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Dream of Embers Book 1

 

 

Dream of Embers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

J.B. Kleynhans

 

 

Dream of Embers

Copyright 2016 by J.B. Kleynhans

Shakespir Edition

 

 

Dedicated with love to my parents, for a foundation as enduring as the mountains

Acknowledgements

 

A very special thanks to Morgan-Leigh Nortjé, who gladly read it first, her enthusiastic proof-reading and diligent editing having helped shape the book as it is today. Also to my mom, Lynette Bisschoff, who not for the first time helped me prepare a presentable story. Then to those who made the story real, people who found the time to read this book when it was undergoing major changes and gave me the confidence to persist. They are Liddy-Joan Marran, Nellie Lourens, Mercia Malan, Jacques SchrÖder and Emile Diedericks among many others. A heartfelt thanks to all of you.

Prologue

 

It was at first light that Shala disturbed the waters, a lone bird cry having beckoned dawn, and stripped naked she waded into the cold, where the sacred stream of Seluin came tumbling from snowy peaks.

Further in and the water drew level to her breasts, her nipples stiffening, and her eyes shut as she willed her mind into the ancestral dream of Evrelyn in search of strength.

The worthy dwell here…

All warmth leaving her she did her best not to shudder and shiver, wanting to show no weakness before the mountain. Yet involuntary movements crept up her body all the same, afraid that the tiniest tremor might displease the spirits of a lost order.

The strong linger in places where others cannot…

But thoughts of doubt crossed her mind and they would not leave her without having their say. The Wolves are long dead, tremble all you like, you are alone in your petty ritual.

A harsh wind had come down the mountain that night, hurtling through snow-laden passes with a howl that reminded the north of those who once walked the ranges of Dunnoom. Its ghostly fury was their dead echo and the fear of it was waited out by friend and foe alike. Smoke billowing chimneys from town told of people huddling around a fire, and maybe, at least some of them, speaking amongst each other of the Savage Art. Late in the night, when the white moon had danced among the clouds for hours, the wind finally abated, the world holding its breath.

Come dawn the sun crested the horizon slowly, illuminating the castle of Attoras, nestled at the rocky foot of the Black Mountains, the morning air crisp. Where the slope allowed for such things was kept the secret enclave with its pool as smooth as a mirror, hidden behind the castle and out of sight from town. The waters there had iconic white pillars circling its boundary, a low icy mist still clinging to its surface.

Higher up, an old keep long abandoned rested far above the castle of Attoras, built near the summit and obscured by folds of heaven high spires of rock. Throughout the year blizzards pummelled the peaks with snow, barricading its surroundings in white mounds. From the foot of the keep’s gate spilled the water freshly thawed, following natural mountain channels to down below.

The mightiest of Attoras’ warriors once resided in that keep, and bathed also in the waters even as Shala did now, cleansing themselves of weakness and doubt. They were the Wolves of the Black Mountain, infamous and renowned, having passed from this world without a whisper.

The water itself was pure and untainted, rolling and bubbling over every other rock on the way down, a trail of a thousand tiny waterfalls, said to take upon itself the strength of the mountain as it did, delivering to those who could dare into the cold the strength of Dunnoom and renewing a faithless heart. The pool in which Shala stood was where the water finally came to rest, there to provide a crippling test, reducing one and all to nothing but the power of their will.

‘Open your eyes, Princess,’ said deBella suddenly, the handmaiden, her usually warm demeanour as cold as the water. deBella wandered the enclave with a heavy amphora in her hands, her shoes tapping lightly on the white porcelain tiles around the pool. ‘Look up into the mountain and hold to your dream. Embrace the cold.’

I must be strong to rule in his stead…

But her enemies were pressing, many of them living right here in the castle and using their fealty to the crown as a guise to sabotage Shala’s birthright. They were King’s men in name only, for they desired no heir from Evrelyn. It was only here that she truly escaped them, in the privacy of an ancient ritual, where she suffered in the cold. The castle is supposed to be my birthright.

‘Turn your thoughts away from this place child,’ said deBella knowingly.

Shala obliged for her own sake, losing focus meant the cold became overwhelming.

deBella moved closer to impart the last of the test. Standing right above Shala, deBella turned the amphora over and spilled the icy water on Shala’s head, her thick auburn hair instantly rendered dark and plastered to her face. She did not wince or gasp, but inhaled deeply through her nose to warm the air in her lungs, as the new shock of cold left her breathless.

Strengthen yourself child or you will die!’ urged deBella.

In the serenity of the dream she called the magic, the familiar power of Evrelyn, the healing hands of the king. Gently it bubbled within her, and it kept dangers of the cold away.

Seeing the change in her deBella said, ‘Good child, the discipline of your mind must become a fine edge that does not waver.’

Using the discomfort to slay all intrusive thoughts, Shala brought her mind to the keep sitting high in the mountains among a veil of clouds, its foundation built over a waterfall. Half awake and yet halfway into slumber the family of Evrelyn could walk in this dream and summon powers inherent to them. It was a welcoming place, but it reminded her of death and what follows afterwards. In the foremost of her thoughts came her father’s note, a passage he had written on his deathbed.

“Here, I sign the death of my House, but not yet the end of all things.” He wrote.

What say had you in the fate of the world Father?

But she feared she knew the answer, and that whatever her father failed at she must now accomplish. He would expect that of her, and for him, she would do it, lovingly.

Chapter 1

In Days to Come

 

In a different time and place Shala walked along a dirt road, wandering blissfully in a memory of her youth. In the blessed forests of Norwain a tall man walked at her side. His face had the look of wisdom, but didn’t tell of age, with longish hair that made curls and extraordinary green eyes visible below the hood of his cloak. His kind dressed like rangers or hunters out on the road, fading along with the browns and greens and greys of the wood, a longbow slung over the shoulder at all times. The outfit was very humble, except for a small marvellous stone worked into the palm of a thick leather glove on his right hand. By now Shala knew the crystalline stone had nothing to do with vanity.

The man’s name was Metrus and he called himself one of the Druids of the Grove. He was a close friend to the Kingdom, and an even closer friend to the ruling House of Evrelyn. In all ways he was a tutor to Shala, teaching her of the world and of dreams, and at this time point in time, of woodcraft and trailblazing.

‘Do not stray from the path Shala,’ he said to a Princess that struggled to keep close at hand. He called her by name here in Norwain, the sacred grove not partial to titles of men.

‘But how will I pick up the trail if I don’t go searching?’ she said, looking through the wildflowers in her hands which she had stooped to poach.

‘The land takes a quick plunge not far from here, and you’ll not see your own tumble until it is too late because of the undergrowth. Besides, you won’t find trails looking for flowers – unless they are trampled by a hoof, which these certainly are not,’ said Metrus with a smile.

Shala blushed guiltily, her mind far from stalking any prey today. Metrus took a step closer to her and put his fingers lightly on the flowers in her hand. He mumbled, and there was the slightest hint of light from his bejewelled glove. Taking his hand away Shala looked on eagerly as the stringy stems of the flowers curled and twisted, forming around her wrists like bracelets. The petals themselves came into fullness if not already so, and their colour became as bright as they could ever be, their scent wafting pleasantly. ‘There, in all ways, a true blossoming,’ said Metrus.

Shala smiled, both at the flowers and his observation.

‘How is your magic so different from my own? You seem to own all the tricks I could hope to have.’ And this was the least Shala had seen the man accomplish. At times he would sing, in a fair voice much different from his usually husky tone and in response all the flowers would turn to him like he was sunshine itself, winds whirling low and gentle to distribute unspent pollen, and everything would bloom and grow.

‘You belong to a different domain child. You do not dwell in dreams as we Druids often do, but still you touch it, still you are at least familiar with the dream of Evrelyn, the kingly house of healing.’

Shala frowned.

‘It is the dream of the old keep, its foundation bridged over a great waterfall in the mountain – you’ve seen this before?’

‘Yes!’ said Shala, having had this dream upon many nights. ‘How could you know?

‘It is a dream well-known and shared by all your ancestry, and when your spirit is welcome in that place, you may draw into this world the power of your House, the healing hands as it is.’

‘Can I visit this dream at will? So that I may walk the paths and see what lies beyond those gates and all?’ asked Shala.

‘No child, and do not attempt it! Dreaming like that where you wander the places of your ancestors is akin to standing with one foot in life and the other in death, and you are much too young for that. The strongest of magi are all but dead, their eyes glazed over and their ears deaf to the nonsense of men, doing their wonders in this world, but their minds already abiding in another.’

Shala took stock of what the Druid said. She saw a pair of butterflies orbiting one another as they flew past and a question formed in her mind.

‘So the caterpillar dreams also?’ asked Shala, hoping to test the Druid.

Metrus smiled as if he knew what the Princess was trying to do. ‘In a way, but their dream is elementary and inevitable, and its blossoming is a constant of nature. If it does not blossom and become a butterfly, then something is wrong. Blossoming for mankind is something else entirely, for the old blood has grown thin, and we are too in love with our world to spend too much time dreaming.’

‘Scholar Naceus says you can shape into an eagle, and I’d not believe it, save that you often arrive far faster than a horse can run. Is that blossoming?’

‘Scholar Naceus tells you too much,’ said Metrus with a laugh, ‘but while it is among friends, yes; I blossom at times to become an eagle, and soar above all that is part of Attoras.’

Shala smiled broadly at the idea. ‘Will I blossom to become something one day?’

‘Most assuredly Highness, and it is no secret, you will blossom into an even more beautiful woman, and in time become a beloved Queen of the Kingdom.’

Shala blushed. ‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘What is it that Scholar Naceus told you again?’ said Metrus knowingly, so very familiar with the answer.

‘Life is all about asking the right questions…’ she repeated dully, as though the old Scholar had drilled it into her. ‘I don’t understand it though, it doesn’t sound that important. A question is a question, isn’t it?’

‘One day you will understand it; you will learn that every belief, every dream, every action and everything we covet is come about by asking questions of this world and of ourselves. The kind of question is what gives direction. Remember this well, because the mind forgets quickly, and sometimes the right question can soon remind us of truths, both those within us and those others try to hide.’

A seventeen year old Shala did not always understand what Metrus was getting at. ‘Father taught me that as long as I’m true to myself I’ll be able to dream of the waterfall, the Icy Falls as they call it.’

‘That is true and like your ancestry it’ll give you strength all of your life. Like the Grove provides for me as long as I represent its collective will.’

‘And yet others dream of many different things, and only my kin is allowed to dream of the old Keep and the waterfall. Is every dream like a world then?’ asked Shala abruptly.

‘Yes, and no, somehow they are of the same substance, the same thread that runs through your dream runs through the dream of the Archendal, or of the Dey’illumra for that matter.’

‘But they are… evil…’ said Shala, not sure if anything Metrus said could be false, but in this she felt he was in the wrong.

‘And the world and the echelons above us do not differ on whether man is good or evil, it takes and gives to all kinds. Very few royal Houses still have powerful blood, you must cherish yours. Because our world one day might very well be without the gifts given by the Benevolence, as they certainly return to the source.’

‘The source?’

‘To the great Dream itself, to our best estimation, the south of the land, Nem Nemuris they call it, maybe the only bastion of it known to us.’

‘And gifts are gone from Angaria by the means of death?’

‘Yes, and for those of you who are mortal, your tenures of power will make of you targets for those who extinguish light for the most fleeting greed. And the men and women who escape the pursuits of kingslayers often look south and decide to make the journey – so that death can mean something more.

It is life itself that is so very fragile. It all hangs like a droplet of water from the edge of a cold blade, there but for a moment, threatening to fall and end it all. Everything like a dream, just on the verge of waking up…’

 

II

 

Shala woke abruptly, her head rising from the pages of a book on the table surface. Taking a moment, she was glad to realize that she was still alone in the library, where sleep had clearly overtaken her fascination for the book she had been reading.

She’d been dreaming, and thinking hard, she gathered her wits and tried to pin down the dream before it could slip from her recollection.

It had been vivid, a memory in fact, where she had spent one summer two years ago on the borders of Norwain forest, learning the craft of the wild from Metrus the Druid.

On that day their discussion had turned to the nature of her dreams, and where the power of Evrelyn came from. Of course all of Attoras knew of the healing hands of the King and his House, more life-giving and generous than any other with gifts of healing. But even men and women close to dreams of power were not always certain on how they worked.

She could not imagine why this memory bothered her now, not when so many other matters were troubling her. Maybe her mind sought gentler times?

She looked at the pages of the book before her, a slight fold set in the paper where her head had rested on her arms. The story was good and she enjoyed it, but it ended every affair with celebration and love found, in essence heart-warming and predictable. Yes, I am looking for gentler times, she thought, not having slept well in many days.

With the library being in the east wing, the morning daylight sprawled into windows many men tall, crystal clear so that all might enjoy inside what was outside. This was her spot, in daylight, away from candles or lamps, often pacing with a book she read, up and down, to the dismay of the librarians. They called her restless, but how could she read her favourite parts sitting still?

A distant shout shook her from her musings. Many noises came from the town below, but above all else she heard the voice of the marshal, a strict man named Gibbon, and by his booming commands knew the soldiers of her household guard were in training, and that they were so tired by now that only a man with a tongue like a whip kept them going.

She stood up curiously to the window sill to have a look at the courtyard below. In a square of sand, mostly apart from the mill of civilians, were her soldiers arranged in pairs, at a duel with one another. As they were Shala could not recognize them individually, yet being bare-chested and armed with wooden quarterstaves she could see welts and bruises on their bodies already showing by this hour.

The strokes were awfully hard and fast, not at all like the duels they had in acts and plays. There was no exaggeration in their movements and the rounds of their bouts often lasted but seconds before one man struck down another, the loser usually at the receiving end of Gibbon’s harshest insult. Conversely, the winner got his fair share of critique as was the marshal’s way. Shala remained watching, as the sun glistened from the sweat of their bodies, muscles showing in their strain, as skill and temperament were revealed in mock combat.

Nowadays Shala felt that she could take such a man, maybe a captain or so, and before he could humbly protest stick him in front of the altar and be wed to him. And even if he became King, Shala would still rule, for he would only bear the crown by her grace. He need not talk much, as long as he’d listen, and for all his strength of being a soldier he would be gentle with her, because she would choose the man from the look in his eyes.

But that would never happen, she reminded herself. That was left for one of the books she had just read, where the Princess marries a Knight by some obscure logic found only in stories. Shala laughed a bit at the thought. Her own Knights were men with strange and lonely minds, loyal to the death and abroad most of the time, as they were now. The Knights were almost celibate in their isolation, although Shala could see them taking a willing stranger for a night in a far off land. Even with their duties and sacrifice Shala envied their freedom. She wanted roads before her, and mountains to climb, and to pass no great tree twice until she had passed them all.

“With title and privilege a web is spun, where choices are few, and decisions made for the Kingdom are more important than those made for the person,” Scholar Naceus had explained to her once. I should know that by now.

And she could live by that until recently, when, by the Council’s behest, came forward a man from the noble House of Sannil, named Patrick, who the Council deemed Shala should be married to for the good of the Kingdom, “for the good of Attoras,” they all said.

Nothing could repulse her more. Shala held no respect for the man, and much less love. He was a young puppet with illusions of power, unable to see the strings of his benefactors above his own head, and personally Shala had only found malice in his eyes. He wasn’t a strong man and he would be a cruel king, this much Shala knew. These thoughts of injustice carried her away and left on her own she stooped to a brooding mood.

A set of footsteps pierced the obstinate silence of the library and told her that she was about to have company. She hoped it wasn’t one of the snooty librarians who would certainly lecture her on the trail of books she left from place to place, not attending to them until she was well and done finished reading. Cursorily she closed many of the books around her, in order to lessen any impending outrage.

But by appearing in a white apron over a striped shirt she knew this man was no librarian: Kaell already carried a familiar smile on his face as he came down the stairs to the very first landing of the library, holding a tray of pastries in his hands. He was a young cook in the legendary Master Jalson’s kitchen, who was famous for his food and famous for his temper. Kaell had everything of his Master’s talent, but was otherwise as docile as a lamb.

Shala often thought that Kaell had a handsome face, and for the year and a half that she’d come to know him he always carried that kind smile and the eagerness to keep her company. He had the habit of showing up wherever the Princess might be and an even stranger ability of always knowing her whereabouts.

But she did not mind, because there was no threat or unkind intention, and though he was skinny and weak, he looked out for her like he was part of the household guard. Wondering about people as she often did Shala feared for his part that he would grow old to become soft and fat like Dieral, the Master of Ceremonies, mostly because Kaell enjoyed his own cooking and treats just as much as everyone else, and had all access to his own talent.

For all his respect of books Kaell did not heed any library etiquette parading with food here, but the Princess was the last person to make a fuss about it, as she was often the beneficiary of Kaell’s work.

At a distance she already got the scent of his finest baking efforts, her stirred appetite waking more cheerful thoughts in her.

‘Fresh from the oven Highness, although while searching for you they have cooled down nicely. I’d like your Highness to try it if you will; I think I am getting close to perfecting the recipe.’

Taking one with a smile, she said, ‘Hmm, this is good, I miss the cinnamon however,’ she said taking another bite, ‘Do you intend for me to end up looking like Master Dieral?’

‘No Highness, you will never have to bear the title of Master, and never bear the weight of one… neither will you eat as much as one mentioned. The keeper of Ceremonies dreams heartily of food all day long, and he enjoys the many passages into a kitchen where even Master Jalson cannot chase him from. He speaks of merely tasting to ensure the food remains of high quality, but his apparent nibbles take their toll on our supplies.’

Shala laughed. ‘An odd thing to dream about; food! Hmm, dreams… do you dream interesting things Kaell?’

‘No Highness, but I often dream I’m waking up from a nap sitting against a tree in the garden below, the old elm tree, and you approach to where I still sit, with great scorn on your face.’

‘Have I ever scorned you?’ asked Shala with a smile.

‘Yes on the occasion Highness, which is why I rarely approach without pastries and cakes anymore.’

Shala scoffed indignantly. ‘You know I can give you trouble for bringing food to the library.’

Kaell laughed and dismissed her warning, which he knew didn’t carry substance. ‘Still at it I see Highness, are you intent on working your way through the entire library?’

‘All this,’ she said, pointing to shelves, ‘is as close as a person like me will come to seeing the world, experiencing it in different eras, exploring things that have happened, will happen, and things we wish would happen. Maybe I’ll teach you to read and write as well. Then you’ll know what I mean.’

‘I can do both Highness; Master Jalson would not allow an illiterate cook running around in his kitchens.’

Shala tasted one of the other pastries, smiling at the flavour. ‘Take these away from me now.’

‘I take it for a success then?’ said Kaell hopefully, putting the tray aside.

Shala nodded, swallowing her last bite. ‘But don’t stop working at it, there is only one Master of the kitchen and he is chosen on merit, not friendship.’

‘Alas, all my effort to impress spent in vain,’ said Kaell in mock.

Shala crossed her arms. ‘I should have known you had an agenda, tell me this; is it painful to pretend to be a friend to one such as I?’

Kaell laughed. ‘Admittedly there is no pretence Highness, and I find it hard to play at a charade where I could have a hidden motive. I’d rather spend my days with you than managing kitchens anyway,’ he said, his infatuation sometimes shameless.

She smiled with a faraway look. Kaell knew that any mirth touching her face was a brief distraction from current affairs. ‘Many shadows have been tailing me lately, mean-spirited ones, I am glad at least one of them is you Kaell. Although that you find so much time on your hands is troubling,’ she added teasingly.

The cook was about to rush to his own defence with a wisecrack, but Shala held up her hand to gesture silence.

Another pair of footsteps approached and Shala motioned desperately for Kaell to try and hide the tray of pastries, and he was at a loss of finding a solution that didn’t involve him ducking in under the table with the tray. Before he could do such a thing however, Shala grabbed him by the elbow – it was only deBella.

With her hair in a bun she came down the stairs, her hands entwined in front of her, and she let not anything pass her mouth until she was next to the Princess. Her grave face already made Shala rise, towering above the short and aging handmaiden.

‘Dear, it’s your father. I can’t know how long he will last, but his time will be soon. You must come while you still can.’

Shala’s breath shuddered where she stood and her face fell to despair, already resigned to what she must face today.

‘Go on, Highness, I will take care of the books,’ said Kaell softly, setting the tray on the table, its presence trivialised now.

Shala was off without a word, the handmaiden following her out. Kaell set about gathering all the books the Princess had removed from their shelves, and for all its sunlight the library was morbid now. On the upper levels, where the wooden walkways spanned tightly against the highest of shelves, a tall figure stood hooded in a black robe and looked down on the cook. Unawares that he was being watched, a chill ran down Kaell’s spine, ‘Evil has made its way into the castle, I can feel it,’ he said to himself.

 

 

Shala walked the passages of the castle solemnly, her heart filled with dread, her paces quickening to satisfy her mind from the fear of arriving too late.

All the castle staff gave her but a glance, as if already knowing, as if already looking at her as the Queen. Ascendency would take a heavy price.

Before the west wing two lines of the household guard stood solemn watch, backs to the wall, armoured from head to toe, their presence restricting all at this point but Shala and the disciples of Evrelyn. Captain Merohan, the foremost of the household guard escorted her into the infirmary, beckoning her through the doors with a quiet, ‘Your Highness.’

Inside many people lay bedridden, most taken by the same disease as her father. Such a ravaging thing it was, called Pilgrim’s Malice, and true to the name it was a foreign traveller that first brought it to Attoras where the people had no resistance to it. It took its time, but untreated it decayed a person until and onto death. Only her father’s case had progressed so suddenly, resulting in a freakish onset of symptoms and a dire prognosis.

At the first signs of sickness her father was merely confined to his room, but was soon taken to the infirmary as he worsened, where the disciples could watch over him at all times.

The infirmary was the pride of the House of Evrelyn, home of the Kingly hands of healing. The folk of the land knew that if they could make it into the infirmary they could be saved from many a malady, or wounds or aches if that was their predicament.

Here the King or his daughter, or some of their disciples who shared in the power, were ready to attend to the tragedies befalling the people. Many who would be shunned as plague carriers were welcomed here, and here they had a fighting chance – yet there was no saving the King and Shala was left to wonder on the misfortune of a man falling sick by his own good-heartedness.

The infirmary was spread in many different rooms, but the hacking cough of the disease permeated through the halls. The lights were dimmed and the windows covered, because the disease made eyes sensitive. It brought darkness in all ways.

There was not even one patient she recognized since her last visit she realized despondently, they change that swiftly, and not necessarily because they are cured…All except for this one man that lay next to her father’s room, a large man they brought in many days ago from the town streets, fighting for his life, his sun-touched skin covered with feverish sweat at the best of times. He held better than most, but by the look of him Shala was not hopeful for him.

She entered her father’s room, finding Joshua, a leading disciple, at his bedside. In the gloom he nodded once at the Princess, and then left. The King, with all his power and familiar to the dreams of healing like no other among the living, could not tend to himself, lest he create a corruption within his own body.

Shala was powerful in her own right and with the help of their disciples they snatched many back from death’s door. Regardless, her father was beyond their ability, the disease having taken to him like no other before.

Shala dealt with the mystery in suspicion and confusion, for the disease could not touch her. She wandered these halls daily; held their hands and comforted the dying, and even got a spatter of blood-cough on her. Never did she show symptoms and not once did she feel weak or sick, save for the effect of the misery of this place. Not once since its dawn had the infirmary struggled with a single disease as it did now. It left them rather answerless.

She sat down where Joshua had sat, pulling the chair slightly closer to the bed.

‘I am here Father,’ she announced quietly to the man lying there, deep in sleep, teetering on the edge of death, his wheezing breath the only sign of life. All the parts of her that had prepared to simply accept this moment failed and the many things she wanted to tell him simply fell away. She pushed the chair out from underneath her and went on her knees, folding her hands upright on the edge of the bed, and closed her eyes.

She prayed to the Benevolence:

O Blessed Father, hear now my prayer, soft and whispering. To you to Whom all burdens can be proffered, I beg of great favour. From the Crimson City and the realm of dreams, there where you rest eternally. Stretch out your blessed hand, far across the land; over mountain and river and manmade nuisance, and heal where I cannot. I petition on behalf of this man…’

She sobbed.

‘… my father, the King. Her voice became lost and she had to stop until she could speak again. She breathed and swallowed. ‘A greater man there is not, and he is not old enough to depart. Spare him, for there is no better warrior, no braver heart and no kinder touch. He is a leader of men, whose crown and sceptre keeps the people honourable and steadfast. Do not let his Kingdom fall so easily! He cannot depart when so many are in need of him, but above allPlease, please, do not take him away from me!’

She opened her eyes, and a moment later wetted her hands in the bowl next to her father’s bed, a bowl filled with the Seluin waters of the mountain. Knowing it was vain she cast her magic on him again, the waters providing the substance of the spell, in a last effort to defeat the disease. There came no change. Dreading that this may be her last gestures, she checked his pillow, and threw another blanket over his legs. Rummaging through the bedside dresser, she sought the little book that would have one healer know to another what medications or herbs have been administered to the King recently. She had one quick glance at the latest entry to know there was nothing she could improve on.

As she slid the booklet back into the drawer she spotted a curious piece of torn parchment revealed in the mess of the other items. She would not have given it a second glance had she not seen her father’s script on it, his hasty handwriting still inclined to tall and elegant strokes:

 

And the dragon said to me, ‘I have written the truth upon your mind and in your heart.’

Those who walk the mountain walk with us no more…I should’ve seen it back

then… To them who listen, I admit, Evrelyn is spent.

Here, I sign the death of my House, but not yet the end of all things.

Yet even then and now there will be no rest for the tears I must cry for the fate of my lineage.

 

That was all of it. Nothing more. Nothing the two of them had ever discussed, and it was written in a defeated tenor she did not associate with her father. It was to her almost as cryptic as it would be to the next person. She could not, and would not, pay much attention to it now. She could not even begin to guess to what purpose her father had written this note, and wondered if he had at all intended for Shala to find it. He predicts me to fail? Has it to do with his request? She let the thought falter.

For a long while she simply sat at his side, the waiting taking its toll on her.

She could not say how much time passed. She heard his breath become still and then she did what she had to do, what her father had asked her to do but a few days ago.

‘I will die,’ he had said then, still able to speak coherently at the time, ‘and you must preserve what is left of me for the Dream of Embers.’

If Shala hadn’t sat right next to him, there would be no chance of her hearing his rasping voice, strained and hoarse.

‘You will not die and I will not put a spell on you that will seal your death so that there is no return!’ Shala spoke harshly.

‘You must!’ he said, and then coughed painfully in his excitement. ‘If the spell is not wrought in time my soul will be gone from this world and then one day you must go to Nem Nemuris and strengthen the Dream. No my child, I can still do it, rather let it be me. I would ask one of the disciples and leave you out of this deed, but you are the only one powerful enough to do it, and worthy besides, my own blood!

Shala would have protested still had her father but the strength to continue in debate, but there was already little left of him. Now at death she had nothing else to do than honour his wish. Again she dipped her hands in the bowl of water.

With resignation and great pain she held her hands out over her father’s body, shutting her eyes, and then cast the spell. A web of light spun from her hands, branching quickly as light would if caught suddenly by a dozen different mirrors. Slowly then it flowed and eased onto her father, soaking into his skin. She looked down on him.

He looked better, his skin more pearly now than pale, the mottled areas gone and the wrinkles of his face fading miraculously. But he was completely quiet now, the low breathing gone, his chest still. It was done. ‘I love you Father.’ She kissed him on the brow, the skin already cold.

And Shala let fall her head on the bed, covering her face with her arms, and she cried inconsolably.

 

 

III

 

The King was dead. By nightfall the entire town knew and by morning many messengers would ride out to carry the word. In the castle thousands of candles were lit, and they gave a scent reminiscent of rainwater on dust, a fragrance that lingered in the mind just like the man they honoured. Under the pale light of Mallova, the white moon, men gathered at night in homes and taverns, and soberly, they toasted to the name of Ankareus, or simply Anka as he was fondly known, “to the King!” they whispered, putting their mugs together.

Shala did not remember much of the next two days, save that the town was utterly distraught and that the castle was as grave as never before. Once this same King had stood almost invincible against a host of dragon invaders, doing battle in the very halls of the castle. To those old enough to remember those days the King’s departure was received in disbelieve.

deBella almost never left Shala’s side and despite her lack of appetite Kaell the cook kept bringing her food and tea. She would sip at the tea, but to appease Kaell’s worry she gave the food to her father’s hounds behind his back, which were glad to unburden her of it. She was sure that Kaell had noticed what she was doing with the food, because her tea got all the more sweeter, and she knew he was adding honey to it to keep her strength up.

In her wandering the halls she ruminated profusely on her father, and strangely, came to think a lot about her mother, the sombre castle now reminiscent of her childhood.

For more than ten years Attoras has stood vacant of a Queen. The Highlady Salstasha died in childbirth and the boy-heir that would have been Shala’s baby brother not long after, having come into this world with a weak constitution. Little as she was she grieved then, for grief was infectious in a place where a beloved was lost. In all ways deBella the handmaiden had made a great stand-in mother; tutoring, comforting and loving – but at the same time, came short in all ways of being Shala’s true mother.

King Ankareus never remarried, always saying he had his reasons, despite the admonishments of the Council and his advisors. When Shala had asked her father on it, he said that no other heir from another woman would have such blood as Shala carried within her, that he did not need sons to leave his House strong. Others did not believe that.

Her father’s concern in this matter became plain to her as she’d grown older; a son from another woman would become King, but might not have the healings hands as Shala did, the ancestral gift that King Anka would protect at all costs.

But for all it’s worth the hands of healing did not raise the dead and neither could it stem the grimmest of fates. After having heard of her father struggling gallantly to save his wife, her mother, Shala also became obsessed with matters of medicine and the gift of her ancestry. “Fortunately” as her father had remarked, “you have the talent, and stronger than I’ve yet seen among healers.”

Remembering many words between her and her father her mind sadly conjured images of the man in every hallway, his commanding voice echoing from the walls, always the centre of attention, a King owning the hearts of the people.

In the west wing of the castle following the immediate split of stairs in the entrance hall was a grand portrait of the late King, a fabled artistic work of a painter, friend to the King, and immensely skilled. Shala avoided the corridor altogether, not wanting to see her father so clearly and be reminded so vividly. In his living days he himself had found the portrait very amusing, throwing his head back and laughing at how handsome the brush of a painter could make him look.

 

 

On the third day after her father’s passing, Shala alone went to the throne room, sitting deep in the castle and called the heart of the cold northlands. Scholar Naceus had taught Shala that when a ruler sits there, she must think kindly of her people even on days where they seem like snowflakes soon to be melted, or pine needles of which the north had more than enough to spare. “And ask the right questions!” He would always add.

The throne room had become an empty place since her father’s death, where once the place was alive with the voice of the King. It was however its reawakening Shala dreaded. She knew the nature of this room. In the peaceful hours Shala as a girl would play at the foot of the throne, while the more sensible petitioners made their plea to the King. Come the ramblings of the Council, deBella or one of the household guard ferried Shala away, leaving King Anka to deal with their squabbles.

Shala looked around the deserted hall solemnly, studying the place where she would defend her family’s right to keep the throne. Tall pillars kept up the gallery where the council would sit when in audience with the King. From each of the pillars hung masterful tapestries many men tall, each portraying the insignia of a royal House and family that had ruled Attoras in the past. Shala always thought it was strange that the Council sat higher than the King, them being seated in the gallery, but she knew now it mattered little where her father sat; he was commanding no matter the circumstance. Now that lion of a man is dead and the scavengers of kingdoms will emerge, their hour has come.

In the domed roof of the throne room was an oculus right at the top, a gaping round hole showing the sky as it were. Men and women who petitioned before the King were only allowed at noon, when the sun could shine straight onto them and illuminate the truth of the claims or accusations they brought before the King. The measured oculus provided only a determined circle of sunlight on the patterned granite floor and Shala could imagine how daunting a commoner would find that spot. If that were only true I would have Chancellor Swarztial stand there for a day, and he’d be left confessing to a lifetime of scheming.

Other than that it brought in a cool breeze that had the stone hall chilly at the best of times. Shala was momentarily amused, remembering her father telling her that the oculus at the very least gave a ruler an excuse to not see petitioners the whole day long.

The throne itself stood on a dais at the far end of the chamber, golden and tall, and from its backrest sprouted golden ornate wings on each side, three on the left and three on the right, and right down the middle peaked the hilt of a sword, the blade set within a cavity inside the backrest itself, a sword to be drawn by none other than the King himself; the blade called Erenciel.

The Kingdom was begun and crafted with that sword, and whoever be the ruling House claimed ownership of it. Even with the sword belonging to the Kingdom and not the man, Ankareus still had a way of carrying it like it would know no other ruler.

It was a mighty thing, made for two hands and even then some men could not wield it in combat. Her father at a younger stage was tall and broad in the shoulder and he would sometimes take the sword and practice with it, much to the dismay of the Council members who said it should only be unfastened from its rest at times of war or great need. But her father cared not for their objections and he took the sword to the yard in town, and he would spar against one of his Captains or Knights, and all the people of the town would be allowed to gather around and watch.

The hilt was wrapped in rare dragonhide in his hands, the hide as bleached as his favourite pair of gloves.

When Shala asked her father where the dragonhide came from he would smile wryly and tell her stories of Knights and Wolves and Dragons. “Spoils of war little Shala, we took these mountains from the Dragons and they came to reclaim it, both them and their worshippers. It was their mistake to try conquering us during my reign.”

That memory tentatively had Shala thinking of her father’s note. That a dragon had spoken to him sounded like the worst of his delirium. Although maybe he was making sense of the dragons’ invasion twenty years ago? She did not know.

Turning her thoughts back to the sword she moved in behind the throne. Just to see it Shala drew the sword two inches from the rest; more than that she could not manage.

The ancient blade had a colour that was fallow gold like winter fields, and was seemingly steel but for the edge, where the sharpening process had revealed it was crafted from no normal iron-ore. Around the edge, the blade was white, not like snow, but rather like a polished ivory, and no weapon had ever looked as glorious as Erenciel – or so Shala decided. For all its use it did not break, it did not blunt and it did not fail, speaking as much of the hands that held it as it did of the sword.

I cannot even lift the thing from its rest, what still about wielding it? So she would let it be, and at least ensure that the next time it was drawn it would not be by an unfit King. A son of mine maybe, she thought hopefully.

She sat on the throne, the soft cushion giving no indication that her back was laid against a sword. It was dark, for the doors were shut and the lights unlit, and in the morning only a little sun made it through the high windows above the gallery and through the oculus.

Now I’m alone in rule. The burden of a crown is now mine. And for that she did not mind, the thought of duty and honour gave her purpose enough to see past grief and every task she would lay down would be for the House of Evrelyn. She would hold everything together. She must.

Then again her place as Queen was far from assured, and she wondered in fact if ever a Queen’s place in this castle was ever more precarious. These were stark days – because the King was dead and because the House of Council were filled with vile men. They controlled which House took the throne and they made the rules by which families came to power. When they deemed a House was weak, or leaderless – or manless, they would place a moratorium on rule and elect a new House to take the throne.

If it were but the right thing Shala would step aside, for the good of Attoras she would gracefully bow out and serve her nation in some other way. Perhaps simply as a healer.

But the glorious history of royal houses (encapsulated in books Shala dare not lift without help) and meeting the men of these Houses had taught Shala contrasting truths. Maybe their ancestors were noble, but some of their offspring were certainly not.

The aforementioned Patrick of Sannil was a danger, a danger to Shala because she would have to marry him if she was to remain in rule, and a danger to the Kingdom because he was no wiser than a beanstalk mistaking candlelight for sunlight, growing toward its own doom. He would be played the puppet and the council would rule with sublime immunity, the fool King taking blame for their indiscretions.

Of the foremost of these Councilmen was Chancellor Swarztial, and was maybe the only person Shala ever felt she truly hated. Even in her father’s days he schemed, and by now his mind would be rife with plots. She looked again at her father’s note, having kept it tucked in whatever piece of clothing she wore on the day. It sounded so bleak, and predicted that Shala would not remain in rule, or maybe a crueller fate than that was coming? She would carry herself with dignity until then and fight for Evrelyn for its worth, but somehow she did not expect to end up Queen.

Her train of thoughts came to a sudden halt as someone disturbed her peace. Her heart sank lower if that were at all possible. He approached like a shadow, edging closer. Swarztial always seemed tall in his dress of black, dark sashes clasped to each shoulder, but he was thin and wiry underneath all the excess cloth, a long slender neck evidence of that. Shala thought he looked fittingly like a vulture. A fine-trimmed beard and moustache lined his mouth, being well-groomed and meticulous to a fault his efforts at disguising an otherwise vile person. On most days like today he preferred to wear a feathered beret on his bald head.

The Princess and Metrus the Druid had discussed the nature of the soul in one of her visits to Norwain, and there the Druid had remarked that eyes were the window to a man’s soul. Shala would believe it, because Metrus’ flare of green eyes told much of how close a bond the man had with nature. The man in front of her however had eyes as black as night, and from underneath prominent eyebrows they seemed only to search for weakness he could exploit, in the manner the craven always do. Keeping her silence she allowed him to explain his presence.

‘My dear Princess, I am exceedingly sorry about your father. His death fell hard on us all, and we’ll be poorer for having lost the strength of his rule,’ said Swarztial in a tone that was practiced with false grief.

Shala swallowed and said politely, ‘I thank you member Swarztial, I have had a hard time dealing with it. It seems the only thing that stifles my bereavement is the prospect of doing my father proud, and rule his realm like he would have.’

Swarztial opened his mouth and closed it again, and Shala knew he was acting contrite and cautious with his words. ‘Your Highness,’ started Swarztial slowly.

‘Yes?’ said Shala, fearing that saying anymore may betray her anger.

‘I’m sure that you know better than anyone that even your father’s passing has not ground the wheels of the realm to a halt. In days to come the most difficult of times will wait for us who wish to govern a kingdom.’ Swarztial paced, an unnerving trait of his Shala had seen a hundred times, his clicking shoes taking over where his voice left off. ‘Our task is exasperated by uncertainties of course. In and outside the council chambers, from here to the Estermarsh, people are doubtful as to our prospects as a kingdom. I am… forbidden to share this with you, but many of the council chambers are thinking on deposing the rule of Evrelyn, and after many generations bringing a new House to the throne.’

Shala was hardly surprised. He fails to mention he is leading this vendetta.

‘Then so be it. If there are any that wish to rashly give the reins over to another, let them try the process. I have no trouble with it as long as bribery and conniving are not part of it. It is the same process that anointed my great grandfather’s father, although I’d imagine he had won some confidence from the people by the time he ascended and was not as untested as others in our day might be.’

‘Yes, Evrelyn has had some fine men, and I loathe to say this Highness, but you are a woman, and it is expected of you to marry. We’ve been down this road before I know… but I must insist on it. For your own sake and for the sake of keeping Evrelyn close to the throne, why not consider lord Patrick of Sannil’s proposal? With the King and Queen each from the two strongest houses none will have lost anything. It will be the perfect compromise.’

‘And yet my authority will be lessened as Queen if there is a King,’ said Shala.

‘Yes Highness, but you could have nothing at all, and a Queen is not really a Queen until she is-’

‘I can be instated as Queen without a husband, let’s not pretend you are not aware of that fact. I can rule on my own.’

‘But the people want a united state of affairs, they want marriage-’

‘They want bread and wine, and a sound ruler, and they trust Evrelyn, why not leave it at that?’ said Shala.

‘If you marry Highness, it will please the people,’ emphasised Swarztial, ‘it is a smart show to give them, to bind them with a spectacle, it will give them the rebirth of Attoras after your father’s passing.’

‘I don’t believe I can carry on this discussion Swarztial, my mood will turn sour.’

Swarztial stepped back in a slight bow and said, ‘Then I will let you be, mourn Princess, as we all do.’

Shala got rid of him faster than she had expected and yet she still felt ill at ease. It had taken him only a short while to make her feel unwelcome on the throne she sat upon. And the worst was still to come, this she knew about Swarztial.

 

 

And the next day it started. Swarztial kept himself innocent by having lackeys hound Shala. There was no short supply of those that followed the Chancellor’s ways and they came to her in petty guises, petitioning to her for matters that went unattended during her father’s illness. Shala listened to them, often in the throne room, but all she could see was Swarztial’s efforts to overwhelm her.

At least out of chambers and council meetings captain Merohan made it his mission to follow in her wake and ward off the most aggravating petitioners, who could not even wait their turn to be judged fairly under the oculus. Beggars all of them, Swarztial has incited the most wretched to believe that I’m much more giving than my father, or much more naive than him for that matter. Even the Captain, though, could not bar royalty. A steady stream of other Houses, large and small, were already flocking to Attoras for visitation and Shala had a weary time keeping pleasantries with them. They seemed to beg most of all.

Shala found it easier to skip the lunch she didn’t eat anyway and serve out the rest of her day in the infirmary, escaping her dreary company. No one could fault her for attending her duties as a healer, and no one followed her there, except of course Kaell the cook, who worriedly stalked her after realizing she had not eaten the meal he had set out for her. ‘You can’t keep coming here Kaell, you will become deathly sick!’ she warned him. By the time Shala turned in for the night she was spent.

It was early autumn at the time, and before the start of each day deBella fastened Shadow to the Princess’s collar. It was a cloak woven for her, the dark material so smooth one could pinch the fabric and then drag the entire thing through the width of a ring. The fur that lined around the neck and hood were of a silver fox, the silver strands edged with black, upright and spiky. Since she had first donned the cloak two years ago deBella had come to name the garment Shadow, for it flowed out and followed the Princess in the winter.

‘Put on your Shadow,’ she’d say on the coldest of days. When Shala sat down to read or study she would throw and wrap the cloth around her shoulders, and keep out a cold that would creep on her whilst lost in the pages of a book.

With her at all times Shala also carried the ceremonial urn of House Evrelyn, of fire-hardened clay, polished, and depicted on it the praying hands wrapped in chains and the candle that the hands held in the blackest ink. It was an insignia admitting that there was no carrying the light without being bound in duty.

Despite its appearance it never was, and never would be, a thing of death.

Inside the urn itself was kept the Seluin waters, taken from the pool as it came down the mountain, a practical counterpart to the amphora kept in the enclave. The lid on the urn was tiny, sliding open just to her touch and her touch alone, and the width just wide enough for her to slide inside a petite hand.

Hence came the healing hands of the king, the blessed waters of the mountain giving power others could not. The urn had small little arms like loops, to which were attached brittle copper chains so that she could slip the thing over her left shoulder and carry it on her right hip, usually hidden behind her cloak, Shadow. The chains were linked by tough yet supple buckskin, where it would rest over her shoulder.

deBella insisted on carrying the urn for her at times, which Shala did not mind. It became a heavy thing by noon, and she refused to leave it behind anywhere. She wanted the strength of the mountain close to her. But that alone only tempted her toward the ritual.

‘deBella, I feel the need to wade into the waters,’ said Shala to the handmaiden, breaking a long silence between the two of them.

‘Are you certain dear? The cold can kill you, and your mind is fragile now.’

‘I am sure,’ said Shala softly, ‘I feel shadows stalking me, let us at least see if they can follow me into frigid water.’

‘These are things of the mind, child, Swarztial has that effect on all of us.’

‘Then it is my mind that must be tested. Father said the Wolves are only loyal to those who are tested by the mountain.’

‘Now your reasons turn to folly child! There are none who call themselves Wolves anymore, not even as a boast. What do you hope to gain? That ghosts might rise and miraculously unburden you from crisis?’

‘Assurance handmaiden! That is what I need. Let the cold claim me then if I am unfit, let the mountain decide me dead if my rule will be weak, but if I walk through those waters and come out alive I will sit in that throne stubborn as stone and Swarztial will find it hopeless to try and wrest me from it!’

‘Very well then Princess, I will come for you tomorrow. It has been long since you’ve last embraced the cold, prepare yourself well.’ She did not see deBella again till the ritual.

A harsh wind came down the mountain that night, hurtling through the passes. It reminded Shala of who once walked the mountain. Every so often she would hear a wolf of the wild howl, and she wondered whether it meant the old order would still have some strength even today. The wind worried her, as in these parts it could strip what little warmth the day could muster. She did not sleep soundly until the wind abated at midnight.

The next morning she fastened the cloak by herself and there were thoughts of having breakfast by the dining room hearth when deBella interrupted such ideas. She did warn me, thought Shala sullenly.

At the pool she laid aside the cloak and her garments, releasing the brooch and slipping out of her dress. Now she would don the cold willingly. Already the chill of the day kissed her exposure, her skin pulling taut, her hands feeling stony to each other where she twined her fingers.

In the enclave she had no shame. It was secluded and safe, only her handmaiden could watch. deBella waited at the other side of the pool, patient as the Princess stepped slowly forward, dipping her toe into the icy touch of the water. Never losing her grace she almost glided into the pool, her mind and heart overwhelmed with single-minded purpose, the cold her cloak of clarity and strength.

Whispers of the mountain came to her, the ones that came to persons straying into dreams of the keep high in Dunnoom, and when her mind was rid of all else, they said with the grim voice of the Wolves: “We are but ghosts.”

 

 

Before the weight of many duties caught up to Shala she oversaw her father’s removal from the infirmary, the body to be taken to his chambers for the time being. If he were to be delivered to Nem Nemuris she would hastily have to assemble an entourage to carry out such a mission. Waiting for the orderlies to prepare to move her father out she had a swift look through the infirmary, as she did most days.

The reigning disease was still rampant and the only patient that seemed to show a fighting chance was the large man near her father’s room. Even then Shala saw he was so in the throes of the disease that he could just as easily die as recover. She would return later to do for him what she possibly could, she promised silently.

Waiting outside the infirmary, members of the guard boxed around their procession as they moved the King to the upper levels, the rest of the castle standing solemnly aside at realizing what was happening. The King was laid on his bed and if Shala could exercise the influence she would hope to, he would be away within the week.

For that she was sure to speak with Scholar Naceus. Attoras was often considered isolated and its people largely ignorant of the world outside its borders. The good old Scholar on the other hand knew more about the outside world than anyone, if there was a good argument to be made about how and why King Anka should journey then Naceus could do it. As her father was now he would not decay or wither, the body would remain intact, but only for a set amount of time, his soul confined to his remains. With the orderlies shuffling out Shala did not wish to be alone here, and so did not linger, but two steps outside she wished she had stayed a while after all.

It was inevitable Shala knew, and she had hoped against hope to avoid this encounter, but her own portrayal of Swarztial the vulture was never more apt as he approached, as though getting whiff of the dead being moved. She had been keen on keeping him out of this.

And he brought company; next to his cut of stark black was a man drabbed in the finest crimson robe, long and embossed with golden thread along the sleeves and collar. Following in their wake was the hardly noticeable young Squire, Rolf of House Orette. Shala spared him no thought, because the supposed vassal to Shala spent much of his time in Swarztial’s company.

The man in red however inspired some reverence if not for the man he arrived with and it brought a sinking feeling to her stomach. She had forgotten an envoy of the Crimson City would arrive, and now that he did the timing could not be worse.

Swarztial started off in a soft tone, ‘Princess, I introduce you to Father Jaegosh, Bishop of Allandiel, and formal ambassador to Attoras.’

The red robed man walked forward. ‘Your Highness, I had heard on the road that your father was ill, but not for a moment did I think he would succumb. We grieve with you Princess, I assure you his loss resonates much farther than just Attoras,’ said Jaegosh.

‘I thank you Father, and I welcome you to our houses and homes. Consider the city yours as well. Your presence is greatly appreciated, particularly now, we will need guidance in due time.’

The Bishop nodded sagely, ‘It shows us, I guess, that we are all here but for the Grace of His Benevolence. Yet with the passing of one comes the rise of another, and I’ve already prayed that your rule be blessed, and a light shine upon your path.’

‘Thank you Father, and know that if I appear curt or at unease, it is only the product of my grief,’ she apologized in advance, knowing that in Swarztial’s company she was inclined to be short-tempered.

‘To be understood child, to be understood. I hope to stay long enough for your father’s burial and if at all possible oversee the coronation as a representative of Allandiel.’

Shala was hesitant to say it, but she thought it better that the Bishop hear from her, before it could be put in a bad light. ‘Father, you must know that for my own father there will be no burial, only a funeral ceremony. I have sealed him with magic, to comply with his final wishes.’

Jaegosh lifted an eyebrow.

‘It is for the Dream of Embers you must understand. Nem Nemuris stands empty of a pilgrim from Evrelyn and had my father not been laid low by the disease he would have set out to fulfil what he considered to be duty.’

‘Noble considerations of course, but I must warn Your Highness, foul things follow in the wake of souls that fail to depart.’

‘I assure you Father that I would undo my work if I felt it posed any threat.’

‘I am certain that your Grace would, we know your House to be one of conscious and act according to your reputation,’ said Jaegosh.

Swarztial saw it fit to interject. ‘Dear Father, I’ll have my aid tour you through the castle, it is humbly small to what you are accustomed to, but the sights are grand and rich with history. I myself have one or two matters to discuss with the Princess, and I’m doubly sure the subjects would bore you…’ said Swarztial.

‘Of course, I’ll let you at it and meet with you later. With your leave Your Highness,’ said Bishop Jaegosh bowing, and Shala acknowledged the man’s departure with a slight nod. She did not relish being alone with Swarztial.

‘Should we take a walk Highness?’ asked Swarztial, gesturing toward the stairwell that ran down toward the colonnade.

‘That would be best,’ said Shala, taking the lead.

‘As your Highness might know I often receive word from the Sannils. In light of your father’s passing they of course forward their condolences. They however also expressed concern, for they have high expectations of young Lord Patrick, and suddenly they fear that you might ascend to the throne alone. This morning in writing my reply I could not assuage their fears, knowing your Highness plans to act exactly so. I have not sent out a letter yet in hopes that we can avoid letting this come to a ballot. I fear for you Highness, Evrelyn might find itself far removed from the throne if you do not consider Lord Patrick’s proposal.’

‘But my dear Swarztial, Patrick is a puppet, vulnerable to manipulation, and surely you do not want a spineless man on the throne?’ she asked sarcastically, knowing that was exactly what he wanted.

He was taken aback. ‘Your Highness, it is ill-advised to speak in that manner of one who might be King – and possibly your husband!’

‘I am in mourning Swarztial, I do not even have the courage to speak of marriage, especially the arranged kind, what chance is there that I might even think of participating in such an ordeal?’

‘Hardly an ordeal, my Lady, Patrick is a fine and noble –’

Oh but it is an ordeal. You say you fear for me, but I fear for myself! I have heard of Patrick and his ways with women. I will not be the first one he takes to bed. Apparently he silences anyone with a tongue sharper than his! And will he force me like he forces others? Hold me down and strangle my throat!?

‘And then in the morning with a wrung neck and swollen eyes my household guard must stand and watch me breakfast, not batting an eye because they know my injuries come from the Lord of the Realm? What honour will be left in this castle then? When the hearts of soldiers want only to defend their Queen, but cannot do so against their very own King? For the crimes he has committed, were he not at the head of House Sannil, he would have hung already, or to my liking, drawn and quartered, torn apart by horses and ropes!’

Swarztial narrowed his eyes by the sudden outburst and said quietly, ‘Far be it from me to question the effects of grief, I must insist that Your Highness reflect on herself; you already appear clouded and volatile to others of the Council. Do not give them cause to doubt you more than they already do.’

‘You are a scheming miscreant Swarztial. Do not pretend to pity me. I know you vouch only for Sannil. If I have any will left then I will resist marriage till I am chained before an altar.’

‘It would not go that far Highness, if you do not obey the wishes of the Council then you will be dispatched from the royalty here and another House will take to the throne. Already men line behind my vote and those who favour Evrelyn’s waning power are few and doubtful. Do let this come to a ballot your Grace, you will go the same way as Evrelyn’s precious Wolves, you will lose everything.’

‘Surely you do not wish to threaten me Swarztial, it might put you in the sights of an angry queen should your plan fail,’ said Shala fiercely.

‘I bear no plan Highness, my role is only justice, and I fear justice will give you a cold hand for the good of Attoras. When I bring matters of the realm before you in the throne room, do not expect me to speak kindly. You wish to stand alone so be it, hope that I expose your unworthiness to yourself then, before you embattle the realm with pointless rivalries. I will be sending my reply to the Sannils. Should you change your mind you need consult with them before the ballot, I wash my hands of this matter. By your leave, Highness,’ he said, turned and left, without ever waiting for her to reply.

Shala could not help but feel she had made some dreadful mistake. No, sowing seeds of doubt is what Swarztial does best. But even knowing this the encounter clung to her throughout the day.

 

IV

 

For Shala, dealing with her father’s passing and avoiding Swarztial’s hounding efforts became missions she accomplished by the same means. She prepared the basket herself, going to the kitchens, which she rarely did, and snatched Kaell away for a moment, steeped in his work and sweating over the cooking pots, the thick white powder on his arms up to his elbows telling Shala he was busy with baking endeavours as well.

‘The food will burn and ruin your Highness!’ said Kaell in dismay.

‘You are only preparing a meal for council members already fat, and they can afford to miss the best of your efforts.’

‘But I am more worried about the wrath of Master Jalson than the bellies and appetites of said council members.’

‘I will only steal you briefly. Besides, Jalson is in my service as much as you are in his.’

Not for the first time Shala intruded into the kitchen storages with Kaell’s help, not that she was in any way disallowed here, but her presence was unorthodox. Unlike Dieral the ceremonies Master, her exploits here had nothing to do with servicing her own appetites. Kaell showed her to the fresh supply of fruits, and she had her pick of what she could put in the basket, the variety she chose probed by her to be fresh and firm.

‘Highness, do you need to take the newest fruits?’ asked Kaell uncertainly.

‘Since you’ve already admitted to preparing a meal for the council members I’ve decided to leave them the bruised ones, a courtesy they can think on.’

Kaell glanced sidelong toward the kitchen nervously and twiddled his fingers.

Shala sighed. ‘Be gone with you, I can show myself out from here,’ said Shala.

Kaell departed with gestures of relief and apology. After helping herself to more fruit than she truly needed she left the same way through the kitchen, soon regretting her fervour as the basket proved itself uncomfortably heavy. She would have asked a member of the guard to carry it for her, but today she wanted to be alone with no threat of anyone tattling on her whereabouts. Shala groaned as she realized the trip to the tower would have her at odds with stairs. Many, many stairs.

 

 

The tight stairwell of the tower had Shala wondering how the Knights marched here with broad shoulders and large booted feet. The climb always felt exceedingly long, even though it only covered five stories. From a heavy trapdoor she happily breached into the aviary, the top level of the tower holding stalls and boasting wide open orifices into the open air. Hay and feathers covered the floor and large mangers filled with seeds were placed here and there for feeding. Each of the stalls could easily have held three horses. For now, thanks to Swarztial, the tower was mostly empty save for one lone creature that slept out of sight, the Princess already hearing the deep breathing that permeated through the yellow brick interior. Shala peered into each of the cabinets until she found the griffin.

Across the western realm the Knights ruled the skies, from atop the creatures that conquered an ancient rule of dragons before man could build wide open cities, fearing fire from the sky. As though feeling Shala’s gaze the griffin came awake, finding its feet frighteningly fast, suddenly standing taller than the Princess, the eagle eyes fiercely focused. It marched straight out, Shala retreating before the path of the riled creature.

Outside the stall and with space above its head, the griffin reared on its hind legs, standing tall and spreading its wings threateningly, tip-toeing to keep its balance, looming over the Princess, chest puffed and claws flexing, beady eyes looking down on her.

‘Enough of that Sunset, save it for a stranger, we go through this ritual every time, you’ll not frighten me away with your pose. The griffin relented in its display, coming down to all fours and continued to stare at Shala with a keen gaze of bold expectations.

‘Yes, yes, I brought you fruits,’ said Shala laying open the basket, and setting it out at the creature’s talons, knowing by now that the immense beak was likely to ruin the basket with little effort. At least it waits with as much patience as it could muster, thought Shala.

They were marvellously intelligent creatures, lacking only the vocal abilities of a parrot. But then with voices they would altogether get too wise for their own good, thought Shala. Griffins like Sunset here all had names contrived from meteorological or astrological nature, names like Strongwind, Comet and Thunder.

Sunset had worked his way through half of the basket’s treats when Shala heard footsteps on the stairwell. Her stomach made a knot as it often did these days. She had come here because she enjoyed it, but also because she wanted privacy and this was one of the last places Swarztial’s lackeys would hound her. She was sure of it, until now.

Maybe it is deBella, thought Shala hopefully, although she didn’t want any kind of company except the bird’s at the moment. She grew quietly angry at Kaell for betraying her location.

The trapdoor flung open with a heavy push, and an old hand caught the stone rim to lift himself out of the hole. Of all the people Shala had expected to see, Gremhalden was the last of them, not because he didn’t belong here, but because the man was practically crippled down the left side of his body. The old man, former Knight, was as tough as oak Shala knew, but then she had not imagined he would pain himself by daring onto the stairs, and she realized he too must come here often.

Sunset had been his griffin after all; before Gremhalden’s great fall that is. Since then the Knight had never flown again. To this day Gremhalden kept his bastard sword at his side, as though a reminder to all of what he once was. Shala wondered if he could still even use the heavy blade. She knew him to use the weapon as a cane at times, when his crippled leg was particularly weak or painful. He however would never admit to needing a cane.

Gremhalden noticed Shala where she sat in the hay and she managed to get a surprised look from his old face before he composed himself. Clearly he had not been looking for her.

‘Highness,’ he greeted gruffly.

In her short life Shala had never met a man who talked as little as Gremhalden. At the best of times he seemed irritated, and even when he went through the pleasantries of conversation he would come off as rude. He kept his beard neat as there was no hair on his head, and his one ear always seemed larger than the other.

Shala stood up, quickly dusting the hay from her clothes, questioning her own wisdom of donning a woollen dress today. Gremhalden held up his hand as he came to a sit, breathing relieved as he recovered from what must’ve been a stiff expedition to the tower top.

‘Please Highness, I did not wish to intrude, be at ease, the griffin-beast enjoys the company of many; unlike me he craves lavish attention.’

‘I’m afraid I’m the one who feels the intruder,’ said Shala.

Gremhalden gave a hoarse chuckle. ‘Intruder in your own castle your Highness?’

‘You would not think it sir Knight, but there are many who enjoy seeing me as unwelcome here as I feel at times.’

Gremhalden’s face turned serious. ‘I know, blasted connivers and schemers. The castle is full of them of late, and with your father’s passing they will swoop in on every scrap of the kingdom like the vultures they are.

And yes Highness, everyone by now calls Swarztial the Vulture behind his back. Anyone with sense that is. Unfortunately it’s a worse time to be a young ruler, and a woman at that,’ said Gremhalden.

Shala frowned at the last remark, although suspecting the Knight was being straightforward rather than insulting.

‘Attoras has seen better days. I remember when the Wolves kept this place in your father’s service even the shadows on the walls feared trespass.’

‘At least we have you Master Gremhalden, Captain Merohan always says your presence stifles wrongdoers.’

Gremhalden grunted. ‘He means I scare layabouts, kitchen boys and members of the guard who can’t tell which end of their swords to use. The Wolves were a different breed entirely Your Highness. Had I been born in Attoras I would have preferred to have risen in their ranks. I would have served you and your father right from the start, and no one else! I would have liked that. Born in the wrong city I guess…ʼ

‘But then you would never have gotten the chance to fly,’ pressed Shala, looking at Sunset as though he too should be upset by this.

‘Aye, that is true, and I so sorely miss flying, but what I mean to say is that there is a price to be paid in Knighthood.’

‘You don’t get to take a wife?’ suggested Shala.

‘Bah, why would I bind myself to one woman?’ said Gremhalden.

Shala was taken aback by the answer. Why wouldn’t someone want to marry if they could do so for love? She wondered. At this stage in her life she didn’t understand it and Gremhalden decided not to pursue an answer to her frown.

‘No Highness, I mean the duties within the Knighthood, they make a man weary. As long as the Knights depart from here they would call you Commander, but they will answer to an entirely different power should the call come.’

‘Yes, the Crimson City. And that is not all that bad, better than Swarztial commanding them anyhow. I don’t mind losing their service to Allandiel when the need is great.’

Aha, but Swarztial commands them exactly because he is so snug with the Crimson City, especially this Bishop who visits us, Father Jaegosh I heard them call him.’

Shala’s face darkened. ‘Yes, Swarztial worms his way into anything. It makes me sick to the stomach to think he may manipulate those close to the Benevolence,’ said Shala irritably. ‘At least I know the Knights keep peace in the Western realm, peace we have to be thankful for, not even Swarztial will change that.’

‘But you see Your Highness, the Knights and their griffins are a contract between nations. They will not easily spark war, but they maintain a peace that is as enforced as it is agreed upon.’

‘I don’t follow all that well Gremhalden,’ said Shala.

‘You will as you come to know the world. Suffice it to say that as Knights we were often forced to do things that collided with our principles. The burden of having so many affiliates I guess. With Knights it is never simple, never. Our way of keeping the peace always profited one nation at the expense of another. Between the complexities of what we deem moral I’m not sure we were ever loyal to anyone; not really. That is where I’m envious of the Wolves; their charge was a simple one.’

Shala feared that the man would smear his old life without cease and bring onto himself a sour mood. She would rather change the subject.

‘What can you tell me of the Wolves, Gremhalden?’ asked Shala. This was one of her favourite subjects after all.

Gremhalden lifted a querying eyebrow. He would oblige, but not really know the point of it.

Shala caught his questioning expression and said, ‘I have read all the scripts of the Order of Severance that could be found in our records, but they tell little of what they really were. Honestly, it is sometimes hard to believe that they existed at all, and weren’t some fabrication to scare off our enemies. Of course I do believe what Naceus told me, and deBella…well, they were not warriors, and did not fight alongside Wolves as you have.’

Gremhalden took a moment. ‘Highness, I don’t think I can tell you anything that you haven’t already heard. But what I can say, out of personal experience, is that they truly did live up to their reputation and I assure you, they were no fabrication. Oh and by the way Highness, you should know that we as Knights were as often at odds with the Wolves as we were their allies. Although sometimes you understand something better as an enemy I always say.’

Laying out his weak and atrophied leg before him, Gremhalden started, ‘They were men from the Black Mountain, living by choice in an old keep high up from here to serve your great grandfather who was King at the time. There in the cold they became strong, shaped their discipline and nothing could dampen their conviction. They protected not only the King and his house, but the realm was rid of many beasts and bandits because of them. They were the envy of other nations.

‘Their swordplay was their trademark, called the Savage Art of the Wolf, for you see Highness, most lads the Wolves accepted into their ranks were ambidextrous, and were thus taught to fight with two swords at a time, one in each hand.’

‘I’ve heard of this, and it made them the great fighting force they were, no?’ said Shala.

‘Yes,’ said Gremhalden, ‘Quick, merciless, overwhelming… it was remarkable to behold. Cunning and brave I’d add to that, and foregoing heavy armour just so that they can kill you faster. The rare ones like Taggandus were acrobats and he in particular instilled a terror and darkness upon the minds of his enemies wherever he went. Then, by the time you spotted one of them you could stake your life on it that the pack was already breathing down your back. Half-part of me says it’s a shame that none now practice the Savage Art. The other half says it’s too dangerous having such men around.’ Gremhalden shrugged at the thought. Then he laughed. ‘Personally I didn’t think much of them when I first came here. Didn’t like them.’

Shala wondered in amusement if the Knight liked anybody.

‘But when smoke and dragon-fire fell on Attoras they fought alongside us, and their skill and fearlessness turned away the best the Dragons could bring. One Wolf could be troublesome to a dozen men, and a pack of Wolves was all that was needed to defend a mountain pass against a force fifty times their own size, and that is not an exaggeration, Highness. Those dragon worshippers that came from the north of Cerron found their extinction confronting the overwhelming might of the Wolves at the peak of their powers.’

‘I wish we still had men like that, I do not wish to question the Crimson City, but I often do wonder why they scorned the Wolves and ordered them disbanded.’

Ha! Best we do not get into that my Lady. There are some debates that are as dangerous as they are convoluted, and we’ll never know what faceless cog made such a decision on behalf of His Benevolence.’

‘Agreed,’ said Shala. On that note a slight silence ensued between them, Sunset pawing the rest of the basket hopefully and Shala pushing the giant bird away from its contents.

‘Well then, I must be off,’ said Gremhalden. ‘If I’m not a frightening presence roaming the halls then the youngsters of the guard become careless – real lazy bunch Gibbon has been accepting lately.’ He made an attempt to stand up, but his bad leg caved in and he sat down again. Shala pretended not to notice and Gremhalden quickly said something, as though he had decided to sit back down because he had something on his mind.

‘You know Highness, it’s your father the King that saved me.’

Shala looked at the man questioningly, while he stretched out his leg again.

‘On a day half a lifetime ago I fell from Sunset and onto the mountainside, engaged in battle and struck by a lucky projectile. I’m sure your Highness is familiar with my history. We were flying in a phalanx, chasing down a wounded dragon. No dragon can outrace a griffin in a dive, because they can’t tuck their wings as well. I could already feel myself opening the lizard’s great belly with a flash of my sword, but I was so focussed that I didn’t realize how close we were to the mountain. One of those accursed dragon worshippers flung a javelin as we passed. It pierced my armour without wounding me, yet it lodged me out of the saddle. I fell. Rolling down the slope and the mounds of snow were the only reason I survived.

‘Given the nature of my injuries I should have died anyway, but your father took me to his infirmary, regardless of some differences between the Knights and Attoras at the time. Your father gave the best of himself and spent days wielding his healing hands. I remember the King at times looming over me, looking worse than I felt. Afterwards I was too crippled to fly.

‘I lost much, but I didn’t lose life and I owe your father a debt that cannot be repaid. I stayed on here as part of his guard because of that. And if only I was still a proper warrior I could have put myself between him and his enemies and died a warrior’s death. But as this world has it I’m all but crippled and his enemy was a malicious disease that no sword could stop. There is no justice.’

‘My father very much appreciated your service. I hope to keep a kingdom that will earn your allegiance once again,’ said Shala.

Gremhalden sighed. ‘I know you will. Farewell Highness, keep strong in the face of Swarztial, I’ll go now before I sit here cursing spineless politicians – it always happens when I talk too much.’ Labouredly he stood up, this time managing it. Shala had a hard time not jumping up and helping him; his pride wouldn’t allow it. Gremhalden made a quick show of ruffling the short feathers on Sunset’s head, as affectionate as anyone had ever seen the man with another living creature, and then he left.

Shala had some tears in her eyes, which she had kept well hidden until Gremhalden was out of sight. Some of them were for the tragedy of this man and his crippled body, but most were for her father, and the man he was. Attoras would never be the same, it had lost its heart.

The griffin, intuitive to her distress, or maybe simply craving attention, nudged her in the back with a giant beak as hard as rock and as smooth as ivory. Shala turned, wiping the tears away. ‘It’s alright Sunset,’ she said bringing her hands up and stroking the bird behind the upright ears, the one odd-piece of the otherwise bird-head.

Shala laughed with a thick voice. ‘Body of a lion, wings and head and talons of an eagle, and… ears of a Wolf?’ She said. ‘By what design were you made?’

Sunset made a screeching sound that blasted throughout, loud enough for the men below in the castle yard to have heard, and had Shala’s ears ringing.

‘Easy there, I didn’t mean to judge, I think you are wonderful master of the skies. Had I but the knowledge of flight I would take you and pretend to fly far away and then return just as everyone starts worrying. But I guess I shouldn’t impede on the alone-right of the Knights as I’m already accused of traipsing naked in the halls.’

Apparently Swarztial talked venomously behind her back of the indecency of the Princess going naked into the Seluin waters of the Mountain. This she had heard from her chambermaid, Erika. Anything to discredit her, she realized.

Her thoughts returned to her father and how Swarztial had taken over this castle since his death. ‘In time he’ll probably find some vendetta against you griffins as well.’

The griffin cawed in a manner as though sharing Shala’s concern.

‘But don’t worry, I won’t let him, I’ll be the heart of the castle, like my father was, and when I’m Queen, men like Swarztial will cower away from Attoras just like they should.’

Chapter 2

Death’s Arrival

 

The red moon of Rodreon was visible the next morning, half its countenance bulging in a sky pale and blue. During daylight its impression was that of rust and copper, while at night it often became blood red, a startling omen to some when it reached its height and made of itself a full circle in the sky. Unlike its cousin, Mallova the White, its cycle was four months rather than one, and its passage was often associated with the changing of seasons. Then of course there was still the blue moon of Castilleon…

Shala unbusied herself with thought of moons, pushing the calendar away from which she hoped to glean some certainty about the future. With many scheduled events on her mind she had nonetheless been looking at the possibility of a coronation. Once she was Queen, men like Swarztial’s power over her would diminish considerably and she might even make a mission of it to see the man banished.

In Attoras, and in fact many sovereignties the world over a coronation was always performed under the full circle of a white moon, it’s pure light said to shine true on the worthy new ruler. Shala had no illusion that a bright white moon could stop Patrick taking the crown; like the sun it would give light to both the innocent and the wretched, and anything in between for that matter.

She had considered breaking tradition and hasting a coronation ceremony for herself, but Swarztial would use such a violation only to garner himself more support from an already divided Council. No, she would have to win the Council’s trust and nothing less would suffice. And yet the next full moon of Mallova the White could not come fast enough and it felt as though each passing day had Swarztial’s case and cause of bringing a new House to the throne growing stronger. Shala had to admit to herself that her father’s absence left a gaping hole and even to herself it was becoming apparent that she did not command the trust he did.

Wishing to get away from such thoughts she called for her two chambermaids, Erika and Lenise, to attend to her room. She would sit and work at outstanding charters of the kingdom at her desk, while the two chambermaids had little work to do in an already tidy room. The two common girls would then sit at Shala’s bed, gossiping while Shala worked. Usually she would listen with one ear, hearing them tell of the men in town they thought to be good prospects. It was often shallow talk, but it preoccupied Shala in a good way all the same. But today there was none of the normal excitement in their voices, and their low whispers had Shala pausing her quill to hear what they were saying:

There was talk of dark visitors in town, not uncommon after the passing of a great King. Nobles flocked from afar for the funeral ceremony, and with them came a migration of types Attoras would rather not have. Hallin the innkeeper talked of Reapers and those who collect death. He was often humoured by strangers and summarily dismissed by those who knew him well. The heavy-set could talk an endless variety of nonsense and spin a yarn like few, making him on the occasion a darling of the town or a bothersome annoyance if slightly drunk and proclaiming nothing but doom and the end of days.

And yet his stories had a way of creeping from ear to ear, so that Shala was surrounded by whispers of evil men seeping into Attoras. She had no time to concern herself with Reapers, knowing these stories came from the infamous innkeeper. She was already busy dealing with evil men and she had no wish to entertain nightmarish fears of little substance. The moment she did, they would be real enough for the Council to discuss, and it would be used against her because she was the monarch incumbent.

But these thoughts were barely dismissed when darkness settled in Attoras, the faultless sky taking a sudden turn and misty clouds wreathing their way from the north. Shala did not think much of it until the mists crept into town, and that when the clock hand stood at ten in the morning. With Attoras blanketed the dogs of the entire town started barking, their chorus like a contagion and some culminating into eerie howls that spoke of an intruder.

For the paranoia he caused Shala cursed Hallin silently, partly because she too felt it. She was barely removed from her chamber door when deBella arrived. ‘I thought you should not be alone Highness,’ the handmaiden said gravely, holding Shala’s urn the Princess noted.

‘Don’t tell me you too are bothered by Hallin’s ghost stories,’ Shala mocked the older woman.

‘Hardly, did your Highness care to have a look outside?’ asked deBella, obviously referring to the mists in town.

‘I did.’

‘Then it would not surprise you if I said Joshua thinks we need to perform Stallich,’ said deBella pressingly, with a raised eyebrow.

‘Joshua said that?’ she asked.

deBella nodded, looking smug after the Princess had been snide.

Shala doubled back on herself and became uncertain. deBella was rather new to the gifts of Evrelyn, and only shared in the dream of the Icy Falls for the better part of five years. She had only ever been midwife, nurse and handmaiden before that. Joshua however had been a disciple even in Shala’s grandfather’s reign.

In the time that Evrelyn took ascension, the ruling House had taken it upon themselves to perform Stallich rituals, where the receptive stones of the castle were endowed with the light of the Seluin waters. The King and all his disciples gathered at the pool to strengthen the Rules of Realm, and halt invaders to Attoras that could emerge from ghostly realms, bypassing things like walls and gates.

Shala herself had never performed Stallich before, but Joshua had been in three such rituals in his lifetime. Naturally he had some bond to the castle and its stones, almost as much as the Masons who laid the stones in the first place. Shala knew volumes of books could be written on the subject, but the bottom line was simple; if as much as a roach was out of place within the castle bounds then Joshua would suffer some kind of disquiet.’

‘He thinks this prudent?’ asked Shala, somehow hoping deBella was exaggerating to get back at her.

‘When he saw the mists, yes,’ said deBella with a disappointing seriousness.

Shala set off at a pace, deBella hurrying in her footsteps.

‘Where are we going, Princess?’ asked the older woman.

‘Let’s first see if there is reason to worry. I’d rather not have us all go up in arms and spend ourselves unnecessarily. We’ll go into town if need be.’

Once she had seen her father and the disciples perform Stallich. She had been too young to participate, but she remembered two things; a great pillar of light erupting from the pool behind the castle and the bone-weary fatigue that followed, having the whole lot of them indisposed for a week. Needless to say she was not keen on being bed-ridden. Not now. Besides, they still hosted Bishop Jaegosh, and the man had a lot of sway with the council. She did not want impressions floating around that the sovereignty was in danger with her in command.

On her way down a member of the household guard intercepted her. The man worriedly told her to approach carefully and looking over his shoulder she saw she wouldn’t need go into town after all. In the corridor stood an entire line of the household guard, their hands on their swords and their eyes trained on the wooden framed glass doors of the balcony. There was a look to them that spoke of impending defeat.

‘Your Highness, there is an emissary here, and he urgently wishes to speak to you,’ said the soldier, his face deathly white. By then Shala had a chill to her seeing the soldier so spooked.

She looked out through the window, studying the figure waiting for her on the balcony. Her heart came to a sudden halt, hammering a moment later to accommodate the lapse. Once in a lifetime Hallin would speak the truth, and he had chosen an awful time to accomplish it, thought Shala.

‘Stay here, deBella, but hand me the urn, I might have need of it.’

‘Highness-’

‘For once obey me! This thing is not human, it cannot be reasoned with!’ said Shala and left the handmaiden to stand there with fear on her face.

On the balcony Shala was alone with the man, or at least for now he appeared as a man. In what little daylight remained his face was waxen below the hood, and Shala reckoned no matter how much they could change shape they could never truly imitate the living. His black robe was voluminous, hiding all bodily movement but for his stride, tattered and torn around the fringes. Somewhere in there Shala knew the being held weapons of horrid cruelty, and was at all times ready for torture or massacre. That was their nature.

Highness,’ the man hissed in greeting.

‘For what reason must I abide such company?’ asked Shala, sounding much braver than she felt. It seemed to her that the sun was doing its best to stay hidden behind feeble woollen clouds.

‘Only to settle debts,’ said the creature, also foregoing any further pleasantries.

‘Debts? You are not welcome here, and in better days the very fibre of this castle would have kept you out! Should my authority be uncontested, as it should be, I will restore the sanctity of Attoras, and you will not even pass the lowest town gate where the weeds creep up to choke the fields of barley!’

Shala hated how shrill her voice sounded against the creature’s.

‘As I remember we remain free to wander all lands, and not to be impeded by any. We go where we go, because death is our realm, and death is everywhere.’

‘Yet the Crimson City denies you, because it is hallowed – and the Benevolence rests there! No debt can make you enter there, and so shall Attoras be as well. In my father’s youth those magi who practised light and protection in the castle were many; I will train a dozen or more to make it so again.’

‘You have only yourself to blame Princess. The rite you practiced allured me, and more of us will soon come if I am not satisfied. There is a price to be paid.’

‘My father was not saved and death not cheated, so I cannot see to this price you talk about. I only prayed that day, how are wraith-kind sent to me? Or do you lie to yourself to garner more victims? No foul magic was played by my hand!’ said Shala.

‘Victims, hmm, not necessarily. At times death is not what we seek. We balance, we adjust, and we settle accounts that are of interest to us.’

Shala did not like his use of the word “we”; it made her think there were more of him lurking about.

‘We came for your father, but since his soul is sealed, we will settle for less. Today you should rejoice Highness, for we would merely ask that the House of Evrelyn step down, so that another may take the crown.’

Shala was aghast. ‘How is everyone preoccupied with my House seceding from rule? I might have imagined it before, but you and Swarztial seem much alike, and I can see his hand in this. I have never heard of wraith-kind bother themselves with rule and sovereignty. Will you begin to ask for levy and tax as well? It seems politicians have even corrupted the ways of death if that is at all possible!’

‘Chancellor Swarztial must mediate the transition, so that House Sannil can provide a King for Attoras; that will repay debts and make things right for us.’

‘Of course it would, under Sannil’s negligence the realm will be full of death and my infirmary of healing hands would no longer operate. You would simply love such a turn of events…’

‘If you do not oblige, then we will visit again and our disposition might not be open for discussion.’

‘You are here only as an emissary wraith, and that’s the only reason I have tolerated you till now!’ said Shala angrily, as she dipped her hand in the waters of the urn even as it hung from her side. She held up her palm, and the wet sheen became bright against the sun, as though she held up a mirror, and the blessed light of the waters were revealed, white and furious in the shadow of the day.

The wraith cowed in pain, shuffling back toward the railing. ‘You will not make threats against me idly, I have many enemies these days, and if you break the rules upon which your immunity lies I will strike you down with light! Do you heed me!?’ said Shala, not letting the luminance subside till she could find submission. Suddenly the wraith’s voice became ominous as it retreated from Shala’s magic, as though it held a cave within those robes and his voice was a wind that swept through it.

‘We will come for you. Death is but in waiting Princess! Our rites have already taken hold in Attoras. Death is but in waiting!’

The wraith looked ready to vault itself from the railing just to escape the light. His head disappeared in his robes, and the robes fell flat like the trick of a magister, and from its cavities came a murder of crows, and they flew away out over the balcony and far to the horizon. Shala watched them sternly to ensure they did not return.

Gone from sight, she closed her eyes, staving off panic as best she could, breathing as she would when in the pool. The cold would be a luxury now compared to the terror of what was passing here. She went inside again, closing the balcony doors with a lock as though that would keep the wraith-kind out. deBella still waited for her there, her eyes fixed with concern. There would be no Stallich ritual, it would be too late. They could already enter. Our rites have already taken hold…

She knew she should not have turned hostile against the wraith, no matter how obvious the threat he made. Lines were drawn now and she feared she had only worsened her cause. But for all her sorrow, worry and anger the wraith could come right back and she would confront it again as she did. The length of the corridor was still filled with men of the guard, who had all waited out the events on the balcony anxiously. None of them looked at her. They were good loyal men, but there was uncertainty in the collection of faces. It’s all coming to an end. They will follow a new ruler before Mallova reaches its height.

 

II

 

The following day they were gathered in the throne room. This time Shala was surrounded by many men as opposed to her lonesome wanderings – there were councillors up in the gallery and soldiers keeping watch as the meeting progressed. It was as tense a gathering as Shala could imagine.

They were discussing matters of the realm, the day’s petitioners out of the way and leaving Shala weary. The news of the wraith visiting the castle had spread far, and was the undertone of all their discussions. It was a nightmare for her. Swarztial led this as a campaign against Evrelyn, and he paced the floor up and down, speaking for the council, relaying their will, and his words tore at the Princess.

‘By the will of the realm and for the safety of all who stand here, your father must be buried as soon as a new dawn. Lest we invite more tragedy-’

‘My father did not want to be buried. He wanted to set out to Nem Nemuris, and I’ve obliged him by sealing him in stasis. He can be taken by carriage and-’

‘You have endangered us all!’ shouted Swarztial suddenly.

‘By my father’s wish-’

‘By some plan of a dying man, by the babble of one who cannot think clearly on his deathbed you decided in all your wisdom to seal your father in his own body. He has been denied death! Now the wraiths haunt the land and-’

Shala jumped up where she sat, ‘I did not use dark magic! The magic I use is pure and it is of the same stuff I use to heal!’

More quiet and calm now Swarztial said, ‘You say you didn’t use forbidden magic, but I know the truth. Your father was too far gone to be sealed by traditional means… so you used darker arts, and in doing so you allured the wraith-kind. I do not know how else to condemn, save by saying: For one who would stoop to such low practice, repent and lay your father to rest, else you are not fit to rule this land!’

Shala sat back in her chair. ‘You already condemn me with your lies and your disrespect. Not once since you’ve entered this place have you acted as though I could be your Queen. And all those in the gallery are seeing me as lessened, for your pride and joy is in denouncing those who would not rule the realm to your liking.’

‘A question then Your Highness: why have you not embarked south toward the Dream of Embers? Why not give rule over to another and do what your father now cannot? Would you not save the land and be of some use? Your father raised you to be noble, and now the House of Council all ask: to what greatness will you live, or will you squander yourself here on the throne, where your rule is already weak?’

It was a dire question and Shala knew if she did not answer it would leave an even darker taint on the minds of the other councillors.

‘If I could serve best by making the pilgrimage I would, but the people here have need of me and I won’t leave them to be ruled by others I deem unworthy. Besides, the deed is done, my father is sealed and with a proper escort he can…’

‘Your father will be buried, here, in Attoras!’ interrupted Swarztial, ‘Every day he lingers in his chambers he allures more evil and if he goes out onto the road he will stir every miscreant from here to Nem Nemuris. No escort will survive it! I ask you Princess, consider the safety of the realm and bury your father. Let his soul rest in peace!’

Shala saw everyone in the gallery lean forward just so slightly in anticipation of her answer.

She was not sure. There was little to be salvaged here. No one wanted to suffer the presence of wraith-kind and they would blame her father’s undeparted soul without cause. ‘Father Jaegosh, what would the Crimson City say? I wish to take my father to Nem Nemuris, but I’m afraid my intention might cause more harm than good. We would have your advice in this matter,’ asked Shala in desperation. But she realized he was not likely to lean toward her side.

The crimson-robed man stood up, and spoke solemnly. ‘The matter is clear child; let us not cause any further danger. I can see that your intent has been nothing but good, and I’m not too partial to Chancellor Swarztial’s demeanour to you. But let us err on the side of caution, if I could have a say in it and speak on behalf of Allandiel; let your father be buried and be rid of the evils that have shown themselves in these days.’

His words were followed by silence and then many expectant gazes fell back on Shala.

She finally nodded, despondent, barely keeping in check frustrated tears. ‘Then it is done and ordered. My father will be entombed right here in Attoras, among his predecessors…’ she said without any heart.

Shala was about to rise, she felt as if she had just aged ten years in the throne. If every council is going to be like this then I don’t want this throne, she found herself thinking. ‘Are we done now? Can we adjourn?’ asked Shala as a formality. She wanted to flee to her chambers, or at least find some solitude in the library.

‘Actually, no your Grace,’ said Swarztial, ‘There is another urgent matter which the council brought forth in recent months and your father failed to rule on it given his condition. Firstly I would say the matter has been forwarded by the people, I of course referring to a charter they gave us labelled Des Pellu…’

Shala groaned silently by herself, by some miracle not letting her face show her displeasure. Des Pellu was the name of the land holdings bordering the town of Attoras in the north. It was a good strip of land overrun with trees: fertile and beautiful and with streams gracing through it from the black mountains in the west. Des Pellu was also the natural path of expansion for a growing Attoras. Yet it was already sanctioned by the Druids as one of their hallowed Groves and long before Shala was even born the Kings never compromised their relationship with the Druids. Not for anything.

‘Chancellor, my father’s words must be familiar to you by now. The Druids are our closest allies, and though this is our land we give them free reign over the many forests. They do good like only they can, and their worth is immeasurable to us, in peace and in war.’

‘Your Highness, the town is prospering, and pressed fat against its borders. Newcomers and ripened children leaving their parents’ home demand more room – room that will not see them sprout shacks on a dangerous hillside! Lumberjacks have travelled here already with great anticipation and the wood will be put to good use, the trees can be stripped quickly and expansion can commence with vigour. This is the will of the town and it will mean much for it. Will you not consider it?’ asked Swarztial with an air of expectation.

Shala knew Swarztial didn’t really care about the town’s expansion, not right now in any case. It was a devious decision to slide in before the Princess. The town indeed needed to extend its borders, and the people begged for it to be done in the direction of Des Pellu. If she sided with the Druids like she must, she would only worsen her case before the council and the people might turn against her as well. Swarztial knew the Druids were fierce allies of House Evrelyn and he was going to exploit it for all its worth.

‘The Druids and their way with the land are a hallowed part of the Kingdom. I will not let it be touched,’ said Shala.

‘Hallowed? We have had this out of fashion relationship with the Druids for far too long. I will remind you in the presence of Jaegosh that the Crimson City does not approve of these Druids. Besides, what special right do they have, few as they are, that they may keep a hundred acres each, but our own people have not even land to toil on? Where is the justice?’

Shala almost felt the villain. Swarztial had some gift of persuasion, but she would stick true to what her father believed in.

‘The justice is in the trust you must owe me on the matter. We do not delve over land for nothing only to scare animals away. We don’t contaminate our own water or strangle the grasslands, so that there is nothing to fish and nothing to hunt. We do not chase away the wildcats or bring them to extinction, lest there become an imbalance in the fabric of nature,’ her own argument sounding feeble to herself.

‘Comparing the Druids to animals now are we?’ said Swarztial, slowly and thoughtfully, as though tasting the words. ‘How fitting!’ he cried in mirth to the gallery, sponsored by a few laughs from his yes-men above. ‘I actually agree with you, Your Highness; these Druids are barbarous and uncivilized,’ he said with now badly disguised sincerity, ‘we should treat them as animals, with respect and dignity I mean to say, but only to the measure that they don’t impede on our prosperity, the civilized man!’

‘That’s insulting! And not my meaning at all!’ cried Shala.

‘It is a god’s wonder one of those flower children aren’t running around naked as we speak!’

‘They-’

‘But then we do not need them to run naked in our halls do we Highness? As our very own Princess is already at it!’ said Swarztial, looking accusingly at her and then adding softly, ‘what indignity…’

‘I stand naked in the waters of Seluin as part of a ritual. It gives strength and is a proud rite of Attoras!’ she reprimanded.

‘Rituals and ancient history… and honouring things that are long dead… Your Highness, with each new rule comes change, and your father knew this well mind you. Part now with the past as you must part with your father. Let us go into the future with new minds and renounce rituals that even the Crimson City do not approve of,’ he said once again casting a glance at Jaegosh for emphasis. He turned to Shala and looked her dead-set in the eyes. ‘If Your Highness cannot enforce change I bid you, once again, that you should not take this throne and leave it to those more deserving.’

Deserving? My father was King! And he whom you wish to install is not capable. My answer is no, the Druids will not be chased from their sleep, no axe will be taken to the grove on Des Pellu and they will have their peace. In time we will resolve the issues of the town borders, but not at the expense of the Druids. My choice is made,’ said Shala coldly.

 

III

 

There was a disturbance in the castle yard, luring the Princess outside on a day she had little else to do for a change. She asked Captain Merohan to escort her, and deBella followed in their wake, as though certain that the fine Captain needed to be bolstered by a plump, middle-aged woman. Shala suspected the handmaiden wanted to remain closer to her for a great many reasons.

Many craftsmen were allowed into the yard that day, swerving widely around the clout of the Princess’s royalty as she approached, them attending wooden scaffolding set up against the castle walls. Freshly unloaded from sturdy wagons were rather grotesque statues in ranks like oversized chess pieces, for the moment cluttered until they could be designated a place on the castle.

‘They are hideous,’ said deBella in disgust, looking at a stone gargoyle yet to be hoisted up.

Shala frowned. ‘This has not been ordered with my approval,’ she said in dismay.

‘It is an old charter Your Highness, delayed by the death of your father the King. The council executed it only recently,’ said Merohan.

‘And of course they could not be bothered to consult me about it,’ remarked Shala disapprovingly.

‘You already have enough to deal with child,’ said deBella.

‘But this concerns me. Why bother with the excessive platforms? It has the feeling of our castle being scaled by strangers, I have no stomach for it!’ she continued angrily.

‘They can only lift the heavy statues on the outside Highness, so they have cranes and pulleys, and the scaffolding is required for the builders to shore up the ledges upon which they will stand.’

‘I do not like this Captain. You know this castle was not built by some ragged band of builders, but by the Masons themselves. The Masons. They might have left this part of the world, but they crafted their work with their magic, and the stone they set were stones of power. It gave this place protection and made of it a realm, where evil could not breach… Adding anything untoward can compromise that protection.’

‘But then your father himself approved it, Highness,’ said Merohan hesitatingly, feeling the Princess’s foul mood, ‘That is why the Council had it done and ordered.’

‘I hate to say this Merohan, but my father’s mind was not always clear at the end of his days. He had a deadly fever at times, giving him harsh dreams, and there was a moment that I sat at his side in which he mistook me for my mother; he called me Salstasha.’

‘I see, yet there is no great mystery in that Your Highness. You very much resemble your mother the late Queen.’

‘I’ve been told that,’ said Shala, looking away.

Merohan knew not to say anything further. The Princess was bearing the weight of legacy, and it was not possible to escape such legacy when you have it staring back at you in the mirror.

‘Let’s turn in Your Highness, these builders can be careless, and have been known to drop stones from on high. I won’t have Your Grace struck by such.’

‘Very well.’ Shala cast one more glance at the ugly gargoyle in the yard, soon destined to be hoisted up, ‘Swarztial must like having the castle crafted in his own image, it’s a pity we can’t have him stand on a ledge all day, especially on the more breezier days.’

Merohan laughed outright, having little love for the Chancellor himself. deBella shook her head, hoping that one day the Princess could measure her words better out in the open.

Before crossing the threshold Shala spotted a sharp movement in the sky. She stopped to watch with some intent. Merohan caught up to her thoughts and said, ‘Only a large hawk Highness. Although the guard Aphelas on the tower top tells me he has seen an eagle circle the castle grounds endlessly on some days.

‘If it was Metrus he would have shown himself by now,’ said Shala, opposing her own hopes. They turned to go indoors, Shala already planning what she would do by tomorrow.

 

 

Shala sent for Kaell when the morning had not yet dawned. She wore a plain brown coat over garments that were old and worn and mostly used for her trips to Norwain, so that she looked noble no more. All except for her riding boots that is, which she was sure would not easily fall under scrutiny. With her hood up she made her way down to the front entrance, with all the to-do of one aiming at escape.

It had been such a long time since she had last gotten the chance to ride and the idea of putting Attoras behind her was enthralling. There were no such freedoms in the current state of affairs, and definitely not after a funeral and on the eve of a coronation. ‘I would be a reluctant companion Highness,’ Merohan had said when she had asked him to accompany her, ‘with so many matters of state to settle it is not advisable to be seen gallivanting around town. Besides, it is before a coronation that a royal member has the most enemies. Let us not tempt the dangers of going out on the road.’

deBella’s own response was simply ‘no!’ and much to Merohan’s relief Shala called the idea off. In her waking hours however she had changed her mind, she would go about it without them, in secret, and if Erika her chambermaid could keep her mouth shut, return without them knowing a thing. She had sent the selfsame chambermaid to fetch Kaell, who Shala needed to get out of the castle, and as a companion besides.

In the morning hours she merely nodded at a scant few guards monitoring the halls and they were none the wiser of who she might be. The odd one cast but a glance at her passing, just to assess whether she was someone of threat.

She escaped notice until one of the guard did indeed call her over, and she approached reluctantly in defeat, lest he chase after her in suspicion and bring her down in a tackle. He would recognize her of course, but she would demand silence from him.

But with the hood over her head, the dimness in the hall, and the thick-headedness of standing watch through a night shift, the man could not care to take a proper look at her. She was going to be lucky.

‘Ah, you have nice slim arms on you maiden,’ said the guard as if in revelation.

Shala made a face below her hood. That was the last thing she had expected the man to say.

He seemed to realize the nonsense of his statement and said, ‘I mean to ask for aid my Lady, I played with a coin of my pittance, to keep myself awake as you might understand, but I dropped the blasted thing and it rolled in underneath these pews! Built as they are I can’t get my arm in underneath. Might I ask simply for you to retrieve it?’

With some sympathy and without answering Shala swooped down and reached in beneath the narrow frame of the corridor pew, where men in waiting to petition the King might sit, and she found the man’s golden coin without trouble.

‘There you are,’ she said in a voice unlike her own, handing it over.

‘Much obliged,’ he thanked her, and held it up, polishing the dust from it with a wolfish grin. ‘Have you ever seen a coin so splendid?’ he said, still with a grin and a sideways glance at her, in an obvious attempt to impress.

Shala should have left then, but could not stop herself. ‘Yes, many times. A lot of men who are paid in monthly silver trade their coins for a single gold coin, for the convenience or the vanity of it. But you stand to lose a portion of what you earn. As it stands there are roughly twelve silvers to a gold, but you would not get twelve silvers’ worth paying with a gold coin, especially if you are inclined to roaming from one merchant to another.’

Now the guard made a face that was not of comprehension.

‘It is customary for merchants to keep a half-silver of change if there is any. This way the rich pay a little more for the convenience of carrying less weight. To us common born however it is worth the effort to simply carry the silver and make use of its full value.’

‘Fine advice! I did not even know that there are any maidens working in the treasury,’ said the guard airily.

‘No dear sir, there are no women in the castle dealing with treasury, and that’s a shame. I’m simply close to Her Highness and make use of the little wisdom she preaches,’ said Shala.

‘I am Salonce. Might I ask your name?’ he blurted.

‘No you cannot, we are still strangers you and I, and until we meet again you will remain so.’

‘And why would a maiden wander around at these hours? If I had a choice myself I would still be wrapped in a coat of blankets.’

‘I assure you there is no choice to it, I have many duties to see to and I decided to get an early start. Farewell guardsman, dawn approaches and you’ll be off duty soon enough.’

‘I wish! The marshal Gibbon makes it his pride to do an assembly every other morning and sets us marching as though we are preparing for a parade. The man is merciless… But let me put it out there, next time we meet we’ll not be strangers, and then I’ll have your name and have you know that my bunk has always room for a fair maiden.’

‘I would certainly have to think about that, till next time soldier, now I must be off,’ said Shala and stalked away, wondering if the man would ever realize he had just offered his… affections, to the daughter of the ruling House.

‘Farewell and thank you kindly!’ shouted Salonce after her.

She’d been wrong. The man wasn’t thick of skull because he was tired, he was simply a half-wit and not blessed with any great amount of sense. But then again she was not judging of this man, she could always have found him sleeping on duty, which was rumoured to happen, and then he would have no purpose as a member of the guard. At the brink of leaving the hall she heard the man tossing his coin up and down again and she left thinking about a story of a fool and his gold that were soon parted.

 

 

She had to wait for Kaell at the entrance hall, the cook looking around confoundedly to finally spot her keeping out of sight, in the shadow of the staircase.

‘What took you?’ she hissed. ‘Did Erika sneak you a kiss? I know she likes you even if she would never admit it in front of Lenise.’

Kaell blushed, ‘No Highness, I’m hassled by your summons. It was a rather rude awakening and I didn’t sense this affection you think Erika might have for me. I am used to rising to the gentle tap of a robin pecking away at my small window, not by being smothered by my own spare pillow. I thought one of my fellow cooks finally decided to stoop to murder.’

Shala laughed in her throat. ‘Stop being so piteous Kaell, Erika had her fun with you because she knows you too well. I think she finds your innocence endearing.’ Again he blushed.

‘Well she risked much, it was dark you see and I was on the verge of sounding high alarm when I accidently realized my assailant had breasts and that she was giggling at my desperation. This trip might’ve ended before it started.’

Shala in the meanwhile was on the verge of telling Kaell to be quiet before he made her laugh the whole castle awake.

‘By the way Highness, at this point in time I would like to express my doubts about this plan,’ said Kaell worryingly.

‘You do? When we are caught I was hoping to tell them this was all your idea,’ said Shala, enjoying watching Kaell squirm in his own skin, which he so easily did.

Walking through the bailey to the postern gate Kaell asked, ‘How does Your Highness suppose we pass the gate?’

‘Didn’t Erika tell you? You’re off to buy emergency kitchen supplies silly, and I am a kitchen hand to help you.’

‘Intriguing,’ commented Kaell, and he was left to explain exactly this story to the guards at the gate. They seemed annoyed at the early disturbance but at least not suspicious as to who might hide under the cloak. They were let through and into town.

Shala was almost disappointed that she could breach her own guard this easily. It’s probably harder getting in, she consoled herself.

Kaell remained nervous even as they cleared away from the castle, and for good many reasons, he thought. If something even threatened to befall the Princess, he would be held accountable in any case. Not by the Princess herself, but by the much worse wrath of the household guard. He could already see Master Gremhalden whipping him with his one good arm.

‘It could be dangerous out in the streets Highness,’ protested Kaell again.

‘Which is why I’m bringing you along, am I not?’

‘My willingness to throw myself between you and danger notwithstanding, I fear I may prove of little resistance against any who means us harm.’

‘Then I will look out for both of us, I am armed,’ showing Kaell a sharp kitchen knife she stowed away deep in her robe. ‘And I will not hesitate faced with danger,’ she added confidently.

‘Then I am comforted in all but pride, had I only the mind to bring one of the kitchen knives… or at least some hotcakes to provide distraction with,’ said Kaell rather seriously.

Shala laughed. ‘Who will harm us Kaell?’

Kaell thought he would rather not answer.

Shala enjoyed the awakening Attoras immensely. Huge droves of pigeons fluttered from the cobblestone roads to the roofs as the first men began to roam and mill, getting ready for the day. The sun climbed ever higher, breaching the long shadows and lightening the fountain in the town centre, then the statues, and finally the bridge running over the only canal in Attoras, splitting the city into the smaller west and slightly larger east side of town.

The madam Telesa already readied her little shop near the castle gates, where she normally sold hot fudge from the chocolatiers as fast as they could make them. In turn the town children were allured here, playing games such as football or marbles, while others took their kites to just beyond the northern premises, where the wind was favourable.

Following the kites Kaell and Shala headed directly north to the upper branch of town. The stables here, though smaller, were still of castle property and maintained for the convenience of laying right at the edge of town. Shala got them past the doors with a little key that opened a large lock, the chains that kept the bolt secure clattering on the little stone porch.

‘I hope the grooms don’t come around too early, they might think the horses were taken by thieves,’ said Kaell.

Shala ignored his worries.

Inside they readied their horses, Shala taking her favourite mare from this particular stock, while Kaell chose the one horse he could even remotely ride, a grey flecked gelding with flat ears. He’s so clumsy with horses thought Shala, watching him struggle to get the horse to a standstill for the saddling.

Lucky that he could ride and that it would not be the first time they go off like this, although usually they did so with at least five members of the household guard. She clucked her tongue at him impatiently until they were finally ready.

Outside now was a sprinkle of snow here and there, making small heaps melting sodden into the road, just enough for a person to habitually look up into Dunnoom to see if a blizzard raged at its peaks.

They cantered, hugging close to the northern hills, sympathetic to all those little roads that saw neither hoof nor boot in the last few years. Kaell had the worst time keeping up, the horse growing more and more irritated with its incompetent master.

The Princess was not helping either, as she seemed to choose her path in a haphazard fashion and derived some insidious pleasure from changing their course into increasingly thick forested areas. Low bridging branches nearly unhorsed Kaell more than once, and his cheeks stung from twigs that swatted him like switches. He was not born with that knack of swerving with a certain anticipation and he was in wonderment that the Princess showed not a single mark. There was not even a hint that her clothes got snagged on a bush somewhere.

He got all the more anxious, hoping that the Princess knew the way back; he certainly didn’t. They came to a glade and stopped, for which Kaell was incredibly grateful. He was more out of breath than his horse.

‘I win,’ said Shala airily with a smile.

‘I was unaware that we were racing Your Highness,’ said Kaell breathlessly, ‘but then I should probably have realized it. Although in my defence even if I could overtake you I would have had no idea of where to ride, since you pick the course…’

Shala frowned. ‘Did you fall from your horse Kaell?’ she asked, seeing he was more haggard than he should be, his previously clean shirt having the faint rub-off of wild grass and dirt.’

‘Only once Highness. Bloody beast’s fault, stopping when it shouldn’t.’

‘Are you okay then?’ she asked with an uncertain laugh.

‘Of course Highness, luckily I broke most of the fall with my face. I had to run to catch up again to the horse after I fell, which is why I am a little more than spent.’

Shala burst out laughing, bringing her hand to her mouth as though to cram the mirth back inside.

Kaell smiled. ‘It’s good to see you laugh again Highness. The castle would be better off if they could hear what I hear.’

Shala looked kindly onto Kaell. ‘I’m more at ease out here Kaell. The castle has become a morbid place.’

‘Where is this?’ asked Kaell, noticing a dramatic change in the forest structure.

‘I told you, I often come here, this is as close as the Druids come to Attoras. They don’t like cities you know.’

Kaell took a good look about him. ‘So this is the boundary of the Grove?’

‘Yes, they keep the forests and maintain the balance of nature.’

‘Are we to meet someone here?’

‘No silly. Most of the Druids sleep and Metrus sees to all of Norwain. It is almost impossible to track him down. My father had some special way of finding him, but for the rest of us it is a matter of waiting for him to make contact.’

‘A strange man,’ said Kaell.

‘A good man,’ corrected Shala.

For a moment they stood in silence, looking up at the wall of trees, silent sentinels that had stood here years beyond counting, their roots so thick and overlaid that from thereon no horse regiment or marching army could pierce further into the Grove. Nothing stirred here, except for the most indistinct breeze, barely swaying the topmost branches. Although Kaell by chance did spot a squirrel, the creature chased on by the haste of its kind, as though it stole through a place where it knew there would be danger.

Losing sight of it Kaell only then noticed a searching look on the Princess’s features. She was certainly not following the keen little creature with that look. ‘You hope for the chance that Metrus would appear?’ he asked.

Shala nodded. ‘It is vain I know. This Grove alone covers more than a thousand acres. He could be anywhere. I did not truly expect him to be close. In some ways he knew my father’s secrets better than even Naceus. I wish I could show him my father’s note, so that he could allay some of my fears.’

‘What is it that you fear so Highness?’ asked Kaell.

Shala did not answer, even when it seemed that she wanted to. Rather she said, ‘Swarztial wants this section of forest levelled so that the town may expand. I couldn’t let that happen, not when we count on the Druids as allies. I couldn’t…’

Kaell understood her conflict. The council was using her alliance with the Druids as a means to alienate her from her own people.

‘The forest here seems to slumber… did you say Druids sleep? All the time?’

‘Most of the time,’ said Shala smiling, ‘don’t worry, I don’t understand it too well either. “They dream,” is what Metrus said, and I know there is power in what they do.’

Kaell nodded. ‘Is it… is that anything like the Benevolence?’ he asked hesitatingly.

‘I would say yes, although I’m not any kind of authority on the subject matter. In the Crimson City they have a great vault in which He slumbers for all eternity. He dreams of the world and so He sees everything, hears everything. Where He sees fit he bestows mercy, and sometimes He takes away. He took away from me Kaell.’

Yes, a father, a mother and even a baby brother. Kaell did not want her to grow sombre again and so sought to change the subject. But what could he possibly say after speaking of the Benevolence and lost loved ones?

She continued. ‘They say that we’ve been living in an era of isolation, that since the Benevolence walks Angaria no longer the divide between a hard world and the wonders of magic is growing. Nations have become strangers to each other and the Starwall has come to divide the world. They say even the stars are not as bright as they used to be, as though they too are in retreat.’

Shala looked up questioningly at Kaell as he smirked, and she saw him putting up his bravest smile for her sake. ‘If the stars have been running away from other places then they are with the skies of Attoras now. They are bright especially of late. I see a crown of stars from the castle windows, as good an omen as one gets before a queen is coronated.’

Shala smiled broadly at the notion that Kaell had discovered that corner of the sky by himself. ‘That omen as you call it does not belong to me alone, maybe I’ll tell you what it really means someday.’

‘Will that be soon Highness?’

‘Might be sooner than you think. Although it depends largely on your continued friendship, despite what omens you see in the sky I might soon be without a castle and you serving a King from Rostrad. We might be far removed from each other.’

Kaell shook his head. ‘I have no qualms that both I and others would not see eye to eye with a ruler other than yourself, Highness. Particularly this Patrick everyone is speaking off.’

‘You’d follow me in exile?’ asked Shala in disbelief.

‘I’m here now am I not?’ said Kaell.

That was enough to bring a brief look of satisfaction over her face.

‘How about your parents, Kaell? Are they of Attoras?’

‘I’m one of life’s many orphans, Highness. There’s plenty of us to go around,’ said Kaell with bleak humour.

Shala shook her head. ‘That’s enough of a break for now, let’s head back before the day grows too late. We have to buy those kitchen supplies anyhow.’

‘I thought the kitchen supplies were a charade?’ asked Kaell as they mounted.

‘They are, but how do you suppose we explain returning empty-handed to the guards at the gate?’ asked Shala.

‘Point taken Your Highness,’ said Kaell, although he was rather certain the Princess wanted an excuse to roam about town, which is exactly what they did the moment they returned.

With the horses locked up in the stables again Shala eagerly took to the streets, Kaell following in her wake and monitoring the sun’s progress. He had the day off, but those who knew the Princess would grow worried for her being locked up in her room the whole day. I hope Erika knows how to deal with deBella with a straight face.

Not for the first time Kaell was impressed by the Princess’ manner. Not for a moment did she take her nobleness with her out on the streets. Even hidden in her brown robe she always looked like a pretty thing, but there was nothing to suggest she was coming from the castle. When she talked she was polite and humble, and her voice almost a bit nasal to mask her royal origins.

Moving from shop to shop she’d walk at Kaell’s right and usually a step behind him, to complete the illusion that she was truly his assistant. Of course it was still she that decided where they would go.

After passing the bakery, its pleasant smells still following them, they turned into a street that they maybe should have avoided. The pillories were lined here, men who had deserted the King’s garrison to the north-east of Attoras locked up in wooden stocks, their hands and heads pitifully exposed to public abuse.

Shala and Kaell knew their crime because of the town crier, bellowing their misdeeds for all to be heard, his fervour often inspiring the odd passerby to throw all sorts of produce at the men held in stocks.

‘What a waste,’ said Kaell looking at tomatoes and cabbages splattering against the wood.

Kaell wanted to rush them through this street as fast as possible, but the Princess kept lingering, as though intrigued by the men who had forgone their duty to the King. Kaell was worried about how riled up a mob could get in settings like these and with the crowd in the street growing he was certain they would find trouble sooner rather than later.

‘Let’s keep moving Princess, I will bake anything of your heart’s desire if we can get through this day without trouble,’ he urged in a whisper and pressed her gently in the small of her back in a move that was a bit uncharacteristic for the timid cook.

Glad to be out of harm’s way, they browsed shops with kitchen utensils, but before Shala could buy something Kaell stopped her, saying he would rather not arrive at the castle with a clatter of pots and try and explain to Master Jalson why he brought home unnecessary cooking gear. ‘Let’s go to the spice shop. We can buy something to show the guards and it’s easier for me to stash away in the storage once we’re in the castle. No one will think twice about spare spices.’

Shala wholeheartedly agreed.

Kaell could not have known, but it was their stop at the spice shop that would be disastrous.

‘Halt cook!’

Kaell turned with a grimace. They were already leaving and up till now they had avoided any unnecessary contact. The big bearded owner of the shop walked up to him, his belly swaying side to side, and held up a coin he had just taken from Kaell. ‘How fool are you to walk around buying with marked silver? Buying with King’s stash?’

Shala’s eyes widened where she stood, Kaell hoping this suspicious lug of a man had not seen it. Luckily he seemed very much focused on Kaell.

‘Fool enough that it is the only money I buy with, since I come from the castle, and I’m here on their behest, buying their supplies.’ Since the man had noticed it would be folly for Kaell to deny otherwise.

‘Ah, so you are on a castle errand. You had at least thought this story through, eh? Hmm, it’s a nice opportunity wouldn’t you say, buying with marked silver?’

‘I’m afraid I do not follow sir,’ said Kaell.

‘I see trouble the minute it enters my street cook, if you really are a cook and if you really do come from the castle. I have never seen you come to my shop and I know the lads that visit on the castle’s behalf.’

‘He is indisposed, so I came in his place,’ lied Kaell.

The shopkeeper did not budge, looking at Kaell as though he was going to spill his true origins given enough inspection.

‘State your case,’ said Kaell in annoyance.

‘You buy supplies, yet you bring along a skinny girl in a big voluminous coat, now for what use can that be I wonder? But I know your game, from to shop to shop you buy with marked silver, the merchants grinning from ear to ear because it is good untainted money that doesn’t crumble in the hand, and your lady friend here browses at the back of a happy merchant, taking a look and a feel at this and that, but never putting back. And where might you have gotten the money really? Is it a nobleman drifting face down in the canal that can answer that, or is the poor man still alive? Either way, they reward handsomely these days for taking criminals to the castle.’

Kaell froze and Shala tugged at him to run. This was a mistake, this entire expedition and the shopkeeper’s foolish notions. The shopkeeper grabbed her wrist and pulled her in close with one burly arm. She gasped and Kaell’s hands were in his hair, helpless as he was. If the man could but know who he was touching…

‘What might I find if I rummaged through her many pockets? Come here girl,’ said the man as he wrenched her arm upright so that she was strung up like a fish on a line. Shala had the mind not to scream, but she could not do anything better either. Suddenly Kaell was between them and Shala could barely register what was happening, the look of the shop owner as surprised as she was, standing paralyzed with a knife to his throat, his hand still clasped on Shala’s wrist.

‘Unhand her,’ quivered Kaell’s voice, standing in close to the man, holding the knife to the jugular. The man stood more upright, he did not release Shala but neither was he keeping her on her toes anymore.

Shala had not seen it, but Kaell had swept in and stolen the knife she had hidden in her coat as deft as the pickpocket he was being accused for, and then turned on the shopkeeper.

‘You don’t have the stomach,’ the man grumbled, although clearly nervous, feeling the prick of the blade.

‘No I don’t,’ agreed Kaell, ‘but these royal kitchen knives cut through bone and sinew effortlessly, and I need only slip my hand to open a wound that not even the infirmary is going to save you from.’

‘Murderous,’ the man stuttered, his forehead beaded with sweat now. ‘I knew it.’

‘We are not criminals sir, and don’t cause us to become such, now let her go,’ said Kaell.

‘Get out of my sight,’ the man said, releasing the Princess and retreating with his back turned on them, by the look of it closing his shop for the day.

Kaell and the Princess stalked away quickly, not talking before they were well away from the shop, the sight of the castle gates bringing back some colour to the Princess’ face.

‘You have a sharp mind on you Kaell, you just saved us from much trouble. That was very brave.’

‘No Highness, brave is facing Master Gremhalden’s caning with a straight face – we shouldn’t have come here, I should not have allowed you to leave the castle!’

‘Allow me?’ asked the Princess in amusement.

‘Might be that I could drag Your Highness down before going on an uncalled for adventure. I might still get caned for the act, but at least you will be alive afterwards.’

‘Your care is touching Kaell,’ said Shala sweetly.

‘Yes Highness, but I was thinking that I would rather have your healing hands ready, for my back and thighs anyhow. Master Gremhalden can throw three daggers at fifteen yards into the backrest of a chair within a grouping of two inches, but for some reason when he picks up the rod he hacks away at us like a blind woodsman.’

The Princess laughed, the excitement of what had happened making her mirth sound giddy. ‘You have had many of these canings before?’

‘Only once Highness, and I’m unlikely to forget it. Marc of the kitchen has come to call Gremhalden lightning, for he never manages to strike twice on the same spot. Poor fellow gets caned so much for his mischief he looks like a zebra neck down on the backside.’

‘Then you will have my healing hands available when next you suffer a caning,’ said the Princess, still in the throes of laughter.

‘Thank you Your Highness, but I would rather avoid it altogether. Sure makes for an exciting day, it isn’t often that I hope to find sanctuary in Master Jalson’s kitchen.’

‘Hmm, I can’t believe that man didn’t recognize me,’ said Shala.

‘People see what they want to see, and he had already made his mind up about the two of us. Besides Highness, good ruler or no, your face is unfamiliar to most in Attoras.’

The Princess frowned. ‘That is a pity. People should at least know the face that commands them.’

‘It is also good Highness. I know of rulers who have lookalikes play the imposter to confuse potential enemies.’

‘I need such an imposter if only to deal with the dreariness of council meetings,’ said Shala, the idea appealing to her.

With some hope on Kaell’s part they made it back through the postern gate without any hindrance, only to find deBella waiting for them at the steps of the front doors to the castle, her arms crossed and her gaze trained on their approach. Erika had obviously faltered under deBella’s suspicions.

Even at this distance Kaell could see she had a mighty scorn on her face, and he groaned, knowing she would have recognized the two of them even in the dark. ‘What are you moaning about, it’s only deBella,’ said the Princess.

‘Yes Highness, but unlike Gremhalden the handmaiden holds a grudge even against the least of us, and she has some strange sway over the guard. Expect me to come for your healing hands quite soon,’ lamented Kaell.

Shala did not answer or appear to have heard, as she too floundered under deBella’s stony look, her own conscious calling her guilty beyond a doubt before she could fathom any worthwhile excuse.

 

IV

 

On the day of the burial the bells were tolling, twelve rings on every hour for three hours. Those admitted past the arches and into the catacombs flocked solemnly down steps neglected, the tomb of kings offering the quiet chill of stone set under the surface. The ceremony itself took place here, the entrance of the underground fashioned as a basilica, its many hallways leaking into the corridors of the long dead.

Shala found the place inherently morbid, with no windows to provide natural lighting and the scant furnishings leaving it looking bare. Even considering herself devout she came here not too often. One day, provided we have space, we will build a real church above ground, Shala decided.

Upon entering she became self-conscious of her clothes. More specifically, she wore a hairnet set with gemstones, an heirloom from her mother’s side and so a very sentimental piece to wear. She did however wonder if doing so was a mistake, as the splendour of the many diamonds drew attention to her on a day that she’d rather go unnoticed.

The most prominent of the realm were in attendance and they had come out in numbers, some from very far. Many of those were truly sympathetic, while others were here simply to show their faces, so as not to be discounted for the future furnishings of the kingdom. Of course only few of them were delusional enough to think they could take the throne or be close to it. Rather, with new rule, they’d hope to procure more favourable positions and maybe new landownership, and there would be no chance of that if they stayed holed up far away in Nortalon, Rostrad or the Estermarch.

Before the ceremony could start Shala had a look about the place, wishing to stand by those who knew her father best. But she saw nothing of Scholar Naceus, having thought his short frame hidden somewhere behind someone tall.

It wasn’t long before she realized he was not in attendance at all. Shala walked determinedly towards Swarztial, where he was seemingly clustered among members of the council of the same persuasion. Even before she could approach the man deeply angered her, as a passerby elicited some reaction from him, and he made another false show of grief for the King.

‘Yes Princess, how may I be of service?’ he enquired, as though he remembered nothing of their previous clashes, as though there was any kind of lasting civility between the two of them.

‘Where might Scholar Naceus be?’ asked Shala.

‘Highness, he is not royalty and does not own a place close to the king, why should he be here?’ asked Swarztial, sweeping the beret from his head.

‘You denied him entry! He was my father’s closest friend!’ hissed Shala.

‘Kings don’t have friends, Princess, they have subjects, and all subjects have their place. Scholar Naceus’ place is not here, not with this occasion.’

A hundred different retorts got caught up in Shala’s throat. She stalked away angrily. This was not the place to make a scene. Soon however her frustration melted away. The songs had started.

A choir of townsfolk attended, aged young and old, the lot of them dressed in white shifts and they occupied the tiered benches where they were stacked in a fashion Dieral the Ceremonies Master had arranged. In the confines of the underground their voices rang a pure note and seemed to drag an angelic presence within the place for the moment. The song was sombre however, and had mourning in it more than hope.

It was deserving praise for her father Shala knew, but the touch of the song found some unattended strings of grief within, and tugged at them, their effect resounding and had the Princess powerless to tears. But she did not weep, even when that was the impulse. deBella periodically wiped her stony face, but Shala pushed her hand away after awhile. The look deBella gave her asked her why she was being so stubborn against showing her sorrow.

The Benevolence knows I cry enough at night deBella, but I can’t appear to be an incompetent wench in front of all these men,’ thought Shala, hoping the handmaiden could understand.

The service was held, where many men spoke of Shala’s father, and read him rites of all kinds, and some spoke eulogies. The Bishop Jaegosh, being in attendance also spoke, ‘May the Benevolence light your path to the life hereafter,’ he had finished. Shala took a last long look at her father where he lay on a slab of stone, the sarcophagus rolled to his side, the lid taken off at this time.

The spell that she had put on her father still held, and would hold for a long time afterwards. It was pointless now however, save for the effect it had on the body, giving it an aura of peace and serenity, his skin still pearly. He was put in the sarcophagus with a sword, the enclosure a grand design of granite and the inside lined with white cushions as though the dead would need comfort.

More incense was lit, its smoky product now suffocating the underground air, and Shala felt more tears on her cheeks as the heavy stone lid was slid closed over the King. No pilgrimage, no Dream of Embers. The King would be put away forever. Soon enough the spell would fade and his spirit released from flesh and stone. He would move on.

The lid itself was carved spectacularly in the image of the old King, a crown on his head, his clothes richly detailed, him laying on his back, with a sword in his hands running down to his toes. The sword was the stone image of Erenciel. No man has ever owned that sword as much as my father, thought Shala. Had it not been for cold anger she would have spilled her heart, and had it not been for all these stony faced people she would have rolled the sarcophagus to its final place herself and stayed there crying, until she could bear it to finally leave him behind.

But her face remained passive save for the red in her eyes, and some moist on her cheeks. Soon the sarcophagus was rolled into one of the halls leading out of the central chamber, out of sight. Shala willed herself into the cold, her imagination providing the icy water that would envelope her. She did it to cut her emotion short, because Swarztial would come to prey on it, and she had no intention of her father’s kingdom falling to this man or any other who had come to Attoras on this day.

 

 

That night Kaell searched the castle for the Princess. She was usually easy enough to track down, her wanderings being a little more predictable than she realized, he always mused. Tonight however she had done a fine job of eluding him, until he by chance spotted her on the balcony, the very same one on which she had reputedly banished the wraith. He paused and stared wonderingly at her through the small glass squares of the window frame, looking at her from the side. She wore her smoky cloak, with a collar that was lined with thick silver fur. Her face was solemn and revealed to Kaell by the light of the moons she was staring at.

As he saw her then he could not imagine how a person such as she could have so many enemies and antagonists – beneath her beauty was a gentle soul beyond compare, tempered with a fierce intellect and the pride of her heritage that made her stand up to Swarztial the way she did.

He cursed Swarztial, this time loud enough that he could have landed himself in trouble if one of the Chancellor’s eavesdroppers were around. They must be madmen to oppose her and blind not to see her the way he saw her – if they could ever accomplish seeding doubt in her Kaell would have her know; she was greatly loved and none worth having in the castle desired a different ruler. He decided to disturb her peace in any case. She needed to eat after all. He went around and came out behind her through the balcony doors.

‘Highness, you missed dinner, so I made you another plate of food, only I could not find you, and now it as well has grown cold. Is it that you don’t like eating so early or before twilight?’

Shala took a moment to bring herself to the conversation. ‘There is no hunger in being alone Kaell,’ she said quietly, ‘although I thank you for your concern. I can feel it; that I’m neglecting myself, but I cannot bring myself to eat when I am worried as I am now. And I’ll not eat alone. The dining hall used to be full of people, most of all my father; his appetite and laughter was infectious, and folk would be merry around his table and sweep clean the plates of a feast.

‘Now they put plates before me that I cannot even put a dent into, and despite the kitchen’s best efforts, the food has been like ash in my mouth lately. The chairs stand empty, and I listen only to the sputtering of tallow candles and the chime of a grandfather clock. I guess the hounds or the kitchen hands don’t mind finishing off for me…’

‘You must sustain yourself Highness, you need your strength and it will not come from within alone. You must eat and feast, and if you could ever afford it, smile and laugh. Not all within the castle are mean or charged with agendas.’

‘Yes,’ is all she answered, downcast, and Kaell felt unwelcome.

‘Do you wish to be alone Highness?’ Kaell asked.

She shook her head. ‘All day I avoid everyone, but actually I cannot bear the loneliness, and I miss my father’s touch. deBella holds me when I cry, but there is not much warmth and comfort from even a heart as sweet as hers.’

For the smallest moment Kaell considered walking forward and taking the Princess’s hand where it rested on the balcony railing, until sense caught up to him, realizing it was the worst idea imaginable. Hoping to distract the Princess in some way he asked, ‘Do you also enjoy looking at the night skies Highness?’

‘Yes, very much. It is a good reminder that the world is much bigger than just the boundaries of my troubled kingdom. The stars are splendid and I never tire of looking at the moons, for they change and converge, or emerge far apart, sometimes hiding slyly in a cloak of clouds if there are any, and if they are full and round it is as though they have blossomed and their light puts pilgrims at ease on the roads. You can go to any corner of the world and you’ll still find the same heavenly bodies watching us from the echelons, from the skies beyond the sky.’

‘They fascinate me the stars, because they sit in patterns as if arranged and as to their substance I cannot imagine what they really are,’ said Kaell.

‘Who can guess at it? To me they look like the Embers of the great dream that brought about existence. The kind our myths talk about when trying to explain the origin of everything.’

‘My Lady?’

‘There is a world beyond what we can see, where all that ever was and all that ever will be is placed in stasis, where the power of creation is supreme and unquantifiable. When we dream, or allow ourselves into a dream, we touch – or no, merely brush against this great place, and if we know how, we can summon the gift of power to our reality, like my hands of healing and the blessed light contained in the Seluin waters.’

‘I have never understood the dreams of the gifted houses, but then my dreams are simple. And I would say I understand the Dream of Embers even less,’ said Kaell.

‘Look at the stars Kaell. Do they not look like embers, spat out by a fire into the sky, though fiercely white?’

‘So then the Dream of Embers is referring to… the stars?’ asked Kaell, not sure that he was following.

Shala smiled and said, ‘No, not directly. I did not mean to confuse you Kaell. It is just that I like to see Dream of Embers in the stars, for I will not see it any place else as a mortal.’

‘What is it then, Your Highness?’

‘For all I want I cannot tell you, it is a legacy of Kings, and so grave a secret to bear. It’s not that I wish to be a tease. But what I will tell you is that it keeps safe all the lands of the world, as well as you and I. It strengthens the Rules of Realm and gives peace where it is welcome.’

‘You sound like Master Jalson Your Highness. “You don’t have to understand it, you just need to know that it works!” said Kaell in a convincing imitation of the moody Master of the kitchen.

Shala smiled. ‘There is at least something I can show you,’ said the Princess, pointing at the southern skies so that Kaell could follow. ‘Remember those stars you saw as a crown? And I told you they were not an omen for my benefit?’

Kaell nodded.

‘If you look closely you’ll see them making a curving circle within another circle, like the spiral of a slug’s shell, growing narrow toward the middle?’

‘Yes, I see it.’

‘It depicts a horn if you have the imagination for it, a ram’s horn, and it represents the Dream of Embers.’

A horn?’ asked Kaell.

‘Yes, a horn on which a call can be blown, to signify a gathering. Most dreams are a lonely business, the kind you and I have, but the Dream of Embers is where the mightiest of minds meet and the will of the nobles are tempered into a defence against evil. The phenomenon is not for our eyes, we cannot see it, but it is in knowing that we are comforted. Those who know show to their children the stars, and say “look up, see the horn, and see that you are watched over,” Shala laughed at herself, ‘I have said too much already, and now I will definitely not say anymore.’

‘Is a message of hope to be kept secret, Your Highness?’

‘To protect it yes, it’s not a well-kept secret Kaell, but we must aspire to keep it a secret nonetheless. If evildoers knew the function and the location of the Dream of Embers, well… Only I too feel as you do, and the dream enthrals me so that I have trouble guarding my mouth and not telling the world about its greatness.’

‘You are very passionate Highness; I wish I could spend as much time with Scholar Naceus. I need to learn more about the world, and you’ve me left curious to the nature of dreams.’

Shala sighed. ‘I miss my times with the Scholar and he does not come to the castle anymore.’

‘That’s right, he lives in the east town as I can recall. Strange fellow if there ever was one,’ said Kaell.

‘Yes, having asked him he always says he’d rather stay in town, even when he is offered quarters inside the castle. I never understood it because his home in town is very humble and he needs to walk far and upwards with heavy books. But then he told me he wants to approach the castle from outside every morning; see the men on the wall, watch the banners be blown by the wind as he’s allowed through the gate and come in over the threshold as a visitor, fresh and hopeful, having seen the castle for all its glory. Now I understand, for I am trapped in opulence, and I cannot marvel at the castle living here with my enemies,’ said Shala, ‘I would very much like to speak with him.’

‘But Highness, the night is still very young and you are hungry. I will send for the Scholar and at the table I shall make sure you feast together under proper light and with good wine!’

‘It sounds good, but he too loved my father and I fear our conversation will turn nostalgic and sorrowful.’

Kaell seemed stifled. He had thought it to be a splendid idea.

‘But then I will not allow for it,’ said Shala suddenly. ‘Gather the members of my guard Kaell, those on duty at present and seat them at leisure around my table.’

‘The guard, Highness?’ asked Kaell confoundedly.

‘Yes, they would not have had dinner before their shift ends. Don’t look so surprised Kaell, I have often felt home among them, a feeling not inspired by many others in the castle. They are unappreciated at times and for all their loyalty I will be equalled to them even before my rule comes to so early a twilight. And then Scholar Naceus and myself will have too much company to be sorrowful.’

‘As you wish Highness,’ said Kaell with a broad smile, ‘the kitchen fires will be lit and all the hands I can muster will be called!’

 

 

Shala welcomed the soldiers as they shuffled into the dining hall, led by captain Merohan, the lot of them looking unsure at this gesture, hesitating to take their seats around the giant oak table, the red cushions of the high chairs having never seen more unlikely guests.

They sat uncomfortably at first, careful in their movements as the many starter dishes came about, apparently intimidated by the number of eating utensils. Naceus was soon after to arrive, coming to the dining hall like a man who simply stumbled onto the occasion by accident. Seeing him that way made Shala smile and she experienced a warm feeling, standing up and greeting him.

He was the smartest man Shala had ever met, and possibly the wisest, although that honour she usually attributed to her father. Naceus was part of the Attoras castle as much as the antique furniture or the paintings on the walls, and Shala loved the old man dearly. He spent many patient years teaching Shala as a girl and she knew her father had admired him above all his other advisors.

There was not a drop of malice in the man, shying away from wars and violence even though studying such histories profusely. He was not a dreamer and had no power save for his intellect, yet Shala knew the man had entire worlds in that head of his, where he spent much of his time. In her life she had never seen a person who could be so removed from reality, smoking his pipe, lost in thought, and oblivious to all that is around him.

Scholar Naceus had always been a small man, somewhat stooped and stocky, but tough in own right, Shala conceded in her thoughts. On his wizened face he wore one of many pairs of spectacles he carried around with him. He was balding on the top, but with thick greying curls still at the sides and back of his head. The pockets in his waistcoat were often full of pocket watches, notebooks, pens and even other devices that looked like pocket watches but measured things like temperature or told the movements of the moons.

Gathering himself to the situation (the Scholar had most certainly been locked in deep thought before he came face to face with the Princess) he was left curious by the men seated at the king’s table tonight and only once remarked at how strange this was, but he settled soon, and enjoyed the evening immensely. He seemed to have a way with soldiers, stooping his academic talk to converse with and fascinate simpler men, without resorting to the crude words that crept in so often in soldier’s speech. Upon one thing they all agreed; the food was good.

There were dishes topped with a creamy cheese flavoured with garlic, which Naceus was partial to. The rice swam in gravy and the baby potatoes the Princess loved were gone by the time the silver plate passed by her; she did not mind and smiled, knowing the soldiers would not taste better than Kaell’s efforts. There was apple pie, the cinnamon flavour touching the nose the moment the crusts were pierced and the few soldiers that came to eat it with a tuft of whipped cream would forevermore swear the dish as their favourite.

The household guard always looked to be a proud bunch, and as a royalist escort they were expected to be concise in conversation and conserved otherwise. But then as always the guard had all kinds of men.

Two of the simpler men, named Urad and Salonce, were in a particular fix with each other. ‘You cannot use that pig-sticker to eat those fishies,’ said Urad in admonishment, referring to the oyster he himself was scooping with a spoon.

‘What do you know? First of all, oysters aren’t fish. And I’ve seen the King and his royal guests pick ’em with these,’ said Salonce. ‘Besides, you did not stand in when His Grace dined here, you use the utensils from the outside to the inside!’ explained Salonce hovering his hands over the many forks and knives on either side of the plates to indicate.

Bah, the only reason you’re in the household guard and already watching Kings eat is because your father worked in the castle,’ said Urad.

‘And you’re only a castle-man because you broke a captain’s jaw! What dumb luck!’ retorted Salonce.

‘He turned out to be a traitor and a murderer! They hanged him!’ said Urad in his own defence.

‘Aye, but you struck him before that fact came to light – because he spat on you as he spoke! He already lay in the infirmary when his deeds became public. Then by some misunderstanding they said you caught him! You received promotion instead of dismissal!’ said Salonce excitedly.

Urad opened his mouth to counter.

‘Boys, let’s quiet down and enjoy the evening shall we?’ said Naceus from the side.

‘Uh… yes sir,’ they both mumbled embarrassed, occupying themselves with the food again, Urad swearing by his spoon even when prying meat from the bone, Salonce shaking his head and muttering something about his friend growing up on porridge.

More to the end of the evening Shala had Naceus for herself, the joy of the evening fading to the quiet content of small talk among the soldiers, stomachs filled, and to Shala’s satisfactions, dishes cleared save for a few unattended morsels.

She had been determined not letting tonight stumble on more serious matters, but all the same she could not stop herself from bringing her worries to Naceus. More than anything she stressed her concern that with his note the King had meant for her to journey to Nem Nemuris, that he was seeing his House going the way of Wolves, and its last great contribution being a pilgrim that could strengthen the Dream.

‘What do you think Scholar?’ she asked, after he had been silent for awhile in the wake of her explanation.

Naceus picked through his dessert, finding the sweetest bits for the last of his appetite.

‘Your father the King was a man of advancing years, Highness. He had an heir, a beautiful strong daughter in fact and he served the Kingdom as best he could. He gave all that he could give and was ripe to fulfil the dream so to speak. He could depart and know the Kingdom was in safe hands. I for one would speak against any idea of yourself taking the pilgrimage. This kingdom, proud and old, will need you, last of the line, and I know you would serve it well. And I mean serve, because should Your Highness depart and pass on the right of rule to another, the prospecting King we speak of will roam with the illusion that Kinghood is naught but power, the raw exercise of greed and misery.’

‘You don’t need to tell me Scholar, I know full well what Patrick of Sannil is.’

‘For once, and I shudder to do so, I agree with Swarztial. Your father the King was in no clear mind on his deathbed, and I am afraid the very weak state had left him to despair. Do not let your father’s last musings amount to misunderstanding.’

‘You know Swarztial said that?’ asked Shala.

‘I have my own eyes and ears in the castle Highness, although they are not as mischievous as Swarztial’s. Nonetheless, anything said in the court has a good chance of reaching me.’

Captain Merohan had the mindfulness not to let the soldiers get too comfortable, and announced for all of them that the time had come to depart. Rather sullenly the other soldiers followed his lead, but remembered their manners in bowing to the Princess before filing out of the dining room. Finally Shala and Naceus were alone, and Kaell oversaw the disposal of the leftovers and the washing of the dishes in the kitchen.

She watched thoughtfully as the unassuming cook moved in and out to clear the table, somehow finding time to quickly refill her and Naceus’ wine glasses before moving along.

‘And that face Highness, is one I saw on a little girl who used to think about things, and I would offer her a bronze penny for her thoughts, only for her to boast that her father’s treasury doesn’t need pennies.’

Shala smiled. ‘Just earlier tonight I had talked to Kaell about the Dream of Embers. Not that I revealed anything of course. I only spoke to him because I trust him so. He once pointed out the star sign of the horn to me in the night skies and so we got stuck in the discussion of dreams. But I have been wondering, and surely there is no one better to ask – I’m afraid I myself do not know much about the Dream? ’

‘It is shrouded in mystery even to the enlightened!’ said Naceus.

The Scholar adjusted his glasses, putting his index finger to his temple and gathering his words like Shala knew him to do on the occasion.

‘Nem Nemuris, called the Tomb of Kings, lies far to the south. This you know. Great kingly houses, from Attoras and Avandar, and many other city-states have provided pilgrims for the Dream. There the most incredible magic is woven, and men of lineage, whose blood is capable and powerful, blossom. In their last moments they become the unifying dream, their power permeating through rivers and mountains and groves, and through the hearts and minds of men. It gives reason and peace and stifles powers that lust destruction and suffering. It facilitates the Rules of Realm, which you know is crucial in keeping nefarious creatures at bay.’

Shala nodded all along to Naceus’ explanation, familiar with most of what he said. ‘What is it that these Kings blossom into?’

Monoliths, Highness, they turn to what is considered the final state, unmoving and in eternal stasis, like the rocks deep beneath the surface of Angaria and transformed by pressures to something greater. They forsake life and body to become nothing more than mind and dream, contained within living crystal, like statues, but their power still transcending their confines for the betterment of our world.’

It is sacrifice then,’ murmured Shala.

‘Had you expected it to be something else?’ asked Naceus.

‘No, my heart already knew it. From pieces of history and stories I heard I always knew that those who go south to join the Dream do not return.’

‘You must also know that those who go are old and past their prime, usually leaving many heirs behind.’

‘To your knowledge, is it true that I might be the last eligible?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes, a strange turn of events. Even ten years ago there were still some who could journey. But as far as I hold record there are none now among the great houses that can blossom, no one but you, Your Highness.’

‘Then at one time or another, I might as well make the journey and offer myself,’ said Shala, seeing an increasingly worrying face on Naceus. ‘As it stands, I might yet be forced to go soon, some days it seems unlikely that I would hold to my throne. I might as well be of different use.’

‘Not at all Highness, in this I do not agree. More that are eligible will be born and should you have children, then the likelihood of that is all the better.’

Shala smiled. ‘You would not be happy if I decided to take to the road Scholar?’

‘I would not have any royal friends of intelligence to talk to if you do! Speaking honestly Princess, what little peace might be bought by the Dream will not undo men like Swarztial; he will remain as devious as he is and only you in the flesh can put an end to his conniving.’

‘Then don’t worry Scholar, Attoras is my priority. Even if I do take to the Dream, I will first lay aside this threat of Swarztial, and I hope to become quite old before I journey.’

Naceus nodded. ‘Now that would warm my heart,’ he said with a smile. A thought struck Naceus that suddenly had his smiled wiped off.

‘There is another gathering of stars in the sky that stands unfulfilled for five hundred years. When it captures the movement of Rodreon and Castilleon within its web, it is known as the Sign of Toreg. I have been watching it worryingly for some time now. It bodes ill, as it did when the sign first appeared all those years ago.’

‘What is this all about Scholar?’ asked Shala, wondering where this was coming from.

‘Highness, do you by any chance remember Jeot Agathir’s Remnant Pages? They used to mention the Sign of Toreg quite often.’

‘How could I forget? You had me pour hours over it when I was young.’

Naceus chuckled. ‘Your father instructed me to train your mind and I did exactly that,’ said Naceus unapologetically.

‘And yet you never awarded my curiosity Scholar, you never gave me enough of the pages so that I might understand the purpose of all those puzzles and codes.’

‘There was reason to this Highness, young as you were, the implications of Agathir’s work was always alarming and upsetting. Why, I am old and I could not bear the topics he delved into!’

‘Why bring it up Scholar?’

‘I was recently visited by a man enquiring to purchase the few documents we have. I immediately did not like the look of this man, and knowing Agathir’s allure to dark-sided matters I feared this man was after the pages for this very reason. He was rather terrifying I admit, but I would be hard-pressed to put a face on him. Nevertheless I assured him the pages were not in my possession and even if they were they are not mine to sell in the first place. He made a very high offer then, as though it might change matters. I assured him it did not. Then, before I could know it, he was making threats; telling me that he has men in the castle and that if he could not buy the Remnant Pages, he would simply have it taken.’

The Princess’ face was grave as she said, ‘Naceus, you know how exposed the library is, and Swarztial already has his lackeys running around the castle in the pretence of servants. If this man is associated with him, then they will take the Remnant Pages as easily as he boasted.’

‘I know Highness, which is why I figured it prudent to tell you.’

‘I would not trust these documents with anyone else, do you have a safe place to keep them?’ asked Shala.

‘Of course! What self-respecting Scholar would not have a hideaway for precious material! Or at least in this case, material I would rather not see in the hands of dark strangers…’

‘Then you may take the pages from the library Scholar, as soon as you must and speak no word of your retrieval of them lest you place yourself in danger.’

‘I’ll be discreet Highness, of course, and thank you for understanding.’

Leaving the dining room the two of them made for the library, the corridor to it and the room itself sponsoring a silence that made way for their echoing footsteps. No one was more at home in the library than Naceus, and without ado he scrambled up a step ladder, intimately aware where different archives were stashed. He pushed volumes of books aside to reach in deep behind them.

Ah.

He came down with more deliberation, muttering something about heights, slowly stepping down with the selected bundle of papers.

‘There they are, all of them still intact. I’d so hoped that I never need touch them again.’

‘Saying that makes you the perfect person to safeguard them Scholar,’ said Shala sincerely.

‘Of course,’ said Naceus, ‘that and my tremendous skill at arms and swords, no foe will dare cross the threshold of this Scholar!’ he said, much to the Princess’s amusement.

Shala walked the Scholar all the way to the castle entrance, talking lightly and steering clear of the administrative issues that plagued the Princess during the day.

‘It was so good to see you again Scholar,’ said Shala.

‘As it was you. I believe I’ll come more often. This place needs more men of good humour. You have fine men among your guard Highness and I believe your gesture here will not go uncounted for.’

Shala smiled, ‘A pity they cannot vote on the council.’

‘No they cannot I’m afraid. All the same, I think you do Attoras proud and it’d be the council’s mistake to suppose others could do the same. Farewell Highness, I hope by the next time we meet you will have a heavy crown on your head and I will have to bow an inch or two lower than usual.’

Shala hugged the short man, ‘You will never have to bow to me Naceus.’

She stared fondly after him as he left down the steps and toward the bailey, a guard with a lamp leading him to town. Turning in she made straight for her own room, her mood greatly improved.

The fire in the hearth had warmed her room nicely by the time she turned to bed. The wine had made her eyes heavy and put a yawn on her lips, but even so she strolled over to her dresser, where her music box lay. It had been her mother’s, and as long as she could remember Shala let it play out its tune to lull her to sleep. As usual one of her chambermaids had already wound the thing, so she need not use the winding key unless she happened to open the box during the day.

The moment she opened it the cylinder set in motion, and it played the all too familiar melody. She crawled into the canopied bed, the drawn canvasses around the tall bedpost hiding her away from the world, allowing only the crackle of the fire and the music to sneak into the warmth of where she rested. As with most timeless tunes the notes were simple and repetitive, having little work to do as Shala faded into slumber.

Chapter 3

The Savage Art

 

Donniker kept a sly watch from the opening of his tent’s flap, seeing the figures outside huddled to one of many campfires. In the night shadow they looked almost human, but that was only until they talked in guttural noises, snarling as much as speaking at times. He could understand them and to an extent speak their language, but he was Master over them, and so they obeyed him in plain King’s tongue.

They were far yet from civilization, and in towns and crowds of people Donniker always warranted odd looks from a passerby. He had a bony face, his straw coloured hair drawn into a ponytail and his skin, especially on the cheeks, was marred by purple blemishes. Onto that a dreadful blow in a fistfight had set his jaw slightly askew, the broken jaw never having healed properly.

If only that blow had killed him many said, because there was no loss of life within this man. He was outright filled with malice and spite, and in many countries across the world would have hanged for counts of murder, rape and pillaging if they could but catch him. Having survived this long came down to his ability to finding friends and masters as devious as he, and he was well aware of this need.

Donniker was not frail, but didn’t have the might or skill to hold his own in battle except if he could ambush from behind with a club or dagger. By the company he kept and consequence of his misdeeds he came over a strange fellow, a wanderer to many obscure places, calling himself the Pilgrim. This was long before now, before Donniker ever had any real talent.

At the time the Pilgrim kept Donniker safe from some other unsavoury types, who hounded him with greater fervour than any other authority had time for. In exchange the only thing Donniker had to keep up with was the Pilgrim’s incessant fables and ramblings of deeds Donniker was sure belonged to men already dead. And he would have written off this man’s far-fetched tales if not that he insisted on stumbling through the Starwall on the occasion.

This at least was enough to get Donniker’s attention for a while, and so kept the Pilgrim’s company. Nobody, not anyone, ever crossed the Starwall with impunity, what less stumbling through it? And yet the man talked of the lands of the east as though he was there just yesterday, when in fact those lands had been lost to the west centuries by now. He found the stranger an unquantifiable source of knowledge and a constant presence of insanity that seemed to leak through the air and touch everything and everyone around him.

Yet the madness within the man had an alluring quality and Donniker became enthralled by his abilities. Sensing the malice in Donniker the Pilgrim taught him the power of dreams, how to entreat them and through them bind others to his will. It was soon afterwards that the Pilgrim disappeared and Donniker never saw the man again. He often wondered if he had returned from whence he came.

At first Donniker merely used the newfound gift as a means to mischief and robbery. But the effect of his power was not substantial on humans, and could not be used other than a catalyst to already troubled environments. Stirring up needless fights in taverns quickly grew tedious and was profitless besides.

Finally he found a race as sinister as he, and vulnerable to his suggestion. He gave the goblins ambition and greed, and fuelled it with a hate for anything besides themselves. He became a talisman to them and they knew better than to cross his command, because traitors were dealt with quickly.

With the visions and direction he gave them they were no longer a species squabbling over scraps and holes to live in, or who casts a bigger shadow, but rather a formidable band of merciless raiders. Donniker thought his effort spent forging them into such as vain, until, as he had hoped, he was contacted by the kind that would require his service of murder and mayhem. He had a Master once more.

As for the goblins he made use of their hate as often as he could, and soon he would need that hate for them to marshal into an assault, for they would break apart and flee without it. Cowards, backstabbers and parasites, all of them!

Donniker grew worried however, that this hate he imparted on these foul creatures would spill over and sully their discretion, ultimately making them turn on him. But Donniker never spent too much time on it, dismissing the worries with thoughts of great payment, and eventually, being rid of goblins forever. When their use is over and I no longer lead them they will hide again in all that is cave and hollow, and starve out like they wretchedly deserve! He thought in amusement.

His resentment of them was born from fear. He had seen what they were willing to do to each other, some of them even indulging in cannibalism. He suffered no delusion that they wouldn’t tear him apart in a bout of hunger, only to realize afterwards they had fed upon their only hope of rising out of a miserable existence. To say the least he made sure they were well-fed, if only they were well-fed on each other.

His only problem was that his followers were as despised as he himself, and had an even a harder time travelling through any kind of civilization. The journey with the goblins however was always swift as they needed little rest, and could scurry across arduous landscapes as well as mountain goats, and did not shy away from hauling Donniker up the most obscure mountain trails one could imagine.

There was one mountain range they did not even consider; Dunnoom. Even goblins hasted on by a whip would not climb where ice and snow filled the passes and Dunnoom carried the reputation of being the most treacherous mountain on the face of Angaria.

They did well to stay clear of the roads where the Highwaymen guarded, who did so on behalf of themselves as much as for the King.

Not all the roads could be avoided, but then not all the Highwaymen were above corruption, and a good few coins bought the road open for them for a crucial few miles at a time, before they got into the hills again.

There was a wretched eagle in the sky that often followed them regardless of which road they took, three days straight at one stage. Donniker was highly suspicious of it, and he ordered the goblins to capture the blasted thing, and if it suited them, consume it. Whenever he had such a problem that might require a more delicate touch he turned always to Osdasylin, who was best with devices and traps.

‘See it caught. It bodes ill and seems like a spy to me,’ said Donniker.

‘Spy?’ queried Osdasylin, the goblin sounding as though he thought the idea ridiculous.

Donniker balled a fist overhead and the goblin cowered, falling over his own feet. ‘How is it that you question everything? Is nothing I say worth taking without comment!’

‘I’m sorry Master, it is how I create, I question…

‘Then save your sorry questions for all else besides me. When I issue a command I expect the deed done no matter how little you think of it!’

‘Of course Master.’

Days later the eagle had still eluded them despite their best efforts. This only fuelled Donniker’s suspicions of its nature, and agitated as he was, the goblins always became the object of his wrath. When he beat on them it was expected to be taken without defiance.

He was troubled, on edge. And that was partly because their perilous road hitherto was only to have them on standby. They were, as his Master said, a contingency, and only needed if all else failed.

Two goblins suddenly jumped at each other, Donniker flinching behind the tent flap at the sudden movement, as the one quickly pinned the other down. They too are growing more agitated, thought Donniker as he realized they were up in arms because of a silly toy Osdasylin had made to keep them preoccupied. Regardless of our summons, we will need to move soon.

‘Be sure you are there before Mallova’s height, and be ready to act on a moment’s notice,’ the summons had said. And they would be; the payment was enough to settle Donniker’s debts and then some. Donniker had watched the white moon closely each night, incrementally growing to a full circle.

The goblin who came away with the toy stood upright momentarily, growling threateningly at his brothers.

Standing upright, which goblins rarely ever did, they were a head or two shorter than the average man. Mainly they hunched, or squatted at a standstill, their movements were jerky and they didn’t mind using their arms now and then in a run. Their skins, or hides rather, ranged from grey-green, dull-grey or even a sickly black, like a man taken by frostbite. The brows of their faces were heavy above mean eyes set close to each other, noses hooked and mouths drawn in thin grim lines. Most of them looked malnourished, showing lean muscles and the skin pulled tight across the skulls.

Their hair stank, and the dark strands as it often were, were oily and unkempt, save maybe for battle were they’d tie it into ponies to avoid nuisance. Hair tied up and weapons drawn they were like rodents in a fight, amassing and overwhelming, offering no fair contest, coming in high and low and in from the sides, not even caring if they stabbed one of their own in the process.

In daytime the goblins carried heavy packs, not so for provisions, which they could get off the land well enough, but rather carrying the parts of their instruments of war. The dream of biting, clawing and screaming did little to improve civility within their identity – they could never organize into cities or cultures, thought Donniker. Ingenuity in war on their part however was maybe unmatched, crude mostly, but ingenious all the same. The best of their contraptions all had a curious collapsible quality, compact, tough and mobile like the goblins themselves.

The Wheels of Menace as they were called, were for the moment but lengths and rims of wood and bolts of iron, and rope too, but could be quickly assembled for a siege. There were also dark rubber buttresses and metal spirals which Osdasylin had explained would be crucial to survive the tumble.

They will not be ready for it, thought Donniker in delight. Like the goblins, he enjoyed watching things burn, and where they went towns would burn splendidly. The only thing that had been missing from the stocks had been the incendiaries. Donniker still wondered whether letting his supplier live was a mistake.

A few nights ago a wagon had rode into their clearing. Like snakes from a nest the goblins emerged from their place of rest, so paranoid of pursuers that there was a wall of spears and many drawn bowstrings pending toward the slow and lonely wagon. Donniker himself approached muttering angrily, telling the goblins to stand down as he recognized the apparent intruder.

‘You are late,’ he said to the three men on the wagon.

Only the leader of them spoke, as the other two men looked highly anxious in the presence of goblins.

‘The markers you laid out to follow were hard to see. We had to backtrack several times to pick up the trail again.’

‘They were intended to be hard to follow; I did not want Highwaymen tracking us down in the dead of the night.’

‘Fair enough I guess,’ said the man.

‘Is this the full load?’ asked Donniker.

The man stood aside and made a sweeping gesture to the wagon behind him, ‘Courtesy of House Sannil, may his generosity and affiliation with pirates never be questioned,’ said the man dryly.

Donniker spat to the side. ‘Be careful where you say such things, men like Sannil and his father do not fall without dragging all those involved into the pits with him.’

The man shrugged. ‘Come have a look see,’ said the man as though he didn’t hear Donniker’s warning.

Donniker followed him around the wagon to the back end and the man lifted the canvas. Many head-sized clay pots were stacked on each other, wax-sealed, some of them oozing the substance they contained from the lids. The smell intrigued Donniker, somehow familiar, but he could not put a name to it. He leaned in closer, but the smuggler pulled him back and shut the canvas with a jerk. ‘Careful with that torch man, one whiff of flame will set these things alight! They won’t burst like Gypsy craft, but they will damn well unleash an inferno if you allow it!’

This was the first indication that this aloof man feared anything and so Donniker took him seriously. ‘Can I count on it as an instrument of siege?’

‘I don’t know these things as well as the sea folk do, but they are a fair amount stronger than your everyday lantern oil.’

‘Then your part is done, be gone from here,’ said Donniker.

‘I’m inclined to have something to eat first, is there nothing like a little goblin hospitality? Besides arrows and bolas I mean?’ asked the aloof man, looking over Donniker’s shoulder at the campfire, as though expecting to see something being prepared there.

‘The only hospitality they will offer you is putting you on the spit and enjoying you as the main course, take your leave and while you do so be thankful that I did not have them tear you apart just to be cautious about it. You have already proven yourself to have a loose mouth on you.’

The man held up his hand as though in apology. ‘A man can a take hint, and I’ll not talk out, this little encounter won’t make good pillow talk even if the girl is paid for the night.’

For a long while after Donniker was tempted to send out a goblin host and kill the suppliers in the dark.

A figure outside made his way toward the tent, formally ambling to his Master like an overfed duck. Donniker retreated as the biggish goblin entered, this particular one being the chief among them, named Gerfas.

The goblin-chieftain Gerfas grumbled before uttering, ‘Message has come Master,’ he said, holding out a letter he had already torn open and read, the contents smeared by grimy fingers.

Bloody beasts, any idea of etiquette is lost on them… At least he can read…

Even as Donniker read the letter the goblin spoke out of turn, ironically as though thinking Donniker had any trouble reading.

‘It says we must come, Attoras must burn!’

Donniker smiled. Later, wandering outside among the goblins, he was entranced again by the moon, Rodreon, which for the last couple of days displayed a curious quality, shedding its red light on the mists in the hills, the mists so readily changing to suit the red hue of the heavenly body. He took it as an omen of blood and fire, and they would follow it into the west, into the hills, and unleash this moon’s prophecy on the heart of the Northlands.

 

II

 

A few days after the funeral Shala could not help but notice the restoration of Attoras to its bustling self. The sombreness was swept away by the coming of the westerly wind and the streets closest to the northern wall had the clamour again of a bazaar in harvest time.

The castle itself had hints of its good humour restored. Shala had come upon a member of the guard being bellowed upon by the Marshal Gibbon, chastising him for not holding by the proper dress code. As it would have it, the man failed to wear boots, and it had become a sorry sight seeing him trying to explain that the castle dogs had eaten them.

At this Gibbon’s voice got explosive and the man stuttered stupidly trying to stick to his excuse (It was the guard named Urad, Shala remembered from the other night).

The Princess was in a position to vouch for the man at least, and did so. Just this morning two of her father’s hounds streaked past her, a big leather boot between their jaws. In their wake came running Urad, his bare feet slapping hard on the castle floor, arms pumping at his sides and a face of panicked aggravation driving it all.

Shala set after the affair. With her father gone those hounds had only time for two people; the one being Lorrie the kennel Master and the other being Shala herself. She had no problem keeping up with Urad (he wasn’t very fast despite the effort he put into the chase) but they had no chance of catching up to the dogs even with them playing tug of war with the boot. Coming around the corner they had managed to see the hounds slip into the big ballroom doors.

Together they followed inside, the biggest room of the castle often a palace of dust because of its neglect, the curtains drawn so that it was cast in darkness. There they had cornered the hounds and while Shala soothed them Urad tentatively freed the boot from their jaws. In the little light available Shala could see the boot was ravaged beyond use and their chase decidedly vain. But the man thanked the Princess heartily all the same, seeming embarrassed that his situation had drawn her into this.

So Shala explained this to Gibbon the Marshal and he nodded understandingly. ‘Very good Highness,’ he said, his moustache quivering, ‘be thankful the Princess stood witness for your story, and there is no excuse for allowing the dogs to get to your boots in the first place. Be off with you!’

With a curt greeting to the Princess, Gibbon was off and Urad scrambled to someplace less troublesome. Left on her own Shala considered what she should’ve questioned earlier; where was Lorrie the Kennel Master in all of this? Some other castle constituents had taken the dogs away of course, but of Lorrie there had been no mention.

Barely out of the encounter Kaell the cook caught up to the Princess, and she sighed internally for the inappropriate amount of time he spent following her. Arriving at the same time however was Rolf the Squire and he had thoughts of a similar kind. ‘You stalk the Princess needlessly cook, I’m sure you have other duties to attend to, don’t let me have a talk with Master Jalson!’

Kaell cowered and was off in an instant, like a chastised dog. If only our hounds were as easily scolded. Now Shala was simply annoyed; she’d much rather trade Rolf’s company for Kaell’s.

‘You should let me escort you more often Highness, I will keep these pests away,’ said the Squire.

‘I’m sure that you would, but the real pests are those of the court and if I ignore or dismiss their attentions I would be an unfit Queen. Is there something you wanted to say Squire?’

‘Yes Highness, I know not if you heard but there was a herald of trumpets… the Lord Patrick of Sannil and his father, they have arrived Highness. I would expect that Your Highness would wish to greet his entourage at the gates.’

‘I would not!’ said Shala and Rolf could barely contain his surprise. ‘My father’s funeral is over and they were not in attendance. They have no reason to be here!’

‘Your Highness, they have travelled a far road, it would be unjust to send them back now,’ said Rolf hesitantly.

‘Indeed, but luckily I owe them nothing more than the courtesy of my home. Let Master Dieral attend to them and arrange for them lodging befitting royalty.’

‘You will not come out to see them then Highness?’ asked Rolf.

‘No, I’m not fit for company as I am now. I spent my morning chasing a pair of dogs and so I’m in need of a very long bath. I expect I won’t be done till nightfall.’

Shala made good on her word and no one outside her chambers saw her again that day. She had that bath she talked about and afterwards she worked on directives that needed her revision and approval, sitting at her desk and studying them privately. Swarztial had been trying to swamp her with pleas of the kingdom and paperwork – now she answered them pre-emptively, and by morn sent them out to court and let them deal with it on their own. She worked well into the night, neglecting to eat, by the end of it looking satisfactorily at the heap of parchments. Standing up she opened the music box on the mantelpiece and climbed into bed.

 

 

The next day it was only by noon that Shala was disturbed, Merohan knocking at her door. For him Shala gladly answered, ‘Yes Captain, how may I help?’

‘It is Councilman Pasco Your Highness, he graciously requests an audience with your person on the tower top.’

‘The tower?’

‘He seems adamant to speak to you alone. After he realized how determinedly you avoided this morning’s meeting at court he was certain I would be the only one Your Highness would respond to.’

Shala snorted in amusement. ‘He was right,’ said she airily.

‘Will I be telling him that you are busy, Highness?’ asked Merohan.

‘No, it is quite alright. I have time for the man. But while you are here Captain escort me all the same. I decided to have witnesses for my encounters with politicians and my father used to say to me to never meet a man alone on a tower top, unless it is in the dead of the night to steal a kiss from a lover.’

That got a chuckle from Merohan and they left, and on their way Shala chose that they walk the periphery corridors, used more often by cleaning staff than the administrative ones.

Council member Pasco met her at the tower top, wheezing and red-faced. He was a man of middle-years, the stresses of politics having whitened his hair prematurely.

‘Excuse the summons Highness, but I prefer to meet where we could have some privacy and a breath of fresh air besides.’ He was very much of the opposite nature of Swarztial. Hard-working rather than conniving, and a man with sons and daughters – he had better things to do than trying to manipulate kingdoms. Shala counted him a friend, or as much a friend as an honest ruler could ever be to a member of the council.

‘Not at all. I daresay you pain yourself more than me by this arrangement.’

Pasco casted an embarrassed glance down at his sweat stained tunic and said, ‘No, I need to walk the stairs much more often. A year Highness! Just a year of gluttony and a man of my age loses all his fitness. The curse of these council meetings. They put rich foods and fine wine before us and as our bellies strain against belts and buckles we are left in a self-satisfied stupor and we say; why not? Surely the realm is well-off if we feast so lavishly. And when it is time to cast a ballot Swarztial smiles, because we are played by the illusion of plenty and comfort, and more often than not the ballot goes his way. A cheap trick! But then I am rambling Your Highness…’ said Pasco, finally having noticed the stern impatience on Merohan’s face.

‘It has been very gruelling Highness, I know. If your father could have seen what I have seen he would be exceedingly proud of you.’

‘Yet Swarztial wants to have a ballot to dispose of me and as you just admitted he gets his way in these matters.’

‘As you know I will never vote against you as it stands, and another senior member has already relayed to me that he will vote in your favour, member Gahum if you are familiar with him.’

‘Yes, he is rather silent, but he watches with a wise eye. My father thought much of him.’

‘He is, as I know him to be, first and foremost a champion of the people, and he will not side toward Sannil just because others do. He detests weak rule and had you not stood up against Swarztial the way you did Gahum might’ve taken it as evidence to favour Patrick of Sannil. But you endured, and I suspect Gahum is well revised on Patrick’s reputed weaknesses. Swarztial will not issue a ballot knowing Gahum will vote for you, because once you are instated as Queen he cannot question your sovereignty ever again. You have, as far as I am concerned, gained a crucial victory.’

‘Victory?’ said Shala in disbelief. ‘It sounds impossible… Then on what grave news are you here? Is it Swarztial, will he now make an attempt on my life?’

No! No Highness. He is not rash and he knows you are very well protected. It is something a bit more devious. I grew worried when I saw a great escort bring in the house of Sannil to town yesterday.’

‘Yes, I heard they’re gracing us with their presence,’ said Shala, as if she didn’t want to be reminded of the fact.

‘You have not greeted them?’

‘I plan not to,’ said Shala.

‘You must know then Highness, that with them was their champion of the sword, the Master Yanci-gan.’

Shala was taken aback by this news. ‘But there are no sword tourneys here, why bring their champion?’ ridiculed Shala with a frown.

‘Exactly, Your Highness. My best guess is that Swarztial is going to invoke some historic rite to depose of you in a less… democratic way.’

‘Will he challenge me to swords?’ asked Shala, her voice hinting toward laughter.

‘No Highness, not directly. It will be an Issue of Champions, and it is not good news. There is no one in this land that can match swords with Yanci-gan, not even our captain Merohan here, though he is your best choice.’

Shala became grave, and she looked out far across the land. She was aware that Merohan had tightened up at her side by Pasco’s lack of faith, but the councilman’s blunt statement was true enough. ‘We must not allow them this. Pasco, if you have any objection against Patrick ruling then you must find a way against this. Some rule or law, remnant or forgotten must be dug out. If they cite Issue of Champions I do not know whether any I command will be able to defend my right as Queen.’

‘I know Your Highness, and for today, uncommon as that may be, I’ll side with you, and I’ll burn the midnight oil till dawn if that’s how long an answer is in the coming. I’ll scour the old records. It should not come down to this, not to blood when there is reason.’

Shala did not answer, she’d even let it come to blood if only she had confidence in winning.

‘What about Gahum, can we count on him in any way?’

‘Afraid not Highness, he might not cast a ballot against us, but if Patrick challenges you in combat he’ll expect you to deliver such a champion, even if the reality is that you can’t.’

‘We haven’t lost yet,’ said Shala, suddenly becoming irritated with their air of resignation, ‘If Merohan is who I choose, we must have faith that he will defeat Yanci-gan.’

‘Yes, of course Highness, but let me first see if I can’t find a way to avoid a matching of swords altogether. This matter already feels too much like a war. I beg your leave Your Highness, let me attend to the old annals.’

‘Of course, and thank you member Pasco.’

The man made a solemn bow and left.

Shala sighed. ‘What do you make of this Captain?’

Merohan composed himself and said, ‘Tourneys that decide lordship are a thing of the past, and belong these days more to battlefield quarrels. But… I have never heard of such an ask being declined Your Highness, not when the throne is in dispute between two powerful houses. Being cautious I am like to say that if councilman Pasco does not arrive with an answer we will have to match swords with the Sannils.’

‘And are you up for it?’

‘Of course, until the very moment Yanci-gan draws blood nothing is decided. He might find that I am nothing like tourney combatants. He has yet to come against a soldier of my experience.’

‘Then I am appeased,’ lied Shala.

 

III

 

The following morning there was no trace of member Pasco. At first Shala thought the man was simply caught up in something, or maybe had visited the catacombs, where she knew many old documents and scrolls were also stored. She had been certain he would turn up. Maybe he has visited Scholar Naceus in town, in hopes of burrowing some of his wisdom on the law? Thought Shala hopefully. Whittling her time away in worry, high noon was fast approaching, as that was the symbolic hour of combat that allowed the oculus of the throne room to cast the light upon the floor.

The council was called and Shala was obligated to go, hoping Pasco would be in attendance. All the same Captain Merohan was at her side and she noticed him in the nervousness of combat.

On their way to the throne room she was intercepted by Patrick’s entourage, his father and his own council tailing him like richly-dressed dogs. By his side was Yanci-gan, a much more imposing presence than the upstart noble himself. Every stride he took brought a clanking of armour, fully clad in black steel and at his hip hung the sheathed katana sword that had made the man famous in the north.

The pauldrons he wore were layered like his breastplate, making his shoulders look very wide and further exaggerated by his helm that guarded widely into the back of his neck, with two short ornate horns just above the slit of his eyes. Heavy armour, but a deadly fast sword to compensate.

Shala regretted staring at the champion as Patrick walked forward and without shame planted a swift kiss on her lips in greeting.

‘My Lady, as lovely as ever!’ he exclaimed. Shala was too surprised to have pulled away and was suddenly rooted in anger. Until that day no man but her father had kissed her because of her station, and she had to put aside the mortifying thought of being kissed by this man.

‘Don’t seem so embarrassed Your Highness, merely a gesture between the noble.’

‘Nobility? You think that an excuse to trespass? To come onto me uninvited?’

Patrick sighed. ‘Truth be told Princess Shala, I have no inclination to this duel Swarztial supposes. I’d rather have you by my side and reconcile what should be a prosperous relationship between Sannil and Evrelyn. Let us put this aside and be wed to me dear Princess. I know my proposal now is untimely and informal, but Swarztial will bring before the court Issue of Champions, and once he does, all the more desirable solutions would be beyond recall.’

And I will refute him, one way or the other. To you my answer is the same as when you proposed to me months ago; I have no interest in a man who will be a weak King and a cruel husband.’

‘You speak needlessly harshly Princess, I had thought Swarztial exaggerates.’

‘Do not try and make me feel guilty for doing so. You and your ilk were not even present when my father was buried.’

‘The journey is difficult to make, we came with as much haste as we could.’

‘And yet lesser pretenders still made it even though covering the same distance. Were you too busy fitting armour to your champion here? Too eager to snatch the crown to be bothered otherwise?’

Patrick sniffed. ‘Well then, I suppose we have nothing further to discuss. Be warned my Lady, Yanci-gan is unmatched in the north and when I take to the throne the House of Evrelyn will never again be welcome in my realm – consider it recompense for the insults you and your father have laid on me.’

They passed swiftly by, making for the gallery stairs.

‘Don’t worry Highness, not even the King can chase away royal families from the realm without being scorned.’

‘Yes Captain, but in thinking of such things we have already conceded that Yanci-gan will be triumphant.’ They turned to the throne room, and it was the last place Shala wanted to be.

Even inside the throne room there was nothing to be seen of member Pasco, and Yanci-gan already stood in the light of the oculus, as still as a statue as he waited for a prospecting opponent. He did however for a moment remove his helm, his face stern and his short hair greying at the temples despite being young still.

From the gallery Swarztial commanded proceedings and brought before the council the Issue of Champions, speaking on behalf of the Sannil family.

‘The suggestion is barbaric, there has not been such blood spilt in these halls for many decades, and it was back when future kings squabbled vainly,’ retorted Shala.

‘But the need at the time was great and so the need is great now. Questions arise over your sovereignty and you must answer it if the people wish it,’ said Swarztial.

‘You are hardly the people, and how must I account for myself by the sword-arm of someone else?’

Swarztial sneered. ‘It is said that the blood of the most worthy calls the greatest champion, Lord Patrick already has his. If your claim to the throne is as indomitable as you suggest Your Highness, a fine warrior will rise to represent you in the tourney of the throne room.’

Shala was appalled. This place would now be slandered with bloodshed, and she could offer no other choice unless Pasco showed himself. And at that he needed to provide something to allay the challenge laid down by the Sannils. The House of Evrelyn was deemed thin and she needed to establish herself worthy. But she could not take this chance, because there was little chance against Yanci-gan.

‘I refuse to agree to this, though my standing might be blemished, I can’t allow such a duel here!’

Swarztial turned up a smug smile. ‘Let me remind you then Highness that we spoke of rituals and hallowed traditions, which are sought to be protected by your House and which you defended so bravely before this very council. Is it that you recant away from traditions such as the challenge to swords to your convenience, so that you may stay in power?’

Shala’s heart sunk into her stomach and she was horrified to have walked so blindly into this. Of course Swarztial had brought up the matter of Des Pellu that day with more intention than Shala would have guessed at the time. She defended traditions of the realm, and now she would be shown as a two-faced ruler if she doubled back on her word. Swarztial had her snared, and her anger at the man was only matched by the anger at herself.

Merohan stood closer and motioned for silent council with the Princess. The Captain of the household guard assumed their predicament, and all but knew that the Princess could no longer back out of this challenge without completely losing the faith of the Council.

‘Your Highness, I must offer myself as your champion,’ said Merohan with urgency. The Princess could not see Merohan winning, and yet there was no better than he in the castle. Surely Gremhalden in his prime, but the old Knight could not carry himself in combat as he did before his fall. Of course any of the other Knights would have been more than ideal, being at least a challenge to Yanci-gan, and Shala was sure one of them would have aligned with her and offered himself as a champion.

And yet Swarztial had gone to great lengths to ensure none but the crippled Gremhalden were present in Attoras. Once again she realized the extent of Swarztial’s malice; how he had seen to every contingency. Shala was not in the habit of fearing men, but she was now growing helpless in countering Swarztial.

‘Have you decided Lady Shala? Or do you feel your rule wavering in this hour?’ mocked Swarztial, certain he had the Princess cornered. ‘Is there someone beyond this room you would wish to call? Of course we would accept a resignation if Your Highness feels-’

The heavy doors of the throne room burst open, slamming against the wall as they swung apart, wrenching every eye to the threshold. Shala sincerely hoped it was Pasco who had found the might to smash open the doors like that, but she doubted it.

With the sudden light introduced from the outside it took a while for them to see a man standing there, geared for battle, and with an animalistic mask on his face. Shala squinted vainly to see who it was. The guards closed on him, pointing spears at the intruder. He stopped briefly, but did not even look at those barring his way.

‘I come seeking council with Princess Shala Salstasha of House Evrelyn!’ he commanded, and his words put a strange hope in Shala.

Swarztial stalked the circular gallery, until he could get a proper view of the intruder.

From where Shala sat she could confirm that the man was indeed masked, a steel helm lined with silver, and the pointed ears that were visible from a distance became an outline that had the gallery squirming, and they hummed in discussion.

Wolfshead, thought Shala, but she was as confused as the rest of the council. She thought she ought to do something, or say something, but felt rather frozen, and rather curious besides.

‘What is this? The royal council is busy with the future of the Kingdom! And how did you get in here? Those doors were locked! This is trespass!’

‘Barred only to the unworthy,’ said the man, ‘I bid you Chancellor Swarztial, that you spoke of Her Highness’ right to the throne in calling an able-bodied warrior. I will offer myself as such.’

Still no one could recognize him past his mask.

‘Let him pass!’ commanded Shala from the throne.

Without further invitation the man marched passed the unsure spears, the council members all eyeing him with suspicion. This they did not expect. He approached purposefully, his movement filled with danger. It surprised her, but the man kneeled briefly before Shala, and stood up before she could acknowledge or address him.

With him closer now she saw he wasn’t as heavily armed as she thought, wearing only a tough black leather jerkin, crisscrossed with belts over the chest, and edged with tufts of wolf fur on the shoulders, his arms bared and showing strong lean muscle. He wore gloves and boots and trousers of a simple kind, and did not look much suited for the task except for the grace of his movements.

The mask he wore made his identity a mystery, not being able to recognize him from his longish copper hair at the back, and she was certain she had never seen his silver earrings before. The mask itself was fashioned in the likeliness of a wolf’s head, made so that it could fit the face of a man, the ears upright, the snout short and the eye sockets slanted and angry. The Wolfshead had no lower jaw, as to open the mouth area of the wearer.

‘The mask you wear seems highly familiar, where might you have stolen such an artefact?’ accused Swarztial from above.

‘The mask is mine, and it marks me for what I am, a Wolf of the Black Mountains, of the Severangati, the Order of Severance…’

Laughter rippled through the council, led by Swarztial and the Sannils.

‘Are you stupid lad? The Wolves are long dead, and no longer in the commission of the King even if they did still live.’

‘Then I pray to you, be at rest, believe your own lie if it comforts you, but it will not save your champion from me.’

The council looked unsettled at his suggestion, their mirth cut short. The Wolf walked up to the throne, where Shala sat tensed, her hands still knotted on the arms of the grand chair. For a moment she wanted to cry out and let her guards tackle the man. Merohan indeed stepped in front of the Princess, his hand ready on the hilt of his sword.

‘To be expected Captain of the guard, I only ask for swift audience,’ said the Wolf, as though dismissing Merohan.

‘Let him address me for the moment,’ said Shala softly to the captain.

‘I’m watching,’ said Merohan at the intruder, standing aside, but still close by so that he could listen in, and act if need be.

Shala sat forward. ‘I bid you warrior, remove your mask and tell me your name.’

‘No Highness, my name and identity will avail you nothing. I am here only to offer myself as your champion, and I will not fail should your trust be offered. But you must decide fast!’

Shala looked at his eyes set deep behind the mask, crisp blue, and fierce, fully determined as if he had been prepared for this fight even before the vile council members could have fathomed the plan.

‘My Lady I do not like this, he is sent by the council members themselves, so that they may assure victory! He will fail on purpose and laugh afterwards at how gullible we are even as they attend to his cuts!’ urged Merohan quietly.

‘Stay your tongue if you cannot give good council Merohan,’ said the man. ‘My Lady, in your prayer you asked for the health of your father. It did not come to pass, but let me be the answer to saving what’s left of his House.’

‘Do you listen in on every privacy!?’ hissed Shala, wondering where this man could’ve possibly hid at the time.

‘Rather me than all the others who spy and whisper in this castle. Give me your trust! My Lady…?’ he said, looking hard at her.

On the back of this man were two short swords sheathed in a cross, the hilts peeking over his shoulders and crafted from polished white bone. He has the mask of a Wolf, she thought and she knew only the Savage Art of the old order made use of two swords, one in each hand. Shala’s mind made knots and tangles, indecision threatening. Where is Naceus when I need him? Ask the right questions he would say…

‘Can you defeat a champion like Yanci-gan?’ she asked forcefully, hoping to glean a true answer from the man.

‘Yes,’ he said, his eyes remaining unchanged behind the mask and Shala saw self-assurance if nothing else. It was not enough to soothe her over.

‘What was the creed of the Wolves?’ she asked.

We are but ghosts,’ answered the man. Shala was almost surprised. She was so determined to find any little lie in the man before her. ‘I have walked the mountain and stood at the summit, tested by the cold. I have stared far out from the cradle and witnessed the tundra. I was in service to your father, Highness, and now I’m bound to you.’

Shala sat in silence, stricken by indecision. My father has made no mention of Wolves still in existence.

‘That means little Highness, he’s a lunatic to my eye. If he is an imposter he could have read the old scripts and-’ Shala held up her hand to silence Merohan and she looked at the warrior. Taking a deep breath Shala said, ‘Then so be it. With you rests the fate of my father’s house.’

With a single nod the man turned away from her.

Shala clenched her jaw tight as the warrior took the circle, Yanci-gan approaching in full battle dress of breastplate and fauld, enamelled black, the layered steel fashioned like lobster scales, looking impenetrable and interwoven almost artistically.

‘Do you not wish to dress? I’ll allow for time if you wish to visit the armoury – you have little besides that relic you call a mask,’ asked Yanci-gan, offering the Wolf the same advantage he carried on his own body.

Shala thought that was rather honourable from him, considering who he represented.

‘Don’t give him fashion advice Yanci-gan! Make him bleed!’ bellowed Patrick from the gallery. The council laughed. His father Hanson pulled him back into the chair and gave him a stern look.

‘This is how I come to combat,’ said the Wolf curtly, ‘would you not rather remove your armour? It may end up saving your life if you lay it aside now,’ said the Wolf with sincerity.

That made the gallery chuckle again.

‘No, unfortunately that would be foolish advice to follow, especially coming from my opponent.’

‘As you wish,’ said the Wolf, as though he were uttering a death sentence.

From the twin sheaths set in a cross on his back the man calling himself Wolf reached over and drew two bronze blades. Shala was close enough to see they were a fine craft, the edges deadly sharp so that they glistened catching the light from the oculus. But they were nonetheless made from a lesser alloy and Shala wondered on the wisdom of electing him.

Those blades are trophies, they will not last against a steel sword. Can the warriors defending my throne not even bear proper arms?

But then she watched the man go about a routine before battle, drawing the swords slowly through the air, cutting invisible enemies as he stretched, the blades whistling tunelessly; nothing but the keenest of edges could accomplish that. The blades were leaf-like, the thick middle tapering to a sharp point belying the swords’ length Shala realized. In the hands of this man they were made for speed, cutting an artery here and there, and moving on to a next foe, leaving many hamstrung in his wake as they bled out.

The champion he faced however would not be resolved by a simple display of speed or a single bold manoeuvre. In tourneys of swordplay Yanci-gan laid waste to both the freakishly strong and fast, crumbling the hopes of gamblers who favoured the payout of untested newcomers.

I’m no better, I’ve just staked my Kingdom on a man I don’t know, thought Shala, struggling to battle down panic. At least the man she had chosen still displayed an unnatural air of confidence and Yanci-gan was still looking at the self-proclaimed Wolf as though he were unwell. I could just as well have asked Rolf the squire to represent me, he too is arrogant.

Dieral, the Master of ceremonies recited the ritual and then moved onto the rules which he listed in a droning voice. ‘…No taunting from the crowd, no person, noble or otherwise, to interfere with the duel… Herewith the electorate will forego the ballot, duty of the council, and settle the right to the throne in a duel of swords. Escaping daylight, for any significant time will signal forfeiture…’

The sunlight on the floor is a virtual cage for them, thought Shala, now appreciating the dimensions the duel would have.

‘Engaged, no party may withdraw from these conditions, the outcome must be final, and the victor assured of ascendency.’

Dieral looked first to the gallery and garnered the agreement of House Sannil. They did so without pause. When the Master of ceremonies turned to Shala she nodded simply because there was no other way.

‘May the Benevolence guide their blades and His judgement show us the way! May the blood of the worthy prevail!’

Yanci-gan put on his helm and drew the katana at his waist, the slick steel screech unnerving Shala. The Wolf bunched his shoulders, the readiness of a predator settling into his limbs.

With his ornate staff the Master of Ceremonies struck the floor, startling Shala, and the echo had barely passed through stone when the Wolf leapt. Before Shala could anticipate any movement the bronze blades were glancing fearsomely from Yanci-gan’s length of steel. The exchange was terrific, the hardly noticed foot movements putting the warriors in a routine circling each other and going back and forth across the sunlit floor.

The Wolf’s lasting impression was relentless and Yanci-gan showed himself of immeasurable skill in warding off the two swords that came often from impossible angles. Regardless of the courage in Merohan’s heart he would not have lasted more than a few moments with Yanci-gan. But then the champion of the Sannils had never faced one such as Shala now favoured.

He was more than just a nuisance, more than just a boastful man; moving swiftly out of reach and often spiralling or twirling into contact again, his quicksilver cuts and stabs forcing Yanci-gan to defend to every extent and depth, even forcing the champion to kick out backwards as the bronze blades came dangerously low at the ankles. Having avoided losing a foot, Yanci-gan turned on his heel and struck overhead in an arc, and to meet it the Wolf was pushed to his knees, swords crossed above his head to catch Yanci-gan’s heavier sword.

The Wolf pushed with his swords in a scissor fashion and from the tips of his toes he drove himself up, throwing the weight of Yanci-gan clear off him and going into attack again; to stab, and cut, then coming around again spinning to slash. Yanci-gan guarded true against the fury, using the targe on his wrist to good effect when his katana was too slow on defence. When he deflected the man thus the Wolf simply came at him harder. By now Shala had forgotten of her worry of the bronze blades, they were as unbending as the man who carried them.

The Wolves were long dead, she kept reminding herself. Yet his style and movements held some remnant of the Savage Art of swords belonging to the old order. The scripts Shala had read came alive before her; the blend of blades and the bolster, the sickle arm and the sextant, along with other disciplines that had Shala puzzling as to where they belonged in lore. At times his movements seemed reckless, until they melded into strikes of precision, or defensive parries that showed his infallible awareness of his opponent.

The two warriors elicited the best from each other, and what would have been a swiftly decided contest against any other man was a now a spectacle. And yet many of the Wolf’s cuts had landed on Yanci-gan’s armour, leaving thin white scars on the plating where wounds should have been.

It is not fair! thought Shala desperately, knowing the fight should’ve been over had Yanci-gan not worn his armour. Yet the armour also made Yanci-gan slower and she reconsidered how different the fight might’ve been without it.

Finally using the weight of his blade Yanci-gan pushed the Wolf back and then quickly he reversed the cut, the edge slicing into a bared arm. Shala winced, her heart fluttering in defeat. All that was hoped for came crashing down around her. She sunk back into the chair she would have to give up to Patrick.

The masked warrior backed away in pain, Yanci-gan standing erect in victory and holding his sword in salute, the upper edge flecked with the Wolf’s blood. The Master of ceremonies raised his staff, the gallery already applauding…

Hold!’ cried the masked warrior, his sweat making the blood thin and running down his arm. At least it looked to be a shallow wound, one Shala could easily attend to.

‘The battle is not over…’ he said laughingly to the gallery. ‘Look at the cuts on his armour, do they not count for anything?’

‘But how then will you decide this battle if cuts can’t decide it?’ cried Swarztial mockingly. Shala could see that up until this moment Swarztial had been more than a little flustered. He has been as tense as I am.

Death,’ uttered the warrior, ‘when you sent in your champion you have marked this man for death. Did you think I allowed him in full armour for nothing? Because I’m a fool? No. He must kill me, or else I will kill him!

The entire throne room was shocked and uncertain. The Sannil family didn’t look too willing to lose someone like Yanci-gan. Shala felt strangely the same about her champion. Her warrior had sustained a bad cut as far as combat was concerned, and for all his bravado she could not see him winning now.

She did not want to finally learn the identity of such an ally by tearing the mask off his dead face. In fact she was certain she could not bear seeing a death here, and would have left the chamber if she wasn’t central to this matter. Maybe she could still stop this and save his life? It would cost her the crown however.

‘The party that backs out forfeits the right to the crown,’ reminded Dieral to all, clearly attuned to what everyone was thinking. ‘And the Wolf is right, the battle cannot end in any way other than death if first blood is not the qualifier. That is an ancient rule.’

‘You would allow this?’ bellowed Swarztial down at Dieral.

‘Actually member Swarztial, strictly holding to tradition of course, these bouts were always decided by death. Those in history decided by cuts are few and far between, and are more characteristic of the men far south, down in Avandar, where they prefer show over substance. I’ll be remiss if I do not allow the duel to play out as it should.’

‘I refuse!’ said Swarztial.

‘I don’t care that you do Chancellor. I did not call the fight to an end when Her Highness’ man scored a cut on the plates of Yanci-gan and I’m not going to do so now.’

Shala breathed again as Dieral gave another chance to this duel. Bless your fat heart Dieral, I’ll never make fun of your weight again.

The masked warrior looked at her and silently those icy eyes told her that he was still able to fight. That for her, he would not stop for anything. She nodded at him faithfully, although she knew she didn’t inspire much, her face worried and unsure. It seemed to be all that he needed and he turned into the circle of light again.

Yanci-gan stood like a statue, looking up at his lieges and awaiting their command. It did not take long and they gave him a nod.

‘Unto death,’ said Dieral and slammed the staff on the ground, the ring sounding commencement. They closed in on each other again, somewhat more careful and slow, knowing it was to the death. Fatigue was reckoned for as well, the fervour of their initial display turned deliberate and technical, blades screeching as they pushed in attack, the steel and bronze looking magnetised to each other.

Yanci-gan seemed to realize the mistake soon enough, discarding the engagement that better suited his opponent and started battering at him with long fluid strokes, working fiercely against a defence that had only one good arm.

And the Wolf used that arm but sparingly. He was often driven onto the back-foot or into retreat, desperately placating Yanci-gan’s well placed strokes, and sometimes using swift movements with his feet to outdistance his heavier opponent. But the circle of light was only that big and Yanci-gan pursued every time.

With each new attack Shala would see her warrior’s death, but the Wolf resisted the onslaught, blade on blade, and even twice more he gained cuts on Yanci-gan’s armour that availed him nothing but pride. They were a match as far as Shala could tell and it did not bode well for the Wolf with a bleeding arm.

A cloud moved in front of the sun and the two men stopped as the circle of light disappeared on the floor, the hall growing dark. It was as sudden an intermission as Shala had yet seen. They stepped back to opposite ends of the court, but their gazes on each other remained unbroken. It took Shala a moment to realize what was a happening and she wondered if her heart was the only one beating like this. If the rest of the day becomes overcast, does the fight wait for another day? She curiously looked toward Master Dieral, but the frown on his face made it clear to Shala; the daylight rule would not apply in a fight to the death…

And before Dieral could say something, flecks of sunlight returned as the cloud overheard grew thin, and everyone waited anxiously as the full circle reappeared. The Wolf twirled into contact again, and Yanci-gan met the attack stoically. It took him only moments to push the Wolf back, the weight of his armour and sword always counting.

Compensating for his weaker arm the Wolf was tiring as Yanci-gan drove many strikes overhead, pushing at breaking through, driving the Wolf back to the edge of the sunlight yet again and cutting high at the right shoulder where the Wolf now struggled. There was still composure and bravery even in retreat as he met the steel sword, the Savage Art under duress many-facetted, a complex weave of movements that were often attack and defence simultaneously.

But there was no give in Yanci-gan and there was no give in his armour, the Wolf suffocated toward the edges of light again – and then quite suddenly allowed himself to be driven out of bounds of the sunlit floor, after he had done so much to remain within its borders. He held up his swords in submission, and then Yanci-gan relented, his attack faltering.

The confusion struck the entire court simultaneously, and again it was only Dieral and Shala that seem to appreciate that the sunlit floor no longer carried any weight. This fight could only end in one way. It was only she and Dieral that knew… and the Wolf.

In the moment that Dieral refused to slam his staff the Wolf revealed his trickery and lunged forward, illuminated back into sunlight, hammering his masked head into the mouth of Yanci-gan’s helm where the metal grill was pliable. Following a sickening metal clang Yanci-gan staggered back and did his utmost to defend against the quicksilver attacks of the Wolf now. But Shala saw that he was in trouble, dazed from the blow to the head and his legs treading drunkenly.

The Wolf placated Yanci-gan’s sword and going from one unexpected to the next, stowed his swords away within his belt in the blink of an eye. Before anyone could linger on the gesture, he launched himself at his opponent in a high leap, both his boots coming at Yanci-gan’s head as though aiming for a kick. But the Wolf’s legs went past either side of his head, effectively sitting on Yanci-gan shoulders as his feet dangled down his back. In one swift movement he reached over the champion’s helm and grasped the undersides of the pauldrons where they came together on the upper back. Pulling, the Wolf flipped backwards off his human perch, stripping and coming away with the entirety of the interlocking armour as he tumbled; the pauldrons, protecting the shoulders… the gorget, guarding the neck… and the helm from his head dislodged and rolling across the floor. Landing on his feet, hunched, the Wolf cast aside the armour and pulled his swords from his waist. Where the pauldrons fell Shala saw enough to realize one of the Wolf’s many hits on the armour had clearly severed one of the straps keeping the upper body armour fastened to the champion’s frame. A solution to Yanci-gan’s defences had been in the making all along.

If Yanci-gan had been startled by any of this he did not show it, forwarding an assault on the Wolf with the katana sweeping through the air. The Wolf had his blades up just in the nick of time. But Yanci-gan looked vulnerable and much less certain in his movements.

Another desperate sidelong slash came from him and the Wolf spun in underneath it, ducking as the katana passed overhead, the two champions passing by one another back-to-back for a second.

Overextended Yanci-gan brought back a terrible backhand cut to chase, but the Wolf, hunkered down and spinning on the balls of his feet, had already punched up the blade from his left hand, and found Yanci-gan’s armpit as he turned into it. With the champion exposed, the bronze sword struck right through the shoulder with the point protruding near Yanci-gan’s ear and the katana at speed fell hopelessly out of reach from suddenly rigid fingers.

Shala could not believe her eyes.

Yanci-gan suffered for a moment, suspended on the blade impaling him, and then the Wolf swept the other bronze blade in a backhand cut, running it effortlessly through his neck, opening up a red smile that spewed blood and ultimately bestowing mercy. The court looked on morbidly, and just for a second Shala felt the same terror that had made men of all sides question the continued existence of the Wolves through the years.

The Wolf put up his boot against the man’s breastplate and withdrew the blade from the man’s body. Yanci-gan fell dead with a crunch, a pool of crimson forming around him. There were gasps, followed by angry whispers from the council members, and to Shala’s right hand Merohan himself was wide-eyed. The Master of ceremonies did not even strike the floor with his staff, death apparently was final enough.

The Wolf took a deep breath, wiping Yanci-gan’s blood from his mouth just below the mask, and looked up to the gallery. ‘Chancellor Swarztial, I would ask that you stop your incessant scheming, and do not even attempt at more subtle ways. I may not be seen, but I see much, and no dagger or poison will make it to the Princess on my watch,’ said the Wolf.

Damned conspirator! How many more lies will you bring into this hallowed place, guards take him!’ screamed Swarztial from above.

No, don’t!’ commanded Shala in counter, the soldiers stopping in their tracks yet again.

The Wolf turned to Shala, ‘Your Grace,’ is all he said, and took his leave whilst casting a last warning glance at the gallery, strolling right out the way he had come in.

No one moved or said anything until he was gone. No one followed him or barred him, like he was a ghost, or like a spell hung around him that rooted other men. For the first time Shala could remember she looked at Swarztial, and behold, she thought, the man who always got the last say, was tongue-tied and dim-witted, outraged, looking stunned where he stood, so very aware of House Sannil’s disappointment in him – their fury by the look of it. He had all but promised them the throne.

To be fair Shala herself did not understand what had just transpired here, and the reality of a dead champion lying on her floor brought about a sombreness only a graveyard could offer. But she was not upset. It kindled a strange hope in her; she did not believe that nonsense Swarztial said about the blood of the worthy calling the greatest champion, but for now and today, she hid her satisfaction, the satisfaction of knowing that men would still rise to defend her right as Queen.

The Wolves were an order long dead, and the man now gone was assuredly an imposter like Swarztial claimed. But for the savage skill of his swords and the dead man no one seemed to attend to, Shala and all the others could not prove him to be false.

There was a din up in the gallery, the council talking heatedly amongst themselves. Shala stood up tall and Dieral tapped his ceremonial staff with a short sharp jab to the floor to get their attention toward the Princess. There was something in that tap that said, “Your Queen wishes to speak.”

‘I hope you are satisfied,’ she spoke to them, her voice rearing loud, ‘you’ve put an unkindly test to my heritage, and I staunched your vain attempts to prove me unworthy. You cost a fine man his life for your purposes, and you do not even send men to take him away. He died on my floor, so my disciples will take him and give him a good burial among warriors that served the castle in the past, lest you have no honour at all and throw your fallen toy in some ditch like I suspect you will.

‘This atrocious meeting is adjourned and I hope we never have its kind again. And for all of you who seem to think otherwise, I’m still closer to the throne than any other, and when I’m Queen, there will be no rituals of the Council you can hide behind. If you scheme then like you do now, I’ll have you put to death, for I believe what you do now against me is called treason!’

She had them shamed and silenced.

‘Merohan, start the search for this man, but meet me afterwards on the tower, I need a warrior to speak to,’ said Shala quietly to the captain of the guard. Before she left, glad to be doing so, she heard a heated argument start between Dieral and Swarztial, the Chancellor accusing him of failing to call the fight when the Wolf was pushed outside the limits. Dieral countered with his own arguments. Shala did not want to get embroiled in technicalities. Their voices grew faint as she walked faster still, her heart still racing and her mind reeling at what had just happened.

 

 

Later on she met up with the Captain on the tower top.

‘Swarztial has the entire castle looking for the Wolf, but they cannot find him, and I sincerely hope they don’t,’ said Merohan, the veteran looking uncharacteristically excited.

‘I’ll set him free even if they do catch him. How is it Swarztial has his own guard in the castle?’ asked Shala who had not lived down her own giddiness.

‘It’s supposed to be an independent guard established for the council, but Swarztial has occupied them for himself, as he often does with such matters.’

‘What do you make of our so-called Wolf?’ asked Shala.

‘I am as dumbstruck as I am thankful. I could not have bested Yanci-gan and in my place he saved Your Highness’s throne. I haven’t seen anything like it before Highness, or maybe it was in my youth, when the Wolves at their last still came to the castle. They displayed some swordplay, but there were no duels, and definitely not to the death. Remember today Highness, I doubt we’ll see such a display any time soon.’

‘I’d be glad for it. My gratitude for this apparent Wolf is paralleled by my horror of having bloody disputes right in the throne room. I do not wish the likes of it again.’

‘Yet we are victors. My father always said to me that the rule of kings are drawn and cut by the swords around him, that the sovereignty is only as strong as the loyalty he commands. Today we might have seen truth in that,’ said Merohan.

‘Do you believe he is really a Wolf like he claims?’

‘I cannot think it. The timing is not right. He looked very young, much too young to have been one of the last before the Order was annulled. He had some remnant of the mighty Taggandus that had fought here twenty years ago. But it cannot be him…’

‘What of Swarztial’s cries, was Dieral wrong in how he officiated the duel?’ asked Shala carefully.

Bemused, Merohan pulled up his shoulders. ‘Was there a meeting of the minds regarding the law of combat? Certainly not. But ignorance of the law has never been taken as an excuse. It was their failure to realize the dynamic changing before their very eyes. And the Wolf took full advantage of it. Do not think less of the Wolf, Highness, no man as lightly armed as he should’ve beaten Yanci-gan with his armour.’

‘It is a matter I have never understood, why the Crimson City had the Wolves ended.’ Today especially Shala questioned the motion.

‘There must’ve been some wisdom in it my Lady, or some history we do not know. I remember in my young days how all feared the Wolves, and how even those who live close to the Benevolence did not escape this fear.’

‘Yes. But my father’s House and the Wolves bathed in the same cold water of Dunnoom. That was the foundation of our bond, the strength of the Mountain. It was to keep us clear-minded and stalwart in rule, and so we owned their loyalty. I saw the cold in him today, it was there.’

‘I wonder who he was?’ said Merohan.

Shala carried a smile. ‘I don’t know,’ said Shala putting her hands on the railing. ‘I hope to have a name from him when our paths cross again.’

It was in a surreal mood that she left the tower, until she met up with deBella, who outright hugged her with furious gladness. She had evidently already heard the news.

‘O deBella, it was wondrous,’ said Shala, surprised to find some tears in her eyes, the idea that she had won this day only settling with her now. ‘I do not care for bloodshed, and I wish so the man Yanci-gan did not have to die, but I saw some great remnant of the past today. He was a warrior like none in the castle can match, and now that I think on it, he carried the cold about him like he was born to it. I stood in those freezing waters, praying hopelessly, under a broken fortress that delivers no more warriors calling themselves Wolves. And see, he comes striding through doors barred and guarded when I needed a champion most. He could just as well have been a ghost, his intervention was just and a mercy granted for all my faith, fragile though it might be. At least for today and tomorrow, my right as Queen is saved.’

‘No my Lady, not just for today and tomorrow. I’ve heard all the stories, those which I can believe anyways, and I’m filled with hope. The castle is turning against Swarztial. That Wolf, impostor or not, has felled the wicked hold that vile man seemed to have on everyone here. Sannil has turned their back on Swarztial and without a royal house to support him much of the platform from which he spoke is stripped out from underneath him. If he speaks or acts ill now it is his own agenda, and for that you can take the sword to him!

‘I may be speaking too far ahead my Lady, but I think your crown is saved, everything is going to be alright. We’ll prepare for your inauguration in due time and not long from now you will be called Queen Shala of Evrelyn. Mother to all of Attoras!’ she said proudly. They spent the day in a kind of ecstasy, the castle devoid of the troubled uncertainty for the first time since King Anka’s passing.

Naceus came up to the castle naturally, with a dusty bottle of port as his contribution to the Princess’s silent celebrations. He was awash by questions concerning the Wolves, and while he was more than happy to delve into their histories, he could only pull up his shoulders as to how a Wolf had risen on this day.

Come nightfall Shala could not sleep, and from her bedroom windows she saw a curious quality of Rodreon emerge, shedding its light on the mist in the hills.

Chapter 4

Assault

 

An uneventful week had past, the promise of coronation creeping closer on bygone days rife with talks of a new reign and the intervention of mysterious interlopers, all gossip aimed toward how the Savage Art had returned to Attoras. Since then Master Dieral had plagued Shala with all kinds of questions in preparation for the big day. They were endless in nature, and trivial detail to her mind. She did not care much about the proceedings as long as she was Queen by the end of it.

She only tolerated him to a point and then steered her path towards a flight of stairs. Any stairs would do. Sweating and breathing heavily to keep up, Dieral surprised Shala with his determination. The Princess flattered herself, thinking he would not have gone to the same lengths if it were Patrick ascending to the throne; in fact the heavy-set man did not even flinch as they passed the kitchen and the aromas that wafted from the open arches.

In accordance to Dieral’s exuberance there had been a silent resignation that Shala would be Queen and that would be the end of it. Of Swarztial she heard nothing and she thought that maybe he had taken her warning of a wrathful Queen seriously.

Her threat was obviously bolstered by the arrival of the Wolf himself and the way he’d done so made others ask; “Are there more of the Wolves left?” Nobody expected it to turn out the way it did, Swarztial must’ve seen months of planning fall apart. She was even hopeful that he had gotten it over his parasitic heart to flee Attoras in search of a new host to feed his ambitions. Shala knew better however, so she remained on her guard, even when the instinct was to relax.

In the meanwhile Shala had grown worried as to some other absences from the castle. Her father’s dogs went unattended for two days and when finally released from their kennels in the basement they rushed the length of the castle in search of a familiar touch like Shala’s. They were starved out, and the Princess saw to it that they ate. Apparently the Kennel Master, Lorrie, had disappeared without a trace, and with no wife or brood to report it, the hounds were trapped piteously. Angered at the usually trustworthy Lorrie, Shala then noticed for the first time the absence of many other familiar faces.

That said Shala woke to a strange day. For one thing she came to with a shrill draft penetrating the room and parting the bedpost curtains. It was its persistence that finally ushered her from slumber to grabbing for a mug of water at her bedside. Then she heard the commotion. She stood up stiffly, almost in annoyance that the castle could be this spirited with the sun not even in evidence yet. From her bedroom window she saw much ado in the courtyard, where almost the entire household guard had been assembled in rank and file as far as she could tell.

Marshall Gibbon was roaring commands, taking issue with the slightest flaw in the men’s presentation or alignment. Shala wondered if she’d ever meet a man with a harsher voice than he. On that thought she was surprised that deBella had not come to wake her yet. Being stirred from a warm bed by the handmaiden could never be described as gentle.

“It is about boundaries, Your Highness,” she had said one day after waking a disgruntled Princess, “I’m in a position to prod and poke, and so I must, lest you become a ruler who frowns upon good council and hard decisions.”

“Waking me at this hour is good council?”

“The best council,” answered deBella, “in the north dawn is late and twilight early, our farmers oblige to wake before sunrise and so must you.”

“I was unaware I am in the business of toiling in the dust,” said Shala to a deBella who was unwilling to turn it all into an argument.

She studied the sky, as it already promised to be a miserable day of clouds accompanied by a southerly wind sweeping through town, pulling high the chained lantern posts. Cold, she thought, it would be cold today. With no visible sun and the wind strewing a blizzard from the peaks of the Black Mountain it could get surprisingly cold even in the early autumn months.

Groggily she tidied herself without assistance, and not for the first time realized that dressing and titivating was much quicker on her own, without having chambermaids or deBella faffing over her needlessly. She did however always appreciate their tendency to light a fire in her chamber hearth on days like this, which was missing as of yet. The cold must’ve come suddenly through the night, Shala decided. Maybe deBella has decided to sleep in today? Maybe I should go wake her as a gesture of good council? thought Shala to her own amusement. But then what still of her chambermaids? It was unlikely that all of them would suddenly abscond. She shrugged the thought away.

She left her chambers and called over a stationary guard to walk beside her as she made for the stairs. The man hurried to fall in step with her.

‘Soldier, what are they doing in the yard?’

Assembly Your Highness, the Marshal wants to march the men through town and perform a routine of drills at the barracks by the south side proper. They will be ready for a grand parade after your coronation Highness,’ said the soldier. ‘Just keeping the men sharp I suppose,’ he added, realizing the Princess didn’t like the sound of that, frowning the way she did. ‘Nothing to worry about Highness, I heard they are locking all the gates into the bailey, no one gets in or out until the guard is back, so there is no trespasser to fear.’

‘Thank you soldier,’ murmured Shala, walking slowly to the flight of stairs.

They must think me a fool to overlook the fact that the soldiers of the garrison – not the household guard, should mainstay the parade. Someone had ordered them pulled from the castle. Of course there were many stand-ins like the man Shala had just spoken to, but the essence of a guard was always the few and the trustworthy.

Not for the first time she wondered again on her mysterious champion and whether he was still close. Sometimes she just wondered whether he was real.

At first the thought of someone marauding the rooftops and watching her through windows was unsettling. Just last night she dreamt that the Wolf was sitting among the newly placed stone gargoyles on the battlements in the darkness of night, prowling the towers, watching every development, and skulking after her comings and goings with that mask of his. It hadn’t been a pleasant dream, even if the man had proclaimed himself as a Wolf and as a friend. Today however she sincerely hoped he kept his word and kept a close watch; just because Swarztial had tried every legal avenue of disposing of Shala did not mean the man would stop short of trying the nefarious. She felt this was a premonition of her own imagining, vague on specifics, but unnerving all the same.

She made of breakfast a quick affair, sitting quietly in the lonely dining room eating only half a bowl of porridge. Today it was bland, being used to Kaell mixing in a lot of extra butter. Again she wondered at the whereabouts of Kaell and why he hadn’t pestered her by now.

When she asked Peron, the guard at the table, he remarked he could have sworn seeing him making regular trips to the infirmary.

Curiosity turned to worry. ‘I warned him not to follow me there!’ she said aloud. Before she knew it she was on her way to the halls of healing. She would’ve gone there anyway, as a daily visit from her was essential to keep Pilgrim’s contained. Were it not for the duty of a long line of proud ancestors Shala would gladly leave any royal life and turn to a life of healing first and foremost, maybe even travelling the world doing so. Those are silly thoughts to have. I will never escape duty.

Some of her disciples were already occupied in the infirmary, and things were rather quiet with no new incoming patients, so she could roam from room to room without having to linger too much. The place still haunted her for taking her father, the very place her father had dedicated his life to. She suppressed such thoughts, because it didn’t help hating the place. To her great relief Kaell was not taken up and she realized her paranoid mind was going to get the best of her yet. It’s Swarztial’s fault…

She came to their longest standing patient, the bronze man. He looked much better of late, and slept peacefully as of now. With his skin clearer Shala spotted scars on his face, small white lines that come from weapons smashing through the helm. He must’ve been a mercenary, she thought. And he certainly had the build for it. It was hard judging the man’s length while he was curled up on a bed, but Shala could now see he was probably bigger than any of the men on her guard. With her father’s condition and his passing she had neglected to realize just how imposing the man seemed. Where had he come from? she thought, not having given it any consideration till now. Till now I haven’t given many things consideration. Shala realized the man might even be a criminal, but she doubted it. Besides, criminal or not, the infirmary did not discriminate until a man’s life was saved.

Shala stood rooted in the doorway a moment more; there was something enigmatic about this man, an ageless strength. It was all the more apparent with him not playing at death’s door anymore. He was not young, but he looked like a man who had survived many battles.

As though feeling Shala’s stare on him his eyes flew open, and before she could slip out of the door he sat up, looking at her intently, his eyes much too focussed for someone who had just been sleeping soundly. Thoughts of him being a criminal came rushing back, and the urge to back out of the room and flee was certainly there. Looking at him, he had a stern face, a strong jaw and a shock of dark hair that seemed naturally swept backwards.

With her dumbstruck and silent he took the liberty of speaking. ‘I was out of it for most of my time spent here, but I understand Your Highness has much to do with my well-being. I thank you kindly.’ He sounded sincere, and feeling she could risk it, approached his bedside and sat down on the stool next to his bed.

‘You recognize the daughter of the King?’ asked Shala.

‘You are unmistakeable, Highness. I had fleeting moments of clarity when you cast the healing hands upon me. A more angelic experience I have not yet had.’

Shala blushed. ‘I was here every other day, but I can’t believe you’ve improved so much. Are you… are you a warrior?’

‘I can hold my own,’ said the man.

Shala suspected his answer was overly humble.

‘May I ask your name?’ asked Shala.

‘You may, Highness. My name is Bhask, of no particular standing or relating to any family ties worth mentioning,’ he said with an openness that had Shala at ease.

‘And Your Highness should be resting up for your crowning, I’ve been told it can be quite taxing,’ said the familiar voice of Joshua. Shala looked up to the door, acknowledging the oldest member among her disciples with a smile as he entered. The elderly man was a tireless worker, and was more often than not to be found in the halls of healing. He joined the two of them.

‘He has made some rapid resurgence, Highness,’ said Joshua gladly, ‘we knew him to be strong, but I did not think he’d make it after struggling so long. When we brought you in here you were even bigger!’ he said to Bhask. ‘You lost some mass and strength with all this time in bed, but then I’ve never seen a man consume as much broth that was not the Master Dieral himself,’ said Joshua laughingly.

‘I find recovery often partners with great appetite. I apologize if I seemed to be the glutton.’

‘Not at all. You know, you remind of someone. And seeing you awake I notice a striking resemblance to a man I thought was dead,’ said Joshua.

The big man smiled. ‘I have walked a road long enough to tie a rope along the waist of the earth. And I might have done exactly that were it not for the Starwall. It is very possible I have met you before healer, but I cannot remember under what conditions it might be. Or where for that matter.’

Joshua nodded and they said nothing more on the subject.

‘Can I trust that we don’t have to fear you within our halls?’ Shala asked him.

‘Most certainly Highness. I am no trouble, and certainly not while I still feel as weak as a pup.’

‘Then get well soon. If my eyes are to be trusted, you’d be welcome to join the garrison of Attoras, if you don’t mind Marshal Gibbon’s insanely loud voice.’

The man chuckled. ‘I have heard the praises he heaps upon your soldiers even in my less lucid moments; now there’s a man that’s sure to get even the dead marching!’

Shala snickered, but she was still surprised at the man’s sudden return to health.

‘Did you change his treatment?’ she asked Joshua, hoping Bhask wouldn’t mind them discussing it.

‘Not at all, Highness. We are mostly baffled; this recovery of his was spontaneous and sudden, and I would say it had nothing to do with our efforts.’

Shala looked curiously at Bhask and then back again at Joshua. ‘We’ve never seen someone recovering without treatment, and still Pilgrim’s takes those we give the best to – and you mean to say he made it through on his own?’

‘Yes Highness, like I said, it is troubling, – good news as far as our man here is concerned, but troubling in that we now know even less about the disease it seems.’

‘I could do with some certainties,’ sighed Shala.

‘We’ll not have them in this life, Highness. The best we can do for this man is let him be, sleep will take care of the rest,’ said Joshua.

Shala nodded and her thoughts returned to the original reason for her visit. ‘Have you seen Kaell the cook, Joshua? Or even my handmaiden, deBella?’

Suddenly Joshua’s brow creased. ‘Highness, I might be raising fears for no good reason, but the castle today is devoid of familiar faces. Some of the regulars are simply missing. deBella hasn’t been here for some time and I heard both Masters Jalson and Dieral go into a fit of rage early this morning. Master Jalson rumbled adamantly that his kitchen hands should not bother returning. He mentioned Kaell’s name a few times.’

Shala stood up, worried. ‘Be on your guard Joshua, something is amiss, I do not feel safe having my guard marching through town.’

‘Let me walk Your Highness out!’ prompted Joshua, and Shala thought his bid to speak to her privately was poorly disguised. They bade farewell to Bhask, who thanked them for their visit.

Joshua stopped her just outside of the infirmary. ‘I definitely recognize that man, Highness. And with the others missing, seeing him, I don’t know what to make of it. I think he was here twenty years ago. But my memory is fuzzy.’

Shala frowned. ‘Who else will recognize him?’

Joshua was in thought. ‘Gremhalden.

‘Alright. I will see if I can drag the old Knight here. He might be able to shed some light on the matter.’

Shala set off, scouring the castle. She made no show of it, but she looked for deBella and she looked for Kaell. But in searching she found the halls hauntingly lonely. Her imagination was going to get the best of her today.

It was with some relief that she had a brush with Gremhalden, who walked the corridor limply, mumbling by himself. She was not that keen to run into him but she would at least have the opportunity to ask him to escort her to the infirmary so as to validate whether the man there posed any threat.

It took her only a moment to realize he had been looking for her as much as she him. ‘Should be in your room Your Highness!’ he grumbled, ‘some fool has left us defenceless today! I will stand by your door. And since when is deBella one to disappear? That hag always has something to say when its least welcome, but dare go looking for her and she falls right off the face of the earth!’

Shala was summoning the courage to chastise the Knight for speaking so of the handmaiden when they were interrupted by Squire Rolf, running to catch up to them, and the look Gremhalden gave him would normally have let the young idiot wilt beneath his gaze. That he didn’t even pay the old Knight attention already raised some alarm.

‘Princess!’ he exclaimed breathlessly, his face an arrangement of worry.

‘What is it?’ asked Shala, almost immediately annoyed by him.

‘It is Master Dieral. I think it is his heart! He was in the lower storerooms when he collapsed. I think he is dying!’

She and Gremhalden exchanged glances, the gravity of the situation dawning on them.

‘Lead on,’ commanded Shala, habitually touching the urn at her side. They left Gremhalden in their wake, him stranded with his bad leg and the slightest dismay visible on his face after wanting to lock up the Princess in her room. She followed Rolf for the length of the corridor before grabbing him by the wrist and stopping him. ‘I may need help, Joshua keeps watch in the infirmary. Go fetch him. Tell him what has happened!’ Nodding urgently Rolf set off again in the opposite direction. Not for the first time this month Shala ran like a mad person through these halls.

In her mind all she saw was the man that was supposed to place a crown on her head in five days’ time dying. She hated herself for the selfish thought. Saving him was all that mattered. Despite her haste she noticed a few oddities. The usual servants who roamed the castle were few and scant toward the east wing, and where the storerooms were located it was devoid of any guards.

That was a problem; if Dieral needed to be transported then no amount of determination could see Shala, Rolf and Joshua carry the man alone.

It was there that she first heard the music, the faint pluck of strings puzzling her in the basement passages. But with more pressing concerns it was gone from her mind as soon as it passed beyond hearing. The corridor to the storerooms was circular, and around each new bend she anticipated seeing the hulk of Dieral slumped against the wall.

Coming full circle however there was nothing to be seen of the man. What was Rolf playing at? Did he make a mistake or did I hear wrong? Maybe I should check the storerooms themselves? But there were cobwebs in some of the passages where Dieral was supposedly stricken, telling Shala no one as fastidious as Dieral had wandered here for some time.

Hardly noticing it over her own breathing she again heard the music. It was enough to pique her curiosity, and she pursued it in hope of finding Dieral in the process.

She followed what little noise she could hear, up and down and listening hard if she was getting to closer to the source, going deeper into lonely storerooms. Then it came to her that it was indeed her very own music box, or at least a music box playing the same tune. She did not know why yet, but hearing it here terrified her.

She was roaming a windowless corridor when a shrill wind shrieked through the length of it, and snuffed out the braziers on the wall. Shala stood in abject darkness, and the hairs on her arms and neck rose. The music still played eerily. She felt strung up by fear, like a puppet. Calming herself with the cold, she fumbled her hand into the urn. Holding her hand aloft she summoned the light, the pale gleam showing her the corridor outline. She was still alone at least.

Yet staring out in front of her she realized for the first time that something was staring back, noticing that the heavy wooden door at the end of the corridor was smeared with a dark substance, and painted in the shape of a misshapen face of horns and eyes and twisted mouth. A knot formed in her stomach as her mind already came to a conclusion as to what the substance might be.

Steeling herself she marched forward. From ahead came a stink, foul and wretched, and from the little space underneath the door seeped a wind, as if the room had the need to breathe. The music stopped. With a trembling hand she turned the knob, pushed, and swung it wide open. She stepped into the room, bringing light to it.

She wished she hadn’t, that the place had rather remained dark. There was nothing to be recognized of the store but blood and carnage. A shriek built up in Shala’s throat but it collided with the impulse to wretch. She did neither, and clamped her glowing hand across her mouth, staring in mute horror and nausea, finding herself sitting on her legs. Hesitantly she moved her hand forward and away from her face to cast the light further into the room.

The bodies of Council members and servants, and many other castle residents were strewn over the floor, entrails spilled, heads spiked up against the walls and torsos hanging from hooks on the ceiling. In them she saw familiar faces; castle faces with names she could choke on seeing them this way. She saw Pasco and Lorry and Lenise… Many others were unrecognizable. The reason for their sudden disappearance became unbearably clear to Shala.

She would never forget how badly this room had shaken her, how friends could be alive one moment and then, this…

Many measures of blood had been used to paint the wall, and they all formed different insignias and symbols, telling something of the ritual that had been practiced here. “Our rite has already taken hold in Attoras,” the wraith had said. The wraith had not lied.

In revulsion her gaze could not linger on one atrocity for too long, but she was inextricably drawn to one bloody insignia in particular. On her feet again she shed light on it by coming closer, and the shape indeed was lines of blood that formed the chained hands solemnly holding a candle, perfectly illustrated by a careful hand, and yet an utter mockery of House Evrelyn’s insignia.

For whatever reason possessed her she wandered further into the room, the evil here playing so fearfully on her that she felt the light go out of her. She searched the room and found nothing alive in it, no one to even save. It was a place of death. She feared that Kaell and deBella and all the others must be among the unrecognizable, their bodies torn to shreds.

It was too savage to be the work of a human butcher, and yet no beast would have endeavoured to display the carnage so. She found the music box behind the pillar, bloody fingers having fumbled on the surface to wind it.

Her disquiet and unease culminated with the idea that someone must have wound the thing just recently and set it playing, and done so knowing she’d come here. Someone must be here, and close too. Someone must still be here. She had the overwhelming urge to simply get away.

She turned to leave, her mind struck numb by what had happened here. If only she could reach the door this nightmare would end. Then again the moment she walked into this room she knew it was all very real. She was just about to start running when men poured into the room, bearing torches of their own and showing the room in new light. Shala was relieved.

But it was Swarztial that led them, a select few council members behind him and also soldiers with drawn swords. Even then it was not lost on her that the men were of the council guard, and not her own. They were accompanied by Rolf the squire, no sign that he had ever done any effort to bring down Joshua at all. There was now a dread feeling to their arrival.

‘Your Highness!’ cried Swarztial with a tone of shock, Shala realizing they had found her standing beneath the blood-painted insignia of her own House. Suddenly his face turned into a snarl as though he gained some appreciation of what had happened. ‘Again you bring evil into this castle, what murderous demoness have you become? Guards! Take her before she can ply more of her devilry! She will be the death of all of us!’ he shrieked.

Shala had no idea whether the council guard would take her down, but either way she dashed right at them, brightening the light in her hand to make a brilliant flash. In its blinding display she weaved through the men and out the door. She heard the protests behind her and the angry shouts of Swarztial. She did not stop running, flying through the halls.

By the time she made it to the library the alarm bells in the town started ringing, loudly and unceasingly, the din much more urgent than the tower bells they rang for her father’s funeral. Through tall library windows she looked down into the castle yard and saw that all hell had broken loose, not at all confined to the castle alone.

 

 

The alarm bells were tolling and cries of goblin invaders pervaded the town confines. The guards manning the walls and towers were in utter disarray. After having watched the southern foothills for more than ten years without incident they were not prepared for what came down them. Their foe had climbed high into the hills from the shadow side, and now came racing down towards Attoras in devices not man-made. The farther they rolled, the more apparent it became that they were great wheels, like the wheel set on a watermill.

The guard named Aphelas would long after today wonder at what suspension and cushion the goblins could have used for the wheels to survive the rocky tumble, and at such speeds. The trick of it was in the bounce, for instead of smashing on the rocks they leapt and revolved with increasing velocity. Indeed some of the wheels still lost their balance, and once they tilted onto their sides and crashed they became little more than flying shards of wood, and a flailing dead body was revealed to have hidden inside it.

Gods! The goblins are riding inside those things! realized Aphelas, now seeing the wheels had seated chambers inside of them, weighted internally so that they remained upright on the inside regardless.

Yet most survived, and by some other strange mechanism (two cloth chutes erupting toward the rear and dragging on the wind) they came to an eventual halt where the foot of the mountain made a plateau, there being a strategic holdfast where the rocky foot budded into town confines in a manner that gave Attoras its star-shaped border. Two of the wheels risked going even further, vaulting clear from mountainous rock and onto the adjacent castle battlement.

Had the goblins tried to claim it by conventional means the town guard would have long since rallied and put a stop to it. But the wheels had given them speed and the guard was already attending another goblin threat at the town eastside. In what was now a spectacle to Aphelas he saw the goblins scurry, having jumped out of the devices, and two at a time, pulled at the sides of the wheels – they folded open like those clever collapsible chairs.

To them the goblins quickly made configurations, locking beams in place and winding ropes. Aphelas could not determine what they had changed into until the long wooden arms came up.

Flung fire pots burned through the sky as the wheels-turned-slings spun and released. The pots, filled with lit-oil, struck the castle yard, against the walls and the town. Where they fell they burst into flames that swept open like liquid. Aphelas knew the pots would not do much damage, save to cause terror, and that the slings of goblins couldn’t possibly throw anything heavier.

But then terror was a weapon on its own, thought Aphelas, as fires spurred on the goblins’ rampage and the remainder of the guard that was left in the castle yard could not come together to halt the goblin swarm.

Another volley of fire pots came flying, and this time they struck the scaffolding against the south-east castle wall, where the stone gargoyles would have been mounted. The wooden frameworks burst into flames and suddenly they proved to be a real threat of setting parts of the castle ablaze. Other scaffolding was left intact, and the goblins used the frames to gain access into the castle through the higher windows. This is no accident! With the guard locked out in town and the scaffolding providing the tinder and ladders, a conspiracy formed in Aphelas’ mind. If only they could survive today he would tell everyone of what he suspected.

He rushed for the trapdoor, deciding that his role as watchman was now becoming vain. But one fire pot flew high and it cracked on the tower top. Aphelas escaped the blast of flames, but his heel caught on the low wall of the crenellation, he grabbed for the battlement, but the fingertips of his gloves were slick with wear, and he fell to his death where the goblins were already ramming at the castle door, the hinges and lumbers protesting.

 

 

Shala stood transfixed looking at the chaos, the flames in the yard casting an orange glow through the tall library windows. Many of the books around her told of monsters and horrors befalling kingdoms now extinct. Is that our fate as well, to turn into a tragedy for a book?

Three orange globes sat in the sky like suns, Shala hypnotised by their approach. A strong hand grabbed her from behind, pulling her into a one-armed embrace so that she stared over the man’s shoulder, her feet lifted from the ground. For a moment she thought Swarztial’s men had caught her, until the three fire pots crashed through the windows, and the carpet, the curtains and the book cases were all swept up in flames. She had just been spared a fiery death.

Her captor did not stop until she was dragged clear of the library, leaving it behind to be consumed. Putting her down the man still dragged her by the arm and she had no choice but to follow him, her legs flailing to keep up. Some of her senses returned to her and she dug in her heels. They came to a stop and he turned to her on the landing where the staircase split east and west. The man seemed all too familiar.

At first she saw the Wolf that had defended her right to the throne, the two bone-hilted bronze swords peaking over his shoulders, yet unmasked – and then she realized it was the face of Kaell looking down on her.

His face was grim; there was no familiar smile or innocence on him, and deep blue eyes had become icy and fierce. His hair was longer and hence a bit darker, and if it was at all possible he was taller, not by much, but enough so that Shala could realize it.

She put up her hand, dumbstruck, and set it gently against Kaell’s face as though she could wipe away the illusion. She was clearly not in her right mind. There were even small scars on his mouth and cheek as though he had been a lifelong warrior, as though all of this could have happened in the blink of an eye. And the cut he had sustained against Yanci-gan on his arm was there too, stitched up; they were one and the same person.

‘Kaell?’ she asked faintly, her voice caught mostly in her throat.

‘Yes Princess. It is I.’ His voice was different as well. It was the voice that had challenged Yanci-gan. Shala stood in a disbelief that surpassed any other madness till now.

‘Was I asleep for two years? What is happening? Have I lost my mind entirely?’ queried Shala.

‘No, Highness. I blossomed high in the mountain. That is the short and the long of it. And that is the only explanation I can afford for now.’

Shala’s eyes widened. ‘By what agency!? You are a cook, and you have never dabbled in anything but spices and ovens! You have no place in magic,’ she said in dismay despite the evidence in front of her eyes. If she could ask but one thing of the world it would be to give her some certainty.

‘It makes no sense,’ she continued, ‘how is it that you look older and battle-hardened?’

‘Because this is what I was before I became Kaell the cook, and in fact Kaell the cook was a fabrication.’

Many things came together in Shala’s thoughts and still there was little sense to them, her mind a torrent as opposed to Kaell’s frightfully calm explanation, suggesting she was just supposed to accept the change he had undergone. ‘It was you that defeated Yanci-gan, had I but known I might’ve recognized you that day! But the Kaell I know is weak and wasn’t even fond of a kitchen knife, what still of a sword?’

‘It was all part of a much needed illusion, Your Highness, not for your deception, but to those who plot against you,’ said Kaell. ‘But illusions are now to be put aside,’ he said looking up, his ears catching sounds of danger, ‘keep your wits about you Princess, we’ve got company.’

Shala turned and saw the shadows of goblins that had breached the castle play on the walls, fast approaching.

‘Let’s move Highness, keep close, and I’ll keep you safe.’ As they ran they came upon skirmishes in the halls, where the few of the castle guard that remained struggled against the goblins.

‘Where are we going?’ shouted Shala.

‘To nowhere they’ll expect us Princess, those goblins targeted your bed-chamber, the library and the griffin tower with their devices, and should anything remain they’ll scavenge through them in the aftermath.’

‘How could they possibly know where I spend my time?’ asked Shala.

‘They are informed, Highness, and I need not tell you who could provide such information for them.’ The answer was rather obvious, there was only one person who would betray Attoras like this.

Through the lower southern passages Shala followed the man she thought of as Kaell, and it seemed always that they avoided danger just in the nip of time, leaving the enemy only one step behind. From thereon Shala had no clue where the man was leading her. Only at one stage did they double back, hearing the enemy from the front. Kaell pulled the Princess into a broom cupboard, quickly closing it before the parade of goblins came streaming by.

They stood cramped, breathing on each other’s faces, Kaell listening intently to know whether it was safe outside. They stood like that for painful moments and then Kaell pushed on the door, coming out and looking up and down the corridor. He was ready to take off again and yet Shala shouted, ‘Wait, I must know, is there any consideration, for my servants and disciples and most of all deBella – they cannot all be dead!’

‘They are safe Highness, even before I caught up to you I locked deBella and all the others I could find in a pantry. They were outraged of course, but it will save their lives through this entire mess.’

‘Will we go there too then?’ asked Shala hopefully.

‘Afraid not Highness, it will not be enough to save you from the evil in this castle.

Where then!?’ demanded Shala, but the shriek of a goblin made Kaell grab her by the arm again and they took a flight of stairs that led to the servants’ quarters. Having a glance at the hand wrapped around her wrist she saw nothing of the dainty hands of the familiar cook. Rather they were rough and strong, like having worked at hewing trees or hammering metal. The transformation was alarming.

Haphazardly they fled after one another through the narrow passages of the servant’s quarters, the architecture being squeezed among a great many more important rooms, so that the kitchen hands and cleaning maids returned to their dorms through tiny passages reminiscent of those found on ships below deck. Suddenly Shala knew where they would end up next, and before she could doubt the thought they emptied out into the kitchen.

But the grand old home of pots and stoves was in chaos. The goblins were rampant across the counters and swinging from the pot holsters overhead, like apes, kicking and screaming at each other, fighting over the meals and foodstuffs they had come upon this day, their mission apparently forgotten.

Shala was ready to back into the passage again but Kaell rushed headlong into the centre of the kitchen. The goblins focused on him the moment they realized a man was in their midst, following him like dogs on a chase. Kaell set one foot across another and twirled through the air, the bronze blades cutting, and he moving through them like a glaive thrown.

In the wake of what Kaell left Shala followed, her sandaled feet landing among felled goblins, dead or dying. It was the first time Shala witnessed the blend of blades against true enemies and being as close as she was she could say it was equal parts terror and, for her at least, the knowing that she would be safe.

‘Where now?’ shouted Shala after him.

Kaell pulled her aside, and he hissed, ‘Hush!

Shala was taken aback, but it could hardly show through her already taxed demeanour. Kaell had never before uttered a single harsh word at her.

‘We’ll go to the throne room, and retrieve Erenciel, after that we may depart for the Dragonwell.’

‘Surely we can leave Erenciel behind? The goblins might not even notice it resting within the throne!’

Kaell shook his head. ‘It is not about saving the blade, Highness, but rather it saving us; my Master assured me there would be no escape for us without it.’

‘Master?’ queried Shala. ‘Wait, what do you mean by escape?’

The sound of pursuit came and Kaell grabbed her by the arm once more, feeling as a doll would she imagined. By now she was sick of it and wrenched free her arm. ‘Let go of me, I can move of my own accord!’

‘Very well,’ said Kaell and ran on, not looking back to see if Shala followed.

The Princess ran worriedly. Why would we flee to the Dragonwell? Shala had no worthwhile answer for it, and she was scared she would hate the answer if she would have to ask.

 

II

 

Bhask breathed deeply, and despite the grim task ahead of him he was still tremendously glad to be rid of a bed. His time spent in the infirmary had been punishing to a man of his nature. He arose on the eve of the chaos, escaping the main castle confines amid panicked citizens. The goblins paid him little heed, preferring weaker targets whose eyes shone with fear, or at least targets smaller than Bhask.

Still there were those whose bloodlust were great enough to overcome common sense. A goblin leapt at him near the armoury, and Bhask smashed it with a well waited fist right out of the air. The ribcage collapsed, and it lay shuddering in pain. He stepped over it and lifted the broken armoury door, pushing it up from its hinges, and then inwards, so that it fell on the floor.

Inside a hitherto trapped goblin darted at Bhask, where the furnace was still seething hot and red as it was left by a fleeing smithy. Bhask simply caught the creature in a crushing embrace to his chest with one arm, like a father muffling the cry of a child.

The creature squirmed where he held it, trying to sink teeth and weapons into him. Bhask kept the goblin’s dagger away with the other hand, clasped over the wiry but strong wrist. He walked forward unperturbed, examining the wall where the smithy had hung dozens of well-made swords, all the while worming his arm favourably around the goblin’s neck – until he twisted savagely to snap it, letting fall the creature.

In earnest now he decided upon swords, reaching high to retrieve himself two broadswords; one for each hand. He lifted them each straight up so that he formed a wide cross; he held them there for a few seconds, motionless as their weight pulled at the cuffs of his shoulders. He was still strong at least after all that time doing nothing. Strong enough.

 

 

Over the carnage came soaring the eagle, unnoticed above the plumes of dark smoke rising from the castle fires. It saw everything, and it saw where Attoras’ destruction would come from. Rather spontaneously it dived as though it was going to bother itself with human affairs. Folding its wings in close it plummeted toward the highest battlement of the keep where the goblins had already taken a crucial foothold, from there wielding one of their devices to rain down destruction on the lower parts of the castle. The goblins, with fire and hate in their eyes, did not even notice the bird flitting through among them.

The eagle landed and was eagle no more. Metrus stood up and gave his cloak a good shake to rid it of the feathers of his transition. Not sparing a moment he unshouldered his bow. With no arrows to speak off he drew back the string, and in the glove of his hand a gem was set, on the palm. By his volition the gem shone brightly, giving the entire length of the bowstring an emerald glow of strange beauty. The goblins had noticed him by now but stood helplessly in the line of fire. Releasing the string a plethora of crackling arrows barraged from the bow, fanning like the green spit of fireworks, ghostly seeking out enemies.

Too fast to follow the ethereal arrows struck the goblins surrounding the wheel, the magical shafts burning deeply into gnarled flesh as half a dozen were struck down. The remainder stormed and swarmed at this new threat like only goblins could. From the inside of his thick tunic, Metrus’ hand brought forth a small sapling of hard oak. The Druid made an inaudible whisper and the sapling grew lengthwise, showing no patience reminiscent of nature, fashioning itself into a spear with sharp triangular wooden edges on both points. With the goblins imminent Metrus lashed out, twirling the staff furiously to ward off the pack bearing down on him.

By his fifth deadly stroke, half of the fickle creatures scurried away in horror at seeing their kin dispatched so easily, bounding from the battlements to land on places where they thought they’d be safe, recuperating in numbers as they often do. Metrus would not pursue them, even though he knew they remained a threat and saw many more of them come over the roofs of the town houses to leap onto the lower walls. The castle guard was having a hard time keeping the goblins at bay and an even harder time trying to get the gates open for the many men still isolated in town.

What a dire plot this has been, Metrus realized, knowing full well those who orchestrated it were denizens of the castle. With his tracker eyes he saw an imposing warrior emerge from within the castle, wearing no armour, but armed with a broadsword in each hand; there were very few men in the world accomplished at wielding such simultaneously and the Druid knew he was looking at an old friend. The time had come and the means to save Attoras was in place. Metrus watched as Bhask position himself on the battlement overlooking the main gate, and he addressed the stones laid down by the Masons and the old enchantment laid on them.

His voice sounded from the deep, as though stirring from the walls themselves, no point of origin to be discovered and echoing through an entire city. Metrus felt the resonating stones under his boots even where he stood.

Answer to arms men of Attoras, the throne is in peril, and the Queen needs brave swords to guard the last of the line!’ boomed his voice. The soldiers and town guard surged toward the castle, following Bhask’s voice like a beacon, but became stuck at the gate where no one on the inside could open it. Metrus would see to it.

Many creeping plants still grew in the shadow side of the Attoras battlement and from afar he commanded them, ‘Evolos Nefaras’, and the vines grew in haste, coming right over the top most battlements and slithering their way toward the abandoned Menace Wheel. The vines quickly enveloped the dead hard wood and made it one of their own, a living thing. No one man could operate the device on his own, but the catapult mechanism ordered its limbs by itself, turning its base towards the gates.

The contraption flung the fire pot, and struck the gate right where the wooden doors met. It was enough to smash the wooden beams that barred it, and the men locked outside of it kicked it wide open and they charged in desperately to defend the castle. A moment later Metrus transformed and took flight as the eagle. There was still much to be done.

 

 

III

 

In the corridor leading to the throne room another band of goblins beset them. Kaell put himself between Shala and the enemy, once more flying into them, fearless. Where most men could not defend fast enough against the high-low attacks of a group of goblins he stayed their blades with efficiency, his two sword arms playing inside and outside of their attacks to create space, then stabbing neatly, or slashing wildly to end another foe. The goblins died as quick as they came, but Shala saw many more poured from the chamber ahead. Kaell would be overwhelmed, and in an attempt to help she reached into the urn at her hip, wetting her hands.

With a swift incantation and placing her palms against each other, holding them overhead, the sheen of moist became a glowing light, as if a bright lantern was held in her hands. The light beamed fiercely in the dim hall, only catching Kaell on the back, but blinding the tiny goblin eyes, and hence they fell swift to the Wolf’s swords, him gaining an upper hand that would not be swayed. They ran to the throne, Shala eyeing the sword she must now retrieve.

Kaell stopped at the foot of the throne, looking around wildly, his face still one anticipating danger, and panting heavily for all his effort.

Algrenach Shon De Boir!’ he spoke commandingly. Instantly the throne room lit up as a torch on every pillar went alight, and in the massive chandelier overhead every one of its candles flickered into existence.

‘How did you do that!?’ asked Shala.

‘My Master has taught me some of the castle’s magicks, Highness. I am not outright magical, but anyone who knows the words can trigger the old enchantments of the Masons.’

‘Who is this Master you speak of!?’ she asked again.

‘You have already met him, Your Highness,’ said Kaell.

‘Impossible! I’ve never met a Master of the Wolves,’ said Shala.

Kaell shook his head, as though he wasn’t going to debate the point. ‘Should we survive to meet with him, he’ll explain much – but that now seems unlikely,’ said Kaell, his voice growing grim as he saw something approach.

From the far side of the room, moving in the cover of the pillars, was a figure swathed in black. He moved onto the long golden-edged red carpet leading all the way to the throne and Kaell stared into the eyes of death. The wraith-kind approached with a scythe in his hands, the rod black and the blade gleaming deadly and silver, his strides long and patient, almost floating, while his face betrayed none of the bloodlust it had.

‘Highness, take the sword – and run! Make for the Dragonwell. By some chance an ally will meet you there!’

Shala hesitated for a moment more as she watched Kaell step forward to engage this wraith. She turned away from the fight and, standing on the cushion of the seat, did her utmost to pull the sword from the headpiece of the throne, first undoing the thongs wrapped around the hilt with desperate fingers.

Kaell flew at the enemy, striking twice on the rod of the scythe that moved alarmingly fast to protect its wielder. The wraith pushed back and then made a fell sweep at Kaell. He jumped agilely over the first attack and then danced away from a second before striking at the wraith once more. His left hand sword struck deep into the cloth of the wraith’s robe, only there was nothing to be gained by it. Instead of striking something beneath Kaell could just as well have stabbed a length of curtain.

‘Fool! Death has no flesh, all you see before you is illusion,’ the wraith hissed in victory. The torn cloth wrapped tightly around Kaell’s arm and he lashed vainly at the being’s face.

‘You are but a nuisance boy, sleep now,’ said the wraith, his voice becoming low. A dark mist emanated from the wraith, the tattered fringe of his robe becoming black tendrils that reached out, grasping over Kaell’s head, seeping into his nostrils, ears and mouth. As it did, the illusion of the wraith’s living face was gone and only a menacing skull was there below the hood. Kaell snarled and struggled to get away from an overwhelming darkness. ‘Princess, run!’ he cried weakly.

‘Sleep, embrace the slumber of death. Do not fight it…’

Suddenly Kaell fell free, landing hard as the wraith released him, unconscious. Shala was on the edge of panic and with strength she did not know she had lifted the sword free of its rest, cumbersomely gathering it into a side hold, bearing the weight mostly on her hip. Desperately she attacked the wraith; she did not think escape was plausible, but she would not give the wraith an easy victory.

With as much force as she could muster she brought the sword in overhead, but the blow was weak and the wraith merely batted the sword out of her hand with the length of his scythe, her father’s piece falling with a resonating pitch to the floor. She lost her footing and fell backwards, the wraith looming over her. ‘I told you Princess, death is but in waiting…’

Aiming the deadly tail spike of the scythe at her Shala watched the waxen face steely; she was not dying a coward in her father’s throne room. If only she could summon the light. Somewhere she heard the sound of metal striking the floor again.

A giant figure intercepted the wraith, tackling the creature from its feet. The swirl of cloak quickly became ghostly again and escaped the man’s grasp, fleeing some way before taking the shape of a human again. The imposing man rolled and came to his feet, turning on his haunches to face the wraith.

To Shala’s eyes it was the man that had lain so close to death in the infirmary, the one who had made a miraculous recovery, and right then she knew he was a warrior. And one of some skill it would seem. It’s Bhask! What is going on here? It was like some strange nightmare, only her imagination was rarely this bizarre.

With the man standing upright Shala could appreciate the size of this warrior. He was lean but very broad in the shoulder, muscles bulging on his arms, his chest deep. Healthy now he looked much like the athletes down south in Avandar, those who could run, jump and throw javelins incredible distances. Gremhalden was the tallest man in the castle at well over six feet. This man was even taller.

He was weaponless, Shala noticed, tracing his steps to where he had dropped two broad swords, mostly to give himself the speed he used to save her life. The wraith came at him in a fury Shala had yet to see and he rolled out of the way of the attack, the scythe cutting nothing but air. Moving with astonishing speed the warrior made his way across the floor and swept up Erenciel where it had fallen in a diving roll. Armed with the King’s sword he put himself between the wraith and where Shala lay. Now at least it was a contest.

They struck at each other and the engagement was fierce, the sheer power of the warrior’s strikes enough to crush through steel plate armour, the memory of Yanci-gan’s brilliance being belittled by now. The wraith however had nothing corporal to hit, nothing but the scythe it held. Shala hoped that Erenciel would cut right through the scythe and maybe force the wraith into retreat. Yet the dark being had a dire skill about it, true to practicing taking lives every other day and managed to turn even the truest strikes away, and then whenever the sun-touched warrior managed to pierce through his sword hit nothingness, merely slicing through a length of cloth that seemed to renew itself by the hand of an invisible tailor.

Surging forward the wraith attempted to entwine the man in a spell as it had Kaell, oily black tendrils emerging from the torn fringes of its cloak without warning. The warrior was not caught unawares and quickly spun and turned out of its dark embrace.

The anticipation and boldness of this unnamed warrior restored hope to the Princess.

Finding her own volition Shala rushed forward and held her hand up, her light coming to life again and the wraith instantly fled, shrieking as it darted from pillar to pillar, hiding in the many shadows.

The wraiths had an odd way of flying, one moment they stood as corporal as any man, and then they could dart off, losing shape and substance as the cloth of their being moved like a kite caught in a stiff breeze.

But for the darkness of the day Shala felt a weakness in her and she could not hold the light for much longer.

‘Why am I losing strength?’ she moaned as the light waned.

‘Darkness has taken to the castle and will no longer tolerate your magic. Your Highness, let’s end this! Place the magic of Evrelyn onto the blade!’ shouted Bhask. Though she did not know how this warrior knew her arts so intimately, Shala did not hesitate, reaching into the urn, sprinkling precious few droplets across the length of Erenciel as he held it steady. ‘Aveno Enumas…’

The wraith swept in from above with a sickening speed, its wail drowning out the rest of Shala’s incantation, yet the spell took, and Bhask swung, the blade blazing white like a match struck, the light-endowed sword finding purchase that steel alone could not and tore through the wraith and all that it was. A terrible dying shriek preceded a void of darkness above, the braziers on the wall snuffed out for a second before coming to life again. Shala fell to her knees, and breathed hard as though she had never breathed before. The wraith was gone, its wail a memory.

Is it dead?’ she gasped.

‘Dead as it will ever be, returned to its realm, but it will bother us no more,’ said Bhask, sounding as though the wraith had not frightened him at all.

Bhask hunched down next to the Princess. ‘Are you alright Highness?’ he asked.

‘Who are you?’ asked Shala. ‘I’m… I’m fine.’

‘I’m a friend, Highness,’ said Bhask, and held out Erenciel, as though he appreciated that not just any man was meant to hold onto the King’s heirloom for too long.

‘The finest sword I’ve ever touched,’ he commented. ‘I doubt many other blades can pair with your magic as Erenciel can.’

She looked at the blade in his hands, stroking the blade with her fingers. ‘Despite all my determination I can’t do justice to that sword, I can’t wield it like my father could, I can barely pick it up…’

‘My Lady, allow me then to take this sword, to bear its weight and rest it in my arm, until such a time as you can wield it.’

‘And if I grow old, never amassing the strength to hold it?’ asked Shala.

The man smiled widely, ‘Then I will have to hold it for all of my life. And not leave your side as long as I do.’

He did not say more, but Shala took it he meant his words as an oath. She had not hoped to elicit such a response and it was much more than she expected from the man. She was going to take what was offered, stranger or not.

‘You have my thanks, and I will deem you protector in the absence of my Knights. Though I still have no inkling of who you might be, save that your bravery has already told me much.’

‘I used to be the last of a kind, my Lady,’ said Bhask looking over his shoulder at Kaell. ‘But now we must flee, more wraith-kind will come and it helps little we indulge in small histories in this danger. Come!’

An eagle swooped into the hall, and even as it landed it became a man again. Shala stood in wonder as the bird quickly erupted into the figure of Metrus. It was too much for her. It was as though everyone had known what this day would entail but her, and she had but stumbled into someone else’s war.

‘Druid!’ cried Bhask as he emerged from a sudden moult of feathers. ‘Your arrival is, as always, at the most welcome of times.’

Metrus’s grin split his beard, which he did not have the last time Shala had seen him.

Shala looked wearily between the two men. ‘You know this man, Druid?’ she asked of Metrus.

‘Yes, Your Highness. And you’ll need to find trust for him swiftly, for some evil has been dealt with, but others are just emerging.’

‘But the guard will take the castle, we’ll be safe!’

‘No, Your Highness. The danger Metrus speaks off will be treachery and for the sake of Attoras we must now get as far as possible from its grasp.’

‘I don’t-’

‘It is time for survival, my Lady, not comprehension. We must go!’

Metrus walked over to where Kaell groaned, slow moving dark tendrils of smoke still rising from his nose and mouth. Metrus hunched where Kaell lay, spreading his bejewelled hand over his body.

Liebeneigh Nastatalé, wake up and rise young one, the road is yet long and tasks must be seen to,’ said Metrus.

Renewed with some strength Kaell rose gingerly, not at all sure of their current predicament. But a weak smile touched his face as he realized the Princess was safe between Bhask and Metrus, having feared he had failed. The wraith was dealt with.

‘Kaell’lam, run ahead and make sure nothing can impede or entrap us toward the Dragonwell,’ said Bhask, giving the young man no time to rest. ‘Princess, Metrus will guard the escape but you must stay at my side at all times!’

‘Okay,’ she said. She could do nothing but agree with anyone who still called themselves allies in this wretched hour. But my House is spent as my father’s note said, I’m all that’s left and it seems I will not last long after my kin.

But the others did not give Shala time for her maudlin thoughts. Kaell was off in a swift dash, Bhask in his wake, and the Princess could only follow.

Chapter 5

The Dragonwell

 

Out of the throne room and into the first corridor they had already lost sight of Kaell, setting a manic pace that they would have to follow, and every now and then they found the corpse of another goblin he had dispatched along the way.

Despite some preposterous turn of fortune Shala was terrified running in the shadow of Bhask, hoping the man beside her would hold to his oath. Reaching the stairs a pocket of goblins met them, Kaell having already past this point, or surely he would have warned them.

Bhask, with a broad sword in each hand, knew no mercy as he cut a path through the invaders. He kept Erenciel covered in cloth, tied and slung across his back. ‘Keep running!’ Came a voice and the Princess found herself following faithfully in Bhask’s footsteps.

Snarling faces and crude weapons came close to Shala, but she needn’t stop as timely arrows struck ghostly into her pursuers. Metrus played the rearguard and from some gallery or other height he was keeping watch, and she trusted him, for she had not yet met a greater archer than the Druid, or one that commanded more power. On the flight of stairs into the main hall they ran down a few steps at a time, crashing through friends and foes alike, as battle seem to rage in every part of the castle.

In the entrance hall the fighting was heaviest; the household guard made a good stand but the goblins came in fiercely, enthralled by some hate that Shala could not fathom, as they flung themselves recklessly at the defenders of the castle.

Her household guard was ranked many lines deep, creating barricades with their locked shields and spears. Behind each line was a pair or more of archers, and a specialist of melee arms that dealt with the goblins that managed to leap over or break through the row of shields. Here she saw Gibbon and Merohan, and also Gremhalden who had small heaps of tangled goblin corpses around him, leaning on a bastard sword dark with goblin blood.

In the heart of the fray, Bhask’s voice rang out, ‘Make a path for the Queen, and see her safely through!’ Shala could never forget how loud his voice was; how it blasted through the halls by some kind of magic and rang off the stones of the castle.

The soldiers obeyed, and without compromising their own endeavours to keep the hall they formed a tunnel of men, allowing them to reach a passage that went underground once past its threshold, and up until then the soldiers intercepted any foe trying to follow in their wake.

With that behind them, and the door shut, the fighting seemed distant, Bhask and Shala rendered alone. The narrow passage was already lit, and Shala knew then Kaell was already far into it, having spoken flames to life again like he did in the throne room. She knew this because no one ever bothered visiting this passage, much less spare it enough attention to keep it well lit.

The long way ahead became evermore silent, Bhask and Shala’s footsteps more pronounced. By the end of it Shala was heavily tired, and feeling more helpless realizing her protector was not at all bothered by the distance. Only when the passage led into the round room of the seal did they catch up to Kaell, him waiting there on the stone mural of a great dragon’s face. For Shala it was almost a surprise being led here, even though she knew of the room where many others of the castle did not.

‘I was just about ready to head back and see where you tarried,’ said Kaell, relieved.

‘We were delayed by enemies. But you should not expect others to keep up with you,’ said Bhask, half in amusement and half in advice.

‘Will we hide here until it is over?’ asked Shala.

‘No, we must continue, this place will not keep us safe,’ said Bhask.

Shala was scared again and did not know what the warrior meant. This was a dead end and there was nowhere to go.

‘Where has Metrus gone, will he not come with us?’ she asked.

‘He flies my Lady, and he will meet us in daylight with all the news we can hope for, tidings good or ill.’

This didn’t answer Shala any better and raised more questions. ‘But this is the Dragonwell, and it leads nowhere,’ explained the Princess.

‘My Lady, this is not the Dragonwell, the actual well is still below us. Allow me a moment, and I’ll show you the way.’

Bhask stood at the edge of the seal, addressing the engraved markings of the dragon with an incantation. He intoned the words steadily and deliberately, as though keen to remember the words without mistake.

Shala had always wondered about this room, ever since she was little, for the dragon had no heritage within Attoras, or even within some of the previous Houses that ruled here. It was a symbol out of place, so why did it enjoy a mural on the floor almost thirty feet in diameter? Of course in the past Attoras had warred with dragons, but that only made the mural stranger.

Bhask finished the incantation, taking a deep breath.

A rumble came across the room, shaking it and in turn the floor set in motion, dividing itself into blocks that moved of their own accord, breaking the face of the dragon mural.

At first Shala thought the blocks were falling into undetermined depths, but they halted soon, forming an intricate stairwell. The men were ready to go down, but Shala stood in their way.

Wait now! How is it you know the castle’s secrets even better than me, and command the magicks that still linger in its stone? Who are you, to whom do you belong?’

Calmly Bhask answered. ‘We belong to you, my Lady. I am the last of the Wolves, and I’ve made Kaell’lam here worthy of being one, and he should be one if only the Wolves were still anointed such as I was in my youth. We know the castle because we were taught its secrets, and entrusted with Attoras’ safety. As such we dream also, and hence it allows us to commune with the old stones laid in this castle.’

Shala had no way to answer the man, shocked to silence by his claim. Rather she looked quizzically at Kaell. ‘Your name is Kaell’lam?’ she asked, feeling more and more that he was someone she did not know.

‘The wraith-kind may still follow, we must descend!’ urged Kaell, ignoring the Princess’ questions.

‘Lead the way,’ gestured Bhask to Kaell, and he ushered Shala onto the stairs so that he may take the rearguard. The smooth blocks of stone lasted only a moment underfoot, and then, they breathed into a new place, a cavern in the deep of the mountain.

The scent of moist was heavy in the air and glistening lights lined against the faces of the walls, often changing stance and sometimes casting rainbow colours. The path went ever down, spiralling, but Shala had a question on her mind. ‘Where is the light coming from?’

Bhask took her to the edge of the path, to show her. ‘You can see from here…’

She gasped at the enormity, startled by the secret giant beneath the castle. The cavern indeed looked like a well, and the path ran along the wall of the giant pit, spiralling many times to get to the bottom, where a luminous pool of water was surrounded by four massive braziers, the fires in them burning fiercely as though just lit. From the ledge to the pool below was at least a thousand yard plummet and the diameter across was great as well.

‘Who keeps this place and sets the fires?’ asked Shala. They set off walking as Bhask answered.

‘No one, not anymore, and those fires may yet still burn when this world comes to an end. Dragon blood is taken, set aflame and then the flames are gentled by magi. They do not burn and consume things as fire does, but cast a similar quality of light, phantom flames as they are often called.’

‘Dragon blood set aflame?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes, it is the secret of dragon fire. They spray their blood through glands in their mouth just like a serpent does with venom. Only dragon blood is unique in that it combusts when subjected to friction and air,’ said Bhask.

‘Do not tell me a dragon lives here! Right underneath the castle and all!?’ asked Shala.

‘One does, but it is of no threat, it’s old, blind and weak – if not dead. The men that fed and sustained it are long gone, and he does not do well without worship, and even less so without food.’

‘Does it live trapped here?’ asked the Princess.

‘Yes, trapped in his own weakness. It cannot escape here, for it will be taken by a world it no longer recognizes and will be hunted down in its confusion. The Knights on their griffins would come, and make short work of it in the open sky. Rather it hides. Dragons are some of the greatest dreamers, a dream of the land is a dream of their own. The madness you saw in goblins tonight? It is nothing compared to what the dragons experience. Fortunately however dragons are intelligent and ageless, they would not come to rampage easily.’

‘Those goblins we saw tonight, they seemed to be well organized if it could be called that. I have never even heard of them participating in a siege before.’

‘It was no accident, Highness. Agents of Swarztial rallied them into battle. I have heard of their kind before; Dreamweavers who can excite lesser creatures, bind them and control them. The goblin’s ingenuity and lust for death was put to good use, given direction if you will. When people started dying bloody deaths, the wraith-kind entered Attoras freely, although other dark magicks must’ve been practised to allow them even into the castle.’

‘But it was not my doing, it was not the act of sealing my father!’

‘No Highness, of course not. Within Attoras you were well within your rights to do so. Swarztial however used it effectively to put the blame on you. A madness pervades the land to be sure, I have seen it before I started playing as a sick man in the infirmary. Here and elsewhere men like Swarztial will have their day, evil is not in short supply.’

Shala was quiet for awhile, absorbing all they had discussed. She tried to get past her rattled state and think clearly about all that had happened thus far.

‘If what you say is true, if madness is about the land, and wraiths enter where they please, then…?’ she asked as though coaxing an answer, and answer Bhask did.

‘Yes my Lady, the Dream of Embers is failing, and as a result the Rules of Realm. Should it not be strengthened, I fear it may all come to nothing.’

The news unsettled Shala even in their current predicament.

‘What of the Benevolence? Surely He will intervene if hatred such as tonight’s is widespread?’

‘My Lady,’ said Bhask in a chuckle, bemused, ‘in no way can I answer for His Grace, the agenda of a greater good does not necessarily include our benefit, that’s all I can say on the matter.’

They walked the path winding down, the torches Kaell and Bhask carried revealing much of the cavern’s complexion. The rock here made rippling folds and faces, like whipped cream or puffy clouds, telling Shala that the water level had once been much higher. Along the way they found oval mirrors that stood lined around the edge, adjustable on their stands, and they reflected much of the light from below to better illuminate the place. It was still not a place Shala would call inhabitable.

There was an utter loneliness here, abandoned in such a way that Shala could imagine that even the lesser creatures that preferred the underground did indeed flee from where a dragon would call a lair. She sincerely hoped they would avoid it, aged or not.

‘If there was a seal of the dragon inside the castle, then my father must’ve known its purpose?’ asked Shala intuitively.

‘Your father would have used the same route of escape if need was great enough, in fact he planned on using it for the pilgrimage he was going to embark on. To slip away quietly so as not to announce his intentions to enemies of the Dream, and let them deal with a dragon if they did manage to follow him.’

‘Was he keen on fulfilling the Dream of Embers?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes, all his life. He knew it was his duty, and would rather do it than leave the task to his heirs. But he was for much of his life in the same boat as you Highness, he could not simply leave Attoras to men like Swarztial.’

Up ahead they caught up to Kaell, who always seem to be just out of sight. They then saw what he saw, looking up at an obstruction where the cavern had collapsed on the road. ‘Too high to climb, and rough besides, at least for the Princess. We’ll have to enter the caves to navigate around it.’

Bhask sighed. ‘I had hoped it would not come to this, but this place is old and unattended, so it is to be expected.’

Away from the water that glistened so much the inner caves were complete in darkness, their torches seemingly vain for comfort, but crucial at least in guiding their way. But even then Shala wished the light was dimmer still, because at the fringes it revealed the remains of many old bones and clothing and weapons, dead and fractured faces staring up at her where they laid on the floor or sat against the wall.

‘They are long dead, my Lady, do not bother with them save for pity, for most here were men that dedicated themselves to the dragon, and they knew not sunlight, drink or women in the last of their days.’

‘All I still need is for the dead to rise and chew at me, warrior, strip the flesh from me and make me one of their own, and set me on a throne of bones so that I may rule over them in death, for everything else seems to have happened to me in the last few days.’

Bhask laughed, the first time the Princess had heard him do so, a good rich sound. ‘You already have the grim humour of a hardened warrior, but I guess that is something sad in itself.’

‘Maybe it is the humour of Kings,’ said Shala.

Bhask shook his head. ‘It’s not how it should be. Before the Crimson City spoke against the Wolves, forty of us could keep your father’s land safe beyond a doubt, and he could sit in his chambers with a sound mind and consult many people with a smile on his face, and wisdom for that matter. And they loved him for it. No, it is good for the people to see that their King is not touched by the grimness of warriors.’

‘I am honoured to have such warriors at my side, and for all my life I have wished for it, to have the strength of the mountain defending me, though it has come in my darkest hour and I have lost all that is worth defending.’

‘Not all is lost, and all can still be redeemed as long as you live.’

Where will we go!?’ asked Shala, as though that problem alone doomed her cause.

‘That we must still decide, for you and for the Kingdom we must decide. But that is a matter to discuss in daylight.’

Following the torch that Kaell carried they entered the Well again, the blue sheen brighter than Shala remembered it just minutes before.

‘Had this place any other purpose than housing a dragon?’ asked Shala.

‘Now that you question it, I would say most assuredly so, but I cannot begin to guess at it. Much history has passed here and those who can recount it are not among the living anymore.’

‘My father said dragons once assaulted Attoras, hoping to reclaim this part of the Black Mountains,’ said Shala.

‘Yes, it was one of the rare occasions that the Knights and Wolves banded together. The dragons were slain, although many of our own were lost as well; Gremhalden had his fall during this time. This lone dragon was not enthralled by the animosity, so when it took refuge here your father allowed both him and its worshippers to use the underground. Unfortunately our feats against the dragon alerted the Crimson City of our prowess, and they ordered us disbanded.’

They wound down again only to find another place where the road had fallen away and they entered the tunnels once more. There was a mighty roar, thundering through all the confines of the Dragonwell, waking in Shala the fear that there was no escape and no use in fighting should they be cornered.

‘Still far off, Highness,’ Bhask reassured her, ‘and its size will not allow it where we walk now. Although he does sound angry,’ conceded Bhask.

‘It sounds very big,’ added Shala in fright.

‘And it is Highness. Dragons, like all reptiles, never cease growing even up until they die. This one might be blind and cumbersome, but he will be very giant.’

‘I do not wish to see it, not for its terrible size nor for its suffering. How come I never knew about this thing?’

‘Neither your father nor Scholar Naceus would have told you of a hidden Well my Lady, for your own safety as you can imagine. With respect, you are inquisitive, and talk of all things with all people, and the Well must be kept very secret indeed.’

‘O poor Naceus, I hope he and everyone else is alive and well.’

‘They should be. Naceus is always ready for trouble and your handmaiden has lived through many battles, I’m sure that they are fine.’

They came to Kaell and found him on his haunches where he stared at many bones on the floor, tangled and strewn.

‘There was a battle here,’ said Kaell, ‘the dragon-worshippers defended against dragon-slayers and it seems no one gained victory. Now we know why the dragon rages the way it does.’

‘Why would someone come to kill this dragon when it hides and bothers no one?’ asked Shala.

‘For its blood, for the fame of the kill, and certainly for the secret treasure it is said to guard. There are many reasons, none of which are appealing to me,’ said Kaell.

Bhask walked closer to the remains of a warrior, who still in his hands clenched a long spear, its head wide and spiked like a trident.

‘A thing with which to pierce a dragon’s heart,’ said Bhask as he studied it and in the flickering light Shala could see the man appreciated the weapon. ‘I’ll take it with us, for its design makes it of a rare kind. It has a name engraved here: Gutherin,’ he read from its shaft. ‘Might be the owner’s name really, but not an unfit name for the weapon itself.’

‘We already carry too heavily, and we’ll not need to kill dragons, only flee from them, which becomes all the more difficult as we collect relics!’ spoke Kaell.

‘I’ll take its weight so that you may stay light and be able to scout, not long after we reach the base of the mountain we’ll have horses for the road.’

‘You planned this escape well didn’t you?’ asked Shala as she heard about the horses.

‘That we did my Lady, but I won’t assume to predict half of what will lay before us. Best expect some difficulties before the end of it.’

‘How is it that you predicted this much then?’

‘Your father put us on high alert, he had many suspicions, but even he could not have known that the measures he had taken toward your safety would be tested like this. Kaell’s presence gave us some measure of control, adaptability if you will. With him at your side every day, he watched the tidings with a fine eye. With written messages, he kept us well informed, even long before I entered the castle in the guise of a sick man.’

‘I cannot get to grips with this conspiracy of so many factions around me, and it pains me that I stood in complete ignorance,’ said Shala.

‘For the moment take solace in knowing that at least some conspirators are friendly.’

They lost sight of Kaell, and Bhask chuckled softly. ‘He is impatient with me, so he stomps off ahead.’

‘Kaell has changed so much, he is not at all the boy I knew,’ said Shala.

‘Yes, the Kaell you knew was but fiction. Your father set him at your side for protection, but he could not have him prancing around the castle as a Wolf of old. So with magic Metrus lulled him to a deep sleep for two moons of Mallova. In this sleep his body melted and his disposition was made to be boyish, so as to disguise him from our enemies and hence have them overlook him as an obstacle.’

‘Why not simply arrange me a greater guard, one that my enemies could fear?’ asked Shala.

‘A visible threat is something enemies can prepare for Highness, the way they locked your household guard out in town today you might say. All great rulers keep their chief protection out of notice. Your father was wise to this, and so Kaell took the role that he did.’

‘So Kaell waited at my side all this time?’

‘Yes. But when your crown was in danger, he used the dormant power to blossom and become as himself again, restored to his former strength and maturity of mind. It was a risk he needed to take in revealing himself, for there was no one else in your guard that would have matched Yanci-gan in skill. In the end the ploy worked, they could not have guessed Kaell would save your crown like he did. Although I must admit, Patrick and his champion were an unforeseen danger, and as you can imagine Kaell had to hide himself after that day defending your crown. We were worried that his prolonged absence might raise suspicions, especially with you so accustomed to his presence. I say this with some hesitation, but it was lucky that the assault came as soon as it did.’

‘Yes, besides saving my crown he saved me, and yet it is sad then that he changed. I have never thought much of him until now, realizing that innocence of him is lost.’

‘Do not think too much on it. I have known Kaell a long time, and for all the sadness in his life he still has a light side to him, and he would show it if not for this darkness and for the darkness hunting us. It is why he’s so impatient with me. I taught him to be fast, hungry and merciless –not relenting until a task is complete, and he’ll be more sociable once he deems you safe from danger.’

‘Are you not worried then?’

‘I am, but I have learned patience on top of being a Wolf, and I know that we will slip our enemies as long as we stick to this road.’

A blast of wind snuffed out their torches. Shala smelled something strange on the wind, something like sulphur. She realized the gust had been much too warm to be a wind. Bhask’s last words suddenly seemed prophetically wrong. Another presence joined them in the darkness and Shala could have sworn she touched the mind of it before she even heard the rattle in its throat. A warm breath blew over them, and something slithered at their feet.

A snout shoved in among them, scattering Bhask and Kaell with the weight of ten men, and pressed the Princess up against the cavern wall. She was powerless to the gentle strength of the dragon, and it could have crushed her between its head and the wall if it wished to. She held her hands out as if to try and push it away, feeling front teeth cracked and skew outside the scaled mouth, pressed to her breasts and stomach. One bite at me and tonight is finally over.

Bhask and Kaell watched from the sides helplessly, their torches giving faint light to the creature’s outline. The Dragon inhaled deeply, the tug so immense that it felt as though the clothes were going to strip off her body. If my scent could tell a story about me then the dragon knows all there is to know, thought Shala, caught between panic and silliness.

A minute ago Shala had found the Well to be cool and damp, but the breath of the dragon was exceedingly warm, a sudden sweat broken over her brow, her chest heaving. She remained rooted where she stood, ancient blind eyes judging her, long whiskers slithering and patting the floor, as though they would ensnare Shala as a python would if she dared run away.

For a while there was nothing and then suddenly with every passing moment the dragon’s mind opened more and more, an invisible realm of thought shared with Shala. It was intrusive, but still gentle, and Shala could feel strange ideas surfacing within her. There were no words to it, only thoughts and dreams of an ancient life, leaving Shala feeling much older than she really was.

‘You wish to see the light again?’ Shala spoke softly to the dragon.

‘Highness, no!’ urged Kaell from the side.

She reached slowly into the urn, moistening her hand in what now felt like icy water, and held it aloft. As gently as she could, she made light, soothing and radiant, until she could see every withered golden scale on the lizard’s face and its eyes were illuminated as giant pearls. It’s all but blind. For a moment Shala was not sure how the dragon was receiving the gesture.

A deep rumble stirred in the dragon’s throat, satisfied and nostalgic, as though it was looking at the sun. Its red-rimmed eyes began crying, spilling droplets of blood rather than tears. Shala had not known animals could cry. The droplets as they fell became sparks of flame, red thick blood igniting like sulphur and splashing to the ground looking like melted iron ore. Despite her discomfort Shala felt joy for what she gave to the dragon and with the light between them, the bond took on a strange familiarity as though man and dragon had once been much more than just dread foes.

Without warning the dragon retreated, its head and neck slowly disappearing into the cavern, like a snake into a hole. They did not move until all was quiet. Suddenly Bhask and Kaell were at her side, and she breathed deeply into the cool air that normally seeped through these caves.

‘It spoke to me,’ were Shala’s first words to her guardians. ‘Not with words, but it made me see things and experience feelings that were not my own. It only wanted to see the sun…’

‘Understandable, this darkness will rob both man and creature in many ways,’ said Bhask in relief.

‘I saw something else as well, Master Bhask, it made me understand why it is hiding here.’

‘You mean to say it hides here not from men?’ asked Bhask.

Shala shook her head. ‘No, it longs to fight with men again and be at contest with Knights and griffins. To fly. A great fear drove the dragon here, a fear of something that holds far more hate for its kind than man ever did. This is what it made me understand… what could it be Bhask? Are dragons not the mightiest of creatures?’

‘I cannot put a name to the Dragon’s fear, but there are many horrors that live out of sight, deep in the ocean or underground, or even in realms where the air is putrid and flames seep from the soil.’

‘Strange that you mention it, Master Bhask. It told me, or rather, made me feel as though this evil is… caught up somewhere, but that it would soon surface, and have us all hopeless against its onslaught.’

‘And the dragon thinks it’s safe here?’ asked Bhask.

‘No, you were right the first time, it's trapped here now, blind and weak- weak as far as dragons are concerned that is.’

Bhask nodded.

‘One day I will return for it, and if my power can account for anything, restore it to its former greatness. There is no reason Dragons and men cannot share the same world, especially when they already hover on extinction.’

‘On a long road the most noble of us will come to make many promises Highness, lets first find ways to satisfy our own safety. Besides, that broken lizard you just saw will still outlive each of us ten times over.’

‘That’s exactly why I want to come back; another thousand years in darkness should be no living thing’s fate.’

‘What do you suppose it eats?’ asked Kaell, turning the conversation to the more pragmatic. ‘It didn’t seem hungry to me, not for royal flesh in any case.’

‘Touching the mind of the Princess like it did, I would think it is more than capable of luring hapless prey into the underground. The old caves come out at many places in the wild and I’m sure it has its select choice of antelope and anteaters, and definitely some giant hogs, rare as they are here in the north.’

‘What could possibly frighten a dragon?’ wondered Kaell aloud.

‘Best not think of it. I hate to say it, but there is a real chance that the isolation has made the dragon fear something from its past which is gone from this world ages by now. The passage of time becomes a lost concept underground.’

‘I do not think so,’ murmured Shala. ‘It knows who I am and so asked me to make the light, and it knows King Anka has passed,’ said Shala so softly the others did not hear. Did this dragon speak to you on your deathbed father, did it speak to your mind and heart as it did to me? she thought in reference to her father’s note. And yet it did not tell me everything, it was holding back, it was leaving its fear nameless. It could not bring itself to tell me – it couldn’t show me what it really wanted to.

 

II

 

Finally they emerged within the Well proper again and Shala saw that they were near the end of it. The path became narrow and disappeared into the bottom rung floor, where the pool sat silently and braziers on their tripod feet burned unceasingly, roaring as if they had been lit just an hour ago. Around the rim they walked a while and came to where a stone double door was set in the mountain wall, big enough that if swung wide open it’d allow a parade of horses to prance through.

‘Here is our way out, and into the lower valleys, west of Attoras,’ said Bhask.

Kaell was already pushing and nudging at the door.

‘It is no use, I have never seen such a complex design, and not as much as a breeze breathes through it!’ said Kaell, pointing to the many discs and diagrams on its surface. ‘It seems to be a puzzle of sorts, and I have no mind right now to attempt it – nor the height! The dragon worshippers must’ve been giants if they didn’t arrange the upper discs with poles or sticks.’

‘Look closer my friend, in the middle rests a cavity, where a key would fit I imagine,’ said Bhask.

‘And you’d have us search for this key? Impossible.’ Kaell looked closer, inspecting the prospecting key hole. ‘It would be big, giant as far as keys go, but some of the tunnels are for all purposes endless. We could go searching days on end!’

‘Only a certain key held by the dragon worshippers would suffice, but we already hold a master key of some of the old locks of the world,’ said Bhask with self-satisfied confidence, unwrapping Erenciel.

Kaell and Shala watched in wonder as he struck the point deep within the keyhole. It seemed to slide in perfectly. Yet all did not go as planned.

‘That was rather unceremonious,’ said Bhask trying to turn the hilt as one would a key, ‘I had truly thought the sword to be enough. I’m certain it fits.’

‘Must we complete the puzzle also?’ suggested Kaell.

‘Yes, and you must be quick about it! We have company!’ said Shala, pointing upwards.

The wraiths had made it into the Dragonwell, four of them, and they did not need to walk the road. They ambled but to the first ledge and stepped into open air, and in their long flowing robes and cloaks they floated, as if buffeted by a fell wind of some sort.

‘Collect your minds, we must solve this thing fast, we have no chance fighting them here! If we can get by the door the wraiths cannot follow, not even they can pass through solid stone!’

Crows entered the cavern after their masters, and proved to be a profound nuisance as each of them flew to a mirror, tilting them out of position with their claws so that the Dragonwell was horridly robbed of light. Kaell cursed loudly.

‘Princess, the waters in that pool may be still and unmoving, but they are still water of the mountain. If ever a light needed to be struck then it is now and you must provide fine magic to give us time!’ said Bhask, the wraith-kind circling closer.

Shala nodded, turning and leaving the puzzle for the two men. She dipped her hand in the urn, and swayed her hand so that a few enchanted water droplets fell into the pool. She held the urn aloft and made her incantation. ‘Seluien Perseies Aveno.’

When the water in the urn came alive with light the clay of the urn became translucent and glasslike. In accordance a spark emanated deep within the pool, setting the water alight. A nimbus formed along the surface, and from it burst a white pillar streaking as high as the roof of the Dragonwell, the beam piercing the darkness of the underground. Shala had never lit as much water as she did that day.

Caught in the pillar of light the wraiths fled and wailed, seeking shelter in those dark tunnels Shala had to walk.

All the while Bhask and Kaell set about to arrange the discs, first working at the lower ones, sliding and arranging them in their grooves so that they may resemble something. The grooves in which the pens rested were of a strange art, for someone had managed to cut curving and looping lines into solid stone. But there was no time for wonderment, and Kaell realized the task was even more difficult seeing that the discs could come in each other’s way, making one have to plan ahead.

Kaell worked on one half of the door even as Bhask worked at the other, and he looked at his Master’s efforts in dismay.

‘Neither of us have anything! We’ll not chance upon the right answer soon enough, we have to coordinate!’

Desperate, Kaell looked at the Princess, whose urn seemed to become a great weight above her and he knew that keeping the light sustained drained much of her strength.

‘If the late King’s sword fits as a key, then for what purpose did His Highness set this door here?’ asked Kaell.

‘If for any, it would be to flee the very disaster we find ourselves in, and he would be on his way to fulfil the Dream of Embers,’ said Bhask, feeling his student might be onto something.

‘Then that must be it, just like the horn presents itself in the stars, we must replicate its image with the discs!’

‘Then at it boy!’ Bhask took the lower discs and Kaell grabbed a pole with a special hook at its end, which he had been eyeing for some time now. With it he arranged the upper discs, until all of them allowed imaginary lines between them, resembling the curling horn of a ram.

‘This must be it,’ said Bhask, and he twisted the sword where it still rested. Somewhere in the mechanisms of the door a deep lock was relieved, sounding loudly. The door turned inwards slowly of its own accord. Kaell ran back to support Shala, being barely conscious still. She released the light, fainting as she did so and Kaell all but carried her, as Bhask met the swooping wraiths with his swords. It took all of Kaell not to hesitate and go help his Master, but the Princess would take priority.

From the darkness ahead came suddenly four emerald streaks of ghostly light. They swerved around Kaell and the Princess, and struck the wraiths, each owning an arrow. They recoiled, not defeated, but the magic of the Druid inducing to them great pain. The source came running right past Kaell, Metrus holding his bow. He joined Bhask’s side, who still stood vigilant. The gem in his hand glowed again and pulling on the string he fired another barrage of arrows. Further away the wraiths were driven, wailing harder than ever before. Bhask and Metrus fled then also into the dark, and in the passing Bhask muttered an incantation, the doors closing and locking behind them again.

Shala was slowly finding her feet as Kaell supported her in the darkness, and her mind awoke again, though feeling deathly tired. After having stared so blindly into the light she herself created her eyes were having a hard time giving shape to the new dark tunnel.

‘We are safe, at last, I had begun to doubt we’d make it this far,’ said Bhask.

‘But now the wraiths still know and they will tell our enemies of our whereabouts!’ said Shala, as she indicated to Kaell she was alright to stand on her own.

Metrus answered her, though she could not see him.

‘Not likely, Your Highness. When you fled into the Dragonwell and I realized the wraiths were on your trail, I tasked some of the guard to close the seal, thereafter I set off as the eagle and came flying over the mountains to meet you at this side. They are deservedly trapped in the Dragonwell my Lady, and for all their pride in death and decay they will roam the place and find the dragon, and the dragon will not tolerate them any better than we do.’

‘The dragon will make short work of them, their petty magicks will not take him like they took me,’ commented Kaell and he walked ahead again. Shala stared after him, knowing he felt shame for failing against the Wraith in the throne room. In all the time Shala had known him she had never seen a warrior’s pride within him. Not until today. He has changed much.

Shala had questions for Metrus, but the dark tunnel prevailed and it put a hush over them as they walked in a line. At the very least they were out of harm’s way. For the moment, thought Shala.

Finally the path became rocky, jutting surfaces making Shala have to carefully place her feet as they marched forward. First Bhask, and then Metrus started walking hunched as the ceiling became lower and the path sloped ever upwards. Near the end of it Shala felt vine plants brushing her face and rotting vegetation touched her nose. They came out in open air, through the undergrowth that hid the exit of the mountain from the eye so that only the knowing traveller could possibly find it. Metrus had obviously come upon it, but he knew the land well, and his eyesight as the eagle was faultless. They heard birdsong in the trees and then Shala was sure they were truly rid of the underground.

‘There then, we have left the dark behind, and now if only morning could approach,’ said Kaell.

‘We have marched into the night? Where are we?’ asked Shala.

‘We are on the shadow side of the mountain my Lady, west of Attoras, the sun will catch up as it passes over the peaks of the Black mountains. Here it can become very cold and we must be thankful that winter is slow in coming,’ said Bhask. ‘This very exit we left by could have been packed away by snow if our timing was wrong,’ he added.

Feeling that the greatest danger was finally behind them many matters caught up to Shala.

‘I can’t believe all of this could have happened so close after my father’s passing,’ said Shala, ‘this plan of the goblins should’ve taken months, how did they pounce so quickly?’

‘Highness, your father’s sickness was not a chance of fate. They got to him in a way he could not defend against,’ said Bhask.

Shala frowned.

‘The wraith-kind, mongering death, often carry diseases with them. In the past they strolled into vulnerable villages not protected by the Rules of Realm and unleashed dark mists that claimed many lives. I would guess that they picked a man and imparted on him this terrible disease, Pilgrim’s as you call it, black death others have called it.

Shala shook her head, showing she was still not following and wondering if her mind was too tired to comprehend the meaning of Bhask’s explanation.

‘In his younger years King Anka returned from his campaign from Cerron with a chest infection. Not long afterwards the Dragons came to reclaim the mountain that was once theirs. Having had no time to recover your father the King healed himself to be able to lead us against the dragons.’

‘But that would’ve created a corruption in his own body!’ protested Shala. ‘Sure enough you can sustain yourself, strengthen yourself even as I often do myself, but mending yourself is not how the light of Seluin functions! It is as fruitless as mending a torn dress with linen of its own fabric!’

‘The act was done in bravery Highness, and necessity, and yes it created a corruption within him, but he lived as a strong healthy man for all these years.’

‘Yet the unseen corruption left him vulnerable,’ supplied Metrus.

Bhask nodded. ‘Knowing that your father might succumb to the disease and knowing he would be active in the infirmary, Swarztial’s conspirators sent in their sick-man, and Pilgrim’s as you know took its toll on Attoras’ people,’ said Bhask, ‘and finally its king,’ he added solemnly.

‘With so much exposure, your Father-King was bound to get sick, and if you were by any chance susceptible, it would have made their task of unseating Evrelyn so much easier,’ said Metrus.

‘Murderers!’ Shala said in realization and she cried in anger. ‘I will have some kind of vengeance; I have half a mind to turn around and enter the Dragonwell and torment the wraiths before the dragon can have its way with them!’

‘Let’s have our vengeance in surviving my Lady. The enemy will be most satisfied if we play right into their hands on the account of anger,’ said Bhask.

To this she said nothing, clearly upset.

‘You’ve kept up well Highness, I’m glad we haven’t lost time,’ said Bhask.

‘I feel it now though and I have resolved not to complain, but I must rest.’

‘An hour’s walk lies before us Lady, I apologize but we must press on. A warm bed and meal awaits us at our destination. Is that all right?’ he asked as though there was any other choice to it.

‘Yes, for a warm bed and meal I can press on,’ said Shala.

‘Can we risk lighting a torch?’ asked Kaell.

‘No, I think not, we are far from where our enemies expect us to be, but I’ll only be at ease once this night is over. I’m familiar with the road, we should be fine.’

Bhask let his assurances hang in the air for a long time, the walk taking an increasing toll on Shala.

‘Ah! I hear the stream, we’ll get to our destination if we just follow it.’ The rest of the way they kept quiet and contained, lending the opportunity for the brook of water to have its say. Where the valley evened up they came to a watermill, the force of the stream setting its wheel to a gentle pace.

Shala was vividly reminded of the siege machines the goblins had brought to Attoras. She pushed the image away, as well as any other fears she had for her home. There was a feeling in her that she needed to turn around and run back the miles to Attoras right this instant, in order to be at the heart of the Kingdom, to tell the people it was all going to be alright.

It can survive without me, she thought, I don’t know if I can say the same about myself.

A yokel of a man stood ready at the mill to greet them. He had evidently been waiting, tensely so it seemed. When Shala got a good look at the building on which the wheel was mounted she concluded it was indeed big enough to be a house, or for now, a hideaway.

‘Master Bhask!’ the man said with a torch in his hand, showing a missing tooth and straw hat on his head. ‘M’self has been wondering what might’ve kept you, but I reckon it’s not worth fearing the road, if the road is trodden by a Wolf.’

‘Ghosts be lost my friend,’ said Bhask, his gaze focussed somewhere over the man’s shoulder, as though looking at something beyond him. ‘I thank you for waiting up for us.’

The man introduced himself as Edran.

‘Never been a problem blademaster, I sleep through the days just as well as through the nights. And I reckon you’ll do the same, soothing the water is, if you just listen to it.’

Edran’s eyes came to Shala, and he swept his hat from his head holding it over his chest, looking contrite, ‘Pleasure to meet you Highness, heard about your father the King, truly sorry o’ course.’

Shala mouthed, ‘thank you,’ her words softer than she intended.

They entered the stead with Edran coming in last, closing the door behind them.

‘Got yer beds prepared, straw beds, the best I could manage I’m afraid,’ he said, bowing apologetically to the Princess.

‘It’s all right,’ said Shala quickly, ‘I’ve slept in lesser comfort many times before.’ In Norwain the best found comfort was where hammocks were strung between trees, and although the Druids had a liking for it Shala had never acclimatized to it. She wholeheartedly preferred sleeping on something solid.

‘Food should be ready as well, don’t often prepare meals for anyone but m’self, but it’s nice to have an excuse to make a proper stew.’

They ate their dinner out of clay bowls and with wooden spoons, the design of the spoon so clumsy one had to sip the content forcefully from it. And though it was probably one of the poorest stews Shala had ever eaten she had never been as thankful for a simple meal as she was tonight. It seemed that a night of terror did nothing if not make one weak and hungry.

Afterwards Edran showed them each to their beds, Shala’s secluded from the rest. When she was left alone she fell tired on the bed, curling herself in the blankets Edran provided. She hoped she could lay there for many moons and the world would just leave her alone. She wished for the Druids’ ability to sleep through seasons. And yet sleep did not come, there were horrors on her mind, and she could not escape them, they would not let her rest. Metrus entered her tiny room, as though he knew the Princess was wide-awake.

‘Are you alright Highness?’ he asked.

‘I’m as tired as I’ve ever been Metrus, and the water plays gently on the rocks, but I cannot get to sleep. I am used to listening to my music box, but since I found it in that horrid room in the castle I will never be able to listen to it again.’

The Druid came to her side, and sat on a small three-legged table, the sturdy wood more than enough to keep his weight.

‘I have not told you, Druid, but before the chaos broke out in town, I was lured to a storeroom where some agents of Swarztial hid murdered citizens. Using the bodies, they practiced foul magic to summon the wraith-kind. They lured me to that room with my own music box.’

Metrus nodded. ‘I would have assumed as much, and Kaell has already let us know of it… He knew about it for some time.’

‘And we did nothing to prevent it?’ asked Shala in a weak voice.

‘If it were but right and we could do so without alerting Swarztial to our contingencies we would have done so. This you know Princess.’

She nodded, too tired to think too hard on anything. ‘You make things sleep and awaken, isn’t that right Metrus?’ she asked, looking up at him.

‘Yes.’

‘I have never ceased to be amazed by your powers, Druid, you still have all the tricks I could hope to have.’

Metrus chuckled. ‘They are a gift of the Grove to me. They are entrusted to me. To make you appreciate it, you must know that it comes with… a price we shall say.’

‘A price?’

‘Yes, in order for me to be powerful, my fellow Druids have gone into a deep slumber, not waking for years on end. In their dreams they are one with the power of the Grove and their joint efforts come to me through the Alder stone,’ said Metrus tapping the jewel in his right hand glove. ‘If they stop dreaming, my magic will wane.’

‘Such a deep slumber? I wish I could have it, and not wake until everything is as it should be… Could you make me sleep Metrus?’

‘Yes Highness, at least until tomorrow. Close your eyes, and listen, try not to think about tonight.’

Shala closed her eyes, thinking on how impossible disregarding tonight’s events might be.

And Metrus sang the strange words of his incantation, until Shala passed into a deep dreamless sleep, undisturbed, so that grim realities and a troubled mind could be set aside for dawn.

Chapter 6

Debates and Decisions

 

As the eagle, Metrus saw many more scenes of ruin on his return to Attoras. The light of dawn was not kind to it, showing the smoky scars of last night’s havoc in a sombre awakening. Altogether one could say the town had steadfastly survived the goblin onslaught, but in no one’s living memory had something come as close to replicating the dragons’ feat twenty years ago, almost reducing the town to nothing.

As Metrus awakened into a man, both in mind and body, he considered that if the goblins had sought destruction above all else they might’ve taken Attoras and left a six-hundred-year old castle little more than a husk. That they had fixed themselves so on the Princess had turned out to be a mercy for the rest of the city.

Yet without traitors on the inside, the goblins would have stood no chance whatsoever. Worst of all Metrus knew that these traitors were still within the castle, and would be rulers of it if they went uncontested.

High on a shattered balcony he landed, and entered through doors ripped from their hinges with the same audacity as would a stray wind. He however came striding with purpose, and doing so he could not say the same for the rest of the folk. The inside of the castle was but a shade less chaotic than the town, the overwhelming mood ranging from vigilant to terrified, as if many a door were kept shut in fear of goblins still hiding in stores and cupboards. Even the household guard looked perplexed and those who cleaned the debris and carried away the rubble seemed to be uncertain at the point of it all.

A lone castle man stood idly among the rest, part of the guard possibly, and he looked up at Metrus’ approach. He had clearly been waiting for the Druid, to the extent that he stationed himself near the very balcony an eagle would land. He walked right across Metrus’ path and stuffed a slip of paper into the Druid’s palm. What’s more, without ever making eye contact, the man unclasped a sabre from his own baldric of weapons and handed it to the Druid, which Metrus promptly fastened to his own belt. After that the man left and without breaking his stride Metrus read the paper.

It was from Naceus… and reading it he saw the Scholar was already caught up in the very matters Metrus had returned for. He crushed the letter and put it away in a pocket. Many more looked up briefly as Metrus passed, but they paid him no great heed.

When in civilized places Metrus had his hood about his face, preferring to either shade or hide his eyes, which would unsettle the unknowing who did not understand their manifestation. Already the folk of Attoras feared demons and might count Metrus one of them if they caught sight of his eyes.

Metrus’ observations of the castle were grim. It seemed to him that the soot of every room set alight had penetrated every other room still intact, and was a devil to clean for the men and women assigned to them. The greatest loss was the library, Metrus knew, for all the knowledge and sentimental pieces that were lost within the blaze. In some way it was better that Princess Shala was not here to see the ruin.

‘Why rebuild the castle for the witch that started this mess?’ Metrus overheard a man say.

Already they think of her as a witch? Swarztial has a fell tongue about him.

The Druid had barely conjured the man in his thoughts when the Chancellor appeared in the flesh, his attentions swooping down on those who tarried on the job. From a first glance down the corridor Metrus would say the man looked demented. Maybe a bit like a man whose plans had been foiled.

It took only a moment for Swarztial to realize he was being watched by someone who had no fear of him and this too invoked his displeasure. Angrily he stalked the Druid, coming too close for Metrus’ liking.

‘You intrude here! Are you hiding Shala?’ Where is she!?’ accused Swarztial.

‘That’s Princess Shala to you,’ said Metrus huskily.

‘Not anymore. Her rule is over as her absence attests to. She called the evil of the wraith-kind here and none of the council will abide a ruler that occupies herself with such dark practices. If she is found then I am sure the town and council will want to see her burnt. She has sealed herself a fate I warned against!’

‘Let’s not pretend we don’t know who the real culprit is, Swarztial. I always took you for a snake, but I would never have guessed you commanded powers. Tell me, who do you answer to, who do you call Master to have rule over wraith-kind?’

Swarztial smiled. ‘A convenient accusation, Druid. It is upon your Princess however that all suspicion falls. It was she who failed to keep this realm safe. Now remove yourself from here before I call the guard, who, I assure you, wholeheartedly obey me now.’

Metrus smiled as four guards predictably joined Swarztial’s side, coached men from his own security designated to the council. They were not evil men, but in due time they would be as traitorous as Swarztial himself, and serving only Swarztial’s purpose.

‘You forget that the courtesy of King Ankareus allowed me to wander here whenever I wish, and no King has decreed otherwise yet. And I would not abuse that right unless necessary. Now bother me no further before I give you the courtesy of my steel,’ said Metrus, drawing the sword with a swift move of his hand. Swarztial’s eyes went wide. ‘I can’t even remember when last a Druid carried a sword, but the times are calling for it, and believe me when I say I can wield a blade as well as any of the guard here.’

‘And you would test yourself against us?’ asked Swarztial.

‘No, we’d rather not, unless my allies are mistaken for conspirators as well. Think hard Swarztial, do you think I came here bearing a sword, that I carried it with me as the eagle? Do you think I’m friendless?’

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Swarztial in a low voice.

Metrus relaxed as he answered. ‘Scholar Naceus let me know that there is a curious room where the rite allowing the wraith-kind free passage was practiced. The very room you accuse the Princess of using as the site of dark arts. Naceus reckons I might be able to alleviate the blight. Is that not what you want Swarztial? To remove the blight?’

That question at least stopped Swarztial in his tracks; he could not claim otherwise in a crowded area.

‘Yes, busy yourself with that then. But remember, those who conspire with Shala and are caught for it are as good as dead,’ said Swarztial, sweeping past Metrus and stalking off angrily, to feed from someone else’s fear.

 

II

 

Naceus heard tell of Metrus’ return and made for the room of horrors. He walked with a heavy heart, and worry, having just talked with the Bishop Jaegosh. He at least had survived last night unscathed. But the normally diplomatic man was more than appalled by Attoras and he too was inclined to blame the Princess. He has spent time too much with Swarztial, thought Naceus hopelessly.

That was the worst blow for the Princess; Jaegosh could have exonerated her with a simple show of confidence, alas… In the cellars Naceus had to leave the troubles of his mind and approach the source of Evrelyn’s final demise.

Upon entering the storage the only good thing Naceus saw was Metrus the Druid – the rest was decidedly vile.

The Druid greeted him as warmly as circumstances allowed, the two men having shared a long friendship as council to the late King.

‘The place makes my skin crawl,’ said Naceus shakily. ‘I need to sit down,’ he said, polishing his glasses, his blurry vision preferable at the time.

Metrus sighed, ‘Sadly the blight of the ritual has sunken into the room like wine into a carpet. I can set in motion a countermeasure, but it will take months for the darkness to be eaten away completely. Nasty magic, parasitic actually, the rite uses the natural magicks lingering in the castle structure to sustain itself. Diabolical and ingenious if I have to admit to it. Swarztial and his benefactors have exceeded themselves.’

‘How is the Princess?’ murmured Naceus softly, as though the walls had ears, which he didn’t rule out completely given the last two days.

‘Shook up. But well taken care of. The Wolves will not let any harm come to her. Even so her hope is little and I don’t have faith in her return to Attoras any time soon.’

Naceus smiled sadly. ‘I know her heart, I know where she will go in due time. Unfortunately so do our enemies.’

Metrus nodded and noticed Naceus looked rather sickly, his brave face doing him no good.

‘You may leave if you wish Scholar, I assure you I understand your discomfort. I know the sight of blood all too well but I feel as though a hundred cold daggers are held at my back. I will tackle this matter in solitude, although the sooner you can send some men to take away the bodies the better. And some cleaners too, with strong stomachs I would say.’

‘Consider it done, and thank you Metrus. I will confer with you afterwards, we have much to discuss. Good luck!’

 

III

 

Later Naceus returned, the last remainder of cleaners going in the opposite direction, by the look of it so very glad to be done with this place. Inside he found Captain Merohan overseeing the cleanup and Metrus wandering the room, still singing a soft melody that was part of his magic. The room had wholly changed, if not healed. The senseless spray of blood was scrubbed off and the bodies were mostly removed.

More curious was a network of plants and vines that now sprawled over the floor, walls and roof. That was the Druid’s doing of course. Even then the plants could not hide the congealed blood that still formed the many different symbols; they truly gave the impression that the room was deeply wounded. Even though this was only a cellar, the sanctity was gone from this place. The room looked less gruesome, but in some ways more bizarre. Metrus halted his song for the moment to recognize the presence of the Scholar.

‘Much better,’ said Naceus, ‘although I see those symbols are still present.’

‘Yes, they are part of the rite, and will not be gone or washed off until the Delvo has sucked the sinister magic out,’ said Metrus. Naceus noted that the thick vine plants did indeed pulse and made peristaltic movements as if it fed. He now understood what the Druid had done.

‘Devouring plants, I’ve heard of them. I used to have a small plant in a pot that could catch flies, that however is not quite on par with the Delvo I guess,’ said Naceus.

Metrus nodded. ‘Noble things these Delvo, they feed on corruption until they are saturated, whence they are stripped and cast into a fire before they too become evil and start strangling the innocent.’

Metrus then saw a swift change of mood in the Scholar.

Naceus was in thought; considering the devouring plant put suspicions in his mind. The symbols had troubled him, much more than he imagined. After he had gotten past the horror, he started seeing the significance of these symbols, not so much the magic as that which they represented.

‘How many of these markings can you identify?’ asked Naceus. Seeing that the Scholar was serious, Metrus humoured him and gave a swift glance to each of the symbols written in blood. ‘The open hand and the studded triangle within the palm are from the Guild of Hands, “Death is our Domain,” they always say.’

‘The Assassins’ guild,’ agreed Merohan with a nod.

‘They have long held reverence and bondage to the wraith-kind, so it’s no surprise to see their involvement. In fact if I was a gambling man I would have bet a pretty sum that a member of their ranks is involved in staging this room, abducting the people and butchering them as it were.’

Metrus moved on, pointing to the next symbol. ‘The wheel of hatchets is the goblin trademark of course. The fan of swords as I recall is a noble family way south in Avandar, though I cannot see that they should have interest in our Attoras.’ Metrus pointed to the opposite wall. ‘Crossed spears and a horsetail are a centaur mark… The rest however I have no clue to.’

‘Well, you have identified all the important ones anyhow,’ said Naceus.

‘Why all the markings?’ asked Merohan.

Naceus was prepared to explain; ‘Wraiths, even though very powerful, must abide by the Rules of Realm. If there is a debt to claim, an uncollected soul of sorts, they can enter certain parts of the world to do their work. In our case however the rite you see gave them entrance, surpassing the natural defences that keep them out. As you know now Princess Shala was blamed for this mess. The rite however is bound to all those who affiliate with the wraiths and so also abide by the Rules of Realm. Put simply, the rite needs to reflect the state of current affairs or it just wouldn’t work. It needs to truthfully reflect anyone with an ongoing allegiance with the wraith-kind.

‘Like the brands on a horse so as to identify the owners?’ Merohan asked.

‘Not an inapt analogy, but the magic that governs these rules does not offer leniency in the way the observer’s interpretation plays a role in the physical realm. You see, the very first domains of protection mankind developed were with runes and symbols belonging to factions with power and heritage. This is important because magic is a whimsical thing and the notion of controlling it and giving it consistency necessitates a breakdown if you will, into dimensions such as figures and glyphs and shapes, and a whole array of mediums.

‘So a particular magic, bound to a place, can provide a safe haven from creatures that have certain allegiances, like the dark essence that dwells within the wraiths that cannot tolerate places of light. It is a magical protection of some kind. This rite here is the very opposite; it is the undoing and penetration of that protection. You need to see this for what it is; our enemies made it to the heart of our protection and crumbled the proverbial wall from within.

‘The catch however is that any faction with an ongoing allegiance with the wraiths would need to put their mark here. Not doing so leaves the endeavour fruitless. And that counts toward adding any symbols that have not such an allegiance as well.’

At that last part the Captain looked gobsmacked. ‘But then here is the mark of Evrelyn, and if what you say is true then it convicts the House of Kings as much as Swarztial claims!’ said Merohan.

‘Suspecting the Princess is out of the question if we know Swarztial was behind this,’ said Naceus faithfully.

‘Then how is it that Evrelyn’s mark is here when the Princess is the last of her line?’ asked Merohan.

‘The obvious explanation is that somewhere there is an unaccounted for member of House Evrelyn, and more troubling, that this person was deliberately working against Princess Shala; without that mark they would not be able to blame her for this.’ Naceus sighed, ‘before you came Swarztial had just about everyone study the room, including of course Bishop Jaegosh.’

‘But who then? There is no one left in the family of Evrelyn that we know of?’ said Merohan.

‘Yes indeed, something is amiss, but gentlemen, I’m afraid I’ve stumbled across a much bigger problem, a problem which for the moment leaves the mystery of Evrelyn rather… unimportant.’

Metrus and Merohan looked quizzically at Naceus.

‘To understand you must know that for some time now I have been working hard again on the notes of Jeot Agathir – the name will mean a lot if you know of him.’

‘Aye, I know of him,’ said Metrus.

‘His work is, frankly, deeply disturbing. He was a travelling Scholar like no other, a restless champion for truth and shied away from no means of uncovering it. Fascination alone kept me at his so called Remnant Pages. What repulsed me in turn was his detail of the macabre and of realms we mortal men should not delve into.

‘I… considered burning the pages from existence twenty years ago after the dragon invasion, realizing that even they would misuse his work.

‘But it is the warning contained in the pages that made me hesitate, a warning that I could not bury on the chance that it held credence. Agathir encoded much of his work, so as not to be prosecuted for revealing guarded truths. A vain attempt at the end as we all know; what a vile death he came to! In these encodings are suggestions that I have dismissed most of my academic career. Now I must heed them.’

‘What would those be Scholar? How are his secrets relevant here?’ asked Metrus, having long since learned that sometimes Naceus needed a proper question to give his lectures direction.

The Scholar looked like he didn’t want to approach the subject as directly as Metrus wanted him to. Naceus paced a bit more. ‘Let me remember this correctly gentlemen,’ said Naceus, and cleared his throat: ‘It is under a trident of stars that I abandoned all other pursuits, its imperilment visited on us again. A kindred soul I see in ancient flame, traveller I call her, and say to her, under the Sign of Toreg shall It be conquered.’

Merohan and Metrus looked at him quizzically.

‘That dear sirs, was a passage from the first page of the last of Agathir’s works. The Sign of Toreg is a gathering of stars and other heavenly bodies in the shape of a trident, and it is remembered for only one thing in our past, a time when we seemingly faced extinction. The pages, those last ones, they… predicted the return of the Beast. I have to ask you Druid, knowing it is a sensitive matter, and knowing that you do not speak out of the Grove, but it is important! What can you tell me about Nimroth?’

Metrus’ face became strained, his mouth tightening. He did not like the idea of refusing the Scholar an answer, but Naceus had the right of it. Secrets of the Grove remained among the Druids alone.

‘What is it that you suspect Scholar?’ asked Metrus.

‘Only the worst I’m afraid, otherwise I would not have asked you,’ said Naceus solemnly.

‘I’ll just… leave the two of you at it,’ said Merohan, intuitive to the fact that the conversation was now turning to things he was not privy to know.

‘Thank you Captain,’ said Metrus, as Merohan left, closing the door shut.

Metrus waited awhile before speaking. ‘It happened long before my birth, but we are taught to know this history by heart. Nimroth the Devourer, once Nimroth the Guardian, was defeated, not killed mind you, in order to halt his mindless rampage across the world. This represented maybe the most fragile period in human history, and all lived in fear of the Beast. His fate was a tragedy, because being a devouring creature he rid magical corruption by consuming wherever he could find it. But as you know there was so much of it that he became corrupt himself. Becoming the embodiment of evil, it was at war with the world and it was only a mercy that it could be stopped at all.

Though crippled and lifeless after its defeat, inside the carcass of the Beast still lingered the power worthy of a thousand groves. The western alliances were taking rule as was their due, and they promised to us Nimroth’s carcass, to transport it to us so that we could take it to the heart of the forests. Our task would have been to bury the body, to return to Angaria its truest child, and put a blessed seedling in it, to take apart the corruption and spawn the greatest sanctuary that this world has ever seen. It would have redeemed the true Nimroth and make right the many wrongs that should never have happened.’

Metrus was silent for awhile before saying: ‘They never did, Naceus, Nimroth’s broken remains were never delivered to us and its existence seemed wiped from the face of the earth. There was no news or knowledge to indicate what had happened to it. Some have alluded that the carcass was simply burned; but not even the flame of a dragon could harm it. So we questioned; what happened to it and where is it now? At the bottom of the ocean? Or buried deep in the under-earth? Shortly after the alliances seemed to shun us Druids and the issue was forgotten – by everyone but us that is. It still troubles some of the older dreamers.’

Naceus paced, looking increasingly troubled. ‘Then it is as I suspected.’

‘What is it Scholar? Now you must share with me.’

Metrus knew the look, the Scholar was mulling into his own thoughts and would all but forget where he was, or even that he had any company.

‘Did you know there is no logical reason for the Dream of Embers to fail? The power there is not supposed to wane. A hundred or more kings have made the pilgrimage and with the Crimson City’s influence the madness we saw in the goblins should not be plausible. Add to that the Rules of Realm that should have kept the wraiths from Attoras was circumvented too easily with this rite, seeing that the castle was once impenetrable. These symbols, the mark of the centaur above all else, lead my suspicions. At the height of his power Nimroth rallied the most vile of creatures, whether they were willing or not. His influence is far-reaching, and the call of his thoughts great. I heard tell that down in the Sunscape flats basilisks have emerged in droves, attacking pilgrims without cause – and even turning on each other! The last time that happened was when Nimroth first became corrupt. I asked myself what has changed? A paltry answer in denial was only comforting until I saw the goblins come upon us with a blind fury.

‘My guess now, as much as I hate to speculate, is that Nimroth is nurtured somewhere and in its state of recovery it’s fashioning a crude madness that is sweeping the lands yet again. When I view these things in the light that the Dream is faltering, it becomes the only viable explanation.’

Metrus seemed unconvinced. ‘I don’t know Scholar. That is quite a reach…’

‘Not at all I’m afraid. I first grew suspicious when a man came to my door in town requesting to buy Agathir’s Remnant Pages. I told him I didn’t have them and that I wasn’t looking to sell them even if I did. He came to threaten me, telling me he’d get the documents one way or the other.

‘The pages as you know cover a wide variety of topics – demons, the Benevolence, the Great Starwall and also the Dream of Embers; but since they were written in that specific tumultuous era, they always came back to Nimroth in some way or another.’

‘With our turn of events I’m convinced of no coincidences Metrus. Attoras is not the playground of petty goblin invasions, or at least it is not supposed to be. What could they possibly seek to accomplish? Swarztial of course needed to destabilize the realm for his own purposes, but to have orchestrated the whole mess warrants the support of higher powers than he will ever have.

‘And why would Swarztial’s patrons target Attoras so readily?’ spoke Naceus in a question he intended to answer himself. ‘Because Evrelyn is one of the last Houses able to deliver an eligible candidate for the Dream. Not many evils rail against the Dream of Embers itself, because not many of them have influence enough to warrant being counteracted by the might of the Dream.

‘When considering a beast like Nimroth, only the Dream can counteract his like in this day and age, and that leaves the disposal of eligible pilgrims at the top end of his worshippers’ priorities. This whole scheme we have pinned on Swarztial’s ambition is so much more than we thought. We should have seen it with the players involved. Somewhere, agents of Nimroth have strung together this plan to counter Evrelyn and return the great Beast to its former power.’

‘That is a rather bold conclusion Scholar. You say the contrary yet it might still be any of the lesser evils that are resurgent.’

‘But I got another clue, one that is revealed by the migrations of our time; the centaurs.’

Metrus looked as though he wanted to spit a bad taste from his mouth. ‘Man apart and horse apart are creatures good of this world; centaurs have proved themselves to be nothing but a crossbreed that carries the worst of the beasts with them.’

Naceus nodded. ‘Nimroth’s affiliation with centaurs is well documented. They revered and worshipped the beast and when he turned mad they followed in his ways of destruction.

‘The centaurs are single-minded and prideful, and have associated with nothing less than Nimroth since being subjugated under it. This you know. Birds of the feather you might say, they saw in Nimroth the likeness of their own features, greatly exaggerated of course. In the past nations had grown to fear their stampede of hooves on the hills.

‘Do you see it now Druid? Look at the symbol again. The circle around the crossed spears? It has no historical foundation. The insignia of the centaur have been merged with another, not uncommon such a merging considering that factions align and divide all the time, but curious all the same.’

‘But then Scholar, I don’t need to tell you that there are dozens of factions that make use of circles in their insignias,’ said Metrus.

‘Of course, and that would have been a problem if we didn’t already know that the centaurs are in service of Allandiel nowadays. They walk the roads of the Crimson City and are even taken up as members of the guard, all as part of reconciliation of the past. Look closer Metrus, where the spears cross, the small but unmistakable smudge that represents the dot within the circle of the Crimson City. Now, Allandiel associates with all sorts, so why merge their symbol with that of centaurs specifically? Some will say it is to illustrate the end of a bitter feud, but what if it is to better hide their involvement?’

‘Are you trying to implicate the Crimson City itself?’

‘Only insofar that Allandiel might be compromised, or in danger even! A city of two faces if there ever was one. You have never been there Metrus, as your kind despises cities, but know that it is an immense collaboration of agencies. Thousands upon thousands call Allandiel home and it could provide both hideout and vast wealth to the wicked. Even House Izzimer and their Guild of Hands have their headquarters there, and they as you know are already involved. You must understand the significance here; if Nimroth awakes, where will it march first? Where will it fall upon hardest to defeat the greatest threat posed to him?’

Metrus looked like he was struck in the stomach. ‘He will go to Allandiel, and he will destroy the Crimson City and everything it holds. The entity that keeps the west united will be razed. And you say the centaurs already roam the streets… Should we warn Jaegosh?’

Naceus shook his head. ‘This insignia means one thing at least, that we cannot trust just anyone. If we have cause to raise alarm, it must be to Grandmaster Rammas himself and no one else. He is the vessel of the light of Sunscape, and only he is above reproach.’

‘You do not trust Jaegosh?’

Naceus shook his head. ‘I don’t necessarily mistrust him, but if he sends our concerns to Allandiel we have no power over who receives the information.’

Metrus nodded, understanding.

‘Are you still unconvinced?’ asked Naceus.

Metrus chuckled. ‘You bring up my kind’s worst fears and you point to signs that are sensible warnings if nothing else. Add to that Princess Shala ultimately might be in more danger than we thought. How will I ignore that?’

‘I have you on board for my plans then?’ asked Naceus with a hopeful smile.

‘That’s never been in question, although I wouldn’t mind knowing exactly what they are,’ said Metrus.

‘Excellent, all in good time my friend, now let’s leave this room. I still have bile at the back of my throat!’

Leaving the room and making their way back to the upper parts of the castle Metrus asked, ‘Did Agathir ever hint at Nimroth’s location? He must’ve known something?’

‘From his work I gathered as much that Nimroth was never returned to the Druids. But I was unable to decipher all his maps and methods, mainly because he left so much of his material in different places and landscapes. Of course his work might be more aligned to stopping the creature, rather than uncovering it. This also Agathir wrote about, but he left no easy advice on accomplishing it without decoding his work. An annoying man really.’

‘Isn’t defeating Nimroth and uncovering its location one and the same thing?’ asked Metrus.

‘To us, not necessarily. Only the Crimson City has the physical might to contest Nimroth and it might come down to their force to stop Nimroth at its inception, before it can garner its power! Our task will aid them, and maybe even halt the agencies that nurture the Beast.’

Metrus understood what Naceus implied ultimately and said no more. Someone is going to have to answer the Dream, one way or the other.

They then ran across deBella, or rather she ran across them, and in a flurry of movement she grabbed Naceus by the hem of his coat, almost plucking him from his feet, the Scholar fumbling to save his spectacles a nasty fall.

‘Where is Shala? What happened to the Princess?’ she demanded.

Naceus was uttering a long-winded story but deBella pressed through with a strong tone. ‘Don’t give me that Naceus. I heard she was taken by two men, one of which is the same man who locked us all up in the pantry I’ll wager!’

‘Calm down handmaiden,’ said Naceus hurriedly. ‘The men you speak of didn’t kidnap the Princess, they escaped with her! They saved her deBella!’

‘Then why not bring her back?’ snapped deBella.

Naceus shook his head. ‘She cannot come back. The room in which all those innocent folk were slain bears the mark of Evrelyn, and the Princess was found most unfortunately by Swarztial in the room itself. They’ll prosecute her deBella, they’ll blame her for the evil and not only remove her as monarch incumbent, but burn her at the stake!’

‘They cannot possibly-’

‘But they will lady deBella,’ interceded Metrus from the side. ‘Fear produces irrationality and the wraiths and the goblins that assaulted this city would be reason enough for people to want to see someone burn, even if it is the beloved Princess. “See how beauty hides the evil within,” the story will tell in years to come.’

‘But where will the Princess stay? She cannot survive in the wild.’

‘She is strong deBella, and the men with her are the finest you could hope for.’

‘Who are these men?’ asked deBella, flustered.

Wolves, left intact by old King Anka for this kind of situation,’ said Metrus.

deBella seemed to swallow hard on this news. ‘You knew about this, you knew the castle was under threat?’ she asked harshly at Naceus, her voice firing up again.

‘No I didn’t deBella, not until it was too late. I knew Swarztial was scheming, but I had no idea he’d nearly come to destroy Attoras and depose of the Princess so menacingly.’

‘And you Druid?’ asked deBella.

‘Yes, handmaiden, but me and my Wolf-friends were not in positions to speak up, this you know.’

deBella seemed somewhere between anger and resignation, wise enough to understand Metrus would have been jailed if he came in accusing Swarztial for no reason.

‘Swarztial now rules this castle, how will we dispose of him?’ asked deBella.

‘We cannot. Do what we want, Swarztial is much too close to Bishop Jaegosh, and they will be custodians of the realm for the time being,’ said Naceus.

‘But you plan to do something against it, don’t you Naceus? And don’t deny it, I know about the summons you made for the household guard and the secret meeting.’

‘Hush handmaiden!’

‘Whatever it is, from now on I am a part of it.’

Naceus and Metrus looked at each other, dismayed.

‘The Princess is as much my responsibility as she is that of the guard. Maybe even more so for me! They will follow a new ruler soon. I will not!’

‘Very well, we need you here to keep the order rather than being a curious snoop playing unwittingly into the hands of Swarztial.’

‘Oh no Naceus, you have the road in your eye, and wherever you’re going, I’m coming with!’

‘We can only take so many men! What still of a woman!’

‘I can cook, I can heal, and I can stitch torn clothes. And I’d daresay I’m hardier than you Naceus. Decide you if you’d rather have one more sword arm above my abilities.’

Metrus nodded at Naceus and the Scholar found no further use in arguing.

Naceus glanced sideways, left and right to see that they were alone. ‘Follow the men of the guard by nightfall. You will find the way.’

 

 

IV

 

Towards the approach of nightfall the household guard, one by one, and not at all moving in groups, marched toward the lower cellars. The summons had been suspicious and came from a man that could give some answers for minds questioning recent events. The only request was to keep it quiet, and pass on the news by soft spoken word and nothing else. It was for the good of the Kingdom they all said.

Converging in an old cellar where none in the castle had any business, the household guard saw that Naceus was already waiting, alongside Metrus the Druid, deBella and Merohan, Captain of the guard. Even Gremhalden was in attendance and sat far at the back. They had brought in several ranks of chairs facing toward Naceus, waiting patiently for the seats to fill up.

Finally considering everyone present, Naceus put aside his pipe and took a deep breath before taking the floor. He had given many lectures in his life to many good students, but he had never before spoken before a gathering of warriors. Their eyes were steely and had none of the expectation and openness that young students would have.

‘I bid you welcome, each of you, friends I’d call you, because we are all here for the fate of Her Grace, Princess Shala. I thank you for attending and I will make clear the reason for your summons before long. In light of our assault on the castle I’m almost scared to speak, lest another agent of Swarztial jumps out and jails me for conspiracy, but Merohan has looked at each of you and has told me that every man here is trustworthy, and I trust as much.

‘I saw many of you just the other day at the Queen’s table. Humbling was it not? Sitting there with royalty, and urged to be at ease and be merry.’ Naceus took a bit of a pause, the men seemed impatient; he would have to be concise with them. ‘My council with you regards the Dream of Embers and as each of you is part of the household guard I trust that you know the fundamental process of it? If not, do not hesitate to ask.’

Salonce nudged Urad in the ribs and the two men looked at each other, their eyes telling one another that they had no clue on how the Dream of Embers works. Yet they did not ask, the other men seemed well-informed. For Urad and Salonce this was an important council, and that was all it was, and they’d follow whatever may come after it.

‘I know we are here more bound to the prospecting taker of the throne than Princess Shala. I know the Princess is now in exile and by all reason we no longer owe her any real servitude. But I am here to make a request on another kind of duty, one you will not find on paper or by the oaths you’ve sworn.’

The soldiers looked on him with some expectation now.

‘Princess Shala, despite her youth, is the wisest and kindest ruler we could hope for. Alternative to her we are faced with crowning a King with little sense of honour and a host of Council members playing him to the flute. Our Princess will, in exile, eventually come to make a pilgrimage to Nem Nemuris.’ This had the soldiers squirming and looking at each other.

‘Of this I am sure because of the knowledge that I have and the knowledge she will gain in time. Bless her if she succeeds, because it will help the world much and restore some much needed order – but I do not wish to lose her, not so that the crown is given to Patrick of Sannil. That price is too high to pay…’

‘You would impede on someone taking the pilgrimage!’ shot one of the soldiers, his voice already hinting at outrage. There was a murmur among the men, as if the Scholar had been blasphemous.

Naceus held up his hands. ‘Not at all, rather I’d like to let someone take the Princess’s place, so that she may, one day, take her rightful place on the throne of Attoras. So that when we bow to a ruler, we bow to one we know and love.’

His audience of soldiers quickly went from irritation to confusion.

‘There is no other in the House of Evrelyn and it is the last house that can now contribute to the Dream, have you forgotten this old man?’ asked Gibbon the Marshal.

‘Let’s not make comments on each other’s age Gibbon, you are not much younger than me,’ said Naceus with a chuckle. ‘There is one still viable, our very own King Anka, laid to rest in days past.’

Now there was an even greater murmur and Merohan had to silence them to give Naceus a chance to explain.

‘Our Princess Shala, upon her father’s wishes, sealed his spirit within his body and the body itself is preserved by the spell. It will not last long, but it will last long enough for a speedy journey to Nem Nemuris. The soul is the fundamental piece crucial to blossoming and-’

‘What the Scholar is getting at,’ cut in Metrus, seeing Naceus delving into a long tirade on the properties of the soul, ‘…is that King Anka can still travel with a proper escort just like the Princess intended in the first place.’

Marshal Gibbon laughed. ‘Chancellor Swarztial will never allow us to take the King from his tomb, even if it were the right thing to do!’

‘Swarztial has no part in my plan, and best he does not know of it until it is too late to stop us,’ said Naceus.

Gods man, you wish to break into the King’s tomb and remove him? To desecrate the grave of Kings and soil his dignity? We’ll all be criminals! Graverobbers!’ said Gibbon, his words sparking outcry.

Now there was no stopping them and Naceus knew despite Merohan’s efforts he would need to wait until all the angry arguments passed between the men. He could hear deBella’s voice drowned among the men’s as she pleaded for them to see the reason in this. At this time Gremhalden stood up and just for a moment everyone calmed down, waiting on his response in expectation. But he simply walked out, giving Naceus an unreadable glance and left the room in apparent irritation. Right then Naceus’s heart sank to his stomach and the arguments started anew.

He did not get a chance to speak until Gibbon hushed everyone and said:

‘Scholar, I am certain I can talk for most here when I say that we grieve for the King and his daughter, but what you ask is too much. Soldiers and men of the guard are mostly simple beings and lead simple lives, and so we will stay. We cannot give ourselves over to ambiguity, not when we owe the new King-to-be loyalty, whatever faults he may have. The sovereignty of Attoras will in some ways always come first. The merits of the task you lay out are too woolly, it seems like a bull-headed plan to start with, and we cannot see if it will bring justice. Let it go man. We’ll be better off staying here and serving Attoras as we’ve always done.’

‘Yes, we’ll be fine for a while. And we’ll turn a blind eye as subjects sometimes have to do. Then comes the day the corruption has crept so far across the walls that we can smell the stink of a foul reign. Wraith-kind and more, this is what Evrelyn kept out of Attoras.

‘What I can tell you is that I will not serve under a pig-king like Patrick,’ said Naceus taking everyone by surprise. He had never said something against another in anger and name-calling wasn’t something he often lent himself to.

‘After our near destruction there is an easy way out, men. We can stay here and swear ourselves to a new King, but we all know he will be King in name only, and will become a tyrant in law and practice. Let us take this gamble and set forth, do not doubt for a moment the honour of this quest! The need for it! I cannot command you and cannot even advise you to leave so much behind, but I implore you, those of you who can, those of you who have seen the heart of the Princess, come with me. We’ll take the King on his final journey and spare the Princess a fate as good as death.’

His audience seemed to agree with him, but they also met him with a silence that was now almost worse than the arguments. They were reluctant.

In the meanwhile Gremhalden had returned, rather unexpectedly, standing in the door and everyone turned to him, again looking for some indication on what he thought about the entire matter. Naceus wondered how long he had stood there, looking as mad as he did.

‘Did you forget something Master Gremhalden?’ spoke Naceus nervously.

‘No, but I did in fact leave something in my quarters which I shouldn’t have. I have gone back to fetch it.’ He drew a dagger, one made for close combat. He walked limply towards Naceus and no one knew if they should jump up and stop him. With a sudden plunge Gremhalden struck the dagger into one of the smaller round tables, the blade slicing right into the wood so that it stuck there, upright.

Scholar Naceus held his hand over his heart in fright, relieved to find he was not stabbed like the table. Gremhalden left the dagger in the table and stepped closer to the men and he addressed them:

‘There is an old way of saying farewell for those who take a crusade of personal honour. It is a pledge for men to strike their knives into a table, and to leave them there until they return. They leave behind family and respected jobs, with no promise of glory or victory, because the thing they chase is the most important thing a man can accomplish with his life. He knows in his heart it’s the right thing to do. I say to you, to those of you who can spare yourself and tear yourself away from a good life, this is the right thing to do…Search your hearts,’ he said, ‘there is no shame in staying, in fact we can only take so many men and the men who stay will have important roles as well…’ he added. Again silence and motionlessness greeted Naceus, but Gremhalden stared at all of them steely.

Urad and Salonce looked at each other, and then Urad slowly raised his hand, hoping for Gremhalden’s attention.

‘What is it?’ asked the old Knight.

‘I don’t have a knife on me sir,’ he said lamely, and as though that posed any great problem.

Laughter rippled through the men, breaking much of the tension.

Gremhalden chortled and chucked a spare knife at the man, seemingly from nowhere, landing softly in the man’s lap. ‘I thought I might need to bring a spare, but that’s the last one I can offer mind you!’

Salonce and Urad then eagerly stood up, ambling to the table and struck their knives into it, immediately followed by Captain Merohan. They had barely taken their seats before others rose to do the same, the men circulating knives to those who would commit but weren’t armed with such. Even deBella procured one from somewhere and it was struck in between the other men’s.

‘There, we have a company! Now I don’t suppose you will be so kind as to tell us how you seek to accomplish our quest?’ asked Gibbon, who was also one of the first to plunge his knife, even though he had objected most of all.

‘Invariably I will need to reveal the details of it as we go along. Even the men staying behind cannot know too much lest they are made to talk somehow,’ said Naceus.

‘I was afraid you might turn secretive on us,’ sighed Gibbon.

‘I apologize, but if any of you have questions then please raise them and I’ll answer as best I can.’

Naceus saw the soldier named Tordke raise his hand in question. Naceus knew the man to be a well-read person, with knowledge of logistics, so he knew what kind of question Tordke would ask.

‘But what if the Princess doesn’t reach Nem Nemuris? We can’t travel the trail of the Masons like the Princess can, and only she can open the gate for us once on the inside. There are only two ways into Nem Nemuris, and we need someone to take the one road we can’t. We can travel all that way only to be locked out of the valley where kings come to rest. And what still about the moon Castilleon, it will be full and past its cycle in two months’ time. We’ll not make it!’

Naceus nodded. ‘It will be a mission of faith. Many things can go wrong I’ll admit, and we’ll need only one ill-fortune to sink our quest. But trust me when I say our journey will be nothing conventional, I have come upon a way we can travel in relative safety and with immense efficiency.’

Salonce raised his hand and asked. ‘Can we call ourselves Wolves now?’

Naceus smiled widely as the other men laughed and the Scholar shook his head, Salonce looking embarrassed.

‘No, my friend. We have neither the talent nor the right to call ourselves that, though it be a prideful name. The real Wolves are already guiding our Princess and our missions are not the same. Besides, can you imagine the wrath we will incur calling ourselves Wolves all the way to Nem Nemuris, when even the Crimson City disapproves of the men of the Black Mountain? No, rather we will be secretive and faceless, and if possible spark no confrontation on our way.

‘Although, there is a name I think we can take: the Queen’s own, it has a charm to it, and I think it describes our loyalties rather clearly.’

‘Isn’t that a bit revealing, Scholar, and optimistic besides? It’s a long road before the Princess’ name can be cleared and her finally inaugurated as Queen,’ asked Tordke.

‘Then let’s choose it because it’s optimistic, she is already our Queen, we might as well admit to a name that says that we won’t stop until she takes her rightful place on the throne.’

‘Aye!’ yelled some of the men in the back, and Naceus smiled. It seemed Gremhalden had inspired a change of heart, and for that Naceus was thankful.

‘There it is then! From now until each dagger is pulled from this table we’ll be the Queen’s Own. Let no man or foul creature tear us asunder!’ said Naceus.

The men cheered silently, now talking excitedly amongst themselves, and Naceus let them revel in this commitment they had made.

Satisfied that the soldiers were preoccupied, the Scholar pulled Metrus aside, so that the two of them could talk privately once more.

‘Now as for your role, you’d best serve as our eyes for the road and maybe more importantly, act as our communication with the Princess.’

‘There’s more?’ asked Metrus intuitively.

‘Yes,’ said Naceus, handing Metrus a stack of old pages now, bundled tight to fit in a thin leather ledger. ‘These are more of the pages and I need you to deliver them to the Princess.’

‘What are you playing at Scholar? The Princess will need to be nameless on the road, and you would have her hold the documents of a heretic?’

‘I know, I know. It is however of utmost importance the Princess works through these pages. She has some experience with them and she alone can solve them.’

‘I am not convinced that this is the right thing to do Scholar.’

‘Did you know that Shala’s mother, the Lady Salstasha, was once burned by dragonfire? Of course you do! I never caught Agathir’s drift when he spoke of having a kindred soul in ancient flame. I thought he was invoking one of his demonic relations. But then the King’s note came along, writing something very similar to the cryptic messages Agathir so loved. The King on his deathbed, of all the things, spoke of a dragon. And it hit me! A kindred soul in ancient flame was another person stung by dragon flames!’

‘The dragons and their worshippers have a bond because the worshippers themselves have been burned,’ supplied Metrus.

‘Yes!’ said Naceus.

‘And Agathir himself was burned once by dragon flame?’ suggested Metrus.

‘Exactly my friend. So I was toying with the idea that Salstasha herself was apt to solve the pages back when she was still alive. But she had no outright magical blood even when she did show interest in the pages. But what of Shala, her daughter, maybe still carrying the sting of dragon flames in her blood as her mother did?’

Metrus chuckled in disbelief. ‘Uncanny. But plausible. How was the King speaking to dragons then?’

‘One foot in life and the other in death. Lord Anka was one of the most powerful dreamers of his age. On his deathbed the King’s spirit was ready to leave this world, and strayed upon a dream where the dragon could make something plain to him. ’

‘But the King made clear to no one what the dragon shared with him,’ said Metrus.

‘It is a message whispered that I pay most heed to, Druid. Because it meant the King couldn’t divulge secrets to just any fool.’

‘As far as I know he did not even approach his own daughter,’ countered Metrus.

‘I appreciate that you want to protect the Princess from the pages. I had tried to do so for many years. But there is no denying that this burden will come her way. There is something I have to show you.’

With his gaze downwards Naceus nodded thoughtfully and then pulled a hairnet of great splendour from one of his pockets. ‘One of Shala’s maids recovered this from her room. Quite precious even without the stones. I heard deBella telling me that the Lady Shala wore this to her father’s funeral, when Swarztial forbade me to attend.’

He held it upright and let it dangle in its natural state. ‘Look closely Metrus, the net is so configured that the gemstones hang exactly as an image of the stars and moons that forms the Sign of Toreg. And do you know what has me haunted? That last sentence I quoted you earlier: under the Sign of Toreg, shall it be conquered. It’s her Metrus, she is the one meant to carry the burden of these pages.

‘She is a special child. We all know it. All signs point to someone like her blossoming at Nem Nemuris for the benefit of us all. Once only an otherworldly power could stop Nimroth and only the Dream of Embers will do so now. But I truly do not want her to die. That’s why I want to use the King instead! And that’s why we must know what Agathir knew!’

Looking at the hairpiece, Metrus asked, ‘Agathir was a prophet?’

‘He was said to consult with demons and farseers of power. But the line of Salstasha is one of some scholarly descent as well, and the hairnet an heirloom that has always passed to the next firstborn daughter. For all we know Agathir might’ve been making an educated guess as to who’d be best equipped for his pages. But considering that many years after the existence of Agathir it turned out to be none other than the Highlady Salstasha herself that was burned by dragonfire…’ Naceus let the thought trail.

‘So all in all I have my reasons Metrus. If there is any chance the Princess can use the pages to alert Allandiel then we must try. When I said that the might of Crimson City may come into play it is because I fear it will become our last resort versus an overwhelming foe. They won’t rally to just anything, not even the word of a Princess, but maybe she can somehow show it to Rammas, and solve the encodings, maybe then…’

Metrus sighed. ‘Very well. How would she solve it better than you?’

‘Because Agathir left crucial information at places where I will never climb. The Princess’ exile however might see her visit such locations. Having a Wolf at her side like Bhask will help of course.’

‘When do you need these to reach the Princess?’

Naceus laughed. ‘My friend if I could have my way I would have her receive them right away. The sooner you can fly the better. Although on second thought, give her some time. Let her first make some decisions on her immediate future. I trust your judgement to hand it to her when the time is right,’ said Naceus.

‘Alright then Scholar, I will deliver them, but you must understand that I’m already abusing the favour of the Grove by joining this plight.’

‘We are all compromising our positions, you above all I know. The responsibility of the Grove does not come lightly and I would rather not involve you, save that without you our quest has already failed.’

‘One more thing Naceus: what about this unidentified member of Evrelyn? The one responsible for the marking?’

Naceus shrugged. ‘I’m stumped. And since we will be on the road soon, we must leave it as a problem for another day.’

Metrus did not look particularly pleased with the idea. ‘Very well, I must go back now anyhow. The Wolves will be waiting for me. I will see you again soon Scholar, best of luck, and try to repay the faith these men have placed in you,’ said Metrus.

‘I will,’ said Naceus.

The Druid departed and Naceus was left in the company of the guard, still talking excitedly amongst themselves. He was sincerely glad that they did not know what he knew. He picked up his pipe, struggling to get the embers going again and waited for any other questions that might be thrown at him by his newly formed company.

Chapter 7

Exile

 

Shala woke at noon the following day, and her heart sank, her hard straw bed and a few quiet minutes reminding her of the horrors they had endured. They were in some valley on the other side of the Black Mountains and already Attoras felt so very far away. At least she had slept deeply, the marvel of the Druid’s magic having given her a good night’s rest. She felt much renewed, even if she was hungry again, a hollow spot forming on her stomach. She found the shed empty and she exited, swinging open the barn-like door, and was exposed to the onslaught of a very sunny day.

Down below against the river she saw Edran, sitting alone with his fishing rod, and whistling a tune as old as time itself. There was no sign of the others. Shala’s feet ruffled through the long grass and Edran jumped up at the sound of it. Again he swept off his straw hat from his head, and bowed deeply. ‘G’morning Your Highness! I trust you slept well?’ he asked.

‘Yes I did. I have to thank you for your refuge, Miller. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if not for all the help I have had. If only there was some way to compensate you. I fear I have no money on me as I stand here.’

Edran shook his head. ‘No payment needed Your Highness, it’s enough for me to know that I could serve the crown, and have provided our very own Queen-to-be a meal and a bed. It’s enough for me,’ he repeated, nodding.

Queen-to-be,’ Shala sighed, ‘I’m afraid that seems very unlikely now. If only I had men like you on the Council I would never have been dethroned,’ said Shala to Edran.

The man Edran blushed deeply, ‘Afraid I’m not smart enough to be on any Council Your Highness, can’t even rightly read!’

‘I had many men in my service too clever for their own good. Kingdoms thrive on loyalty and respect, not on the intellect of sinister minds.’

‘You do me too much honour Lady, I would not know what to say,’ said Edran.

Shala smiled. ‘Then say nothing. Where have my companions gone?’

‘Kaell scouts the road, he makes sure your way to the stables is clear, while Metrus hunts so that we may sup. And Bhask wanders as he always does. They should all return soon.’

‘I’ve noticed Bhask’s skin is as bronze as a man who spent time wandering deserts. And his dialect is profoundly neutral, like diplomats who travel the world. Why is it he wanders so?’

Edran shrugged. ‘Heard he’s cursed to wander, though I do not mean to speak out of place, I do not know if there is any truth in it.’

Shala realized she might’ve stumbled onto somewhat awkward subject matter.

‘Have you caught anything yet?’ she asked nudging her head at the river.

‘Not yet Highness, but its due time. If you’ll excuse me I’ll get back at it, in case the Master Druid fails at his hunt, although I highly doubt that he will.’

‘Go ahead,’ Shala said smilingly.

Shala sat on the sloping bank next to Edran, and he seemed uncomfortable for awhile, as though he felt pressured to entertain the Princess.

She rather turned her attention to her surroundings, as best to show Edran she was more than comfortable in the silence. She would wait for Bhask or Kaell or Metrus, and only then return her thoughts to what will come next. For the moment she was content listening to the river, and revelled in the idea of maybe finding the privacy later on to wash the goblin blood from her. But the river itself became a distraction. She followed it with her eyes as it wound back to the mountain, where Attoras sat on the other side. Watching the mountain sternly she somehow found no smoke rising beyond the peak where she imagined Attoras would be. Are we too far to see it?

‘You slept two nights and a day Princess. The fires subsided sometime yesterday. Master Bhask watched them for a long time. Although he might’ve been more concerned about potential pursuers coming from the mountain,’ said Edran intuitively.

Shala snapped her head toward Edran. ‘I slept that long?’ she asked in surprise.

‘You sure did Highness. You were tired, Bhask said, and the Druid said his magic would let you sleep as long as you need.’

Shala nodded. Her gratitude for the chance to rest notwithstanding, she felt she had lost out on precious time. She had no idea on how, but she would need to return to Attoras in some way to clear her name. Having not done so immediately raised certain anxieties and she instantaneously started considering things she thought she could set aside for at least awhile.

‘Did you say Kaell is clearing the road to the stables?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes Highness, the Arwark stables are west of here. There you’ll take horses from one of Master Bhask’s contacts for your road ahead.’

‘Road ahead? I didn’t even know we intended to go anywhere,’ said Shala in uncertainty.

‘Master Bhask mentioned something this morning; said you still have to decide exactly where you’re going. But he did say Attoras isn’t safe anymore, that you’ll need to flee the continent,’ recited Edran.

Shala was shocked. She had not expected to simply waltz around the mountain range and into Attoras again, but she had certainly not considered the need to flee any further than they already had. Who would come look for them here? Simple-minded goblins? But she had second thoughts on that. There was nothing simple-minded about the goblins of last night, they looked to be a fighting force, maybe not organized, but effective and deadly all the same. And then of course there were the wraith-kind and Shala wasn’t sure it was possible to escape them even to the ends of the earth if they truly decided to hunt a person.

It became abundantly clear to Shala that she could indeed not stay here. In the whole world there was only one place she wanted to go and only place where she would find proper refuge, wherefrom the wraith-kind and any other foul creature would be repelled. Allandiel; I want to go to the Crimson City, she thought by herself.

 

II

 

Kaell was first to return, Shala barely noticing him above the excitement of Edran having caught another fish. The miller had come upon a passing by school of steelheads, and always one of them was baited by the too-good-to-be-true display of food. Edran kept the caught ones in a net pinned down in shallow water. Having seen them up close for the first time in her life, Shala considered them rather beautiful in their ugliness.

When she saw Kaell again she found herself a bit surprised. All of last night, or rather the night before that, Shala reminded herself, had not been enough to accustom her to this stranger he’d become. For some reason she’d thought he might have woken to be Kaell the cook again.

It was a fabrication, he had said. The disciples of Evrelyn and those who commanded the wrath of dawn in Allandiel were taught revealing spells, designed to take away illusions spun by other magical agencies, most often the forces of darkness. There was a temptation for Shala to bring such a spell over Kaell, to see if there was illusion at play here. She turned away from Edran awhile to speak to him.

He in turn did not approach her like Kaell the cook would have and make small talk. The familiarity was gone, in fact, he ignored her presence wholesomely, except for a curt, ‘good morning, Highness,’ as he passed, busying himself inside the mill afterwards. Shala did not know what to make of it. The Kaell she knew seemed as good as dead in the rampage of the assault.

Unable to bear such a thought she stood up, excusing herself from Edran’s side and followed Kaell into the mill. She would see just how extensive the change over him had become.

She found him hastily preparing a pot on a fire, for some meal or another and the sight of it alone was enough to hearten Shala. There must be something left of Kaell the cook in this man.

‘Will you prepare our meal then?’ asked Shala hopefully.

Kaell turned in surprise, his face always reverting back to a serious mask. ‘Yes Highness, and I’ll wager I’ll do a shade better job at it than Edran, bless him. Without his kindness we would have spent the night in a cold camp.’

‘So you have lost nothing of your acuity?’

‘I’m still Kaell of old, Your Highness,’ he said.

‘But you have changed,’ insisted Shala before she could stop herself.

‘No Highness, it is like I’ve said, I am only back to what I was before. Anything in-between was a ways of protecting you.’

Shala was despondent. She found little of what she was looking for. ‘What would have happened to the castle?’ she asked, as Kaell continued to light a fire on the stack of wood.

‘The guard will surely have won it Highness. With the intervention of myself, Bhask and Metrus, Attoras would not have sustained severe casualties. But then I must admit, the goblins never had a hope of defeating the entire guard and holding the castle.’

‘What was it all for then?’ asked Shala.

Kaell stood up, leaving the tiny flame that seemed alright on its own by now. Shala had never felt overshadowed by Kaell, but as he stood before her she looked up at a hardened man in all ways, inspiring a subtle fear that Kaell the cook could never do.

‘It was all for you…’ he said. ‘The goblins were, in one way or another, a force arranged with purpose. Of that we have no doubt. When the killing began the Wraith-kind could surface – where death flows freely, there they are sure to emerge. There was no hope of conquering the castle, only killing its ruler.’

‘So that someone like Patrick may take over,’ said Shala, downcast.

‘Yes, failing that you died in the assault, and escaped as you did, they now would persecute you and make you an enemy of Your Highness’s own kingdom, calling you a witch-queen for all the atrocities you engineered.’

‘Me having sealed my father in stasis, and finding me in that accursed room with all the ritual killings… What kind of mind could have turned everything against me?’

‘That of Swarztial and nothing less. He is a menacing schemer, and even your father-king feared him.

‘My father feared no one!’ said Shala.

‘No disrespect intended Highness. He did not fear for himself, but he feared for the kingdom and above all else he feared for you. It is why he wanted to make the Wolves resurgent, if only partially so, and why he assigned me to be Kaell the cook, and keep a close watch on you.’

‘It seemed my father had a small victory in the end, as I’m still alive at least.’

‘And we’ll keep you that way Highness. And what’s more, we’ll not be content to let the Kingdom slip into the hands of Swarztial so easily.’

Shala nodded with a slight smile, showing she found some solace in that. ‘Do you have any notion of where Master Bhask might lead us?’

‘Not yet, and I’m not sure he is certain either. Our contingencies were aimed toward making a smooth escape, but the destination was to remain flexible, for reasons you can well imagine, Your Highness.’

The Princess nodded. ‘We’ll have a talk then I’m sure. I hate to sound weak, but I am tired again. Is it Metrus’s doing?’

‘Maybe Highness, but know that back there in the Dragonwell, when you fought off the wraiths – that was the first time anyone of your lineage performed Stallich alone. You did it all on your own.’

‘I had almost forgotten about that. It was all I could do, there was no other way of defending an area that big,’ said Shala.

‘And it was all Master Bhask could talk about yesterday. He spoke with some reverence about your talent,’ encouraged Kaell, but a smile never touched his face.

Somehow that did not console Shala much, even if it did explain her fatigue.

Edran then knocked cautiously at the entrance as though scared of intruding, and entered the mill. He had a select few of the steelheads he had caught in the net. ‘Master Wolf, if it pleases you, something for the pot if you’d have them,’ offered Edran.

‘Better than anything Metrus will bring. I’ve had enough hare to last me a lifetime. This will do just fine. And you don’t have to call me Master. Leave that title for Bhask.’

Shala found that Kaell didn’t enjoy the rapport Bhask and Edran seemed to share. The three of them stood silently for a moment.

‘You have a knife on you Miller? Clean and sharp if you can spare such. The meat needs to be cut precisely.’ Edran nodded and was away.

Kaell turned to the Princess. ‘Highness, the food will take awhile, feel free to rest up if you wish. You will need all your strength when we leave here.’

Shala was happy to oblige, returning to the little room with the straw bed, and yet she realized Kaell had dismissed both her and Edran from his company rather deftly.

 

 

Metrus arrived with a pair of hare on his heels, alive still, but ready for the slaughter, a contingency planned for if Edran were unsuccessful in catching some fish. Seeing that they weren’t necessary the Druid released the two creatures from his spell and they were off into the wild again with a leap and a bound. They all ate in silence on the steelhead later that afternoon. Stew again, but much better than what Edran had cooked up the other night.

Bhask waited until everyone was done and said, ‘best be prepared when we set out by morning. Edran, if you’d be so kind, I think it is time for us to retrieve our things. At this Kaell’s face lit up, but only just. Shala would have missed it if she hadn’t been looking right at him.

‘Of course Master Wolf,’ said Edran, first offering to take everyone’s bowls away before he led them outside again. Shala was uncertain whether she should follow, rather waiting behind until Bhask peeked in by the barn door again.

‘Come along Princess, there’ll be things for you as well.’

Shala hurried to keep up, the lot of them marching through the grass to the secondary building, or rather the main building of the mill.

Before Shala could know it they bunched up in the shed where the mechanical gears were kept .The room was dedicated to their enterprise only and she knew not what business they had here.

‘Did they raid the place?’ asked Bhask.

‘Many times over Master Bhask,’ answered Edran.

‘Suspicious schemers,’ said Bhask with disgust.

‘But suspicious for a reason, eh?’ said Edran.

‘Yes, I suppose,’ said Bhask, finding reason to be amused. ‘Although I’m sure they would never have guessed that they need fear the Wolves again.’

‘No indeed, you have some point to make Master Bhask, these politicians and rioters of men are arrogant, and forget all too quickly how deadly the Savage Art weaves.’

‘Yes, and I would love to take a blade to every fat soft-bellied man who speaks ill-will, but I know beforehand our path will be a quiet one and our mission best served by being quiet. I’ll not have the whole world know of us, even if they should rightly fear us.’

‘Wait! What would they hunt here for? Were there men here while I slept?’ asked Shala.

‘No Your Highness. We speak of times long before we arrived, and so you are not what they were after.’

‘What then?’ asked Shala.

‘Conspirators, or anything that links a man to said conspirators. Looking for caches of weapons or instruments of destruction. They don’t want them in the hands of common men.’

‘They anticipated you?’ suggested Shala.

‘They anticipated something and unfortunately they are well revised with Edran’s past, helping the older Wolves with escape and supplies as he often did.’

‘They didn’t hurt you did they?’ asked Shala worriedly.

‘No, never Highness, they don’t think enough of me to consider me worthy of much attention. And that’s their mistake!’ said Edran with a smile.

‘Would you?’ gestured Bhask at the machine.

‘Of course,’ said Edran, already wrapping his hands on a crank operating the apparatus, and with a tug he disengaged the main shaft propelled by the wheel outside. The wheel in the water still turned and groaned, but all the other devices came to a halt.

‘They of course never expected to look where you suggested,’ said Edran happily, ‘they were so damned sure they’d caught me when they found that cellar at the forest edge – nothing but rats and empty wine flasks down there!’

Bhask strode forward, groping through the gears and shafts established high and low, looking like a man forcing his way through a jungle.

Shala could see those gears tearing a man apart should they move like they were meant to. No wonder the men who came to raid on Edran didn’t look here.

Bhask came to the other end of the room and then trekked back, making a mission of it to stomp his feet on the floor, until he hit that hollow spot.

He hunched over and with his little finger pried open the trap door, lifting a good deal of the wooden floor section away.

From the chamber underneath he lifted a giant trunk, his hands clasped on handles on each end. Suddenly Shala understood why he specifically had to retrieve it; the thing was big and by the look of it, filled to its capacity. With some careful angling Bhask marched back with it, and he set it down as gently as he would a child.

‘At last!’ Eagerly, Kaell flipped open the locks, and lifted the lid. Shala could make little sense of all the contents at first, especially with Kaell rummaging through the tightly packed supplies looking for his own devices, which were odd things to Shala’s eyes.

He gathered all his things in a pack and without a further word Kaell walked off with it, leaving their company, and rushed straight out the door, surprising Shala. Bhask attended to the rest of the contents, checking to his satisfaction that they were well supplied and equipped. There were bags and packs, each with water skins and pots and foods that preserved well. Bhask took a bundle of cloth and handed it to the Princess. ‘This is for Your Highness, we anticipated a change of clothes for you, they are a very common cut, but they will fit you just fine if my eyes are to be trusted.’

‘Did you truly believe all along it would come to me running scared across the country?’ asked Shala, sounding more cynical than she intended.

‘No Highness, for both your father and yourself this would have been the worst play of events. We had Kaell in the castle to possibly stop a betrayal like the other night, but it seems little will avail against Swarztial’s malice.’

‘I will not falter to him!’

‘Not that I expect you to my Lady, only now we have to ensure your safety and in the same stride, best plan to return you to the throne.’

‘What if Patrick takes the throne?’

‘Those loyal to you will stall proceedings, I’m certain, but we’ll make haste either way. Till then, its best you carry this on your person,’ said Bhask handing her another object wrapped in cloth.

‘A poniard Highness,’ said Bhask as Shala let fall the cloth from the knife almost as long as a short sword, the Princess already pulling it from its sheath.

‘Short and sharp, don’t bother swinging it around – an underarm stroke rather, straight out if anything attacks you,’ he said demonstrating with one arm punching below the other. ‘Pray you never use it, but it may protect you where the light within the waters can’t. Unfortunately not all enemies are of pure darkness. Most are of flesh and bone.’

Shala stroked the tapered length of the blade, avoiding the needle sharp point. ‘Edran said that you have a plan for us to leave the continent.’

Bhask thoughtfully scratched his stubble on his chin. ‘Ah, and there’s my trophy,’ said Bhask as Metrus uncovered it at the other side of the trunk. Stooping Bhask swept up a smoking pipe and a large flat packet that had a pleasant earthy smell to it. ‘How I’ve longed for my pipe. Highness let’s talk outside. My mind is often sharper after a smoke.’

Outside he took a knife and flint and struck sparks, of which enough caught the weed in the pipe. With some long forgotten satisfaction Bhask puffed rhythmically and then pulled deeply, blowing clouds of sweet smoke skywards. It had the scent of berries.

‘Well?’ asked Shala, wondering if Bhask had forgotten her question.

‘You see my Lady, Metrus tells me of goblin movements all across the north. The wraith-kind now seem welcome here, as they were never before, and Swarztial will have alerted all of our “rogue presence.” I would say, leave the continent, if only to regroup.’ Bhask did not see satisfaction on the Princess’s face. ‘But I take it you have a plan as well, Your Grace?’

‘Yes. I don’t sorely think fleeing that far is a bad idea, but I believe my case must be taken to the Crimson City, before the Grandmaster there, and before His Benevolence.’

Bhask bit his lip. ‘A good plan Highness, but you must know the Wolves are not welcome in Allandiel.’

‘I know, but by the look of this dress you laid out for me I would assume we stay covert anyhow, I would have us go to Allandiel quietly, and you will only be my loyal escort, no one needs to know better. I will be a commoner or better yet, a minor noble if it’s a more convincing disguise.’

This made Bhask thoughtful again. ‘It is a bit further than I intended to travel, but I must admit, this plan of escape was firstly set in place for a haunted pilgrim wishing to travel as far as Nem Nemuris, to answer the Dream. The Crimson City is but half of that travel, so I would certainly not complain.’

Shala suddenly blinked, struck by a thought. ‘That door we opened in the Dragonwell, it had the horn on it…’

‘Yes Highness, like I said, your father put it in place, knowing Evrelyn was the last eligible House, knowing enemies might target Evrelyn for exactly their responsibility to the tradition. The door was made to aid a speedy journey to Nem Nemuris.’

‘Is that why you all came for me? I had thought differently, but if it is something that I must do then-’

‘No!’ said Bhask. ‘Not in any way Highness. The Wolves were established to protect you as a light-bearer, and nothing else. We have no expectation of you other than your conduct being noble. To us, it is all the same if you take to the Dream or take to the throne.’

‘My father left a note you know, one that still rings in my mind. He made it sound as though I must complete the Dream. He said Evrelyn would come to an end!’ said Shala.

‘And yet he asked himself to be sealed in his own body afterwards?’ said Bhask.

Shala was taken aback for a second. ‘I forget that Kaell would have told you much in his visits to the infirmary. That’s right however; I think he was growing enormously desperate as his strength waned.’

‘Yes indeed. Desperate to save his only daughter and his family. Highness, he knew your disposition, and he knew you would shoulder the burden of the Dream if you must, if you were left alone in it and the world turned to chaos. I did not know the man in his last days and I cannot speak for him, but I would guess he himself stared at that note and refused it. That is why he asked you afterwards to seal him, it was a plan he made, hastily and frantically, but maybe it would give you the chance to simply make your own fate as Queen.’

‘And yet Swarztial quashed that plan. My father rests buried now and the magic sealing him will wane! I don’t know what it is I must do…’

‘Highness, look at me,’ said Bhask, ‘the world and all its people cannot decide for you. The Dream and whatever it contains needs conviction if nothing else. I of course know of a Kingdom that will desperately need its Queen, and will certainly fail without a sound ruler. The world will not fall apart, not if we have faith in the Crimson City, but Attoras may very well be in peril and no Dream will save it. If I was allowed to make any suggestion on your course, I would say do not leave the people of Attoras unattended. Let us go to the Crimson City, let us make a prayer and a plea there, and see you restored as you should be. As Queen, Evrelyn will live on, and in time should you take a husband, Evrelyn will have heirs. Out of that many more of the healing hands could come, and even a son or daughter that will, at the ripe end of their lives, gladly take to the Dream.’

Shala’s face broke into a smile. ‘Thank you Bhask. Your insight has lifted my spirits. You must know that I’ve felt robbed of allies of late, it is good to have your loyalty even when I’m unmade as Queen.’

‘Not yet Highness, not unmade yet. Now, let us plan a route. There’s a map inside…’

‘I don’t need a map,’ said Shala, realizing she sounded rude she added, ‘I mean, unless if you want to have a look at it…’

‘No need Highness, I am a wanderer of note and have no need for maps. Very well, I would say; our best course lies first east and then south through Cuddenheim and Harowan. After that we’ll find the railways, where we may take a locomotive carriage, which should speed our way to Allandiel considerably.’

Shala opened her mouth and closed it again, swallowing her retort. She had always wanted to ride the trains through the Rivver continent, but getting there seemed to her like a troublesome road.

‘Say what you would say Highness, we speak openly to each other, and I would have your input on the matter.’

‘I’m only afraid that we might find hassles in Cuddenheim and Harowan, there would be no escape in the sprawl of a city. Why don’t we take the first leg of the continent? It is much nearer anyhow.’

‘For a good many reasons my Lady,’ said Bhask clearing his throat, ‘the Mighty Eraffilas river bends and warps the landscape on the first leg. It is a very difficult journey if one is not prepared for water, and we have no craft for it. Second, I hope to hide in the sprawl of a city. On the road we are exposed. Besides in cities we’ll replenish our stocks much more easily. We could of course take a craft over the Celecethian sea, but as of the moment I know of no reliable ship masters that could guarantee us both safe passage and anonymity. Lastly Highness, I grow weak when I am not wandering. Sitting still for a day or two does not bother, but I’ll be left weak and powerless taking a boat or ship.’

Shala frowned at the last of Bhask’s statement, but did not ask him what he meant by that. She trusted his judgement.

‘Then I’m content as long as we make it to Allandiel. We’ll go east the moment we have horses.’

‘Good!’ said Bhask, taking to his pipe again. ‘We will set out by morn, until then, rest and recover your strength my Lady. And if you so wish, the waters here are fresh. We’ll grant you some privacy to clean up. If you follow the river upstream you’ll find a particularly pleasant pool.’

 

 

Later Shala waded into the stream, and found the water pleasant, not at all as cold as the Seluin waters. Here the river had already pooled at intervals, taking in the warmth of sunlight. With her clothes, old and new, left on the bank of the pool she washed herself, relieved at ridding herself of soot and dried blood. She was alone, but high above a familiar eagle kept watch, and as it was now it was not bothered by the arousals of men and neither was the Princess the least bit troubled about it.

Afterwards she dried and dressed in the shelter of the woods, regretting leaving Shadow at the mill as stepping from the water had left her surprisingly cool. Small blasts of wind rustled the trees, and it was these that robbed her of warmth. And then when the wind stopped the rustle strangely persisted, until a snapping twig underneath a boot made it very clear Shala had something to worry about.

A man approached her from dead ahead; the suddenness with which his garb no longer faded with the woods a trickery Shala thought was terribly unfair to his prey. He had keen eyes and a fine-trimmed beard lining his mouth.

More pressingly, the moment Shala had spotted him he approached with an upraised hatchet in his right-hand, and put his finger to his lips with the other. Somehow Shala was just as worried about whether he had seen her exposed as about whether he posed any danger.

He beckoned her to come closer, slowly… and then lunged forward with the hatchet just as she started moving.

 

He had been looking over her shoulder, so she knew he was not aiming at her, and true enough when she turned around she saw he had downed a goblin that had evidently been stalking her. When the little creature took its deathblow, the rest of its brethren emerged from hiding.

Metrus came down in a swoop and just in time as well, landing some thirty feet from where Shala was stranded in a snare of enemies. Becoming a man with bow in hand his powers prevailed as the goblins met the green fiery arrows spitting from his bow. The Druid was not merciful, as he kept on firing even as the goblins fled from arrows that hunted them down deep into the woods.

The stranger with his hatchet watched in awe of the Druid’s powers and after the last goblin cry had faded, turned toward the Princess.

‘Thank you sir,’ was the first thing Shala could think of to say.

‘Not a good place to wander so alone, my Lady,’ he replied.

‘Not a good place to wander for anyone,’ said Metrus approaching, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’

‘There’s plenty of movement in the west, Master Druid. More than usual anyhow. My name is Von Gillivez, of a House fallen from grace many ages ago.’

‘Well met, but we need to take our leave,’ said Metrus curtly, ‘farewell traveller, keep your wits about you.’

Shala was surprised at Metrus, although she suspected she knew exactly why he wanted to get them away from this stranger, even if he had probably saved her life just now.

‘Allow me to be forward,’ said Von Gillivez, ‘I fled the destruction of Attoras and only made it out alive by some exceptional luck. The goblins have flooded the continent; you will know this better than anyone with your eagle eyes. If you’d have me, I would like to stay under your protection until we are within a stone’s throw of civilization. I might not make it on my own!’

By the look of the Druid Shala knew he was going to refuse Von Gillivez, and she couldn’t get it over herself to leave the man stranded.

‘Let’s take him with us Metrus, at least for awhile,’ Shala interceded.

He looked reluctant. Finally he said, ‘You will need to speak to Bhask and convince him.’ Shala realized that would not be an easy task.

 

 

Kaell and Bhask did not look impressed upon seeing the Princess and the Druid returning with another man. They had been intent on keeping their whereabouts a mystery to the world, and moreover, they did not want everyone to know that the Princess was reunited with Wolves of old.

Bhask wasted no time in confronting the newcomer, looming over him even when Von Gillivez was not a small man.

‘Goblins Master Bhask, they are already on this side of the mountain, and we found this man as unexpectedly as the goblins found us,’ explained Metrus.

‘Have you ever seen this man before, Edran?’ asked Bhask over his shoulder.

‘No, Master Wolf,’ answered the Miller.

‘I am new to this valley I admit. My name is Von Gillivez. Call me Gillivez when it suits you. And I know who you are,’ he said to Bhask. ‘I know the Princess by the look of her, and I’ve heard rumours of the Wolves returning to Attoras.’

‘How did you get to this side of the mountain?’ asked Bhask.

‘I was caught between two goblin companies during the assault. When the guard was gaining the upper hand, a group of goblins fled into the mountains. Going the other way was not an option for me, as I would have been dragged down in the crossfire. I followed the goblins into the mountain caverns, as they are too scared to try and climb over it. Underground though they are at home and I used them to come safely out on this side. I would have been hopelessly lost had I not followed them closely and I certainly wouldn’t be able to trace my way back if I had to brave the caverns again,’ said Gillivez.

‘We came through just fine,’ said Kaell.

‘It is not like the Dragonwell, Kaell; the caverns he speaks of are dark and treacherous. They were not made for man,’ said Bhask.

‘Indeed!’ said Von Gillivez.

‘What is your profession?’ asked Bhask.

‘A trapper, Master Wolf, and consequently a very good tracker as well.’

‘That at least explains how you kept up with the goblins,’ said Bhask, ‘and I hope your talents will keep you alive. Know that you cannot take refuge with us. Our mission is too important for anyone to ride our coattails. We cannot offer you protection.’

‘I would not need stay with you long, only until I can count on safer roads that I may follow all the way to Nortalon!’

‘He did help save me, Master Bhask, before Metrus could do anything he struck down a goblin that had been hunting me,’ insisted Shala.

Bhask seem to go through the same reluctance Metrus had shown.

The Wolf looked hard at the Trapper. ‘The Princess has a kind heart that would save creatures that once endangered her kingdom. Do not betray that trust.’

Von Gillivez looked relieved. ‘Of course, and I thank you for your kindness. I will put my talents to use for your benefit, and help carry the load until such a time that we part ways.’

Bhask turned to Edran. ‘Do you have spare fittings for our friend here? A tent and some tools at least if nothing else.’

‘And some rope!’ added Gillivez boldly.

‘Of course! I can provide for all the ghosts of the mountain!’ said Edran, who looked pleased that his role had not come to an end just yet.

 

III

 

In the morning they were off with heavy packs, lucky that Metrus and Gillivez could help them carry for now, at least until they could get to the stables. They had a brief parting with Edran, Shala fondly saying goodbye to the humble man for whom she had gained a lot of respect in the last few days. Shala hoped he had the sense to stay out of trouble. Staying alone as he did and helping Wolves did not predict longevity.

The westward roads were sorely neglected, and there was little to justify keeping them maintained. For all purposes the Kingdom of Attoras ended on the western edge of the black mountains, being a great physical divide as they were. Very few people made of the west their home. For Shala’s sake they marched slowly and did so all through the morning, following the marks that Kaell had laid out the previous day. Evidently he could travel much faster on his own it seemed, as he claimed to have made it to the stables in just half a day previously. ‘So we’ll trek all the way back when we turn around?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes, but we’ll be on horseback at least. And we’ll take a more southern route to the pass around the foothills of Black mountains.’

‘Why did Kaell have to mark the road? Are you unfamiliar with the way?’

Bhask shook his head. ‘Some places hide themselves better than you might suspect. Strange woods like these repel sensible folk and lure institutes like the Arwark stables. They are rumoured to be mystical, or rather, these woods have fooled one too many travellers onto stray paths.’

At midday they stopped for a spell and lunch, which was more or less the same dried food they ate all through the day. After that their road became even slower, both because of the increasing difficulty of the road and their dwindling pace.

At some stage Kaell and Bhask talked at length, almost whispering. Shala did not hear what they discussed, but the conclusion was that they all came to an early stop that day, leaving the rest of the way for tomorrow.

At first Shala thought this was simply practical, as Bhask showed Shala how to set up the tiny tent rolled up in her pack. The Wolf had it up with the efficiency of someone who knew exactly how to operate a loom. ‘A fine demonstration Master Bhask, but I might ask you on the occasion to help me,’ said Shala, not really sure she could replicate what Bhask had just done.

Bhask smiled, ‘Of course Highness, I was only showing you out of interest’s sake. You can leave it to either me or Kaell to prepare your tent every evening.’

Spreading her blanket roll herself inside the tent, Shala realized the thing was so tiny it was really only fit for a person to crawl in and sleep, and really nothing else other than that. Not that she was in any mood to carry a heavier tent’s fittings during the day. No, this is just fine.

Leaving her tent ready for the night she saw Kaell by the stream, vestiges of the same mountain river having followed them all the way. Shala frowned as she came closer and then stopped entirely: He was sitting on his knees, and using the last light of day to paint his face as he stared down on his own reflection. She then knew why he wanted to stop for the day.

There was a foreboding feeling about it all. He had a collection of clay jars spread open around him, filled with different pastes that he used as paint. The jars of paint he must’ve obtained from that trunk of Edran’s, but the idea of what he was doing Shala knew not.

The paint on his face was mostly black; the shapes intricately pressed over each other, around the fierce blue eyes were thin linings of white, and from the temples down the cheek to the jaw were slashes of red paste, looking truly as though his skin had been split open and the flesh peeled to either side. It downright scared Shala, and her companions’ silence about it scared her even more. It was a mask of death Shala decided. Was this a thing of the Wolves? She had never heard or read of such a tradition. There were of course the silver masks they wore made in the likeliness of a wolf’s head, but this seemed wholly strange.

‘What’s gotten into the lad?’ asked Von Gillivez, ‘does he do this often?’

Shala shook her head. She wished she was in a position to answer him.

When Kaell was done their eyes only met once that evening and it was abundantly clear he wasn’t going to discuss what was going on. It wasn’t long after that, that she retreated into her tent. She felt suffocated and morbid, but it had little to do with the tent she would have to get used to. Outside some of Bhask’s berry flavoured pipe weed reached her inside the tent. She would count on him to explain to her Kaell’s behaviour, because she was not going to ask him herself.

 

IV

 

The next day the Arwark stables were truly not far, and so they did not have to carry too heavily for too long. Bhask carried the heaviest load and seemed not bothered by it at all.

Kaell was even more silent the next day, as though forgoing all conversation now. There was a determination to him and Shala could swear she knew the look of rehearsal on the man’s face, as if he was reliving something, or more troubling, planning something. After a while she tried to avoid looking at him altogether.

Shala wondered at the stable’s purposes, for the buildings were grand and could house many stalls. It seemed too big to simply be there to equip a runaway Princess with a steed. On top of that it was remote, removed from the network of roads that connected the cities of the Attoras kingdom. Here there was little traffic of other men, and most were not of the kind to buy expensive horses.

‘They were here when the kingdom was established and they’ll be here when the kingdom is undone,’ answered Bhask to Shala when she asked about it. ‘It’s a common phrase answered to your question.’

‘Is it supposed to answer my question at all?’

‘I don’t know Highness and good luck getting a better answer from the proprietor.’

They took awhile to find this proprietor, a man named Jenody. Stable boys and grooms pointed them in the supposed direction of the man until they had almost circled the entire premise.

Kaell threw down the heavy packs like a child on the verge of a tantrum.

‘Enough of this! You! Fetch us the horse master! And you! Bring us drink now, and enough of it to fill our skins as well!’ He shouted at two nearby stable boys. They obeyed and scurried away, looking ready to soil themselves at the command of Kaell with his painted face.

There they waited, and being tired they had no will in them to talk amongst themselves. At least I’m tired, thought Shala, having found her companions sparse on conversation at the best of times.

Jenody the proprietor arrived no sooner than the boy who brought the water in two large pails accompanied by cups. They quenched their thirst while greeting the man. Jenody was courteous and well dressed, wearing a rugged tailcoat over a white linen shirt, his boots clean and shiny even for a man who supposedly spent his days managing stables. Because of this Shala realized Bhask wasn’t nearly as warm toward this man as he had been toward Edran, who had been underdressed even for a country bumpkin. She decided to give it little thought, after all, Bhask would not consort with those he didn’t trust would he?

‘You’re one man more than you said you would be, Master Bhask, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,’ said Jenody as he approached.

‘I had thought the west devoid of movement, and we found this Trapper and a cohort of goblins. Lucky for us the Trapper was kind enough to prevent the Princess’ demise.’

‘There is always movement in the west Master Bhask. Fools and runabouts that flee from civilization and get lost. Mostly convicts and other unsavoury types, even a Highwayman on the occasion. The latter likes to buy a horse every now and then, the others of course can’t afford what we have.’

‘What of types that pose a danger?’

‘Convicts and Highwaymen are not considered dangerous? Why Master Wolf if a host of dark purpose rides our roads I assure you they too are quite lost. Men don’t come west willingly, even the Druids seem to prefer Groves that are surrounded by cities,’ said Jenody, casting a glance at Metrus at the last bit.

Metrus did not seem to appreciate the remark.

‘Humour me then, let’s suppose that the dangers that drove us here start searching in the west.’

‘Not to worry Master Bhask, the minute I set you out on the south road you will be well covered, or at least until you set foot again on the main roads. But first let’s get you these horses that would carry you there, wherever there may be. Walk with me.’

Jenody wore fingerless gloves, often snapping his fingers and pointing at the grooms to indicate them toward some duty, orchestrating effortlessly even as he talked to Bhask.

‘What have you in mind for your horses, Master Bhask? The horse must fit the purpose. Might I ask where you will be heading?’

‘I’d rather not say.’

‘Fine, describe the horses you would have, bearing in mind the terrain and distance you wish to cover.’

Bhask was thoughtful. ‘A strong steady horse for myself who can bear heavy saddlebags and more. For the Princess, a fine horse, well-trained and light to the touch, with a temperament that is both patient and resilient. For Kaell…’ he looked at the young Wolf, ‘A fast horse that will relish being pushed, and will not shy away from dangerous roads. They must all be ready for a long road.’

‘And the newcomer?’ asked Jenody, ‘or will he be going on foot?’

‘Any fine horse you can spare,’ said Bhask.

‘Very good, I already have three particular horses in mind, and a spare as you say,’ said Jenody as though not any one of his horses could be considered a spare.

Jenody led them to stables detached from the others, the building set in a lengthy hall that made a cross shape. ‘Here we hold our finest horses, fit for Kings and warriors of renown. Only in the south do they have horses of our stature, and still then some of those come from our stock. No one admits to it of course, they’d rather keep the source of our horses secret.’

‘We will not be able to pay,’ said Shala quietly as they entered the stables. She had only just realized this problem.

Jenody looked at Shala, at Bhask, then back at Shala with a querying eyebrow that lifted toward his hairline.

‘Our method of payment has already been discussed long before this day Highness,’ said Bhask. Jenody took a parchment from his tailcoat, and brought out a writing quill as well, handing Shala the parchment to read while he held to the quill, ready to give it to her.

Shala shook her head. ‘I can’t sign this. It expects an unspecified favour from the throne, or in such case that I do not comply a sum of gold to be paid once I sit on the throne again. Only the amount you disclose is worth half of Attoras’ treasury!’

‘Which is why I assure Your Highness that most in your position sign in hope of returning a favour to us,’ said Jenody.

‘Princess, we have little other choice. We need these horses and the passage out on the south road. Jenody is a reasonable man, and the favour he will come to ask will not cripple the kingdom.’

‘You should have told me this was going to happen,’ said Shala angrily at Bhask.

Shala was flushed. This was just another matter that felt beyond her control. Snatching the quill from Jenody she signed the parchment with a stroke that almost pierced through at the bottom. ‘These better be enchanted horses Jenody, if I fail to recapture my place on the throne you will not have favour nor gold from me.’

Jenody smiled. ‘No enchantments Highness, only the magic of vigorous training and proud genealogies that can be traced back at least ten generations.’

‘Lead on,’ said Shala.

‘First, a horse for Your Highness,’ said Jenody taking them to a snow white mare. The big-eyed face peeked out curiously from the cabinet, the fringe of the well groomed mane covering one eye like a patch. The mare had all the charm of a well-proportioned pony, without being as small as one.

She’s beautiful,’ said Shala, in awe, for the moment forgetting the contract she had just signed.

‘From the line of the best troupe horses, very finely trained as a rule. The grooms called her Jingles, as they often work bells into her mane and saddle, and have her prance around. Of course I would not advise that kind of decoration on your quest.’

‘Certainly not, no bells,’ agreed Bhask, laughing huskily.

Jenody snapped his fingers at the grooms and indicated to them to prepare Jingles.

‘To you, Master Bhask, I give Dompel,’ said Jenody, showing them what must’ve been the largest horse in the stables, its coat brown and its mane and tail dark. ‘Don’t let its sleepy look fool you. Strong and steady as you ask, from a line of the strongest draft horses.’

‘It’ll do just fine,’ said Bhask, giving the horse a pat on the cheek, its flat ears writhing in acknowledgement.

Then, for the Trapper, a horse I believe is fitting that can tie a knot and leap free from dangers! Merrigold is her name, a fine beast of convincing swiftness. Although if she does illustrate any skills with a rope it will be entirely coincidental.’

Gillivez laughed. ‘As long as she runs hard and strong then I’m appeased,’ he said as they brought him a horse with a brownish-gold coat and a yellow mane. ‘She’s a pretty one also,’ said the Trapper as he inspected her closely.

‘Come along, come along, we are not done yet!’ said Jenody.

With a flourish that made his tailcoat sweep the floor Jenody showed them the final stall, a groom opening it up even as he spoke.

‘Last and best of our ensemble is Eigmar, for our… masked friend here. Fast as the wind and tireless altogether! If you wish to brave the high places of the world then this is your horse. It goes without saying that it comes from the finest line of race horse and destrier charger. And its value is beyond measure.’

Bhask and Shala nodded at the splendid horse, but Kaell looked at it indifferently. ‘It prances,’ said Kaell in dismay.

‘A gesture of greeting and courtesy,’ said Jenody.

‘I want a fiery horse, one that will not frighten off.’

‘Kaell just take Eigmar, we are not off to the under-earth you know,’ said Shala, infuriated that he did show gratitude at what was being offered.

Kaell did not respond, looking unimpressed at the chestnut horse before him. With her being tense since the very minute Kaell had painted on the mask, Shala was just about ready to confront him there and then about his change in behaviour. Quite bizarrely though another horse barged in at the far end of the stables, putting halt to all such thoughts, and came to them with an ear piercing whinny, a groom desperately trying to hold it back.

Jenody froze and the other grooms took panicky steps backwards as it approached, the horse as dark as night, the mane wild and somewhat tangled. It whinnied frantically as it circled them, like a charger in battle.

‘Having trouble with this one?’ asked Bhask in amusement.

‘We’ve never come across an animal we could not rein in,’ assured Jenody, although pulling nervously at his collar as the horse stood ever closer, barely kept in check by a growing number of grooms.

‘You have not broken him?’ asked Bhask.

‘We tried,’ admitted Jenody shaking his head, ‘and still he terrorizes the other horses, and none of the boys here take to him. We care only for it at a distance.’

Metrus studied the animal. ‘He is not from around here.’

‘That is correct sir, the brand on his rear signals him as a horse of Avandar. But he was a lone and wild horse when he came to us. We took him in as we do for stray horses and since no one had come to claim him we simply kept him, sometimes to our regret mind you.’

The black horse stamped a hoof impatiently as though trying to have its say.

‘Such a long journey and such daring escape to flee Avandar stables,’ said Kaell

‘Indeed, the horse is proficient at opening locks and doors, which is the very reason it stands here I guess. We let it wander as it wills on most days, but to save us from hurt to our reputation we prefer to keep it locked up when we have guests. Properly locked up mind you, yet it seems someone has forgotten that anything less than a chain and a padlock are insufficient,’ said Jenody, with a stern look under which the groom wilted, the one that had arrived with the horse.

Then, as though to demonstrate Jenody’s point the black horse reared and made a show of flying hooves, aimed at Eigmar and the chestnut gelding Jenody favoured panicked and jolted, running for the stable doors, a host of grooms after him.

‘Warrock!’ cried Jenody in dismay.

Kaell walked to the horse, a fire still in its eyes. ‘His name is Warrock?’ he asked.

The owner nodded. ‘It is the name of a cursed horse. That is the nature of the other mark you see on him. It is warning from his previous owners and since we did not have a name for him we simply called him by his mark. When a steed returns time and again from battle, unhurt and alive, but its rider lost and dead, it becomes the Rock of War, or else called Warrock! Undying and preposterously lucky, but its rider always doomed to perish,’ explained Jenody.

‘That’s alright, I’m a Wolf and ill-fortune does not plague those familiar to the cold.’

Jenody looked unconvinced. ‘We’ll have Eigmar back in a moment,’ he said.

‘I don’t want a scared horse,’ said Kaell, ‘we have not even taken to the road yet and it bolts off in fear.’

‘I assure you, he is a fine steed and not at all skittish! It is just Warrock has made such a nuisance of himself that the other horses fear him…’

‘Then give me the horse everything else fears,’ said Kaell.

‘You would take a cursed horse?’ asked Jenody in such surprise it sounded like an accusation.

‘I don’t bother myself with curses or superstition. A horse is a horse, and this one can be great beyond reckoning. You call it wild? Well, I need a horse that would charge at the gaping maws of death. Besides, this horse has already chosen me as much as I have chosen it. Look at it, it will follow me even if I do walk away here with another horse,’ said Kaell.

‘Very well, it would be good to have him off our hands. He was testing the limits of our patience as it is. Be wary, he will test you as well, and if his reputation is anything to go by, I pray that you do not succumb as his previous riders did.’

‘Maybe his previous riders were simply unworthy, and the men that attended to him here, clueless.’

‘Enough Kaell, we have no reason to spark animosities here,’ said Bhask.

‘No worries, I am happy as long as he is happy,’ said Jenody, who now looked more than appeased to keep Eigmar and send Warrock off.

‘Well then, we have the majority of the day open to us and I would have us gone as soon as we can. Jenody, if you’d be so kind as to show us the south road, we’ll saddle up the horses ourselves.’

The Proprietor nodded. ‘A pleasure as always Bhask, although you always seem to arrive with the strangest of happenings at your heels.’

 

 

Almost as soon as they arrived they were leaving again, Jenody having pointed them in the right direction. For the moment the three of them slowly rode on their newly obtained steeds as Metrus walked alongside them. Shala found Jingles the mare just as finely mannered as Jenody had promised. Bhask and Dompel, saddled with most of the party’s goods in one big lump of moving weight looked ready to march right across the face of Angaria. Kaell however now had a horse that matched the mask on his face and clearly it wasn’t lost on the others as Metrus called attention to it.

‘There is something otherwise about this horse Kaell,’ said Metrus, ‘I can’t feel it as I would other creatures of the Grove.’

‘He is not from around here, Jenody said so himself didn’t he?’ rebuked Kaell.

‘It has a foreign mind, and I fear it bodes ill for us to have this horse in our company,’ said Metrus.

‘Do not start with me as well Druid. You expect every creature and critter to be open and submit before the power of the Grove. You would shun an animal just because it is strong-willed and needs to keep to itself?’

Metrus shook his head. ‘I’m only afraid you chose this horse because of that mask on your face. Strong-willed indeed, but to what purpose? Will you tell anyone what this is about? And I must ask, would you still be a Wolf, even as you chose a horse that is ready to bolt away and fulfil a conquest that has nothing to do with Her Highness?’

Kaell gave Metrus a look as dark as his mask. ‘I’m always a Wolf, other matters have no say in it.’

‘But you would become a lone Wolf, loathe of words and company, and your service to the throne nothing but vengeance!

‘Enough! You tread too close to truths I do not want heard!’ said Kaell.

‘If it is in you to make a decision, then make it fast. There’s no reason for us to abide one who will take leave,’ said Metrus. The Druid turned into the eagle and took flight, finally letting the others ride with speed.

Kaell is going away? thought Shala despondently.

She wanted to ask; ask about Kaell that is, but she wasn’t quite ready yet. She would wait to have Bhask alone, and then she’d have some much needed answers.

Chapter 8

Origins

 

Every morning before saddling up Metrus would take flight, circling wide over their encampment, while below the rest of them woke up to tea and cold black bread, and then as they finished Metrus would come back to say their immediate vicinity was clear of danger. Today the routine was somewhat different and he took some time to address the Princess before they set out.

‘There is something you must know Highness. Back home, Naceus and a substantial number of the household guard has formed a group that is planning to move your father.’ And so Metrus told Shala of the Scholar’s plan to eventually see the King to Nem Nemuris. Shala listened intently and Metrus waited to see if she approved at all. Her thoughtful silence was not kind to the Druid afterwards. ‘I will act as a messenger between our two parties, although once you reach civilization I will mostly be with them. I will keep them safe,’ Metrus assured the Princess.

‘It is a dangerous road they have chosen. They should not have. I don’t think they appreciate what they might’ve let themselves in for,’ said Shala.

‘They care for the Kingdom Your Highness, and they care for your family. deBella, Gremhalden, Gibbon and Merohan are with them. They would not have decided to this because it sounds like an adventure. It is a grim task guarding a dead King and they know it.’

‘But you have to explain Naceus’s motivation for reacting like this. Yes, my father won’t last in stasis forever so I understand the haste, but you mean to tell me the assault on the castle has Naceus running for Nem Nemuris?’

Metrus reached into the inner pocket of his jerkin, then had second thoughts.

‘Maybe not just yet Highness. I do have something to give to you, but I will wait until the time is right,’ said Metrus.

‘Don’t leave me with more secrets Druid,’ said Shala, almost hopelessly.

‘On the small chance that Naceus’s plans and our road take an unexpected turn I’d rather not burden you with this just yet.’

In the recesses of Shala’s mind she knew exactly then what Metrus had in his jerkin. What else could it be? But she wasn’t interested in discussing that at all.

‘Tell me about Kaell?’ blurted Shala.

‘Your Highness?’

‘You must know something about Kaell and why he has become so strange. You said he might take leave. I would like to know what is going on.’

‘I think it is time you asked Bhask. Don’t be afraid to do so Highness. He’ll most likely give you an answer gladly. But I cannot. It is a thing among the Wolves, and maybe your input would resolve this matter quicker, which will be beneficial for all of us.

‘Does Bhask know about Naceus’s plan?’

‘Yes,’ said Metrus.

‘So you discuss everything with him first?’ asked Shala.

‘Always. Highness, Bhask can be trusted beyond a shadow of a doubt and I run most things past him first. Besides, I cannot leave the man in charge of your safety in the dark. You must admit Highness that at the moment you don’t have to make great decisions to guide the Kingdom. In the meanwhile Bhask needs every last bit of information he can get to ensure he gets the job done.’

In their current predicament it didn’t leave Shala feeling any better. She expected everyone to trust her judgement as well. After that Metrus took flight and left her in the care of the Wolves again.

 

 

Yet Shala did not approach Bhask immediately. The Master of Wolves had them riding hard for two days, changing their pace after one of those silent discussions he so frequented with Kaell. Both Kaell and Metrus of course scouted the road and surroundings, the Wolf doing so by land and the Druid from high above.

This left Shala riding behind Bhask, and he often threw a look over his shoulder to see that she was well, and still she never broached the topic of Kaell’s transformation. She did not fully understand her own hesitation. At the least she had Von Gillivez at her side, but he was good for nothing more than small talk right then.

When she tried to push Jingles to ride alongside Bhask, maybe to better approach in conversation, he cautioned her against it. ‘For the time being Highness, we’ll ride in file. This southern tip is notorious for pitfalls and bear traps. If we come across such unseen I’ll be the only victim.’

Shala agreed with the logic, but was finding the ride surprisingly lonely. By night-time it wasn’t much better. She would have Bhask and Metrus as company, but Kaell would always sit aside, away from the campfire, and to further his mystery he would do so with the strange wooden device he had recovered from the mill the other day.

Assuming he had no other duties to see to, he would tend the device. He did so privately and with his black mask of paint still on Shala did not once think of approaching him and asking him about it. But she often looked on, curious as to why the artefact was so important to him.

In the beginning Shala never got a good look at the device, save that it was clearly cylindrical and came up to his knee when he let it stand upright. Even from afar she could see that it was ceremonial, whatever it might be. It had markings engraved around its base and the top end was superbly crafted in likeness of a lion’s head, as big as a melon, the neck arching, the mouth open and fierce, the brows furrowed in defiance above the eyes, and the mane represented by backswept overlapping flakes, smooth and thick like the blades of a shrub, inclined to a slight curl.

From among the many jars and little pots he kept in his pack he produced a thin vial, containing an oil that scented the air with sandalwood the moment he unstoppered it. Carefully he would apply a thin coat of oil to it each time, and afterwards, when satisfied that it was dry, he would sit and watch it, as Shala watched him.

Deep in thought he would brush the many ridges with his fingertips, almost caressing it. It was precious to him, that much was clear. One night he planted the thing into the ground, it took Shala some spying to realize the device had a bronze spike at the bottom. Doing so he spread open features on the base, Shala hitherto not having seen the foldable eagle wings on the back. They too were marvellously carved, and set on small bronze hinges.

When he left it like that it gave the entirety a cross shape and the look Kaell gave the device then was of expectation, seemingly staring deep into the eyes of the lion. He seemed patient, but he definitely expected something, and this alerted the Princess. Shala was sure it must be more than a statuette of a winged lion. She didn’t sense any magic in it, but she knew better than to think that she could if there were. All in all it became unbearable for Shala, she had had enough of this mystery.

 

II

 

That next day they passed the southernmost tip of the Dunnoom mountain range, Bhask leading their path to where the black rock giants first emerged, nothing more than foothills at first and then with suddenness becoming one of the most imposing sights on earth as their height climbed further and further to the north. The marvel of the black mountains was that they were actually mostly white, being snow-covered almost year round, laying on it like a blanket and revealing only the black rock surface here and there where peaks and ridges poked through. The most beautiful parts were where the pine trees of the Grove crept up their slopes.

If they were to follow the eastern side of it they’d invariably return to Attoras. From here on though they would only travel farther and farther from home. Even here a shrill wind descended and ruined an otherwise fine day with a stinging coldness, so that Shala pulled her cloak Shadow tight across herself.

Bhask voiced his relief at coming to this point. ‘It’s all less forlorn on this side of the continent, nobody passes here easily as the Highwaymen guard the road.’

‘Isn’t that a bad thing?’ asked Shala.

‘No, if we encounter such we can negotiate with them, but Highwaymen will out and out destroy goblin packs.’

‘They failed to do so before the goblins attacked my castle,’ said Shala sourly.

Bhask frowned. ‘A conspiracy for another day. Someone saw them through these lands, someone aligned with Swarztial. I have wandered many places in the world. Sad to say if they had a guide as good as me they could sneak an entire army through the Norwain forest. Only Metrus would have had a hope of spotting them.’

With Gillivez taking his horse on a different route for the day, Shala felt she could maybe press Bhask with some questions best discussed alone.

‘Why is it that you wander so? Are you a traveller by nature?’ asked Shala.

Bhask took a moment to answer. ‘In a way I’ve always had restless feet, and the old Wolves loved having one such as I who did not shy away from travelling long distances. I could complete far-off missions you see. But when I was a little older than Kaell I met a true wanderer, a madman rambling by himself, but sane enough to prey upon the darkness in men’s hearts. If I could ever concede to having made a mistake in my life, then that would have been it. By his behest I followed the man, hypnotised by his knowledge and his strange allure. I can’t ever remember seeing his face, or at least I can’t put a face to him in my memory.

‘It was by the misdeeds of others that I realized I was under a spell and failing my order in following this madman. I saw good men do unspeakable acts and the sight of it awoke my senses. It was eerie to behold Highness. He could stroll into a village and craftsmen would drop what they were busy with, and simply follow him.

‘When I broke away from his hold he grew incredibly angry and so he cursed me with his power, making of me an eternal wanderer. Luckily I never grew mad, but if ever I stay in one place for too long I start getting sick and despondent.’

‘Then you have a harsh fate. I am sorry if my helplessness is piling onto your burden.’

‘Not at all Highness. The Wolves can only have one purpose, and that is to protect the light-bearer, and I’m glad our loyalty belongs to one such as you. Besides, the curse itself is not all bad. I’ve seen much of the world because of it, and the sickness that comes about I used to great effect in my disguise back in the castle infirmary.’

Shala’s eyes grew wide. ‘So that’s why we couldn’t alleviate your symptoms at first, and how you played sick so convincingly!’

‘Yes, strange how curses can become of use, isn’t it? All I had to do was stay still for a couple of days and inevitably the sickness comes.’

‘Coupled of course with your sudden recovery, just before the assault took place. Did you move without us realizing it?’ asked Shala.

‘At times yes, the infirmary is poorly locked to a man like me Highness. So I took midnight strolls, the nightshift guards thinking me a ghost at times!’ laughed Bhask. ‘That helped a little. There is in fact also a plant that helps me recuperate once I’m motionless. Kaell secretly administered it to me when he visited me in the infirmary as we anticipated the goblin invasion and I was fit by the time they came. When I stood up on my legs and ran to the armoury I felt the life return to me, and it was glorious to be truly moving again.’

‘How did you know about the goblins?’ asked Shala with some suspicion.

‘With the help of Metrus, Your Highness. He delivered the message to Kaell, but by then our efforts were limited to saving your life.’

Shala nodded. She then thought it was the ideal time to confront Bhask and finally felt comfortable doing so. Kaell was out riding ahead and Metrus was flying. And today she thought she knew exactly where to start.

‘I’ve been wondering, why is it Kaell fights with two bronze blades if the Wolves had some of the best steel forges up in the keep on the mountain?’ she asked. She felt this was an inauspicious enough question to talk about other things.

‘By the time Kaell’lam was taken to the keep the Wolves were all but disbanded, our activities rather secretive. The forges were in disuse , so we no longer produced weapons, but mostly, Kaell’lam uses those swords because bronze is the alloy they used in his homeland. They had not mastered iron or steel yet.’

Shala looked quizzically at Bhask and she knew she was on the trail of something here.

‘Your Highness does not yet know,’ Bhask reminded himself out loud, and Shala looked at him expectantly. For a few moments he looked skywards, as though making a decision. ‘I might as well tell I guess, because I fear Kaell will never reveal it to you himself. The question is Highness, how much do you care to know?’

‘I feel the weight of something on Kaell that I have not seen before. Not on anyone. Tell me what I need to know and however much you’re willing to share.’

Bhask nodded in agreement. ‘Most of it can be explained simply enough. Kaell’s family, Highness, was of the Dureset tribes of Cerron.’

Shala took a moment to recognize the lineage, her knowledge of history making her draw some obvious conclusions. ‘But they were driven out of Cerron! During my father’s second campaign. They had to leave the land!’

‘Indeed. Uprooted by war from their home, the wooded Duaga region, they crossed the Enbair Ocean, past the Frozen Axe, and to the Freelands in search of refuge. It was a… hopeful new beginning for them, their people quickly establishing a settlement and adapting to a new environment. But the Marauders of Akurat had become an inescapable part of the Freelands. Kaell’s people were not prepared and so, virtually defenceless, they succumbed to the Marauder raids. It is known that there is no mercy in their attacks.’

Shala had a knot in her throat.

Only Kaell survived as far as I know. Tough as he is, he escaped. I wandered the Freelands at the time and I found him near death, with no home and refuge, his body wasted away from hunger and his mind dull with suffering. I nursed him and naturally I intended to leave him somewhere where there’d be those who could care for him. When I realized what strength he had however, I decided to train him as the last of the Wolves. That said he will always hold onto what is left of his people. The bronze blades and totem and the paint on his face are all remnants of a culture now dead.’

‘I did not know… He never gave any indication that his family was murdered…’

‘As Kaell the cook he would have been aware of his past life, but not attached to it in an emotional way.’

‘So the paint he puts on his face…?’

‘It is a tradition of his people, warpaint. Of course there were many kinds of painted masks, for manhood or marriage or mourning. The particular insignia represents vengeance, and by all that he is the paint is not supposed to come off until vengeance is achieved. I’m afraid even ten years later he has not accomplished retribution, because he has been too busy being a Wolf.’

‘So my House was responsible for his family’s tragedies! Does he know what role my family played?’

‘Yes he does, he was very young at the time, but well aware of his people losing a homeland. After the Marauders had burnt their settlement, Kaell was extremely vengeance driven, and I used it to turn him into a Wolf. Even as a child he was as deadly as Ascentar, and nearly as well-balanced and quick as the Mighty Taggandus. But his training was far from easy and it was weighed against my prideful notion that I will make the best Wolf yet seen. The trouble was the very last of the old Wolves didn’t want to accept Kaell into our already dying order.

‘So I had to take an obscure approach, because he was so adamant on living out his retribution, and I content in wielding this as a ways to his success, and proving him worthy to the others. While his physical regimen was in place from the very beginning, I had not yet brought the Wolven lore to his mind. He did not know yet what it truly meant to be a Wolf. So at first I fanned the flames of his vengeance and I gave him the notion that he would one day go against Evrelyn, the House that invaded Cerron. Enter Attoras like a shadow he would, and slay the king’s house that had robbed him of his family and homeland.’

Shala almost listened in disbelief. ‘Really? And you had no fear that he would go rogue?’

Bhask did not satisfy her answer immediately.

‘It was a lesson, and a test. I had to teach this very dangerous warrior I was creating discretion. It was a road I had to walk once, so I knew the importance of teaching Kaell this. A double-edged sword is vengeance; in our world it is a driver to greatness, yes, but also a stepping stone to the tyranny of men who claim themselves masters of others’ fate. He was within the castle and I advised him to first hunt the daughter of the King.

‘The idea resonated with him, imagining inflicting on the King a similar pain to what he had undergone, before killing the King himself. I told him to follow you, to do as a predator would and enjoy having you within his sights and you clueless as to how vulnerable you’d be. I gave him words to haunt him, I told him to relish in having you as vulnerable as his family were to the Marauders. To a lesser man the significance would’ve been lost; Kaell however was quickly seeing himself becoming a Marauder himself. He would not stoop to that.’

‘So as I have it, he shadowed your daily comings and goings and no one was the wiser. When you rode in forests, he was there. When you spent your days reading, he was there, and when you started as a healer in the infirmary, he was there.’

‘Afterwards he came back to me miserable. It was the only time I ever saw tears in his eyes. He told me that he could not follow through. He had watched you and followed you. He was angry at me for insinuating that he should kill an innocence that had nothing to do with his misfortunes. He told me all about you; he was enchanted by this young Princess that had just discovered her own hands of healing and how you were inquisitive to all things. He said he would stop me if I sent someone else to harm the King’s house,’ chuckled Bhask.

‘That day a Wolf was born, he was finally what I wanted him to be – a just warrior- not a killer, and one that would protect a light-bearer such as yourself even against his own kind. I revealed to Kaell what the Wolves were all about, and he embraced it. The older Wolves were mostly gone by then, but they all would've approved of the way Kaell'lam turned out. King Anka took an interest in Kaell’s development, and as I discussed it with him, he decided there was no one more perfect than Kaell to become your protection. Your father, Your Highness, was greatly worried in the last few years and that is why the lengths were taken to disguise Kaell to the extent that we did.’

Shala sat there absorbing the story. And suddenly she choked up. She did not feel like she deserved the loyalty he had shown her. ‘He carries heavily on this vengeance still though?’

Bhask nodded. ‘That is true, and how he deals with it will be the test of his life. In him I sense the need to exact wrath that goes beyond just his family’s honour. I was unable to sway him from this road entirely and it might be an inextricable part of him always. ’

‘But then I don’t understand. He has found it in himself to look past my House’s involvement.’

‘Consider this Highness: He knew it might’ve very well been a Marauder standing in his boots and watching you as helpless prey. Having found in you something worth protecting, do you think he would relent against the evil the Marauders carry in their hearts? No.’

‘A dangerous road for him then. I’d rather not he gets himself killed hunting down these men. Will he go after his parents’ murderers?’

‘He intends to. He knows you are safe with me so when he painted his face I expected he was announcing his departure. Owing someone death comes second to owing someone your life in their culture however. He has had great duty among the Wolves, chiefly protecting you. Until now he knew it was more important protecting you than settling some score, no matter how close to the heart this score may be.’

‘Ten years is a very long time to hold onto hate,’ said Shala.

‘Indeed it is. I hope it makes you understand him a bit better, because he will not be forthcoming with all of his histories.’

‘Despite some deceptions on his part I am truly grateful for what he has been to me.’

‘I was surprised you didn’t ask earlier, Highness.’

‘I tried, or rather I meant to. But it didn’t feel right.’

‘I must admit I’d thought Kaell would have taken leave by now and then I would have explained it all to you anyway. But he has lingered. He is unsure, this I know, and didn’t want to quite volunteer the information while he is with us.’

‘Why?’

‘If you know his story and you approach him about his situation he will feel obligated to stay with you. Like I said, I thought by now he would be long gone. He struggles to make a decision and you will one way or another influence his choice. Be mindful that he hasn’t been sociable because it will make his eventual departure easier. He won’t approach you in this matter. He might someday just be gone.’

‘I think I should talk to him then. Should I tell him I’m alright with him leaving?’

‘If you so wish Highness. But you’re allowed to be selfish in this. If you feel you need him with us then tell him that too.’

Shala did feel that way, but she couldn’t see herself saying that.

‘We’ll be on the main road that runs along the border of Norwain forest soon, then we can ride hard and fast on eastwards. If Kaell intends to leave he will not be able to linger much longer. The Freelands lay in the exact opposite direction to where we’re heading.’

‘And if he doesn’t?’

‘For our sake I will ask him to leave. I cannot allow him to trouble us with his uncertainty. If he wants to stay he’ll have to wash the paint from his face and commit to our cause. There is no other way.’

Von Gillivez returned to them at a canter.

‘I suggest we slow down a bit for the day. I laid out some traps not far ahead from here. If we bring down one of those pronghorns we’ll have meat for a fortnight. I’ll circle back if necessary.’

After some consideration Bhask said, ‘No, we might as well call it a day soon enough. Let’s make something of your efforts Trapper!’

 

 

When the day came to a close Bhask had them camping at a river stream. ‘This is the last known stream that we’ll cross that comes from the Black Mountain, so freshen up as best you can,’ Bhask had told everybody.

As usual Kaell wandered off and sat aside, further down the stream, to tend again to the wooden device. Tonight however Shala decided to bring the matter to finalization. She walked quite a distance following him, for a moment afraid he had decided not to stop and to leave them without notice. Coming through the woods hugging the riverbanks she caught up to him where he set up camp, his totem already planted.

Not for the first time Shala felt that the Wolf was looking for something magical within the device.

‘What is it?’ she asked. Kaell was taken out of his reverie and looked up and saw her pointing at the lion’s head.

He seemed to take awhile to find his voice, surprised that Shala had followed him. ‘It’s a totem my Lady, a sacred thing among my people. I have no idea how to work it, but I can feel it on my mind like the presence of a breeze tugging at my clothes. Many of the land’s dreams still linger in it, but I am wholly estranged from them.’

‘You know that I know then?’ asked Shala rather clumsily.

‘Yes my Lady, Master Bhask figured it fair to inform me that you are now aware of where I came from.’

‘Did you escape with it? When they destroyed your home?’

‘No, I returned briefly before I was assigned as your protection, Your Highness. There I found nothing but ruin and sorrow. All that was left of the material possessions was the totem, intact even where a burning roof had collapsed on it. Of course I had to leave it in the care of Edran when I came to the castle.’

‘What purpose does the totem serve?’ she asked.

‘I was born to be a Shaman, my Lady, like my father was. Don’t take us for an uncivilised lot though. My father brought in books and currency and agriculture to the Freelands and our towns grew ever bigger. I guess our sudden prosperity was the very reason the Marauders came to us. To answer your question, the totem is supposed to relay to us the will of the land. It’s much like the Druid’s magic I guess, but they don’t need totems, but neither can they make it rain or snow or sleet. Things that have a heartbeat and breathe and grow are in the domain of the Druids. We had a relationship with more lifeless elements.’

‘Your people commanded the weather?’ asked Shala.

‘Among other things my Lady. Have you ever heard of the Arrhua?’ he asked eagerly.

‘I’ve read across it, but rarely understood it, spirits as I take it?’ asked Shala.

‘Yes, but not just spirits of the living or the dead, they are the fundamental constructs, the elements that are eternal. Fire, water and wind among others may seem like lifeless occurrences, but within them lurk a primitive and arcane consciousness, manifestations of the old titans. Even though it be very subtle.’

‘Old titans?’

‘Yes, old titans and maybe to the eyes of others, false gods. They were the Arrhua having taken shape, so that they almost seemed human – or intelligent beast maybe. There is little be seen of them in our era, the world as it is now is tightly wound, guarded by the realms and its rules, and threaded together by the dreams of the Benevolence so that we cannot see the seams of it. Deep in the past, various forms of Arrhua spirits emerged quite freely and often wreaked havoc doing so. In our time magi communicate with them at best. All the better I guess.’

Shala nodded. ‘Now I wonder; do you think the wraith-kind has any resemblance to Arrhua?’

Kaell narrowed his eyes. ‘In a way, yes. But from the realm of death they are an abhorrent manifestation, and product of the folly of man. They too are highly influenced by the Rules of Realm. Rest assured Highness, I would not use the totem to commune with their kind.’

‘And will you be able to commune through the totem? With any of the elements?’

Kaell shook his head doubtfully.

‘My father and the elders were murdered before I was taught the art, I’m afraid it’s lost forever. But where I’m denied one power I’ve gained others thanks to Master Bhask. He taught me the Savage Art of the Wolf and it has given me strength and pride where else I would have none. I owe him much. I have purpose and in that way I do honour to my deceased. It’s difficult to explain…’

‘I understand your meaning Kaell, I too deal with my father’s passing in duty. Sometimes it seems like the least we can do in their memory,’ said Shala.

‘It is still a shame you know, that the Shamans are gone; I’ve heard that great droughts are plaguing farmers all across the southern parts of the world. We could have done with good folk who could steer the weather and give them much needed rain.’

‘Do not confuse us with weatherwitches Highness. Yes, we did have a say in the weather, but there are those who mess and manipulate with nature as if it is a toy. They hoard clouds, deny rain and they make hailstorms with dark rites, and then ask for remunerations and payment to let it stop. We Shamans worked along with nature, listening to its ebb and flow, courting you might call it, instead of wielding it into inappropriate directions. We stood opposed to weatherwitches, but now that my kind is gone they play openly with the seasons and are surely to blame for the misfortune of farmers. Luckily their power is limited. Nature protests to being mistreated and it takes ten of them to accomplish what one of our Shamans could achieve alone. The harmony my people brought, I think it might be lost forever. Unless I do something.’

‘So what do you intend to do with the totem?’

‘The only thing I can do Highness; I’ll let it touch the soil and breathe the air of all the places we might chance upon. It will take in the world, and be taught like a living thing, like a child almost. Maybe once its bond with Angaria is strong, it will act as a totem of old, reconciling different realms with one another and shedding harmony where it can. I might not see the power of Shamans restored in my lifetime, but I can at least begin its recovery. Another may be born gifted and use the totem in all its power. If there is a chance of that I will ensure the totem is ready by then. And what’s more, I’ll make sure it’s the most far-travelled totem in all of history.’

‘You’re a man of two worlds then. One that is of a destroyed homeland and the other of a dead order.’

Kaell’s dried up face paint cracked around his mouth as he smiled. ‘You make it sound so grim, Highness. But there is truth in what you say. Although the Wolves themselves are not far removed from a totemic culture. Spiritually they are bonded to the white wolves that dwell on the Black mountain. On the other hand the Freelands knew no King and had traditions that bounded its denizens to it forevermore. For me taking to the ways of the Wolf meant I laid down those traditions; not that I had a choice; my folk were obliterated. It seemed that the Freelands would provide a good life, but in hindsight I must say; I’m convinced it could have done with rulers and laws, which at least would have not given the Marauders such free access.’

‘Master Bhask has told me that your paint is a mask of vengeance against the Marauders.’

Kaell’s face hardened again as he nodded.

‘What were you planning to accomplish?’ Did you expect to find the Marauders on the road?’ asked Shala, ‘can you even remember the look of them, and the faces of those that were involved?’ It all came out more forcefully than she intended.

‘No Highness. I will live out my vengeance against all who carry the Marauder name. They will learn to fear the paint on my face and the two swords I carry. At least then, and finally, I would have kept with my people’s ways and done them retribution.’

Shala sighed. ‘So you’re focusing all of this hatred on the Marauders when in fact my family played a role.’

Kaell looked almost a little surprised that Shala had dared to mentioned this.

‘Your forebears Princess…they could not have foreseen every little tragedy that would result from it. Or rather, how do you go about war without setting in motion all the tragedies that occur naturally? You can’t, and we all know it.’

‘My father and grandfather’s war forced your people to flee!’ insisted Shala.

‘That is a poor light to see it in, Highness. Your father and his army were not murderers. They did not pillage and they did not rape. And they were almost unique in that regard. It was not they who killed my family. Had my family stayed, they would have been attacked by the dragon worshippers and their armies in any case. They were caught up in a storm of other men’s battles. It could not be avoided. When the Dureset people were wiped out, it was a Wolf of your father’s house that saved me, and gave me the privileges of the Order. And after I had come to the stark realization that I could not hold your House in contempt, I met your father, and by his honour I knew instantly that he would be my King.’

‘But the Marauders will remain your target?’ asked Shala.

‘It was my people’s way, Highness. I still see them and I still hear my people’s cries. I still have dreams, the kind a child would have of terror. Even as Kaell the cook those dreams came to me. Though their significance was lost as soon as I woke.’

Shala had an apology on her heart. But she was not going to say anything that was going to make him feel like he had to stay with her. She was not going to invoke the kindness in him with guilt and see him making a decision that he didn’t want to make.

With Kaell mulling in thought Shala’s gaze wandered to the mountain and given the growth of the forests of these parts it would be gone beyond sight from tomorrow onwards. She drank in its vision for a couple of moments and her thoughts strayed onto things she had not thought of before.

‘How much do you remember of your life as Kaell the cook?’ asked Shala.

‘Most of it Highness, but it drifts in my mind like mists on a river, losing all detail when I try to focus light on it.’

‘Do you think you recognize Von Gillivez, have we seen him before?’ asked Shala.

Kaell was then thinking of the only time he and the Princess had been out and about together. ‘He was in town, locked in a pillory with the other deserters. He is not just someone fleeing Attoras, Highness, he is a man who abandoned the garrison,’ said Kael in realization.

‘I thought as much. I think he has been lying to us, or at least, not telling us the full truth. His House fell from grace a long time ago like he says, but the reluctancy to serve another House remains,’ said Shala in a hushed voice.

‘Most certainly, when we saw him locked up in town his beard was overgrown.’ Kaell shook his head. ‘Should’ve realized it, he was being kept in the castle, imprisoned when he was not being displayed in town, and when the goblins attacked, he broke loose in the chaos. He could not stay in Attoras as a criminal, so in desperation he fled after the goblins and into the caves.’

‘So what will we do? Do you think he deserves a second chance?’ asked Shala.

‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ said Von Gillivez, who had approached very silently through the woods. Shala and Kaell looked up at him in surprise. ‘I have decided to part ways here anyway, as I need to return to Attoras. I left the garrison when I heard the King had passed; it was clear to me that the Kingdom was going to the dogs then.’

Kaell stood up, moving protectively in front of Shala. She herself stood up, her hands closed in tight fists.

‘The kingdom doesn’t need men like you. Lucky for you we don’t have the luxury of trying to turn you in. Leave now in peace while you can. You might not get an opportunity like this again,’ said Kaell.

Gillivez smirked. ‘You know, when I escaped I was so sure I would never return to Attoras again. But gold is always a problem leaving this backwater continent. And then by happenstance I run into the most wanted person on this side of the world. Catch one little mark of royal flesh and I will live out the rest of my life in comfort. You might not turn me in, but you’re right Wolf, I won’t get an opportunity like this again,’ said Gillivez, and as he did Shala saw him moving subtly sideways, as though positioning himself for the attack.

‘Do not stray onto this path Trapper, no animal you’ve come across will ever compare to the Wolves.’

Gillivez smirked.

‘My father always said that on any given day a well prepared man can take down any man or animal, regardless of how dangerous they think they might be. Run along back to your Master, little Wolf, I will leave you alive, and if you’re wise you’ll flee far from this land. I was worried that I would be pushing my luck, but the moment I saw you paint on that mask I knew you were the one to isolate. You are the weak one.

Kaell tensed up where he stood, but other than that he did not move an inch.

Shala saw the faintest disappointment on Gillivez’s face at Kaell’s timid response and then she knew something was wrong.

Von Gillivez chortled. ‘I’ve seen your kind before. Speaking of wars and vengeance, but never pursuing it, too cowardly to do anything more than talk about it.’

Right then Shala knew for sure he was baiting Kaell and before she could stop him Kaell leapt and ran at Gillivez. Shala was certain something was amiss, and looking for it she saw a small tree deliberately bent and set with a careful hand and some strong rope, looking like nothing more than a root among the vegetation. Gillivez had positioned himself in a very particular spot and despite Shala crying a warning Kaell did not stop.

When Kaell’s foot snagged on the noose, the pin keeping the tree in place was torn loose. The tree snapped upright and the noose plucked Kaell by the ankle into the air and wrenched him upside down and hanging. Having waited for just this moment, Von Gillivez charged forward and ploughed his shin through Kaell’s face, knocking the Wolf unconscious, swaying lifelessly as Gillivez trained his eyes on Shala, not sparing Kaell a further moment’s notice.

For the moment Shala could only turn and run and hopefully find Bhask or Metrus. She screamed as she did and the crunch of Gillevez’s boots hunted her down in moments. He pushed her down to her stomach, hitting the dirt, and Gillivez tied her hands behind her back faster than she thought possible with a length of rope. He pulled her upright with a strength that let her know this was a dangerous man.

‘Come Princess, there is a long way to go to Attoras.’

‘But you saved me!’ said Shala, as though reminding the Trapper would make him more reasonable.

‘I won’t be able to collect a reward for your capture if half of you were eaten by goblin scum. I spared you Princess, but not for your own benefit. ’

‘I’ll give you something like I will give to Jenody when I’m restored as Queen!’

‘You have nothing to give and I have no use for promises you can’t keep. Both you and I know you will never be anything again. Your House is dead. Von Gillivez kept them trudging through the stream, so that no one could track them until they came back onto land at random. When Shala tried resisting, sitting down, he merely pulled her along in a manner that was more painful to her than the effort was worth the trouble.

Shala wondered how long Kaell could hang upside down like that and if he’d choke on his own blood. That thought horrified her, and a desperate need surfaced within her to get away and help Kaell in any way she could. With nothing else at her disposal she tried to bite into his shoulder. He caught her by the face, her cheeks feeling crushed by his hand.

‘Don’t get me wrong Princess. If you trouble me on my road I will beat you senseless and more. You want to get the chance to defend yourself before the council in Attoras? Then don’t cross me!’

Shala kept looking over her shoulder as Gillivez dragged her along, Kaell’s still figure growing farther away and her hope of either Bhask or Metrus becoming concerned and come looking for them fading. They would come looking eventually, but not soon enough.

Ahead Shala spotted where Gillivez had tied down Merrigold upriver, primed for the escape back to Attoras the Trapper had envisioned all along. He would tie her to the saddle and ride hard to Attoras. She would be handed over to Swarztial and face an unforgiving council. Her only hope was… She kept looking over her shoulder, each time doing so becoming harder as Gillivez seized her by the back of the neck to haste her along.

That last time she thought her eyes deceived her, but the hint of movement was enough for her to risk breaking free for just a moment to have a proper look; Kaell came alive like a thing rising from the dead, snapping upright and reaching toward his feet above him caught in the noose. At this distance Shala had no idea how he did it, but the Wolf proved resourceful as he escaped his bonds and tumbled backwards to land on his feet.

Without hesitation he was in pursuit of Shala and Gillivez, although drunkenly so, and instead of trying to get away, Gillivez walked himself and the Princess into the centre of the river stream, watching on as Kaell came toward them in a furious run.

Again Gillivez waited for just the right moment. With Kaell bearing down on him he plucked Shala around and struck her through the face. At the force of the blow Shala capsized helplessly and when she met the sharp rocks of the riverbed her body and head exploded with pain. It was however the surprising strength of the river tide that would be the end of her, and with her hands still tied behind her back she struggled to keep her head out of the water.

Kaell veered away from Gillivez and bounded toward a stricken Shala to help her upright and to her own feet. And just as fast as he had managed to get her head above water was Gillivez coming from behind, opportunistically, and throwing a length of rope across Kaell’s neck. He wrenched the Wolf backwards, choking him and Shala was pitched back and taken by the stream again.

But the shallow river had no lasting power and by some mercy she came to a place where she could regain her feet. Gillivez had pitched Kaell into the water, holding his head submerged and pushing his knee into the Wolf’s back as he pinned him down. Shala splashed forward in a bid to help, and right then Kaell came upright with a surge, throwing Gillivez off of him. But they were into each other again like two dogs fighting and Shala backed away in fright.

They struggled, and maybe Kaell was still dazed, as Gillivez pushed him from his feet again and tried to hold his head underwater once more. Kaell was going to drown. Seeing this Shala ran forward and aimed at ramming her shoulder into the Trapper’s back. Bracing herself and closing her eyes at the last moment, she launched into the man.

Colliding with him, Von Gillivez was dislodged much too easily from atop Kaell and as he fell into the water along with Shala he did not move. The stream washed over him and a ribbon of blood came from his throat into foamy water, its origin a knife punctured into his neck. Shala took it all in with a great deal of shock.

While Gillivez had done his utmost to keep Kaell’s head underwater, the Wolf’s hand had blindly snatched a knife from the inside of the Trapper’s coat, and struck the Trapper with his own weapon. Kaell sat upright looking bewildered, as if there was a wish for his opponent to be alive still, so that he could pay dearly for his audacity. Shala’s body commanded a sharp intake of breath realizing they were going to survive this day and it got Kaell’s attention.

He wasted no time in picking her up and carrying her out of the river as though taking no more chances with their luck today. In his arms and with the rush of battle fading she was coughing up water, sounding as pathetic as she felt. When Kaell set her down he unbound her hands, and the life rushing back to them was all pins and needles. The two of them looked at the still figure of Gillivez and then finally turned to each other. Half of the paint was washed from Kaell’s face, his nose still dripping blood, and in turn he saw the swelling on Shala’s face growing worse by the minute.

He reached for her injured face, but she took his hand and held it with both of hers.

‘It’s alright Kaell… I’ll recover faster than anyone else alive.’

Kaell nodded, but he was not pleased that she had come to harm. Silently the two of them returned to where they had sat earlier, walking wearily back to where Kaell’s totem was still stuck in the ground.

Even now Shala had not forgotten the dilemma facing Kaell and seeing the totem she said, ‘You should go Kaell. I cannot ask you to stay with me even if I wanted to. I do not own you and neither do I deserve you. I cannot even understand how you ended up serving the House that invaded your homeland.’

Of course Shala dreaded he might really go, and she didn’t even feel it was the right thing for him to do. In her eyes he could not spend his life in hate, and even endanger himself by choosing this road.

For a while it seemed as though Kaell considered the offer, and Shala realized with some dread he might actually depart. He reached up to his own face where part of the mask was already removed by the river.

He sighed. ‘It’s alright Highness. Gillivez was right, this mask has clouded me and almost cost us today. It would not be the first time I need wash the paint from my face. I cannot leave your side just yet. The cold will be my cloak. As Bhask said this is the last stream for many miles and I might as well make the decision here,’ said Kaell.

‘Should I come across Marauders, I will do my duty. I might not hunt them outright, but if they cross my path…’

‘Let me help you then, you cannot see yourself at this hour,’ said Shala, already taking a rag from Kaell’s pack and submerging it in the stream.

He sat stone-still as Shala washed the remainder from his face, him staring off in the distance. Shala saw by the look of him how he hated having the paint removed. Yet he did not protest.

‘There, you look much better… You frightened me with that visage, and I have enough trouble recognizing you as it is.’

‘It is something you must accustom to, Highness. Kaell the cook existed on borrowed time, as we planned it from the start.’

‘A pity then, I had a good friend in Kaell the cook.’

‘I’m still here to be a friend Highness, only, I must be a guardian above all else. But you will not be alone and I don’t want to leave until I see you restored to your rightful place.’ He said that with a kind smile and she thought about the boy he might’ve been before becoming a Wolf.

Shala was surprised at how quickly she felt powerless to tears and how quickly she felt overwhelmed. She tried her best not to, but her eyes welled up.

Kaell noticed the change immediately and looked at her in alarm.

I’m sorry Kaell’lam,’ she said, she leaned forward swiftly and kissed him on the cheek, and then jumped up, fleeing to her tent, leaving the Wolf dumbstruck.

That night Shala went to bed with a heart laden with so many mixed feelings, comforted immensely that Kaell would remain with her, but the guilt Bhask and Kaell had done their best to discourage remained with her. She was shaken that Kaell had come from a place like he did. It was a silly practice to feel sorry for every tragedy that happened on Cerron, but that someone had come from that place to become a Wolf for her had her baffled.

Aware that the others were still awake, she could not soothe herself to sleep. Tomorrow she would have to explain her swollen face and the betrayal of Von Gillivez, but she certainly didn’t want to make a big deal of it, her thoughts wrapped up with Kaell’s history. Feeling the need, she sat and turned up her little oil lamp and by its light said up a prayer. It was a clumsy prayer she felt, struggling with words even when all she sought to do was pray for everyone except herself. For her Kingdom, and for Kaell. Her whispers must’ve been noisier than she realized, as a pair of boots came through the grasses towards her tent. She knew it was Kaell by the way he moved, although he did come very hesitantly.

He sat just outside of her tent, his shadow against the canvas by the light of their not too distant campfire. Something told Shala he had some long tale on his heart that he wanted told. At that stage Shala waited for nothing else in the world as she sat stone still in anticipation, looking down at her folded hands in her lap. ‘The Marauders could never have sympathy for my people…’ He did not say anything for quite a while, until finally all he could manage was:

‘Sleep well Princess.’

And then he returned to the others.

It was hardly anything, but far greater than nothing. In a way she knew he had long ago accepted her father as his King, and that he had no malice toward her or her family. That made her feel better.

Later, she had a dream she remembered with some embarrassment. She and Kaell alone rode into the night, surrounded by woodland, as though it was a perfectly normal thing to do, guided on the road by fuzzy moonlight. With some anxiety she told Kaell the worries on her mind, things she would not utter in the daylight hours.’

‘I’ve lost much Kaell. I feel it now. I am as naked as when I wade into the Seluin waters. Here as I am, I’m not a daughter of a King anymore and I’ve never been anything else. It was my duty to be mother to all of Attoras, the last I could give for my father. But I’ve been bullied into exile. And the warmth is gone too. The road is not kind to me, I’m used to walls and hearths and cushions. I thought myself strong before now, but I’m not a traveller like you are. Above all I fear Attoras might forget me.’

Kaell steered Warrock to walk side by side with Shala’s white mare. ‘Even stripped from your throne there is still some good to consider, Highness. I will not leave you Princess, not on the coldest days, or the darkest nights,’ he assured her, reaching for her hand and taking it. Riding side by side he held it. As dreams go their destination was unknowable, but sleepily she thought it didn’t matter as long as they were together.

 

The End

 

Naceus’ Notes

 

Angaria – The name of the earth.

Alder Stone – A crystalline gem forged with incredible care. Its design makes it very powerful, drawing power through its density rather than its size.

Allandiel – The Crimson City. Situated in the heart of the Rivver continent.

Arrhua – Spiritual beings lurking in the very elements of Angaria. Thought of as having a primitive consciousness.

Attoras – Capitol of the north, its castle built at the foot of Mount Dunnoom. The town is built star-shaped among the foothills. Ruled by House Evrelyn.

Benevolence – Resident to Allandiel, sleeping in the Great Vault for all eternity. Dreams perpetually, his powers working far and wide to sustain all of Angaria.

Blend of Blades – A technique of using two swords known by the Wolfs, forms part of the Savage Art discipline.

Blossoming – The transformation or evolution of one being into another. Most cases present with a single once-off change. Very few, like Metrus the Druid, take it to the extreme and change freely between different states of being.

Castilleon – The Blue moon.

Centaur – Half horse, half man, these creatures are much smarter than most other half-breeds. Still very vicious and uncouth. Recently allowed into the Crimson City.

Crimson City – The greatest city in the west, also commonly called by its actual name, Allandiel. The Home of the Benevolence and hence the moral authority of Angaria.

Crystal – A substance prevalent in matters of magical nature.

Dragonwell – A mysterious and deep set of caves found below Attoras. Said to be the hideout of Dragon worshippers that once resided in Attoras.

Delvo – Devouring plants used by Druids to feed on corruption and sanctify areas affected by it.

Des – An older word meaning “land of.”

Disciples – Followers sworn to families with magical powers. In exchange for loyalty disciples often share in a family’s power.

Dreamers – Mostly referring to gifted individuals of royal houses, carrying in their blood some kind of magic unique to a family. These families usually have a universal dream, so that when they are familiar with it they can draw power into the physical world. There are also magic wielders independent from such families, practising more variant forms of magic.

 

Dream of Embers – A powerful ritual practiced in Nem Nemuris. A network of the collective powers of the King’s of powerful families. The Dream of Embers, at the height of its influence, is thought of as giving peace and tranquillity to Angaria. It’s most fundamental function relates to keeping the Rules of Realm in place, which without the world would turn to chaos.

 

Druids – Children of the Grove and close allies to the family of Evrelyn. Since many of the Druids are sleeping, Metrus is the foremost among them and represent their collective will. They command power over nature.

Dunnoom – Called the Black Mountain. It is snow covered throughout the year and is revered in the north. It stands as a symbol of strength and provides the Seluin waters. The Wolves are said to have a keep high up its slope.

Enclave – A sacred area which is independent of the Attoras sovereignty even though it stands right behind the castle. It belongs to the House of Evrelyn and there stands a pool filled with the icy waters of the mountain in which rituals of magic and discipline are practised.

Erenciel – The sword of Attoras. Last wielded by King Anka.

Evrelyn – The House and family of Ankareus, rulers of Attoras, wielders of the light of Seluin and keepers of the halls of healing.

Freelands – A land without any history of Kings or Sovereignty. Overrun with Marauders in the past.

Gentled flames – Fire that has been touched by magic. The fire burns in perpetuity, but will no longer burn things in comes into touch with.

Goblins – The race of goblins are seen in two main statures: the toy makers who have gained some civility and the rest who are still trapped in clan life and warlike traditions. The goblin insignia is a wheel of hatchets.

Griffin – flying creatures used by Knights for their missions across the world.

Guild of Hands – An assassins’ guild often associated with mysterious deaths around the world. They are known to be linked with the wraith-kind, providing liberated souls for the death-mongering creatures of darkness. Blamed occasionally for the death of important kings in political plots, their insignia is a open hand with a black studded triangle on the palm.

Healing Hands of the King – An old term used to describe the healing light of Seluin. The House of Evrelyn is famous across the world for their talents.

Highwaymen – A band of men patrolling the northern roads around Attoras, Nortalon and Rostrad. They have been in existence since the days of Des Raqueba. They are often frowned upon as robbers, but also keep the roads safe. Acts as a second military arm for Attoras in times of great need.

Infirmary – The pride of House Evrelyn, where the sick and needy are treated with medicine and magic. Known also as the halls of healing.

Jeot Agathir – Called a heathen for his involvement with demons, Agathir’s research often went into topics avoided by other Scholars.

Keep – A lone building higher up in Mount Dunnoom where the Wolves stayed. Of the people of Attoras, only the King and his closest associates were allowed inside.

King’s tongue – The most prevalent language in the west.

Knights – The supposed independent police of the west, based in the Crimson City. They ride into battle atop griffins. Leader of them in this day and age is Knight-Marshall A’luon. Most great kingdoms have a couple of Knights, but they all obey the Crimson City.

Last Eligible – A title bestowed on a person of royal origin that has been become the only remaining person able to strengthen the Dream. This has happened a couple of times in the past, until a new heir of some royal family comes to the fore with the necessary ability. Shala of Evrelyn is known as the last eligible since her father’s passing.

Mallova – The white moon. The moon with the shortest cycle.

Marauders – A brutal horde of riders that raids and torch everything they come across. Their horses are pale steeds with sharpened teeth. Recently it seems they are under the guidance of a greater force, evident in the way they’ve become more focused and tactical.

Masons – The most prolific order in the world as far as past deeds are concerned. Their buildings and sublime architecture are widespread in Angaria. They are often seen as having a hand in everything given that most of the great structures were built by them.

Monolith – The name given to what remains when Kings blossom in Nem Nemuris. Rumour has that as the Kings’ spirits depart, that their bodies turn into crystal.

Nem Nemuris – A sacred place where Kings of all kinds travel to strengthen the Dream of Embers. There they blossom and are bound in ritual, essentially dying. The insignia of this place is a curling horn of a ram.

Nimroth – The Great beast and truest child of Angaria. Called the Mighty Devourer. Once visited almost complete destruction on all civilization until it was defeated. Its remains were never seen again.

Norwain – One of the great forests of the world comprised by many Groves inhabited by the Druidic people.

Pathra – Home of the Masons, also guarding the entryway to Nem Nemuris.

Pilgrim – A man of power and spite. Corrupts and curses other men. Seems to wander many lands aimlessly.

Pilgrim’s Malice – A deadly disease offering little chance of survival. Prevalent in the north currently.

Rivver continent – Named for its many rivers gracing the land.

Remnant Pages – The last remaining work and documentation of the travelling Scholar called Jeot Agathir.

Rodreon – The red moon. The moon that demands blood. The harvest moon. Its cycle corresponds more or less with the changing of seasons.

Rules of Realm – A very broad term used to describe the rules the physical and magical realms abide by. To illustrate briefly some examples in magic would be:

When someone dies, the Rules of Realm ferry the soul of the departed to the next realm.

The light of Seluin harming creatures of darkness, but not others. Metrus’s powers unable to harm creatures of nature that are welcome in the Groves. Such oppositional forces are prevalent in Angaria.

The ability of certain beings to only enter certain areas under special conditions. In this regard there is a very territorial element to the Rules of Realm, the borders of some places being much more than just arbitrary lines. Sacred or damned places would have different effects on trespassers depending on the person’s loyalties.

Savage Art – A discipline developed by the Wolves of the Black Mountain. Rivalled only by the Kaladrim discipline of Massondor.

Stallich – A powerful ritual practised in Attoras where the light of Evrelyn is bestowed on the receptive stones of Attoras castle. It keeps dark beings at bay. It strengthens Attoras as a sanctuary of light.

Starwall – A gargantuan magical barrier that encircles Angaria, dividing west and east completely.

Sannil – Rival House to Evrelyn.

Seluin Waters – The waters that run from the thawed snows of mount Dunnoom. Only found in that area of the world and is used by the House of Evrelyn as the substance of their magic.

Shaman – A spiritual leader to the now extinct tribes of the Freelands. They used to have commune with all the elemental spirits of the Arrhua.

Sunscape – The magic of the Bishops of Allandiel. The family of Auldain are the keepers of this magic and are, like the family of Evrelyn, considered light-bearers.

Totem – A seemingly harmless wooden device. Often made in the image of an animal, the animal is the patron creature of the respected tribe of Shamans.

The Cradle – A special area among the peaks of Dunnoom. It is considered a spiritual experience to reach this place and stare out over the lifeless tundra.

The Cold – Thought of as a discipline in the north. The severe low temperatures were used to push the body to such extreme states as to enter dreams more easily and hence Evrelyn became masters of magic. Was later adopted by the Wolves as well and served Evrelyn loyally since.

Under-earth – Sometimes used when someone is deep in a cave or mine, but the correct usage refers to where realms of fire and demons are prevalent.

Urn – Devices carried by the members of House Evrelyn or even disciples of the House. They keep the Seluin waters within it, as it is the source of their magic.

Warrock- A cursed horse, doomed to outlive all its riders.

Weatherwitches – Magicians controlling the weather recklessly to their own ends.

Wheel of Menace – A device used by the goblins.

Wraith-kind – Emissaries of death. They take away the spirits of the dead and have been known to meddle in mortal affairs as to cause more death.

Wolfshead – A silver helm wore by the Wolves of the Black Mountain.

Wolves – An order of warriors from Attoras banned by the Crimson City. Loyal only to House Evrelyn. Their deadly sword skills are feared across the world.

383

 


Dream of Embers Book 1

Following the death of its last great King, the dominion of Attoras falls into the care of Shala of Evrelyn, a living vessel of the light of Seluin. The young ruler is soon confronted by the scavengers of Kingdoms, hoping to put their own pretender on the throne, Shala finding herself at odds with creatures from deathly realms and more. But from the shadow of the Black Mountains warriors of a lost order rise to protect her right to the throne, and with them come a host of conspiracies that have dogged the west, and a reminder that all roads might yet lead to the Dream of Embers, where the ultimate sacrifice is demanded.

  • Author: Barend Kleynhans
  • Published: 2016-06-02 20:05:17
  • Words: 92959
Dream of Embers Book 1 Dream of Embers Book 1