the heft and the edge 10/6/2020
The Presence, Ayer 3057.8.8
Mador was not surprised at the announcement. She had a tendency to do whatever she pleased. No that was unfair: she had a tendency to do whatever she thought necessary without worrying about what was expected. And this time, apparently, she considered it necessary to barge in out of turn. Here she was, almost running at him she was so eager.
‘I did give instructions…’ he began, but the look on her face stopped him.
‘Isolde, what is it? Your father?’
She came to a halt before the dais, breathing heavily, ignoring the question and the questioner. She was looking at the Throne. Mador thought that not surprising either: today the Throne was alive with power. He could feel the warmth of it through his palms.
‘Perfect,’ she said, her eyes shining, reflecting the glow of the sapphires. She then took a deep breath and pulled herself erect as though readying herself for action. Mador was taken with how powerful she looked. And that was surprising.
She looked at him now and smiled. ‘I—’
There was a clattering of boots on the marble floors. Isolde whirled and Mador peered around her to see Isolde’s father striding down the approach as though he had some purpose vitally urgent, as though he had new strength in his limbs that denied his seventy years. The secretary, Jeffers, trailing in his wake, had to trot to keep up. Arriving at the throne the father too ignored his king, but glared at his daughter, eyes ablaze, and she returned the look in kind. Mador had no idea what was wrong with them.
‘Will one of you tell me what this is about?’ He looked from one to the other. Isolde’s face was full of anger, Gerald smiled.
‘Well, why don’t you tell him? It’s you, isn’t it. Show yourself, demon!’
‘Ha. You hide the truth with accusations? When did you steal my father’s, face? When did you kill him?’ Isolde looked back at the Throne. ‘But look, there can be no secrets or lies here. Look to your defence, King Mador!’
A shock ran through him. The throne was awake. The great jewel in the diadem blazed red and…
And Mark Jeffers, so far unconsidered in the dispute, gave out a shocking cry. Before their eyes he seemed to unfold, erupt, invert until nothing that he was before remained. The daughter and father fell back in astonishment. Before them now stood a woman, a creature, taller than any of them but so thin, so gaunt of feature, clothed only in shadow. She towered above them. Arms appeared from the darkness, her hands were claws. With rage in her eyes she stooped upon Isolde but Gerald pushed his daughter aside.
‘You will not touch her. Not this time,’ he cried. The creature laughed. With contempt, she swiped her claws across his chest, slicing through cloth and flesh, drawing a splatter of blood. Gerald whirled away crashing into Isolde tumbling them both to the floor. Mador sprang from the throne, throwing his full weight into a collision. The impact staggered them both. The monster clutched at him but the King swung away, wrenching his arm free of her quick grasp. He pulled back but beckoned her on.
‘Come to me creature, demon, whatever you are. If it is me you want.’
The creature paused. Mador recognised her expression as a mocking smile. Her voice when it came was odd. It started as a rumble, like a growling lion, but quickly began to shift into something more human, and familiar.
‘Oh, it is surely you I want. You and this place, this treacherous seat and this great tower of men. All will become mine. Already I have your voice, and look now.’ She held out the hand that had caught at him moments before. Mador stared at it. The hand was his; and the ring on his finger; and the old scar on his wrist. The shadows that wreathed her form twisted and became solid and became a vision of the clothes he wore: the doublet of gold, the dark trousers, the whitest shirt sleeves. The transformation rolled like a wave through the thing that stood before him, leaving behind almost a mirror image of the same neatly brushed beard, the same heavy brows, but the eyes they framed gleamed in triumph rather than the horror that filled his own.
The image was so startling it made him hesitate. She or he or it, took the chance and attacked but suddenly Robarn was between them. The old man had grabbed at the creature’s neck from behind but with contemptuous strength she hauled him forward and swiped her claws across his forehead.
With a strangled cry – full of the fear and fury– Isolde threw herself into his defence. She had a long knife in hand but she couldn’t make it hit home. Gerald was tossed aside, as a giant might discard a babe-in-arms, the monster so strong and so fast. No matter that Isolde had black anger on her side, no matter she had bested this creature once before, nothing she tried now could be a match. In the cottage, a long iron poker had made it doubt and flee from the battle. Yet this fine steel blade held no terror for the creature. It was merely an inconvenience.
The faux Mador grasped at Isolde’s wrist, wrenched her arm, tearing muscles, and then slammed into her face with the other fist. Isolde was done and collapsed senseless.
The King’s hesitation was passed. In truth, it had taken only few seconds for him to respond, but Mador felt he had taken an age in comprehension. Gerald down and bleeding hard; Isolde tumbled in a tangle of skirts at her father’s side; the monster sneering and confident. Mador stepped back a pace, not in fear, but to give them space for the fight.
‘When you are done, demon,’ he goaded, ‘smirking in triumph over those less in strength than you, though greater in bravery; when you are done savouring your victory, glorying in the outcome before you have even dared face me; when you are ready to take the risk, consider this: the Presence is my place. It is the seat of my power, the power of the King of Pars.
‘And there is another thing. You find me not unarmed.’
On this last word Mador slid into view a dagger he had taken from his sleeve. A dagger that did not gleam like the polished steel of Isolde’s blade, but was the same dull hue as the Iron Crown that Mador wore and the creature had copied.
‘I am armed, demon, with knowledge. This is pure iron. Will you chance it?’
The creature that wore his face paused, regarding the dagger with caution.
‘What if your knowledge is wanting, King of Men?’ The voice was growling again, as though an angry lion could speak.
‘I have trust in my advisors,’ Mador said simply.
‘I trust none but myself,’ his enemy said, ‘and I place my trust wisely. To do me ill you must lay that blade upon me. Do you think you can do that?’
She advanced, and together they began the dance of the knife, though one was armed only with tooth and nail.
It was impossible to say which of the two attacked first.
Arianna Foxton was loyal, intelligent and diligent, but not especially brave. She’d been pouring a glass of water for the King when the Robarns arrived. She kept herself out of the way as the argument began, out of sight behind one of the columns that held up the King’s Tower. The blaze of the diadem blinded her momentarily, and when she could see again, peering around the pillar she couldn’t believe what it was she saw. That… thing, starting in shadow was already painting itself inch by inch as something it was not. And what it became was sacrilege in her eyes. She didn’t know she had the capacity for feelings that beset her now. Arianna was outraged.
She watched the opening moves of the antagonists, witnessed Mador’s hesitation, and Isolde’s response. The girl’s eyes were torn between the assault on her father, and the sight of the King inviting attack. She didn’t hesitate. For both she would risk everything.
But with only a few blows Isolde was down, maybe dead, and Mador was taunting the creature as though eager to be attacked. And then they were fighting.
Arianna had seen the power of the creature against old frail Robarn, and that was no surprise, but young, robust Isolde had been tossed aside quite as easily. Yet Mador was like a rock. The creature launched assault after assault, but the King, with powerful blows of his own, repelled every assault. The creature tried another tactic, clutching at him instead, and in a wrangle of limbs sought to break Mador bone by bone.
Now along the Approach came Anders Belori and three of the Presence Guards. At last there was help for the king. Arianna wanted them to run to his side, to beat and stab until the foul thing was finished and Mador safe. Instead she watched them falter. What were they doing? What were they thinking? Yes, the creature had taken on Mador’s appearance, but were they complete fools to be beguiled by such a paltry show? Arianna Foxton knew her King, she knew so well her one love, and could never be taken in.
The stone ewer broke with the force of her blow. Direct to the head of the demon, she smashed it down with all the desperation in her heart. If it had been the King, that blow would have crushed his skull, but the demon was merely stunned. It staggered backwards, and Mador took his chance.
His iron blade sank into the creature’s chest half a dozen times before it threw him off and dragged away from the blazing throne.
Mador got to his feet, breathing hard. His eyes did not leave his attacker.
‘‘Rian. You’ve saved us all. That was brave of you. One of you men fetch me Philemon, and quickly. Tell him to bring the book. He’ll know which.’
The demon had by now come to a halt. It could not stand, it could no longer crawl. It dropped, supine and writhing on the cold floor of the Presence.
‘What say you, demon? Was my trust placed better than yours?’
The creature had no words. As he watched, and as she writhed, the glamour fell away. No longer the courtly clothes but shadows, no longer ring or crown; her face returned to something hideous and yet strangely beautiful, something handsome that has grown ancient and cold; but the fangs remained, and the claws.
‘Oh, King of Men, you have gained victory, such a victory. Does it sit well with you? Do you not taste the triumph? Your victory speech seemed small to my ears.’
Mador did not reply. He was looking into her eyes. The extraordinary violet eyes drew him.
‘Almost I think that even now I could defeat you. But no. If demon you name me, know you have bested the Queen of Demons. Thousands of souls have I consumed. A million! And I have taken all their power into myself. Had you not stopped me, I would have eaten this entire world of men.’
She coughed and blood spilled from her mouth.
‘And yet Acchulpa is defeated at last. Almost finished, if not quite dead.’ She spat out a laugh. ‘To think I should seek death! I was mighty. And greater with each victory. Defeat changes all. Know you that I have no desire, no intention to live a lesser, crippled life. And yet, without thy help, I am so doomed! I will continue. For I cannot die. Not ever. Unless…’
‘Unless?’ Mador said, ‘The iron has done its work. The blood runs from you. Die you surely will, and soon.’
She coughed up more blood as if to prove him right. But still she spoke.
‘So much for your advisors. The iron is taking my power only.’ A sharp tongue darted out to lick the blood from her lips. ‘Ah, the taste of blood so sweet, even though it is mine own. You should try it. In fact, I insist.’
Mador recoiled at the suggestion. ‘What do you mean?’
Her eyes challenged him.
‘Listen to me, King of Men. You can have me dead and gone, but for one final task you must complete.’
‘Do you want to die?’
‘As spoken: I want nothing of living as a broken thing. What am I without my powers? Come close to me now – I have a gift for you.’
She held out her hand but it was empty. The talons clattered on each other as she flexed her fingers. And then she smote her chest with them, each talon as strong as a steel blade, smashing through bone, cutting through flesh. With awful power she wrenched the still beating organ of her own heart from her body.
‘My gift,’ she gasped, offering it to him, ‘I would have you feed on it. Eat. Eat, for only then will I die. And you will gain the power I have lost.’
Mador saw Arianna faint, heard a wordless cry of disgust and terror from one of the guards. Anders Belori, to give him his due, said nothing but stepped up to Mador’s side.
‘She has killed herself, Sire,’ he said.
The monster had fallen back upon the floor and was still.
Mador and Anders made to approach, certain her life had fled, but she was not done.
‘No!’ she shrieked. ‘I tell you again: I die only when you have consumed me.’
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