A sliver of red sunlight slipped through draperies that were not quite fully drawn, spilling across the stone floor of Shalár's audience chamber. She frowned at the intruding light and lifted her head to command its removal. A glance was all that was needed to send an attendant scurrying to adjust the heavy drape. No one cared to court Shalár's displeasure.
She shifted in the massive darkwood chair from which she held audience, uncomfortable despite its deep cushions. She was not usually in the chamber so early, but tonight she had a decision to make and she wanted to give it due consideration. She had called audience just after sundown, so that lesser matters could be settled quickly and put out of her way.
Two oil lanterns on pedestals, so recently lit that she could still smell the sharp smoke of their kindling, gave the chamber's only light. Their flames flickered against the ceiling of black volcanic stone and glinted in the metal threads of the one ælven tapestry that had been brought across the mountains when she and her people had been forced to abandon Fireshore.
Shalár stared at the weaving, her frown deepening. It depicted a simple scene on the wooded seashore near Hollirued, the first ælven city, capital of Eastfæld. The weaver's work was merely competent, though superior to anything that had yet been achieved by Shalár's people. Clan Darkshore had neither the techniques nor the resources for making such colors―bright colors that lasted for many decades―nor had they yet succeeded in crafting metal thread that would hold its shine. So many skills had been lost to her people when they were driven west.
Some day we will reclaim all that was taken from us.
Shaking her head slightly, she straightened and glanced around the chamber. Only a handful of petitioners were present this evening. She looked to Dareth, her steward and consort, who stood beside her chair. He was lean and handsome, pale-skinned as were all her folk, his silver hair almost as bright as her own. His tunic was of black linen, supple in weave, the finest to be had in the Westerlands. She liked the way it clung to him.
He felt her gaze and met it, black eyes waiting for her command. Shalár nodded, and he called forth the first supplicant, a thin-faced female cloaked in homespun cloth who put back her hood and knelt before Shalár.
"Bright Lady, I come to ask your aid for my family. The kobalen we had for our use has died, and my partner is not strong enough to capture another."
"So you wish me to give you one?"
Hollow eyes were raised in a furtive glance at Shalár, then quickly hidden. Bright Lady, you have many kobalen―"
"They are reserved for the use of my household and the city guard."
The female bowed her head. "Nightsand has great need, I know. I hoped you might spare but one―"
"And if I spare but one kobalen to you, then what can I say to the next who begs to be given what she cannot get for herself?" Shalár leaned forward in her chair, fixing the petitioner's gaze with her own. Are you unable to hunt? Or merely unwilling?"
"I have tried, Bright Lady. There are few kobalen to be had near my home."
"Go into the hills, then."
"My partner is ill―I cannot leave him―"
Shalár tossed her head to get her hair out of her eyes. She was losing patience with this fretful female. Put him in a neighbor's care."
"But I . . . ."
The petitioner's khi darkened with fear. There was something else, and she did not wish to tell it. Shalár looked at her with renewed interest, waiting.
"Bright Lady, you are wise and just."
And strong, and cruel. Shalár said nothing, knowing the thought had been finished in the mind of everyone present. Her reputation was deserved, and she took pride in it. Those qualities―all of them, particularly cruelty when needed―had preserved her people.
The supplicant's shoulders sagged in defeat. "I have a child, too young to be left behind."
"A child?" Shalár leaned forward. How young?"
Shalár glanced at Dareth, whose face remained impassive. She drew herself up in her chair.
"Fifteen summers. Too young to be left, yes, but not too young to be of use. Pledge your child to my service, and I will give you your kobalen."
The female looked up sharply, fright widening her eyes. Her lips formed the word, "no," though she did not speak it. Did not dare, Shalár knew.
"Under my care, your child will live as well as any in Nightsand. Better than most in the Westerlands. And it will have the advantage of being near other children. Thirty years' service."
"She would be nearly of age by then!"
"Yes, and raised in better circumstances than you can give her. Do you not wish this for your child?"
The supplicant stared at the stone floor, looking thoroughly miserable. Shalár understood the female's reluctance, but was not about to encourage others to implore her aid by giving this one her wish for no return. Charity belonged to the ælven. Clan Darkshore, who struggled to survive in the Westerlands―still struggled, after centuries―could not afford it.
"Thirty years, then she is free to return to you. During that time you shall have your kobalen, and if it dies and you can show the death was not malicious or careless, it will be replaced. In addition I will send a healer at once to attend your partner. Perhaps he will regain his strength enough for you to conceive another child."
Shalár gentled her voice for this last, intending to give the petitioner both hope and praise for having achieved conception. Few could do so. Shalár, to her infinite frustration, had not.
A female who had conceived and survived childbirth had a fair chance to conceive again, a better chance than the childless. Shalár knew the importance of every birth to her people's survival, and honored this female for her accomplishment, even while she envied it.
They had been so few, those who had reached the haven of Nightsand Bay. Eleven hundreds, no more. Their numbers had grown with painful slowness to a mere three thousand souls, and of late, to Shalár's great dismay, had begun to diminish again. Hardship, the despair of having lost Fireshore, grief for those who had fallen at Westgard, all had taken their toll on the survivors. And hunger, always hunger; the hunger that had cost them everything.
Shalár turned away from such useless thoughts. Finding that her gaze had strayed to the tapestry, she looked back at the petitioner. The female was sitting on her heels, staring blankly at the floor.
"Take a night to consider my offer. You will be received when you return."
Shalár signaled to an attendant, who came forward to help the female to her feet and lead her away. Dareth waited until she was gone from the room before calling the next.
The rest of the petitions were commonplace. Shalár dealt with them swiftly. She could have entrusted them to Dareth or even to an underling, but she preferred to keep an eye on her people as much as she could.
When the last supplicant had been ushered from the chamber, Shalár stood up and stretched, the pointed sleeves of her dark red tunic brushing about her legs. An attendant brought forward a tray of fruit and roasted nuts. Shalár took a morsel, though she hungered for another kind of sustenance.
All her people hungered so. It was the single thing that bound them to her more than any other. They hungered, and Shalár found a way to provide. That wretched female who had lost her kobalen hungered desperately, no doubt.
She would return to accept Shalár's offer. Shalár wished to help her, but it must be at a price. Clan Darkshore could not afford that she should give away their resources. The pens held kobalen, yes, but fewer than most knew. The numbers remaining had dwindled dangerously low. Shalár knew she must soon take action, or her people would face a cruel winter.
It was to her they looked, not only because she provided kobalen to ease their hunger. It was she who had gathered the straggling, starving remnants of Clan Darkshore after they had been driven across the mountains by the combined armies of the other ælven realms. She had been young, then, but determined to survive. Because of this determination, and because she carried her father's sword, they had followed her.
Morshalan had been head of Clan Darkshore and governor of Fireshore. Shalár collected what remained of his people and led them westward, away from the danger of ælven pursuit, until at last they had arrived at Nightsand. They had no love of the ocean, but the black sands of the bay reminded them of the shore at the foot of Firethroat, north of Ghlanhras, the city that had been the governor's home. It was both strange and familiar, and in their exhaustion Clan Darkshore had halted there to rest. They had never left.
She turned to Dareth, who stood patiently waiting. Constant Dareth, ever watchful. One of the few left from Fireshore.
Many of the original refugees had given up the fight, unwilling to face the cost of survival. Dareth himself had wished to return to spirit at one time. She had persuaded him against it by seducing him, and he had been her chief companion ever since.
She reached out a hand to him now. He bowed as he took it, deferential as always. His khi tingled against her flesh, waking her hunger. She fought back a craving to draw upon him. Dareth was too important to be used so.
"To the pens."
Dareth escorted her from the chamber, outside to the stone shelf that gave access to the Cliff Hollows, her home overlooking the city of Nightsand. They paused there to gaze out over the bay.
The sun was down, now, and the dusk swiftly rising. Westward a ruddy smudge hung over the ocean horizon. To the south Nightsand Bay sprawled inland, its waters black in the growing darkness, stretching southward to lap at the feet of Blackheart, that restless mountain whose rumblings and belchings of smoke also reminded her people of home. Small points of firelight gleamed out here and there along the bay's eastern shore, marking lesser villages and homesteads outside the city. Nightsand itself was brighter, the more so as folk stirred and opened their windows to the night.
Across the bay there were no lights. Kobalen sometimes roamed there, but though Shalár's people never crossed the bay to gain that shore, the kobalen rarely showed themselves. They knew they were hunted, though perhaps they did not know that her people would not cross the water to reach them. It mattered not. They would reach them in any case, though it meant a long trek around Blackheart.
"I must summon a hunt soon."
Dareth nodded, his smile fading. "You will excuse me, I hope."
"It would please me to have you along."
"But the governance of Nightsand would suffer. Remember the last time I hunted with you."
She nodded, sighing. It had been many decades since, several hunts since. True, the chaos of petitioners and problems that had met their return had annoyed her, but she would gladly accept that as the cost of hunting with Dareth at her side.
He stood gazing at the last blur of light on the horizon. She watched him, wishing for the boldness he had once shown. He turned to her, a wan smile on his lips.
"I used to watch the sunset every day. Do you ever miss it, Shalári?"
Anger flared in her. She turned cold eyes upon him.
"Never call me that! I have no ælven name, nor have you, Dareth!"
She gathered her khi, focusing it in a spot in the center of her torso, then sent a hot pulse forth toward Dareth and saw him wince as it penetrated his own khi. She sent her khi flowing through him, around him, tightening her hold on him. Her hunger sharpened at the exertion, and again she was tempted to draw on his khi, but she resisted. Only once had she done that, and had nearly lost him for it.
He bowed his head, squeezing his eyes shut. "Forgive me, Bright Lady."
She held him for a long moment. "Say my name, Dareth."
He stood breathing shallowly, eyes closed. At last he opened them and glanced up at her beneath white brows.
She released him, then held out her hand, allowing him to take it once more. They turned southward along the broad stone ledge.
The black, volcanic cliffs above Nightsand were riddled with natural caves, worn from the hard rock by water and wind. One series of them, overlooking a broad view of the bay, had been enlarged and carved into the graceful rooms of the Cliff Hollows. Another, smaller yet more numerous, served as holding pens for kobalen and captives. These were reached from the same ledge that fronted the Cliff Hollows, but were far enough away that no khi from those kept there could disturb her.
A network of tunnels connected the pens. At the near end a cave had been enlarged for the use of the keepers, and at its entrance two guards in Darkshore red and black yielded the way to Shalár and Dareth.
Shalár noted that the scarlet trim to their tunics was wearing thin. It was difficult to keep her guards in clan colors. The red, especially, was precious, for it could not be made so bright in the Westerlands. It had to be salvaged from cloth brought from Fireshore. All that the original survivors had carried with them was long gone, returned to dust. From time to time fresh supplies had been captured, but the most recent of these, too, was nearly gone.
Perhaps it was time to gather more.
Shalár frowned slightly, pondering whether her people had the strength for the larger undertaking she was contemplating. The last attempt, while partially successful, had taken a severe toll.
She led Dareth into the wind-worn passage, grimacing slightly at the dank smell of the pens. Kobalen were unclean creatures, and while their keepers were under orders to keep the pens in a tolerable state, the caves were far from comfortable by her people's standards.
She need not stay long, though. She never tarried long here. Only long enough to collect what she wanted, most times.
From the keepers' antechamber, two passages led deeper into the cliff, one emitting the sharp stink of kobalen, the other leading back to the deepest of the holding caves. The head keeper, a thin, pale female of bitter aspect, rose from behind a small table to greet them. She wore a dark tunic and a black hood trimmed with a narrow band of scarlet. Shalár nodded to her.
"Greetings, Nihlan. How fare your charges?"
"As usual, Bright Lady."
"Have any of the female captives quickened?"
"No, Bright Lady."
Shalár was disappointed but not surprised. "Perhaps we will soon correct that."
Dareth glanced at her but said nothing. Shalár held her gaze upon the keeper, who gestured toward a shelf carved into the stone wall behind her. On it rested a finely wrought silver chalice and a small, curved knife. Both had come from Fireshore, both belonged to Shalár and were reserved to her exclusive use. She left them here, on display, to remind all who saw them of her power.
She nodded to the keeper, who took down the cup and knife and set them on the table. Nihlan glanced up at her.
"Shall you choose for yourself, Bright Lady?"
"No. Bring the strongest."
Shalár ran a finger around the rim of the chalice. Her hunger flared, but she kept a tight rein on her impatience while Nihlan took a ring of keys from a hook on the wall and went into the kobalen pens.
Shalár watched Dareth, noting the trouble on his brow. Even now, after centuries, he had not fully reconciled himself to this necessity. From time to time she argued with him about it, but she had no temper for it today. She had greater matters to consider, and she needed his cooperation.
A rattling of chain heralded the keeper's return. The scent of kobalen increased, and Nihlan entered the chamber, leading a large, shackled male.
If this was the strongest, it was most definitely time to hunt more. Kobalen were thickset and heavy-limbed, but this one's flesh had gone slack over its large bones, and its skin showed through thin patches in the fine black fur that covered its body.
Its eyes, dull and heavy, sharpened with fear when it saw Shalár. It jerked against its shackles, surprising Nihlan. The keeper had the strength to control it but Shalár was out of patience, and took pleasure in seizing the creature's khi. She consumed a little of it―only a breath's worth―enough to ease the edge of her hunger.
The kobalen went limp, eyes fixed unseeing as Shalár took complete hold of its limited mind. Nihlan fastened its shackled wrists to a high ring on the wall. The kobalen's legs buckled and it hung heavily from its arms.
Shalár picked up the knife and cup, glancing at Dareth. "Do you care to harvest?"
He shook his head, looking away. She could feel his hunger in the air, so sharp it was, yet still he resisted. Poor, tormented Dareth. He would never find his full strength, so long as he indulged in sentiment in this way.
Shalár stepped up to the kobalen, releasing its mind, waiting for it to see her again. Fear would spice the creature's khi. The kobalen's eyes cleared and it spat obscenities in its own coarse language. Shalár smiled and set the knife to the underside of its arm, where dozens of scars attested to the creature's prior use.
Blood welled bright red and ran down the inside of the chalice as she held it against the wound. The kobalen howled and struggled feebly. Shalár retook its mind and stilled it to prevent any of the blood being lost. Khi alone was sustenance, but khi in fresh blood was the richest and best food for her and her people.
This kobalen had been used many times before. They all had been used, carefully, sparingly. Only enough taken at a feeding to slake the hunger of Nightsand's guard and Shalár's household. Over time, though, and even with the most careful keeping, the kobalen weakened. Their lives were brief even as they roamed free. In captivity, each was good for no more than a decade or two.
The chalice was full. Shalár stepped back, nodding to Nihlar to stanch the wound. The keeper moved to do so, setting a large wooden spoon to it to claim her rightful share before pressing dryleaf to the cut. Shalár handed her the knife and turned away.
She looked down into her cup, inhaling the scent of the blood, savoring the heavy khi that rose from it. Glancing at Dareth, she lifted the chalice slightly in a silent salute, then drank deeply of the salty-hot draught.
She paused to breathe, feeling the weighty flow of khi throughout her flesh, the surge of strength through her veins. A little over half the cup was gone. She offered the rest to Dareth.
He hesitated, waging the same self-battle as always. As always, he yielded to the demands of his flesh.
He offered her the cup with the last swallow in its base. She shook her head and watched Dareth finish it, then handed the cup to Nihlani, who received it with a slight bow.
"How else may I serve you, Bright Lady?"
Even as she spoke, the keeper's eyes did not leave the chalice. Her hunger was palpable, despite the share she had taken. Shalár knew that she would lick the cup and knife clean before washing and restoring them to their place.
"I wish to look over the captives, but you need not accompany us." Shalár glanced toward the kobalen. Do not let that one give you trouble."
"Never, Bright Lady." Nihlan bowed again, cradling the chalice against her.
Shalár turned to Dareth, who offered his wrist. She laid her hand on it and they went into the second passage.