Reign of Serpents by Eleanor Herman

Chapter One

Zofia

Zofia, Princess of Sardis, leans forward and digs her heels into the beast’s sides. Vata strains, shak­ing her mane, each beat of her powerful wings launching them higher into the sky. Zo doesn’t need to look back to feel the dark energy of the thing—the horrifying, shadowy form hurtling toward her, gaining on her.

A roar splits the morning air.

Vata lets out a terrible whinny and banks hard to the left. Zo’s heart plunges into her stomach as she begins to slip, frantically grasping tufts of cottony mane with both hands to steady herself. Far below her, the dry crumpled hills stretch to the horizon.

The Pegasus veers again, her mane whipping Zo’s face as the wind stings her eyes and her vision blurs. A shadow falls on her and Vata. Something rakes her back. Sudden warmth floods through her tunic: blood.

She has only a second to register what has happened be­fore white pain explodes across her body. In her agony, she is only vaguely aware that she has stopped holding on to Vata and that she’s slipping, falling…

She slams into something brutally hard.

The pain goes numb.

Blackness drowns her.

Zo wakes in a sweat, flinging her arms and crying out in panic until she realizes that she is inside, lying on a little bed of straw and blankets. Panting heavily, she slowly un­derstands that the flight and the chase were just a nightmare.

The Pegasus is not real—was never real.

Zo calms her breathing, taking in the moss-covered walls, daylight streaming in lazy diagonal shafts through the triangular cave openings. And for the third time that week, Zo forces herself to steady her heartbeat after the dream of flying and of falling.

Both the pain and the dreams are, Zo was told, the re­sult of an avalanche that nearly killed her. Since then, she has lost her sense of what happened. Of what was real. She has images of a destroyed village, full of ash and ravaged bones and bright blood.

Red on Zo’s hands, smeared on her thighs.

She tenses on her straw pallet, closing her eyes. No, those memories do not belong together. The blood was not the villagers’ blood. It was hers. Her unborn child’s. A moan falls from Zo’s lips.

“My child?” Cool fingers suddenly trace her cheek, and Zo grabs the wrinkled hand. Blinking, she stares into the cloudy, violet eyes of her savior: Kohinoor the soothsayer.

Gradually, Zo’s pulse slows, and her grief subsides. Being around Kohinoor eases her because each time she catches a glimpse of the old woman, she’s reminded of miracles.

For it had to have been fate that threw the two of them together, first as captive slaves, then again, when the nearly sightless soothsayer had found Zo, battered and swollen, beneath the stones of the avalanche. Kohinoor had brought her to her home in the Eastern Mountains, allowing her to rest and recover from her wounds. She was there in the night when Zo screamed as her bruised body healed. She was by her side when Zo stood again, taking painful prac­tice steps. And she was there to hold her when Zo had asked the terrible question. Kohinoor was the one who’d gently informed Zo that her unborn baby was no more.

Now Zo leans into the old woman for comfort. The knowledge that she has lost her child still catches her off guard, making her feel as though a giant fist has knocked the wind out of her. The agonizing loss is like another ava­lanche of rocks crushing her chest, making it nearly impos­sible to breathe or to think. Her sweet child would never see the world, never inhale fresh air or feel Zo’s warm, loving arms. Long ago, in the slave cage, Kohinoor predicted that if Zo ever saw Cosmas again, she would cause his death. And now their child—her permanent link to him—is gone. So much is gone.

Kohinoor helps Zo sit up and hands her a warm mug of tea. Slowly, Zo sips the brew, which tastes like earth and roots and smells like fall leaves. Warmth curls inside her, soothing her and calming her heart.

“Better?” Kohinoor asks.

Zo nods but can’t speak. An overwhelming weariness is settling upon her. For even when she sleeps, she does not rest. She battles the dark shadow of despair that threatens to engulf her when she thinks too much about all she has lost on this endless journey: her life as princess of Sardis; her five-year-old sister, Roxana, killed by the slave traders; Cosmas, the man she loves; and their baby. It is too much.

Before she can finish her tea, she lets sleep take her.

 

When Zo wakes, Kohinoor is gone. She’s not sure how much time has passed, but from the absence of sunlight through the cave’s roof, she guesses it is dusk. A tendril of fear rises within her—she hasn’t woken up alone before. Kohinoor has always been here. She tells the fear to go away, that Kohinoor will be back soon, either from the fields where she picks herbs or the stream where she traps fish.

From somewhere far away, Zo thinks she hears a drum­like pounding. Sitting up, she frowns, wondering what it is and why she’s never heard it before. Though steady, the sound is muted, like the world’s heart beating in the cen­ter of the earth. Curious, she stands and is grateful that her legs can again bear her weight after a month of healing and training. They no longer ache with movement. In fact, she feels strong. Much stronger than she has been in weeks.

She pours herself some water and drinks as the beat con­tinues. What is it? Could it be the answer she seeks—the truth behind the dreams of flying beasts and monsters? Heart pounding with dread and hope, she feels around on the large table for the fire starter kit as if she were as blind as Kohinoor herself. She strikes iron on flint and soon holds a blazing torch that illuminates the cave. Her pallet rests on one side, Kohinoor’s on the other. In between are tables with crockery, jugs, and mortars. Baskets of many differ­ent shapes line one wall.

She follows the sound to the back of the cave—nothing there. But through the solid wall of stone, she can still hear the rhythm. Turning her head, Zo presses her ear to the wall, and that’s when she sees it. A small, dark opening in the shadowy corner, invisible unless you are looking for it.

“Kohinoor?” Zo calls. “Are you there?”

No response, but the beating is crisper now, louder, a drumbeat calling her to action. Curious, she ducks her head and steps through the opening into the passage. It is so nar­row she has to angle her shoulders to get through, and even then she brushes against rock. She follows the passage for several minutes, the torch’s light illuminating only a few feet in front of her at a time. Part of her says to go back to the cave, to lie down again before she exhausts herself. But a bigger part tells her to keep going. For the first time since waking in Kohinoor’s cave she feels…alive. More awake. More herself. She’s tired of days spent sleeping or pacing around the cave and is eager to see something new. To maybe, even, learn more about the Eastern Mountains and their dark secrets.

At last, the passage opens into another cavern, dark ex­cept for the torch she holds, and there, in the center, sits Kohinoor. She hunches over a wooden plank, hammering a peg into one end. Relief sighs through Zo, followed quickly by another emotion: disappointment. There are no answers here, no clues to ancient mysteries. Just an old woman build­ing something.

The hammering suddenly stops.

“You’re here,” Kohinoor says. It isn’t a question.

“I am,” Zo says. She hesitates before drawing closer, feel­ing as though she’s stumbled upon something private. The old woman has already done so much for her. She doesn’t want to be more of a burden.

“I woke and you weren’t there,” Zo rushes to explain. “And then I heard the hammering and followed it. I’m sorry to disturb your work.”

“No harm. Shall we return? I will make you more tea.”

“That’s all right,” Zo said. “Finish what you’re doing. What are you making?”

“A table.” Kohinoor suddenly slams her hammer into the peg again, and Zo starts as the sound rings around the cave. She is constantly astonished at the soothsayer’s ability to see without eyes, and at the strength that allows such a seem­ingly frail old woman to lift heavy pails of water or this weighty mallet. As the woman returns to her work, Zo raises her torch and sees paintings brushed onto the rough walls.

“What are these?” she mutters to herself, walking over to hold the light closer.

“Paintings from the Hunor,” Kohinoor says without turn­ing her head from her woodwork. How can the old woman know what the paintings are without seeing them? Zo shiv­ers.

The Hunor, Zo knows, are an ancient tribe here, in the Eastern Mountains. With her fingertips, she traces a green snake curling around a lotus flower. A few paces away, she sees men with horns dancing around a blazing pyre. Ser­pents in tall waves racing toward a city of temples and pal­aces. Three old women weaving on a giant loom atop a hill.

Their colors faded, these images are clearly things of the ancient past, but for some unknown reason, they make Zo’s heart pound. It’s as though time has instilled a sense of weight to them, a thick patina of importance. Of truth.

The paintings curve around the entire length of the cave wall, and she follows them, her heart hammering in her chest. And then—

Zo gasps. There on the wall, flickering in her torch­light, is a Pegasus, white wings outspread, climbing into the sky. A girl with long dark hair, arms flailing in panic, has just fallen off its back and plummets to the earth. Fall­ing. Falling.

Just like in her dream.

Next to the image of the Pegasus stands a walled city, Persepolis from the looks of it. There, by the gate, is King Artaxerxes’s famous Tower of the Sun and Moon, with its great horned battlements, cracked in two, soldiers tumbling out as flames explode in all directions.

Zo can feel her pulse in her throat now. These paintings are ancient, centuries old at least.

But she knows that the tower was constructed within the past couple of years. Are these paintings some sort of prophecy…or warning?

She stares at the flaming tower in Persia’s capital. The destruction. The ruin. The tiny figures of people, fleeing. As if in a trance, she reaches the last image and holds the torch close. A winged child, its arms encircling a wax tab­let, rises from the earth as darkness descends from above.

She doesn’t understand what that last symbol represents, but she senses that it’s important—that it shows the cul­mination of this…this prophecy. Of the fall of Persepolis.

“Kohinoor,” she breathes. “What is this?”

The hammering stops. “As I said, pictures from the Hunor.”

“Yes, but what do they mean?”

“You know what they mean, child.” Kohinoor’s voice is but a rasp. “Danger breeds in the heart of Persia.”

Zo’s blood turns to ice as she remembers the rumors she and Ochus heard at taverns along the Royal Road. Entire villages reduced to ashes. Missing couriers. Empty farm­houses. Vanished horses and oxen. And the village she her­self had wandered into the day of her injuries. Doors yanked off hinges. Bloody streaks on the ground. And below a shifting cloud of flies, a heap of bones—human and ani­mal—gouged with deep teeth marks. She had thought, dur­ing these weeks of healing, that perhaps that memory, like the Pegasus, had been a dream. A fantasy born of rocks hitting her head.

But if these paintings are true, if they are prophecy…could it be that there was no avalanche? That Kohinoor had found her, unconscious and bloody among rocks, and had assumed she had been caught in a surging tide of stones? That Zo’s dream of flying and falling was no dream at all, but a memory? That the Pegasus was real? And the crea­ture that had raked her back with sharp talons… Was it a Spirit Eater?

“But who…what is doing this?” she asks.

The old woman turns sightless eyes to Zo and croons eerily, as if singing a lullaby to a baby, “Spirit Eaters are doing this, girl. The Spirit Eaters’ hunger is sharp.”

Spirit Eaters. Months ago, on the slave cart, Kohinoor had told Zo it was fated for her blood to mix with that of Prince Alexander of Macedon. The only way to undo the threads of fate that have been woven for you is to find the Spirit Eaters who can negotiate with those goddesses who spin out, weave, and cut the threads of our fate, she had said.

Where do I find these Spirit Eaters? Zo asked.

If they still exist, you will find them in the Eastern Moun­tains. That is where the Spirit Eaters sprang up from a fis­sure in the rocks, and there they still live. That is where you must go.

Zo had thought of these magical beings as gods, not mon­sters, and ridden east with Ochus to find them. Thinking once more of the pile of bones in the abandoned village, she realizes she almost did find them. Or they almost found her.

Mouth dry, Zo licks her lips. “Then we must go and tell the king. We must tell him what is to come before there is more death and loss.”

The old woman sets down her hammer and looks up, her smile revealing a few brown teeth.

“Must we? All right, child, let us return to our living quarters to discuss it.”

Her calm response unnerves Zo. It’s as though she thinks Zo is addled, that she doesn’t believe her…and maybe she is right. Maybe there was no Pegasus, no falling from the sky. Zo does remember something about an avalanche, doesn’t she? What happened the day Kohinoor found her?

She shakes her head in frustration. There’s so much in her mind, and though her thoughts feel sharper than they have in many days, they are still somewhat blunt at the edges, like a dull sword. It’s as though she’s been living life at the edge of sleep, as though she were downing a sleeping po­tion instead of water or…instead of tea.

A terrible thought crosses Zo’s mind, and once she thinks it, it cannot be unthought.

“Come,” the old woman urges. “The passage is over here.” Her dry gnarled hand grabs Zo’s wrist. The skin is leathery, like that of a crocodile. It’s all Zo can do not to pull away in disgust. But Kohinoor rescued her, nursed her back to health. In all likelihood, Zo would have died without her.

So she allows the soothsayer to guide her to the opening in the wall. Just before she ducks into it, Zo notices some­thing glinting in her torchlight: a large cage.

“What’s this for?” she asks.

Kohinoor blinks. “I see that soon a dog will come here looking for food, and I will make him my companion. That is where I will keep him until he learns that this is his home.”

But the cage is taller than Zo. A dog wouldn’t need a cage that high.

“Did you make this yourself?” Zo asks.

The soothsayer laughs, not answering her, and starts down the narrow winding tunnel. As soon as they emerge in the cave below, Kohinoor sets about boiling water in her pot, throwing in leaves and powders, preparing the strength­ening tea she has been giving Zo every day to ease her pains. But now the earthy scent makes her stomach roll.

When Kohinoor hands her the clay mug, Zo waves it away. “I…don’t want any today.”

Kohinoor pushes matted hair out of her face, and her bleary lavender eyes seem to stare at Zo beneath a furrowed brow. “You must drink. For your health.” Her rasping voice suddenly seems as strong and deep as a man’s.

Zo’s discomfort grows. “Very well,” she says, then pre­tends to sip. After a time, the old woman goes back to the jugs on the table, opening them, sniffing the contents, and exploring the inside with her bony fingers.

“You walked very far today, Princess. Are you not tired?” the old woman croaks.

Zo stares into her mug. “Yes,” she whispers. She rear­ranges the straw on her pallet as if to sleep and silently tips the mug into it. A moment later, Kohinoor’s clawed hand is there, ready to take the empty vessel from her.

“You rest,” Kohinoor says. “I will go and gather more rosemary.”

Obediently, Zo lies down and closes her eyes. She can feel the old woman staring at her a long moment, and then she hears her slip out of the cave.

This is the first afternoon Zo hasn’t had any tea, and her blood hums with energy. Her thoughts are clear. All sense of lethargy and disorientation is gone. So. Her terrible suspicion is correct; Kohinoor has been drugging her…but for what purpose?

Zo sits up quickly. She doesn’t know how much time she has before Kohinoor will be back.

Grabbing the torch, Zo again goes to the back of the cave, into the narrow passage, and back to the painted cav­ern. She first takes a closer look at the table Kohinoor was making. With her free hand, Zo pulls the wooden planks up, and feels her heart tumble into her stomach.

It’s not a table—it’s a cradle.

And at the moment, she feels a flutter in her womb. A tiny tremble.

Zo’s hand flies to her belly. Her baby… Cosmas’s baby.

She’s still alive.

Zo almost sways with relief, happiness, and…horror. Not only has Kohinoor been drugging her—which Zo might have dismissed as a well-meaning attempt to prevent her from overexerting herself—but Kohinoor has been lying to her.

A cradle and a cage. One for the infant and one, Zo re­alizes with rapidly increasing horror, for her. The cage is for Zo.

She lurches back, and as she does, the torch sweeps an orange swath of light across the wall. The paintings are il­luminated, and the winged child stands out in sharp relief. In the flickering light, the wings look as if they are beat­ing the air. And as Zo stares at the prophecy, she feels her child kick.

Her heart now a hammer against her chest, her eyes flick to the image beside it: the girl, falling from the Pegasus—her. Her empire’s capital burning. And a child, destined to save it from flames.

Her child.

She needs to get out of here, away from destroyed vil­lages and soothsayers, away from iron cages and drugged tea. She must get to Persepolis, to tell the Great King about the missing villages and the warning on the wall.

To find answers.

To save her child.


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