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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 22: Declaration of War

By / May 28, 2017 / no comments

Wax Stamp 22

Declaration of War

 

“I’m still hearing that incessant bellowing,” Zeph rubbed his temples. After spending the night being noisily ferried across the desolate plains, he was afraid that sound would haunt his dreams for many nights to come.

Sel responded hoarsely, “It’s a natural welanob instinct to bellow.”

“But couldn’t you’ve taken a break?”

  Is Tendrils of Darkness new to you? Click here to go to Chapter 1.

“Stop your griping. We made good time, didn’t we?”

“Now that you mention it, we did. Why didn’t you change into a welanob for the trip there? At least then I could have gotten used to it.”

“Humans think everything is so easy,” Sel grumbled. “For your information, I can’t change into just anything. I need to study it up close and memorize its form. And once I use a form, I can never repeat it—at least not that exact one.”

Zeph was about to ask when Sel had the opportunity to study a welanob up close when Daen changed the trajectory of the conversation.

“So what happens to your people now?” he asked.

Sel wiped at parched lips. “I suppose they already voted for an alliance with Azren. Without Lofilyer, the opposition was one shy.”

“You should have let me even the score,” said Zeph. Politics wasn’t his thing, but it seemed to him that if Lofilyer was unable to vote, he should have made it so a couple of the senators in favor of the alliance couldn’t vote either.

“A bit late to suggest that now,” replied Sel.

“Maybe if you weren’t being pursued for killing the Chamber Head, we wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to leave.”

“I told you before, Zeph, he was dead when I got there. And if you feel the need to even the score later, don’t. Too much bloodshed, I say.”

“How about that one who accused you? Let me at least take care of him.”

Selgrin paused in thought.

“Some might say he deserves no better,” said Daen. “His actions have unfairly tied your people to Azren.”

“And here I’m running away again, leaving the rest of the dogar to sort it out. A lot of my people would say that’s not fair either.”

“You had no choice in the matter.”

Sel shrugged sullenly.

They trudged on without another word. Even Zeph, who believed in the adage the best way to endure a walk was to liven it with talk, was restrained. The insides of his thighs ached in rebellion from the night’s ride. Instead he passed the time counting the welanob carcasses they passed. He wondered morbidly what would happen to Selgrin if he died in the shape of a giant worm.

When they reached Duradune, they relinquished their weapons to the guards without protest and started toward their rooms and the promise of soft beds.

Zeph heard Trudor’s voice as they neared their quarters. “The lord went out for a ride. When he returns, I will have him attend to the matter.”

They found him around the bend with Copius, who looked flustered and worried. “It’s n-n-not like her to go m-missing.”

“What’s going on?” asked Selgrin.

“It’s Cahrin. I-I-I can’t find her.”

Sel put a hand on Copius’s shoulder reassuringly. “What do you mean, you can’t find her?”

Copius took a deep breath before continuing. “She was supposed to meet me for breakfast. Naturally I ate without her, thinking she was bound to appear.” He frowned guiltily. “When she didn’t, I w-went to her room, but she was gone.”

“That is peculiar,” agreed Zeph. “At the very least, you’d think she would be waiting around to greet us with an insult or two.” He suspected if anyone knew the goings-on in the castle, it would be the lord’s advisor. “But I’m sure Trudor here will send out a search party to comb the grounds. Isn’t that right?”

“Of course. Marvelous idea.” Trudor started in on his mustache in his usual nervous manner as he turned back to Copius with a sympathetic tone. “I understand your concern, but couldn’t she have just gone for a walk and not yet returned?”

“I suppose . . . But she had left her room late last night. I really shouldn’t have let her go alone.”

“My dear monk, you said yourself that when you visited her room after breakfast, the mess from the previous evening had been cleaned up and her bed appeared slept in.”

Copius nodded. Zeph sensed his resolve waning.

“I assure you she will be found. Now why don’t you all go to your rooms?”

Copius ambled away in resignation. Zeph and the others, exhausted from their journey to Feralintero, were eager to follow Trudor’s suggestion.

It seemed only minutes after Zeph had laid down his head that he awoke to a sharp rapping at the door. “Lord Berrian requests your presence.”

He rose grudgingly. In his opinion whatever the lord had to say could have waited a few more hours, but he had a feeling the guard would beg to differ.

In the throne room, Lord Berrian sat supremely in his gilded chair—and a welcome surprise was Demetrius, standing to one side like a wilted flower.

“Demetrius!”

His attempt to approach his old friend was blocked by one of several guards in the room.

Demetrius gave a wan smile. “Zeph. It’s been too long.”

“Thank you for coming, Zeph.” Lord Berrian had his hands folded neatly in front of him as if he were presiding over kingdom affairs. “I still remember the day Demetrius first brought you here—comrades at arms, you were. And both so young. Your ideals, perhaps naïve, made me long for such innocence. If only we could all stay that way.”

“Every strand must either evolve or end,” said Zeph.

“Rightly so. And no matter how the maelstrom of life changes us, our love for one another will persist. Do you believe that to be true?” Lord Berrian leaned forward, his voice taking on an air of practiced humility.

“I guess.” He wasn’t sure where the wily old statesman was going with all this, but he would play along for now.

“When I discovered your main . . . skill set, at first I was less than thrilled. I didn’t know what to do with you.”

“As I remember, you asked me to off some mayor’s son.”

Lord Berrian pounded the armrest with a fist. “That young man was not suitable for Abigail. If he were to preside at my table, it would be mounted to the wall.”

“Which would have made it forever an uncomfortable place to eat. A better idea would have been to display it above your daughter’s bedchamber.” Not that it made a difference. Lady Abigail’s admirer lost interest after Zeph showed up one evening to measure the size of his head.

“At the time, I did not think you a fitting companion for Demetrius either. But I had a change of heart, treated you like a second son. Do you know there’s very little you could ask of me that I would not provide?”

“And I you.” But the moment he said the words, an unsettling pit developed in his gut.

“Good, good. That is what I was hoping to hear. Because I do need your help, Zeph, I truly do. For all those meals and lodgings I have provided you over the years. And advice. Let us not forget the times you sought my counsel on matters. It is times like these when one must call back those favors. Draw on one’s goodwill as a cactus calls upon its reserve of water.”

Zeph couldn’t help shake the feeling he was being played like a minstrel’s lute. “What do you mean, times like these?”

“Have you not heard?” the lord asked all too innocently. “That’s right, the dogar don’t pay much attention to these things. The news is all over Draza by now, or nearly so. King Reginald, high lord of the Western Kingdoms, has declared war on Nastadra.”

“Why?” It made little sense. While the two kingdoms shared a border and had clashed in the past, the last hundred years had been peaceful, without the slightest saber-rattling.

“It seems that Nastadra is responsible for the rash of bandit attacks on caravans. Likely jealous of the wealth the trade brings the Western Kingdoms. King Reginald could not sit idly by and allow this to happen. Such raids diminish his standing as Protector of the West and erodes the coffers that maintain his army. No, his hand was forced. At this very moment, he gathers his forces to strike at Nastadra.”

Zeph glanced at Demetrius, who had turned away from the conversation, shuffling his feet as though he wanted to be anywhere else. “So what do I have to do with this?”

“Everything, I’m afraid. You see, Zeph, with war comes uncertainty. With uncertainty comes trouble. The Western Kingdoms and Nastadra may be far from our own borders, but in times like these, we must gather allies. As you are most undoubtedly aware, I am but a minor lord. My castle is under the purview of King Hybris of Embia, who in turn must listen to other voices of influence, including the Council of the Alliance. I sent my daughter to Kynar to help solidify my political place. I never intended for her to be held against her will. Of course not. But as it was, I thought in time she would grow accustomed to her new life. After all, Kynar presides over the Council. Her place with him would have been most advantageous.” Lord Berrian paused, running his hands through his hair in a look of genuine exasperation. “Her rescue is some unfortunate business that has put me in a spot with the Council. What was I to do? I could not risk my position—my son’s position—on such a matter. So when they suggested a way to redeem myself, I naturally took the opportunity.”

Zeph was starting to see where this was going but hoped he was just jumping to conclusions. “And you need my help to . . . ?”

“Go along with it, of course. The Council’s men will arrive before sundown. Come now, don’t make a fuss—whatever it was you’ve done to anger the Council, I have been assured you and your friends shall have a fair trial. In no time, you’ll be back at your old games.”

“You’ve betrayed us.” Zeph’s advance on Lord Berrian was blocked by the two guardsmen.

“Please, Zeph, it’s not like that. You’ll be doing me a great service.”

“Don’t you get it?” Zeph glared at the king between helmeted heads. “They tried to have me killed once already. There won’t be any ‘fair trial.’”

Lord Berrian stood up in shock. “Have you killed? Whatever for, dear boy?”

“Does it matter? You might as well be handing me over to the executioner.”

“That’s hardly fair, Zeph. I would never knowingly put you in danger.” And then with a snap of his fingers, he continued. “I’ll have a word with Kynar himself on the matter. It will get cleared up, you have my word.”

His word. He’d rather have Lord Berrian’s sword. Then at least he’d have a fighting chance out of this mess. Zeph levied a glare at Demetrius, who he had always considered one of his closest friends. “And what do you have to say about all this?”

Demetrius would not meet his eyes. “I’m sorry, Zeph, but I must abide by my father’s wishes.”

Coward. But what did he expect from the son of a coward? He turned from them in disgust.

Lord Berrian called after him. “I know that you’re angry about this now, but when this is all past us, things will be like they were.”

“I wouldn’t bet Dela’s loom on it.”

The guards locked him in his room, their greaves scraping outside his door.

“Backstabbing coin grubber,” cursed Zeph. He heard one of the guards laugh on the other side of the door and wondered if it was at his expense. “And his son’s no better. He’s a yellow-tailed sallowfish—and just as slippery.”

Once his anger subsided, he turned his attention to what would become of them: returned to Korinth and put on trial, or taken a suitable distance from the castle and hung. He was inclined to believe the latter. The Council had already ordered a blood slip with his name on it. They would have no qualms about having their guards finish the job.

The blood slip. An idea struck Zeph—an especially devious idea. It would serve Demetrius right, but if he showed some backbone, it might get them out of this mess.

He dug into his backpack until he found the blank blood slip Gunther had given him. Sitting at the writing desk, he inscribed a name on the parchment. When it was dry, he pushed it under the door.

“Deliver it to Demetrius,” he instructed, sliding a handful of coins under the door one at a time.

He heard the parchment being picked off the ground and instructions being given before a guard clanked away. It wasn’t long before Demetrius arrived, short of breath.

“Demetrius! So glad you decided to visit.”

The young lord waited for the sentry to shut the door, then held out the blood slip with his name scrawled on it. “Is this why you’re here?” he accused, keeping his voice low. “To fulfill your orders—to assassinate me?”

Zeph shook his head. “No, I came for Cahrin’s sake.”

Demetrius stared back skeptically.

Zeph put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Look here. What was the reason the Council gave you for my arrest?”

“For not completing an assignment—oh!” His face went from surprised to accusing. “You expect me to believe you’re in trouble for not eliminating me?”

“I couldn’t kill a friend. Not someone I’ve known since my early days with the Alliance. I determined if it was going to be you or me the Council disposed of, it would be me.”

He felt Demetrius’s eyes searching his expression. “I can usually tell when you’re lying.”

“Believe what you wish. I just thought you should know the truth before they drag me away in shackles.” If he could have squeezed out a tear, he would have.

Demetrius softened. “My friend, I have done you such wrong.”

“Now, now. Things can still be set straight.”

“You’re right. Of course you’re right. I will release you. That’s what I’ll do.”

“All of us.”

“All of you.” Demetrius nodded his head resolutely. “That said, my father will be furious. And the Council still wants me dead. I’ll have to be on the run with you.”

Zeph groaned inwardly. It was one thing to tell a small lie to convince Demetrius to help them escape. It was quite another to get his friend caught up in whatever danger they were in. “Your father will forgive you, Demetrius. You’re his only son. He’ll hide you from the Council.”

“Even if he would, I would not endanger him thus. Besides, my debt to you has not been fully paid. I plan to assist you however I can.”

It was more than he’d bargained for, but what choice did he have? Perhaps along the way, Demetrius would tire of the constant travel. Better yet, once they were on the road, he would come clean and tell Demetrius everything. They would never be friends again, but at least his conscience would be clear.

“I must make arrangements before the Council’s men arrive,” Demetrius said.

Zeph nodded numbly.

Demetrius knocked for the guard and then disappeared.

The next time the door opened, an escort of guards herded him from his room to join Daen, Selgrin, and Copius, three guards in the lead and two in the back. Zeph went along with it, hoping Demetrius would show up before it was too late.

“Wh–Where are we being taken?” Copius asked anyone who would answer.

Selgrin grunted. “If I had to guess, we’re about to find out what happened to Cahrin.”

As they trudged on, Zeph could hear Daen and Sel muttering behind him. It was obvious they’d been betrayed. One was not marched against his will for altruistic reasons.

The castle’s main entrance came into view on their right, a hulking wood door reinforced with steel. Across from it, another hallway intersected with theirs. Perhaps this was where Demetrius would whisk them away.

Or perhaps not. Lord Berrian appeared, all smiles.

“Trust me,” he said to Zeph. “It’s for the best.” He moved to the castle’s entrance, opened the door, and slipped through. Zeph got a peek at what was in store: Kynar at the gatehouse with at least a half-dozen Heavies.

No amount of wood and steel could keep the Council Head’s harsh voice from reaching them. “You said I would have them by now.”

“Just a moment’s wait,” said Lord Berrian. “Be patient.” Zeph imagined Kynar’s patient face looked a lot like his annoyed face.

The lord returned, shaking his head in frustration.

“Father.” Demetrius arrived from the other end of the hallway.

“It’s about time. Where are the others?”

“I’m sorry. The prisoners have escaped.”

Lord Berrian scowled. “Then we shall go find them.”

He took two guards with him and marched away with Demetrius.

“Be ready to make a break for it,” Selgrin whispered to Zeph.

Where did he think they were going to go? The only exit he knew of opened into Kynar’s waiting clutches.

The main entrance shook in its frame. “I will wait no longer,” shouted Kynar from the other side.

The remaining guard at the front of the column decided he had better allow Kynar’s entry. As he moved to the door, the prisoners were given an unobstructed path to the hallways.

“Go,” called Selgrin from behind.

Zeph rushed down the corridor opposite him.

“Not that way.”

Zeph glanced behind. His friends were turning down the other passageway. One guard was with them and another lay unconscious on the ground. Kynar and his Heavies were flooding into the castle, blocking Zeph from rejoining them. He bolted away, not sure where to go or if escape could be found.

Pursuit pounded after him. The Heavies, by their very name, would not be following at too fast a pace. But in the labyrinth of halls, he could easily become cornered. He headed for the ramparts to get a look at the footprint of the castle. He could always throw himself off if things became dull.

The ramparts provided a crisp breeze, cloudless skies, and picturesque parapets at every view. A single guard roamed, seeming more interested in what might be happening below than Zeph’s presence on a sunny day. Even up here, the Heavies would find him soon enough. Starting at the bottom they would work their way up in a stranglehold leaving him no opportunity for escape.

He scanned the perimeter of the castle for signs of an exit. Nothing—though he heard voices. There in the shadows of the castle walls his companions were mounting horses, getting ready to leave without him.

“Hey!” he shouted down at them. He saw Daen throw his blond locks back and peer up.

“Get to the throne room!” Daen called. “There is a passageway.”

Zeph made for the stairs, feet flying. He hit the bottom floor and rounded the corner. Heavies. He reversed course before they could grab him. The stone hallways led him on a more circuitous route than he had wanted, and the clanking of the Heavies echoed everywhere he went. He couldn’t tell if they were in front or behind him.

Two maidservants gasped as he shot by. He was getting close.

“Zeph!” Lord Berrian called from a hallway he passed. “Please, slow down.”

Zeph burst into the throne room. He could hear Lord Berrian following behind. Across the way, Heavies poured through another door.

“Come, come, don’t try anything foolhardy,” the lord cautioned.

Go to the throne room, Daen said—but now what? He skidded across the stone floor straight into a seat on the throne. There had to be a lever or latch around here somewhere.

Lord Berrian was first to reach him. Then the Heavies appeared at his sides. He’d run out of time.

Zeph stood up, stretching his back. “I’ve been in torture devices more comfortable than this throne. Is that why you never hold court?”

“Your hands, Zeph.”

He held his palms out. No weapons, nowhere to run.

Lord Berrian turned toward the Heavies. “What are you waiting on? Go after the others. I have this one.”

The Heavies exchanged glances before leaving the room as fast as their armor allowed.

Lord Berrian stepped behind the throne and snapped something into place. With a push, the throne toppled forward, still connected to the floor, revealing stairs and a guide Zeph recognized.

“You always did have the worst sense of direction,” said Demetrius, grinning at Zeph from the stairway.

“And apparently a poor judge of character as well. I’m sorry, Lord Berrian. I take back all the bad things I said about you and half of what I thought.”

“That means something indeed, as well as what you’ve done for my son. You have shown great character in rising above your orders from the Council.”

The accolades only added to Zeph’s discomfort. He was determined to come clean with Demetrius before long, even if he was hated for it and the lord sent an army to track him down.

“Thank you” was all he could manage, then he started down the stairwell after Demetrius.

“Before you leave, Zeph, there is something I need to tell you.” The way he said it, made Zeph pause, despite the urgency of the situation. He turned back around.

“In my travels I learned something about that birthmark of yours. It’s not the only of its kind.”

“How’s that?” Zeph’s gaze shifted to the circular pattern on his thumb.

“In fact, it’s no birthmark at all. The Council thought it best to remain a secret, but given the circumstances . . .” He looked ashamed. “It’s a skin etching, Zeph, so that mothers who give up their children can find them again.”

Find me again? Then I’m not some discarded child. The mere possibility sent his heart crying out in exhilaration. All that time he’d spent in the valley of the Carcs, something within him knew—absolutely knew—he was never truly home. But why did she never return?

Lord Berrian hustled him down the stairs after Demetrius. “Take care of my son. He’s the last of my line.”

By the time they emerged outside the castle walls, the others were on their horses, bridled and ready. Cahrin and Raven shone like the sun and the moon, one smiling brightly, the other aloof with his cowl down over his face.

Demetrius handed a stuffed pouch to the guard who had helped the others escape. “Thank you kindly, Malchet.” He turned to Zeph. “I had your gear gathered plus a few extras I liberated from my father’s storeroom. I believe we’re ready to go.”

“We are in your debt,” said Cahrin. She had smudges of dirt on her face but appeared in good spirits.

“I would upend kingdoms to earn a debt of gratitude from a lady so fair,” replied Demetrius, leaning down to kiss her hand before mounting up.

Zeph rolled his eyes. “What happened to you?”

“Last night I stumbled upon the lord’s plans, and Trudor had me locked up. Thankfully, Demetrius came to my rescue.”

“How thoughtful of him.” He couldn’t conceal his sarcasm.

“For a ghasiv, I think he’s quite brave. He is giving up everything to help us.”

“If he only knew, I don’t think he’d be leaving,” he said under his breath.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I said that is so true, I’m surprised he’s not grieving.”

She raised an eyebrow at his innocent stare before urging her mount forward to join Demetrius.

Despite their urgency to leave before being discovered, they disagreed on which way to head. According to Daen, east was the only sensible direction to ride. South led back toward Korinth. North would take them past the dogar capital to No Man’s Land. Zeph lobbied to travel west to the Avärnos Forest, which belonged to the elder kind known as the sinestre.

Daen sighed. “The sinestre are intolerant of any outsiders entering their domain. Only the dense or desperate would dare go there.”

Or in Zeph’s case, the curious. “Which is exactly why it’s perfect. We could stay at the edge of the forest and travel south until we’re practically in the Western Kingdom. Kynar would never suspect it.”

“Trust me, Zeph, you don’t want to stick your little toe into that forest,” said Demetrius. “It’s sacred land to the sinestre. Those who venture there return without their eyes and ears—if they return at all.”

The others agreed, and the matter was settled. They galloped east for several hours, conscious that Kynar was not far behind. The wide road led through terrain less dry than the route they had taken to Feralintero, with clusters of trees here and there. It was a crisp, clear day, the type Selgrin pointed out was ideal for a marching army.

As dusk descended, the horses needed a breather, although it would still be some time before they made camp. Zeph and Daen led the way while Raven, very much the outsider, trailed by at least ten horse lengths. But as their pace slowed, the group bunched together.

“So do any of you have an idea where we should be headed?” Zeph asked. At some point, they would have to choose more than a direction.

“Maybe you have another ‘good friend’ to offer us refuge,” Daen chided.

Zeph hopped up in his stirrups. “Hey, it worked out all right. We came to give Cahrin some rest and found out that Azren is alive and well.”

“’Course now that we know he’s allying himself with the dogar, what’s to be done?” asked Selgrin.

Copius sighed. “I wonder what the Council would do if they knew about Azren.”

“It would change their priorities, that’s for certain.” Selgrin’s horse snorted miserably, as horses often did beneath him. “First thing they’d do is warn the other kingdoms.”

“What’s stopping us from doing the same?” Zeph asked. It made perfect sense—not to mention it sounded a lot more interesting than fleeing east until they hit the Daroblin Sea. “We can even pretend we’re still part of the Alliance. The Council’s going to be searching for fugitives trying to slip through their fingers, not Alliance members delivering a warning.”

Selgrin gave an approving nod. “Some dogar make a living hiding in plain sight.”

“So do some animals.” Cahrin stroked Norweegee as he stretched lazily in her lap. “But if discovered, they become dinner.”

“Cahrin speaks true,” said Daen. “It would be dangerous. Yet I fear there is more at stake than our own lives. While we might run from the Council, we cannot hide from the war. It falls to us to warn others before Azren makes a move on central Draza.”

Raven’s hollow voice penetrated the dusk. “You are too late for that.”

Selgrin gave a scowl. “I wouldn’t listen to him. He’s never had a positive comment on anything.”

“Oh, and you’re the Duke of Sunshine and Rainbows,” said Zeph. Raven knew something, and he intended to find out what. “Why do you say that?”

“Because it is the truth.”

“What do you know,” Selgrin said. “You’re lucky Demetrius thought you were with us, or you’d be hanging from a tree by now.”

“Lord Berrian revealed that a servant of Azren came to him with coin in exchange for turning a blind eye toward his master’s activities. He also said that Azren will take this region without the use of force. I can only surmise his plans have already been set in motion.”

Demetrius turned his horse about, in order to face Raven. “My father would never make a deal with the Afflicted One.”

“Believe what you will. Disparaging the lord of Duradune serves me no purpose.”

“None that is apparent,” Demetrius shot back.

“There is no sense arguing about it,” said Daen. “Let us agree that Azren is Draza’s worst enemy. For that reason alone, we should continue with haste.”

“Yeah, but where, Einor or Camere?” asked Zeph.

Demetrius was still glaring at Raven. “There are rumors that the king in Einor has gone mad. Who knows if he will even listen to us? As for Camere, if King Brelin learns we are lying about being Alliance members, he’ll have us hung from the city walls.”

“Then our choice is clear,” said Daen. “Both.”

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 23: The King of Broken Stones

 

book-cover-with-spine

Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and Best Fantasy Books. Enjoy a new chapter every Sunday available right here. 

Learn more about the people, magic and places of Draza along with a detailed map and history at TheBlackTrilogy.com. Questions and comments are welcome, email [email protected].

About the author

Will Spero

Will Spero grew up in a world of Dungeons and Dragons, David Eddings and The Princess Bride. A time when heroes were meant to be, well, heroic, and villains had the blackest of hearts. These early indulgences to his imagination might explain why he made a career out of embellishing the ordinary (a.k.a. “marketing”). Will enjoys spending time with his wife and three kids as well as a lap-sitting terrier. When he is not conquering the world of the mundane, he writes fantastical stories for any who wishes to read along.

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