Before the guttering fire was allowed to flicker into oblivion, a small servant scurried over to bank it with fresh logs. Smoke billowed out from the irritated fire but did little to cover the stench of fever, and now in these late stages, of putrefaction.
Thick tapestries showing great battle scenes hung on the walls of the chamber. Rich fabrics covered the furnishings, whilst deer furs were piled high upon the bed. All of them filthy. Weeks without fresh air had seen to that. Servants, fearful of causing the King’s sickness to worsen, had stopped up the windows and any other opening that might cause a draft. Death was present. Everything smelt of it.
Every servant who ran in and out with remedies demanded by healers feared what was coming. Every courtier who came to see how soon they could expect the King to die and their position solidified or rendered obsolete by a new regime. All of them wore fear on their faces.
The King’s gnarled fingers gripped at the fur covers with what little strength they had left, his lined face creasing, his thoughts drifting between consciousness and other realms. The healer had not left his side, and in all honesty Garesh found the man an utter fool. His ridiculous ceremonial costumes fashioned from the skins and heads of wildcats were of no help to a feverish King. Then again, perhaps the King’s second-in-command should be happy. As High Councillor to King Emril, so close to absolute power, Garesh didn’t want his superior to recover. He wanted him to die.
King Emril had reigned with power, raising the Reluwyn from an independent kingdom of settled nomads. Now they ruled an empire that spanned half the known world hubristically named Emrilion. He had been a ruthless king, his cruelty furthered his domination and his single-mindedness was never questioned by his subjects; but now that time was over and Garesh had waited long for this. He was ready to rise, all that was needed was the King’s signature scrawled upon the Regency document Garesh had already drawn up. After all, Emrilion had no Queen. Emril’s wife had been deemed by him a threat to his power, and so he had dealt with her accordingly. Her Alakvalto blood, which drew from an ancient shape-shifting magic, had been her undoing. No King of the Reluwyn could allow himself to be seen as second to his Queen. The marriage had served a purpose. Then it had not. The King had signed an Edict condemning all shifters to death, accusing them of being influenced by dark spirits. Queen Anis had been burned alive, cleansed of the supposed evil, and her own husband had watched. Now an entire ancient magic was left in the realms of silence.
For Garesh, such a move had unwittingly cleared the way for his own ascension to power as regent upon Emril’s death. No one had expected the tenacious King to catch fever with the rest of the crowded city, but he had. Despite the lack of a mature heir to call upon, Emril was ever wilful, until now refusing to hand over any of the power he had spilt rivers of blood to build. The only hope left was to bring the young Prince Trevisian to the dying King, and hope that the boy’s presence would persuade him to sign the document in the pocket of Garesh’s silk robe. As regent, Garesh would rule in the boy’s stead until the heir took a wife as Reluwyn custom dictated. Then the Prince would be elevated to Kingship. When that time came Garesh would make the decision on what to do next. Until then, he needed to secure his power.
The High Councillor was going for the boy now. He strode through the palace with all the purposefulness that had once led him out of the courtier’s muck heap and up to the King’s right hand. The robe he wore flared out behind him and his leather shoes thudded on the tiled floors. He passed walls with frescoes depicting the ascent of the Reluwyn, from a tribe in the Tao desert into a mighty nation. The quickest way to get to Prince Trevisian’s chambers was to pass through a fountain courtyard made of sandstone, the chambers off it containing the King’s numerous concubines. Since the King’s illness, Garesh had taken to passing by those rooms more often.
This time, however, he did not stop but carried on. He passed the fountain which had frozen on the first day of true winter, its icy shards suspended, waiting for spring to release them. He entered the Hall of Banners where all the bloodlines of the Reluwyn—apart from that of the Alakvalto—were represented. Courtiers and council members milled about, waiting for news of the King, forming factions or fighting amongst themselves.
Garesh, usually taking his time to flatter and persuade the most influential courtiers, instead skirted the main throngs and headed to the left of the great stone columns. He had no time to waste. The healer had said the King would die any day. Without that document signed, Garesh’s plan would surely fail. No amount of flattery would be able to unite the courtiers and council members under his authority without the King’s signature.
He took a side door from the hall and headed to the north of the palace. The Prince’s rooms were soon reached and Garesh strode into the brightly painted seating chamber that looked out onto the jewelled courtyard at the heart of the palace.
Trevisian’s dark head was bent over the stick he was carving, while in the corner his tutor sheathed a pair of swords, no doubt from a recent training session. The boy started at Garesh’s entrance. His eyes widened but quickly relaxed when they saw who it was.
“Out.” Garesh’s voice brooked no argument. In spite of the turmoil at court, he still held the highest sway. The tutor needed no second bidding, and obeyed the High Councillor without pause.
Garesh didn’t even bother to watch the man leave. His eyes were already focused on the Prince and, once the door had closed, he came forward. The rapid movement caused the boy to drop the stick. It rattled to the floor and the Prince hastily retreated to the window in the far wall.
“My Prince, do not be startled, I am come to take you to your father.”
Trevisian said nothing. He took another step back, his eyes widening again.
“Your father is dying.” Garesh didn’t expect sorrow from the boy. The yellowing bruises visible on the Prince’s neck were reason enough for lack of tears. Garesh knew exactly what beatings felt like, his thrashings had ceased with his mother’s last breath.
The High Councillor’s pity for the boy was short-lived though. After all, this pathetic creature was heir to an entire kingdom, a position Garesh would kill for. Right now, he needed the Prince to come to his father. “You are to be the new ruler.”
“Ruler?” came the small boy’s voice. He was no more than twelve. “Father is King,” he said, as though nothing else made sense.
“For now, but you are his heir Trevisian. Do not be frightened. I know you fear the responsibility, but that is why I am here. We are to go to your father and ask that I may help you rule. Would you like that? Or would you like to do it all alone and make mistakes? Would you like to disappoint your father?”
The young Prince stood very still. This was the closest he had looked to crying. He did not answer and Garesh’s impatience grew. They had to get back to the King.
“I can help you. But if you do not help me now, you will be alone, and there is no telling what could happen to you…” Garesh let his ominous words work on the child’s imagination. “We wouldn’t want what happened to your shifter mother to happen to you, would we? Isn’t that why I told you to do as I said the other day? Now, will you come and do as you’re told again?”
Whatever images had been conjured in the boy’s mind, they were enough to force a small nod of his head. Without waiting for a change of heart, Garesh reached out and grabbed the boy in a vice-like grip. He dragged the Prince after him, the child having to skip and run to keep up with the legs of the tall, thin man.
Before long, they entered the festering room where the King lay prone. His eyes were open now, their bright green irises a startling contrast to his white skin. He looked almost lucid, but his breathing remained shallow.
“My lord High Councillor.” The healer bowed. “The King grows weak…” he trailed off, his eyes completing the sentence.
Garesh threw him a look of derision but said nothing. He had work to do.
“My Lord King,” Garesh said, coming to kneel beside the bed and taking hold of the coarse, gnarled hands that had once wielded blades and sent armies on to victory. “I have brought your son.”
The High Councillor turned, keeping one hand on the King’s, and reaching for Trevisian with the other. “Come,” he commanded.
The boy flinched, instinctively making himself smaller, but reluctantly obeyed. The little Prince knelt beside the bed and Garesh placed one of the boy’s shaking hands on the King’s.
King Emril turned his head with much effort. His eyes took in both faces—that of his councillor, sharp and lined—and that of his son, dark and young. His breathing grew louder.
“I have been speaking with your son, Lord King. You may well get better… but if not, your time may be soon, and you have made no provision. Your son’s young years make him ignorant, so he has asked that I guide him in his ruling, that the glorious Kingdom you created might endure.”
“Weak…” wheezed the King. “Weak.” His green eyes were hard upon his son’s face.
“Young, my Lord King, only in need of guidance,” Garesh continued doggedly. “I put myself forward to be his regent, Lord King. It is his wish, and best for your Kingdom. Will you sign the document, my Lord King?” The question was out and the King was angry. Now all Garesh could do was hope the King would die, for if he recovered, the High Councillor would lose far more than his position.
“No…” whispered the King. The slightest of movements indicated he wished to shake his head.
Garesh tightened his hand over the Prince’s and the King’s, not caring if he caused pain. He glanced at Trevisian. Had the boy heard his father?
The King shuddered, his breathing harsh and ragged. The healer approached but Garesh swung around like a wild animal, cursing him away. This would not be the end. Garesh could not let the King go peacefully without signing that document. He flung Trevisian’s hand away and rose up, obscuring the Prince’s view.
Snatching up the quill from its inkstand beside the bed, Garesh yanked the document from his inner pocket, and spread it out across the King’s chest. The monarch still shook, his body spasming, then as suddenly as the shaking started, Garesh felt it cease beneath his hands. The King’s green eyes dulled, his breathing stopped, he finally lay still.
Garesh’s mind raced. Behind him, he could hear the voices of mourners, summoned by the healer. Had the man been wailing like that this whole time? Garesh hardly knew. He felt the Prince’s hand tentatively tug at the back of his robes. Did the boy know his father had died?
Garesh’s breath quickened. He couldn’t let this power slip away. Not when it was so close. Seizing the King’s hand, he placed the quill between the dead fingers and marked the paper with the signature he had witnessed a thousand times. The ink glistened in the lamplight, a simple series of lines that slowly dried to an indelible mark. The future of the Kingdom was set.
10 Years Later
Kiara drew the short sword from the sheath on her belt and worked quickly on the rope that bound the child’s hands. She felt the bonds give way and moved onto the next child.
“Run, Talia,” she called to the first. “Quietly. Keep to the shadows.”
The little girl leapt up and darted to the cover of the nearest porch. There was a gathering of Imperial Guards further down the earthen street. They stood together muttering to each other, a good day’s work done. As the two suns were setting, Kiara had come. She wouldn’t let the Laowyn children be taken away from their mothers for palace slaves, no matter what her uncle said about obeying the ruling authorities. Curse the Reluwyn!
Another set of ropes broke under the stone-sharpened sword, and another child ran after Talia, darting in and out of the shadows of doorways before being lost in the alleys of Miresh.
“Rue, you must send a message to your parents to tell the others: the Reluwyn’s are taking children for slaves; people must hide their children. Do you hear me?” Kiara whispered urgently. The young boy nodded and ran.
Kiara went to the last of the children, a boy, whimpering, younger than the others. When she took the ropes between her two hands the boy yelped. She froze, praying that the guards had not heard. Seconds ticked by. The murmur of voices had stopped.
Hearing nothing, but not daring to turn and look, Kiara began again on the ropes. The movement of her arms gave her away.
“You! Stop! Stop in the name of the Prince!” The harsh command rang out against the wooden forest buildings.
“Run!” Kiara yanked the boy to his feet by the bonds she hadn’t managed to cut yet, thrusting her sword into her belt. She pulled him into an alley to the left, not sure if the boy was running or if she was dragging him. Her muscles burned with his weight. She turned left then right along another passageway.
The guards’ legs were long and they were gaining on her. She heard something whistling through the air and a lancing, hot pain pierced her thigh. She stumbled, cursed and freed an arm from the boy to steady herself. She knew what they did to Laowyn woman, what their Prince permitted, she would not be taken alive. She caught sight of the dagger sticking out of her thigh. If she kept running she’d bleed to death before they took her, and she might just get the boy to safety.
A surge of adrenaline pulsed through her as she lunged sideways, her free hand finding the rim of a water jar and yanking it over. It crashed across the path behind her, the clay smashing and water flushing out. She stumbled forward, not looking back as her pursuer fell.
Making it to another junction in the maze of alleys, she turned a corner, and without warning a hand reached out and yanked her and the boy through an entrance. The door shut quickly behind them, leaving them both sprawled across the floor.
Immediately hands were jammed over mouths to muffle their moans of pain. The kidnappers and kidnapped waited together in darkness.
Footsteps thudded past the door. Reluwyn shouts could be heard. Kiara’s breathing ran ragged. She felt the seep of warm blood trickle down her leg, yet she still clutched at the boy laying next to her.
After some time there was movement in the dark house.
“Will you be silent?”
Kiara nodded and felt the boy do so as well. She released him, rolling over onto her back and inadvertently pushing the dagger further into her leg. Throwing her hand over her face she groaned into her coat sleeve.
“And who is this young man, Kiara?” came the voice again. A familiar voice.
She hadn’t realised just how close she had been to getting home.
“This is Jude,” she replied, between heavy breaths to control the pain.
“Jude,” repeated her uncle, his face suddenly illuminated.
The light caused Kiara’s eyes to ache, taking time to adjust as Djeck, her uncle’s servant, walked towards them with a newly lit oil lamp. Her uncle Zephenesh helped Jude to his feet, though the boy whimpered and attempted to collapse again.
Kiara unsheathed her sword, grunting with the effort, and sent it thudding across the dirt floor towards her uncle. She said nothing, the pain now too great, but Zephenesh knew what she intended. He picked up the weapon and made quick work of the boy’s bonds, the severed ropes falling to the floor.
“Djeck, leave the light and take Jude home. The Imperial Guards should be lost in the maze of alleys by now, but you must be careful.”
Djeck obeyed without objection. He covered Jude with his cloak before slipping out with the boy’s hand firmly in his.
Zephenesh turned back to his niece and without a word began to tend her leg. Removing his belt, he tied it above the embedded dagger, and then tightened it without warning. Kiara wrenched upwards in pain.
“This will hurt.” Her uncle took hold of the dagger’s handle. Even the pressure of a hand felt like burning inside her thigh.
“No, no, no,” gasped Kiara. She kept murmuring it, even when Zephenesh counted down from three, and a scream came when he pulled it out on two.
She felt the blood flow, but the belt did much to stem it. And then her uncle was up, gathering strips of fabric from the box of medicinal herbs and bandages that sat beside his bed in the adjoining room. He poured water into a bowl from one of the clay jars in the kitchen, and used it to clean the wound. By the time he was bandaging Kiara’s leg she had passed completely out of consciousness.
Over the Northern Sea, the two suns followed the train of dusk, finally dropped their red heads below the horizon. Darkness descended unbidden over moorlands that stretched for miles beside the rolling waves, and crickets sang out their evening ballad from under the purple heather.
The Reluwyn thief, rising as darkness fell, stood halfway down one of the moorland hills listening to the sounds from the dirt track below. The crickets grew silent and the heather-heads trembled, as though fearing what was to come.
Drawing back the wide cuff of his coat, he pulled an old friend from a leather sheath on his forearm and stabbed it into the stony hillside. Just before it was driven home, the dagger reflected its owner in the moonlight, the sharp nose and dark eyes intent on their work, a three-day-old beard the thief had no intention of shaving blunting the hard lines of his square jaw.
Dropping to his haunches, he crouched until his ear was close to the knife. Raven locks fell across his temple, and he raised his hands, cupping them around his ear to block out all other noise. The parched earth was the perfect medium for carrying sound.
Thud. Thud. Thud. One, no wait… a two-horse carriage. A heavy one judging by the vibrations, although it travelled at speed. He raised his head from the knife, dark eyes taking in the road below. At that pace it would only be a short while before the vehicle came round that corner, and the driver would surely slow his horses to avoid the risk of overturning the carriage. That worked well for the thief. That worked perfectly.
He closed his eyes in the evening breeze, smelling the brine on the air that came up from the sea. Taking a deep breath, he let out a long, low whistle. That done, he tugged his dagger free of the dirt and returned it to its holder, rising as he did so.
Thin drabs of clouds were strewn across the star-laden canopy, obscuring the brilliant burning diamonds in places. The moon, just escaping the veil, let down a soft silvery light, casting the landscape in an eerie grey.
Through this metallic world Dainus moved. The creature’s smooth flanks tensed repeatedly with his grand stride, every muscle standing proud with the action. Each bound let loose another flaring movement of his ebony mane, the strands of hair flickering up and down like black fire. In spite of the darkness, the animal found his footing with ease on the rough heathery ground. No darkness or distance would deter the beast from responding to his master’s summons.
Reaching the crest of the hill on which the thief stood, the horse slid with practiced skill to a timely halt, hocks sliding beneath him, hooves digging into the soil, skin quivering in the night air as he surveyed the valley below. He was as a night phantom, a shadow on the skyline, a trick of the light.
The thief’s broad shoulders were straight and unflinching, his feet firmly planted on the side of the slope. With his back turned, he would have appeared ignorant of Dainus’ presence, but for his hand beckoning the horse closer. Dainus picked his way slowly down the slope, barely making a sound, until his muzzle touched his master’s outstretched hand.
The track still stood empty, but the thief saw the moonlight glinting off a carriage window on a distant bend in the road. The black horse’s ears pricked up, listening to the far-off sounds of the wheels. Master and beast waited. The only movement around them was the wind in the heather and the carriage on the road.
With an unexpected suddenness, the thief whirled around, grasping Dainus’ reins and launching himself into the saddle. The man drew a blade from beneath the folds of his coat, full-sized compared to the dagger sheathed to his arm. It sliced through the air, its double edge ending in a viciously sharp point. He twirled it unconsciously, licking his lips, tightening his grip.
The shift in weight was imperceptible, but the horse knew his master’s will, gathering his haunches and bounding forwards down the hill.
Before they reached the track, the carriage appeared at the bend on the road. Saliva flecked with blood foamed at the horses’ mouths as they cantered around the corner, the carriage leaning over, the fat driver squealing in dismay.
The thief did not expect the speed. He cursed the driver and adjusted his course. Dainus’ head swung sideways, shifting the weight to his left as he swerved. His master didn’t take his eye from the goal, riding on despite the change.
For a moment, the carriage seemed as though it would topple down the hill, but the horses stayed true to their course. The lumbering vehicle threw itself back onto all four wheels, jolting and thudding before settling.
The moment had come. The thief held his sword high, and seconds before colliding with the vehicle, let out an almighty cry.
The astonished driver, who had been distracted by steering the carriage, faced the oncoming rider headlong. His eyes widened and his hands froze on the reins, before he sprang to life, urging his horses on in an attempt to outrun the highwayman.
But the thief had not misplaced his trust in Dainus. The fearless beast kept on course and swung in front of the carriage rearing as he did so. The carriage horses slid to a shocked halt, one rearing in response, the other trying to bolt. The harness that had born the strain of the carriage’s two-wheeled trip around the hillside finally gave up. Leather cracked and snapped. One horse escaped as the other wheeled around in circles, his bridle caught in the wreckage. The carriage shafts were forced into the dirt by the momentum, as the driver flew from his seat onto the ground.
Dainus hop-skipped out of the broken carriage’s way, the thief staying in the saddle as the vehicle came to a final halt. The highwayman could not afford to lose his advantage: if there were guards inside, they would use their first opportunity to attack. The minutes ticked by but no one came out.
Dainus pranced in agitation, impatient to charge again. The thief reined him in and then dismounted. If anyone was in the carriage, they were in no fit state to fight. He let Dainus go and continued on foot.
The sound of groaning from the foot of the opposite hill stilled him. The highwayman turned, approaching the noise cautiously. There was a tangled heap showered in shards of wood from the carriage shafts. When he got close, the thief could see the twisted form of the carriage driver. He cast his eyes over the body, its legs bent at inhuman angles and its face bruised and bloody.
“Mercy…” whispered the man, “Mercy…”
The thief was an ominous shadow to the driver, perhaps death had come to take him. A muscle jerked in the thief’s jaw, he moved the blade in his hand, the point coming up under the driver’s chin. One push, and the man would be dead. Temptation lingered and then the thief moved swiftly, turning the blade, kneeling and knocking the driver out with the black handle.
Something creaked by the carriage. The highwayman was quick to swing round, his sharp eyes picking out a dazed figure clinging haphazardly to the carriage door, swinging back and forth, unable to steady himself. The thief advanced. Poles to which the horses had been lashed were shattered, shards of the wood strewn everywhere and several of them crackled under his heavy boots. The stranger glanced up in acknowledgement of the thief’s presence, muttering something inaudible.
The highwayman came to a halt before the traveller, his cloak falling in heavy folds around him. Dark eyes took in an elderly man crowned with a ring of straggly grey hair. With age, the missing hair had long migrated to his chin, forming a long beard.
But it wasn’t the traveller’s hair or face, no, it was his attire that made the highwayman take a step back. He glanced around now, to ensure that no one else was present, then looked back at the man. He took in the deep navy of the silk tunic, the silver length of cloth that hung from each shoulder, the gold emblem of Emrilion pinned to the chest. This man was from the palace in Emril City. This man was a Reluwyn courtier.
People in the northern moor villages had long spoken of Reluwyn officials moving in the Kingdom, travelling far, carrying messages. The tittle-tattle had grown increasingly louder since the noose had tightened around racial differences. All of Emrilion were interested to know exactly what their Prince and High Councillor were planning. And even with his current nomadic existence, the thief had heard whispers.
Anyway, it didn’t matter who the stranger was. His rank proved there was precious cargo inside this vehicle.
“You shall never get away with this,” the old man’s voice scraped like metal on stone.
The thief’s eyes flicked from the open door of the carriage to the man’s face. He said nothing.
“I ride under the protection of the Reluwyn High Council.”
Still the thief remained silent.
“Under the High Councillor Garesh!” The man’s voice rose higher, courage winning against fear. “Under the Prince himself—he shall not let you go unpunished.”
The thief’s body tensed. His fingers were tight on the handle of his sword and he no longer leant back on one leg. He set his thin lips in an uncompromising line, and his eyes blackened. “The Prince does not concern me, old man. But your cargo does.”
Harsh rasping laughter sounded out. The man looked pained but he chose defiance. The thief would have admired his spirit if there wasn’t still work to do.
“We carry nothing but the Prince’s laws. He shall punish you for this. Your body shall hang on the gates of Emril City for the vultures to peck at.”
“I think not.” With that the thief did to him as he had done to the driver. The old man crumpled readily, his hands released from the door, his frame falling in the dirt.
Leaving the man behind, the thief followed the point of his sword into the carriage. The silk curtains billowed fitfully in the evening breeze; the cushions all thrown about in disarray. The carriage lay empty of inhabitants, empty of the treasure he’d hoped to find.
He sheathed his sword and began picking up cushions, throwing them into a pile, searching for anything of worth. His hands hit the wooden seat, ran along it until they felt something cold, colder than wood. He drew out a silver box.
Returning to the moonlight to examine it, the thief recognized the royal crest: a desert wildcat, like the Alakvalto shifters of old had favoured when protection had been needed in the Tao desert. Pausing only briefly to take this in, the thief turned to opening the box.
It was locked. Perhaps if he could manage to smash off the crest, at least the silver box might fetch a little. Instead, the thief placed it on the ground and went to rifle the dead man’s pockets for a key. His guess was right and before long he found what he was looking for. He unlocked the box.
Lifting the lid he cursed loudly. There was nothing in it but a paper sealed with dark red wax, stamped with the same wildcat emblem.
He broke it open seeing large archaic scrawls in old nomadic Reluwyn threading its way across the pages:
To the provinces of Emrilion,
By royal proclamation, from the court of the Lord Prince Trevisian Alakvalto of the Kingdom of Emrilion, under the charge of lord High Councillor Garesh, all Kingdoms loyal to Emrilion, the Reluwyn, Meir Elves, Chieftains and Radichi Warriors, are to cease all trade and communication with the Laowyn.
A group of Laowyn, claiming to speak for their people, claiming they are a resistance against the Kingdom of Emrilion, are the root of insurrection within the Laowyn People. They are in direct conflict with Lord Prince Trevisian and the High Councillor Garesh and all free peoples of the Kingdom of Emrilion. No toleration shall be given to the Laowyn, no mercy shown, and no commercial interactions are henceforth permitted.
Any man, woman, or child found in contravention of this Edict, shall be found guilty of rebellion against the Lord High Crown Prince of Emrilion and sentenced to death by beheading.
This proclamation is being sent to every corner of Emrilion. All Laowyn who read this proclamation shall know that further insurrection will result in swift and crushing retribution with no further mercy shown. The Great Kingdom of Emrilion will not bow to rebellion.
By order of High Councillor Garesh.
Lord Prince Trevisian Alakvalto, Son of King Emril of the Kingdom of Emrilion.
The thief crumpled the paper in his hands, dropping it in the dirt of the roadside. This was no concern of his.
P. J. Keyworth – Fantasy Author