Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 26: Late-Night Encounters
Late-Night Encounters Zeph risked a furtive...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 26: Late-Night Encounters
Late-Night Encounters Zeph risked a furtive...
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Selgrin couldn’t help wondering if Camere had been struck by the plague. Black flags hung upon its massive outer walls, and a zombie-like procession of city folk shuffled though the streets in dark colors with darker faces. Even the guards displayed an outward somberness, when they weren’t scowling at Sel as if he were the root of their problems.
A request for an audience with the king was met with dumbfounded stares. Pressing the matter, they were told that King Brelin was unavailable—indefinitely.
So as the saying went, when in doubt, visit the spout. Which is exactly what they did, only not so directly. Daen led them down the streets of Camere, passing many a drinking spot before finally turning in at The Dragon’s Gaze.
“So you’ve been here before,” commented Sel as they settled at one of the inn’s twenty-odd tables. He figured there had to be a reason Daen had chosen this tavern over others they had passed.
Daen shrugged. “No. Seems nice enough, though.”
“It’s respectable, if that’s what you mean,” said Selgrin. “You heard about this place?”
Sel ground his teeth together. “Look here, we took most the morning and walked halfway across the city. I counted five other taverns we passed. At least you could tell me it was time well spent.”
Daen’s eyes wandered over Sel’s shoulder. “There is someone I need to talk to.” He got up and strode toward the bar.
“Not again,” grumbled Selgrin under his breath.
“Not again, what?” asked Copius.
When a suitable lie did not come to mind, Sel told the truth as delicately as possible. “Back in the day, whenever our group split up, I always ended up with you.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
Selgrin sighed. The sad part was that Copius didn’t know. “Well, nothin’, really.”
“So then why did you say ‘not again,’ like you’re stuck with a donkey while everyone else got horses?”
“It’s not you, specifically. It’s just that for some reason when we’re together, things . . . occasionally . . . go wrong.”
Copius pushed the bridge of his glasses up to his brow, a habit Selgrin noticed from him when he was becoming irked. “Like what?”
“I dunno. People get angry and throw stuff at us, if we’re lucky, or chase us with weapons if we’re not.”
“I don’t remember things going so badly,” said Copius, clearly in denial.
He tried a more conciliatory stance. “Maybe not so badly. I’m probably exaggerating a bit. Why don’t you just order us some drinks?”
He held up a hand to the barmaid, who shuffled past as if he were an inanimate object. She stopped at a nearby table, taking their order then detoured to service a second group before returning in his direction.
“E-Excuse me,” Copius stammered. Once again, she took no notice and made her way to some newly seated patrons. After several long minutes of leaning in close, talking, and laughing in a show that more than just drink requests were being taken, she started back toward their table only to do an about-face when hailed by yet another apparently thirsty customer.
The frustration seemed to hit a nerve in Copius. Putting two fingers in his mouth, he let out a loud whistle.
Selgrin hadn’t known he had it in him.
The barmaid turned around, looking quite put out. “If I were a lady, sure as the pits of Cauldra I would not be serving a bunch of drunken idiots. Try that again and I would just as soon pour spirits in your lap than in your cup. Now what do you want?”
Copius turned red in the face. “Um, well, m-m-maybe a cup of your best . . . water.”
“Water?” she smirked. “I’ll give you a flagon of our home-brewed ale. It’s mostly water anyway.” She left before he could respond.
Selgrin glared at Copius. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
“At least I got us some drinks.”
“Correction: you ended up ordering ale for yourself.”
“Oh my. I’ll get you one, too.”
Sel grabbed his wrist as he prepared to hail for service. “Don’t worry about it, Cope. I wasn’t thirsty anyway.”
When the barmaid returned several minutes later with two flagons, Selgrin was pleasantly surprised. “Enjoy,” she said snidely.
He took a deep swig of ale, then blew it back out. “That’s terrible.”
Copius wiped sprayed mead from his cheek. “Mine’s not so bad.”
“Hey, barmaid,” called Selgrin roughly. “What’s in this stuff?”
She sneered over her shoulder. “It’s specially made for your kind. Drink up, worm-face.” The group she was serving laughed heartily at her comment. It had been a long time since he’d heard that particular slur, which referred to the way a dogar’s face was always changing like mud, a good home for worms. He bit back a retort. No use getting into a brawl over bad ale and name-calling. It would only sully the dogar reputation further.
The tall, muscled bartender looked like he might have been a formidable combatant in his younger days. He was gathering drinks onto a barmaid’s tray when Daen approached.
“What can I do you for?” he asked in a raspy voice.
“A drink for a weary traveler.”
The bartender drew him a couple of pints from a wooden barrel behind him and shoved it in front of the sentinel. He was already moving on when Daen continued. “A flagon of ale is a sight for sore eyes.”
The barkeep spun on his heels and made his way back to Daen. “Just keep your hands off the wenches or sore eyes is all you’ll have.” His voice was serious, but not threatening.
“Have no worries with me, friend. I see you are not one to be trifled with.”
The barkeep glanced warily in both directions, then leaned down close to speak with Daen. “I haven’t had a visit from a brother in some time. What’s your name?”
Their practiced back-and-forth was used to identify members of The Watchers, a secret guild of sentinels that spanned Draza, operating inns and taverns and keeping their ears to the ground. Daen figured this tavern likely to be a Watcher-owned establishment, given the name; they always chose something having to do with eyes or seeing.
“Daen,” he replied. First names was a matter of policy.
Daen kept his expression neutral, divulging no signs that anything more than a casual conversation was going on. “I have information for you. And I was hoping you could share something with me.”
“That’s the way it generally works.”
Although their voices were already hushed, Daen brought his next words to little more than a whisper. “Azren the Afflicted is alive.”
Felr stepped back with a smile on his face as if the joke was on him. When Daen did not share in the humor, he leaned down again. “You serious?”
Daen nodded. “Not only that, but he has been stirring up the dirt of late.”
“Is he fixing for war?”
“I cannot say for certain. All we know is that he is spreading coin around and allying himself with the dogar.”
“Stinkin’ shape-shifters.” Felr spat behind the bar.
Daen took a big slug of his ale as he shuffled to his right to block Felr’s view of Sel. “My companions and I have come to Camere to warn His Majesty, but King Brelin refuses us an audience.”
“It’s a bad time you’ve chosen, my brother,” Felr said solemnly. “Our beloved queen has gone missing, twelve days now. We’ve all but given up hope.”
“Tell me the circumstances of her disappearance.”
“She was off hunting in the outskirts of the Padorn Woods.”
“Does the king not hunt with her?”
“The Bear was with his troops,” Felr said. It had been some time since Daen had heard the king called the Bear, as in the Bear of Durfolk, of which Camere was its capital. “It’s not unusual for Queen Terenda to go without him. Born to hunt, that one was.”
“So it would have been easy to lie in wait for her.”
Felr cocked his head thoughtfully. “I suppose, but you can’t blame the Bear. That type of thing isn’t expected in Durfolk. Even our bandits wouldn’t try something that brazen.”
But Azren would. If Azren meant to take central Draza without force, abducting the queen would fit the bill. “What about a search party?”
“Half the army has gone looking for her. So far, all they’ve found are the skewered bodies of her escorts. The city is in mourning, and the Bear, I hear, is a wreck. If there was anything the king loved more than battle, it was her.”
“You talk as if she is dead already.”
Felr gave him a solemn look. “It’s been twelve days. What do you think?”
Daen nodded gravely. “Felr, I need to speak with His Majesty, or at the least get him a message. Do you have any ideas how I could do this?”
“Try the Duchess of Merlow. She is a favorite of the king’s.”
Daen knew of her. “Lady Elandra, the king’s niece?”
Felr let out a long chuckle. “You better pray she never hears you utter the word ‘lady’ when speaking of her, or you’ll end up with a gutful of steel.”
“I shall watch my tongue in her presence. Where can I find her?”
“Lately she has been doing drills outside the keep with her men at dusk. Though I am not sure she will be in any mood to talk.”
Daen pushed back from the counter. “Thanks for the information.”
As he slid into his chair back at their table, Copius was finishing the last of his ale and commenting how this tavern brewed an especially good variety.
“We should leave,” he announced. He was hoping to vacate the premises before Felr noticed their dogar companion.
“Did you get what you came here for?” asked Selgrin.
Daen nodded. “I can promise you it was time well spent.”
“I might have said the same if I’d gotten something suitable to drink.”
Daen pressed his half-finished flagon into Sel’s hand. “Here, have mine.”
“At least there’s that.” Selgrin downed the remaining ale in one giant chug.
The weather continued to worsen as they loitered in the failing light outside the keep. The clouds darkened and the temperature dropped precipitously, threatening a storm at any moment.
True to Felr’s word, a cluster of guards arrived just before dusk with the duchess at their center. Their faces were exposed revealing grizzled veterans with the duchess seemingly a child in their midst. She was clad in the same plate armor as her cohorts, except for the silver pattern of a regally crowned hawk, the royal crest of Durfolk, which adorned her breastplate.
The guards clanked violently in practiced union as the duchess bellowed marching orders. Daen motioned for the others to wait while he approached.
“Duchess,” he called. The squad continued without hesitation. “Duchess!” He positioned himself in their path, figuring he’d force her to recognize him. “I come with a warning from the Council.” The armed guards came straight at him, threatening to drown him in a sea of steel. He gritted his teeth. “Azren lives!” he shouted.
A thunderous echo of ringing steel sounded as the patrol made a hard right directly in front of Daen and came to a halt. The Duchess of Merlow faced him. She was extremely young with high cheekbones, a dimpled chin, and a nose that rose ever so slightly at the tip. She probably would have looked beautiful if she smiled. Right now she wasn’t smiling.
She sized him up with one cool glance. “Where are you from?”
Daen did not expect that question. It would have been safer to lie, but if she sensed he was not being forthright, they’d never see the king. “I—I hail from Nalesc.”
“Repeat what you said about Azren.”
“I have a warning from the Council: Azren is alive.”
She did not flinch. “Prove your allegiance.”
When Daen walked out on the Alliance, he’d left behind the silver medallion marking him as a member, so he had borrowed Selgrin’s to present as proof.
She gave it a cursory glance. “Come to The Bed of Nails Inn tonight. If the information is worthwhile, I will pass it on to the king. Now go—and do not speak of this in the meantime.”
“Thank you, my lady—I mean, Duchess.”
A scowl crossed the Elandra’s face. “Next time, do not stand in our path, or you may find yourself trodden like the cobbles in the street.” She called out an order to her men and they marched once more.
The Bed of Nails Inn was by no means respectable. It resided in an area of the city where derelict streets had turned to little more than dirt ditches, and the buildings rose haphazardly from the mud. Two hulking men in heavy wool cloaks took their weapons at the door.
Inside, broken chairs and tables were piled in a corner, and the place smelled as if the floors had been scrubbed with cheap ale. A group of city guards occupied one of the handful of usable seating areas. The duchess sat at another, wearing a blue doublet and breeches made for a nobleman, her strawberry blond hair tied back and tucked into the neck of the doublet. Even dressed as she was, Daen had to admit she looked quite fetching.
“Take a seat,” she ordered.
“Duchess Elandra, I am Daen Cernver. These are my companions from the Alliance, Copius Crux and Selgrin Nalestrad.”
The duchess frowned at Sel. “I see the Council recruits are . . . diverse. In the future, you will not address me as Duchess and never as Lady Elandra—either plainly as Elandra or Lieutenant Keil, if you prefer.”
Copius gave a good-natured snort.
“Do you have a problem with that?”
He shook his head furiously. “N—No, L-L-Lieutenant Keil. Not a problem, I mean.”
“Good.” She then yelled toward the kitchen. “Where’s that cheese I ordered?” A barmaid rushed from the kitchen carrying a small, round plate with about thirty chunks of cheese, each stuck with a tiny wood pick for easy eating. She set it nervously on their table before rushing away.
Elandra gave a satisfied smile. “Now, tell me about Azren.”
Daen was about to reply when a raucous roar erupted from the other occupied table. The largest of the men was standing with a pitcher of mead held high in each hand. He emptied both pitchers simultaneously onto his face and into his mouth, matting his red beard and making a mess of the floor.
“Hey!” barked Elandra. “Someone’s got to clean that up, you know.”
One of the big man’s drinking mates rose to give her a conciliatory bow of the head. “Sorry, Lieutenant.”
Daen noticed weapons bristling from the other patrons. While he did not begrudge them their weapons, he couldn’t help feeling vulnerable. Even the duchess had a dagger tucked into her belt. In Daen’s experience, there was nothing more dangerous than a short-tempered woman with a weapon.
Elandra followed his eyes to her knife. “What are you looking at?”
“Your dagger,” he replied. “It seems rather unfair that we are the only ones unarmed here. We are liaisons for the Council, not a band of criminals.”
The duchess snorted. “Hey, Bartolo,” she called, “this guy thinks he should be allowed a weapon in here.” A couple of laughs from the warrior’s table told Daen he wasn’t getting his hand axe back any time soon. “My inn, my rules.”
“And quite an establishment you have,” he said drily. He had had enough of this. They were here to warn the kingdom and save lives, yet so far they’d received nothing but threats and suspicion.
Elandra pulled her dagger out in a flash. Daen and Sel leapt to their feet, sliding their chairs back. Copius looked up anxiously, his cheeks filled with cheese. Those at the nearby table became uncharacteristically quiet. Hands rested on pommels.
Elandra stuck the dagger point down into the middle of their table. “How’s this? Now my weapon is fair game to all. Should any of you be up to the challenge, try grabbing it. If you beat me to it, you and your friends can stay the night here at no charge.”
Daen skipped a jibe about the value of her proposition. Instead, he gave a nod of respect. She was more warrior than duchess. While not completely at ease, he took his seat, as did Sel.
The door to the inn opened and a chainmail-clad soldier entered—clanking with weapons, of course.
“Ren, come join us,” Elandra called. “Have some cheese. The monk here seems to be enjoying our hospitality. All of you, the cheese is on the house.”
Copius’s face turned pink.
Ren approached with a relaxed gait and a warm smile, taking care to make eye contact with Daen and the others. “You need to watch El. She’ll give you the cheese for free while charging you double for the drinks.” Putting his hand to the side of his mouth as if to block her from hearing, he whispered loudly, “Though to tell you the truth, I never trust the food at a place where the rats outnumber the patrons.”
Daen couldn’t have agreed more. Elandra rolled her eyes.
Ren’s arrival and carefree manner had cut the tension in the room. “I’ve been looking for a bit of news to break this waiting game. Could this be true that Azren has returned?”
“We were hoping to speak with His Majesty,” Daen said carefully. He did not wish to offend this Ren fellow, but their information was meant for the king. Confiding in the duchess was one thing; telling some random swordsman was quite another.
Elandra patted Ren’s chain mail with a calloused hand. “I don’t think you know who you are seated with. Let me present Renaldo Delawi, the captain of my uncle’s guard.”
Daen could have kicked himself. The duchess would not have invited just anyone to sit with them. “My apologies.”
“No worries, friend. It is common for those who see my scrawny bones to assume I could hardly be a seasoned warrior.”
A seasoned warrior. Renaldo was one of the most famous battle masters in all of Draza. Men journeyed from the far reaches of the Western Kingdoms to train with him. And here he sat, jovial and humble.
“To answer your question, yes, this information has been verified, though we are not sure yet the extent of Azren’s plan,” said Daen. “What we know is one of his minions visited Lord Berrian offering a generous gift for the lord’s silence. More worrisome, we traveled to Feralintero and discovered that the dogar people have allied themselves with Azren once more.”
“Figures,” said Elandra.
“Any news from Einor?” asked Ren.
“Not yet. Our companions went to speak with King Hybris while we proceeded south.”
Ren pressed his lips together in thought. “What do you think, El?”
“I think I can’t wait to march up north to the Blighted Lands and put Azren in the ground for good this time.”
“He may just bring the war to us.”
“Perhaps he already has,” Daen said.
Elandra’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by that?”
“Only that the queen made herself an easy target. If one were hoping to disrupt this kingdom, it would be no difficult matter to abduct Her Majesty.”
“A point worthy of His Majesty’s attention,” said Ren.
Elandra called over to the table of warriors. “Hey, Uncle. I have some people here I think you should meet.”
If Daen had been surprised at the revelation that Ren was the famed Renaldo Delawi, the news that King Brelin was in the room left him speechless. The giant who had chugged two pitchers of ale at once rose from his seat and approached with a loud belch. He was wide-bodied, with an untrimmed beard and a garden of overplanted hair sprouting from his head. The reek of stale ale emanated from him like fish in a Nalescian shipyard.
“Whayu . . .” He stumbled forward and nearly crashed on top of them, swaying as he took stock of the newcomers.
The king’s clouded eyes brightened in recognition. “Worm fae!” he roared as he lurched at Selgrin. Long past mere inebriation, King Brelin missed his mark by a wide margin, bouncing off the table before landing on his back. His attack had come so suddenly and gone so far off course that Selgrin hadn’t moved from his seat.
“Perhaps now is not such a good time,” said Ren, as he helped one of the king’s drinking mates lift the liege lord from the ground with a grunt. “I did not realize he was so far gone this night.”
The king turned to Ren’s voice. “Drgar! Kitha drgar.”
Ren slipped beneath King Brelin’s arm like a crutch. “Come on. Let’s get you into a soft, mite-infested bed.” He winked at Elandra. “I expect this is how you like your customers: too drunk to complain about the vermin.”
“Watch it, Ren, or I’ll send you out to pay for your own mite-infested bed.”
The excitement faded as the king was guided upstairs.
The duchess looked far from apologetic. “Even sober, my uncle is not fond of dogar.”
“And why is that?” asked Daen.
“It goes back to a time when my uncle was but a boy. His older brother, Galor, was held in higher regard than any prince before him. Galor was tall, with the face of a champion and a keen military mind. Not to mention none could hold a sword against him. As admired as Galor was by the people, it was my uncle who loved him best.”
She toyed with a wooden pick from the cheese. “After a particularly bloody campaign against Azren and his allies, Galor returned wounded. When he recovered, all seemed to be well. Then one day in the Great Hall, his father approached and stabbed him through.” She took a deep swig of ale before continuing. “Galor had been heavy on the red wine that night, very unlike him, because for whatever reason, wine—even a pint—would lay him up for days. It was then the king knew him to be false.”
Daen saw Selgrin sit up taller. “Prince Galor was replaced by a dogar?”
“Sure as my sword is sharp. The king was furious. He swore an oath against all dogar and made everyone who worked or stayed in the keep prove they were not one. Four more of the worm-faces were found and slain that night. And the dogar have not infiltrated our city since.”
The vehemence with which Elandra told the story left little doubt as to her feelings about the bloodletting. “The people of Durfolk—and especially my uncle—have not since forgiven the dogar for taking away their prince.”
No wonder Selgrin had received such a cold reception in Camere. But what stayed with Daen was the inescapable dread their suspicions created. Who knew how many dogar had really been at the keep? Maybe more than the four executed. Maybe less. A chill coursed through him. The dogar were proving some ally indeed for the Afflicted One.
Silence hung over the group, aside from Copius’s chewing.
Elandra slapped the table. “Monk of The One, you chew louder than my uncle drinks, and that’s saying something.”
“W-w—m.” Copius gulped whatever remained in his mouth.
Poor guy. He was useless around women and not much for confrontation. Combine the two . . . Daen didn’t have to imagine.
Copius’s eyes swung to the middle of the table where the last piece of cheese rested without a pick. A look of defeat overcame him. It was obvious he had been hoping to stuff his mouth as an excuse to stay out of the conversation.
Luckily, Elandra moved on from her sport. “More ale and cheese!” she shouted over her shoulder before turning back to the companions. “I have extra rooms if you three want to stay under the same roof as the king. It’ll keep you dry, and I guarantee it’s the safest inn you’ll find in Camere.”
She cast a glance at the dagger in the middle of the table and then to Daen. A playful smile crept across her lips.
They both reached for the weapon—and came up empty.
What in the high king’s name? Copius had the dagger in his hand, already spiked with the last piece of cheese. He dropped the cheese into his mouth and smacked his lips.
Daen had seen him do this before, to move with such speed that an enemy could not follow it with his eyes. But to use the ability to acquire cheese—really, Cope?
“Hey,” barked Elandra, before softening her tone. “You’d be a useful ally on the battlefield.”
Copius chewed, unable to reply.
“Or at a feast,” said Selgrin.
The joke was greeted with an uncomfortable quiet until the duchess split a grin and began to chuckle. Her laughter was contagious. Loosened up, they had their fill of drink while reminiscing about rosier times. And because of Copius, the rooms were free of charge.
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.
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings -- cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings' laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings' mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings' power...if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don't find her first.
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.