approaching threat, though he knew little of what danger they were in. He acknowledged her presence, and Elsa rewarded him with an encouraging nod in return.

          Towering above, the colossal warship Dawn’s Eclipse drifted alarmingly close. Its hull, forged from blackened wood, twisted and gnarled at its railings, looked sleek and deadly as it broadsided their ship. A hail came from above. A man barely visible under the light of the stars leant over the side railings. His voice drifted down, old and wary.

          “Your captain announces you as daughters of House Sdra’fhol and Farasha’i. By what cause do you claim kinship to the families of Nazh-rndu’ul?”

          Elsa smiled, suddenly recognising the old man. “I claim it because it is true, Fa’arloen. Lena and I have returned, after all these years.”

          The old sailor shuffled nearer the railing to take another look. Elsa could see the irritation on his face. She knew his part in their exile would weigh heavy on his heart, the unforeseen reminder not sitting well.

          “Stand under the light,” Fa’arloen demanded. “I’ll have no mainland harlot breaching these walls. Give me proof of what you say.”

          Elsa ordered Tarly to bring a firelight before her. As her face glowed beneath its light, she saw Fa’arloen’s flicker of recognition, but he soon snuffed it out, replacing it with frustration. Desperation. Fear, she thought. Fa’arloen raised his arm, and the bowmen lining the warship’s rails raised their weapons, their flaming arrows notched.

          “You should not have returned, exile. Strike the girls first,” he called to his bowmen, his gaze never leaving hers. “Then burn that ship.”

          Alarmed, Elsa quickly stepped forward.

          “Fa’arloen! Do you deny raising my brother and me on these very waters? What would Lajaen, your wife, feel if she knew you had twice cast the children she loved as her own aside? We just want to come home, Fa’arloen. Do you not recognise us? Or have your eyes forgotten the faces of the two young girls you helped cast out to sea so many years ago?”

          Fa’arloen turned and stared at Elsa.

          “I remember no such thing,” he finally said, his harsh voice grating in the darkness against Elsa’s chest.

          “But I do,” came a strong voice from beyond Elsa’s sight.

          She heard Fa’arloen curse under his breath as he stepped aside before a tall, striking young man dressed in the uniform of Harbour Master appeared above the railing.

          “Baelin?” Elsa whispered.

          She stared keenly at him, seeing his glance flick briefly toward Lena. Although softly spoken, he turned his wrath upon Fa’arloen, his voice echoing throughout the empty harbour.

          “You would kill my own sister?”

          Fa’arloen’s gruff voice drifted down toward Elsa.

          “She was exiled, Baelin. Sama’ad has not decreed her return. Nothing good will come of this.”

          Elsa stared at Baelin, who looked callously down at her as though weighing Fa’arloen’s counsel. She was speechless. Her own brother, whom she’d not seen in eight years, deciding whether she should live or die. Finally, Baelin moved the old man aside.

          “Drop a rope. Bring them on board.”

          At once the archers lowered their weapons, exchanging them for rope ladders and flung them onto Tarly’s exposed deck.

          Elsa climbed first, and embraced her brother. Baelin was slow to respond, but she soon felt his arms lightly close around her.

          “We are four more,” she whispered from within her brother’s arms. “They must be seen safely from that boat.”

          Dressed now in the robes of lesser maids, Na’ilah, Mihja, Loviisa and Terttu emerged on deck. Elsa saw Na’ilah whisper to Tarly, who stood rather confused as his charges were removed from his care. Lena came first, her eyes flicking toward Baelin’s, but she remained ignored. As soon as Na’ilah was safely on board, Elsa gently took her brother’s arm.

          “Dear brother,” she whispered, “our journey here was one of ill treatment. These men will seek reward for our return, and you may grant it if you wish, but they are not men worthy of our fleet, nor your gratitude.”

          Baelin’s eyes flared. “You were… mistreated?”

          “We fought each day for our survival,” Lena said, standing strong as Na’ilah, Loviisa, Mihja and Terttu removed their hoods. Upon seeing their beauty, Elsa could feel her brother’s pride spark. His anger quick to rise, Baelin turned upon Tarly and his men.

          “You dare touch the daughters of Nazh-rndu’ul? Archers, fire this wretched boat! Sink her to the depths of the harbour. Let none of this filth make claim on our island ever again.”

          “No! Wait,” Tarly cried, but he said no more as a burning arrow pierced his throat. The rest of his men turned to flee, shot down as they dove into the water, or burned as Baelin’s men rained scores of flaming arrows down upon their ship. Elsa felt the rush of battle course through her veins, the power of her family once again remembered. The small ship that had so secretly stolen Na’ilah into Sama’ad’s lair exploded into flames. The fire lit up the faces of those by her side watching the horrors below, as the last of Tarly’s men sunk beneath the surface of the sea. Consumed by flame, Tarly’s ship filled with water and joined its crew as it plunged into the depths beneath Nazh-rndu’ul. Elsa heard Baelin’s order to turn his ship toward the cliffs, and the great loch that would carry them to the main port above.

          “Welcome home, sister,” she heard him say. “It has been too long since you were gone.”

          Knowing she had fulfilled her duty to her master, Elsa courteously lowered her head. Without acknowledgement, she walked past Na’ilah, her arm undeniably linked to the second most powerful man on the island.