Home > Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)

Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology #1)
Robin LaFevers

Prologue

Sybella

Rennes, Brittany

November 1489

s I stand on the battlements of the besieged city, looking out at the disarray before me, it is clear the god of Death has taken to the field. While this could be said of any battle—death and war are old friends, after all—today He rides a black horse, a pale-haired rider hunkered down in front of Him.

Annith. The most skilled of all of Death’s handmaidens and the sister of my heart.

She has done her part to avert this war—taken her shot using the last of the arrows forged by the gods, which flew as straight and true as if guided by their own hand. But now the French have seen her. Understand that it was she who shot at their king. And even though he is unharmed—harming him was never the intent—they are on her like jackals on a rotting carcass.

“Reload!” calls out Aeva, one of the dozen followers of Saint Arduinna who stand beside me along the ramparts.

Death and Annith ride hard for the gate, Mortain covering her with His body—a body from which four arrows protrude—protecting her life with His own. No, not His own, for He is the god of Death, I remind myself. But Father Effram’s warning has taken root in my heart.

“My lord, you do know what will happen if you choose to involve yourself in mortal affairs, do you not?”

The French archers release a second volley of arrows. As one, the Arduinnites and I return fire. But our arrows are too late. Mortain is hit yet again, taking two more to His side. Annith twists in the saddle, trying to hold onto Him.

It does not work, and they plummet to the ground. Annith begins crawling toward Mortain under yet another shower of French arrows. By Fate or chance, one of them buries itself in Death’s chest, and I feel the pain of it as if it comes from my own. Ice-cold fingers of dread trail down my back before wrapping themselves around my heart.

As a lone hound brays in the distance, I shove away from the battlements and race down the stairway to the gate. More hounds join the first, raising their voices in an unholy lamentation. For a moment, the world hangs suspended, like a drop of sap oozing from a tree, and in that moment I know. The god of Death—my father—is gone. He has passed from this world.

By the time I reach the gate, the French have fallen back, as if even they sense the magnitude of this moment. Nuns from the convent of Saint Brigantia swarm toward the fallen Mortain as Annith throws herself on his body, weeping. As much as I am hurting, she will be even more so.

Before I can reach them, a laugh rings out—an incongruous, joyful sound in the solemn stillness.

Puzzled, Death reaches for his chest, his hand coming away red with blood. Although I am half a bowshot away, I hear him say, “I am alive.”

It feels as if the earth I am standing on gives a dizzying spin.

He is alive. But even as far away as I am, I can see that he is no longer Death.

A great chasm opens inside me, a dark yawning maw that threatens to swallow me whole. If Death no longer walks amongst us, then what purpose am I to serve? What use will there be for my dark talents and skills?

I fear the answer was writ long ago, when I was born into the family that raised me. The family that nearly killed me and drove my mother into Death’s arms.

And that answer terrifies me far more than death ever has.

Chapter 1

Genevieve

Cognac, France

November 1489

was born in the upstairs room of an ancient roadside tavern, a group of common whores acting as midwives. My mother, too, was a whore, although perhaps not so very common. Would an ordinary woman invite Death to her bed on a dare?

I emerged covered in slime and blood, my face—indeed, my entire body—as blue as a wild hyacinth. Hushed whispers and murmurs of sympathy followed the horrified silence my arrival caused, until Solange, the oldest among them, grabbed me from my mother’s slippery hands and swatted my backside.

Nothing. I did not cry or whimper or even draw breath. But old whores are as wise as old cats, and Solange did not give up. She bent down to place her wrinkled lips on mine, and blew.

According to my mother, my chin quivered, a fist curled.

Solange blew again, her determined breath somehow shoving away the cold hands of my father as He reached for me.

I drew a deep breath of my own after that, followed by a lusty cry. The women thought me a miracle, moved that one had been visited upon them just as if they were the Magdalena herself.

All except my mother, who knew precisely who she’d invited into her bed nine months earlier. It wasn’t until I was four years old and clutched at her hand as she headed up the stairs with her night’s customer that my parentage was confirmed. “His heart,” I whispered into her lowered ear as I rubbed my small chest. “It’s beating strangely.”

Less than an hour later, he was dead.

It is that same panicked beating that has brought me to the lowest levels of the castle today—a heartbeat as close and intimate as if it is beating against my own ribs.

I follow the deep ba-bump through the narrow, twisting corridors of the dungeons, stopping when a gaping black hole appears at my feet. The darkness that oozes up through the metal grate is as thick and solid as a coiled snake.

At first, I think it a hatch to the river that runs nearby. Or perhaps—wrinkling my nose—the sewer. Until the next heartbeat reverberates through me, one long, deep ba-bump. I never feel the heartbeats of others unless they are close to dying. That is when I finally understand the nature of this pit.

It is an oubliette.

A dungeon designed specifically for those who do not even warrant the mercy of a clean death.

Nameless dread that cannot be explained by the presence of death thrums through me. My hand clenches. I should turn and walk away. Return to the sumptuous, brightly lit rooms of the castle proper.

I am getting ready to do just that when the heartbeat stops. The pressure in my chest grows, stretching against my ribs, seeping into the very marrow of my bones. Trepidation and despair sweep through me, as if the world itself has just been torn in two.

And then the pressure stops. Is simply gone, like the passing of the wind.

“Who’s there?”

The croaked question shatters the absolute silence, causing me to leap back. The dead do not speak.

Oubliette. To forget.

If it were called by any other name, I could turn and walk away. If it were empty, it most assuredly would hold no interest for me. But someone is down there, someone else the world has forgotten. That he is dying—well, there is no way I can ignore it now. While I was sired by the god of Death and sent to His convent to train in His arts, I have had precious little opportunity to explore them since I have left.

“Who are you?” The voice is low and hoarse, but it is the commanding tone of it that startles an answer from me.

“No one. A shadow.” My words float down into the darkness on the barest exhalation of breath. Hopefully he will think them naught but a fevered dream as he lies at Death’s door.

There is movement below, as if someone is shifting position, straining to look up. A moment later, I hear him rising to his feet. I scramble back from the hole, my footsteps quick and silent.

When I am well away from the oubliette, I allow myself to run, returning through the labyrinth of underground corridors to the main floor of the castle.

Who are you?

His question follows me like a ghost, as if the forgotten, dying man has looked into my very soul and seen the doubt and uncertainty that has plagued me for the last year.

Who, by the Nine, am I?

When I finally reach the main section of the palace, I pause to brush off my skirts and smooth my hair. I arrange my face into the bland, subservient mask I have worn for the past five years, then step into the warmth of the light.

Oddly, it is far colder against my skin than the living blackness of the dungeon.

Chapter 2

Sybella

Rennes, Brittany

One Week Later

he loss of my father, still sharp and raw, drives me to the city gates, as if I’m hoping that he will return. But of course, he does not. Even so, like one of the restless souls that still hover where their bodies fell, I hover in the shadows of the gate and stare out at the empty field beyond.

No. Not empty. A small holly bush appeared three days after Mortain fell, springing wholly formed from the earth soaked with his blood. Its leaves are dark green and glisten with bright red berries. Holly has always been sacred to Mortain.

Beneath the miraculous bush, humble offerings have sprung up like toadstools after a rain—a silver coin, loaves of coarse brown bread, a comb of honey, a bundle of willow twigs, a black ribbon. The branches are rumored to bring love to the forlorn, health to the sick, and peace to the dying. It is the last that I find most believable. He was the god of Death, after all.

I have often wondered why my god bid me live when I sank to the bottom of that river nearly six months ago. He did not just whisper encouragement in my ear, but put his cold hand upon mine and pulled me to the surface, into the waiting arms of one who loved me.

Was it simply a gift for all I had suffered? Or was there some purpose I had yet to serve? Or mayhap it was naught but a parent’s instinct to assure his child’s survival.

He saved me once before. When I was fourteen years old and in pain beyond bearing, I tried to take my own life. On that day, I was told by my old nurse that I was sired by Death and not Count d’Albret, my mother’s husband and the man who raised me. I was taken to the convent of Saint Mortain then, where I spent the next three years learning Death’s arts.

Even that was not my first brush with death. I very nearly did not survive my own birth, arriving with the birth cord wrapped twice around my neck, my mother’s body unable to let go of me, already regretting her decision to bring me into this world.

If not for the promise my true father had made to her, I would have gone with her into death. But promise he did, and the god of Death is not one to break such promises. Instead, I lived.

And he, he . . . did not.

Anger as bright and red as one of the holly berries flares in my belly. Anger that one so newly come into my life has left it far too soon. Why did my father save me, only to abandon me once more? Why did he bid me live if he would not be here to guide my hand? It was only through Mortain’s existence and grace that I found a place in this world. A purpose.

I reach out and grab a piece of holly, ripping it from the bush. Whether it is to hurt the bush or because I need some reminder of who I am, I cannot say. But the leaves are sharp with thorns, and I cut myself. A drop of blood wells up, as dark and red as one of the holly berries.

Is this blood still mingled with that of the gods or will I, too, become fully human?

Behind me, someone coughs. Shoving the holly into my pocket, I pull a dagger from my belt and whirl around. But it is only a wizened priest, sparse white hair fluttering slightly in the breeze, who stands there.

“Father Effram.” I hope he cannot hear the disappointment in my voice. “How am I able to feel everyone’s heart beating but yours?” In the days since Mortain fell, that is the one gift of his that I know still remains—my ability to sense the heartbeats of the living.

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