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The song of the thrush, p.1

The Song of the Thrush, page 1

 part  #9 of  Tales of the Latter Kingdoms Series


The Song of the Thrush

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The Song of the Thrush


  A Tales of the Latter Kingdoms Novel


  Dark Valentine Press

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


  Copyright © 2017 by Christine Pope

  Published by Dark Valentine Press

  Cover design by Ravven

  Ebook formatting by Indie Author Services

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems — except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews — without permission in writing from its publisher, Dark Valentine Press.


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Author’s Note

  Also by Christine Pope

  About the Author


  “Lord Sorthannic Sedassa, Duke of Marric’s Rest,” my father’s steward intoned, and I sat up a little straighter in my chair. The duke had been something near to a recluse ever since he was spurned by the Crown Princess of our kingdom nearly two years ago. True, Princess Lyarris had broken her engagement with the duke in order to marry the Hierarch of Keshiaar, the ruler of that vast desert empire, and so one could not precisely say that Lord Sorthannic’s jilting was of the common sort. Even so, rather than accept his rejection as the matter of state that it most certainly was, the duke had retreated to his estate of Marric’s Rest and never returned to court. He left his town house in Iselfex shuttered and dark, and turned his back on the society of others. To add fuel to the gossip about his hermit-like existence, it seemed that he had also taken on something of the appearance of a wild man, his hair long and unkempt, a thick beard now obscuring what I had heard had once been quite handsome features.

  That the Duke of Marric’s Rest might journey here to my father’s estate of Silverhold to bring his suit surprised me greatly. For one thing, it was passing strange that such an exalted being as a duke would come to pay court to the daughter of a mere baron, even if her father happened to be one of the richest men in the kingdom. Our holdings took their name from the extensive silver mines located in the hills a few miles to the east of the castle where I had grown to adulthood, and so our wealth far outstripped the fairly humble title to which my father had been born. The size of my dowry made me quite the matrimonial prize, but so far I had not met a single man who stirred my heart, or who convinced me that his hand in marriage would be a suitable exchange for the freedom I currently enjoyed.

  Both of my brothers’ marriages had been arranged nearly from birth, and during the seven years between the time my next-oldest brother Evander was born and my mother finally bore me, my parents lost three daughters. Indeed, my own arrival in this world was so harrowing that my mother did not survive more than a fortnight after my birth. During those two weeks, however, she begged my father to allow me the freedom to choose the husband of my heart, rather than be forced into a union that might end in sadness. While my parents’ marriage, though arranged, had been a happy one, her own sister had suffered at the hands of the man her parents had chosen for her, and died young. So my father, who loved my mother dearly, agreed despite his misgivings, for he wanted to make sure that she passed into the next world untroubled by her daughter’s fate.

  So I grew to adulthood unhindered by any unwanted betrothals, and when I reached my eighteenth year, those men who wished to become my husband — and share in the wealth I would bring to the marriage — began to come to Silverhold to plead their cases. I describe their endeavors in that way because truly, it did seem more that they were making pleas to the crown for a boon, rather than expressing their admiration of my person, as one might expect of a man who wished to make his suit to a young woman he found desirable. My lady’s maid, Sendra, had always exclaimed over my beauty, and the mirrors hung about the castle reassured me that she was not lying merely to puff up the vanity of the baron’s only daughter. Still, it seemed that the size of my dowry far outshone any delicacy of my features, for such qualities seemed to be mentioned only as an afterthought, and not as my primary attraction.

  My father must have noted the way I sat up in my chair and sharpened my attention upon hearing Lord Sorthannic’s name, for he murmured to me in an undertone, “Be on your best behavior, Marenna. It is true that his Grace has behaved somewhat oddly the past few years, but he is still one of the greatest peers of this realm. Do not let your tongue run away with you.”

  “I have no intention of allowing it do so,” I replied with some asperity. Truly, I was rather nettled that my father would think so little of my manners. Yes, there were some who probably thought that I had been allowed to run rather wild, and that I did little to guard my speech, but I saw nothing wrong with being honest, as long as such honesty was taken at face value and not used as a weapon to cause others hurt. Besides, it was not my fault that those who had come before Lord Sorthannic should be such sorry specimens. Perhaps if my mother had known what a meager selection I would have to choose from, she might have decided it was better for me to have an arranged marriage after all. Judging by those peers I had met at balls and dinner parties at my brothers’ homes, or at the family town house in the capital, it seemed that all those who would have made a respectable husband had already been snatched up.

  My assurances did not seem to have mollified my father overmuch, for he still wore a faint frown, his dark eyes worried underneath his greying brows. However, he fixed a smile on his face and stood, gazing down the center of the hall, where the Duke of Marric’s Rest was about to make his entrance.

  I also rose from my chair, and disposed my skirts of heavy claret-colored silk so they might fall in graceful lines. This was one of my most becoming gowns, one that enhanced my dark hair and eyes and pale skin, and I hoped it would catch the duke’s eye. For surely he must have quite discriminating taste, to have been betrothed to the Crown Princess, who was a very great beauty. Clearly, no other ladies had captured his heart since her.

  How could they? I asked myself. It is very difficult to lose one’s heart to a stranger if one’s life is ordered in such a way to avoid all society.

  But then the duke entered the hall…

  …and I felt my heart sink, for it appeared the rumors about his appearance had been true. Surely this must be a wild man from the hills, rather than one of the kingdom’s greatest peers. True, he was finely dressed, in a doublet of black velvet slashed with silver-grey, and a heavy chain of silver and garnets resting on his broad shoulders. But his hair was a dark unruly mass that fell past his shoulders and partway down his back, and the lower half of his face was obscured by a beard so thick and black and pointed, I could not tell what he looked like at all.

  Some sound of disappointment must have escaped my throat, for my father drew himself up and shot me a warning glance out of the corner of his eye. I barely registered his disapproval, however, for my mind was already running ahead of itself, wondering what on earth it would be like to attempt to kiss someone with such a beard, to feel that rough, brambly tangle pressing against my lips. No, I had n
ever kissed anyone — my father made sure that I was never given the opportunity, that I was kept as sheltered as possible. His efforts were perhaps unnecessary, for I had never met anyone I even wished to kiss. But I realized that such intimacies were expected between a husband and wife, and so to even contemplate performing such an act with someone as wild and unkempt as Sorthannic Sedassa —

  “My lord,” he said, bowing to my father.

  “Well met, your Grace,” my father replied. “I trust you did not have too difficult a journey?”

  “Not at all,” Lord Sorthannic said. He did have a pleasant voice, warm and deep, with just the faintest trace of a lilt at the edges of some of his words. I recalled then that he had actually been born in South Eredor, more than a thousand miles from his estate of Marric’s Rest, and had come here to Sirlende to claim his lands and title as a boy in his teens, not so very much younger than I was now. His gaze flickered toward me, and I saw then that his eyes were an unusual dark blue, the color of the sky just as dusk fell. One rarely saw blue eyes in Sirlende, but I guessed he must have been lucky enough to inherit them from his South Eredorian mother.

  Because of the heavy beard that concealed half his face, it was very difficult to guess as to what he might be thinking. Did my appearance please him? Or did he find me as unappealing as I found him?

  Somehow I found that difficult to believe. At least I did not look as if I had spent the past two years roaming wild in the woods, subsisting on nuts and berries, with nary a mirror to tell me how unkempt I was, nor a hairbrush to remedy the situation.

  “Your Grace, this is my daughter, Marenna,” my father said, turning slightly toward me.

  I knew what I must do. Although I had not spent much time at court, my lady’s maid had taken ample time to instruct me in all the niceties of proper behavior. Assuming a practiced smile, I extended a hand. “I am very pleased to meet you, your Grace.”

  Lord Sorthannic took a few steps toward the dais where I stood, then lightly pressed his fingers against mine. Yes, his touch was sure and strong, those fingers showing evidence of calluses, which meant he was not the sort of nobleman to sit idly back and leave the management of his estates to others. While the roughness of his hands matched the coarseness of his appearance, I found I was rather pleased to learn that he was not the kind of foppish courtier I’d learned to despise.

  But then he bent to lay a kiss against the back of my hand, as custom required. I could not help but flinch, for his beard was so very rough, and felt more as though someone had just brushed a bundle of twigs over my skin.

  “Goodness!” I exclaimed, the word escaping my lips despite my promises to my father that I would be on my best behavior. “His beard is as rough as a thrush’s nest!”

  A grim silence followed that unseemly remark. As soon as I had made my ill-considered utterance, I wished I could take it back, but I was no sorceress, not someone who could stop the hands of a clock and turn them backward. There were not so many people in the hall, for my father was not one who kept a large retinue, but there was still Elsen, our steward, my maid, Sendra, and various men-at-arms to witness my unwitting rudeness.

  At once I clapped my hand to my mouth, even as Lord Sorthannic straightened, those dark blue eyes of his seeming to pierce through to my very soul…and find it wanting. When he spoke, his voice was measured, cold. “I am sorry that you find my person so repellent, my lady.”

  “I — ”

  He did not allow me to get any further than that single syllable, for he turned toward my father and said, “My lord, I will waste no more of your time. It is clear that your daughter and I will not suit. Have a very good day.”

  “Your Grace — ”

  But it seemed that my father’s entreaties would have no more effect than mine. The duke presented his back to us, and stalked through the hall and out the tall doors of iron-studded wood at the other end. They had been left open to let in the warm wind of a mild afternoon in late Sevendre, and so he could not slam them shut behind him. However, his displeasure was obvious enough to everyone who was there to witness it.

  “Foolish child!” my father snapped, rounding on me as soon as Lord Sorthannic was gone. “I told you to guard your tongue!”

  “I am sorry, Father,” I said, not bothering to hide the misery in my tone. No, I had felt no attraction to the duke — except to admire those fine blue eyes of his — but he had already suffered enough heartache without me insulting him in the presence of my father’s men. Our steward Elsen might be the soul of discretion, but I could not say the same thing for our men-at-arms. No doubt the story would be all over the countryside by nightfall.

  “‘Sorry’?” my father repeated, clearly not mollified at all. Indeed, in that moment, I hardly recognized my handsome, good-tempered father; his face was red with fury, and sparks fairly flew from his dark eyes. “You have insulted a peer of the realm. You have brought disgrace to this house. Go to your room — I have no wish to look on you any longer.”

  Flayed by such harsh words, I could only gather up my skirts and flee the chamber, tears beginning to run down my cheeks. I went to the staircase located on the right side of the great entry hall, the one that led up to my tower bedroom on the east side of the castle.

  Normally, I enjoyed the time I spent in my rooms, for they offered a splendid prospect of the fields immediately surrounding the keep, as well as a glimpse of the tall, craggy hills where my family’s wealth was brought forth from the earth. Now, though, I could only fling myself on my bed and cry stormily, cursing myself for my impulsive nature, for the unguarded speech that had made me insult such an exalted man. Sirlende was a very great empire, but even so, it possessed only ten duchies in all. And I had just disparaged the man who held one of those great titles.

  A soft knock came at the door. “My lady?”

  “Go away,” I said, knowing that my response was just as rude as the words I had spoken to Lord Sorthannic. But I was in no mood to talk to Sendra, who no doubt would scold me — gently, true, but scold nonetheless — for my behavior. Perhaps I deserved such a scolding, and yet, as a young woman of almost twenty, I thought I was far too old to be subjected to that kind of treatment.

  However, I also knew that she most likely would wait outside my door until I relented, for she had no duties within the household other than to look after me. I had already acted enough like a spoiled child; it would not do for me to continue exhibiting that sort of behavior.

  So I pushed myself off the bed and went to the door and unlatched it, then went back to my bed so I could lie down on it once more. In the process, I was also wrinkling my silken gown, but that hardly mattered now. The audience had come and gone, and I had acquitted myself very badly.

  Sendra came in and shut the door behind her. To my surprise, she did not look so much angry as worried, as if she had feared what she might find when she came to visit me.

  “I told him I was sorry,” I said, knowing that she had come here as an agent of my father, who could not bear to look upon me in his ire. “I do not know what else he expects me to do!”

  If she had been my mother, perhaps she would have come and sat down on the bed next to me. However, a servant — even one who had been part of the household for so many years — could not take that kind of liberty. Instead, she retrieved the chair from the little writing table by the window and placed it by the bed, then sat down before reaching out and patting me on the hand.

  “I am not sure it is that he expects anything,” she replied, her kind, dark eyes watching me carefully. I realized then how much grey had overtaken her hair, and felt vaguely ashamed that I had not noticed such a detail up until now. “This is not the sort of matter that can be easily fixed.”

  Her words only served to drive home how badly I had behaved. She was right, of course. This sort of insult could not be smoothed over with a few flattering words. Perhaps if my family had been the equal of Lord Sorthannic’s, then the situation might not be so dire. However, al
l our wealth could not quite compensate for the difference in station between the Duke of Marric’s Rest and my father, a mere baron. Tears began to gather in my eyes once more, and I reached up to wipe them away.

  “Oh, don’t weep, my lady,” Sendra said. “I am not sure it is quite as bad as that. Your father is in general a most even-tempered man, and not one to hold a grudge.”

  “I am not so sure about that,” I returned. “Yes, most of the time he is quite mild, which makes his anger all the more impressive when it is aroused. I doubt he will forgive me anytime soon. And the terrible thing is, I truly did not mean to insult Lord Sorthannic. It is only that he looked so very wild, and I had never experienced anything like that scratchy beard of his scraping against my skin. The sensation was most unpleasant.”

  “I’m sure it was,” my maid said. However, while her words made it sound as though she was in agreement with me, something about her expression seemed to indicate the opposite.

  “You think I should have held my tongue.”

  At once she shook her head. “My lady, it is not my place to tell you what you should or should not have done. That is your father’s place, and none other, since your lady mother is no longer with us.”

  No, she was not. I wondered then what it would have been like to have a mother raise me, rather than my father and my lady’s maid. My brothers, Randel and Evander, had had something more of her, since Evander was seven when she passed away, and Randel nearly ten. They could remember how she looked, the sound of her voice. But I, who had been an infant only a fortnight old, recalled nothing of her. The only reason I knew what she looked like at all was because of the fine portrait of her that hung in my father’s chambers. Truly, she had been very lovely, with her tip-tilted dark eyes and lustrous dark hair. My father always said I resembled her, and if the portrait was at all accurate, then yes, I could see that.

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