Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 34: The Price of a Queen
The Price of a Queen Selgrin had dec...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 34: The Price of a Queen
The Price of a Queen Selgrin had dec...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 33: Troll
Troll It seemed like a good idea at ...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 32: Mountain of a Thousand Caves
Mountain of a Thousand Caves “Now ...
It was the type of night that made even the hungriest of animals take shelter. An oppressive chill smothered all warmth, the sky called for a blizzard, and snowflakes were already swirling in the wind.
A young Cahrin savored one last stroll before bedtime while the rest of the Capcecka Clan hunkered down inside their tents beneath heaps of furs.
She climbed the thirty-foot rise that overlooked the encampment. She loved it here on Ked’coon. No matter whether she was cooking with the other women or roaming the mountainside alone, her spirit never lacked for company. The wind whispered secrets, the birds told their stories, the crickets kept the beat to the symphony of the night—and the mountain itself was their ancient father, watching in solitude and sometimes sadness.
She also loved her dirksa, her Pa’hu. The very day he was introduced to her, she could tell he was special. He was not like the other boys, brimming with overconfidence. Pa’hu showed a quiet thoughtfulness beyond his years. As he grew older, she admired how fair he was to the land, the animals, and his clansmen in everything he did.
So this new Pa’hu worried her. It was as if the servant of Azren had changed him with black magic.
The snow almost hid Pa’hu’s tent—soon to be their tent, once the ritual of the spirits was performed. The ceremony was less than four full moons away, though she wondered if that day would ever come. She kept expecting Pa’hu to call everything off after the way she had treated him, watching him in secret, questioning his judgment.
Despite her intentions, it was not her place to intervene. At least now that Pa’hu had promised to talk with Schie Bura, this nonsense with Azren would end and hopefully things would return to normal.
Lost in her musings, she almost did not hear the telltale signs of danger that the wind carried on its back.
She sniffed the air, picking up the scent of wet wolf pelts. But wolves would not be about before a storm. She was being stalked by a Dehiar raiding party. They were her clan’s mortal enemies. Last fall, her people had killed their chieftain in a clash over territory, setting off a blood feud in which the new Dehiar leader, Induin, had sworn vengeance on Schie Bura and promised to take Cahrin for a wife.
Cahrin clenched the hilt of her dagger. She would never let that happen.
She squatted, pretending to be distracted by something in the snow. She had three, maybe four excruciating seconds to wait. Enough time for a deep, steadying breath. The patter of feet skimming over snow might have been lost against the backdrop of the wind to anyone else. To her, it was a pounding avalanche rising to a crescendo. But still, she held back.
Only when the Dehiar warrior was upon her, when self-preservation screamed at her from every pore, did she make her move. Twisting around, she pulled her dagger free and thrust high. The point bored into an eye and the man fell at once, shrieking in pain.
Three more Dehiar appeared from behind cover. They wore wolf heads and gray pelts covering their backs and shoulders. Hunched low to the ground, they took on the appearance of their clan animal. They fanned out, forming a semicircle and trapping her against the edge of the rise, though their approach was cautious now that she had shown her adeptness with a blade. Her first victim had already ceased his thrashings, nothing more than food for scavengers.
An initial rush from her left turned out to be a bluff, as well as the following attack. They were testing her. Or maybe they were employing a strategy for her capture. I will not allow it. As a chieftain’s daughter, she had an obligation to die rather than be taken, even if that meant throwing herself from the rise.
As if reading her thoughts, the centermost Dehiar warrior, evidently the pack leader, made a signal, and the clansmen at Cahrin’s flank sidestepped to the edge of the mountain. They would attempt to pinch her between them. She backed up until no footing was left behind her, only cliff. They advanced. Once they closed the gap, she would be forced to fight all three at once.
She glanced down in desperation, tempted to leap off the rise out of spite. Induin would be less than pleased with the outcome. No. As satisfying as that might be, she would not give up so easily. The approaching clansmen were young, not much older than she was. Who’s to say these filthy wolf cubs can take me, anyway?
She charged the warrior on her right. The ferocity of the attack forced him back, and he stumbled in the thick snow. Harsh words from the pack leader stiffened his resolve, and his heavy-handed strokes pounded her dagger, forcing her to give up the ground she had gained and pushing her into the path of the other attackers.
If she slid backward any farther, she’d have a blade in her back.
She cowered, goading her opponent into an overconfident slash, then ducked and drove her dagger between his ribs, laying open his side as if she were preparing game for a meal. He dropped in a heap.
Another Dehiar warrior slid an arm around her neck, choking off her air. She fell, stabbing viciously backward. The grip gave way.
She took a single breath of frigid mountain air before the pack leader crashed into her, bringing her inches from the edge. Pinned to the ground, she twisted but couldn’t avoid the back of his hunting knife. It smashed against her temple. Pain erupted like an open wound. The knife rose above her, this time descending blade first.
The stroke would never be completed. The pack leader collapsed with an arrow in his neck. Blood spilled, saturating the snow beneath her, turning it slippery. She felt herself sliding backward off the rise. She thrust the dead clansman off her, but her momentum only quickened.
Her head was the first to pass the edge. Then her shoulders.
She drove her dagger deeply into the snow, holding on with both hands. It was to no avail. The powder was fresh and could not support her weight. Once her midsection went, the rest of her body would be pulled down with it. She clawed desperately. Her heels dug down. Nothing could halt her descent.
And then an arm scooped her up as if she were no more than a snowball.
Her rescuer surveyed the scene with concern, his eyes pausing at her blood-drenched clothes.
“Are you injured?” Pa’hu asked.
She shook her head. She couldn’t say the same for the Dehiar. The bodies of the Wolf Clan were unmoving, killed by arrow or steel, but all dead.
“Good. I have something I must do. Go to your tent. I will join you shortly.”
He left her there seated on the bluff with only the frozen air to embrace her.
She could tell Pa’hu was still bothered. Perhaps he went to speak with their father and bring everything out into the open.
She bent forward to taste the snow. Its coolness traveled through her. A part of her wanted to lay back down and roll around in the powder. But no time for that. Pa’hu needed her. When Schie Bura reprimanded him for his actions, she would stand with him. That was her duty as his dirksa.
Down the rise she marched, the wind was starting its low howl. The storm would not be held back much longer. As she approached Pa’hu’s tent, she could hear voices inside. It would all be over soon. Over and forgiven.
“Yes, it is as you promised.” The voice was Pa’hu’s.
“And what about the old one?” A high-pitched reply—definitely not her father.
She knew instinctively it was the servant of Azren who spoke. The sibilant sound of his speech had her imagining him as a snake-man.
“I am to speak with Schie Bura this night.” Pa’hu’s voice became louder as he moved closer to the side of the tent where she stood listening. He was pacing like he always did when he was deep in thought.
A strong gust of wind blew a sheet of snow into Cahrin’s face and then another. She could not stay exposed to the icy tirade for long. She squatted low against it.
“And if he does not want Azren as an ally?” His voice grated on Cahrin’s ears.
“Schie Bura is very wise. He will see the way.”
“So young and yet all-knowing.”
Pa’hu responded angrily. “Are you mocking me?”
“It would not serve my purpose to do so. I am only saying that perhaps your Schie Bura does not agree.”
“Then we would end this.” Pa’hu paused. “Then we must end this.”
Cahrin clapped her hands lightly at this declaration.
“Tell me who is braver, the warrior who faces down a bear to save his own life or the one who shares his last morsel of food with another, not knowing when the next meal will come?”
“Speak plainly,” Pa’hu said.
“You are taking the easy path by following your teachings, be it fighting a wild animal or obeying your elders. True bravery comes from putting the needs of others—the needs of your clan—above all else.”
Cahrin pressed her lips together. This snake-man was trying to manipulate her dirksa. While Pa’hu was a cunning warrior, he was trusting and gave great consideration to others’ opinions.
“Schie Bura knows what is best for the clan,” Pa’hu said, but she heard doubt behind his words.
The servant of Azren must have sensed it as well. “But should such responsibility be put on one man who is already so close to death’s door?”
“Schie Bura has many more moons to see. I shall follow Schie Bura as long as he has the will to breathe,” said Pa’hu, his moral certainty returning.
Cahrin rose and proceeded around the tent toward its entrance. She wanted to tell this unwelcome visitor to leave her people and to never return.
“I would not suggest otherwise. But surely the clan would be better off if Schie Bura was stronger and younger.”
“Pa’hu, what is going on here?” A new voice entered the conversation. This time it was her father.
“Schie Bura,” said an astonished Pa’hu.
“Who is it you speak with?”
“This man serves Azren. He brings offerings—”
“I know his kind. There is but one way to handle them.”
As Cahrin came around the tent, she caught her father entering through the flap, drawing his weapon. Then blackness enveloped the tent.
“Father!” she shouted. She peered fearfully into the unnatural darkness. It was sorcery.
Balling her hands into fists, she entered. She was surprised by how deathly quiet it was. She moved where she estimated Pa’hu and the stranger had been standing. Something or someone brushed her side. She took more uncertain steps, waving her hand in front of her, trying to feel her way forward. And then the curtain of black receded, though she soon wished it hadn’t.
Pa’hu held the slumping figure of their father. Blood soaked Schie Bura’s fur vest. A dagger—her father’s dagger—was driven into his upper torso.
“Schie Bura, Schie Bura,” said Pa’hu. Glancing pleadingly toward Cahrin, he gently laid the body on the floor of the tent.
She shook off her stupor and knelt down beside her father to examine the wound. She was one of the clan’s best healers, yet nothing could be done. The single dagger stroke went through his heart. Death had been instantaneous.
She pressed her cheek to her father’s bloodied midsection and began an uncharacteristic act she been doing a lot of lately: she cried.
Pa’hu’s own eyes were wet. “I didn’t mean—” He tried once more. “It was dark. A blade came toward me, and I turned it away. He looked down at his hands accusingly. “We must gather the clan and tell them. I should be punished.”
Cahrin stood with her shoulders back. She felt her face and came away with the blood of Schie Bura. Her eyes were still swimming with tears, but she was determined.
“No. You did not do this. There were two Dehiar raiding parties this night. While you were fighting one group, the other snuck into your tent where father was waiting for you, and killed him.”
“I don’t understand.”
She moved close to him and whispered the rest. “If you killed Schie Bura—if you are punished—then Noja will take over the clan. He’ll lead our people to ruin.”
“Not if you denounce me as your dirksa.”
“And let you be killed while I become Schie Naru? Who knows if I’d even be accepted? A woman has not ruled our clan for four generations. No. It is like that servant of Azren said.” She could not believe she was reciting the words of her enemy. “You must put the well-being of the clan above all else. You must lead our people.”
“I cannot lie about this,” said Pa’hu.
She grabbed him by both shoulders. “It is your duty. Leave this tent and come back after a suitable time to sound the alarm as if you had just discovered Schie Bura. In this storm, no one will be able to follow the traitorous men who murdered our father and ran off with his only daughter.”
Pa’hu’s eyes widened with understanding. “You cannot be saying this. We are to perform the ritual of our spirits.”
Her heart broke at his words; he didn’t want to call the ritual off. She bit her tongue to feel the pain of her resolve. I too must do this for the clans. “The Dehiar swore this would happen. The clan would believe it.”
“But we fought them off. You were saved.”
“Schie Bura is dead in your tent, Pa’hu. Only if I, your dirksa, had been stolen from you would there be no question of blame.”
Lines of doubt creased Pa’hu’s face. She rose onto her toes and kissed him on the lips. “Do this for the clan.”
“No.” He shook his head.
“Then as your dirksa, grant me this last request. Please, Pa’hu.”
His silence was as much acquiescence as she would get.
“Be brave, and Ofunu will watch over you.”
She pulled her cloak tightly around her and slipped out without another word, leaving a speechless Pa’hu in her wake.
She made her way back to her tent and tossed her possessions in all directions so nothing missing would be noticed. Warm clothes and food—that was all she could risk bringing. Before leaving her tent, she wiped her father’s blood from her face and smudged it on the ground to give the appearance of a struggle.
By the time she started away from camp, the storm had begun in earnest—a demon of the sky, whipping her with sleet, turning her tears to frozen crystals before they could run down her face. She was numb from head to toe despite her layers of clothing. Coldest of all, though, was the ice in the pit of her stomach. It was fear, misery, and self-loathing all at once.
It was loneliness.
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.