Paulina Claiborne

The Rose of Sarifal


Do not speak to anyone, said Mistress Valeanne.

If someone asks you, then just smile and nod your head. It is a beautiful night, and we are out for a ride by the lakeshore to Crane Point. It is natural for us to be here. No explanation is necessary.

But I thought we should wait for my sister, said Amaranth. Didn t she tell us not to

Yes please, my lady, said Valeanne.

She will meet us where we are going. In the interval, try to remember that since your mother s death, you do not know who is your friend.


Hush, said Valeanne.

They had left the water-citadel of Karador before first light. Now finally, at sunset, they had climbed out of the woods of Myrloch Vale and into higher, sparser country; six dragonborn soldiers on their enormous mounts, and two eladrin, one a child.

I m tired, complained Amaranth. I don t understand why I have to hide. When will we be there?

They had changed horses at Glenraugh and taken something to eat away from the company. Now the mounts were weary again, as they left the trees and came up the path between the lakes, Ulls and Innes, one black water, one green. A guard post was there, the source of Valeanne s concern. It stood at the terminus of an old wall left over from human times. Grass grew on its battlements, and the gate had tumbled down. But the torches were lit, a line of intermittent lanterns that stretched from one shore to the other.

I don t understand, protested Amaranth.

Why did we have to leave, the last night of midsummer? Didn t they need me for the anointing? I was going to be an aunt again, a real aunt this time. Nana had laid out a pretty dress and my new shoes. Now we ve spent all day like this, when I could have been having fun. You lied to me my sister isn t here. No one is here. I hate this place where are we? I hate you, she added as an afterthought.

Gods give me strength, murmured Valeanne. The sun was setting in a blaze of crimson light. She squinted up at the bare hillside on the other side of Ulls, where a larger beacon had flared to life.

Madam, rumbled Shamasar, the captain of the dragonborn. He pointed with his scaly finger toward the lighted door and windows of the ruined guard tower. Look at them a company at least. Someone is expecting us. If we re to reach the steeple of the hippogriffs

It was as he said. There were soldiers at the guard tower, more than necessary or usual at this lonely outpost.

If we go back, said Shamasar, we can retreat into the woods again and pass along the far shore by the crags. We can reach the steeple from the other side.

No, said Amaranth. I m not going anywhere. I refuse. She was a red-haired girl, dark-eyed, small for her nine years.

A horn sounded up ahead, a single, plaintive, menacing note. Valeanne stamped her horse in a half-circle and reached out for the child s reins. You re right, she said. There s too many. We have to

Below them, behind them, the trees closed in over the trail. But now there were lights down there too, flickering among the branches, fey lights in many colors. Shit, she said. We are betrayed. My lady, hide your face. Pay no attention

But it was too late. Amaranth had pulled her pony free and spurred it up the slope, toward where the black shadows of the soldiers massed by the gate. More stumbled down the hillside, dark silhouettes against the fiery clouds. Amaranth pulled the hood back from her face and shook her red hair free. Sirs, she said, calling out to the approaching soldiers. I ve missed the entire midsummer festival because of these idiots. It s not fair. I m hungry and I want to go home.

The wind shifted, and the pony shied in terror from the harsh scent. These were no eladrin or elf guards, Valeanne saw as they approached. In the half-light, she could see their black faces and white hair.

Drow, said Shamasar. He yanked on the bridle of his dragonspawn mount. The creature turned its wicked beak and raised one clawed foot from the stones. Shamasar drew his sword. Haroon, Gesh, he shouted. Fall back.

They were caught. Below them, among the ash and linden trees, more of the drow had massed along the path, bold in the failing light, shaking their spears. Among them and farther back, Valeanne could see larger creatures from the Underdark, come up from Myrloch cyclops guardsmen in steel armor, their axes as tall as men, their single eyes shining yellow.

Above her, up the slope, a drow soldier scampered through the rocks, snarling and gesticulating, her skin and armor black, her hair as white as ash. Her nose and the ridges of her eyes were pierced with iron rings. She laughed and showed her sharpened teeth, and reached for the pony s head. But Lady Amaranth stood on her stirrups, and with her riding whip she struck the drow across the face.

Ugly! she said, which was untrue. The drow were beautiful, elves of the black night, eladrin of the shadows.

What alliance had brought them out of their bottomless cities and into Myrloch Vale? What had Lady Ordalf promised them, that they did her bidding? One of them had climbed to the top of a boulder above Valeanne, a drow priestess of the Spider Queen, and out of her, as if conjured from her hands, webs and tendrils of a fog of darkness spread into the air, obscuring the new stars.

Valeanne pulled a crossbow from its scabbard and shot a quarrel through the drow s chest. Then she spurred upward beside Amaranth as the dragonborn divided ranks, three behind them to block the way, three to ride with them up the slope. The ones behind, Valeanne knew she could depend on them not to run, turn, flinch, take a single step backward, or do anything except die fighting, even against these odds twenty, thirty to one, it looked like. Already Valeanne could hear the hawking, whistling grunts as the two males, Haroon and Gesh, drew air into their bodies through the gills behind their cheeks, distending the sacs of poison or burning acid that would soon spray from their jaws to turn the slope below them into a cyclone of fire. In the middle, the female Valeanne hadn t known her name had freed her mount s barbed head. She sat easy in the saddle, a bastard sword in either hand, ignoring the arrows that had begun to fall. She raised her head, and for a moment Valeanne could hear the bitter, skirling, hissing death-chant of her race, before it was lost among the screaming drow. But even after that the words, unspoken, hung above them, the quatrain that begins, Fire of black heaven, high beacon of the morning star, / lit with my last breath, I will not disappoint you

Madam, said Shamasar, polite as always. He had ridden up ahead, his greatsword in one hand, a hammer in the other. Valeanne watched, awestruck, as his mount reared onto its hind legs, while at the same time Shamasar unfurled the scaly wings from behind his back. Stretching high above him, twenty feet from tip to tip, the wings provided balance as he goaded his mount forward step by step. Cowed, the drow fell back, while at the same time the remaining two dragonborn cantered up away from the path, while Valeanne and Amaranth fell in behind them.

Now the whole slope was lit with fire. Dry blue lightning flashed above their heads. They rode through the boulders until the land evened out, the long lake on their right hand, the guard tower on their left.

Ordinarily it is a mistake to divide a weaker force, but the dragonborn weren t ordinary soldiers. The three who held the trail up from the woods had spread apart to block the entire vale, from Innes lakeshore to the cliffs below Ulls Peak, a space of a mile and a half. They had bathed the slopes with poison and cold fire, and when Valeanne looked back, she could see not one of their enemies had gotten through. Ahead, Shamasar kept their flank while they cantered over the dry turf toward Ulls. There the black water had receded from the shore, leaving a strip of sand where they could race the horses.

They were headed for Crane Point, a spit of land that stretched into the lake where the royal house of Sarifal

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