Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 41: The Onyx Stone
Ambush The acceptance of the challenge came...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 41: The Onyx Stone
Ambush The acceptance of the challenge came...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 40: In Search of a King
In Search of a King The rain started up wit...
Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 39: The Onyx Stone
The Onyx Stone Three days. That’s ...
Renaldo and Elandra were already seated with the king when Daen joined their table. Though it was morning, His Majesty started on the ale early, remarking he needed a drink to knock out his pounding headache. Fortunately, he was still very much sober when the topic of Azren was brought up.
The king sighed morosely. “My father always said Azren would be back. No one ever saw him die except for the sinestre, and everyone knows they can’t be trusted.”
King Brelin reminded Daen of Lars, the palace gamekeeper in Nalesc, broad and tall with an inordinate amount of hair growing from everywhere: his head, his arms, his neck, even his ears. Lars always said the more you took on the characteristics of a beast, the more the beasts respected you. If that were true, the king’s moniker of The Bear would be a testament to his regard in the animal kingdom.
“What are Your Majesty’s thoughts on a link between Azren and the queen’s disappearance?” Renaldo ventured cautiously.
“We shall not speak of the queen!” King Brelin roared. Daen shuddered, thinking this was perhaps another reason His Majesty was called The Bear. “Not until she is safely found.”
“Face the facts, Uncle,” said Elandra. “Auntie Terenda is dead, and Azren is likely behind it. All that is left is revenge.”
Daen was floored by the way she spoke to the king, though in her defense, it had been thirteen days since the queen’s disappearance, and King Brelin continued to drink himself into a stupor. Perhaps this was what he needed to hear.
King Brelin rose from his seat in anger. Elandra stood as well. At least twenty years separated them, not to mention a head and shoulders. Despite their highborn status, Daen thought a fist fight was about to ensue.
Ren jumped up, waving a hand between them without the desired effect. “Sire, please understand her candor comes from a niece’s love.”
Their glares intensified.
Daen slid back his chair to give them space. Only the appearance of a messenger averted further escalation.
“Sire.” A wiry page in a red vest bearing Durfolk’s crowned hawk crest took a knee. “I have a message. It is said to contain information about Her Majesty.”
King Brelin gaped, making a motion for the page to bring him the parchment. “How did you come upon this?”
“A PIKE merchant caravan was given it while on the road, sire.”
The seal was broken, Daen saw, but the king didn’t seem to mind. As he read, his lips contorted once in anger and then pressed together thoughtfully. When he was done, he rolled the parchment back up and placed it on the table in front of him.
His voice resonated so that all gathered in the room could hear. “Queen Terenda is very much alive.”
He sat down and continued in a tone meant for those at his table. “She is being held captive, with a promise of a safe return should certain conditions be met.”
“Conditions?” Elandra was incredulous. “You’re the lord of Durfolk. They should lay the queen at your feet and beg that their suffering be short.”
“I wish it were so,” said King Brelin quietly. He called for some bread and took a few swigs of ale, conscious that all eyes were on him. It wasn’t until he finished off a chunk of crust that he answered. “The kidnappers are asking for one thousand gold crowns—and that I send my army south to join King Reginald of the Western Kingdoms in his war with Nastadra.”
“That’s not our war!” Elandra slammed her hands against the table. “I say let the southerners beat each other senseless. Besides, it would be paramount to leaving the kingdom defenseless.”
The king turned to Ren. “What does my captain of the guard think of all this?”
“If I may, Your Majesty, the obligation of any king, first and foremost, is to protect his people.”
“There’s nothing that says I cannot keep a militia in Camere. The other cities of Durfolk all have sufficient garrison to protect themselves from bandits. My people will still be looked after.”
“Until Azren comes sweeping down from the north and enslaves your subjects,” Elandra said. “You cannot seriously be considering this.”
“Watch yourself, Elandra,” said King Brelin. “There are boundaries even you cannot cross without consequence.”
She clamped her mouth shut. Ren filled the void.
“Outside of Azren, Your Majesty, who else might benefit from these demands?”
“Hard to say. King Reginald would not try such a stunt. Wily he may be, but he’s no kidnapper. Perhaps some fanatic of the cause. A lesser lord. A knight who has convinced himself it is righteous. Even, conceivably, his son, Prince Peldrin.”
“I would not be surprised if PIKE were pulling the strings,” said Elandra. “The merchant group has tied their power to that of the Western Kingdoms. Should it fall, their influence would be greatly diminished. Let’s not forget it was their caravan that brought the demands.”
“I’m not so sure we’re helping the Western Kingdoms’s cause,” said Renaldo. “If we side with them, what of Paquin? While their lands may lie nearer to us, their interests have always aligned with Nastadra and so must their military might.”
The Bear let his eyes rest on Daen. “What say you, newcomer?”
Daen felt very much a spectator in all of this. “I am gratified to have Your Majesty’s ear but afraid you would not lend it so easily if you heard my words.”
“Spit it out, son. You’re seated at the king’s table. Speak like an advisor.”
“Since Your Majesty insists.” He took a small sip of drink, enough to wet his mouth. “This atrocity brings but one certainty: you are being manipulated. By whom we are not certain, but because of that very fact, we should not so easily acquiesce to their demands.”
The king scratched at his beard reflectively. “I see no choice in the matter. Do what they ask, or lose my beloved Terenda. I have felt the pain of losing her once already. I cannot endure that again.”
“Uncle, you know I would fight in a dozen wars against any odds to protect Durfolk, but this—this is ludicrous.”
The king nodded and for once did not appear angry at Elandra. “I understand you think me a fool to give in to their demands. You all do. Yet what am I but a man like any other? I would do anything and everything for the smallest chance at having her back. My mind is made up.”
“You are worse than a fool, Uncle. You are a traitor.” And with that, Elandra stomped out of the inn.
King Brelin took a long sip, his eyes locked onto the doorway Elandra left through. “She has never known true love.”
“That is so, my king,” said Renaldo. “That is so.”
Daen knew the decision was folly. But what if it were me? He couldn’t help but wonder if he would risk the fate of a kingdom for the mere chance of bringing Elise back. Of course he would. He would do it in a heartbeat. So how could he blame the king?
King Brelin stood abruptly. “I must go tend to the details. I have but one day to deliver the coin and two more to have the army ready to march. General Hassan must be notified at once. Thank you both for your counsel.”
He nodded apologetically to Daen and Ren before leaving the inn with a procession of guards in tow.
They remained at The Bed of Nails Inn that night. When it was suggested that His Majesty return to the keep, given the circumstances, he said something about how he rather enjoyed their current accommodations. It was difficult to imagine how he could have. The rats outnumbered the people, and Daen wished the beds had been made from nails rather than bug-infested cushions so depleted he would have been more comfortable sleeping on the floor—which was where he moved halfway through the night.
It was early morning when King Brelin sent men out with the thousand gold crowns. By nightfall, the king was hitting the ale hard again. Daen suspected he would not go back to the keep for the same reason he’d left in the first place: it reminded him too much of the queen.
“He wants an army ready to march within two days,” the king said in a voice much louder than the conversation merited. “That’s just not possible. These people who have my Terenda are not military men, I can tell you that.”
Although he was drunk, he’d been groomed fastidiously, and for the first time since Daen had met him, he looked like a king.
Ren sat next to him nursing the same flagon he had been for hours. “Of course you’re right, my liege, but think of this: the sooner we start the army marching, the sooner the queen’s released. Besides, if anyone can get an army ready in two days, it is General Hassan.”
“As always, Ren, your level head wins out.” The king downed the remains of his flagon and raised it in the air for more. “I have been thinking, do you suppose she will have been harmed in any way? If—”
A city watchman burst into the inn, slick with sweat and breathing as if he had run the length of Camere in his chainmail armor, which he likely had.
“Your… Majesty…” he huffed, getting down on one knee and bending over at the waist. The king motioned him up. He stayed down a few extra seconds, further catching his breath. “Forgive me. The queen… She is here. She escaped from her captors and made it to the city.”
The king stood so quickly he toppled his chair. “How is she?”
“Very weak, sire. She is being brought to the keep as we speak.”
“Bring her here,” the king ordered. “It’s half the distance from the main gate, and I will not wait to see her.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.” The man stood at attention, perhaps hoping for something that would delay more running.
“You are dismissed. Hurry now!”
King Brelin paced inside the entrance of The Bed of Nails until the queen appeared, leaning on one of the gatehouse guards for support. Her face and hair were filthy, and the clothes she wore resembled those of a peasant’s.
The king rushed to her.
“Terenda,” he said in that delicate tone one saves for their beloved. She slipped a hand up to cradle his cheek before collapsing against his broad shoulder. The Bear picked her up and gently carried her upstairs, with Elandra leading the way.
When the king returned, he commanded that the court physician be summoned at once. A barmaid approached to fill his flagon, but King Brelin swiped it away and turned it over, ale pouring through the slats of the wood table. “I do not need any more drink.”
No longer did Selgrin receive dark looks from those wishing to vent their frustrations. The return of Queen Terenda turned sulking moods into high spirits, though there was a touch of apprehension when the physician arrived. After some time with the queen, he returned wearing a serious expression meant to reflect the importance of his profession.
“Well?” the king asked when it became apparent the physician would not say a word until prompted.
“Her Majesty is very… spent. The ordeal was physically and mentally draining. She could speak but a whisper. Imagine if you will, sire, being held captive for so many days like that.”
“Did they hurt her?” King Brelin demanded.
“No—at least no outward marks. I presume those cowards wouldn’t dare face your wrath, my liege.”
“Good. When can I see her?”
“In her condition, I have prescribed no visitors at this time. However, Her Majesty insisted…”
“I’ll say she did.” King Brelin started for the stairs.
“She insisted…” The physician began again, looking nervous at what he was about to report. “. . . on seeing her niece, the Duchess of Merlow.”
The king stopped in his tracks, scowling. “Some female thing, I suppose.”
“Indeed, I am sure of it,” said the physician.
Elandra proceeded upstairs.
Daen came over to the corner table Selgrin shared with Copius. “A stroke of luck, it would seem, the queen returning.”
“If you believe in that.” Selgrin made a face to show that he didn’t. “Bad luck, good luck, both simply random events—until they’re not.”
“Whatever it is, our work here is done.”
“About time,” said Selgrin. In fact, sooner would have been better. He tired of the prejudice, and the war would only make it worse.
“It’s on to Paquin once we meet up with the others.”
It made sense. East of Durfolk, Paquin was next in line for Azren to target. But Selgrin wanted nothing to do with it. His plan was to hunker down in some out of the way town where no one would care he was a dogar.
“You’re going to have to count me out.”
Copius blew out his half-swallowed mead in protest. Daen just looked surprised. “I wish we both could hide away, my friend, but this war will come upon us if we like it or not.”
Not if I can help it. But before he could reply, the duchess emerged.
“Finally,” grumbled King Brelin when Elandra reached the bottom step.
“Uncle, I need to bring those from the Alliance to see Her Majesty at once.”
“What? Them? I would think a husband—not to mention the king—would have precedence over complete strangers.” Selgrin thought it rather odd himself.
“It would be for only a moment. The queen’s information could be crucial in tracking down those who did this to her. You do want to make them pay, don’t you, Uncle?”
“Of course I do.”
“Afterwards, you will have the rest of the night with her.”
The king motioned them up the stairs. “Get on with it, then.”
Selgrin, Copius, and Daen followed Elandra to the queen’s room. She shooed the queen’s lady-in-waiting out, then opened and shut the door to make sure no one was listening on the other side.
Her Majesty lay on the bed, tired eyes open partway as if she lacked the strength to raise her eyelids to their fullest. The king had had many of her comforts brought from the keep: a hairbrush made from an exquisite pink shell, a jewel-encrusted mirror, a small box open on the nightstand containing various necklaces, rings, and pendants, and even her armoire, stuffed with clothes.
Elandra stared at them each in turn, as if giving silent appraisal.
When she got to Daen, he stared back. “May I ask why you have brought us here?”
“Quite honestly,” said Elandra, “I am trying to figure out if I can trust the three of you.”
“On my honor, you can,” he said earnestly.
“Oh, really?” she asked mockingly. “Then tell me this: Are you truly members of the Alliance?”
Daen opened his mouth. No words came out.
She knew, but what was her game? Selgrin cleared his throat. “Why do you care? Our information on Azren is good all the same.”
“Mercenaries, among others, have been scouring Camere for those who match your descriptions. Wanted for treason, they say.” She pointed accusingly at Daen. “You are especially popular. Nalescian soldiers have been asking for your whereabouts.”
Mercenaries. The Council was sparing no expense to apprehend them. And what was this about soldiers coming all the way from the Isle of Nalesc to find Daen? By the look on his face, it couldn’t be good.
Daen regained a measure of composure. “We…were Alliance members in good standing at one time—though not anymore.”
“So you admit you three came here under false pretenses,” she said.
“I admit our means to the end perhaps were not ideal, but our aim was to get an audience with the king to warn him of Azren’s return. Our intentions were honorable.”
“Not ideal? You lied to the King of Durfolk. That in itself is treason.”
“Then arrest us, if you must.”
“I should have the lot of you arrested.” Elandra took a step toward Daen. “Bet you’d like that.”
“Stop browbeating them, El,” said the queen.
The voice was familiar.
“Maya?” Selgrin was beside himself.
The queen’s face shifted until Mayalordrel Perindroo, senator of Feralintero, was before them. “Would you prefer my rather mundane features, or perhaps someone else?”
Her features changed again, this time taking on the appearance of the private with the orange hair he and Copius had chased only a day ago. “Don’t look so surprised, Selgrin. After all, you are a dogar.”
She changed back to the weary-looking queen. Unlike him, she could take on a specific identity any number of times.
“What are you doing here?”
Elandra shot Maya a stern look, which was promptly ignored.
“Have you heard of the Spider Sect?”
“No games,” said Sel. “Just tell us what’s going on.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do?” She propped herself up in her bed. “It was over twenty years ago when Lydia Calendral, a member of the Council of the Alliance, did not agree with the direction the Alliance was headed. The Council was taking requests from kings and powerful merchants in return for payments to fund various activities. There was nothing nefarious about it—at least not then. But Lydia thought it was beneath the Alliance to do the bidding of others for coin, and not part of their original charter.”
“So even then, there were signs of the Council’s undoing,” said Daen.
Selgrin shook his head. “I was a member of the Alliance back then. What you have to understand is that the Council was in bad shape. There would be weeks when the rank and file weren’t paid. More members were leaving than coming. The medallions ex-Alliance members returned were melted down and the metal sold for whatever could be gotten.”
“And what do you remember about Lydia?” asked Maya.
“The Council kicked her out. They said she was unstable.” He tapped his head for emphasis.
“If you mean ‘they’ as in corrupt Council members, many who are still in power, I suggest a second viewpoint may be in order.”
Selgrin quieted, conceding the point. He had always operated under the premise that the Council had good intentions. Yes, they took payment for jobs, but it was better than the alternative: disbanding the Alliance. At some point, their arrangements had gotten out of control. Greed, hubris, naked ambition—whatever the reason—the Council had crossed the line.
“Lydia set her sights on being elected head of the Council, but in the end she failed. She was infuriated by the loss and decried a weakness in men, that they could not see the error of their ways. She left, vowing to make a new Alliance—a better one, manned by women.” Maya grinned at the turn of phrase. “And thus, the Spider Sect was born.”
“I always thought they were an old wives’ tale,” said Daen.
“As you were supposed to,” Elandra replied. “The Sect exists in the shadow of its illustrious older brother. While the Alliance uses its visibility to gain seats at the tables of the most powerful rulers of Draza, we use our anonymity to perform covert missions aimed at keeping the continent safe and stemming the Alliance’s growing power.”
“We?” said Selgrin. He directed his gaze to Maya. “So that’s how it is. You two are Sect members.”
She tilted her head as if to say Does it matter?
“So why are you telling us all this, Maya?”
“We don’t have any other choice.” She looked sidelong at Elandra. “It would be ruinous if the king sent his armies south against Nastadra, especially in the face of what we now know—or think we know. Elandra did what she could, but her uncle is stubborn and lovesick. Having the queen appear was the only way we could stall him. This ruse, though, cannot last long. And when the king finds out I am not his dearest Terenda, he will kill me and send his armies south anyway.”
And there’s the clincher. She knew he wouldn’t leave her to die. “Then we’ll just have to rescue the real queen before that happens.”
Her steely gray eyes softened. “How about the rest of you?”
“We came here to help,” said Daen.
Copius nodded. “Any friend of Sel’s is, well, you know.”
“Good,” Mayalordrel said. “Because you three are about the only ones in the kingdom we can trust with this information.”
“Aren’t you done yet?” They heard The Bear bellow from downstairs.
Elandra grasped the door handle. “We will speak more of this later. I assume I don’t have to remind anyone here that the knife cuts in both directions. If what we told you is breathed outside this room, I’ll make the king aware that you are all fugitives from the Alliance.”
For the first time since they arrived in Camere, Selgrin felt in high spirits. He had left Feralintero believing he would never see Maya again. Her arrival had instilled a little of the hope Copius had been preaching about. Of course, unless they recovered the queen soon, that hope would be quickly dashed.
Downstairs, the king was on his feet. “’Bout time. I don’t suppose there are any more important people to see the queen before I get up there?”
“Actually, Uncle, I’m afraid it was too much for Her Majesty. She fell asleep before we even finished.”
“I think I’ll go upstairs to see for myself.”
Elandra stepped into his path. “After what she’s been through, the queen has earned some needed rest.”
“A king could certainly look at his queen without disrupting her sleep.” He stepped around Elandra and started to make his way upstairs.
“You’ll regret this,” came a shout from outside the inn. The door banged open, and two city guards dragged in a haggard man with threadbare clothes and an unshaven, bloodied face.
The king turned to see what the commotion was about. The prisoner was brought before him, defiant in his struggles.
“Kill me—go ahead,” he said with more verve than his appearance gave him credit for, “and your queen will be executed in the same manner.”
One of the guards spoke. “Lord, this man was spotted outside the city gates. He says he is a lookout to make sure you keep your part of the bargain.”
The king studied their captive. “That is a hollow threat. My best men keep the queen safe. She’ll never be taken again.”
The man stared in disbelief. “Y-You’ve rescued her?”
“She rescued herself,” said the king. “It appears that one willful lady of Durfolk is too much for your lot.”
“That’s impossible. I saw her less than four hours—”
Elandra sent her fist across his already injured face. “The only words to be trusted out of this man’s mouth should be under the coercion of the rack.”
“Take him to the keep,” ordered King Brelin. “Prepare him to be tortured at daybreak. I want his screams to ring throughout the city.”
Selgrin winced. That would only hasten the true queen’s demise—and Maya’s as well. “I’ve dealt with scabs like this before,” he said. The king gave him a deprecating look, as if he had little trouble believing Selgrin had low-life acquaintances. “They’ll move on if one of their own goes missing too long. Our best chance to avenge the queen would be to learn their hideout straight away.”
“He has a point, sire,” said Renaldo.
King Brelin appeared unsure which he would prefer, the escape of his wife’s captors or to follow the advice of a dogar. A satisfied grin came over him. “We will begin immediately—and not with the soft stuff. If we need to flay the skin from his body, then that’s what we’ll do.”
The prisoner paled. “Please, I’ll tell you everything willingly.”
Elandra gave the man another roundhouse to the jaw. “I’ve always said the more pain, the more truth.” She cocked her arm back.
The man cringed against the forthcoming blow. “They will expect my return shortly. If they move to another location, you’ll never find them.”
Renaldo stepped between the man and Elandra’s fist. “Hold it, El. For the sake of urgency, let’s give him one chance.” He turned to the prisoner. “What’s your name?”
“Now Haril, everyone in Camere knows the torturer likes his job even more than winning at dice,” said Renaldo, with a wink toward Elandra. “So if you tell us the whereabouts of the queen’s captors, you’ll be saving yourself a tremendous amount of discomfort.”
Haril already appeared to be in great discomfort. “Our camp is hidden. No amount of words can describe exactly where, but if you don’t hurt me, I will take you there.”
“And give you a chance to escape? I think not.” Elandra turned to the king. “A few turns of the rack, and I guarantee he’ll be more eloquent than a minstrel.”
“No! No, please. It’s just that they hide within a cave in the Grogund-Dejedru Ridge.”
Elandra snorted. “One of a thousand caves.”
“But I can lead you to the one you’re looking for.”
“How many men will we find there?” asked Renaldo.
“Five. On my life, there are five.”
“Ren, take a company of my finest to their hideout,” ordered the king. “I want them alive, if at all possible. I will make them pay.”
“They have a sentry with a view of the valley below,” said Haril in a desperate voice. “He would see a large contingent approaching. But a small group without torches would have a chance at sneaking up on them.”
“I’ll go,” said Elandra. “And I’ll take those here from the Council with me. Four seasoned warriors should be ample to dispatch of the kidnappers.”
“Better make that six,” said Renaldo. “Dubree and I will join you, in case he is lying about how many there are.”
Elandra engaged the king diplomatically. “Uncle, clearly this is mop-up work. You should have Ren here to protect the queen.” Yes, thought Selgrin, better here looking after the fake queen than with us discovering the true one.
“Don’t you worry about Terenda,” replied the king. “I’ll have so many men here that they’ll outnumber the bedbugs. But I shall not have my favorite niece set off without a proper escort—even if she is one of the finest warriors in the kingdom.”
“Then it’s settled,” said Ren. “We should gather our gear and leave at once.”
At least they had a lead to finding the queen, thought Selgrin. And if Renaldo discovered their deception—well, they would just have to cross that bridge when they came it.
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.