The Trials of Arden
323 pages
English

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323 pages
English

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Description

Heir to his father’s throne, Arden has always lived a sheltered and protected life until one day he and his best friend Taril sneak away to seek out the lost city of Talindor.

Escaping the watchful eyes of their protectors, they use the city’s secret tunnels to reach the fields beyond the great walls of Tyare.  While exploring in Verin Forest, they find signs of the ruins of the ancient city, but grave danger lurks in the Darkwood.

In Tyare, children have been going missing, and the cause of the disappearances may lie deep in the forest.  Ancient evil waits in the heart of the darkwood, but there is more to Arden than meets the eye.

Shadow of the Darkwood is the first book in the series The Trials of Arden.


Informations

Publié par
Date de parution 01 mai 2018
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780995252226
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 2 Mo

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0007€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Copyright © 2018 by Andrew Alexander Miller
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.

ISBN: 978-0-9952522-1-9 (Collectors’ Edition Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0-9952522-0-2 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-9952522-2-6 (eBook)

Ascension Ink Publishing Company
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Hamilton, ON L9C 6C4
www.andrewalexandermiller.com
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Cover artwork: Bogdan Maksimovic
Book Cover Design: Creative Publishing Book Design

Printed in the United States of America.

Miller, Andrew Alexander.
The Trials of Arden: Shadow of the Darkwood
First Edition eBook - Unabridged
For Nana

Thank you for all the days and nights you spent reading to me about Middle Earth, Narnia, and all the other places far and wide, inspiring my imagination.
Table of Contents
Introduction
Foreword
Prologue
Chapter One: The Flight from Tyare
Chapter Two: Revelations in Tyare
Chapter Three: Emanhil I
Chapter Four: Shadow
Chapter Five: Taril
Chapter Six: The Ceremony
Chapter Seven: The Feast
Chapter Eight: First Departure
Chapter Nine: Return to Baniresh
Chapter Ten: His Trials Begin
Chapter Eleven: Gripped by Fear
Chapter Twelve: The Road
Chapter Thirteen: A Cabin in the Wood
Chapter Fourteen: Emanhil II
Chapter Fifteen: Descent
Chapter Sixteen: Dagon
Chapter Seventeen: The Childe Comes
Chapter Eighteen: Return to Tyare
Chapter Nineteen: Verin
Chapter Twenty: Javan
Epilogue
Afterword
Acknowledgements
Introduction
Thank you for reading this First Edition copy of Shadow of the Darkwood. I began writing this story while I was still in high school. I knew that I wanted to write something like the Lord of the Rings, but I had no idea how much work writing an epic tale would be. There have been multiple renditions of varying lengths, but this final version has much more depth than those first drafts. I’ve tried to cut down from my original draft, and I’m pretty happy with the way it’s turned out. At times it may get a little wordy, but archaic language felt more real in some places. Also I’m a nerd for the written word.
I expect that the full series of novels will consist of 8-10 books when it's all over. The second installment is well underway, and I hope to finish it sometime later this year or early in 2019. The rest of the books will follow in turn.
I’m excited to share this with you and I hope you’ll enjoy following Arden on his journey as much as I have.
Andrew Alexander Miller – April 5 th 2018 Hamilton, Ontario
Foreword
This is an ancient tale, now known by very few, and even more rarely told. Like most of the great stories and legends of old, it tells of a hero – of his trials and tribulations. He did not come from humble beginnings, nor did he have need to ascend to heights of power and glory before being set to his task, for he was born to it. Indeed, he himself was descended from a great hero.
Long before our tale begins, a man was born into the most influential family in the great city of Therabor. His name was Kai Dimascas. When his father Lothar, who headed the council that ruled over the Kayan people, died, a successor was to be named. It was presumed by all that Kai would be the next to head the Council, but when the Blue Council held its conclave, Kai was passed over for leadership. Frustrated and angered, he cursed conclave and departed the city. For the next twenty years, he traveled the world, aiding the free folk. His name grew in renown as his shadow grew long. In time, he chose to settle, founding a new city of his own in a land called Forborine. He called the city Arunel, and there his power quickly grew.
It was there in Arunel that the Cabal was born – the cult of the Kai. Kai mixed his knowledge of the Radym – the energy that held the fabric of the universe – with blood magic, melding ancient ceremonies and words of power with human sacrifice in the worship of the dark lord Javan, and Kai grew even stronger still. He gathered to him all the races of the world, subjugating each to his desire, creating a new hierarchy of what he believed was a perfect society.
In time the Council of Therabor, fearing Kai’s unfettered power, and offended by his perversion of their order, decided that it was time to act. Ten thousand Kayan alemba , set out from Therabor, prepared to do battle, even wielding the Radym if necessary. Such a host had not set out to battle in an age, but the world was growing dark and the time, they said, had come when good men would need to stand.
And so, they marched, gathering forces from other Kayan cities as they went, their numbers swelling as more who were prepared to purge this new evil from the world joined them. Soon they came within sight of the city on its distant banks. Led by Timar Baniresh, they tried to call upon the power of the Radym , but try as they might, they found the energy had been subdued somehow and kept from them. A great host rode out from the city then, crossing the great stone causeway, and surrounded them. They were commanded to submit, and when Timar refused, they were cut down.
Tens of thousands were killed in the Battle of the Shallows, and nearly as many more were taken prisoner, enslaved by Kai. Now, with no one to curb his ever-growing power and no fear of reprisal, Kai’s empire soon stretched from the snowy wastes to the north to the deep jungles of the south, and from the great western ocean to the plains beyond the eastern mountains. Kai ruled with absolute power, until a man named Akyrius, and a band of rebels who called themselves the Phoenix rose in Annendin, a long valley between two mountain ranges. From their valley stronghold, they began attacking Kai’s forces, raiding outposts and supply lines and little by little they began to weaken the perception of Kai’s invincibility. In time, Kai’s dominion fell, and he was cast down by Akyrius himself.
A time of relative peace ensued, as Akyrius founded a new kingdom – a union of many lands joined together each by its own choice under the rule of a new common law – a law that treated all as equals. It was called the Ardent Kingdom, and for over a thousand years, the Ardent was headed by the descendants of Akyrius and provided peace and stability, holding the darkness at bay and serving as a beacon of hope and justice to the world.
But Darkness, it seems, has a way of hiding, waiting with great patience as it plots and plans, until the time is right for it to slink forth once again. It is at those times that the light of the world rests on those few who are willing to stand. This is the hero of whom I speak, and these are the tales of his trials – the Trials of Arden.
Prologue
When the Rose doth breathe again, / Most beloved of His eye, / Borne of Forjon [Highest] blood shall Ayinjosa [light’s hope?] be. / On turning’s eve of the holy Fathers, / The Childe cometh, and thunder shakes the land. / As Alidakra [true darkness?] grows, / Like the treasured star / Shall Ayinjosa shine, / And shrouded he must be, / Until the Voravena [First One?] comes.
– excerpt from the Tome of Ages , Translated by Kordom Baniresh at the behest of the High-King Fengal in the year 1244 in the Corlana-Akyr , the age of the Ardent Kingdom.

A chill breeze swept through the streets outside of Baniresh, the royal house and citadel of Ardun City, where countless people had gathered in the large square known as the King’s Market, despite the cold of the evening. It was the largest open space in the city and its proximity to the Great House gave a view of the Murgen Tower, a squat stone structure built two-thousand years earlier. It stood above the gates of Baniresh, and men of the Phoenix Legion could be seen moving about behind its crenelated battlements, maintaining the low fires that illuminated the royal banner that flew atop the tower. Behind the Murgen Tower, the upper floors of Baniresh House could be seen, and beside the palace – looking like a sliver that had been carved from the moon itself – the Gellad Tower glowed brightly.
People had come from far and wide, braving the early winter to travel to Ardun to celebrate the Lachithordieth , the five-day festival that marked year’s end. The city’s usual population of over seven-hundred thousand had now swelled to nearly a million, packing the city’s many inns and taverns. Many residents even opened their homes during the Lachithordieth , inviting relatives, or charging rent to strangers who made the pilgrimage to the city.
It had been mid-morning when word had spread throughout the city that Aneri was in labour with the child who might one day rule over the Ardent Kingdom. Now the visitors along with countless residents had joined in pitching tents in King’s Market to prepare for the coming birth. The food vendors made no complaint and worked long past sundown when they would usually have stopped their selling, and artisans and craftsmen crowded the market where they completed sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and countless other wares that would commemorate the event. To be born on the fifth of Lachithordieth which had begun on the winter solstice, was viewed as good omen. This child would bring a new dawn of prosperity to the people of Ardun.
The air was crisp, and stars painted the clear night sky looking like pinholes of sunlight streaming through a black canvas as the great horn of Benthor rocked the Gellad Tower, its brassy call resonating from beneath the domed hoarding of the tower, two-hundred feet above its base. The sonorous note disturbed the freshly fallen snow that had collected on the rooftops and the battlements of the wall that surrounded Baniresh. As the second blast sounded it sent a dusting of the snow drifting downwards in a fine mist that chilled the people below, and as the seven drums began their deep and thunderous pounding, the people of the great city of Ardun erupted in a shout of celebration; the child was born.
The revelry had only just begun when a second great cry of jubilation rose from the city as the blue standard of Annendin, embroidered with its white unicorn, was raised above the Murgen tower. The standard signified that the crown-Prince was at home in Baniresh. The child was a boy; Ardun had received her future King.
Chapter One T HE F LIGHT FROM T YARE
I
“Run faster!” Arden called over his shoulder as he bounded lightly across the long high grasses of the Elerin Fields towards the vast expanse of deeper green that was Verin Wood, or the Darkwood as it was often called.
“We’ve already escaped them Arden!” Taril shouted as he puffed and struggled along behind the younger boy. “We needn’t hurry now! It will take them hours to find we’re missing, and even longer to find where we’ve gone once they do.”
Arden laughed cheerfully as he slowed, his curly brown hair bouncing as he ran. Finally, he stopped and waited for his friend to catch up. “Five years at Baniresh and you still do not know Thorium!” Arden said with a grin as he wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his forearm.
Arden was twelve years old, and the crown Prince of the Kingdom of Ardun, which governed over an association of other states which called themselves the Ardent Kingdom – the last remaining portion of the vast union of kingdoms once ruled by Akyrius the Great. Arden’s father, the High King Fengal, had reigned for over two-hundred years, and Arden had been crowned as his chosen successor five years earlier during a great festival, and it was there that Arden had met Taril.
Taril’s light-brown hair blew back from his face as he reached Arden. He was thirteen and slender, and his bright eyes and impish smile marked him as a boy prone to mischief. While he usually took the lead in most of the boys’ exploits, this adventure had been Arden’s idea. Taril had been leery of leaving the city, indeed of even leaving the walls of the citadel. Children had been going missing from Tyare of late. To be out beyond the wall without guard seemed foolhardy, but Arden had followed him on many an unwise idea, so Taril had reluctantly agreed feeling that perhaps it was just his turn to follow.
The fact that children had been going missing in Tyare was not new. It had been going on for years, but recently the frequency had increased. Disappearances had become so numerous, that the king of Tyare, Taril’s father, had been forced to accept the idea that the children were not merely runaways. He had sent word to King Fengal asking the great king to come to Tyare and give council, and true to his people the High King had come. He had, with some reluctance, allowed Arden to accompany him, with the boy’s promise to remain in the citadel and not to go wandering about the city. Arden had meant the promise when he made it, but over the past few days the citadel had begun to feel less like a palace and more like a prison.
II
As a young boy, Arden had heard stories of the great Kayan city that had once stood within Verin Wood before the forest had become so large and so ominous. The city of green, Talindor, had been a great city where the Kayan people and the Elarin lived side by side, but it had fallen to ruin centuries earlier in the days after the departure of Akyrius. Stories of Talindor like all the great histories had always fascinated Arden, and the idea of seeing the city had come to him as he paced about the gardens for what felt like the hundredth time. He had asked around the palace of Tyare and had found an old scholar willing to speak of the city, lost in the Darkwood.
Talindor was said to have been in the centre of the forest that had now grown wild all about it, but few – if any – knew what remained of the city itself. The forest was said to be haunted, and no one ventured far beyond the borders of the wood. Mists often hung over it at night and were said to grow so thick beyond the edge of the forest that people were quickly lost, and the few adventurous people who had reportedly entered the woods in search of the city during the man’s lifetime had never returned. Maybe they had become disoriented in the dense trees and been injured somehow, or maybe finding nothing they had gone on to more adventure, or maybe the stories were true, and the forest had claimed them in the night.
The thought of the woods being haunted had frightened Arden at first, but as the days wore on, the urge to at least attempt to see some remnant of the city grew. If the forest was haunted at night, then perhaps he could go during the day. Just to see. He had asked Thorium, who had spoken to his father Fengal, and Fengal had refused. When Arden worked up the courage to ask the man himself, the King had arched an eyebrow at him, leaned forward, and said that it was “positively out of the question.”
After exhausting both avenues he saw only one other option, and so the night before he had resolved to sneak out of the city the following morning using the tunnels that led from the citadel to the fields beyond Tyare’s great white walls; he would then enter the Darkwood, find the lost city before noon, spend a couple of hours exploring, and return to the citadel by the same means in time for dinner. Of course, he didn’t know how to use the tunnels, but Taril did.
“It will be such an adventure!” He had said to the older boy who had looked at him amusedly.
“If you think I’m going to disobey –”
“You disobey the rules all the time !” Arden exclaimed.
“Perhaps I bend a rule or two here and there,” Taril said a little too innocently. “But never your father when he says something to me.”
“Only because my father never talks to you, and besides he didn’t forbid you to leave the city, he forbade me .”
Taril was shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I think it’s a bad idea.”
“I command it!” Arden exclaimed.
“You command it?” Taril repeated grinning. “Oh, your highness , what dost thou command of me?”
Arden smiled in-spite of himself. “I command you to take me beyond the walls.”
Taril giggled. “Why do you want to go looking for some old ruins anyway? All we would find – if we found anything at all – would be some old moss-covered rocks. Anything made of wood or metal likely rotted away centuries ago.”
“It’s a Kayan city!” Arden said excitedly, turning to pace across the room as he spoke. “They were made using the great magic, and the stone is hard and strong. It could all still be standing. Just think of it! There could be ancient relics! Even things that still work, like my lantern that the Kayans of Therabor gave me.”
Taril rolled his eyes. “I have no need of a lantern.”
“I didn’t say there would be a lantern,” Arden said. He grabbed Taril by the hand and pulled the other boy to his feet. “I said there could be treasures left behind.”
“I am a prince,” Taril said putting on a regal affect, lifting his nose high and tossing his hair. “I have no need of treasure. The vaults of Tyare are filled with gold and gemstones.”
“ Tarillll ,” Arden said, drawing his friend’s name out. “I need you to show me the way. Please?”
Arden said the last effecting a pleading tone and look of such innocence that Taril laughed, but then he grew more serious.
“Arden, the Darkwood is haunted. It’s dangerous. I don’t want to go wandering around in there and get lost in the dark. People go in there, and never come out. Grown-ups! Soldiers and hero types I mean – not, you know, coxcombs.”
“We’ll go in the day – tomorrow. We’ll leave in the morning and have a look around and be home well before sundown, I promise.”
Taril was frowning in consideration.
“Please,” Arden repeated in the same tone as before.
“We’ll never manage to get away you know. That pet wolf of yours isn’t exactly inconspicuous,” Taril said gesturing towards the large mound of snoring fur on the other side of the room.
“I’ll leave him here,” Arden said. “Thorium will be with my father in council, and when he sees Shadow is still here, he will think we’re somewhere around the palace. It’ll give us some extra time.”
And with a little more coaxing, Taril had finally agreed.
III
The following morning the boys had made their way down to the kitchen as they did every morning. Once they had eaten a fill of eggs, steak, and oatmeal, they had helped themselves to some of the dried meat and two jars of preserved fruit, as well as a loaf of bread which they stored in a rucksack for their adventure. Then Taril had led the way down into the cellars, telling the guards he was going to show Arden the dungeons.
“Will you be wanting an escort your grace?” the guard asked.
“No,” Taril said quickly giving the man his most winning grin. “No escort necessary, we won’t be going near any of the cells that are occupied. We’re just going to be in the east block that’s empty.”
“Begging your pardon, but the dungeon’s no place to play your grace,” the other door-guard said.
“We’ll be careful,” Taril said.
“What’s in the bag if I might ask, your grace?” the first guard asked apologetically.
“I just want to see them,” Arden said.
The guard almost seemed to jump as the Prince spoke.
“In Baniresh the dungeons are not below the palace, so I have never seen a dungeon,” the boy continued. “After we’ve seen them, we’re going to the gardens for the day and have some food to snack on, and wasters for some swordplay.” Arden said and smiled reassuringly.
The guard looked at him a moment before he spoke – almost hesitantly. “Very well your highness, but please be careful.”
“We will,” the boys chimed together, causing both men to grin, and with that the boys were each given a torch, and passed down into the lower level.
Taril led the way down a dim passage partly carved from stone, and partly built with large stone blocks. He held his torch aloft, while Arden’s remained unlit. “My torch for the journey out, and we keep yours fresh for the journey back,” he had said, and Arden had nodded readily.
Taril led the way to a wooden shelf that stood in the corner of a bend in the passage, and he grasped onto an unlit torch next to it, and pulled down. There was an audible click, and the shelf swung outwards revealing an even darker passage beyond.
“This is one of the entrances to the tunnels,” Taril said in a whisper. “Last chance to turn back.”
Arden grinned and shook his head.
Taril sighed but smiled, and the boys passed into the darkness beyond, pulling the shelf closed behind them.
IV
The passage was dank and smelled of mildew, and something else. A rotten smell. The way angled downwards and here and there the walls of the passage opened to either side as other passages came to meet it. They walked in silence for several minutes, the only sound, the patter of their own footsteps, until they reached a point where the floor flattened.
“We’re under the river here,” Taril said in a whisper.
“Why are you whispering?” Arden asked, whispering himself.
“Why are you whispering?” Taril hissed. “I hate it down here.”
Arden nodded his understanding. The tunnels were creepy. They were silent but for a strange sound that reminded him of the ocean. The air was stale, and that odor of rotting… something , hung thick like a fog. Arden thought he could almost taste it. They were alone with countless of tonnes of rock above them and no one knew where they were. Somehow though, the thought that they were alone and that no one would yet know they were gone excited him. They were really doing it, and soon they’d be above ground again and headed for the Darkwood.
“Does anyone ever come down here?”
“Only to keep the tunnels clear and maintained,” Taril said softly. “Builders come down once or twice a year to inspect them. Others work, clearing any fallen rocks and shoring up places where the walls have begun to weaken. I hate being down here because sometimes there are small cave-ins and you can end up trapped. My brother and I explored some when we were younger, but father told us the story of other boys who had explored and been caught down here. They died before anyone found them. I think it was just a story, but still…”
Arden swallowed hard.
They continued onward, and passed more openings and Arden began to think they looked like dark yawning mouths. They were disconcerting; the torchlight only travelled a short distance before fading into blackness, and each time they passed one, Arden half expected to see something emerge from the blackness, or glowing eyes looking back. He was sorry he had left Shadow behind. It would have been comforting to have had the wolf along, but it was too late now. Arden gritted his teeth as he found himself feeling for the haft of his sword through the fabric of the bag slung over his shoulder.
He was passing one of the branching tunnels when the hair on the back of his neck stood on end and he stopped abruptly.
“Taril,” he called softly, and the other boy turned to look at him. Arden nodded towards the opening and Taril moved to stand next to him. “What’s down that way?” he asked the older boy.
“Don’t rightly know,” Taril said, licking his lips. “You want to go exploring down here now?” He was smiling but it was a nervous smile.
“No,” Arden said quickly. “I just wondered. It feels… funny, you know? Like there’s something down there.” He peered into the darkness trying to see.
They stood in silence trying to look beyond the black. Taril held his torch higher as he strained to see. “Let’s keep moving,” he said at last, and Arden nodded.
They resumed their steady pace then, but Arden’s feelings of unease continued to grow. Taril had also seemed nervous when they had stopped, but Taril didn’t like the tunnels in the first place. Arden was feeling something more. He felt like something else was down here, as if something else were moving with them – sometimes just behind, and at other times off down the branching tunnels. He kept glancing back over his shoulder, afraid that he might see some creature coming out of the gloom to get him, ghoulish dead-grey fingers reaching out grasping for him, but each time there was nothing but his own shadow, reaching back towards the black.
The passage had been sloping steadily upwards and curving to the left and he was trying to keep his breathing steady, when the suddenly the way turned sharply to the right, and the torch revealed a wooden ladder leading up to a trap door.
“There are other exits that come out at different points, but this is the only path I know, so I thought this would be best. Straight with no turns – impossible to get lost. It’s the easiest for me to find from the surface too. We’ll come up about a mile from the city wall, between Tyare and the forest. It’s a rocky patch of boulders so the sentries on the walls won’t see us, but we’ll have to run low for a bit until we’re out of range of the watch,” Taril said.
He handed Arden the torch, climbed the ladder, and pulled a latch on the door, pushing up. He strained against the weight of the door with an audible grunt. Then a slit of blinding white appeared around the lip of the door and slowly grew as Taril won the battle and the door gave way, swinging upwards. He pulled himself up and out of the square of light and Arden squinted as he looked up through the opening at a blue sky decorated by white puffy clouds.
Taril’s face appeared back in the hole and the boy grinned. “Glad that’s over-with! Leave the torches there and pass up the bag.”
Arden smiled, and after glancing back down the tunnel, he extinguished the lit torch on the floor, and let the other one fall next to it, before turning his eyes back upwards and lifting the bag towards Taril. Taril reached down and caught the loop of the sack and pulled it up through the hole.
THWAP!
Arden jumped as he heard the sound, and he spun to face the darkness. He stooped and grabbed the smouldering torch as gooseflesh stood out on his skin. He was instantly sweating, and the sweat made the torch handle feel slick in his hand as he held it out towards the black. Rather than the feeling of panic subsiding, it grew steadily, and he backed up until he felt his backside touch one of the rungs of the ladder.
“What is it?” He heard Taril’s voice from above. The boy sounded both amused and quizzical, and Arden found it irritating.
“I heard something,” Arden said quietly.
“What?”
“I said I heard something,” Arden repeated more loudly. He squinted into the darkness trying to see something, anything that could have made the sound. His eyes had adjusted, and since he was standing in a column of brilliant sunlight, he found he couldn’t see far into the darkness at all.
“Falling rock maybe?” Taril asked, hunkering down to peer into the opening.
But it hadn’t sound like a rock. It hadn’t sounded like a rock at all. It had sounded wet – wet somehow – like something slapping water, or almost like…
“It sounded like a fish,” Arden said.
“A fish?!” Taril repeated laughing. “Quit being a nelly and come on up. Daylight’s wasting and this adventure was your idea, not mine. If you don’t come up right now, I’m marching up to the main gates and when I’m asked, I’ll tell your father you kidnapped me and got eaten by a fish.”

Taril was laughing, but Arden didn’t join him. He thought he could almost see something. Something seemed to be moving, but he couldn’t tell for certain, and he wasn’t going to go back into the dark to find out. There was something else too though. He felt like he was being watched, like something malicious was eyeing him, studying him. Worse, it felt like that something was amused. His mind’s eye saw a great cat perched outside of a mouse hole, waiting for a meal. The cat would kill the mouse and eat it certainly, but before it did, the cat would also play with the mouse. The cat would chase the mouse, and maybe even let the mouse believe it could escape. It would let the mouse hope, as if such hope would improve the flavour of the kill.
Arden shook his head clearing the thought, and reached one hand back, gripping one of the rungs of the ladder behind him. He put a foot up on the lowest one and hoisted himself up the first step, then did the same pulling himself up another and another. He paused a moment longer. He needed to turn and climb, but somehow knew, was absolutely certain , that the instant he turned his back to the darkness, whatever had made that sound would rush forward and seize him, dragging him back into the darkness.
He was breathing in short little gasps, and his arms and legs were becoming unsteady. He had to get out of here now, before it was too late. There was a kind of tension building in the darkness. He took a deep breath and counted to three in his head. He threw the torch into the darkness, turned fully towards the ladder and propelled himself up the rest of the way through the opening.
V
The air above was warm, and his clothes stuck to his body, but there was a cool breeze that felt good on his forehead, and he took a deep breath of the fresh air before he turned to look back into the hole. He saw nothing and looked at Taril and saw the boy was grinning at him.
“You going to be okay?” Taril asked in a sardonic yet somehow not unkind tone.
“Yes,” Arden said simply. “Close that thing and let’s go.”
Taril moved to the other side of the door which stood upright, and Arden took one last glimpse into the hole. As Taril pushed it shut, for the shadow of an instant, Arden felt that same malevolent stare on him again – a kind of awareness of him – of what he was thinking, and what he was feeling. He shivered as the door fell shut with a loud clap.
As soon as it was closed, Arden felt the air lighten, and he realized why it had taken Taril so much effort to open it. The top of the door was covered with stone. It had been carved to hide the contour of the door, and the only thing that really made the door visible was the metal ring which served as a handle that sat atop it.
With the opening closed, and the dark malice trapped beyond it, Arden felt much better, and he let out a deep sigh. Taril turned to look at him and his face softened. “ Are you okay?”
Arden smiled. “I am,” he said. “Must have been a rock, I just panicked. Stupid.”
Taril reached out and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Come on. My turn to carry the bag I suppose. Let’s go find this lost city. First piece of treasure we find is mine.”
Arden nodded, and followed as the boy set out through the high grass, stooped low. He was embarrassed to have lost his nerve in such a dramatic fashion, but it hadn’t sounded like a rock. Not like a rock at all. His mind wandered back to a day not long before when he and Thorium had gone down through the gate to King’s Market and there had been a fishmonger there. Arden had been looking at a fish that seemed to have impossibly large eyes when the fishmonger and opened a box and lifted out what he had called a lula , but Thorium had called a kalmar.
The creature had tentacles, and big eyes and had felt like drying tree-sap when Arden had touched it – squishy. It had been wet, and when the man had put it on the table it had made a sound like what Arden heard. Thwap. There was certainly little chance that a similar sea-creature was roaming the tunnels beneath the city of Tyare though, so what had it been?
A rock , he reasoned.
But he had seen no loose rocks in the tunnel.
They maintain the tunnels; clear them of rocks.
He shrugged.
Soon the warm sunlight and the vast expanse of the clearest of blue skies began to warm away his feelings of unease and as the green tree-line drew nearer he began to grow excited. They crested a hilltop and once on the other side, Taril paused and put the sack down and stretched, standing straight. We’re far enough away now we don’t need to slink about.”
Arden straightened himself and smiled. “Race you to the forest?”
“It’s your turn to carry the ba-”
Arden laughed as he took off towards the distant line of deeper green. He ran for several minutes, and Taril fell behind.
“Arden!” Taril called.
“Run faster!” Arden called over his shoulder.
VI
The boys walked at a leisurely pace now, as the grasses swayed in the lazy wind of the morning. Arden guessed it had probably been about two hours since they had left the dungeons and entered the tunnels. They had spent a little less than half of that time underground, and the rest spent crossing the fields.
They were now about a mile from the forest, and Arden guessed that Thorium and his father would be now in council, tied up for the next couple of hours, perhaps even more. Consul Norin had come on the journey, and if there was one thing Norin loved more than the power of his position in the Synod, it was the sound of his own voice. His presence could easily stretch any meeting to a few hours.
Arden reckoned they should have three hours to explore the forest, so they would explore for an hour and a half, and by then if they hadn’t found anything they would turn back. He smiled.
“You seem pleased with yourself,” Taril said walking beside him. He was enjoying the adventure less. Taril was at home in the big city and had grown accustomed to living in the luxury of Baniresh. While a walk in the gardens every now and then was certainly nice, and even running on a well-kept lawn could be fun, traipsing through the high grass that tried to trip him up with each step, with a bag slung on his shoulder was not his idea of a fun time.
Arden on the other hand loved their camping trips and had insisted on going on several the previous summer. He liked catching fish, and even worse, cleaning them. Taril thought it was utterly revolting, but he had played along on those trips, because… well… Arden was Arden . The crown-Prince of Ardun was happy to go along with whatever everyone else wanted to do most of the time, but when he got it in his mind that he wanted to do something – one might as well try to hold back the tide with his hands.
Indeed, Arden was enjoying himself. The field was peaceful – far removed from the smells and sounds of the city. He had seen wild deer, and there were hawks that seemed to float as they rode the thermals here and there overhead, occasionally diving to catch an unwary field mouse. Wildflowers had started to bloom, giving the fields a picturesque look like in one of the landscape paintings that hung in Baniresh.
It was refreshing somehow, even exhilarating to be out here with no guards. All his life he had been constantly guarded. Thorium rarely left his side. Even when he was in the grounds of Baniresh playing with Taril and his brother Adalon, he was watched from a close distance by numerous guards. On his few camping excursions to the foothills north of the Bakhura, the boys had shared a tent in their own little clearing, but guards had been posted all around the clearing, and there had been a whole encampment of the Phoenix Legion a short distance away. His every move had been tracked – until today, and though it was a little frightening, it was exciting to be on his own.
This trip had been his first time leaving Ardun. He had hoped to have more freedom, but the trouble he found was that as well recognized as he was at home, here in Tyare he was more the stuff of legend. People treated him almost as though he were some sort of walking deity. Worse still, as word had spread that he and his father were coming to Tyare, people from the surrounding towns and villages had flocked to the city, so he was not permitted to leave the citadel without armed escort. This in turn drew more attention to him, which forced an early return to the palace.
So, it seemed to Arden that he was perfectly within his bounds to take this little trip – his first real adventure, stepping out into the world – not as a boy, but as a young man, setting his own course.
They were about fifty paces from the edge of the wood when Arden spoke again. “The leaves are already so big.”
Taril nodded. “Spring comes earlier in the lands south of the mountain pass. Bethalas is warmer than Ardun, and the leaves of these trees grow quickly. They would have been buds a month ago.”
Ahead, a single tree stood apart from the rest of the forest, like a lone emissary. It was about twenty paces from the forest’s edge and the boys walked toward it. “How tall do they grow?” Arden asked curiously brushing his fingers over the rough bark of the tree. It was about ten or twelve palms across he guessed. It was thick for a tree on a forest’s edge where trees were often younger as the forest worked its way out. Looking at the tops of distant trees beyond the wood’s border, he saw they grew much taller than this, and he surmised, much thicker as well.
“The tallest can grow to be fifty paces or more,” Taril answered, noting the other boy’s continual curiosity regarding things that seemed so mundane. “Are we really going to go in?” He asked. Now that they were here, he found he was even more reluctant to enter the Darkwood.
“You want to go back?” Arden asked a little disappointedly.
“Don’t know really.”
Arden looked up towards the lowest branches of the tree, several paces up, then back across the field tracing the visible line in the grass that marked their path. He sighed. “I won’t force you if you don’t want to,” he said, “but we’ve gone to such trouble and come all this way. Why don’t we walk for a time, and then if we’ve found nothing, we’ll turn back and go home.”
Taril looked toward the forest for a long moment then turned back to him, and Arden was startled to see there were tears standing in his friend’s eyes. One fell free, dropping from the end of the boy’s long eyelashes. He blinked.
“In Tyare we grow up hearing that this place is haunted. That it’s dangerous for anyone to enter. It’s not just children, grown men don’t enter. We get most of our timber from the loggers to the north in the Pikes Hills. There were some lumberjacks who came to Verin, but the people in Tyare wouldn’t buy their wood because timber from the trees is said to be bad luck. No one has a table, or a shelf, or a bed made of fluxin wood. Craftsmen won’t use it, and it’s said that the last one who did saw his entire shop burned to the ground in an accidental fire.”
Taril paused a long moment, and Arden let the boy take his time. He wouldn’t push. The silence began to grow uncomfortable, and Taril shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his eyes downcast. “Look – I’ll come, but do you swear we’ll turn around in an hour?”
Arden took the bag from Taril whose turn it was again and pulled out a linen ball which he unwrapped to display his pocket clock. “Here, see? It is half past eleven bells.” He held the clock out for Taril to see. When it reaches half-past one bell, if we haven’t found anything we will start back. We should clear the forest by half-past three and be home well before sundown. We’ll cross the fields and use the gate.”
“We’ll be caught if we use the gate,” Taril said quickly.
“I’ll take responsibility for being out.”
“A lot of good that’ll do while I’m being hung from a gibbet.”
“As you said, we’ll just tell them that I kidnapped you,” Arden said with a grin.
Taril smiled. “Just don’t get eaten by a fish.”
Arden nodded still grinning but noticed Taril’s expression. “What is it?”
The other boy hesitated again, reluctant to speak. He looked at the younger boy with wide eyes. “You won’t leave me behind, will you?”
“What do you mean?”
“If the forest is haunted and we have to run, you’re faster than I am. You wouldn’t leave me behind, would you?”
Arden smiled as he buckled his sword in its sheath onto his belt, and did the same with his dagger. “No Taril,” he said.
“No, I mean it,” Taril said, and he reached out and grabbed the fabric of Arden’s doublet at the shoulder. “We go in together, and we come out together. You won’t leave me, and I promise I won’t leave you.”
Arden smiled, placing his hand over Taril’s where it held him. “I promise not to leave you Taril,” he said, giving the hand a reassuring squeeze. “You’re my best friend. Really my only friend… well, except for Adalon, but it’s different with him because he’s like my brother.” Arden paused. “Anyway, all that is to say that I won’t leave you. We go in together and come out the same.”
Taril’s smile looked grateful as he nodded, releasing the other boy. He pulled his own dagger from the bag and lifted the loop of leather lace its sheath was tied to, over his head. Dressed for battle, Arden slung the bag over his own shoulder, and the boys turned towards the forest again.
“Well,” he said. “First step is always the hardest.”
Taril rolled his eyes and started towards the forest and the boys made their way under the dense canopy of the trees.
Chapter Two R EVELATIONS IN T YARE
I
Norin’s face hardened as he gazed through a red pane of the plate glass window that depicted the city’s founder laying the first stone of Tyare’s walls. The view beyond was pleasant, giving a picturesque view of the ringed courtyard below and of the city beyond, but it did little to brighten his mood. He was one of the most powerful men in all the Kingdom – likely in the entire world, and he was unaccustomed to waiting on others. He was even less accustomed to having his time wasted. His face darkened further, and he gritted his teeth as he listened to the others begin again and he took a moment to brush an errant lock of his long, dark hair from his face.
The Council Chamber in Tyare was a long rectangular room meant for private discussions – matters too delicate for Tyare’s great hall. Centered in the room was a table of polished wood, and along the southern wall where Norin now stood was a row of large decorative plate-glass windows. The windows allowed for the late-morning sun to stream in, giving the room a warm and cozy feel even on an early-spring morning, and the windows left the room warm with sunlight from near sunrise to sunset. Only on the coldest days of winter was the large ornate fireplace on the opposite wall lit.
Norin turned then, observing the men who were gathered as they busied themselves, trying to ignore the insult of being made to wait. He smoothed his features with some difficulty and took a deep breath before he moved to resume his seat at the long table. As he slid into the chair, he could feel his blood pounding in the tips of his fingers and he began to drum them lightly on the polished wood as the others continued in the same meandering, tortuous discussion. It wasn’t that the morning’s dialogue had been circular, nor even that he was in Tyare – a city which he truly hated – that had his blood boiling.
Norin Sabol was one of thirteen Consuls who made up the Grand Synod – the higher of the Ardent Kingdom’s two legislative bodies. The Synod was, by most accounts, the source of real power in the Ardent Lands since it decided the matters which the Royal Assembly would meet on and discuss. They heard appeals from the Assembly, agreed on the terms of lawgiving which was then sent to the Assembly for approval, and then presented to the High King for assent. It was an elegant system and assured that the Kingdom was not ruled by the rabble of representative democracy that was the Assembly.
It also stopped the High King from being able to rule through edict and thwarted his ability to use the bully pulpit of the Ardent Throne to force changes in law. The thirteen Consuls were consequently men of great power and dignity. So, when Fengal had requested a minimum of seven to attend with him to Tyare it had piqued Norin’s interests. Requesting the minimum of seven meant something was happening that could require a quorum, and a quorum meant serious business.
Norin had set out along with the others from Ardun City a week after the King’s retinue and headed east towards the Gorvindel, the gate of Ardun. There they had turned south, traveling to Bethal City before their road turned eastwards again towards the backwater of Tyare. The journey had taken just over two weeks. Upon their arrival, they had been given spacious apartments in the city and left to themselves, until Fengal called the council.
Norin had arrived early, expecting a kind of hero’s welcome. Instead, King Fengal had greeted him briefly before he had been whisked off to meet with Thalion in private while Norin and the others were brought to the private council. They had been instructed, rather than asked, by Fengal to discuss matters with the members of the Tyarean Watch – Tyare’s version of an army. Together with the Watch they would attempt to reach some conclusion as to what to do with the matter in Tyare.
If such instruction from the King wasn’t enough to irk Norin, they were given almost no details, and this brought him to his boiling point. He had asked – both directly and indirectly – but Captain Elkin had given half-answers and remained so vague that Norin wanted to slap him. He would have done so were it not for the man’s hard features; it would have hurt his hand more than the man. So far as Norin was concerned, the entire pursuit was an exercise in frustration.
He and the others who had made the journey knew the basics of course – that children in Tyare were going missing, but the cause remained undetermined. Moreover, the question of exactly how many children were missing – though asked several times in several different ways – had gone unanswered. If five or six children had gone missing Norin doubted very much that he or anyone would have been made aware of an internal Tyarean matter, so the number must be higher.
The question was how much higher?
How high would such a count need to be for the Tyarean king to call on the rest of the Kingdom for aid. How high would the count need to be for Thalion of Tyare to welcome Norin of Tarsus into his precious citadel?
II
Tyare and Tarsus had been at odds almost since Tyare’s founding centuries earlier. Isilin, the grand architect who had built much of Baniresh, had earned a fortune working for the Kingdom and had taken that fortune and built an encircling wall around an enormous plot of land that had been granted to him by King Akyrius IV. Within the walls he had built, the city of Tyare grew, and Isilin’s descendants set about the dutiful work of securing their position as the first independent city in Bethalas.
Tyare had gained its independence from Bethal City, their patron city-state, without bloodshed or even the threat of violence. Daxon, the great-grandson of Isilin had married princess Ferria of Ardun, and seven months and several ink-slashed pieces of parchment later, not only had Tyare been granted its status as an independent city, but the Royal Seat had been moved from Bethal City to Tyare.
There had of course been a great deal of political theater in the move – justifications that since Bethal City was itself one of the eleven city-states that made up Bethalas, that the royal seat should not be located there as it gave them preference over the others. This had been true, of course, but to move the royal seat to what had been nothing but shepherd pastures only a few decades earlier was an affront to many of the ruling families in Bethalas. “They might as well hold court in a barn,” had been the Tarsusian king Mehmed’s famed response at the time.
Because of this, the new Tyarean ruling family were viewed by many as a pack of usurpers. The city had been founded, won its independence, and had become the capital of the region of Bethalas within the Ardent Kingdom, all within one-hundred years. Worse, their example had served as a blueprint which others followed as several more cities, working within the laws of the larger Kingdom, had gained their freedom from their own patron city-states.
Royal Seat or no, to Norin it was still a backwater built by men with no birthright, filled with low-born citizens. Men in Tyare were named Lords by other men with no true right to the title. Tyare had been built by a rabble of farmers and had none of the right of Tarsus whose great families could trace their lineage back to the mighty Tarsos, who had carved their territory long ago after the fall of the old kingdom of Bethalas. They were knights of high blood and had purchased their lands with blood and steel. Honour was earned with the sword, not the strokes of a pen.
III
Norin had learned to use both blade and ink since first travelling to Ardun City some thirty years earlier. Now at thirty-eight, he was one of the most powerful men in the world – perhaps the most powerful. There was Fengal the High King of course, who was nearly as much an institution as the Synod itself, but Fengal was ancient. Norin had disassembled the Synod as Fengal had arranged it in just a few years and with a few years more he would wrest full control of the Kingdom. After all, whoever controlled the law held true power.
Soon Fengal would be King in name only. Certainly, Fengal had his wits and could rival anyone when stirred to debate, but his days of passion had long since left him, and he seemed reluctant or even afraid to engage in leadership now. Norin often sat in Council looking at the old man – when the King bothered to grace the Council with his presence – as he sat his seat, stoic and reserved, watching proceedings. Lately the King spoke little outside of his court where he pronounced justice and interpreted the law. In the Assembly and the Synod, Fengal left the work of governing to his lesser men; men like his Viceroy, Galen. Galen was a man of little consequence, who spoke rarely, and who moved few when he did. Norin was certain he could have wrested near total control from the King were it not for one man: Kordom.
Yes, Kordom – the crownless prince. Fengal’s first cousin twice-removed, Kordom was perhaps the only man in the Kingdom well positioned to thwart Norin’s plans.
He supposed it was because Kordom was the most like himself. Where the other Consuls were aged and often lazy – an appointment to the Synod was often a reward at the end of a long career – Kordom was young and vibrant. Kordom was also a fiery debater and possessed a depth of knowledge that Norin found distressing, though he would never admit such to anyone else. He had watched more than one of the senior Consuls – seasoned and well-respected men – wade into contests with Kordom before. Each of them had been unprepared for the young man’s awareness of every issue that came to the floor. He had heard Kordom’s apartments at Baniresh were filled with books on every subject imaginable.
What was more Kordom was a fighter who enjoyed victory and made no effort to land his verbal blows gently. Norin had watched open-mouthed as Kordom had seemed to take pleasure in humiliating several of the Consuls when they spoke on matters they knew too little of. The worst for each had been that Kordom had defeated their arguments so soundly in the public forum of the Assembly rather than in the relative privacy of the Synod chamber.
Kordom had lured them each out onto the unfamiliar ground of the topic of the day and let each state their points and positions even encouraging them while showing patience and understanding. Often, he even asked them to elaborate, assuring each that he simply wanted to understand their point fully. Then he would turn like an adder in the grass and with a viciousness bordering on cruelty he would eviscerate them point by point. Those debates had ended with each of the men looking very tired, very old, and utterly defeated. Each had opposed the King’s position, and Norin supposed it had been Fengal who had loosed the prince on them, standing in the shadows unentangled by the affair. Those who had sought reappointment to the Synod after such a defeat, had always been soundly defeated in the vote for appointment.
Yes, Kordom was dangerous, but that was his downfall. Kordom wasn’t in it for power or influence. He enjoyed the process, and Norin had noted more than once the sated look that he often wore after a victory, like a cat that had finally caught the mouse. The cat didn’t eat the mouse, he merely sat over it, surveying the carnage seeming to smile at the damage he had done.
If Kordom enjoyed winning the constant debates in the Assembly and Synod, he liked even more to study – to learn and explore issues from every angle. To Kordom it was just preparation for the opposition’s arguments with his focus being to earn another win. He didn’t enjoy turning others to his cause and he didn’t understand that real power came from who you knew not what you knew. It was unlikely Norin would ever unseat Kordom, but why try? The man would never build a coalition; he would just seek to prove everyone else was wrong.
Was he respected? He was a prince of Ardun, highly intelligent, and at the ear of the King so of course there were those who lapped at his hand, but he was also, at times, a mean-spirited bully. In the end bullying would only get you so far before others grew resentful – angry enough that they would move against you out of spite. And who would encourage such resentment and such spite? Why Norin of Tarsus of course would, when the time was right, be only too happy to put Ardun’s crownless prince in his place.
IV
Norin glanced at Kordom who looked even more disinterested in the ongoing proceedings than Norin felt. He could certainly understand the feeling, but Kordom had also contributed very little all morning. Normally the man would be active, asking questions and doing his best to bore to the root. Now looking at the distant, glassy-eyed expression on his face, Norin’s own eyes narrowed. What did the other man know? And more than that, what had the other man and the High King discussed on the road south?

The large doors at the east end of the room banged loudly, their aged metal hinges forced to turn as the doors swung open. Fengal, the king of Ardun – High King of the Ardent Kingdom – strode into the room. As usual, his stride was quick but long, and he wore a stern expression. He was dressed in what would be best described as a riding outfit and Norin snickered inwardly as he was certain the King hadn’t ridden a horse in several decades at least. Still though at nearly three-hundred years of age – Fengal was by far the oldest man in the Kingdom – he was vibrant and by all appearances still healthy and strong.
Fengal moved to the seat at the head of the table, leaving the chair to his right open for Thalion the king-regent of the free city of Tyare. Others took up the remaining empty seats, and Norin scanned them quickly placing each of them: Barret – captain of the Phoenix Guard, and Eran the head of Tyare’s Watch were among them. Last to enter were Thorium, the young Shar-Adan to Arden the Crown Prince, and an exceedingly young soldier whom Norin didn’t know.
Norin frowned at that. “Why is Thorium here?” He thought, nearly speaking the words aloud. It would have made sense if the boy was present – Thorium was after all the chief protector to the Ardun’s Crown Prince, and he served as a sort of surrogate father in the stead of the High King, but what purpose was he serving here without the boy? And who was this other one? Norin had a feeling he’d seen him before, perhaps in the Prince’s service, but why should a soldier who was little more than a child join in council?
“Please forgive my tardiness,” Fengal said interrupting Norin’s thoughts with his clear voice. “I have been in a private meeting with king Thalion regarding the matter at hand.”
Norin jerked, twisting involuntarily in his seat. If he had been angry before, he was nearly ready to spit after the open admission that the King had been meeting privately on the same matter as the council. "I must say, your majesty, that I object to such a breach in protocol. Meeting in private while council is held is highly irregular."
Fengal turned to regard the man as though surprised by the interruption and Norin slouched a little despite his best efforts to sit straight. He hated the way Fengal could deliver such a rebuke without a word, and even more his own involuntary reaction to it.
"Yes, I suppose it is rather unusual,” Fengal said after a moment before a quick inhalation of breath that seemed to say the matter was closed. “We’ll look on it as being the King’s prerogative this time, shall we?” He said with a hint of a smile looking around the room as the other men nodded, smiling like children would to a kindly grandfather.
“Of course, it is your right,” Norin said interrupting again, his voice smooth though he felt anything but. “It is simply that we have wasted nigh on two hours here discussing what amounts to absolutely nothing. The members of the Tyarean Watch have given almost no information, so our own discussions were regarding half-truths. It has been a waste of everyone’s time, and I for one did not travel a fortnight to be kept out of discussions regarding the goings on in Tyare.” He finished, fidgeting under the King’s gaze, and for the first time in a long while felt unsure.
Again, Fengal fixed him with that steely gaze and let the silence hang for a long moment as he pursed his lips slightly giving Norin a considering expression. It was the way one might look at a young boy who has spoken out of turn to an elder. This wasn’t the usual Fengal who seemed more to be present for the sake of being seen – he was focused and had a kind of force, an energy that was just beyond visible seeming to radiate from him like heat.
V
Thorium smiled as Fengal let silence drag out. He didn’t like Norin, and he regarded the man as one might a viper in a cage. It was safe enough so long as it remained in its enclosure, but the time might come when the snake might just escape its confines.
“Sooner or later Fengal is going to have to deal with him,” Thorium thought and glanced at Kordom whose expression seemed to say the same.
“Does anyone else have anything to add to lord Sabol’s objections?” The High-King asked raising his eyebrows and looking around the table. There had been no secret meeting that morning – not really. He and Thalion had enjoyed a late breakfast but the discussion had been light. He had delayed the meeting for this purpose, to isolate Norin who would be the only man bold enough to speak up in such a way. Fengal needed Norin’s little faction fractured for a time and he glanced at each member in turn.
The men shifted uncomfortably, their eyes lowered to the table and Thorium saw Norin’s jaw clench as he gritted his teeth. His few supporters in attendance remained silent, and were unwilling to join him in an admonishment of the King and the man’s face reddened.
Then Fengal nodded as if to close the matter. “Very well then,” he said sharply. “Lord Norin, your objection is noted, but I believe when you have heard the reasons it may allay some of your irritation. The good king Thalion felt it would be prudent to discuss some of the matter in private because it is a sensitive subject, and I agreed. I assure you, the decision was not meant to offend anyone in attendance, and we did not plan to take quite so long as we did. However, the deed is done and we’ve little for now it but to move forward.”
“Your majesty,” Norin said, with a dutiful bow of the head.
Thorium relaxed a little then as it seemed the group would move on. The sooner the better, and then he could be on about his daily duties. At twenty-six, Thorium was much younger than every other person in the room save one, and he was feeling decidedly out of place. He could only imagine how young Nolun must have been feeling and he glanced at the boy who sat to his right. Nolun looked as though he felt equally awkward, seated at a table of lords, but he gave Thorium a smile all the same. Thorium returned it before turning his attention back to the King.
“Thank you,” Fengal said with a smile. “As you are all aware, we have come here to hold council over events which have transpired in Tyare of late. You are also all aware that children in Tyare have been going missing. Apparently not all the facts have been shared with you all, so I would have Thalion speak first.”
Heads turned to Thalion then who looked pale and exhausted. When Thorium had seen the man earlier in the morning, he had seemed upbeat and even excited at the prospect of the meeting. Thorium supposed it had been a relief; Thalion had reached out over the miles and miles to the mighty capital and now help had come. Evidently though, now that it had come to it, speaking of these matters had changed the man’s mood. He looked like he had aged ten years in the past two hours and Thorium felt certain the dark circles beneath the man’s eyes hadn’t been there earlier.
VI
“As best we can tell; the troubles began a little over a year ago. A young shepherd boy went missing in the hills just north of the city. It was after the harvest month, and though such occurrences are rare… were rare, such has happened before. It was early winter, and the flocks were not yet brought in from the fields…”
The boy, Thalion explained, had been tending his flock for the night. He was new to such overnight duties, and when his older brother had ventured out to join him early the following morning, the boy had been nowhere to be found. A few sheep had also been missing, and so it had been surmised that perhaps wolves had taken the sheep and when the boy had tried to intervene, he had been taken as well. A search was conducted – neighbour joining neighbour as they tried to find the boy, but not a trace was found.
Such things had happened before, so the shepherds were more vigilant, and the flocks were brought into their winter shelters soon after. Things returned to normal.
Then another boy went missing, this time from one of the freehold farmsteads north of the city. Two weeks later, a young girl went missing from another freehold. She had been sent out to feed the chickens early in the morning and when her mother went out to find her she simply wasn’t there. Her basket of feed was set neatly aside as if she had decided to go for a walk and never returned.
Still the alarm hadn’t sounded. “You must understand,” Thalion said looking around the room. “In a city the size of Tyare, such is to be expected. From time to time children grow jaded with life on the farm and will leave in search of something new. We assumed that they were runaways.”
It was Aleradal , the third month of the year, that changed everything. A young boy named Nilmy went missing. He was nine and from one of Tyare’s most affluent families and had vanished not from a freehold farm outside the walls, but from a wealthy walled estate inside the city. By all accounts Nilmy had been a very happy child, the youngest of five and beloved of the rest. He was small in stature and not one for adventure or exploring. Naturally, his disappearance caused quite a stir and the Watch searched for him all throughout the city, but no trace was found.
Then, another child disappeared in the fourth month, then three more in the fifth, and soon every week there was a disappearance – all the children between the ages of eight and fourteen.
“They came more and more frequently – the cries of desperate mothers, the frantic searches of neighbourhoods. In Josiadal six children went missing, and in Amridal seven were taken.”
“Didn’t you search for them?” One of the Consuls interrupted.
“We should task the Phoenix Guard that is here to begin a search–”
“We searched!” Thalion cut the man off. “Fear gripped our city, and the Tyarean Council enacted orders granting the Watch permission to search every house, every barn, every warehouse, and shop – every inch of Tyare without writ or warrant. They conducted searches door by door and street by street but could find nothing. Children disappeared from the streets on their way home from school and even from their beds at night and the people of Tyare became like prisoners besieged by a nameless fear!”
Then as winter closed in, the abductions slowed. Two in the tenth and eleventh months, then the final abduction of the year on the first of Ayadal – the twelfth month. They had stopped then, and the people of Tyare had thought – hoped – whatever pestilence, whatever wraith-like demon which had walked among them must have moved on having taken its fill.
In Eridal , the first month of the new year, no children had gone missing, and hope had grown among the people of Tyare. Then an early spring had come and again they began, but they came with a vengeance, as though the evil that had slumbered in cold darkness of winter awoke with a malevolent hunger as the warmth of the sun greened the fields.
Though Tyare was a city of fifty thousand, everyone knew everyone. As a free city, Tyareans had built their society on the idea that their walls kept them safe, and that neighbours could trust neighbours, but suspicion had begun to grow. Doors which had never been locked were barred shut at night, and even some fights had broken out as people accused one another.
“Since this began a little over a year ago, fifty-three children have gone missing from within the walls of Tyare,” Thalion said as he looked around the room.
There was an audible inhalation of breath as the tally of the lost was spoken aloud. The men had listened to the story with expressions of grave concern, but none had done the mental calculation of the total, and its magnitude was staggering.
“This number,” Thalion continued, “does not include children whom we suspect may have run away; nor those from homes not suited to them, nor those of an age and temperament that they might leave the city seeking adventure. Were we to count such, the number of missing would be much higher, but we have chosen to focus our efforts on only those we believed were victims of the Abductor,” he explained, and as he spoke the words, a kind of understanding passed between the men. The Abductor had taken on the status of a title of sorts – a proper noun that described some monstrous force or being that was stealing the children of Tyare.
“Have you found any evidence of the cause? Footprints, or…”
“We thought at first that some sort of deranged lunatic might be among us – a man with an unhinged mind. As the numbers grew steeper and disappearances began to occur more frequently, our searches became more urgent.”
Even the Citadel was subject to regular searches, but no evidence to link anyone to the disappearances had been found. They had also never found any trace of struggle; it was as though the missing children were simply carried off or walked away of their own volition.
Ever had the people of Tyare lived in the shadow of the Darkwood. It had been more than just a part of the landscape or place on the map shrouded in mystery; it had been a part of the psyche of the people of Tyare since before Thalion’s grandfather held seat. Verin Forest was always said to be haunted, and folk tales had always been told of people who had gone beyond its borders in search of adventure and never returned. It seemed that everyone knew a tale of one who had been lost to the woods, but never before had the people felt any sense of real danger when they were within the walls the city.
Thalion shook his head in thought before taking a draught from his goblet and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. It was an artless action. “Now the fields north of the city where shepherds have driven their flocks for generations lay forgotten as families have moved south in search of safer pastures, and many of the freehold farms to the north and west have been abandoned.”
“The grass grows long about our walls for the first time since they were built by the toil and sweat of our forebears, and children disappear from their beds at night even as their parents sleep no more than an arm’s length away. My people are besieged by an indescribable fear; by some wraith that stalks our most vulnerable, our most precious and innocent. Safety cannot even be found by light of day. And it grows bolder each month, whatever dark hunger that drives it becoming stronger and more insatiable.”
He looked up then at the other men, seeming to regard them all at once somehow, taking them in even with the periphery of his vision. “Tyare needs aid. My people need aid. That is why I have called upon you, upon the good King Fengal to come to Tyare to help my people. Your majesty, I beseech you – we seek your guidance and your council, the support of the entire Kingdom to fight this pestilence.”
Chapter Three E MANHIL I
I
“And you shall have it,” Fengal said in a decisive tone, and as faces turned to him they saw his stern expression – the features resolute as though they’d been chiseled from the stone of a mountain. Even Norin found himself moved by the moment like a tiny ship on an ocean swell.
“It’s just like the story of Dagon of Emanhil ,” Consul Tomen whispered to himself, though the whole room heard and seemed again to share another moment of collective understanding as the man gave voice to what they were all thinking, and each looked to the others with his own eyes wide and saw the pale faces that looked back.
Thorium swallowed hard. He had been trained as a soldier from the age of eight and excelled enough to attain the rank of blade-master, but this was like a frightful children’s tale come to life. “ Dagon! ” he thought. He was surprised that even now as an adult, the name had the power to give him a chill.
II
Thorium had grown up in the Bowl – a community of shanties that lay in the strip of land between the curved outer wall of Ardun City and the base of its escarpment. In the Bowl, the children had often frightened one another with stories of Dagon. The older boys spoke of the destruction of the Delving of Ardun City – a vast network of underground tunnels and storage rooms that had once warehoused enough supplies to last the city seven years.
The Delving had been destroyed early in Fengal’s reign when an out of control fire in a storage room containing tyne – a substance used in the blast furnaces in the production of making steel – had caused a massive explosion that had rocked the city. Buildings around Baniresh House had collapsed including the original Synod, and the Temple. At the same time a huge section of the north gardens of Baniresh had collapsed down onto the buildings that lay at the base of the escarpment.
Hundreds had died, including two of the Consuls and many members of the Phoenix Legion, and the reconstruction had taken years. Many of the buildings around the gates of Baniresh had to be pulled down and Kings Market had been expanded. Fengal had overseen the construction of the new Synod building, much larger and more formidable than the original, and the Temple of Ardun that dwarfed the original. The large gardens to the north of Baniresh House had been rebuilt with the monumental stone retaining wall that had turned the once steep-slope on the north face of the escarpment into a sheer cliff.
While the official story had been that a worker had been careless using a torch in a room that should never have seen an open flame, the stories the children of the Bowl told were much more sinister. In their tales, members of the Phoenix Legion had been in pursuit of the creature which had brought so much pain and sorrow to the village of Emanhil centuries earlier. In their tales, Dagon had escaped Emanhil and come to Ardun City, but had been found out. During the pursuit of the creature, the Phoenix Legion had managed to corner it, and had deliberately set-off the tyne to destroy it once and for all. Dagon, being cunning and insidious as well as nearly impossible to kill, had escaped once more. And so, it lurked the abandoned sections of the Delving, and every so often would venture out into the Bowl to snatch up an unwary boy or girl.
It had also been a common belief among the children of the Bowl that if any child were to close his or her eyes at night, speaking the name of Dagon three times, that it would mark them for the creature who would come that night and drag them off to its lair. Thorium had never really believed this, but he had also never tried the game. No sense in risking such a thing. In talk after twilight they took to calling Dagon the Gooch. No one knew where the moniker had come from, but somehow it seemed safer.
Now as an adult, Thorium knew the story had been so many words of make-believe, that such things had never happened in Ardun, and that of course to say the name of Dagon aloud at night would not summon the creature. Yet still that child’s voice persisted in the deepest part of his mind, whispering to him – just as it had when he was a boy – those three near sacred words of power.
But what if?
He could remember a period of several weeks when he hadn’t slept more than an hour or two each night when his body finally collapsed. In his fitful dreams, he had been lost in the Delving, running from the creature whose name he had spoken on a dare.
Dagon was said to be a daeva – a remnant from the days before the worlds were formed. He, or it , had been trapped within the bubble of the reality formed by the Eri, the Creator, at the dawning of the world. Dagon was an outsider – a thing from beyond the world, and it preyed on children. As legends went, it was said there had been many such beings in the early days now long forgotten, and that they had been worshipped as gods. Later, many of them had been killed in the wars between the forces of Aya and those of Javan, but Dagon – one of the most powerful – had escaped.
The name Dagon had not become infamous until the tribulations of Emanhil. There were other stories of such creatures, but for the people of Ardun the tale of the accursed village was the most recent and most familiar of such a creature. Even several hundred years later it still held the power to dredge up childhood memories of sleepless nights and feelings of dread.
III
People oft refer to silence being deafening; it has been used so often that it has become a cliché, but in the council chamber of Tyare, the silence felt just like that, as though it was a tangible thing. The air felt thick with it and it seemed to Thorium as though if he really tried, really concentrated, that he would have been able to touch the silence. Thorium sensed it as a nearly physical presence rather than the mere absence of sound. He looked around the room regarding the men as each remembered his own tales of Dagon of Emanhil. Each face had grown pale as its wearer wrestled with memories of childhood fear. Thorium shivered.
Then he turned his eyes to Fengal and saw the King’s expression again, still that stony resolve. Then the King’s eyes fell on his own, and the most wonderful thing happened. Fengal smiled, and it seemed to drive the tension out of Thorium like a warm drink warmed the body on a cold night. Thorium realized he had been holding his breath and let it out in a low sigh.
IV
“When I was a boy,” the King began, “I was told the story of the village whose name is on each of your minds. Far to the east it lay, in the foothills of the Thunder Mountains, nestled in the steppes of Cragen,” he said.
“Emanhil is a myth – a children’s tale,” Norin grumbled, but a look from the King silenced him.
“Emanhil is no myth,” Fengal said with a slow shake of his head. “The fall of Emanhil occurred during my grandfather Fergyl’s reign. It was not so long ago for my family.”
Children had been disappearing from the village of Emanhil – for three months their children vanished. Emanhil, being on the frontier of Wilderlands beyond the mountains, wasted little time reaching out to Ardun for aid. The reeve of Emanhil was a man named Sarto, and he sent messengers on the forty-day journey to Ardun in search of aid. The messenger stood in the King’s Hall and passed on his lord’s plea, and Fergyl sent the messenger home with promise of assistance. Five-hundred men of the Legion set out from Ardun City and marched to the land of Cragen, and Fengal’s own father Ardunal had been among them.
“I asked him about it once – asked him to tell me the story of Atan,” Fengal said. “I was perhaps nine or ten at the time and he asked me where I heard of such a thing. I told him it had been at the Academy of course – that the older boys had been telling tales to frighten the younger children,” Fengal said with a distant look as his mind peered back through the long years, recalling the moment through the prism of time and memory.
“I remember thinking it had been rather silly, but when I mentioned the name Dagon, my father had stiffened, and he hushed me to silence, saying it was not good to speak of such things at night. I was a precocious lad if you can imagine it now,” he said with a wry grin that made his eyes gleam. “Accepting ‘no’ for an answer was never my strong suit, and I pressed my father further. Eventually he agreed that the next morning he would tell me the story of Atan.”
“Atan – the last boy,” Captain Elkin whispered before realizing he had spoken aloud and lowered his head as his cheeks coloured.
Fengal nodded. “I see you are familiar with the name. No doubt you’ve heard the tale before or some version of it, but I would tell you the tale now as my father told it to me. So far as I’ve ever heard it told, it is the truest version, for my father was there at Emanhil and met the boy Atan, of whom you speak.”
V
Chunk!
He felt the satisfying give of the wood as it surrendered to the axe, the two even pieces falling cleanly apart. It was the way the axe moved through with so little resistance – something which had taken practice when he had first begun chopping wood several months earlier. There was the sound too, which told him that his axe split the log cleanly.
Atan mopped sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve before picking up the two cords of wood and stacking them on top of his neat pile. He tilted his head back then, smiling up at the sky, as he let the afternoon sun warm his face. It was late in Amindal , the tenth month of the year by the Ardunian Calendar, and though northern Burondine was no longer a part of the Ardent Kingdom, they still followed the calendar as it had been set down by Akyrius.
“One more,” he said to himself as he lifted another log onto the stump that served as the base for his work.
He was thirteen and solidly built like any farm boy in Cragen, though his daily chores had been reduced in the last year, what with the happenings in the village. The Cador farm lay on the outskirts of the village of Emanhil .
Atan’s day had begun like any other, milking the farm’s four cows – a quite respectable number for any free-hold – while his brother swept out and pulled down fresh hay and feed for the animals. Then he had walked to school in a large group of other children led by an adult. The schoolhouse in Emanhil – a one-room building – was headed by the Widow Gispa who was kept by the village taxes. She had been school mistress for nearly twenty-five years since her husband had been crushed in a wagon accident. She had taught Atan’s father Siman, and now all these years later taught Atan.
Though she was old, and many of the students towered over her, she ruled the room, and though the morning arithmetic had begun like usual, the school day had ended early after news that Ellias, a boy from north of town, had been lost in the night.
Lost was one way of putting it – the way that the grown-ups had taken to putting it – but to the children of Emanhil, taken was the verb of choice. Before this latest disappearance, it had been nearly a month since the last child had gone missing, and things had only just begun to return to a state of normalcy which suited Atan just fine. Oh, there was still the curfew for all children – those under fourteen by Ardent Law which still served as common law in much of Burondine – and the children of the village were still excorted to and from school each day by volunteer adults. They had called the accompanying and curfew the Vigilance, and it had seemed that the measures had worked. Vigilance, Reeve Sarto had said, would end their suffering. Now it looked as though perhaps it wouldn’t be enough after all.
Emanhil was situated within the barony of Sareiseawhich had separated from the Kingdom centuries earlier. Still when the fifteenth child had gone missing, the reeve had sent two messengers all the way to Ardun, to the High King Fergyl seeking aid, and the King had agreed – help would come. Even now, a contingent of the Phoenix Legion was marching east towards Emanhil led by prince Ardunal. Widow Gispa had said it seemed it would be too late for Ellias when she had dismissed them that morning.
But Atan wasn’t convinced that Ellias had met with the same fate as the others. For one, Ellias was a boy who was always involved in mischief, always playing tricks. Besides, he hadn’t been missing long. His parents had awoken to find him gone just this morning, so perhaps he was just hiding to cause a commotion. Such had happened before, especially early on when another boy, Sildin, had hidden in his hayloft for two days after an argument with his parents.
VI
Atan had arrived home from school to find his house empty and silent. His mother had died two winters earlier and now he lived with his father and older brother. They had taken a trip to Sareisea that morning with plans to return in the evening, so Atan was left to his own devices. His father’s rules were strict – he could do his chores so long as his father and brother were home. If they weren’t, he was to stay inside with the newly installed door latch locked and the windows shuttered. He was thirteen – older than most who had gone missing, but there was little sense in taking risks.
He had followed the directive when he first returned home, waving to his friends Jalen and Carston as they continued up the road towards the Laneck farm. The trouble was that although the year grew late, it was unseasonably hot. The house with its three rooms had become stuffy quickly with the windows shuttered and door latched shut. He had been reading trying to ignore his discomfort when the idea had come to him that he could use the time to chop more wood for the cook-fire. He liked splitting wood – finding the motions soothing with the repeating set, chop, stack – set, chop stack, as your pile grew.
He had decided he would spend just a little time out in the fresh air – just long enough to let the breeze dry the sweat which had dampened his skin, and then he would batten the door again until his father returned. And so, he found himself now chopping his last cords of the day. The thought of returning to the confines of the house didn’t make him happy, but – he shrugged and hoisted his axe.
Chunk!
“Quite a pile you’ve got.”
Atan jumped, his head turning quickly towards his front gate where he saw a man standing, leaning on the fence.
VII
He knew the rules – no talking to strange folk no matter how polite they were, but there was something about the man’s smile. It was disarming and had a kind of humor to it as if the man were on the verge of good-natured laughter. There was certainly nothing sinister about him, and he was well dressed in – perhaps not quite in the garb of a nobleman, but a successful merchant. The clothes were expensive, yet they lacked the extravagance of what most nobles Atan had seen would wear. He also seemed familiar somehow, and Atan liked him almost at once.
The man saw Atan’s frank regard and he raised a hand apologetically. “I am sorry to have disturbed your work,” he said, his smile broadening and lighting his face. “I certainly did not mean to startle you either, but I am not from here and wondered if you could perhaps help me.”
Atan turned towards him then, and he rested the axe on the chopping block. “How might I be of service sire?”
“Nay lad,” the man said with a smile. “I am no high-born lord to be called a sire, just a man on an adventure. I was wondering if you might direct me to a good inn in town,” he said.
“Inn’s not taking visitors,” Atan said taking a few cautious steps toward the man who he noted remained quite respectfully on the other side of the fence. His hand was resting lightly on it while his other held the fold of his over coat. He seemed troubled by Atan’s words, so the boy continued. “There’s been some trouble you see – children going missing.”
“Oh my,” man said eyebrows raised in a look of real concern. “I was told before that there were wolves up here in the north.”
“There are wolves about from time to time, but it’s not wolves people suspect,” Atan said. “It’s outsiders – so the inn’s not taking visitors.”
“Ah, I see,” the man said looking uncomfortable for the first time, then after a moment’s pause he continued. “I am sorry to have made you nervous. I’ll be on my way.”
“You didn’t,” Atan said quickly, as he moved still nearer to the man, his hand extended in a waiting gesture. “I didn’t mean it that way – just… the inn isn’t taking visitors.”
“I understand,” the man said still looking uncomfortable. He had taken a step back from the fence and both of his hands now hung at his sides.
“I am sorry sir, I meant no offense,” Atan said carefully.
The man brightened some then and nodded. “None taken good lad. Well I would not take up any more of your time. I shall have to try my luck in town. If there’s no inn I shall have to see if there are any stout young men who can help me carry my burden back from the hills.”
“Burden?” Atan asked a little curious.
“I do not know if you have heard of it before, but there is an old mine – abandoned it is as though it had run dry. I found gold hidden inside – piles of it. I am an adventurer you see, and I heard a tale at an inn down in Kresia of a mine in the hills near here. It was said a great treasure lie within, gathered there by bandits a century ago and forgotten. I began my search a fortnight ago, striking out from Garvea and found it just this morning.”
“I never heard of a treasure near here before,” Atan said with a hint of excitement.
“Real as your pile of wood there,” the man said nodding. “A moit larger too,” he added, standing a little more proudly – his back straight as he clasped his over-coat. It reminded Atan of the way the reeve stood when addressing the village. “Would you know of anyone in town I should speak to? I would be willing to share for there is plenty enough for someone with a strong back and willingness to work.”
Atan swallowed hard – torn. He knew that his father was having a hard time making ends meet. The village general was no longer extending them credit, and Atan had overheard some of his father’s hushed argument with the barony tax man a few months earlier. He was sure that was why his father and brother had continued to travel to sell their wares despite the troubles in Emanhil. “How much?” he asked curious.
“Well I had not thought much about it yet,” the man said glancing away, his face growing distant. “My plan was to spend a night in the inn before seeing if I could hire a wagon or cart from someone. There is enough gold and gemstones there though that I doubt if I should miss several handfuls at least.” The man reached into his pocket then and pulled out a gold coin – a large gold coin.
Atan’s eyes bulged. Several handfuls of gold and gemstones? The tax man could be sent singing for years. Not just the tax man either. With that much they could buy more animals, a mule or two to help work the land, and more cows for milk and cheese. Perhaps he could even buy a horse from old Barleyman. In the end, that had decided it – the thought of himself riding to the school atop his own horse – the freedom that such an animal of his own would bring. It was too good to pass up; he swallowed hard before he gave voice to his decision.
“Perhaps I could come with you and be of service. I’m not so big, but I carry my weight! I’ve been working this farm for years,” he said trying to look a little taller. “My brother took our cart away to Sareisea to sell our wares.”
“I would welcome your aid, but with these times should you leave without-”
“My father’s inside,” Atan lied. He was an honest boy by nature, but he could save his farm with this. If the man believed his father was home, then surely, he wouldn’t try anything. Besides, the man was a noble or next to it from his dress and manner of speech, so it would be safe. Atan’s mother had insisted that he learn to speak with none of the crunk-speak of the village, and he found he trusted the man more because the man spoke well.
“My father’s been ill these last few days – headaches mind, not fever,” he added the last quickly. “He’ll not be able to come along, but I’ll tell him where we’re going and what we’re to do so he doesn’t worry. Then perhaps you can spend the night here; my brother will have returned by then like as not and we’ll cook a dinner for you and in the morning, we can return to retrieve the rest for you. Even take you where you’d like to go!”
“Your father will not mind?” The man asked.
“I shall ask, but I’d wager it will be fine,” Atan said smiling reassuringly.
The idea wasn’t so preposterous. After all they had opened the farm to travelers before – just the previous year before the High King’s jubilee in Ardun, there had been many travelers on the roads bound west and the inn had been overflowing with guests. Some had stayed in outlying farms. Atan had given up his bed and would gladly do so again if it meant easing the burden on his father.
He assured the man that he would be right back and made his way quickly back into the farmhouse where he donned his older woolen overcoat and a pair of warm britches. Then he paused long enough to write his father a quickly scrawled note of explanation – that he was going to the hills to aid a man and would be back before dark. That accomplished he collected several empty sacks and pulled his knitted cap down over the tops of his ears as he stepped back outside.
The sun was still high, but he saw that a dark bank of clouds was rolling in from the northeast, and a cool wind was blowing now, that chilled the sweat that still stood on his brow from his earlier work. He waved to the man then as he broke into a light jog over to the front gate of the farmstead. He hesitated at the gate for just a moment as his hand touched the barn-board post that had been worn smooth by time.
The man stepped back as the boy pulled the gate inwards and tucked the sacks under his free arm as he stepped through. The man turned then without a word and began walking briskly towards the hills. Atan pulled the gate shut, latching it before he fell in step alongside the man. He glanced up at the man’s face. “How far is it do you think?”
The man smiled. “Tired of our adventure already?” He asked.
“No sir!” Atan said quickly. “I just wondered. Those clouds look cruel,” he finished raising his chin off towards the darkening patch of sky. The clouds were moving steadily, seeming to loom up growing higher as they came on.
“Well it is not far,” the man said gesturing with a wave of his hand ahead towards the hills. “Only perhaps a half an hour’s walk from here. The journey back would take longer like as not because of the gold, but we should not take more than two hours at most.”
The boy nodded, and the two walked on in silence for another moment or two before Atan piped up again. “So where are you from?” he asked.
“South,” the man replied.
“Oh,” the boy said after it became clear the man had nothing to add. “I was born here in Emanhil.”
“Ah,” the man said, and seemed to quicken his pace towards the tree-lined hill ahead.
Atan lengthened his strides to keep up. “You’re in a hurry,” he said jokingly.
“You were worried about the clouds,” the man said in the same tone.
“Aye,” the boy said. “Not that worried. We can slow.”
The man slowed his pace then and glanced at Atan. “Best not tire ourselves too much I suppose. We would be too tired to return with the treasure.”
Atan smiled, some of his unease leaving him as the man seemed to warm again. “So, you’re from the south you said.”
The man grinned. “You are a tenacious one… I was born in a kingdom far to the southeast, beyond the mountains and the wastes. It lay beyond the eastern Wilderlands.”
Atan’s eyebrows raised. He knew there were tribal lands beyond the wastes that lay east of the thunder mountains but had certainly never met anyone from so far away. “I’ve never travelled much beyond the borders of Sareisea. What made you travel so far?”
The man’s smile broadened, and it reminded Atan again of the look the man had worn when he had first seen him, as if on the verge of laughter.
“I wanted to see the world dear boy, and to experience all the wonders this world has to offer. More than that, I am a collector, and you cannot collect the same things in the same place for too long. Now as we are in the path of asking one another questions, I would ask what is your name?”
It struck Atan then that here he was, about to enter the forested hills with a man whose name he hadn’t even thought to ask, with nothing left behind but a note for his father. He shivered.
“Cold?” the man asked.
“No… a little,” Atan answered. “My name is Atan,” he said as he glanced over his shoulder back the way they had come. His farm was barely visible, and he frowned a little as he faced forward again.
“I’m pleased to have formally met you Atan,” the man said. “My name is Dagon.”
“Dagon,” the boy repeated. He’d never heard it before, but then he had never travelled far beyond Sareisea, and this man was from much farther away than that.
The man pulled out the gold coin he had held up earlier and then tossed it to Atan who caught it neatly. “Wow!” he exclaimed examining it in his palm. “It’s heavy.”
Atan reached to give it back, but Dagon raised a hand. “Keep it,” he said with that same winning smile. “We shall call it a first deposit for lending me your aid, and there shall be plenty more when we come back. One of those sacks you have there, with your share inside.”
VIII
Thorium jerked up from his seat, standing so quickly that his chair flipped over, sliding several feet before stopping at the base of the wall. Startled faces turned to regard him, most not-so-kindly, as he shook his head. He glanced around the room looking embarrassed before glancing at Nolun who stood at his side, his sword half drawn.
“Thorium?” Fengal asked with a look of concern.
“Forgive me,” he replied rubbing his head.
“What is it?" The King asked.
Thorium paused, still rubbing his left temple before he met the King’s eyes. “It’s Shadow,” he said. “Something is wrong.”
Chapter Four S HADOW
I
Arden and Taril walked beneath the vast canopy of trees for a time, listening to the birds making their strange call through the forest.
“I hate those birds,” Taril said irritably.
Arden sighed. “Yes, I know. You’ve said that.”
“Stupid noise.”
“Yes,” Arden agreed dutifully.
He was grumpy, Arden knew, and he supposed he should try to be patient. After all, Taril had come with him on this little adventure. He smiled at the other boy and another silence settled between them for a time.
“Do you think your father will still let you travel to Annendin?” Taril asked breaking the calm.
“Why wouldn’t he?” Arden asked. “That was the main purpose of my coming here.”
“I know, but they’re holding council today, and I heard two guards talking in the kitchen yesterday.”
“Talking about what?”
“There is war in the Southlands,” Taril said.
“War?”
“Aye – the southern settlements of the Kiri people are being attacked. They were talking about the Vasten returning to reclaim their ancestral lands.”
Arden rolled his eyes. “The Vasten were scattered and their capital was razed to the ground.”
“Then who is attacking the Kiri?”
“I don’t know. Maybe some of the Vasten survived, but I doubt they’ve been able to rebuild their empire while in exile from their own lands. More likely there is some new warlord who has organized a tribe of raiders, and they’ve begun attacking poorly defended towns.”
Taril shrugged, and the two continued in silence for a time, but the quiet of the forest weighed on Taril and he struck up the conversation again. “So why Annendin?” He asked in a too-casual tone that caused Arden’s brow to raise.
“Why not?” Arden answered carefully. “A journey to Annendin has ever been a rite of passage for the Crown-Prince.”
“Oh, I just wondered,” Taril said maintaining that same tone.
“Wondered what?” Arden pressed.
“Well – it’s just that you never really showed an interest in travelling to the valley before. Then Larna shows up–”
“Luranoa,” Arden corrected.
“Yes,” Taril nodded. “She shows up at the palace again for the Synod’s Festival and you two disappear–”
“We didn’t disappear, we were on the veranda,” Arden interrupted again, this time a little defensively. “With other people, and you found us there.”
“Yes, okay,” Taril said with a more patience than Arden would have expected from him. “My point is, you two shared your evening, and she stayed at Baniresh for two weeks and you saw her every day. Then she returned to Annendin, and five weeks later, here we are on our way there.”
Arden sighed. He had been over this with Thorium. He had also discussed his plans at length with Kordom. Now Taril was going to help him sort out his feelings.
“Visit whomever you like,” Taril was saying bringing him back from his thoughts. “You’re the Crown-Prince and every great house in the land has a daughter who would stand in line, proclamation of dowry in hand. I just think you should consider your actions carefully, and what this little trip signals to other powerful houses in the Kingdom.”
“There’s nothing to consider,” Arden said with a touch of exasperation.
Taril held his hands up reassuring. “I’m only saying that until Luranoa came, you were doing a fairly good job of spreading your attention around. You never visited anyone. Besides, you know your father wants you to pay more attention to Sarine–”
“I’m twelve years old,” Arden said. “If it makes you feel any better, not so long ago, my plan was to marry Adalon’s mother, but I moved on.”
Taril giggled. “Leave Japhia out of this. Besides, she’s to be my wife as I’ve told you both. One day Adalon will call me father.”
“Then there’s also your step-mother…” Arden said trailing off for a moment. “I planned to use her hand to bring Tyare closer to Ardun. Thorium had to explain to me that your stepmother was married to your father, and that stealing her wouldn’t bring us closer to Tyare.”
“You’re ridiculous.”
Arden stumbled then, and Taril tried to catch him but before he could, Arden fell to one knee, one hand pressed flat on the ground while the other was pressed against his head.
“You needn’t make a scene to change the subject, just say you don’t want to talk about it,” Taril said jokingly, but when Arden made no reply, he knelt, resting a gentle hand on the other boy’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“I think so,” Arden said shaking his head as if to clear it.
Taril stood then helping him to his feet with a hand under the arm, and Arden rose slowly before listing to one side. Taril grabbed him righting him before he could fall again and held him until he regained his balance.
“What happened?” Taril asked.
“It’s Shadow,” Arden said unhappily. “He’s awake, and he’s really upset.”
II
Taril knew of the strange bond Arden had somehow formed with his pet beastie. Though he didn’t understand it, he had come to accept it as part of life at Baniresh, but it hadn’t always been that way. He could remember the day Arden and the wolf had met, or as Arden put it – the day they had become friends. Taril understood some of the Prince’s connection to the animal but calling Shadow a wolf was like calling a lion a cat. Taril’s father kept large hunting dogs about the palace of Tyare, but even they had cowered respectfully when Shadow moved about the grounds of the Citadel.
It had been nearly four years earlier when Shadow had joined their strange little family. Taril had been living at Baniresh a little over a year. By then, Arden, Taril, and Adalon had been known as the three princes among the merchants of the market.
The vast expanse of Kings Market seemed to stretch away for miles around them in every direction as the throng of the marketplace beat against Arden’s ear drums. Forays into the market had once been an annoyance for him as each month he was paraded through the market under heavy guard, but today the trip had been his idea. As usual, Adalon split off from them to see what books were for sale at one of the vendors, while Arden dragged Taril back to the glass-maker’s pavilion.
Arden had always found the processes of making things fascinating, and he watched in wonder as the man worked. He thought he enjoyed the glass maker’s work most of all, seeing how the man took sand and mixed it with other powders in a bowl before putting them into his tyne-fired furnace. Then he would use a metal pole to pull out a blob of molten glass before turning it against paper. He would begin to use metal tongs and other tools to pull the shape of some animal or other thing out of the amorphous blob as though it had always contained it and simply needed to be reminded.
There was something magical about the procedure to Arden who had also spent hours with Adalon’s father at the forges in Irband where the man had become recognized as a master armorer and weapon smith. Arden had watched as the burly man hammered steel into shape. Smithing was a violent process as metal needed to be heated and cooled and beaten into submission.

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