Quintus locked the door to the healery and then shuttered the windows. For the longest time, he sat at the desk, fondling the quill, considering his words. The message needed to be short but effective. Only a few words, yet somehow he needed to make them believe. Candles melted to stubs, the pale wax puddling on his cluttered desk. With shaking hands, he wrote the coded message: Castlegard's mage-stone walls are scarred by a wagon's wheel. The single sentence terrified him, as if the very fabric of the world was coming unraveled. Mage-stone was thought to be everlasting, impervious to the ravages of time, weather, and war; yet a wagon's axle had marred the great castle's walls. He'd seen it with his own eyes, felt the scar with his own trembling fingers, yet he still did not believe it. Quintus prayed the masters in the monastery would heed his warning despite the lunacy of the message. Staring at the vellum, he decided to add one last word, a heartfelt plea. Help was the first word that came to mind, but instead he wrote, Advise!
Rolling the thin vellum strip into a tight scroll, he slipped it into a tube carved from bone and affixed it to the jessed leg of his frost owl. "Easy, Snowman." Tossing tidbits of chicken liver to the great white raptor, he pulled on a leather falconry glove. "Come."
White wings bated the air in a silent rush. The great owl alit on his raised glove, eager for another tidbit. Knowing the owl had far to fly, Quintus was generous with the liver.
Bracing his arm against the weight, he carried Snowman out into the castle's main courtyard. The night was cold and crisp, the north still bound by winter's lingering grasp. A half moon rode low in the cloudless night, providing just enough light to burnish Castlegard's stalwart ramparts to a glorious silver. The healer grimaced, knowing the traitorous truth. The great mage-stone walls were not as stalwart as they appeared.
Perhaps the malady can be cured.
He did not know where the thought came from, but he clung to it, praying the monastery knew the remedy. All the more reason to send his message.
Pausing at the corner, he glanced left and right, relieved to find the courtyard empty. The moon's position marked the hour as midnight, when sleep held sway and only a few guards walked the walls. Checking to make sure the message tube was secure, he fed the owl one last bite. "Fly home, Snowman. Fly home and fly fast and return with the answer to this dire riddle." With a grunt, he hefted the great owl aloft. White wings snapped open, beating the air. With a hunter's stealthy silence, the great owl gained height, soaring over the castle walls like a silvery ghost. The healer's gaze followed the owl south, his words a whispered prayer. "Hurry home, Snowman, and bring me the answers I need."
"Home? Where is home if not Castlegard?"
Startled, Quintus cursed himself for his carelessness. Turning, he found Otto, the master swordsmith, striding towards him. "You're late to be out."
Tall and bald and layered with bulging muscles, the big smith prowled across the courtyard like a winter-starved bear. "I've a smelt of iron ore that needs watching. What's your excuse?"
Quintus shrugged. "My frost owl hunts best at night."
"Yet you told the owl to fly home. Where's home if not Castlegard?"
He stared at the smith, a plea in his gaze, for he could not answer the question without imperiling his purpose.
"We're at war, healer, and an owl might be hunting...or it might be carrying a message of betrayal." The big smith moved close, his hands balled into massive fists, a rumble of threat in his gravelly voice. "So, I'll ask you again, where is home?"
A trickle of sweat rolled down the healer's back despite the cold. Secrets he could keep, but lies always tripped on his tongue. Quintus paled beneath the smith's iron-hard gaze. Realizing he'd get no reprieve, he made a decision. "Come, I need to show you something."
"Show me something?" Suspicion rode the smith's voice.
"Just come. I need to show someone and it might as well be you."
The smith gave him a squinty look. "This better not be a trick."
The healer implored with his gaze. "You'll not believe unless you see for yourself."
With a terse nod, the smith followed him across the courtyard to the inner gatehouse. The spiked portcullis was raised but the ironclad gates were shut for the night. Fortunately, he knew the guard on duty. "How's your stump, Harold?"
The guard raised his arm, revealing a leather-bound stump where his left hand should have been. “It pains me in this damp cold, but I’m better than most. At least I can still serve.”
Still serve, such was the bravery of the maroon knights. For every hale and hearty man who served the great castle, four more were maimed or graybeards. The winter war took a grievous toll. Quintus knew the grim tally better than most, for he'd stitched their wounds and set their bones, returning many of them to service. "I'll make a poultice for you in the morning. In the meantime, can you let us through the sally port?"
"This late at night?"
"I spied a patch of mushrooms sprouting along the south wall. They're most potent if harvested by moonlight."
The guard flicked a questioning glance to the smith but Otto remained silent. Shrugging, Harold said, "I'll let you through, but don't tarry." He led them around the gatehouse to a small ironbound door. Half a dozen deadbolts held the sally port secure. One-handed, the guard wrestled with the bolts and then eased the door open on silent hinges. "Knock three times when you're ready to enter."
"Thanks." The healer slipped through the open doorway, followed by the smith. Behind them, the ironclad door eased shut, the deadbolts snapping into place with an ominous sound.
Quintus turned to confront the grim passageway. An eerie silence reigned. They stood in the killing corridor, trapped between the soaring mage-stone walls of the inner castle and the outer ramparts raised by ordinary stonemasons. Desolate of any cover, the stone-cold corridor seemed a haunted place despite the bright moonlight.
The smith leaned close, a sneer on his face. "Mushrooms? I always thought you an honest sort."
"There are mushrooms, and I do need them. With so many wounded, my supply of remedies grows thin."
"And you pick them by moonlight?" The smith's voice leered with sarcasm.
The healer shrugged. "An old wives' tale but a convenient excuse." He led the smith around to the south side of the inner wall to where a small patch of Donner's mushrooms pushed up through the thin snow crust. He knelt, harvesting half the crop to his deep pockets, leaving the rest to propagate.
"You brought me out here for mushrooms?"
The healer flicked a wary glance to the smith. "No, the mushrooms were just an excuse. Come." He led the smith back to the inner gate, but instead of approaching the sally port, he led him to the main gateway. "It happened two days ago, when the wagons carrying the wounded returned, but you need to see it for yourself to believe." Quintus ran his hand low along the mage-stone wall, searching for the gash, half hoping he would not find it. "Here. It's here." His voice sounded as if it came from a grave.
"What's there?" The smith sounded annoyed.
"A scar on the mage-stone."
And then the smith saw. He sucked air through his teeth like a hungry bellows. With a trembling hand, he touched the wall, fingering the raw scar. His jaw gaped. "How?"
"The wagoner took too tight a turn. The rear axle caught on the stone. I thought the wagon would tip...but the stone gave first."
"How can this be?"
The healer shrugged. "I don't know. Perhaps the castle's fallen under a Dark Curse."
The smith cringed, making the hand sign against evil. "Who have you told?"
"None save you..."
"...and the owl."
Quintus gave a cautious nod. "We need answers."
The smith scowled but he did not argue. "We need to tell the knight-captain."
"No." He grabbed the smith's arm. "Morale is all that's holding the maroon together. We dare not dash their faith in the great castle."
"But they need to know!"
"Only if an army comes calling."
"We're at war."
"All the more reason the knights' morale must not be destroyed."
The smith glared, his massive hands balled into fists, fear and uncertainty warring across his swarthy face. For half a heartbeat, the healer thought the big smith would end the argument with a punch. Standing resolute, Quintus parried the smith's brutal glare with a tally of losses. "Raven pass is fallen. The king is dead. The Octagon throne is empty. The knights battle the ravages of winter as well as the Dark horde, yet still they fight." He punched the words with conviction. "If you destroy their faith in the castle, this war could be lost."
"What does a healer know of war?"
"I know the cost! I count it every day in limbs severed, in wounds stitched, in too many lives lost to death's shroud. Morale matters, on the battlefield and in the healery." His voice turned hard. "I'll not give death another advantage."
They glared at each other, locked in a stalemate...till a grudging respect glinted Otto's dark gaze. A long-held sigh escaped the smith like an emptying bellows. "We'll keep it secret...for as long as we can."
They'd struck an uncertain bargain, but Quintus would take what he could get.
"But," the smith stabbed the healer's pudgy chest with a blunt finger, "if that owl brings answers, I want to know."
Rubbing his bruised chest, Quintus gave a tentative nod.
"I'll be watching you."
In silence, they trod through the muddy slush, returning to the sally port. Quintus knocked three times and the hidden door eased open. Harold ushered them through. Closing the door behind them, he rammed the bolts home. "Did you get the mushrooms?"
"Yes I did." Quintus fished one from his pocket as proof. "Picked by moonlight, they'll ease pain or induce sleep, depending on the dosage."
Harold grinned. "Well done! I'll bid you a good night."
"And to you." He turned away, following the big smith across the courtyard. A grim silence hovered between them. They were partners of sorts, partners to a terrible secret. Quintus stared up at the soaring mage-stone walls, walls he always thought were invincible. First the war and now this. Darkness stalked the maroon, like a lethal curse come calling. A shiver raced down his spine. In the depths of his heart, the healer hoped the masters of the monastery believed his message...but most of all he prayed there was a cure.
In the South
Chapter 1 The Mordant
Hammers pounded against stone, a cacophony of noise announcing the queen’s city. Scaffolds surrounded the outer walls, stonemasons working to convert cobbled buildings into stout battlements. So, this is the queen's city. The effect was laughable, like putting armor on a whore. The Mordant smiled at the feeble defense. Mortals think mere walls can hold back Darkness. How little the queen understands her true foe.
Under false banners, the Mordant led his entourage towards the city gates at a stately trot. Bedecked in jewels and clad in a purple surcoat, he rode a magnificent white stallion curried to a shine. Golden bells woven into the stallion's mane chimed with every prancing step, all part of the ruse. Royal banners fluttered overhead, the Great Wyrm embroidered in gold thread, proudly proclaiming a prince of Ur. His entourage was similarly attired, resplendent in purple and gold, completing the deceit. His women rode sidesaddle, tempting curves swathed in colorful silks, attracting stares like bees to honey. Behind him, a team of white oxen struggled to pull a wagon laden with treasure chests, a tease to the greedy. His cadre of assassins and dwarf-sized duegars came last, dressed as servants. Ignored and overlooked, they trailed a respectful distance behind, danger hidden in plain sight. As a final touch, a hundred Citadel guards had changed their colors, donning the purple and gold of imperial Ur. Clad in burnished armor bearing the sigil of the Great Wyrm, they surrounded his troop with a ring of potent swords. Jewels, women, and steel, his escort presented the perfect blend of pampered royalty swathed in appropriate protection.
Bells chiming, the Mordant and his escort neared the city walls.
Stares turned their way, the sound of hammers slowing to a stop. Peasants, stonemasons and passing merchants craned for a better view. The Mordant felt their envy. He watched the way they ogled his women and the wagon piled high with treasure chests. Even the queen's guards fell prey to the delusion. Leaning on their spears, soldiers in emerald tabards watched from half-finished towers, yet no alarm was raised. Unaware of the danger, the city’s ironclad gates stood open like a hungry maw slavering for commerce.
His seneschal, Bishop Borgan, bellowed in a sonorous voice, “Make way for the Twelfth-fold Prince of Ur!”
Merchants and peasants scuttled to get off the road, while guards in green tabards stood to attention by the open gates.
"Make way for the Prince of Ur!"
The shadow of the gatehouse drew near. Without a single challenge, the Mordant rode through the gates of Pellanor into the queen's city.
Wide cobbled streets bustled with the noon-time crowd. Avid stares turned towards his entourage. A pathway opened through the throng, the awe-struck crowd gaped in wonder at the royal display. Many smiled, while others clapped or waved in greeting. So open and so trusting, the populous proved their naivety. Clearly, they’d never felt a tyrant’s lash…but that would soon change. He’d barely entered the city and already the Mordant had the queen’s measure: a weak and lenient ruler, a woman besotted with the acquisition of wealth. A smile curled his lips. He'd met thousands of her sort, all easily lured to Darkness.
His gaze roved the crowd, taking in the details. A small man clad in simple leathers slipped from the throng to approach Major Tarq. The Mordant recognized his face, one of the assassins he’d sent ahead to prepare the way. Walking next to the major, the assassin served as a guide, directing them through the tangled streets.
Signs of prosperity increased as they rode deeper into the city. Markets overflowed with goods and the people appeared well-fed and content. Scents of cinnamon, cardamom and other exotic spices wafted through the market, mingling with the enticing smells of spit-roasted meats and fresh baked breads, proving Pellanor had an abundance of food despite the recent war. Bright velvets became more common, sparkling like jewels against the commoners’ homespun browns. The Mordant studied the riot of faces. Women mingled with men, the rich amongst the poor, with only a few swords in sight, evidence of a pampered city awash in too many freedoms...but all of this would soon change, for he'd come to bring ordered Darkness to all of Erdhe.
A castle thrust up from the city's sprawling center, a bright confection of airy towers and winged buttresses, bespeaking luxury instead of strength, indulgence instead of dominance. Shops grew to the very walls of the castle, negating its military value. So unlike the Dark Citadel, it looked like a pampered palace instead of a fortress stronghold. A sneer lit the Mordant's face. Judging by the castle alone, Pellanor would be an easy conquest.
They turned off the main thoroughfare, winding through a district filled with large mansions and small manicured gardens. Servants in bright livery stood by the doors. Fountains danced in the gardens, a waste of water. The very air smelled perfumed, flowers climbing trellises and spilling from window boxes. The district reeked of pampered luxury, the perfect hiding place for lethal Darkness.
Their guide led them to a large stone manse, glittering with diamond-paned windows. A servant rushed to hold his stallion as the Mordant dismounted. A pair of tall oak doors opened, disgorging a bevy of servants in purple livery. Bowing low, they welcomed the Mordant to his mansion.
He strode through the doorway, followed by assassins, duegars and fawning servants. Sunlight streamed through diamond-paned windows illuminating a large marble entranceway. Tapestries bright with hunting scenes graced the walls, a gilded stairway climbed to a second floor. A large chandelier hung suspended overhead, glittering with crystals and golden cherubs. Gaudy and garish, the entranceway bespoke an owner with too much wealth and too little taste. Satisfied with the subterfuge, the Mordant said, “This will serve." Scanning the servants prostrate on the marble floor, he added, "You may rise.”
His servants hastily stood.
Frederinko towered above the others, distinctive in his silver collar and nose chains. “Welcome to Pellanor, my lord.” Bronzed from a lifetime spent beneath Ur's southern sun, the chained servant was the lone kernel of truth in the Mordant’s elaborate deception. Seized by MerChanters' raiders and carried to the far north at the Mordant’s bidding, he’d broken the eunuch’s will in the bloody cavern beneath the Dark Citadel. Now a dedicate of Darkness, the eunuch served as the Mordant’s emissary to the Rose Court. With a courteous bow, the chained servant gestured toward the gilded stairway. “Would you like to see the rest of the manse?”
“Show me the cellar.”
“As you wish.”
The Mordant followed the chained servant toward the rear of the house. Bishop Borgan, Major Tarq, his master assassin, Dolf, and Rollo, a snargon of the duegars, stayed close, providing a mixture of protection and service.
A doorway in a shadowy alcove opened to stairs leading down. Thick stone walls embraced the stairway with a cellar’s wintery chill. The stairs led to a small room crowded with wine casks stacked floor to ceiling.
Frederinko stepped to an enormous barrel inset in the wall. “Stonemasons worked tirelessly to complete the modifications you required.”
“Have they been silenced?”
“Silent as a grave.” Turning the tap on the large barrel, the eunuch tugged and the lid swung open, revealing a hidden passage.
The Mordant gestured and Dolf plumbed the passage followed by Rollo. There was no need for him to tax his powers while others lived to serve. While he waited on their inspection, the Mordant turned to Frederinko. “Tell me of the queen.”
Frederinko flashed a shark’s smile. “The queen toils like a drone bee, struggling to repair the ravages of the Flame War. She builds walls and rekindles commerce, but her actions prove her deepest nightmares come from the north. When Raven Pass fell, she scrambled to rebuild her army and forge a patchwork alliance. Her sole heir marches north with the Rose army, a futile attempt to delay the inevitable.”
The Mordant suppressed a grin, for wars ever provided the best distractions. “What of Dominic and Castor?”
“Dressed as jesters, both were accepted as gifts and reside in the castle.”
“Good. Send word that I’ll meet with them on the morrow. I’ll need a full report.”
“As you command.”
Dolf and Rollo returned, making the hand signal that all was safe.
The Mordant stepped through the opening, entering a pristine dungeon. Caged cells stretched away on either side, yet the chilled air carried nothing but the ascetic scents of mortar and fresh-cut stone.
Frederinko gestured left and right. “Cells enough to hold fifty people or more, and there are even two oubliettes if you wish to invoke the subtlest of tortures.” Crossing the corridor, he unlocked an ironbound door. “This way to the sanctum.”
Dolf lifted a torch from the wall, leading the way down the narrow stairs.
The Mordant followed, emerging into a large stone-cloistered chamber. Darkness arched overhead, the ceiling soaring to a corbelled vault shrouded in shadows. Torchlight flickered in the gloom, revealing a blank canvas. Bone-cold and grave-dank, the sanctum was empty of symbols save for a single great pentacle inscribed across the floor, silver inset in the dull granite. Man-high braziers stood at the five points of the pentacle. Sculpted in bronze, the twisted figures writhed like tortured souls straining for release. Simple in its design, the sanctum echoed the configuration of the Dark Citadel’s bloody cavern, but it was new and unused…and devoid of power, a chapel waiting to be dedicated. The Mordant yearned to awaken the Darkness, to summon the divine Dark to the very heart of the queen's city. Striding to the pentacle, he stood in the center and closed his eyes, reaching for his god. He found the Dark God lurking at the edge of reality, slavering for worship in the heart of Lanverness. “Yes, this will do.”
His eyes snapped open, his gaze fastening on Major Tarq. “Sacrifices are needed to open the gateway. Bring me orphans and pickpockets and other riffraff, people who shall not be missed. Later, we’ll be more blatant in our offerings.”
“As you command.” The major saluted, fist to breastplate.
His gaze turned to the snargon. “Have your duegar run regular sweeps of the city streets. If the meddling monks aren’t already infesting the city, they soon will be. Sniff out their magic and you’ll find their bolt holes. I want reports of any magic, any monks…or knights of the Octagon found within Pellanor.”
The snargon bristled, “But we can only…”
The Mordant glared. “You have eyes. Use them.”
The snargon bowed low, stepping back into the shadows.
Bishop Borgan said, “Shall I send word to the queen requesting an audience?”
The Mordant’s gaze snapped to the portly bishop disguised as a seneschal. "Stupid does not serve me."
The bishop blanched, a flicker of fear in his eyes.
"All of Pellanor speaks of our arrival…though they know not who I am.” The simple deception amused the Mordant, wakening a fierce passion for the hunt. “The queen will seek an audience with us. The arrogant bitch will invite her own doom...and we, being obliging guests, shall accept.” A thrill coursed through him, an eagerness to reach the end game. His voice crackled with power, ominous with prediction. “In this lifetime, all of my enemies shall be shattered. Let the Great Dark Dance begin.”