A stand-alone novel | Just a sneak preview of something coming soon 🙂
Excerpt from Chapter One — A Red Night —
Peace would not last. The shadow had grown and spread to even the fastness of Eris itself. It was like a cancer, a ruthless relentless cancer, eating everything in its path. The days of plenty and bliss had come to a swift close. No one knew it yet, not even the king himself, but it would be made known. Tonight was a night which would be filled with the lawless shedding of innocent blood. Some lives had been marked for swift death and others for radical upheaval. After this fell night, the land would mourn.
Anure wrapped an arm around his wife unconsciously in his sleep. Rhulynia snuggled against her husband and resumed her rest. Her infant son had awakened from a nightmare half an hour earlier, prompting her to rock him back to sleep again. The queen was just drifting off when a loud, insistent knocking startled her. She exhaled deeply and rose to answer the door, when Anure’s arm tightened around her waist.
“Allow me, love.” His voice remained groggy from sleep. “We can never be too careful.” Anure slowly swung his legs out from under the warm blankets and sat on the edge of the bed, yawning cavernously. The door seemed to shudder under the weight of the blows. The King of Telassar shuffled to his bed chamber door and opened it a crack.
An arrow appeared inches away from the king’s face and Anure was awake instantly. Running a hand through his thick, shoulder-length brown hair, Anure stared grimly at the man who had pushed his way into the room. “You are far from your forest home, Fallash, and the hour is late.”
“Right you are, o king, right you are,” Fallash replied, a sneer giving heat to his words. “The hour is indeed late; for you, too late. The world is changing and you must change with it.”
Anure clutched the door handle in anger. “I am King, Fallash; King of Telassar. The Pale One has no power here. Neither he nor his minions.”
Fallash laughed cruelly. “It is he who comes to take your throne.”
The Makai king stepped back and the menace of the land entered the royal chamber: the Pale One himself had come from Worég, his dark abode. Sédak towered above Anure and his presence cast a shadow in the moon-lit room. He stood at seven feet and his lean muscular frame was as foreboding as his cold gray eyes. His thick dark hair fell to his shoulders but his most outstanding feature was his skin; it was white, white as salt and cold as ice.
“You have grown proud in your power, King of Telassar.” Sédak’s voice was soft yet harsh. “I have come to relieve you of your post. The changing of the guard, if you will.” He laughed quietly.
Anure’s wrath built. “This is treason, Sédak; blatant, defiant treason. By decree I am your King as well and the only way you will take this throne is by taking my life!”
“You leave me no choice.” Sédak’s lips curved upwards into a malicious smile as he relished Anure’s words.
Rhulynia had slipped from the room seconds before the Pale One entered. She went out through a side door and hurried down a short corridor to the dwelling of Dormin and Vira. The queen walked quickly to their bed and awakened the loyal servants.
“Dormin! Vira!” she whispered urgently. Holding her son in one arm, she shook Dormin with her free hand. “Please, my friends.”
Dormin opened one eye, saw the troubled look on his queen’s face and was alert immediately. “Your Majesty.” The middle-aged man swung his legs out of bed and stood.
“The Pale One has come for the throne of Telassar.”
Vira gasped and covered her mouth.
“Anure has once again refused and so will die.” Rhulynia gently lay the infant in Vira’s arms. “I refuse to let him die alone. Take care of our son. Bring him up in secret and never let it be known that he is heir to the throne of Telassar.”
The prince-child, blissfully unaware of the danger, reached up and batted his mother’s cheek with his tiny fist. Rhulynia dropped a kiss on her son’s black hair, so like her own, as her tears fell onto his cheek. “Goodbye, my son. My love goes with you.” Rhulynia raised her eyes to the servants. “Be safe and thank you. My love goes with you as well. True friends you have been indeed.”
Before they could reply, Queen Rhulynia was gone. Dormin and Vira were the last to see her alive. Vira lay the prince on the bed and dressed hastily. Dormin pulled a leather tunic over his shoulders, tugged boots on, and secured his sword at his waist.
“Come Vira.” Dormin wrapped a cloak around his wife’s shoulders and threw one over his own. “We’ll make a quick trip to the kitchens and then gather the children.”
Vira cradled the heir to the throne. “I look at him and think of his parents, in that room all alone with him.” A sob caught in her voice. “Such good rulers do not deserve this fate.”
Dormin rubbed her back. “Telassar did not deserve such kind monarchs but they were granted to us for a time and what a blessed time it was. We will never forget it and we will always remember King Anure and Rhulynia his Queen.” A grim expression came into the servant’s eyes. “We will never forget and we will never give in. The fight for Telassar has just begun.”
Rhulynia hastened down the corridor and into her bed chamber just as the Pale One motioned Avra, the king’s right-hand man, in through the door. “A sweet ironic twist.” Sédak snatched the bow from Fallash, arrow and all, and handed it to Avra. “The counselor will kill his king.”
Anure stared at Avra, a mixture of shock, disgust and anger etched on his face. “How long, Avra?” The words came out through clenched teeth.
“From the start. I was planted here.” He drew the string back until the feather at the arrow’s end brushed his ear. “Betrayal hurts, doesn’t it?”
“Enough!” Rhulynia came to stand by her husband’s side, anger blazing in her eyes. Tears rolled down her cheeks but her voice was clear and strong. “Perform your treacherous act, Avra, without the mockery and may your conscience never rest till you have paid for your sin.”
Anure wrapped an arm around his wife’s waist and she sank against him gratefully. He could feel her body quivering with all the emotions that were swirling inside her. “Where is our son?” he whispered into her hair.
She turned into his embrace to screen her reply. “Safe with Dormin and Vira.”
“Thank you, love.” Anure shared one last tender kiss with his wife and then swung to face his executioner. “Well, Avra, what are you waiting for?” He spread his arms wide. “I’m not running.”
Avra released the arrow and it struck the King in his chest. Anure stumbled backwards but did not fall. “Kill me Avra, kill your King, the one whom you betrayed!” he gasped.
The traitor growled in annoyance, snagged an arrow from the quiver on Fallash’s back and swiveled to shoot Queen Rhulynia. Then Avra released shaft after shaft until the monarchs were covered like reeds in a marsh.
King Anure and Queen Rhulynia were no more.
Avra handed the bow to Fallash who received it sullenly. He had wished to be the executioner. “I await your orders, Mighty One,” Avra said, bowing low.
Sédak nudged Anure’s inert form with the toe of his boot. “Take the bodies down to the balcony on the second level. String them up. They will be displayed tomorrow as an example of what follows when a man or a woman dares to raise himself above me.” The Pale One flung himself on the bed of the late King and Queen. “I will not take up residence at Eris. Let it be emptied, its inhabitants killed and its stones fall into decay. No one will rule from this castle by the sea again, not even I. Worég is my throne.” Sédak tipped the cradle over. “Find the prince-child. She has given him to the servants. Bring him to me and kill his escorts.”
Avra and Fallash shouldered the bodies and exited the chamber.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Cruushank flattened himself against the wall, glad of the concealing darkness. He cringed and held his breath as he heard footsteps coming down the hallway toward him. Voices also floated his way.
“The Mighty One must be going soft,” the first voice said. “He disclosed a substantial amount of his plans to us.”
“Hush! You would do well to hold your tongue, Fallash,” replied the second. “He would have your head for those careless words.”
Fallash chuckled softly. “I’m too valuable to the Mighty One for him to take my head; more valuable than you, Avra.”
Avra growled. “Less valuable than I, dog. Are you short of memory or did you fail to notice that it was I whom Sédak had kill Anure and Rhulynia?”
“No.” Fallash’s voice was low and taut. “I did not fail to notice the Mighty One’s favoritism, not will I forget it. Beware of underlings, Avra. They may prove to have more cunning than their superiors.”
Avra smiled in the darkness. “Idle threats, Fallash. I did not think you would stoop to such levels.”
Fallash said something in reply but his angry words were lost to Cruushank as the two men strode out of earshot down the corridor.
Cruushank slid slowly to the floor, put his head in his hands and wept. A new evil had risen. One that would hang on this beautiful country like a dark cloud. The years of serenity had come to an end. Cruushank wept for the lost lives of his King and Queen, he wept for the passing of freedom, but most of all he wept for Telassar and her people.
He jerked as he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be alarmed, Cruushank, it’s only me, Kalina.”
Cruushank relaxed as he recognized the soft whisper of his sister. He looked up at her and saw that she was holding a candle. “Is everyone awake this fated night?”
The flickering light from the candle highlighted the bewilderment on Kalina’s face. “I couldn’t sleep so I decided to walk the hall. Why do you call it a fated night?”
Cruushank rose to his feet and gazed down at his younger sister. “Because the inevitable has happened and a dastardly deed has been done.”
“Cruushank.” Kalina twisted a lock of her dark hair around her finger. “You are speaking in riddles.”
Her brother gripped Kalina’s shoulder. “The Pale One has murdered our King and Queen.”
“No,” she whispered. “It cannot be.”
Cruushank caught the candle which was about to fall from Kalina’s unsteady hands. “I overheard Avra speaking with Fallash.”
“Why didn’t he stop him?” Kalina asked, her eyes filling with tears.
“Fallash wasn’t the instrument, this time.” Cruushank inhaled deeply. “Kalina, it was Avra.”
Kalina sniffed. “Can no one be trusted? Our nation has been undermined and there is no one to turn to for help.” She stared at her brother. “Cruushank, we are alone.”
He shook his head slowly. “No, we are not alone. There are those who will remain faithful to the true Telassar. Together with them we will rise above this tyranny.”
Kalina leaned against the wall. “It will not be easy. The peoples of Telassar are not as united as they should be and—.”
“Hush!” Cruushank interjected and blew out the candle. Footsteps were coming up the hallway. They were moving quickly with determination.
“The kitchens are finished, now for the children,” Vira said.
Dormin’s voice was urgent. “Hopefully they will awaken swiftly.
Cruushank stepped into the stream of moonlight shining in through a window on the opposite wall. “Not if they are awake already.”
“Children!” Vira exclaimed as Kalina moved into the light as well. “What are you—never mind, we don’t have time for that. Speed is needed.”
Cruushank noticed the small face peeking out of the bundle in his mother’s arms. “I had forgotten about the prince. Good, he is safe, then.”
Vira opened her mouth but Dormin anticipated her words. “Remember, speed is needed. There will be time for questions and explanations later.” He lowered his voice. “The halls of Eris are no longer safe. We must leave now.”
Cruushank and Kalina went swiftly to their rooms, gathered their most precious belongings and spare clothing and met their parents once again. As they hurried to the stairs, Cruushank moved ahead with his father. “Avra is a traitor. I overheard him speaking with Fallash and found out that he was the one Sédak called on to murder our King and Queen. We cannot turn to him for aid. Also, Fallash’s presence might mean that of his warriors as well. Our swords may very well be needed if we are to escape.”
Dormin nodded in agreement with his son’s reasoning. “Avra’s treachery is a harsh blow indeed but one I should have foreseen. There were times when his actions appeared strange to me.” He fingered the hilt of his sword. “We will need horses. Your mother and I have brought as much food as we could carry; bread, cheeses, fruit, milk for the prince, spice cakes and two flagons of strawberry cordial. I had thought to make for Mithredath which is a fortnight’s journey. Once we reach the city we will strategize as to what to do next.”
“Another matter is the prince himself,” Cruushank said as they reached the stairs. “How will we carry him? Mother cannot flee holding him in her arms.”
Dormin lifted his shoulders slightly. “I am afraid it cannot be helped. At any rate, we will have to take turns carrying him on horseback.” He was silent until the family came to the bottom of the stairs. “We will try to make for the stables.”
A shadow loomed up behind Dormin as he spoke. Vira cried out, pointing behind her husband. Dormin turned and received a blow to the head. He crumpled, falling to the floor and Cruushank met the attacker head-on. The shadowy figure swung his sword, aiming for the young man’s neck. Cruushank swiveled swiftly to one side and came in behind the warrior as the man’s momentum carried him forward. It is cowardice to strike a man from behind. Dormin’s words rang in his ears and Cruushank waited until the man faced him once more. Desperately wanting the fight to be finished quickly, as each second of delay left more room for detection by the enemy, Cruushank fought furiously, his sword a dim blur in the shadowy hall. The darkness rendered it nigh impossible to discern his opponent’s face and Cruushank many times could not even see the oncoming sword. Relying on his instincts, the young man gauged his attacker’s position. He swung his sword out in a wide arc, leaving his left side exposed. The warrior took the bait and as he came in for the kill, Cruushank twisted suddenly, spinning in a one hundred eighty degree turn and the two clashed swords. Surprised by the sudden move, the attacker stumbled for a moment. Cruushank deftly spun his sword, sending the other man’s weapon flying. The young man then cleanly severed the attacker’s head from his body.
Kalina raised a hand to her mouth, thankful for the darkness which prevented her from seeing the carnage on the stone floor. “Are there more warriors?” she whispered.
Hefting his father’s body over his shoulders, Cruushank jogged ahead. “In all probability, yes. Let us take the side exit. Perhaps we will get through. In any case, that exit is directly across from the stables so it serves our purposes well. Silence now.”
Vira clutched the infant prince close to her chest and scanned the shadows as she hurried along after her son. She thanked the Maker for the stalwart and courageous warrior who blazed a trail before herself and her daughter. Praying her husband was merely unconscious and would waken soon, Vira stayed on the alert for oncoming enemies. Everyone had a part to fulfill. Her husband and son were warriors and she and her daughter were the strengthening hands and lights in the darkness.
The fugitive family reached a heavy wooden door which marked one of the side exits of Castle Eris. “Kalina!” Cruushank hissed as loudly as he dared. “Come, help me with the door.”
The tall girl moved swiftly to her brother’s side, her long dress sweeping across the stone floor. “What should I do?”
“Unbolt the door and stand away, to my left.” Cruushank’s voice was grim. “I fear an unwelcome visitor will be waiting on the other side.”
Kalina fumbled with the thick door, a difficult task in the dark. “All right, I’ve got it.”
“Good, now stand to my left and pull the door open as you do.”
Kalina obeyed and Cruushank struggled to hold his sword with one hand while supporting his unconscious father with the other. Standing with both feet planted firmly, Cruushank peered into the night. The stables lay merely a stone’s throw from where he stood and no one appeared to be obstructing their way. Above, the sky resembled a deep abyss in which a few points of light twinkled. The moon, off to the west, formed a crescent shape.
“All right.” Cruushank turned to his family. “Mother, you and Kalina run to the stables and ready the horses. Here.” He motioned to his belt. “Take my dagger, Kalina. Use it if you meet with trouble. I will follow close behind with father.”
Kalina pulled the dagger from her brother’s leather belt and ran as fast as her legs would carry her, the burlap sack filled with provisions dangling from her shoulder. Vira glanced up at her son for a moment and then swiftly followed. Jogging to compensate for the weight of his father’s body, Cruushank swung his head from left to right, looking for Makai warriors. None were anywhere to be seen and the young man frowned. All was not well. The Makai seldom fought alone, they were always in pairs or in a threesome. Also, wouldn’t Fallash have brought at least a dozen or so warriors with him? Yet, if no counterattack was expected and the plan was to simply kill the King and Queen silently, only one or two warriors would have sufficed.
His mind worked rapidly as he strove to unravel what seemed to be a mystery. The doings of the Pale One seldom made sense, especially when murder was involved. Cruushank chalked it all up to a dark heart filled with evil, malice and cruelty.
He reached the stables unscathed and found his mother and sister leading two horses from their stalls. “You chose the swiftest stallions, I hope.”
Kalina’s soft voice floated to his ears. “Yes, Arrow and Eagle.”
“Excellent.” Cruushank hoisted Dormin onto Eagle’s back and turned to help his mother and sister.
“I’ll sit behind mother,” Kalina offered. “I’m the better rider and she needs to hold the prince.”
Cruushank nodded, although Kalina and Vira could barely see the movement in the dark of the stable, and gently boosted his mother into the saddle. Kalina placed a foot in the stirrup and Cruushank set his hands around her waist to lift her. He then mounted Eagle. “Father suggested we make for Mithredath so I will head in that direction.”
“How is he?” Concern oozed from Vira’s words.
“He is breathing and his pulse is normal so the blow was not severe.”
Vira sighed. “He’s seen worse in his time. No doubt he will awaken soon.”
Eagle snorted, pawing the ground impatiently as if he could sense the urgency tingling in the air. Cruushank patted his neck. “You are right, my friend. Enough small talk.” He dug his heels into Eagle’s sides and the massive beast surged forward into the night.
Arrow galloped close behind his brother, and the two horses thundered into the courtyard. Avra and Fallash, laboring high above, heard the clatter of hooves against the stone and looked down. Torches burning in iron holders dimly illuminated the scene. Dead guards dotted the courtyard, felled without a sound by Fallash and Avra as the Pale One had entered three quarters of an hour earlier.
Fallash put his fingers to his lips and a piercing whistle screeched through the quiet of the night. As if from nowhere, dozens of Makai warriors appeared, rising from the shadows. All lifted bows and pulled their arrows back until the strings stretched taut. Bending low over Eagle’s back, Cruushank urged the horse forward. The gate towered before him, shut. Fortunately, the portcullis had been raised by the Pale One as he made his ill-fated entrance so all that stood between the fugitives and safety was one massive iron gate.
“Should I give the command to fire?” Fallash’s lips curved upwards cruelly as he looked down at the young man struggling to open the gate.
Avra looped rope around Anure’s hand and pulled it tight, securing the end to a spoke in the balcony railing. He brushed a hand over the feathers of the arrows sticking up all over the King’s body and followed Fallash’s line of sight. “Wait until he has opened the gate and is preparing to mount.” His voice lowered, spiced with malice. “Let them taste freedom only to have it be snatched away.”
“I wasn’t actually asking for your opinion.” Fallash glared at the traitor in annoyance. He let Rhulynia’s body dangle from the balcony by one tethered hand. Raising an arm, he gazed at his hooded and cloaked warriors, awaiting his signal. He lowered his arm slowly, whistling as he did so. It was a morbid tune, linked to song about death and destruction. It was well known throughout Telassar as the anthem of the Makai warriors. Many called it the Death Song. Once whistled by a Makai, death of their enemies was imminent.
Down below, Cruushank fumbled with the latches on the gate, fear knifing through his heart as he heard the terrifying tune. What a cruel game to play! He prayed to the Maker that the Makai king would finish the song before he gave the order to shoot. There was no guarantee, however, that the king would do any such thing. Fallash had a nasty habit of baiting his enemies with hope, then giving the order to shoot before ending the Death Song.
“Give the order!” Avra hissed angrily. “Now is not the time for your foolish ritual.” He pointed. “Look! He mounts his horse!”
Ignoring him, Fallash brought the haunting song to a crescendo and the warriors in the courtyard tensed, knowing the end was near. Cruushank swung onto Eagle’s back, reached around his father and grabbed the reins. He barely heard Kalina’s whispered “Hurry Cruushank, please” and nudged the horse forward. Fallash ended the song abruptly and the Makai fired as one.
An arrow lodged in Kalina’s left arm and she bent low over Arrow’s neck, a cry of pain escaping her lips. “Cruushank!”
Eagle surged forward once more and Arrow galloped through the gate behind him. Cruushank felt a sting along his back and winced, praying it was a flesh wound. One of the warriors wounded Arrow in his hindquarters and the horse stumbled but did not fall. Stalwart and strong were the horses of Eris. Arrow drew alongside Eagle and the stallions thundered across the plain, stride matching stride.
Kalina loosened her grip on the reins, in an effort to rest her arm which had suddenly gone limp. Panic struck her as she realized the arrow must have punctured a nerve. Arrow needed little guidance and merely quickened his pace in response to the release on the reins. Kalina tightened her grip around Vira’s waist as pain ricocheted through her injured arm. Vira caressed Kalina’s hand and the warmth of her mother’s touch brought comfort to the young girl.