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The following, by Katie Lott, is Volume One of a fantasy novel called The Shadow's Rise. Its style, content and themes excellently continue the traditions J.R.R. Tolkien's Trilogy established. Copyright 2006 by Katie Lott.




Darew Khirgan guided his dappled stallion forward at a walk through the heavy snow. It snorted and shook its head to clear the snow off of its shaggy coat. Darew clapped a gauntleted hand to its neck to calm it.
“Easy, Karab,” he murmured, his breath misting in the cold, dry air.
Darew was tall and broad-shouldered with short, dark brown hair and a hard, angular face. His eyes were a soft brown in colour, but they were the watchful, alert eyes of a soldier. He wore a dark green wool coat and a mottled brown cloak wrapped tightly around him. A thick leather belt around his waist held a plain-looking, slightly curved sword.
The forest was silent, other than the creak of saddle leather and the howling of the wind as it whipped between skeletal trees. Darew ran his hand over the helm hanging from the pommel of his saddle. It was too cold to wear; the thin padding would not keep him from feeling the icy chill of the metal. Still, the tangible feeling of something between him and the unnatural stillness of the forest would be welcome. He made himself rest his hand on his thigh instead. He was no smooth-cheeked boy to be jumping at shadows.
Karab pranced nervously under him. He quieted his mount with a touch of pressure on the reins. Moments later, the stallion snorted and thrust its head forward, tugging at the reins impatiently, its eyes rolling. Darew frowned at his mount; it was a trained warhorse-a weapon in its own right-and it did not shown such unease even when lunging into the midst of a battle.
A piercing scream like the sound of a banshee screeching cut through the air. Darew felt like his ears were bleeding; he could hear nothing but the terrible noise that made him feel as if white-hot daggers were boring into his skull. He tore his helm from his saddle and clapped it over his ears to deaden the noise, but it seemed to pierce through the metal like an arrow through cloth. After what felt like hours, the scream faded and a bat-like shadow passed over the weak sun, flying quickly in the direction Darew was heading. It was hard to tell what it looked like at that distance, but the sound marked it as surely as if it was standing in front of him.
Ears still ringing from the sound, Darew booted Karab forward to a slow canter-as fast as the stallion could go in the deep snow-heedless of whatever pitfalls lay buried out of sight. His quivering mount needed no encouragement; it took off as soon as Darew loosened his grip on the reins. Darew half-stood in his saddle, looking for some sign of the forest's end. By the time he saw the trees begin to thin, it was too late; he could already smell the heavy scent of smoke in the air.


A slender, shadowy figure stalked through the night streets of Intuir. He wore a nondescript, dark wool cloak with the hood drawn up to hide his face from the light of the full moon. He would have preferred not to do his mission tonight, but it was the last night he would be able to.
Malarik, as he was called by some, moved northward through the smaller streets and alleys, though he changed direction often to seem less purposeful. He did not want anyone following him tonight. As he emerged onto a wide, well-paved street, Malarik looked around to judge his bearings. Tall towers scattered along the city walls loomed above the two-story buildings on the street. They were almost purely ornamental now; Guards had not climbed their heights in generations. To his right, the road abruptly ended perhaps a mile away, cut short by a stone wall two stories high. Must be the street leading north from South Gate, Malarik thought. He half-smiled, satisfied that he had made it thus far without being stopped.
The lean man hugged the buildings until he reached the street that crossed his just before the walls, making a T-shape. This road circled all the way around the palace walls; he would have to expose himself to any guards making their rounds atop the walls in order to cross the cobblestone street. He squinted into the darkness, waiting to see the giveaway shine of star-light on a polished helmet. Suddenly, he saw a small pinpoint of silver light moving steadily away from him to the left on the wall. He waited for a count of three before leaving his hiding place to steal across the street, taking care to remain low and attract as little attention as possible.
Malarik turned and pressed his back to the rough wall to see if anyone had watched him. No movement caught his attention; no one left their houses to call for help, and no Guards stomped noisily to the wall to arrest him. He grudgingly turned to face the wall, conscious of just how exposed he was. He would not have time to react to the twang of a bow-string or the whirring sound of a thrown knife until it caught him between the shoulder blades. Then again, he had chosen this cloak because the color and rough texture camouflaged him against the wall.
Malarik closed his eyes. He could feel what he needed already inside of him; It was a power that never slept or weakened. He called It the Shadow-power. It was curled inside of him, waiting for him to seize it. Or maybe It was waiting to seize him. Malarik reached out to the Shadow-power, letting it uncoil and stretch from his head to the tips of his fingers and toes. The feeling of incredible power rushing through him filled him with unwavering confidence. With this, he could do anything.
He breathed deeply before beginning his ascent, using the thin ledges created by gaps between the stones where the mortar had contracted when it dried as hand- and foot-holds. The slender man took care to watch his feet and avoid making the scuffing sound of leather against stone.
Finally, Malarik's hands reached the top layer of stone blocks. Arms aching with the effort, he pulled himself up enough to see the Guard marching back towards him. Judging by the yellow cord wrapped he wore wrapped around one shoulder over his breastplate, he was an under-Lieutenant. He had the exaggerated swagger of a smooth-cheeked boy trying to imitate the walk of a veteran soldier. His lip seemed to be curled in a permanent condescending sneer that matched his noble looks perfectly. He had fair skin, a fine bone structure, and golden curls sticking out from underneath his helm. He wore the gilded breastplate of a wealthy officer, though the gold was worked in the fist-and-roses of House Reigard instead of the crowned falcon of Dardraegon, the ruling family-a bold move, that. He was lucky he wasn't made to muck out stables for such a show of insolence.
As the Lieutenant neared, Malarik closed his eyes and relaxed his muscles as much as he could while hanging two stories off of the ground by his fingers. He concentrated on becoming invisible, letting himself be absorbed by the darkness around him until he was part of the night. He hung loosely from the wall; it didn't matter if he dropped to the ground below. He was absolutely confident. He could do anything. Malarik pulled himself up easily over the edge of the wall and stood waiting for the lieutenant. The Guard would never see him. He was silent Death, who waited unseen and whispered fatal sounds in men's ears and watched as they fell fluidly to the ground.
The noble's eyes looked unseeingly straight ahead as he walked by Malarik and continued for one pace, two…. He never heard Malarik move. He never turned until Malarik's cold arms-icy like a corpse's, with a chill that the Lieutenant would feel through Malarik's sleeve and his breastplate-grabbed him from behind and slashed the front of his neck open in one fluid motion. The Lieutenant never made a sound. Malarik lowered the twitching, dying body slowly to the ground. It wouldn't matter if the corpse had crashed noisily to the street twenty feet below, because with this power, this addictive ecstasy filling him completely from head to toes, he could do anything. Still, it would be faster to reach his target if he didn't have to kill so many men. He regretfully wiped the bloody dagger he had drawn on the Lieutenant's crimson cloak and sheathed it.
Malarik scanned the royal grounds from his vantage point. He could see the dark palace in clear detail, as brightly as if it were day. Two Guards stood by the entrance to the kitchens, each holding their halberds out at a precise angle. One was a full Lieutenant, while the other was a Captain. Neither of these men had paid their way into their positions, unlike the unfortunate Guard whose body was currently staining the bricks crimson with his noble's blood that in the end flowed out of his body as easily as anyone else's.
Malarik licked his lips eagerly in anticipation. He could almost feel the heat of the blood that coursed through their bodies calling to him, begging to be spilled. He jumped easily off of the wall and landed silently on the springy, wet grass below. He felt no pain or weakness upon landing; jumping off of a wall was nothing for him. Malarik actually could sense the hot blood now. It was like a sense between touch and smell; it called to him so he couldn't resist.
He stalked over to the Guards, willing for them to see them, to feel terror as they watched Death approach, garbed in swirling night and shadow. His lips pulled back to bare teeth glistening in the star-light with dripping saliva. They saw him when he was within twenty feet. The Captain gestured to the Lieutenant, who nodded obediently and circled to Malarik's left so they would have him trapped from the front and behind.
Malarik ran at the Lieutenant and drew a long dagger from his belt. He used his surprise and speed to duck under the first swing of the halberd's axe-like blade. His cut drew a slash across the Guard's thigh that made his leg buckle under his weight. Malarik watched as the cruel spike on the back of the Lieutenant's weapon swung back at him. He rolled left at the last moment. The Guard, confident that his hard-swung blow would hit, was thrown off-balance. The Captain was forced to dodge the point of the Lieutenant's halberd. He was completely blank-faced as he approached Malarik with the grace of a fencer.
Malarik watched the pair come towards him with no fear. Though they had the advantage of a much longer reach, they wouldn't be able to use it properly without hitting one another. The Lieutenant struck first, perhaps eager to prove himself to his Captain. The assassin saw his opportunity as he dodged left. He thrust his dagger into the Lieutenant's unprotected armpit and used the Guard's body as a shield before the Captain. The remaining Guard's face tightened in anger.
Malarik flashed the Guard a twisted grin as he dropped the body irreverently to the ground. The Captain feinted with the head of his weapon and struck with the iron-tipped butt. Malarik felt his right leg buckle under the blow, but he sensed no pain. He moved forward and to the right to dodge the quick swing of the axe-like head. His dagger thrust succeeded in cutting across the Guard's upper arm. The other man grimaced at the pain, but he gave no other sign of weakness. The Guard backed up to get Malarik within range of the axe-head, but Malarik followed closely, pressing his advantage.
“Intruder!” the Guard bellowed as it became clear that he would not be able to get Malarik within range. His yell cost him a blow to the side that made him drop his halberd. While Malarik pulled the dagger blade out from between the Lord-Captain's ribs, the Guard punched at the smaller man with a gauntleted fist. His blow caught Malarik just above his ear. The Guard's hopes that he might have knocked the assassin out faded when he saw that Malarik quickly recovered.
“Intruder!” he yelled again, this time with a definite tinge of fear in his voice. Malarik smiled as he pushed the Lord-Captain back against the wall and held him with the knife's edge pressed against his unprotected neck. He leaned closer and whispered foreign words in the Guard's ear. The Guard blanched and began to thrash just before Malarik's dagger tore a hole through his throat.
Malarik let the Guard limply slump to the ground with a scraping sound of metal on stone. He would have to move quickly to reach his prey before she was moved to a safer location. Death let no victims escape its cold caress. Malarik crouched by the dead Guard's side. The hot, metallic scent of blood was thick in his nostrils. He leaned forward and ran his tongue over the neck of the still-warm corpse, lapping up the warm liquid. He tasted the coppery tang of blood mixed with sweat, but these were nearly overpowered by the intoxicating taste of terror.
The sound of steel-reinforced boots stomping on cobblestones made his ears prick. He regretfully left the body behind, only casting one last heated look at the wasted blood that flowed crimson down the Guard's neck before entering the palace. There would be more victims for him tonight. Nothing stands before Death.
Cloaked in shadows, he moved like a wraith through corridors decorated with tapestries, paintings, and vases. His footsteps on the polished stone floors made no noise. Death is silent, he thought. He followed the instructions given to him by an inside source within the palace to find the queen's chambers. Only one Guard lazed about before the brass-bound double doors of the queen's bedroom. Malarik frowned. There were supposed to be four High Guards who worked in four-hour shifts standing watch before the queen's chambers. Something was wrong.
Malarik padded forward silently and circled behind the Guard until he was nearly pressed against the Captain's back. He drew his dagger slowly and with practiced ease; it slid out without a sound and was soon pressed against the Captain's neck. Malarik wrapped his other arm around so that his hand covered the Guard's mouth. At the first touch of steel against his skin, the soldier drew a diagonal slash across his chest twice with trembling fingers. Ah, that explained the loss of the other Guards. This Captain was Shadow-sworn-a servant of the Master, the Shadow Lord of the north. The Master must have informed this underling of Malarik's coming, and he would have prepared appropriately by changing shifts and relying on other known Shadow-sworn. Malarik slowly uncovered the man's mouth, though he kept the dagger's blade pressed against his neck.
“She's in there,” the Guard breathed. Though Malarik could not see his eyes, the slender assassin could sense the soldier's feeling of self-importance in his words. “I ensured that you would have no problems with Guards on your way here.” Oh yes, definitely convinced of his oh-so-vital role in this dark plan.
“Pray to the Shadow Lord for resurrection from the dead,” Malarik whispered, turning the point of his dagger to pierce through the Guard's lower jaw and base of the skull as he thrust upward. He lowered the corpse gently to the floor and wiped the blade off for the third time this night.
Malarik smiled cruelly in anticipation of the end of his mission. The Shadow-power pulsed eagerly within him. He opened the doors and slipped into the Queen's chambers. He licked his lips. He was going to enjoy this killing.

Chapter I

A Shadow in the Night

A red-tailed hawk soared high above the grasslands of the Rolling Plains northwest of Estengard. It flicked its rust-colored tail feathers and banked right to go north towards the southern tip of the Athalelle Forest, called simply the Athals by the folk who lived around it. The hawk traveled many miles north before it flared its wings and extended feet tipped with sharp, cruel talons to land in a tall oak tree on the edge of its favorite hunting meadow on the edge of the Athals.
The movement of a large creature to its right caught the hawk's attention. It cocked its head to turn fierce amber eyes towards the intruder. A young man dressed in simple woolen farm clothes had popped up from a crouching position in a patch of particularly tall grass. He carried a recently-killed rabbit in one hand; two more were dangling from his belt. The hawk clicked its beak hungrily and took off into the sky again in search of better hunting. The young man, Caer Morrin, smiled at the hawk as it flew away, beating its wings furiously. For a moment it was silhouetted against the sullen, sinking sun as it winged westward before it disappeared from sight.
Having finished checking all of the snares, Caer tied the last rabbit to his belt and began to make his own way home. He traveled down a small, overgrown path that led him towards the outskirts of the forest and went over a clear, quick-flowing stream perhaps five paces wide. Finally, he reached a large clearing with a small, brightly lit house and a stone-walled barn in the middle.
The bottom of the sun was touching the treetops when he entered the house. Inside, it was decorated with simple, plain furniture made more for functionality than beauty. An oil lamp and a small, crackling fire on the hearth made the house seem cheerful and warm after the crisp air outside.
His father, Tarem, greeted him with a large smile on his weathered face. Tarem was neither tall nor short, but he had broad shoulders and thickly muscled arms that made him appear bigger than he was. Though his hairline was receding and the otherwise dark brown hair at his temples was starting to grey, he gave off an aura of being confident and able to solve any problem.
“Hello, son. I was hoping you'd be able to catch some meat for us. I would hate to have to pull some dried venison out of the cellar to cook tonight.”
“There were fewer than there usually are for this time of year,” Caer said as he handed his catches to his father.
“Some years are harder than others,” Tarem replied evenly. “We will make do with what we have, and this is plenty for tonight anyway. Before the Felstans get here, could you fetch a cask of ale from the cellar? I'd like a word with Jakrim after supper, and we've used the last of the cask in here. While you do that, I'll skin and cook the rabbits.”
“Yes, father,” said Caer obediently. He grabbed the lamp and left the warm house to walk towards the barn. The barn had been the decaying ruins of some ancient building that had survived the hundreds of years that passed while the world around it forgot it ever existed. When the Morrins had first arrived at this land, it had been covered in trees. Four moss-covered stone walls with a hole leading to an underground room were all that remained of what might once have been a tower or outpost of some kind. Caer's grandfather Lokthane had claimed the land and began clearing the forest to start a farm. He had kept the ancient stone walls and built his house near them, for he believed that the ruins should be preserved. When Tarem inherited the farm, he constructed a roof over the walls and turned it into a barn for the animals to sleep in during the cold winter months.
Now, there were a pig and her young, a milk cow, and two horses-one sturdy cart-horse and a chestnut gelding-kept inside the wooden stalls. Caer let the cart-horse nuzzle his hand before opening the trap door to the cellar. A wooden ladder led down into a small, dry room. Caer's boots scraped across the ancient, smooth stone floor as he walked to the nearest shelf to set the lamp down. Its flickering light illuminated a stack of two-gallon casks stacked against the far wall, along with crocks of butter and milk kept on the shelves Tarem had made. Caer walked towards the small, dusty containers, each with a tiny scratch in the shape of an “A” or “C” on one side. He grabbed a cask from the top of the stack with an “A” and pressed it against his side with one arm so he could hold the lamp in the same hand and use the other arm for climbing back up the ladder.
Caer began to ascend the ladder. Just as his free hand touched the top rung, a face appeared above him through the trap door. Caer gave a yelp of surprise and let go of the ladder. He was saved from falling to the ground below by a strong hand that grabbed him by the front of his shirt. The light from the lamp made the face appear to be made of all hard angles with sharp contrasts between light and shadow.
“Your father told me I could find you down here,” a familiar voice said.
Caer grinned in relief at recognizing his closest friend, Dashrik Felstan. He finished climbing through the trap door to see his friend. They had often been described as looking and acting like brothers. Dashrik was seven months younger, but they were within an inch of each other in height-both were taller than most of the young men in the area. They had dark brown hair and eyes, and broad shoulders. Dashrik, Caer noticed to his amusement, was attempting to grow out a beard, though he only managed a scraggly bit of growth on his chin. Still, Dashrik was considered quite handsome by the girls in the surrounding villages; he was often the first asked to dance when the inhabitants of the southern Athals would meet in Lhamien, the closest and largest village, to celebrate Samhain and other holidays.
“I didn't think you would be here already. I didn't hear Boroke,” Caer replied. Boroke, a black-and-white sheep herding dog, was trained to bark if anything came near the house, as wolves would sometimes dare to venture onto their land in the hope of easy meat.
“I think he's learned who I am. He ran up to me, meek as a lamb, and pushed his head under my hand so I would pet him,” Dashrik laughed.
“What do you think your father and mine want to talk about?” Dashrik asked seriously a few moments later as they were walking back to the house.
Caer gave his friend a sidelong glance. “What makes you think they want to talk about anything important?”
Dashrik rolled his eyes. “If it wasn't important, they would let us be there too. We're not little boys anymore.”
“I don't know,” Caer replied uneasily. “I don't think it involves us though. And if it's important, we'll find out eventually anyway.”
“You don't think it's…about trying to marry us off, do you?” Dashrik asked gravely, with a definite worried look about him.
Caer nearly fell on his face as he stumbled forward. His father and Master Felstan couldn't really be talking about arranging their marriages, could they? Caer felt his face heat, though his blush wasn't visible in the dim evening. He could tell that Dashrik was similarly distressed. They had both reached the age of adulthood-and therefore the prospect of marriage-earlier during the year. At the time, he had been proud of being considered a man by the village leaders, but now he desperately wished he was younger.
“Did your mother come here also?” Caer asked.
“No. Why?”
Caer moaned in despair. “She might be out talking with one of their mothers then.”
Dashrik visibly steeled himself, taking on the look of a solitary soldier about to face an army of one hundred dragons. “Well, there's only one way to find out, isn't there? We'll have to listen to their conversation.”
Caer hesitated. As much as he wanted to know if that was really what their fathers were talking about, they would both be in deep trouble if they were caught. That's still better than wondering if I'm going to be married off come this Spring, he thought.
“I suppose so,” Caer replied reluctantly. Marrying Ethilen wouldn't be so bad. That is, if I could bring myself to dance with her without tripping over my own feet. He blushed further, and was very glad that Dashrik couldn't see his face well in the poor light.
They reached the house and walked inside in silence. Caer was caught up in his thoughts of how things would change if he was married and noticed that Dashrik was similarly absorbed. I wonder who he's thinking of? Caer thought. He handed his father the ale and set the lamp down.
“Thank you, Caer. Why don't you boys go wash up while I finish making supper?”
Dashrik and Caer walked solemnly to the small washroom near the back of the house. It had one window near the ceiling to let light in and a copper bathtub in the center of the floor, along with a half-full bucket of water beside it. They knelt and washed their hands and faces in the icy water. The sudden shock of it splashing against Caer's face was a welcome relief from his morose thoughts.
The boys went back to the living room, where the bright light from the fire and the smell of supper cheered them considerably. Soon, they were laughing and talking with Jakrim and Tarem over a meal of bread, cheese, and rabbit stew. When supper was finished, Tarem stretched and said, “Why don't you boys tend to the sheep while Jakrim and I talk? We'll clean everything up.”
Dashrik flashed Caer a meaningful glance. Caer nodded, his feeling of light-heartedness gone. Caer grabbed his cloak from where it hung on a peg, and Dashrik took the lantern. As soon as they were outside, the younger boy whispered, “We should go down to the pen and leave the lantern there, and then double back to the house. If they look outside, they'll think we're down there because they'll see the light.”
“Maybe we should just stay down there. Father usually wouldn't send us to watch the sheep. I think he's expecting trouble,” Caer replied. As curious as he was to hear what his father and Jakrim were saying, he didn't want to risk his father's anger if they were caught. If they were found, Dashrik would be punished harshly. He often was in trouble for causing some sort of trouble, and tonight would be only one in a long line of wrongs.
“All the more reason then to listen. If your father is expecting something bad to happen, shouldn't we know about it? Then, if it actually does happen, we'll have had a forewarning and can help with whatever it is,” Dashrik persisted.
“What will happen to the animals if something comes while we're gone? We can't afford to lose our sheep and horses.”
“Boroke will bark if anyone or anything comes near, and we can be down here before the danger gets near enough to do any actual damage. Besides, nothing dangerous comes through this part of the Athals. The last time anything exciting happened here was forty years ago when our fathers were in swaddling clothes, and even then it was just an outbreak of the flu. Boroke can handle anything that could come out of the forest until we can get down there.”
Caer sighed. Reluctant as he was to disobey his father, Dashrik had a point.
“Fine, we'll do it,” he conceded. “Let me make sure Boroke is awake.” He walked over to the dog, who was mostly hidden in shadow where he lay by the Felstan's tethered horses. The lamp light shined off of alert, watchful brown eyes as he raised his head to look at them. Caer scratched Boroke behind the ears and muttered, “Keep a watch out.” Dashrik placed the lantern where it would be visible from the house.
“Let's go. They'll have started talking already,” Dashrik whispered.
They crept back to the house and looked through the window. No one was in the living room. They must be in the kitchen, Caer thought. Dashrik opened the door silently and slipped through the small opening. Caer followed and led the way to the doorway to the kitchen. They leaned against the wall and strained their ears to make out what the voices inside were saying.
“Do you think you'll be able to make it home tonight, Jak? The sun's already set, and you could break your horses' legs trying to avoid holes while riding in the dark. You could take Caer's bed, and the boys could sleep in the loft. I'm sure your farm will survive without you for the night,” Tarem asked.
Dashrik grinned at Caer. They didn't see each other often, so the prospect of Dashrik spending the night was a welcome surprise.
Jakrim, however, replied, “I'd hate for you to seem put upon, Tarem. Besides, the wolves are getting bolder, and I've even caught a bear that tried to get into the sheep pen. No, I think Dashrik and I will be fine.”
“The road's more dangerous than it was. It may not be only wolves and bears out there anymore. You've heard the news coming from Estengard as well as I,” Tarem cautioned.
“If you can believe what they say. That news is a month old by the time it reaches us out here. And it's all the more reason why we should go if it's true. Someone needs to be there to protect the farm. They usually attack at night.”
“Who's 'they'?” Dashrik mouthed. Caer shrugged. His father had never mentioned any 'they' that would apply here. Who could be traveling through the Athals that wanted to attack them?
“If it is true though-if they are gathering in the North-what will we do?” Jakrim asked softly, as though he didn't want to think about it.
“We will handle it if it becomes a problem. If they're going North, then it's no concern of ours,” Tarem replied soothingly.
“Mathric hasn't called a Village Council yet. He has to have heard the rumors as well as we have.”
“Yes, and probably a good deal more, too. The merchants that come through talk to the Village Leader first and us second. If there was reason to call a Council, Mathric would have done it.”
“Damn it, Tarem.” Caer heard the thump of a fist hitting the table. “Mathric wouldn't call a Council if dragons were breathing on our doors. He doesn't want to think that anything could be wrong.”
“Mathric is a reasonable man,” Tarem said slowly. “He wouldn't sit by and do nothing if he thought there was danger-”
Tarem stopped as the sounds of snarling and barking reached the house. Caer and Dashrik exchanged a glance before running out of the house, desperately hoping that Tarem and Jakrim hadn't seen or heard them. They tore across the grass-covered field separating the house from the barn and sheep pen. Caer felt his heart sink as silence fell after a final yelp. The small, flickering light of the lantern seemed to go out as something paused in front of it. Dashrik, the faster runner of the two, pulled ahead of Caer. He was running straight towards the massive shape silhouetted by the light of the lamp.
“Dashrik, wait,” Caer gasped. They had no weapons with which to fight this thing, and if it could hurt Boroke, it could do the same to them. The shape moved, and the lamp became visible again. Dashrik came to a halt twenty feet ahead of Caer. The older boy stopped beside his friend. They stilled their breathing to try and hear the sounds of movement. All they could hear was the frightened bleating of the sheep and a nervous whinny from one of the Felstan's horses.
“What was that?” Dashrik asked.
Caer shook his head. It had been too tall for a wolf, and too wide to be a bear. “I didn't get a good look at it. You were closer than I was. Did you see anything?”
“I can't be sure, but I think I saw…well, wings. But whatever it was, we scared it off,” Dashrik replied.
Wings? What is that big and has wings? Of course he had heard of dragons, but they were supposed to be fifty feet long. And a dragon was not likely to be scared off by two weaponless boys.
It was only a few seconds later when Tarem and Jakrim arrived that Caer realized he hadn't heard them coming. The grass had muffled the sounds of their pounding footsteps. For Dashrik and Caer to have scared the beast off before they were within thirty feet of it, it either had to have very good hearing or it could see in the dark.
Tarem and Jakrim looked tense; each held a long hunting knife and searched the darkness with wary, watchful eyes.
“What happened?” Tarem finally asked.
Caer looked at the ground. His mouth felt dry. Thinking of disobeying his father before was nothing compared to how it felt to be caught in the act now.
“We don't really know,” Caer replied softly. “We only got down here moments before you did.”
Tarem stopped looking around to turn on his son. Caer felt suddenly small and much younger than he was.
“You left the animals alone? After I told you two to tend the sheep?” Tarem asked furiously.
“Do you know how lucky you boys were? Whatever came through could have slaughtered the sheep and gutted you two before you even realized it was still around,” Jakrim added.
“Where were you then, if you weren't here?” Tarem asked.
Caer tried to swallow, but there was a lump in his throat. He opened his mouth to reply, but Dashrik said first, “It was my fault, Master Morrin. I was curious as to what you were going to talk about, and I convinced Caer to come with me to listen. I thought that you might be…talking about arranging our marriages.”
Jakrim glared at his son. “You won't be getting married for a long time, Dashrik Felstan. Not until you grow up and earn the responsibility that the Council granted you in naming you a man. I'm sorry about the trouble, Tarem. Dashrik and I will be leaving.”
“Be on your guard. Whatever came here was no forest creature,” Tarem advised, pointing at the deep imprints left in the ground. They were almost bird-like, but bigger than the prints of any bird Caer had ever seen.
Jakrim's face tightened when he saw the tracks. “We'll keep watch as we ride and stay off the road. Something that big can't move through the forest without us hearing it first.”
The Felstans untied their horses-a frisky mare and a nondescript gelding-and mounted. Dashrik stared at the pommel of his saddle and refused to meet Caer's eyes. They left without a word and soon faded into the darkness.
“Did either of you boys see what it was?” Tarem asked.
“No,” Caer replied quietly. “But Dashrik saw that it had…wings.”
Tarem absorbed this information in silence and nodded his head as if rather than a surprise, it was the confirmation of something he had been thinking.
“What is it?” Caer asked finally.
“I'm not sure, though I will put my opinion to the Council. They will need an accurate account of what happened. Tell me what you saw and heard after you came outside.”
While Caer recounted the experience, Tarem listened attentively. At the end, he nodded again and kneeled beside the deep imprints in the ground. Whatever he thought, he kept it to himself, though he gave off an air of confidence and surety that Caer took comfort in.
“What do you think it is?” Caer asked again.
“There are a few things it could be, though I can't be certain of any,” his father responded repressively. “Count the sheep while I check on Boroke.”
Caer's attention drifted as he counted the still-frightened animals. He could see his father crouching beside Boroke's limp form. What looked suspiciously like blood glimmered darkly in the moonlight. Caer felt a wave of guilt that he had not even thought to see if Boroke was alive after he and Dashrik ran down to the sheep pen.
“They're all here, father,” Caer said. Tarem did not answer; he was still looking at Boroke's-Caer's throat clenched-body. Caer walked over to his father to see the dog for himself.
Boroke lay in a pool of dark blood. His chest didn't stir. His side was pierced deeply by what must have been fangs. The wounds gave off the foul, poisonous smell of acid and burning sulfur. They seemed to bleed more than they should; the white patches of fur were blackened with blood.
Caer felt as though he had been kicked in the stomach. Tarem got Boroke when Caer was a young boy. They had grown up together. Often, Boroke would accompany him and Dashrik when the boys explored miles into the Athals, up to the base of the Haltrik Mountains. Mercifully, Tarem spoke no words of blame. Even though it's my fault, Caer thought sadly. Tarem laid a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“It would have happened anyway,” his father assured him. Caer nodded numbly.
“These wounds look poisonous. We'll burn the body just in case. Wait here while I gather firewood and kindling from the house,” Tarem ordered. “Be careful and keep watch. I don't think it will, but that thing could come back. Take my knife and stay hidden if you see it again. If the beast returns, it's better to stay hidden. We can always get more sheep, if it comes to that.”
“Yes father.”
Caer watched his father leave and disappear into the darkness. Without Tarem, Caer felt suddenly alone. The lamp flame flickered fitfully, on the verge of going out. The stillness was oppressive, and the silence was menacing, like the superficial silence of two great forces gathering for way. No friendly, familiar noises could be heard. Even the sheep were unmoving and quiet, almost as if they could sense an immense, imminent danger looming before them. The darkness seemed lessened, but in it, Caer fancied that he could see everything that it had concealed before. Terrors of shadow materialized before his eyes. The shapes were grotesque, but they held his horrified attention. He stared at them, transfixed, as they sprouted horns, fangs, and talons, and became living demons. Finally, he closed his eyes tightly and gripped the knife that Tarem had given him before he left. Still, he was unable to shake the feeling of being watched by unfriendly eyes.
“Caer?” a voice called softly. Caer started so badly that he lost his grip on the knife. When he opened his eyes, his father was standing beside him with a pile of logs and small, dry sticks stacked in his strong arms. He noticed that the darkness had returned, and the images of demons were gone.
“I'm here,” he answered.
“We're going to need more wood than this to get a big enough fire going. I want you to start the fire,”-Tarem dropped his burden and handed Caer two pieces of flint and steel-“while I go back for more logs.”
Caer hesitated on the point of asking his father if he could walk back to the house with him to get the wood. You're a man now. You can stand being alone in the dark for a few minutes, he thought firmly. He agreed in what he hoped sounded like the voice of a responsible, mature man instead of a frightened boy.
While Tarem walked back to bring more wood, Caer used the light from the lamp to see as he lit a small fire and blew on it to bring it to life. The flame was bright and welcoming, especially after Caer's scare before. He eagerly added small sticks to the fire to make it grow.
Together, they fueled the fire and eventually burned Boroke's body in the flames. They stood away from the burning body, which was now more than ever giving off the smell of sulfur. They corralled the sheep into the barn and locked it shut to prevent any further attacks. For the first time in a long time, Tarem bolted the door shut and placed a wooden board across it to bar it.
As he laid on his straw-filled mattress, Caer thought back to the snatch of conversation that he and Dashrik overheard. Could the “they” that attack during the night be what came to their land? Just before he fell into a fitful sleep, Caer fancied that he heard a shrill, high-pitched shriek from far off that filled him with sorrow and dread.

Chapter II

To Be a Man

Caer woke from a restless sleep in a cold sweat. His blankets were tangled around his legs. Try as he might, he could not remember his dream. All he could recall was a sense of impending dread. At first, he did not recognize his surroundings. It was like he had woken up in a different room than he went to sleep in. He tried to remember how he had gotten there. In a rush, the events of the night before came back to him. He breathed out heavily and looked around, suspicious of a sudden feeling of being watched. He felt that he could almost see a-shape. It was vague and unclear, but obviously menacing. When he blinked, it flashed into existence for a moment against his eyelids before disappearing completely.
Caer pushed himself off of the straw mattress and changed out of his sweat-soaked clothes. The morning air was icy cold against his bare skin. He pulled on a clean shirt and trousers, and was just tucking the ends into his boots when he heard his father calling him.
“Coming!” he replied.
He tromped heavily downstairs. His head felt as though it was made of lead, and the world lurched by slowly in front of his eyes.
“You look sick,” Tarem said upon seeing Caer. He put a hand to his son's forehead. “And you feel hot. Maybe you should stay inside today.”
“No, I'll be fine,” Caer lied.
“We won't be doing any work today anyway. I need you to stay here and watch the farm while I ride to Lhamien.”
“Why are you going to the village?”
“I need to tell Mathric about what happened,” Tarem replied. He slung a cloak over his shoulders and started towards the door. A strung bow leaned against the door-frame.
“So you're worried?” Caer asked slowly.
Tarem paused to consider him. “Yes. I'd be a fool not to be worried. You have to guard the farm while I'm gone. Take this bow,”-he handed the longbow to Caer-“and shoot if you see anything strange.”
“Do you think it will come back?” There was no need for Caer to state what “it” was. The beast had been on both men's minds.
“No, I don't. This is just a precaution,” his father said heavily. He clasped Caer's forearm warmly and left. Caer watched him walk down to the stables and ride away towards Lhamien.
Caer found a quiver bristling with arrows near the door. He had helped his father make most of them a few weeks ago. Fletching your own arrows was almost a necessity for a family that lived and hunted 20 miles from the nearest village.
He felt suddenly alone without his father. When there had ever been a possibility of danger before, his father had stayed with him. He supposed he should be happy about this change; Tarem wouldn't have left him alone at the farm if he didn't see his son as a man. At the moment, though, Caer felt like he was ten years old again.
Time to prove you're a man, he thought firmly.
The time passed slowly. It steadily grew stuffier inside the house. He thought that it must be his fever that made the air feel stiflingly hot. On a winter day, the house should have been cool without a fire crackling the hearth. I should go outside and get some fresh air, he thought dizzily. Caer carried his bow and quiver with him as he walked outside. The cool morning air was refreshing. He sighed and settled down to keep watch. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Sheep bleated in their pen and grazed the little green grass that was left, just as if there had been no nightmarish monster near them the night before. Father must have let them out of the barn before he left. The only thing out of place was that Boroke wasn't sitting beside him, or off chasing rabbits. He studiously avoided looking at the circle of blackened grass where they had burned Boroke's body.
Hours later, his muscles were stiff and sore. He hadn't seen anything strange, except a vulture that had circled high above him before flying in the direction his father had gone. The faint thud of hooves pounding against a packed dirt road made his ears perk. He pulled a handful of arrows from the quiver and stuck them point-down into the ground in front of him so they could be drawn quickly. The sound of hooves grew louder until he finally saw a rider-less horse galloping towards him. Caer recognized Baine, their riding horse. The gelding stopped next to the barn. Caer lowered his bow and walked towards him. He hummed loudly so the quivering animal would notice Caer long before he reached the barn. Baine was not normally skittish, but whatever had sent him back without Tarem must have scared him, and he would be easily frightened now.
Caer patted Baine soothingly and grabbed his reins. The gelding trembled under Caer's hands and tossed his head. His coat was soaked with sweat and he was foaming at the mouth. He must have galloped all the way back from Lhamien. Caer's heart raced. Where's father? He felt his throat tighten when he saw a dark red-brown stain on the saddle. His stomach turned; he was going to throw up. He clenched his jaw to keep the bile from rising.
Caer forced himself to loosen his grip on the reins. He had to decide whether to stay and wait for his father, or to go after him. That could be mud on the saddle. Father might not have tied Baine tightly enough to a hitching post, and a dog barking scared him so badly that he galloped back, he reasoned, but even in his head it sounded hollow. His father didn't make mistakes like that, and Baine wasn't easily spooked. A vision of the vulture he had seen earlier suddenly came to mind. He turned away from Baine and wretched.
When he could stand again without his legs shaking beneath him, Caer scrubbed his hand over his mouth and tied Baine to a hitch. He leaned his bow against the barn wall and ran back to the house on legs that felt as though they might give way any second to grab the quiver and arrows in case Tarem was in danger. Fever made every step reverberate in his head. He leaned against the wall for a moment to bring the world back into focus. He shook his head and snatched the arrows and quiver from the ground.
Caer staggered back towards Baine. He tied the bow and quiver to the pommel of the gelding's saddle. He mounted after clumsily fumbling with the knot of the reins and booted Baine to a hard gallop down the road. Bare, ghostly trees that stood like silent, watchful sentinels rushed by on either side. Perhaps he was imagining it, but Caer had the distinct feeling that they disapproved of him moving so quickly past them. They were old, having lived for maybe one hundred years or so, but they seemed as through they could have been there since the dawn of the world.
He rode on. There were no hoof prints to guide him along the hard-packed, dry road. A few miles down, Baine slowed and whinnied in fear. He stopped and refused to move forward another step. Caer saw that the tall grass on the edge of the road was crushed down, and there was a faint boot print in the softer ground there. He tied Baine's reins to a tree a few yards into the forest. His father might not be able to walk, and Caer would need a means to get him to the village so Tarem could be tended to if he had been injured. He fastened his quiver to his belt and took the bow as he ventured warily into the forest to find what lay ahead.
Caer followed the tracks quietly. The hair on his arms stood up, though not from the chill in the air. He couldn't help but feel as though he was being watched by some malicious force. He listened carefully for sounds of movement, or perhaps a cry for help, but nothing came. Everything was silent. There was no breath of air to shake the skeletal branches of the bare trees around him or to stir the brown pine needles that littered the ground. All he could hear were his own footsteps as he walked. The silence made him nervous. His mouth felt dry as dust. Maybe I'm too late, Caer thought, fearfully. He sped up, risking carelessness in tracking in order to find his father faster.
What if it's not him that I find? What if I find that…thing that was there last night? What if it's already gotten father? Caer frowned and admonished himself. Too many 'what if's. You won't find him by spooking yourself over what might be nothing.
A piercing, inhuman screech ahead made him fall to his knees and cover his ears in pain. The sound was a sharp knife piercing through his skull into his feverish brain. He wondered inconsequentially whether the warm, wet feeling on his palms was blood or sweat.
Finally, it stopped. Caer struggled to stand on weak, wobbling legs. His palms were slippery with blood, and his ears were ringing. He picked up his bow from the forest floor where he had dropped it and stumbled forward. Whatever had made that awful noise could be near his father. He couldn't leave Tarem to face that alone.
Suddenly, he could smell an acrid, sulfurous scent in the air. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he broke into a run. He could see in his mind an image of his father lying broken and bleeding on the ground before a beast made of shadow. Soon, he could see splashes of crimson blood glimmering on the ground. It seemed that some will outside of himself was drawing him forward towards a great, overpowering darkness. He moved mechanically until he stood before a menacing monster.
The beast was perhaps twenty feet long from its fanged snout to the tip of its tail. It had a long, serpentine neck and head, and great, bat-like wings that sprouted from its withers. It was covered in reptilian scales that changed colours in the light from dark green to black. It was magnificent.
Caer stood entranced by the feeling of power that emanated from the creature of shadow made flesh. He heard a sweet-sounding voice whispering in his ear. The words sounded foreign, but it seemed like he should understand them, as if he had known them at some point. The voice drew him towards the beast. He couldn't think; he had no self. All that mattered was the voice and understanding what it was saying. “Come to me, young one,” it sang in a voice that was sickly-sweet.
But Caer could hear a note of menace underneath the apparent kindness. The magnificent creature changed before his eyes to an ugly, looming monster. Instead of admiring its colour-changing scales, Caer noticed its long, slender fangs dripping with saliva and what looked like blood. He recoiled, horrified that he had nearly willingly walked straight into the creature's gaping jaws.
Seeing that Caer was no longer under its spell, the beast snapped its wings open and emitted the same shrill cry Caer had heard earlier. He reeled in pain and dropped his bow. He fell on all fours to the forest floor. His vision turned red as blood leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He wanted it to stop; he wanted to die-anything to end it.
The monster was advancing on him slowly. It knew that Caer posed no threat to it. Caer thought fleetingly that if the beast devoured him, at least the horrible pain would end. Maybe he could be with his father again. He could still be alive. He might need my help, one side of him thought weakly, struggling against the greater part of him that wanted to crawl towards death. He thought of his father again, of Tarem teaching him how to shoot a bow, and of sitting by the fire with his mother reading a book full of adventures to him while Caer and his father acted out the scenes. Tarem had always let him be the hero because in the stories, the villain always died under the hero's sharp sword.
Caer fought to remain conscious, though his ears felt stuffed with cotton and black spots danced in front of his eyes. It was all he could do to fight off unconsciousness as the beast advanced on him. At least it will be over now. I'm sorry I failed you, father, he thought, before he slid into unconsciousness.


Darew Khirgan fingered the hilt of the sword hanging in its scabbard from the pommel of his saddle. He was tall, and slightly too rugged-looking to be called handsome, with broad shoulders and wary brown eyes that continuously scanned his surroundings-a habit he had picked up from being a soldier for the past twenty years. He wore his hair short, though he had a beard that came with several days in a saddle with no time to pause so he could shave. For armor, he wore an unadorned helm on his head and a shirt of ring-mail underneath a dark green coat. He had a wolfish air about him that made him seem just on the edge of pouncing.
Darew had been traveling south for three months, following the jagged line of the Arasheile Mountains. He had found some villages burned to the ground, or deserted, while others that lay only miles away were completely untouched. It was senseless, chaotic destruction.
“Wyverns,” he muttered. That was what he thought it was, though he couldn't be completely sure, having not seen one of the beasts in his entire journey since the one that had flown high above him as he rode out of the West Pass. Still, the stories of attacks by shadows that flew out of the night and compelled staunch, hardy men to stand entranced while their families were slaughtered in front of them smacked of wyverns. They seemed to be heading north, towards the deserted wastelands of Shanai.
I'm not sure what would be worse: if the wyverns are gathering under a leader, or if they were scared out of the Arasheiles by something worse than them, Darew thought grimly.
He considered his choice of direction. The logical thing to do would seem to be to try and outrun the wyverns northward so he could warn the outlying villages along the Arasheiles before they were attacked. I think there's something more to this, though. Darew had waited several days before deciding what he should do when he first rode out of the West Pass and saw the recently-ruined remains of a small village. If it had been only one wyvern, he would have ridden ahead to the next village and fought the beast himself. But he suspected that this wasn't a chance occurrence. He had been hearing strange rumors of dark beasts moving by cover of nightfall to a greater shadow in the North, in the legendary fallen kingdom of Shanai. The twin Northern Kingdoms, of course, would already be prepared. There were few villages to the north away from well-defended forts. Every able-bodied man and woman in Keshlendar and Durlendar could wield a sword, spear, or bow. It was a necessity when living in a cold, hard land where villages were often attacked by things worse than just men.
If he was right though, if the attacks were part of something more than just a few minor raids, the Northern Kingdoms would need help from the South. Once, it would have been gladly given, but that time was long past. Tensions were growing between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms at a time when Darew feared they needed to be most united. He had finally decided to ride south and warn the rulers of Tirellion and Lentaren as best he could. Now, after seeing the twelfth raided village, he was more certain than ever that a great darkness was amassing in Shanai.
Darew thought that the village he rode through now was called Lhamien, based on a map he had seen years ago. Now it was a wreck of recently-charred houses. Only the local blacksmith's forge had survived the heat of the fires, though it was heavily scorched. He searched for any survivors, but all he found were half-eaten corpses or bodies that had been crushed by fallen buildings. He wished he could hear something other than the crunch of his horse's hooves as he walked over the scattered remains of what had once been houses, workshops, and maybe even a church.
Finally, he despaired of his task and said a short prayer to Cernunnos for the dead. It seemed no one had survived the slaughter, though he guessed that the village had originally housed perhaps one hundred people. He turned his stallion, Karab, along a narrow path leading away from Lhamien. He was glad to get away from the thick smell of smoke that still hung over the village.
Darew had ridden for a few miles before he noticed something strange in the forest. He drew his sword warily and looked around at the bare, skeletal trees. He then saw what had caught his attention. It was a chestnut gelding tied by its reins to a tree. The horse had red foam around its mouth, and whickered anxiously upon noticing the soldier on the road. Darew thought the chestnut must have pulled so hard at the bit in trying to get away from something that he had cut his mouth.
He relaxed his grip on Karab's reins, but did not sheath his sword. Whatever had scared the gelding so badly could still be near. Darew paused and listened for a moment. All he could hear was the whistling of an icy winter wind blowing from the west. He dismounted and motioned for Karab to stay put. The stallion was well trained, and would not move unless there was a threat nearby. Darew walked slowly towards the gelding and looked for signs of his owner.
Did someone from the village escape? Why would he have gone into the forest and left his horse behind? Nothing Darew could think of made sense. He hadn't seen hoof prints on the path leading out of the village. He frowned. The rider could have been going towards Lhamien, but why would he go off the path and leave his horse behind? He couldn't think of any honest purpose the rider could have for hiding in the forest along the road with his mount tied nearly out of sight. It could be a bandit, waiting for some survivor to flee away from the wreckage of the village. His lip curled in disgust at thinking that anyone would hope to profit from the destruction. Darew raised the hilt of his sword to shoulder-level, ready to strike quickly if the rider jumped out suddenly to attack.
Nothing moved for several minutes. All Darew could hear was the swishing of the gelding's tail. He lowered his guard enough to look for boot prints that might indicate where the rider had gone. He found tracks leading into the forest that followed a fainter trail of prints. Perhaps the rider had been there before. Darew followed the prints as they wound around tall trees and thorny bushes. Soon, he began to have trouble tracing the tracks. It was getting darker, and the sun was hidden behind thick grey clouds.
He was about to turn back when he saw a splash of blood on the smooth, white trunk of a birch tree. It was smeared, as though someone had leaned against the tree before stumbling onward. There were no signs of a struggle, but the prints became clearer, as though the rider had staggered heavily forward. Darew followed the tracks now with renewed determination. He had gone several hundred feet when a poisonous, choking smell in the air stopped him.
Darew felt his heart fill with dread. He knew what that smell meant. A wyvern was nearby, and it had been feasting on something. He advanced forward slowly, taking care to make no sound. He hoped that he might be able to catch it off-guard, and kill it before it noticed him. Darew stopped and whispered a prayer to Brigid when he saw the shine of slick, green-black scales ahead. The wyvern was walking slowly towards him, though it did not seem to be looking at him. It bared its fangs to something on the ground twenty feet from Darew. With a start, he noticed that there was a young man lying unconscious on the ground. Looking quickly from the wyvern to the boy, Darew realized that he would never be able to reach the beast before it could kill the boy.
I have to save him, even if he is a robber, he thought.
“Don't touch him,” Darew said.
The wyvern opened its wings wide to make itself appear bigger. It cocked its head at Darew and regarded him with an arrogant, hungry look. It began to whisper something softly in his ears that beckoned “Come” in a voice that was both sweet and terrible. Sweat quickly broke out on his forehead and ran down his face from the effort it took to resist the commanding voice. He walked forward as if he were caught in the wyvern's snare. Its eyes shined as it looked at Darew's lowered sword.
When he was within ten feet of it, Darew raised his sword and charged at the beast. Caught off-guard, the wyvern did not have time to snap at him before Darew had sliced a deep, foot-long cut across its breast. It snapped angrily at him, but he dodged right and slipped under its open wing, holding his sword erect as he went under it to slice through its thin webbing. The wyvern whipped its tail and caught him in his midriff. The blow was slightly lessened by his mail shirt, though it still knocked the wind out of him and allowed the wyvern to turn towards him before he could get his sword up again. He feinted left, and when the wyvern closed its jaws around the empty air where it had thought he would be, Darew raised his sword high above his head and brought it down to slice through the thick muscle and bones of the beast's neck. It convulsed once before falling heavily to the ground.
Darew gingerly pressed his fingers against his chest where the wyvern's tail had made the mail rings press into the skin and winced when his probing made him gasp sharply in pain. He was going to be bruised for at least two weeks there. Worry about that later, he told himself. The boy needs your help now. Darew wiped his blade on the beast's hide, careful to make sure that no blood remained on the steel. He sheathed it quickly and knelt beside the young man. His ears and hands had spots of dried blood on them, though a quick search showed that he was not otherwise harmed. Still, despite Darew shaking the youth's shoulders, the dark-haired boy would not wake up.
He must have fainted when he heard the wyvern's cry. Why was he this far in the forest? A robber would not wander into the woods unless he was chased, and his prints were the most recent coming this way, Darew wondered. Suddenly, a new thought came to him. Could he have been following the fainter trail of boot prints while trying to find someone and met the wyvern along the way?
Darew stood and looked for signs of another person passing through where had and the boy were. It was hard to find anything in the dim light, but eventually he saw what could have been a trail that led further into the forest. He didn't want to leave the boy there alone, but he would only slow the soldier down, and if Darew didn't find anyone within a few minutes, he could always turn back.
Darew followed the trail for about fifty paces before he saw the signs of a struggle. Blood pooled on the ground next to the body of a middle-aged man. Darew wrinkled his nose against the sulfurous smell coming from the body and looked more closely at it. The man could have been related to the boy. They had the same dark hair and broad shoulders, and Darew guessed they were within an inch of each other. Darew turned away from the man reluctantly. He did not like to leave the man unburied, but in the failing light and with no tools, he wouldn't be able to bury him anyway, and he didn't have the time to build a fire to burn him. He went back to where the boy lay, still unconscious. Darew slung the boy's bow over one shoulder and picked him up to carry him over the other. He walked as quickly as he could under his load, wishing to be out of the darkening forest as soon as he could.
Darew was relieved to finally see the chestnut gelding tied near the edge of the woods. He laid the boy and his bow near the chestnut horse while he went to get Karab. He came back, leading the stallion, and picked the boy up again to heave him into Karab's saddle. The boy slumped forward, but at least he did not fall. Darew tied the bow and his sword to the pommel of the stallion's saddle and unknotted the chestnut's reins. He mounted behind the boy, using one stirrup and the cantle of the saddle for support. Darew tied the other horse's reins to the cantle of Karab's saddle and urged his mount to a fast walk. They headed south, away from the smoking remains of Lhamien and the woods that held the wyvern's corpse.

Chapter III

A Heroic Stranger

Caer opened his eyes slowly and blinked against the sudden, harsh light. He was surprised to feel that he was moving, or at least he thought he was. Once his eyes had adjusted to the light, he saw that he was indeed moving, sitting on a tall, dappled horse. The land around him was mostly bare, with grassing, rolling hills dotted with trees. He nearly fell off when he turned and saw a man sitting behind him. The man regarded him with kind eyes that seemed out of place in his hard face. Dark circles made shadows under the man's eyes. A sword hilt stuck up over one shoulder, while another sword hung from his belt.
“Don't fall off,” the man rasped in a gravelly voice that sounded as though it had not been used in some time. He had a clipped way of speaking that made him sound harsh, though Caer suspected that was just his accent.
“Who are you?” Caer asked. “Where am I?”
“I'm Darew Khirgan. We are about thirty miles south of the last village we passed. If I remember correctly, it was called Lhamien.”
“Why are we going away from it? I live near there. My mother and father will be worried…” Caer's voice faded to a whisper when he remembered what had happened before he blacked out. He had been laying on the ground in front of that massive beast before he slid into unconsciousness. He didn't know how he was still alive.
“Turn back. Or at least let me down so I can go back. I need to find my father!” Caer said.
Pity flashed across Darew's eyes. “Your father's dead, boy. After I killed the wyvern, I found him. Your village is gone, too. I'm sorry.”
Caer felt like he had been punched in the stomach. He couldn't breathe. “He's not dead!” Caer gasped. “He's my father. He can't be dead!” He gripped his throat, trying to push off the invisible force that seemed to be choking him, stopping him from drawing air into his empty lungs.
“Breathe, boy,” the older man said.
Caer turned to the side and tried to empty his stomach, though nothing would come out. Finally, he was able to suck air into his lungs, though his throat still felt tight. He threw one leg over the front of the saddle so he could jump off, but Darew's hand kept him down.
“It's no use trying to go back,” Darew said. “If your mother was in the village, she is dead, and your father is too. The village was burned to the ground. They have passed on, boy, and you cannot follow them there.”
Caer turned to look forward and choked back hot tears. There was no reason for the man to lie to him, but he couldn't believe that his parents were both dead. His mother, Lorieth, had been visiting her sister in Lhamien when the creature came during the night and when his father had ridden towards the village, so he had figured she would be safe. There was something in the stranger's voice though that convinced Caer that he was telling the truth. It carried a slight note of pity.
Caer could not stop the flood of memories that washed over him. He remembered baking sweetpies with his mother when he was a young boy and playing chess against his father on days when it was storming too hard to work. He remembered when he was seven years old and his parents had told him he was going to have a younger brother or sister in a few months, but his mother miscarried. He had seen her crying by herself near the narrow stream that ran across their land; he made her a circlet of pale blue forget-me-not's and white whistlewind flowers so she wouldn't cry any more. He thought of his mother teaching him how to dance so he could do the steps with Ethilen on feast days without tripping over his own feet. She smiled all the while and told him that women love a good dancer, unlike his father who could barely go a dance without stumbling. His father grumbled good-naturedly, but after Caer had been sent to bed, he crept back downstairs and saw them dancing together gracefully by the fire. These and hundreds, thousands of other memories flickered in front of his eyes. They're gone now.
“Do you have any kin who perhaps lived in an outlying farm, or another village?” Darew asked.
Caer shook his head, still not daring to look at the man riding behind him. He didn't want Darew to see him cry. Perhaps sensing this, Darew pulled the dapple to a halt and said, “Now that you're awake and can hold on, you can ride on your horse. Karab won't tire as quickly if he only has to bear one rider.”
Darew removed his hand from Caer's shoulder and let him dismount. Caer hesitated once his feet were on the ground. He could try to run, but no doubt the man could easily chase him down before he had gotten more than a dozen paces. There was nothing for it but to pull himself into Baine's saddle. Caer noticed that Darew never untied Baine's reins from his own saddle. He must not trust me not to run back, Caer thought. Darew pushed his horse to a quick trot. Baine followed on the dapple's heels.

Caer studied the man's back. Is he telling the truth? Why would he save me, and then take me away south, when he could have just left me after killing the...wyvern? Why should he care if I want to go back to Lhamien? And where are we going now? There were too many questions for which Caer had no answer, and he didn't want to talk to the older man at the moment. They rode in solemn silence for a few hours. Finally, Darew called a halt and handed Caer a piece of dried meat wrapped in waxy paper.
“Thanks,” Caer muttered as he dismounted. Darew nodded to show he had heard, but did not reply.
“Where are we going?” Caer asked, wanting to break the silence.
“I am taking you to a village called Mariel, a few days' ride from here, and then I am going to Byshar,” Darew said shortly, not in an unkind way, but rather as though he was unused to talking so much.
“Mariel? I've never heard of it.”
“It's bigger than Lhamien, and not forested, but otherwise it is much the same as where you lived. You can find work there, and I would imagine you're old enough to build a house there and start a family, once you have found a job. There, you can move on and leave what's in the past behind you.”
Caer felt the crushing sadness that he had pushed to the back of his mind surge forth again at the mention of leaving behind everything he had loved. He had not thought about what he would do now, with no home and his family gone. What about Dashrik? Maybe the Felstans weren't attacked. The thought filled him with hope.
“I'm going to go back. I have a friend who lived on a farm a few miles from me. The Felstans would take me in and let me work on their farm,” Caer said. And it would be good to see a friend again. Then if mother and father really are…dead…we can have a proper burial for them.
Darew shook his head. “We passed two farms while you were still unconscious. One of them was abandoned, though there were sheep, a milk cow, and a cart horse in the barn. At the other, a wyvern had already been there as early as two nights ago. There was no one left.”
Caer thought he would have collapsed if he hadn't been leaning against Baine. The meat tasted like sawdust in his suddenly dry mouth. They can't be gone too. They can't! he thought fiercely.
“The second farm had a garden alongside the house, and a well near the pig pen. There were no animals left, though there had been at least two horses housed in the barn, and a few chickens in the coop.”
There was no need for the older man to go on. Caer could see the Felstans' farm in his mind, just as Darew had described it. They had had two horses, six pigs, a rooster, five hens, and a milk cow. The cow was a few days from calving, Caer remembered. He saw Dashrik in his mind, dead next to his mother and father. All three of them stared at him with accusing eyes. It was his fault they were dead. He should have saved them somehow.... Caer recoiled from the sudden touch of Darew laying his hand on his shoulder.
“There's nothing you can do for them now but move on, boy,” Darew said kindly.
“Caer,” the boy muttered.
“What?” Darew asked, confused.
“My name is Caer. Caer Morrin.”
“I could wish we had met under different circumstances, Caer. But there is no use in denying what is, or living in the past. Take my advice and stay in Mariel, or another village if you wish, and move on. There shouldn't be any wyverns that far south, so you need not fear another attack by them,” the older man said, though his mouth tightened at the end as though he was not as certain as he sounded.
“I've never heard of a wyvern near Lhamien before. Why did it come now?”
“I don't know. I'm going to Byshar to find out,” Darew replied, though Caer got the feeling that he wasn't telling the whole truth.
I have to find out why it happened. I need to know why my family died.
“Can I come with you?”
Darew looked at Caer, surprised. “Why would you want to go to Byshar? It is a large city, crowded with people. You would be better off in a village, or perhaps a small town.”
“I want to go for the same reason you do. I want to know why my family is dead. I want to know why everyone else I know is dead,” Caer said, more fiercely than he intended.
“I don't know that I will find any answers in Byshar.”
“And I will find none in Mariel. That thing didn't kill your family like it did mine. I have to know why, so I can fight it. I don't have anything else left to me.”
Darew was silent for a long time. Caer was just about to apologize, thinking he had offended the man, when Darew said softly, “What I am doing is no work for a farm boy. I am going to Mariel, and I will leave alone.”
His tone was such that it brooked no argument. Caer opened his mouth to argue, but closed it without speaking when he saw Darew's hard expression. The older man untied Baine's reins from his horse's saddle and tossed them to Caer. He mounted without a word and nudged his horse to a slow trot, leaving Caer to follow if he wished. Caer muttered angrily under his breath as he mounted and spurred Baine to a canter until he caught up with Darew.
I will know why my family was murdered, with or without Darew's help, Caer thought.

They rode for the rest of the day, alternating between walking and trotting so they wouldn't tire the horses. When the sky was streaked with the reds and purples of the sun setting, Darew said, “We must find somewhere to camp tonight. I would rather not be out in the open as we are, but going closer to the mountains means risking wyverns, though I cannot believe they'd be this far south. I won't risk the chance, though. This is as good of a place as any.”
He halted his mount in the dip between two hills and dismounted. Darew pulled strips of cloth from his saddlebag and gave two to Caer once he had also dismounted. Darew hobbled his mount quickly. It took Caer more time, since he wasn't used to hobbling horses. When they had finished, they removed the saddles and bridles so the horses would rest easier. Caer set his bow and quiver on the ground beside him. He rummaged through his half-empty saddlebags to see what was in them. He found three dried apples, a bit of meat and cheese wrapped in waxed paper, and a skin full of warm, flat water.
As well we're going by Mariel, Caer thought, since I need to get more supplies. I haven't any money though, other than a few copper coins.
“I'll wake you in the morning, when we leave again,” Darew said.
“Don't you want to sleep?”
“I don't need any sleep yet,” Darew replied, though even in the failing light, the half-moon shadows beneath his eyes were visible.
“Let me take the first watch,” Caer suggested.
“You're still weak as a pup right now. I don't mean any offense by it,” Darew added when Caer began to protest angrily. “You were feverish when I found you. I don't expect you're much better today, lacking a good night's sleep.”
“I'm not tired,” Caer said, though it was not entirely true. “Less tired than you are, seeing as you didn't sleep at all last night. I can shoot anything that comes near with my bow, and I'll wake you in a few hours. You said yourself that no wyvern should be out here.”
“I suppose you can see well enough to shoot in the dark, can you?” Darew asked dryly. “Fine, you can take the first watch. Wake me after three hours.”
Caer had no notion of how he was supposed to keep track of the time, but he nodded anyway. Darew untied his blankets from behind his saddle and wrapped himself in them on the ground. Caer sat with his back to the older man, his bow leaning against his knees. All he heard was the occasional scraping sound of one of the horses changing position, and the whistling of a cold wind coming from the west. He shivered as it blew against his back and tugged at his hair.
After what Caer guessed had been three hours or so, he called, “Darew, wake up.” The soldier's hands flashed quickly to his sword hilt, though he relaxed upon recognizing Caer. Darew untangled himself from his blankets, rolled them up, and tied them again to the back of his saddle. Caer glanced at the blankets longingly. Without a fire and with no blankets of his own, he was going to be cold. He laid on his side with his back to the wind and shifted his cloak so it would cover as much of him as possible. He thought he wouldn't be able to get to sleep before dawn came, but he fell asleep soon after closing his eyes.

“Wake up, boy,” a voice intruded softly into Caer's dreams. It seemed to come from very far away, just on the edge of not being heard. It called once more before Caer was abruptly woken by someone shaking his shoulders.
“Get up. I mean to be in Mariel by tomorrow evening, so that leaves a full day of riding for today,” Darew said.
Caer stood up slowly, yawning. He felt as though he hadn't slept more than an hour since he laid down. Darew, on the other hand, looked as though he was ready to run ten miles without tiring. Caer covered his mouth to hide another yawn and took Baine's reins from Darew. Both horses were already bridled and saddled. Caer grabbed his bow and tied it to his saddle before mounting. As long as it was, the bow would be hard to draw and shoot from the back of a moving horse. Darew mounted and started heading southwest at a trot.
They rode for several hours, though as far as Caer was concerned, they could have been standing still for all of the change in the land. There were no signs of human habitation; the only life other than themselves that they saw was a rabbit that jumped out from beneath Darew's horse and scampered away before Caer could even think to untie his bow. Finally, they came to a field fenced with split logs. Several brown cows grazed the sparse green grass that was left. They turned to look placidly at the riders as they passed by.
Once the sun had reached its zenith, Darew halted. “We'll rest for an hour,” he said.
Caer's stomach grumbled loudly. He fished one of the apples from his saddlebag and ate it quickly. He wanted to ask so many questions, but Darew did not seem to be in a talkative mood. He never seems to be in a talkative mood, Caer thought. He guessed that the older man hadn't been around many people for a long time. Darew seemed stoic and hard as a stone.
Who are you? Caer wondered. It was only when the soldier replied “Darew Khirgan” that Caer noticed he had spoken his question aloud. Well, if I've said it aloud already, I may as well ask what I actually meant.
“I meant who are you? What do you do? Where do you live?”
“I am a soldier, nothing more,” Darew replied flatly. He did not seem as though he wanted to talk about himself.
Caer nodded and did not say anything more. He did not want to push the man into talking, though he didn't think he could make Darew do anything that the soldier didn't want to do anyway. Caer busied himself with unstringing his bow, checking his saddle girth, and other various tasks. Darew glanced at him once, face expressionless, before turning back to sharpen his sword on an oiled whetstone. When he was satisfied with the sharpness of the blade, Darew sheathed his sword and wrapped the whetstone in linen before replacing it in his saddlebag. They set out again, continuing roughly southwest, though they sometimes changed direction for a while to go around any hills that were particularly tall.
The next two days passed in much the same manner, until they began seeing scattered farms that eventually gave way to smaller, fenced fields surrounding a cluster of high-roofed houses. Caer was surprised to see that any of the houses could have fit right in to Lhamien. They were painted in the same colours-shades of purple, yellow, and blue, with reddish-brown tiles on their roofs. Many were bigger than those in Lhamien though, some rising as tall as three stories. The wide road that went east-west through the village was paved with cobblestones, while elsewhere the road were hard-packed dirt. Several dogs barked at them as they headed for the eastern end of the paved road, though they did it half-heartedly, as if strangers passing through were common here.
Several houses in the village had signs hanging over their doors declaring them to be carpenters, fletchers, tanners, or bakers. The shops were on the bottom story, while the owners and their families lived just above them. One of the three-story buildings, an inn by the name of the Plow and Hearth, had a stable attached to its side. It was painted sky blue, though the paint was peeling in some areas. Darew stopped and dismounted in front of the inn. After a moment of hesitation, Darew unstrapped the sword from his back and handed it to Caer. The blade had to be almost four feet long, and the hilt added another foot. It was so heavy that Caer wondered how anyone could swing it.
“Wait here, and don't let anyone touch that,” he said.
He tied his stallion's reins to a hitching post and walked in to the inn. Caer shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. He only had a few copper pence and one silver shilling, and he was sure that wouldn't be enough to buy a stall for Baine, a meal, and a bed. Maybe the innkeeper will let me sleep in the loft, Caer thought.
Darew came back and took his sword from Caer. He untied his mount from the hitching post and said “Follow me”. Darew led him to the stable, where an old stable groom sat taking his ease on a three-legged stool. The man squinted at the two newcomers in the dim evening light.
“See that the horses get a handful of oats each tonight, and that they are curried,” Darew instructed. He pulled a small silver penny from his belt pouch and gave it to the man, along with his horse's reins. “I'll give you as much again tomorrow.”
“Name's Mykel. So you'll be taking rooms at the inn for the night, will you? You look like you might be from around here,”-the stable groom pointed at Caer with the stem of an unlit pipe-“but you're from off,”-he looked curiously at Darew-“with that sword 'round your hip. No one around here wears swords. No need to. We don't get any trouble here in Mariel. Are you from the north? Could be a Northerner by your accent, though you don't look it. My pappy said Northerners were seven feet tall, with hair the colour of straw and eyes so cold they could freeze you where you stood. Barbarian-like, if you take my meaning. Not that I mean any offense to you, good master. I'm sure you're not one of those types. Forgive an old man for letting his tongue get away with him.”
Darew smiled at the description the man gave of Northerners, though for him, that was little more than an upturning of the corners of his mouth. “No offense taken,” he said. He removed his saddlebags and blanket roll and waited for Caer. Caer noticed that Darew was keeping his longer sword hidden underneath his cloak.
Caer dismounted and handed Baine's reins to the old groom. He gathered his belongings and followed Darew into the inn. The common room was neat and clean. The warmth from two fires blazing on opposite walls was welcome after the rising chill of the winter air. A dozen or so men were scattered around the room, some clapping to the sound of a man standing on a round table playing “My Bright-Eyed Lady” on his recorder. A fellow sitting beside him accompanied him on shepherd's pipes.
Darew did not pause to listen to the man finish his tune, though the music followed them up a flight of stairs. The stairs opened into a hallway with doors on either wall. Darew opened a door near the end of the hall and walked in. The two beds were narrow, though they certainly looked more comfortable to Caer than his straw mattress back home ever had. Darew set his saddlebags down on one bed and hid his longsword underneath another.
“Why are you hiding it? Why not wear both?” Caer asked.
“A man with one sword is, in most men's minds, a soldier, or perhaps a freelance guard. A man with two swords is a loner, and probably a Northerner. Given Mykel's description, would you want to be known as a Northerner here?” Darew replied, looking somewhere between disparaging and amused. “Oh, they don't mean any harm by it. They just don't want any trouble here. Travelers pass through Mariel often enough on the way to and from Byshar, but most are just merchants and traders. They're uneasy around men with swords.”
Caer glanced at Darew in surprise. That was the most he had ever heard the older man say at once.
“Mistress Ariell will have our supper ready by now,” Darew said.
He started towards the common room, barely waiting for Caer to throw his saddlebag on the other bed and prop his bow and quiver against the nearest wall. Caer followed him downstairs and into the common room. They sat at an empty table opposite the door. A plump, pretty woman that Caer took to be Mistress Ariell brought them two steaming plates heaped with cuts of spicy beef in gravy, a baked potato each, and a small loaf of dark bread to share. She gave Caer a mug of cider, and Darew a larger mug of ale.
“Thank you,” Caer said enthusiastically. The food looked wonderful after three days of dried meat and apples, with flat water to wash it down with. His stomach rumbled loudly. Ariell smiled warmly at him and ruffled his hair as she left to speak to one of the serving girls.
Caer dove into his food as if it would disappear if he didn't eat it quickly enough. Once he had finished half of the meat and most the bread, he slowed down so he could pay attention to the music. The two men from earlier were still there, now playing “My Heart Leaps Up”, a lively jig that had many men singing and dancing rather than drinking. Darew seemed to be thinking about something else rather than listening. He had barely touched his food.
“My Heart Leaps Up” was followed by “Underneath the Willow Tree”. After finishing his food, Caer waited for the last verse of “Underneath the Willow Tree” to be done before joining in the singing and clapping for “She Danced With Me”. His feet itched to dance, but he didn't know the steps for this one. He was glad for the entertainment. It took his mind off of more somber thoughts. He didn't even notice that Darew had left, food only half-eaten, until an hour later. By then, many of the men had started leaving to go back to their families.
Caer stumbled up the steps, exhausted from traveling and dancing. He found Darew sitting on his bed, eyes unfocused. Darew glanced sharply at Caer when he entered the room. His gaze softened slightly when he recognized who it was.
“Are you leaving tomorrow?” Caer asked.
“Before first light. I mean to make it to Byshar as quickly as I can. I'll leave you enough silver to buy a room for a few days until you can find work, perhaps as a stable groom.”
“I don't want to stay here. I want to go with you.”
“No means no, boy. I won't say it again,” Darew said firmly.
“Fine, if you won't let me go with you, I'll go to Byshar anyway,” Caer replied stubbornly.
“How will you eat? That silver won't last you to Byshar.”
“I can hunt along the way. I need to go there. I don't know what I'm looking for, or how I'll find it, but I need to know why my family was murdered. Do you expect me to live here and pretend like it never happened? They were my family! I'm not going to just forget about them. You seem to think the answer lies in Byshar. If that's what it takes, I'll go there, and if I can't find an answer there, I will go elsewhere. I didn't ask for any of this, but now that it's happened, I can't just sit by. You can let me come with you or not, but either way I'm going,” Caer said hotly. He clenched his jaw to keep from yelling at the other man. Yelling more, he thought grudgingly.
Darew paused as if considering him. Caer forced himself not to shift nervously before his gaze. I will go, whether he wants me to or not. He wished he knew what the other man was thinking. It seemed like hours before Darew answered.
“You can travel with me. I cannot deny you the right to learn what there is to know about your village. A man has the right to know why his family was killed. The attacks-I think the answer will take you farther than Byshar, if you want to learn the whole of it. I suspect…well, it is only guesses in the dark. We will leave at dawn,” Darew said softly.
He sounded as though something weighed heavily on his mind. A flicker of shadowed pain crossed his eyes as he spoke, though it was gone in a flash, before Caer could decide whether it had ever really been there. Darew laid down on his bed without saying another word. Caer laid down also, though he didn't think sleep would come quickly. He stared at the wooden beams of the ceiling.
What did he mean, I would need to go farther than Byshar? If the answer isn't there, where else could it be? Even if I find the answer, what then? An answer to a question will not bring my parents back, or my village. Uncertainty plagued him. He did not know what he could do, only that he could not bring himself to watch idly after everything he loved had been stripped away from him. If I raise a family here, how long before they are taken from me again?
Eventually his restless mind found sleep, though it was filled with nightmares. In one, he watched his father torn into bloody pieces by a monster made of misty shadow, while in another he was the beast. Caer was glad to be started awake by the light rapping of knuckles on the door. He blinked in the dim light. The muscles in his neck and back were sore. By the time he had lurched out of bed, Darew was already dressed. Caer pulled on his coat and boots and threw his cloak over his shoulders. He gathered his belongings and walked downstairs with Darew.
The common room was empty this early in the morning other than the innkeeper and themselves. She brought them each a bowl of porridge with slivers of apple in it and a small pitcher of mulled wine spiced with nutmeg and cloves and diluted with tea to take the bite out of the warmed wine. Caer was surprised that she didn't give him a pitcher of milk or cider. He had never had wine before, except on holidays, but he imagined the heat from it would take some of the chill off of the air.
When they had finished their meal, Darew paid the innkeeper four silver shillings. On the way out to the stable, Caer said, “I don't have the coin to pay you back, but I can give you what I have.”
“Save your money, boy. I have enough to last us until Byshar, and then some,” Darew replied gruffly.
They got their horses back from Mykel and headed southwest towards Byshar, where Caer could find the answer to why his family had died.

Chapter IV

A Killer's Blade

Malarik stole through the night streets of Intuir, careful to hide himself from sight as best he could in case anyone happened to look out of a window. He breathed a sight of relief. He had gotten away from the palace before the hue and cry had been raised that one of the High Guards had been killed. Hopefully they wouldn't discover that the queen was also dead until he was far away. His side burned like fire, but he focused on getting back to his inn as quickly as he could. He couldn't afford to stop and tend to it yet. He turned a street corner and was relieved to see the familiar front of an inn called The Queen's Heart a hundred yards away.
He slid into an alley that ran alongside the building. He could see the window to his room a story off the ground. The wall of the inn provided handholds and footholds so he could climb up to his room without being noticed. Malarik made it halfway up before his left hand jerked from a shoot of red-hot pain that traveled from his side through his arm. He lost his hold on the wall with his left hand just as he tried to move his right foot onto a higher ledge. His feet slipped, leaving him hanging by only one hand. Gritting his teeth, Malarik forced himself to grab a narrow crack with his left hand so he could pull himself up high enough to find a hold for his feet. The aching pain would have made him cry out had he not clenched his jaw tightly shut.
Finally, Malarik pulled himself over his windowsill and through the open window into his room. The wound in his side was bleeding through his shirt from where he had ripped the skin further when trying to climb the wall. He stumbled over to his bed and grabbed a sewing kit and a small flask of liquor from the saddlebag laying next to his pillow. He stripped off his blood-soaked shirt and pulled out the cork stopper on the flask with his teeth. He glanced down at the wound running between two of his ribs. It was deep and long, carved by a dagger that he had been too slow to dodge.
Whatever else is said of Queen Arianda, she can fight well, Malarik thought with a crooked smile.
The grin turned into a pained snarl as he poured the liquor on his side to clean the wound and keep it from being infected. If it had felt like fire before, now it was a blazing inferno. Once the sharp stinging faded away, Malarik took a needle and thread from his sewing box and prepared to stitch the wound together. The first thrust of the needle through the feverishly hot skin near his wound made him grimace. It felt awkward using his right hand for something so delicate. Though he had been born right-handed, that hand was now stiff and clumsy. He preferred not to think of how it had become that way.
Once he had tied off the last stitch, Malarik replaced the sewing kit in his saddlebag and searched for two clean shirts. He tore off a wide strip of one shirt to use as a makeshift bandage for the wound. He dampened the part of the cloth that would stretch over his wound with whiskey and wrapped it around his side. After tossing his empty liquor flask into his saddlebag and stuffing the bloodied shirt out of sight underneath the bed, he threw his cloak over his shoulders, ready to leave as soon as he could.
Malarik slipped out of his room and down the narrow set of stairs holding his saddlebags in his right hand carefully so they would not hit the walls and make a noise. The only sounds he could hear were the soft padding of his feet hitting the floor and the faint click of nails on wood as a rat scurried across the dark, empty common room. The door was closed and barred, but Malarik would be able to open it from the inside. He set down his belongings except for an extra dagger that he thrust through his belt opposite from his other knife.
Malarik picked up the wooden bar from its slot across the door and laid it gently on a table next to his saddlebags. All that held the door shut now was a thick deadbolt lock. Malarik paused before he began trying to push the bolt over. If the innkeeper did not keep the lock well oiled, it would squeal when he tried to open it. He eased the lock open bit by bit, wincing when he heard even the faint sliding sound of slick metal on metal.
Malarik opened the door just enough to peer through the crack with one eye. It was clear as far as he could see, though most of the street to his right was blocked by the doorframe. Perhaps he was being paranoid, but paranoia kept a man of his professions alive. Besides, he would not risk being thrown into a cell again because of carelessness.
Don't think of that. Focus on what is at hand, Malarik told himself roughly.
He grabbed his saddlebags and snuck outside of the small inn. A fat, full moon illuminated the streets with its silver glow. The darkness of a new moon would have been ideas to hide the events of this night, but tonight had been the last opportunity to complete his mission. The moon reflected brightly off of his otherwise dark eyes as he made his way towards the stable. He fancied that he saw a thin boy watching him from the alley across from the inn, but the vision only appeared for a few seconds before it was gone.
Probably just a street thief looking for someone to mug, Malarik thought dismissively, though the possibility that he had been seen worried him. He could find the boy and kill him, but there was a chance that he would be seen by one of the city's High Guards, and he needed to leave Intuir as quickly as possible tonight. The High Guards tended not to be gentle with a prisoner they suspected of assassinating their queen. It didn't matter whether the accusation was true or not, though in this case it was.
For a moment, Malarik was tempted to seize the power he could feel inside of him, tangibly coiled tightly around his heart. With that, he could track the boy down without being seen. He wanted to use that power for the feeling of forbidden exhilaration It gave him. It beckoned seductively for him to take it. He could feel It pulsing in time to his heartbeat. He was no longer sure where It ended and where he began. Perhaps there was no difference between the two anymore.
It had come to him while he was held in the dungeons of Sha'ik'tal, the ancient fortress in Shanai. Maybe It had always been there inside of him, but it was only in Sha'ik'tal that he began to feel It, here Its call, taste Its power. It had kept him alive when his body was broken and shattered. Malarik didn't know exactly what It was, only that it gave him certain abilities when he embraced It. He could see better in the dark, cloak himself in shadows, smell warm blood, and ignore pain, among other things.
Those powers came with a price. The more he used It, the more he wanted It. In the beginning, he could faintly feel Its presence in his body, but now It was constantly wrapped tightly around his heart. It was a slithering shadow snaked through him. Its constant touch against his body carried the memory of embracing It and feeling a sensation spread throughout him that walked the knife's edge between extreme pleasure and pain. With a massive effort, Malarik pushed the desire away. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead from the struggle of keeping It at bay. Sometimes It felt almost alive, as though It was slowly taking over his mind.
Imagining things, he thought scornfully.
Malarik slipped through the shadows towards the inn's stable. A white haired stable groom was snowing softly where he sat on an overturned bucket just inside the stable doors. Malarik drew his dagger slowly with his stiff left arm and hit the man quickly on the head with the butt of it, careful not to strain the wound in his side. The old man crumpled and fell with hardly a noise but the soft thud of his body hitting the ground and the slight scrape of the wooden bucket on the stone floor.
Malarik found his saddle, saddle blanket, and bridle in the tack room. He saddled his rangy black mare and led her out of the stable onto the street. No one was out besides him, but he would never make it out of the city with Melian, his mount, without being seen. There was nothing for it but to use the Shadow-power, as he called it.
There might be another way. I can always get another horse, he thought, though even to himself, his voice sounded weak.
“It will be easier this way. You can escape from the city and have a horse ready to ride as soon as you're out of the city gates. What if you could not find another mount? The High Guards will scour the country looking for you. You need to be as far away from Intuir as you can,” another voice argued reasonably. This voice had a different sound to it. It often came to him and spoke inside his head, though Malarik was sure it wasn't his voice. The words seem to pop into his brain instead of being thought out by his own mind. Malarik could only nod in agreement with it this time. The voice was right, whether he liked it or not.
He couldn't honestly say that he was reluctant to follow the voice's advice. Most of him wanted to feel the thrill that came with embracing the Shadow-power, feeling It course through his veins. He opened himself up to It by loosening his hold on Its restraints. The Shadow-power uncoiled and spread from his heart outward to his head and limbs. He fancied he could feel It moving into his bones, sinking through his skull to his brain. He shivered at the uninhibited power surging through him. It was a wild, passionate uproar that floated like a wave towards him and crashed over his body. He felt like It would sweep him away if he did not keep a precarious hold on who he was. Yet his will to hold on weakened every time he used It. Too much of him wanted to abandon his sense of self to join It forever. He absently thought that if It did overtake him, he would go mad and die, but a large part of him-and that voice-wanted nothing more than to surrender to the overwhelming pleasure so he could die and become a part of It.
Malarik took a hold of himself and brought his mind back to the present. He did something-he wasn't sure exactly what it was-to twist light around him and cover himself in shadow. This trick would only make him more visible by day when he was surrounded by people, where everyone could see him, but at night when he was alone, it let him blend in so well with the darkness that he was nearly invisible. He extended the shadow around his mare; a horse wandering the streets seemingly alone would bring unwanted attention. He began leading Melian towards the South Gate. Malarik had been instructed to go through the Trader's Gate to the north, but that was far away from his inn, and the Guards could easily set a squad of soldiers at each exit to keep anyone from leaving through the gates before he ever reached it.
Malarik saw only one slinking figure in the streets, but it left, clearly searching for someone or something. Surely it couldn't be looking for him. He had given no one cause to search for him until tonight. The High Guards wouldn't send a single, unarmed person out on the streets looking for him, even if they knew who he was and what he had done. If they were trying to find him, the streets would have been filling with armed and armoured Guards knocking on every door in their hunt.
The South Gate loomed before him, dark and forbidding. The thick wooden doors and iron gate were tightly shut, but they always were between sunset and sunrise. He could hope that no Guards had been spared from the search of the palace to bar this particular Gate from opening. The Guards should assume he was going north, of course; he had made sure to use a Kylorian dagger when killing the Guards and queen as he had been instructed to. Anyone who knew what they were looking for would recognize the distinctive way Kylorian steel cut through metal as though it was cloth. The only ones who used Kylorian weapons this side of the Arasheile Mountains were the Keshlenden. If they thought he was trying to escape back to Keshlenden, maybe he wasn't trapped yet….
Malarik unwrapped the shadows from around himself, though he did not release the power surging through him. Or maybe It did not release him. He could feel his precarious control over It waning. He poised on the brink of sudden violence against himself or against others as he was filled with a new thirst for blood and death. As his hold on himself loosened, It began to take control of him. He could sense warm flesh and blood somewhere in the guardhouse to the left of the Gate. It called to him, urging him to spill that precious blood, to taste its sweet metallic tang, to become Death itself, the master of all living things. Nothing could escape death.
The assassin tightened his grip on his dagger hilt. He dropped Melian's reins and stalked silently towards the sleeping Guard inside his house. The door was locked, but that was no barrier to him as long as he was filled with the Shadow-power. Malarik extended a thin trail of it through the crack between door and doorframe. It seized the lock eagerly, corroding it to solid rust and then further still, until the metal was weak enough to snap easily when he pushed against the door with his shoulder. The Shadow-power was especially useful for destroying man-made contraptions, decaying them until they turned to dust.
He swept inside with barely a sound, melding into the dark shadows of the room so he would be all but invisible. A High Guard dressed in a breastplate worn over a mail shirt and red wool coat snored softly with a crossbow leaning against the wall next to him. Malarik hovered beside him, contemptuous of the sleeping Guard who would never realize what danger waited in the shadows for him. He was a ravenous hunter looking down at his helpless prey. The Guard only opened his eyes when Malarik's dagger tore through the Guard's throat. Blood poured out of the gaping wound like a crimson tide streaming over the shining steel breastplate.
Unable and unwilling to hold himself back, Malarik lapped at the blood, tasting the life as it left the dead Guard. The living liquid appeased the Shadow-power's hunger, allowing Malarik to gain a slight measure of control over It. He pushed It away and gasped as the energy left him in a flood. It did not fade entirely; instead, It became a snake coiled more tightly than before around his heart. It pulsed angrily, wanting to regain control of him, but Malarik forced it down. He shivered at how close he have been to losing the last tenuous hold he had kept on himself.
What if I lose control completely next time? It was not a pleasant thought. I won't use It again unless I must, he resolved, though he was sure it wouldn't last. He knew that he would embrace It again. The Shadow-power made him feel truly alive like nothing else did. Malarik knew that eventually It would overcome him and take complete control, probably killing him, but strangely that idea did not seem dreadful. A part of him longed for that moment.
Malarik scrubbed at the drying blood around his mouth, eager to be rid of it. He felt utterly exhausted. The continuous struggle against complete surrender to the Shadow-power had sapped the last of his strength. The wound in his side ached with renewed fury; he must have strained it while killing the Guard, though he would not have noticed the pain while It filled him. He hobbled towards the door and pushed it open. On his way out, he grabbed the iron key hanging on a peg beside the door.
On the other side of the street was a crank connected to a geared wheel wrapped with an iron chain. A heavy lock kept the crank from turning without the key. Malarik opened the lock with the Guard's key and heaved at the crank, slowly turning it to open the iron portcullis. His side burned in agony, but he ignored it as best he could for the moment. Once the gate was raised enough to allow Malarik and his horse to walk through, he secured the crank in place with the lock.
He paused to consider the thick wooden doors that were all that stood between him and freedom. They opened outward to make it harder for an enemy army to ram its way through. The doors were barred with only a long, thin wooden beam at about his shoulder level. In times of peace, there was no need for a thick, heavy iron bar to keep the doors closed. Malarik raised his arms to test the weight of the bar. He groaned in pain as he felt the stitches in his side strain against his skin. He gritted his teeth to keep from yelping while he raised the wooden beam and quickly lowered it to the ground. He used his shoulder to push one door open just wide enough for his mare to squeeze through.
Malarik wished that he had not killed the sleeping Guard. Surely he could have snuck in and gotten the keys without waking the other man. The dead Guard was a sure sign that he was going south instead of north. If he was lucky, they might think he had started south to throw them off his trail before doubling back north.
The Master will not be pleased, he thought grimly. The Shadow Lord of Shanai, the man who had given him his orders, had specified that he must ride north after he was finished as if he was going to Keshlendar. The Master had not explained the reasons behind his orders-and he was not a man one could question-but Malarik assumed he had been made to kill the queen with a Kylorian dagger so he would look like a Keshlenden assassin. Malarik wondered how long it would be before the Master sent his killers after him to make him pay for his mistake. The Master was not a forgiving man.
Malarik led his mare through the Gate. He almost fell when he tried to pull himself into the saddle. He slumped forward and managed to spur Melian to a gallop before exhaustion overcame him and everything went black.

Chapter V

The Power of a Whisper

Malarik woke to find himself in a field dotted with winter-browned grass. Melian was sniffing at the sparse vegetation, every so often finding something still green enough to eat. He blinked in the bright daylight. Judging by the sun, it was sometime just before noon. He had no idea where he was. Hopefully somewhere far away from Intuir, he thought groggily. He guessed that he might be southwest of the capitol city, though he couldn't be sure.
Malarik considered where he would go from here. The Master would undoubtedly send assassins from his fortress in the icy realm of Shanai. Luckily for him, Malarik was already weeks away from Shanai. Still, he needed to be somewhere farther. The farthest city from Shanai on the eastern side of the Arasheiles was Byshar, in Lentaren. It was a long journey, but as far as Malarik was concerned, the farther he was from Shanai, the better. He had enough food in his saddlebags to last him at least until he could find a small outlying town, or even a village.
He urged his mare to a fast walk. He would have liked to go at a trot, but the horse's jerky motions could further aggravate the wound in his side. Malarik reached underneath his shirt and the bandage to feel the stitches. They were holding, though the small flakes of dried blood that stuck to his fingers told him that the stitches had ripped through his skin in some places, probably when he was lifting the Gate's bar.
“How soon until he begins tracking me? He must have some other Shadow-sworn servants among the High Guards than the one I killed. They could inform him that I left going south, but even on fast horses, a messenger couldn't reach the Master for a month or so,” Malarik said to himself. “Though who knows what the Master can do? For all I know, he can communicate directly with his servants.”
“I shouldn't have killed that Guard. I could have snuck out or talked him into letting me leave for a bit of gold before he heard about the queen. Then I wouldn't have warned the Guards of what direction I was going, and the Master might have thought that I left through the Trader's Gate,” he fumed. He felt sudden revulsion towards what he had done, towards the Shadow-power that had made him do it.
“If you hadn't used It, you wouldn't have made it out of the city alive,” the voice that was not his own spoke inside his head. “You would have had to move slowly to avoid the possibility of being seen by searching Guards, and by the time you reached the Gate, there would have been a half-dozen High Guards set to make sure no one leaves.
“You think you would be able to hide in the crowd while the Guards searched every inn looking for the man who killed their queen? You would be lucky if it was only a Guard who caught you. The Master's men would know exactly who to look for when they searched. You would be captured within a week and dragged back to the dungeons of Sha'ik'tal. You remember being there, don't you?”
Images flooded through his mind, unbidden: Malarik watching the Chief Gailor come towards him armed with a spiked wire that glowed red-orange with heat; his fingers and toes bleeding from where the nails had been ripped off. He was force-fed still-bloody, raw chunks of meat that he saw torn out of his own body. Worst of all, he remembered being raped time and again while the Master watched with cold, cruel eyes. Every night while he was trapped in that hellhole, he prayed to Cernunnos, the god who watched over one's soul in death and through the cycle of rebirth, that he would die. Perhaps the next time they used hot pincers to rip apart the skin below his ribs, they might accidentally reach his innards so he would mercifully die…
Death never came to lay her soft, ice-cold touch across his forehead and let him fade away. Instead, he was trapped in the dungeon as a torturer's plaything. After two months of abuse that left his body crippled, he was left alone. Sometimes, the Chief Gailor forgot to bring him food or water for days at a time. He had been allowed to “escape” a month later only after he had agreed to his mission. He did not think he would be permitted to “escape” again if he was brought back to Sha'ik'tal.
With a massive effort, Malarik managed to stem the flow of horribly vivid memories flashing through his mind. He hated that voice for what it did to him, but at the same time, he thought he deserved all the pain it brought him. It was also the only voice that would speak to him, though it often ridiculed him in a derogatory manner. For better or worse, it was a constant in his life. He had come to depend on it for companionship. In an odd way, it was the one “person” he trusted.
“Perhaps you're right,” he said aloud to the voice. He shrugged his shoulders wearily. “I just don't like doing it.”
“An odd sentiment for an assassin,” the voice whispered slyly.
Malarik had no reply to that. Killing was his job; he had been trained first as a fighter, then as an assassin since he was 20 years old. He shouldn't be bothered by his last kill. After all, it was only one more death. Still, he couldn't help but feel guilty.
Not long before sunset, he found himself approaching a large village. He considered staying the night at an inn, but the sight of happily screaming children playing with each other while their mothers watched patiently and chatted amongst themselves drove him off. He didn't want to be around people, both because he felt undeserving of their company and because he was suspicious of everyone. He morosely guided his mare around the village and, when the sun finally set, made a bed for himself in the shelter of a dense copse of pine trees.
As he waited for sleep to come, he thought of his escape from Intuir and his eventual plans afterwards. Guilt gnawed away at him over the sleeping Guard he had needlessly killed.
“Are you a coward now?” the voice mocked. “A hundred lives taken by your hand without remorse, and this one turns you into a sniveling little boy? Where are your tears for the others you've killed, murderer? Are you going to cry now, coward? You've made a mistake of your entire life. If you feel so guilty, why not be just? An eye for an eye, a life for a life. Kill yourself, if you have the nerve. Feel your blade stab through your heart like it has through your victims. Slice open your veins and die if you can bring yourself to do it. Or is the assassin too afraid to end his own life? You're nothing but a coward and a fuck-up.”
The voice tore mercilessly through his unstable mental defenses. He wanted to die, to kill himself knowing he had done justice. He wished he could be struck down by the gods, or crushed by a sudden earthquake. He deserved to die a hundred times over for the crimes he had committed. His eyes stung with unshed tears. Malarik knew, however, that he did not have the courage to end his own life. As much as he hated his life, and hated himself more than ever for his inability to end his miserable existence, he couldn't bring himself to do it. He stared at nothing for the rest of the night, waiting the blessed unconsciousness of sleep that never came.

Malarik unhobbled his black mare and began riding southwest as soon as he could see the first streaks of grey in the sky that preceded dawn. The sky before him was still dark with only hints of light touching it. He rode in silent contemplation for hours.
He had spent the night thinking, mentally beating himself for his weakness. Eventually, his guilt over the killing had made him come to loathe himself so much that he couldn't feel anything anymore. He had no regret, no fear, no joy-nothing. He imagined his heart was made of polished steel, icy cold to the touch. He fingered the dagger at his belt, reveling in the feel of the cutting edge running underneath his fingertips. He longed to drive the dagger through his body.
Malarik had ridden without stopping well after nightfall until he came to the edge of a small forest stretching about a mile in either direction left or right. Several times earlier in the day, he had felt someone watching him, but he never found anyone. The sense of being watched grew, along with an inexplicable feeling of dread. As he rode between the trees, the stillness of the forest made him feel uneasy. He embraced the Shadow-power, letting Its keenness fill his senses. He felt like a man hanging by his fingers to the edge of a cliff overlooking a dark abyss.
“Let go,” the voice whispered. It sounded kind to Malarik's cold, detached mind. He might have done it if, at that moment, a hulking beast hadn't stepped out from behind a tree twenty feet in front of him.
The creature was vaguely dog-like, but it was bigger than even the bulkiest mastiff. It had bluish-grey fur covering a body that looked as though it had been dead for a year. There were gaping holes in its skin where fur and flesh had rotted away to expose blackened bone that shone dully in the moonlight. Empty sockets stared blankly where its eyes should have been. A ring of decay slowly spread from the frozen, cracked earth underneath the beast's paws.
Malarik's mind raced as he thought of his options. His Shadow-power would be of no help against a Deadhound. It only held power over the living. Deadhounds, if the stories were to be believed, hovered on the edge separating life from death. Their existence between the two states allowed them to have some qualities from each realm. To Malarik's senses, the body that should have pulsed with hot, flowing blood was so cold that it made ice seem as hot as fire. If he tried to draw his dagger, he thought the Deadhound would be on him before the tip of the blade had cleared his belt.
So this was the assassin the Master had sent after him.
The last choice was to accept his death. He was not excited to die-he couldn't bring himself to feel any real emotion-but he was relieved that it would finally be over.
“It will be mercy to die,” he whispered softly, without fear. The other voice offered silent agreement. Malarik reined his wildly neighing mare in and waited calmly for the Deadhound to leap so he could finally die.
A knife whistling past his leg made him turn around in surprise. Behind him was a slender, pretty boy standing next to a dark bay gelding. The boy had another knife in his hand ready to throw by the time his first one sunk into the Deadhound's rotted shoulder. The snarling beast turned contemptuously towards the boy. It bounded towards him at incredible speed, black teeth bared. The boy only had time to throw the knife in his hand before the Deadhound was on him. Possibly because of skill, or maybe out of pure luck, the second knife sank into the hound's left empty eye socket. The Deadhound staggered where it landed and dropped to the earth, its muzzle less than three feet away from the boy.
Seeing the undead creature die, Malarik remembered an old saying always repeated in the legends about Deadhounds: “For the hound's life to die, aim steel in its eye.” Its eyes were rumored to be the one weak point on the monstrous creatures. Malarik had always assumed that the rumors were just false sayings made up somewhere along the line as the stories were passed down from generation to generation. Then again, he hadn't believed Deadhounds themselves were real either until he had just seen one of the rotting beasts.
The boy had another knife leveled at Malarik before the Deadhound had stopped kicking, though the youth kept a wary distance away from the corpse. Before their eyes, the beast's flesh withered away to nothing as though consumed by acid, leaving only a gleaming skeleton of blackened bone behind. Soon, even that disintegrated into small pieces until it was blown away by the wind as dark dust.
Anger like dark fire blazed in Malarik's eyes. It was a relief, in a way, to feel something, anything at all other than icy apathy towards everything. The boy had taken away his means of death. It was like being denied rest after a long week of toil. Only his fury kept Malarik from slumping miserably in his saddle and completely giving up. The anger was something to hang onto, at least.
However, whatever heat was in Malarik's eyes could not compare with the look of loathing the boy directed at the older man. The youth's hand quivered with the effort of holding his knife back instead of throwing it at Malarik.
“Don't move,” the boy said in a high voice that made him seem young.
Malarik sneered contemptuously. With the Shadow-power filling him, he could wrench the boy's blade right out of his hand. He could wrap the youth in shadow so thick that he would suffocate. The Shadow-power urged him to do it, whispering words to him just on the edge of being understood. Malarik fancied that they were from some primitive language. He felt as though he had some connection to the words, as if they were a part of something bigger and much older than himself.
“Are you going to kill me?” Malarik asked sardonically.
The boy hesitated. He looked as though he wanted to say “yes”, but the word never came.
“Who are you?” he asked instead.
Malarik blinked, caught off-guard by the question. “Seryk Bayshor,” he replied quickly, almost biting his tongue when he snapped his mouth shut after realizing what he had said. The name wasn't one that was dangerous, or even well-known. In fact, no one alive knew that name. It was the name his mother had given him at birth, shed for another after he finished his fighter training under Kendrin Sorryl, the warrior more commonly known as Kendrin Silverlight or the Swiftsword. Malarik had no idea why he had given the boy that name.
“Seryk Bayshor, you are under arrest for the murder or Queen Arianda, high ruler of Tirellion,” the boy said through clenched teeth, as though the words were coming from him at a great cost.
You would think I had personally offended him, Malarik thought. Is he a cousin or nephew of Arianda? No, not in those clothes. House Dardraegon is nothing if not rich. A fanatical peasant, then?
“You are the one they sent to bring back in chains the man who broke into the queen's palace, killed a dozen High Guards, and murdered the queen herself? Either the Guards are getting soft, or you're far more dangerous than you look, youngling,” Malarik taunted.
The boy's cheeks turned bright red with a mix of embarrassment and anger. Mostly anger, Malarik suspected.
“My name is…Kalendrin, murderer. I will see you brought to justice,” the boy snarled.
He is brave, I'll give him that. Or maybe he's just foolish.
Malarik's hold on his anger was slipping. Without that, he thought he would collapse and curl into a ball on the ground until he died of thirst or hunger. If he was going to do something, he had to do it now. He could kill the boy or… What? What else can I do?
“To one who is already damned, what does one more death matter?” the voice agreed. “Or are you too soft now to commit one more crime, to spill one more life's blood? Once a murderer, always a murderer.” Malarik was grateful to the voice. Even though he knew its intentions in taunting him-or he though he did, anyway-it fueled his anger. With the boy dead, Malarik could continue on his way to Byshar. He wrapped himself and his horse in shadows.
Are you ready to face death, Kalendrin?
The boy's eyes widened as he saw Malarik fade into the night. Malarik guided his mare slightly to the left in case Kalendrin decided to throw his knife where the older man had been mounted a moment before. He dismounted and drew the Kylorian dagger from his belt. It had a blade as long as his hang from wrist to fingertip. The metal shone a steely black in the moonlight to Malarik's eyes, though Kalendrin would see nothing. The steel itself was sharper than the most religiously sharpened blade. It could cut through mail shirts and flesh with equal ease.
The boy spun wildly, trying to see where his attacker was coming from. Malarik stopped him when Kalendrin had his back to the older man by gripping the boy's right arm with his own, while he used his left to press the sharp edge of the dagger against Kalendrin's throat.
“Are you going to kill me like you did my mother?” Kalendrin spat furiously. Malarik blinked. Mother? He hadn't killed any women except the queen, and she didn't have a son.
“That depends. Who was your mother?” Malarik whispered in the boy's ear. If Kalendrin was Arianda's, he could bring the boy alive to the Master to atone for his earlier failure in Intuir. He had no wish to be a sycophantic servant, but he also did not want to waste his life away, always looking over his shoulder for an assassin.
“My mother was…a High Guard. She was patrolling the walls when you killed her.” Malarik snarled. His plan was useless now. He would have to think of something else to avoid the Master's spies and hunters.
He lightly ran the cutting edge of his blade over the boy's neck, leaving a thin trail of bright crimson droplets. The Shadow-power called to him, urging him to slice through the skin and muscle to get to the thick vein running inside the boy's throat. The blood would be so sweet. He had only tasted a child's blood once before, but it had been full of the feeling of young vitality. Once a murderer, always a murderer.
Malarik felt the sly Shadow-power trying to overcome him, to sweep what was left of him away to madness. It felt suddenly like a snapping serpent struggling against his grip. It was as though It had been revived from its earlier passive state by the smell of the blood shining in a line across Kalendrin's neck. Malarik didn't know how much longer he could fight It, how much longer he wanted to fight It. The Shadow-power spoke to him, pushing him to surrender to Its awesome will.
“Are you afraid, you coward? You say you want to die, but then you don't have the courage to do it. Do you fear that which you force upon others? You're a weakling and a fool. Death would be merciful for you, freedom from your pathetic life of hiding and running away. Death would end your miserable life, Seryk Bayshor. You have nothing to live for. Do it, if you're man enough,” the voice urged.
“I am not afraid,” Malarik snarled aloud.
“Feel death's cold embrace and die, killer.”
Malarik bared his teeth and closed his eyes, again grateful to the voice for pushing him to finally end it. I must pay for the lives I have taken. There is nothing more for me in this life. He let go of Kalendrin and touched the tip of the dagger to his own throat. One thrust, and this will all be over.
Malarik hovered on the brink of losing himself to the Shadow-power. He intended to cut through his throat just as he surrendered to It. It pulsed eagerly within him, waiting for his will to slip and let It sweep his damned soul away.
Thank you, he said to the voice.
Malarik felt a sharp pain just before he slid into darkness.

Chapter VI

A New City

Caer followed Darew through the wide, crowded streets of Byshar. To his eyes, the city was magnificent. More people were packed into the street he was on than he had ever seen in one place before in his life. It was not as green as he would have liked-the only plants he could see were kept in clay pots on the windowsills of wealthy merchants' houses-but it was impressive nevertheless. The city made him feel like a young boy again, awed by everything new.
Three-story buildings sat side-by-side with little stores. Tailors' windows displayed bolts of linen, wool, and silk in every color Caer could imagine, while weavers hung richly colored tapestries in their displays. Blacksmiths, tanners, fletchers, bakers, and coopers were already working, their doors open to let in the cool morning air. Caer saw swaggering soldiers march through the streets with shining swords hanging from their hips. Sailors walked unsteadily on the too-still ground, while cavalry men strode with the rolling, bowlegged walk on one more used to riding a horse than using his own legs. Some of the people in the street looked completely foreign to Caer. He saw a woman holding a babe, both with dark skin and pale green eyes. A man walked by wearing a bright blue shirt with billowing sleeves that surely had not come from any place Caer had ever heard of.
Darew did not seem to take notice of the people. The sword that he usually wore on his back hung at his saddle. When Caer asked why he did not wear it, Darew replied that it was considered the Northern style to wear two swords, and he did not want anyone to think he was a Northerner. Caer privately thought that Darew was from the North, or that he had at least been there for years to pick up that strange, clipped accent, but he kept his opinion to himself. However, Caer thought that Darew must have been to Byshar at least one before also. The older man moved through the streets purposefully, as though he knew his way around well.
“Where are we going?” Caer asked.
“To an inn called The Traveler's Bed,” Darew replied. The name meant nothing to Caer, but the older man did not elaborate.
Over the course of their four-week journey to Byshar, Darew had become slightly more talkative than he had been, and he certainly seemed as though he enjoyed having company, but the man was still taciturn at best. He was especially close-mouthed about anything regarding his past or his family, but sometimes he would describe for Caer in depth the big cities of the world, if the younger man asked.
Caer was eager to begin searching with Darew. He wasn't exactly sure of what he was looking for, but he thought he would know it if he found it. He had begun his journey seeking the reason for why those beasts had murdered his family, but now he doubted that the answer would be simple. Somehow he thought that finding the truth would take him far away from the lands he knew. At the end of that truth, though, he might find who or what had caused his family to be slaughtered like animals. He just didn't know what he would do when he found that.
Darew led him down three more streets and one alley before they came to a three-story building with “The Traveler's Bed” painted in silver letters over the purple door. The stable looked to be mostly full, but Darew walked his horse over to the heavy doors anyway. Caer followed him into the stable, leading Baine by a hackamore. Looking down the aisle, Caer could see that only three stalls were unoccupied. A young, grinning stable groom who couldn't have been older than 13 years old greeted them at the doors.
“Need two stalls for the night, good sirs? Stalls for the horses, I mean,” the boy grinned sheepishly. “I wouldn't imply that you need to sleep in the stables. Pardon sir, but are you a knight? I've heard stories about them, and you surely look like one to me.”
Darew smiled. “Knights are only in stories, boy. I am but a simple soldier.”
Caer looked askance at him. If Darew wasn't a knight, Caer still didn't believe that he was a “simple soldier”. The younger man thought he might be a champion for a Northern lord, but that left the question of why he had decided to come south alone.
“Two stalls, for a week,” Darew said.
“Yessir. Come to see the city, sirs? I reckon it's the biggest city in the world, it is. 'Course, I've lived her my whole life, so it's nothing new to me. We get lots of strangers in here though, being right on the sea as we are. Where are you from, sir, if you don't mind my asking? Only, your accent sounds strange,” the boy said, all in a rush.
“Jarek! Stop pestering these good sirs and get their horses curried down!” an older stable hand called from the other end of the aisle as he led a sleek bay stallion back into its stall. Karab flattened his ears at the other stallion, but he did not tug at the reins to try and get to the big bay.
Jarek made a face and reached to grab Karab's bridle. The stallion snorted, but was otherwise calm as Darew handed the boy his reins. Darew and Caer stripped their belongings from the horses. Jarek's jaw dropped when he saw Darew untie his longsword from his saddle. He led Darew's dapple and Caer's chestnut into two of the three open stalls, turning every now and again to stare at Darew curiously. Darew walked away before the boy finished stripping off Baine's tack.
“Why do you wear that if you keep having to take it off?” Caer asked, gesturing at Darew's sword as best he could with his arms full.
“It has a much longer reach than the one on my belt,” Darew replied. “It's slower to swing, but I can stay an extra foot away from my opponent. It's also heavier, which means that it sinks further into whatever it hits.”
Caer's eyes widened. Somehow, he had never thought of Darew as being dangerous. The man was quiet and obviously a soldier, but Caer thought that he was kind of a distant sort of way. He couldn't imagine Darew actually trying to kill someone. In the stories, great knights and warriors vanquished their opponents without ever actually killing them. If a knight ever did kill, the enemy was always a terrible dragon or other evil beast. The way Darew had said it sounded as though he was talking about killing people.
Darew wouldn't do that. The good warriors never kill anyone. He must have been talking about mock-fighting or slaying dragons, Caer thought firmly. He had some niggling doubts, but he pushed them aside.
Caer followed Darew into the common room, where a dozen men already sat with a mug of ale each in front of them. However, most seemed to pay little attention to their drinks this early in the day. They were mostly talking amongst themselves in low, hurried whispers. Darew ignored them as he went over to talk to the innkeeper, a smiling, red-faced man who half-bowed after every sentence. A few men paused their conversations to glance at Darew, though none stared for long. Once a price for the rooms had been negotiated, Caer went with Darew up two flights of stairs and down the hallway into the room at the second door to the left. They set their belongings down on the two beds. Darew caught Caer looking at his second sword as the older man pushed the weapon underneath his bed, out of sight from a causal glance. I'd like to have a sword like that, Caer thought wistfully.
“That's too long for you to use yet. You'd be as likely to fall over when trying to swing that as you would be to hit your opponent. Try this one first,” Darew said, unstrapping the shorter sword from the frog at his belt.
He handed the sheathed sword hilt-first to Caer. Caer nearly dropped the weapon at first. It was much heavier than he had thought it would be. He was not weak by any means, but he did not think he would be able to swing the blade for long. In the stories he had heard of swords-masters such as Kendrin Silverlight or Cougrim Brightblade, the hero would sometimes fight against a devilish monster for up to three days without ever stopping to rest. Caer did not think he could last more than ten minutes.
Darew gave Caer a complex-looking frog to attach the sword to his belt. It had a five-inch strip of leather that the sword laid on, with four thin straps and buckles going across it to bind the scabbard firmly in place. Attached to the five-inch length of leather were three strips-two shorter ones close to the top, and a longer one at the bottom end-that stretched at an angle up and to the right. Each had a loop at the end where the belt would go through. Caer strapped the sword to the frog and slipped his belt through the frog loops. The weight of the sword pulled at his left hip. It felt strange, though Caer assumed that it was just because he had never worn a sword before.
“I'll teach you how to use it later,” Darew said. “For now, I'm going to the King's Palace to try and gain an audience with King Tymitrae as quickly as I can.” The older man strapped his longsword to his back and turned to leave.
“Let me come with you. I can help you, I know I can. And…I want to tell the kind what happened. Great kings are supposed to help people aren't they? Maybe he can help me,” Caer pleaded.
Darew gave him an unreadable look. “We will see what Tymitrae will do.”
Caer to that to mean he was allowed to go with Darew. He eagerly followed the older man out of the inn, taking special care not to trip over the sword hanging at his hip. Most people in the streets took no notice of them as they wound their way through the city. Caer looked enthusiastically around him at the new buildings and people. He even thought he saw a ship's mast poking up above a tiled roof when they wandered close enough to the docks to smell the salt water and ever-present fish scent.
The palace was in the northeast corner of the city, as far away as possible from the docks. It was encircled by walls reaching twenty feet high. Above the palace, a banner bearing a white dolphin on a teal background whipped in the wind brought by the sea. Soldiers in shining breastplates stared fiercely at passersby from their posts atop the palace walls.
Darew and Caer came to a large gate leading into the palace grounds. Through the gate, Caer could see the palace itself. It had obviously been originally built as a keep, though someone in the line of Lentaren rulers had tried to transform it into a luxurious palace. Caer suspected that it was the current king who had done so; scaffolding still surrounded parts of the palace where workers were trying to disguise the stone exterior under a layer of bright white paint. Darew gave the renovations a hard stare, but said nothing about them.
One of the dozen of so guards at the gate raised an oddly curved sword to bar their way into the palace. Unlike the other guards, who wore sea-green tabards with an embroidered white dolphin over their breastplates and mail, this guard had no tabard. Instead, he had a teal cloak with a white dolphin arching across the back covering the top of his gilded breastplate, which had the outline of a dolphin worked in gold on the polished steel. At his side, he held a shining helm that had a thin, teal plume streaming out of the top.
“What is your business here, strangers?” the guard demanded roughly.
“We have come to see the king,” Darew replied.
“You have the look of a Lentaren, but not the speech. Where do you come from?” the guard asked, glaring suspiciously at him. He turned to look at Caer. “And who are you, runt?”
“My name is Caer Morrin, from Lhamien,” Caer said hotly, indignant at being called “runt”.
“Lhamien? Isn't that some backwards village near the border?” the guard asked one of his fellows without ever taking his eyes off of Darew and Caer.
“Yessir,” a younger guard replied. “In the Athalelle Forest, or thereabouts.”
“I was born in Byshar, Sword-Captain. I am Darew Khirgan, son of Cougrim Khirgan. My father was known afar as the Shadowslayer or Cougrim Brightblade. I come to warn the kind of dark danger stirring.”
Caer's jaw dropped. He knew of Cougrim Brightblade, the Swiftsword, Kendrin Silverlight. He didn't think there was anyone who hadn't heard of Cougrim's deeds. The Shadowslayer was said to have been a poor blacksmith's son who had trained to eventually become a great swords-master. Caer had had no idea that Cougrim ever had a son, or that Darew was related to the famous Shadowslayer. The Swords-Captain gave a disbelieving sniff, though he did eye Darew more warily now.
“I will send a messenger to inform King Tymitrae of your request, son of Cougrim,” the guard said reluctantly, after giving Darew a long, appraising look. “Adrik, find the king and ask him if Darew son of Cougrim may have an audience with him.”
“Yessir.” The guard who had spoken earlier saluted his commander before turning and walking quickly into the palace grounds. The young soldier soon passed out of sight.
Darew gave the Sword-Captain an odd bow with his left forearm pressed parallel to the ground across the small of his back, and the other hand curled in a fist over his heart. The guard glared at him as though searching for a hint of mockery in Darew's features. He grudgingly bowed back in the same manner.
“Why didn't you tell me you were Cougrim Brightblade's son?” Caer hissed, partly irritated but mostly awed. He would never have guessed that Darew was Cougrim's son.
“Why does it matter who my father was? My father did not pass his skill onto me when I was born. What matters is who I am.”
I know if I was Cougrim's son, I would tell people, Caer thought. I wish I was related to the Shadowslayer.
The Swords-Captain pointedly ignored Darew, evidently not wanting to seem impressed by the man. The other guards, however, peered curiously at Darew and whispered amongst themselves.
“Sea-Swords, eyes front! Do you want some thief sneaking in the gate while you goggle like green boys? I should have your hides for slacking in your duties! The king send you all to the gallows if an assassin gets by on your watch,” the Swords-Captain snapped.
“Does your king fear an assassin, Swords-Captain?” Darew asked slowly.
“All great rulers fear assassins, stranger,” the man replied curtly. Darew nodded respectfully, but Caer thought there was a hint of worry in his face.
After several minutes, Adrik came back to report something to his commander. The young guard was grinning excitedly as he spoke. The Swords-Captain obviously did not share his enthusiasm; the older man frowned disapprovingly and muttered something under his breath before turning towards Darew and Caer.
“You and your companion will be escorted to the king's audience chamber,” he said. The Swords-Captain assigned four men, one of whom was Adrik, to bring Caer and Darew to see the king.
A real live king! Caer thought eagerly. With Cougrim Brightblade's son with me, he'll have to help me.
The entered the palace through an opening flanked by two oak doors that looked thick enough to stop a charging bull without cracking when shut. Inside were wide hallways decorated with colorful tapestries on each wall. The floor was white marble, while the stone walls had been smoothed over with plaster and painted sea-green. The gold outline of a dolphin grinned slyly up at them from each marble flagstone. Caer thought the decorations were wonderful, though Darew looked at them distastefully. They walked through several more hallways before stopping in front of a set of closed cherry wood doors that had a ten-foot-long gold dolphin stretching across them.
Adrik gave the two companions one final curious glance before he and another guard each pulled a door open. The crack, which had previously run in a nearly invisible line just behind the dolphin's dorsal fin, widened to break the dolphin in two. The movement of the doors cast each half of the dolphin in shadow before they disappeared from sight.
“Tymitrae Houyran, Lord of House Houyran and King of Lentaren, I present to you Darew Khirgan, son of Cougrim Brightblade,” a man announced grandly from just inside the doors. Caer felt a flash of irritation that he was not mentioned. Unsure of whether to follow Darew or not, Caer hesistated before finally stepping after Darew into the audience chamber.
The room was larger than any Caer had ever seen before. It could have held a thousand people inside it without being too crowded. Tall marble columns flanked a plush teal carpet that ran from the cherry wood doors to a dais where the king sat on a golden throne. In front of every column a long banner hung from the ceiling, each a different color and with a different sigil. Caer saw a purple hawk clutching a silver lightning bolt on a white field, a golden sun blazing from a blue background, a crossed spear and sword stretching across a crimson banner, and dozens of other designs. Behind the king himself was a much larger square of heavy teal silk with the white dolphin. It had to have been thirty feet tall and thirty across, at least. To either side of the massive dolphin banner hung a long, thin stretch of black silk with a curved sword running down it.
“Let them come close and speak so that they might hear wisdom,” a man called from his place beside the king.
Darew and Caer walked the length of the chamber until they were only ten paces from the king. Tymitrae looked to be middle-aged, though he had no grey hairs yet. His lips were very red, and his eyes seemed small and piggy. A man dressed like the one who had announced their coming stood respectfully by the throne. He was a second herald, used to tell supplicants to enter to the king would not have to raise his voice. The king made a dismissive gesture to his attendant herald. The man bowed smoothly and left without a word. The only remaining people in the chamber were the king, Darew, Caer, and the king's guard of ten Sea-Swords, each in armor at least as ornate as that of the Swords-Captain by the gate. Their faces seemed carved of stone; they did not look like men who smiled often. Each Sea-Sword already held the hilt of his sword, ready to draw the blade in an instant. They stood between the companions and the king, just in case either Caer or Darew decided to draw their swords to attack the king. Darew bowed respectfully to Tymitrae. Not wanting to look arrogant, Caer followed suit.
“So, son of Cougrim, you have come to seek my guidance?” Tymitrae asked. To Caer, the man seemed very grand. The king radiated power and importance. His clothes were of fine silk, and many rings set with precious gems decorated his fingers.
“Please, er…your majesty, I have come from Lhamien after-” Caer began before the king impatiently cut him off with a wave of his hand.
Caer snapped his mouth shut angrily. He had been dismissed out of hand three times today. Maybe that is how a king is supposed to be, he thought doubtfully.
“I have come to warn you, king, of a danger to your realm,” Darew explained slowly. “I have traveled from Tirellion to Lentaren along the Arasheile Mountains. At every village and town as far south as Lhamien, I have found destruction and ruin. The wyverns are moving out of the Arasheiles and heading northward. They've been slaughtering everything in their paths.”
“If they're leaving, I saw them and good riddance! I could do without the occasional raid on a mountain village being complained about in the cities,” the king grunted. “Let the Notherners deal with the dirty beasts.”
“They're gathering, king. They are being called to the north, to Shanai. It appears a new power is surfacing there. With the wyverns' aid, this dark leader's armies might break through Keshlendar's defenses. Durlendar will ride to her aid, but it may be only a matter of time until they fail.”
Tymitrae paled at the mention of Shanai, but he snapped, “And you want me to help the Northerners, do you? You have the sound of a Northerner yourself, son of Cougrim. You want me to send my men to die amongst the Northern barbarian armies? Assuming the wyverns are actually going north?”
Darew gritted his teeth. “King, if you join forces with Keshlendar and Durlendar, you can stop this now. Five thousand Sea-Swords with the armies of the Northern Kingdoms could crush this new power before it begins to amass its own troops.”
“'King'? You address me as though you as a foreigner, son of Cougrim. Wherever you have been since, you were bred in Byshar. You are Lentaren, my subject by divine right. Now you will listen. My House has dwelt in Byshar for over 500 years. Even in times of way, no enemy force has ever set foot within twenty miles of her walls. I will not send my men, my power to die in the North to appease your misplaced loyalty to the filthy Northerners. Or do you plan to betray me? Would you take my place, son of Cougrim, and lead Lentaren's armies to death and destruction? Would Lentaren's ruin satisfy your Northern masters?” Tymitrae raged. Caer did not think he looked remotely majestic now. On the contrary, he seemed twisted with anger and suspicion.
“I would never seek to become a king. Whoever my father was, I am but a soldier. If you will not see reason, king, then there is nothing left for me to do here,” Darew said flatly.
The king's face turned red with anger. “Get out of my sight, traitor!” he bellowed.
Darew gave the king a short bow and strode quickly out of the audience chamber, face set in a hard mask. Caer had to half-run to keep up with the other man's longer strides. Caer turned to look back at the chamber as they walked away from it. From his angle, all he could see was the open cherry wood door with the front half of a leering dolphin on it. They left the palace quickly, and were back on the streets within ten minutes.
“Why did he think you wanted to betray Lentaren?” Caer questioned. Tymitrae had not been at all what he thought a king would be. A king was supposed to be patient, wise, and kind. Instead, Tymitrae had been power-hungry, insecure, and suspicious.
“He, like others, sees only my father's name. He knows that many would follow the son of Cougrim Brightblade, perhaps even a whole nation,” Darew said bitterly. “If I had thought I could afford the wasted time, I would never have mentioned my father's name, and we would have been permitted to speak to the king at his next public audience. Now I have wasted weeks of riding down here. My mistake could have cost a thousand or more support troops for the Northern Kingdoms.” The older man scowled, obviously angry with himself.
“Do you really think someone in Shanai is gathering the wyverns?” Caer asked softly.
“That is a dangerous name to say in public. We will speak of it once we reach the inn.”
For the rest of the walk back to The Traveler's Bed, Caer felt his insides squirming. He wasn't sure if it was out of fear or excitement-probably a mix of the two-but either way, he was now certain that the answer to his question would take him to strange lands where he would meet new people, far away from any place he had been before or ever would have gone to if the wyverns had never come to Lhamien.

End Volume I