The Poisoner's Revenge: a Kingfountain tale
Ankarette Tryneowy is now the best poisoner in all the lands. Feared by enemies abroad and even those in her own kingdom, she has risen to the pinnacles of power and influence at the court in Kingfountain.
But when news comes that the rival of the Queen is dead, Ankarette must go on her most dangerous mission yet. To prove whether a war of succession fought years before is truly over or whether a new threat is about to emerge from the shadows. For some will stop at nothing to satisfy their thirst for revenge, even if they must reach beyond the grave to do it.
Release date: February 27, 2023
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 52
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The Poisoner's Revenge: a Kingfountain tale
Ankarette’s wrists were bound, as were her legs, and a little splash of water came over the edge of the canoe as it hurtled along the river. She heard the roar of the falls coming as she gritted her teeth and fought against her bonds. The ropes on her wrists were beginning to give, loosening under the strain and pressure of her movements. She’d been trained at the poisoner school to escape bonds. But never had she needed to do so against the urgent rush of dwindling time. The canoe was heading toward the falls. The king’s brother wanted her dead and had arranged a midnight arrest, a false trial, and now had taken on the role of executioner himself as well. The image of his face leering at her helplessness was scalded into her mind.
“My wife is dead because of you,” he’d rasped with vengeance in his voice. “You failed, Ankarette. Now embrace my revenge.” She could still remember the sour smell of wine on his breath. It had made her want to vomit.
Jerking hard one last time, she freed her wrists and quickly unraveled the ropes. The confinement of the canoe hedged her in, but she managed to sit up, just enough to see the stunning sanctuary of Our Lady, its tall spires lit by torches in the night. It sat on an island in the midst of a churning river, at the head of the falls. The palace was on her left—dark, foreboding. The king was visiting the fortress of Dundrennan in the North. He was days away, too far away to learn about her plight. Too far to save her.
The river was ink black, the sky devoid of moon but straddled with stars. There were no cheering crowds lining the bridge, watching in macabre fascination as another victim of justice was thrown into the waters, a life paid in tribute to the Fountain.
She started working on her legs, realizing the futility of escaping. She had a minute left, at the most. Even if she had oars and paddles, it would be an impossible labor to steer toward the sanctuary in time. Her heart was pounding in her chest with the dread anticipation of coming death. The plunge was just beyond the sound of the roar.
Still she fought to untie her legs. The need to survive, at any cost, drove her. Soon the bonds were loose. But it was too late. The boat began to shake as the violent surge of waters nearly upended her. A childhood memory of jumping off a massive boulder into a river came spurting into her mind. And then the void opened up before her, the waves acting as a catapult as they shoved the canoe into open air.
Falling, falling, falling.
* * *
She awoke with a gasp, as she always did at that part of the dream. It was too terrible even for sleep. The room was predominantly dark, save for the fat stub of a candle she’d left burning on the table. The curtains on the bed blocked most of the light, and she sat up, damp with sweat, her heart still pounding at the memory. She’d dreamed it a dozen times since it had happened. And yet, each time, she felt the terror anew.
The night King Eredur’s brother had tried to murder her.
Then she heard the footsteps marching up the stairs to the tower where her room lay. The person made no attempt to hide the sound of their approach. The poisoner’s tower in the palace of Kingfountain was her private lair, her peaceful domain. There were no servants who came to light the brazier for warmth or to clean her linens. All the ways leading up to it had been secured long ago, and only the Espion tunnels led there now.
The person approaching was making noise deliberately. They were probably afraid she might kill them.
Ankarette parted the curtain and slid her legs off the bed. Her stomach cramped painfully, and it took a moment for it to subside. At the top of the bedstead were some small shelves that held some of her little treasures of memory. From one she removed a vial with a screwed-on cap and quickly twisted it. She took a little swallow of the ichor, cringing at its awful flavor before it slithered down her throat. It would ease the pain in her stomach. She rested a moment, clutching the bottle to her middle, and then put the cap back on and returned it to its place.
The newcomer arrived at the door. She saw the light from his lantern at the base and saw the marks of shadow. There was a hesitation. She rose, fetching the dagger she kept near her pillow, and waited.
A timid knock sounded.
Ankarette rose from the bed and came forward, her bare feet silent on the rug. She waited to respond, drawing closer.
Another knock sounded.
Ankarette reached it, watching the handle to see if it would move. It didn’t.
“Yes?” she asked, whispering just loud enough to be heard.
“The . . . uh . . . the king,” said the muffled voice. “Wishes to see you.”
Eredur never summoned her during the night. Not anymore. The news must be dire. She shifted her grip on the dagger. “Very well,” she answered. She said no more. Whoever the messenger was, probably some Espion lackey, he waited a moment longer and then started back down the tower steps. She rested her forehead on the door, feeling the grain of wood against her brow. A knot of dread entered her heart.
Who would the king want her to kill next?
* * *
Coming down from the tower was an agony. Ankarette’s insides were still ravaged by the poison she’d been given years before by the Occitanian poisoner, Lord Hux. He’d also provided the vial, and several others, with her name engraved in beautiful letters, containing not the antidote, but a serum that would forestall its effects. She’d spent years trying to unmask a cure and had failed. Whatever plant his poison came from remained a secret to the best apothecaries in Ceredigion, Brugia, and even, on her secret trips, in Occitania. But she had a suspicion that the poison came from farther afield. The East Kingdoms, perhaps? After so many journeys, Eredur had finally forbidden her to leave court in search of the cure. Perhaps her absence was just what Lord Hux wanted before he struck at Eredur. The treaty between Ceredigion and Occitania that had been signed years before was still in force, but Ankarette felt the Occitanian king was only biding his time, waiting for Eredur’s power to wane.
She reached the royal bedchamber through the Espion tunnels and opened the secret latch to the room. There was plenty of light beyond, and she found the king standing before the remains of the nightly fire. He wore his breeches and a comfortable robe, which was open, revealing his massive chest and unwanted girth. He was no longer the soldier of his youth, the young man who had fought in brutal wars to become the wearer of the hollow crown. He did not look ready for war.
Queen Elyse sat at the edge of the bed, also wearing a night robe. Her flaxen hair had some silver in it now, but she was a stately woman, and her eyes were full of concern as she stared at her husband. She was the first to notice Ankarette’s arrival.
“She’s here,” Elyse said and rose from the bed to come and embrace her. The two were friends, having shared many adventures as well as many tragedies together. Ankarette’s nickname among the Espion was the Queen’s Poisoner. The two embraced, and Elyse pressed a kiss to Ankarette’s cheek. “You look pained.”
Ankarette smiled sadly. “It will pass soon.”
The king turned away from the hearth and faced her, his eyes containing the secret. Some of his chest hairs were silver now. He looked weary, weighed down, depressed.
“You summoned me?” Ankarette asked, tilting her head. After the king’s brother Dunsdworth had sent her over the falls, her survival had been a closely guarded secret. She did not walk the corridors of the palace now, keeping to the shadows where she could advise the king and queen in secret. Sometimes her recommendation went counter to the king’s privy council. And more often than not, he heeded her advice over theirs.
“A messenger from the North just arrived,” Eredur said. “From Tom.” Ankarette’s eyes narrowed. Even after so many years, hearing his name made her flinch inside, made the ache flare anew. They had loved one another. But that had ended when he’d married Duke Horwath’s daughter. They had a little girl, Ankarette knew. Lord Thomas Mortimer believed Ankarette was dead, that she’d been killed at the falls in an act of treason by Dunsdworth. She wanted to keep it that way. His marriage had not been an overtly happy one. But there was no doubt he doted on his daughter.
“What did it say?” Ankarette asked. She gave an air of unconcern, which she knew didn’t deceive Elyse. Their hearts were knit too close for such deceptions.
It was Elyse who answered the question. “Morvared is dead.”
Ankarette turned, gazing sharply at the queen. That was unexpected news. “When did this happen?”
“King Lewis has kept it a secret for the most part,” Eredur said, his look turning darker. “The Espion didn’t know. But Tom has friends in many distant ports. Someone who thought he would want to know that Morvared hated him as well. He sent me word right away.”
“Ankarette,” Elyse said warily, shaking her head. “We don’t know for certain if it is true. The old queen’s health may have been failing. Or perhaps she was . . . poisoned.”
A feeling of dizziness had come over Ankarette. She felt like she needed to sit down. Lord Hux had told her that as long as Eredur spared Queen Morvared’s life, that Ankarette’s own would be spared. He had provided, in ways mysterious, replenishment vials to replace hers. Ankarette had used them sparingly, trying to keep extra in reserve. At least twice a year the replacement would arrive. She had an entire vial that had not been opened yet.
Eredur folded his arms. “Why the Occitanian king has kept it secret, I don’t know. But I don’t trust Lewis. He may have replaced Hux as his herald, but I don’t believe he means to keep the terms of the treaty. We’ve been collecting the tributes he’s paid. But I knew they might come to an end eventually. He wants his daughter to marry our eldest son. To keep the peace between our realms. To unite Occitania and Ceredigion once again. Or is that a pretext as well? They’re both children.”
Elyse nodded in agreement. “Has he been intending to call it off all along? We don’t know. But Morvared’s death comes at a suspicious time. And we couldn’t help but remember the warning Lord Hux gave you, in particular, Ankarette.”
She mastered her feelings and gripped the queen’s hand in return. “You didn’t summon me in the dead of night simply to share the news with me. You want me to go to Occitania and find out if she’s truly dead.”
Eredur smirked and let out a low chuckle. “Yes, that was our exact intent, Ankarette. Tom’s message said she died at the castle in Dompier.”
Ankarette nodded. “Then that is where I will go. Do you know where Lord Hux is? Has there been any word from him?”
Eredur shook his head. “Unfortunately no. Lewis chose a new herald years ago, and so Hux’s movements are a mystery. He’s probably still at Shynom.” The king looked at her pointedly. “Are you going to seek him out, Ankarette?”
The queen also looked at her worriedly.
Ankarette and Hux’s rivalry had lasted for years. He was the master poisoner. The most powerful one serving any kingdom. Yes, she’d managed to outsmart him on occasion. But it seemed like conflict between them was inevitable now. It was impossible to guess his actions or his reasons.
“It may be best if I did,” Ankarette said. “If I could get him to breathe a little nightshade, I could force him to tell me the secret of the cure.”
The king’s lips were pressed together worriedly, and he stepped forward. “I can’t afford to lose you, Ankarette Tryneowy. Not when my children are so young. I’m feeling my age more every day. In ten years, my sons will be ready to rule in my stead, and I can relinquish more power to them. For now, I have to rely on my brother, Severn.”
The queen’s look darkened at that statement. Yes, there was bad blood between the Duke of Glosstyr and the queen. Severn was Eredur’s right hand, the leader of his armies and keeper of peace of the realm. Eredur relied on him, but Severn’s biting sarcasm and inability to forgive had earned him many enemies, including members of Elyse’s family. It was strange, but Eredur and Elyse’s oldest child, the queen’s namesake, had a great fondness for her uncle. The boys, on the other hand, preferred their mother’s family.
“You don’t think I should seek out Lord Hux, then,” Ankarette said.
“I won’t forbid you to,” he replied. “I trust you too much. I know you won’t act out of spite or without reason. Go where the trail leads you. If it leads you to Hux . . .” He paused, shrugging. Then his eyes turned deadly earnest. “Then ensure he cannot interfere in our realm any more than he already has in the past.”
“I will,” Ankarette said, nodding. “I will take a ship at first light. Dompier is west of Averanche in the heart of Occitania.”
“If you need anything, send word to Duke Kiskaddon in Tatton Hall,” Eredur said. “I have Bennett stationed there. He’ll help you if you need it.”
Ankarette tilted her head and thought a moment. Bennett was a solid Espion and had been her friend many years. But she trusted her own instincts best and her Fountain magic. Going alone would be easier. “Does the duke know I’m still alive?” She had fond feelings for the duke and his family. She’d helped their youngest son at his birth. It was the first and only time she’d used her Fountain magic to bring a stillborn back to life. As a young woman, she’d been trained as a midwife. That was how she saw herself—a bringer of life, not of death.
Eredur shook his head. “None of them know, Ankarette. That is how you wanted it.”
She wondered how the duke’s little boy was doing. But saw no reason to break free of her self-imposed concealment. She especially didn’t trust the king’s other brother not to attempt to continue what Dunsdworth had begun. Killing Dunsdworth still caused her pain. But Eredur had ordered it. She hoped he would never order her to kill his other brother too.
She was about to leave when the door handle turned and the door to the hall opened. All three turned, trying to see who was entering their room in the middle of the night without knocking. Ankarette had reached for her dagger, but it turned out to be their eldest daughter, named after her mother. Another child Ankarette had helped save during childbirth.
“What is it darling?” the queen asked, coming to meet her.
“I heard voices . . . one I didn’t know,” said the young woman who was sixteen and looked so much like her mother. “Who is she?”
“I will tell you later, Daughter. Go back to bed,” Elyse said to the girl, who eyed Ankarette with interest and curiosity.
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