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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 34: The Price of a Queen

By / August 20, 2017 / no comments


The Price of a Queen

 

 

Selgrin had decided long ago that wings were a true marvel of nature, powerful enough to propel a creature at tremendous speeds, yet delicate and precise. Even the tiniest twitch could cause a change in directions. It was unfortunate winged creatures were the most difficult to study for transformation, often too distant or too wary for him to gather the necessary details.

Another waste of a good form. Figures. The thought stuck in his mind like a wood sliver from an old rowboat. The Camerians despised his kind. They made no pretense they despised him. He’d had to lurk in the shadows to hide from their disdain—even the king’s. And now that they were in desperate straits on the brink of war, who do they need to save their arses? That wretched dogar Selgrin, of course.

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He fumed as the ground rushed below him, the trees and rocks passing in a blur. He’d do his part, despite it all. Not for glory or for duty. It was more than that, and less. He wanted to be remembered not by name but for being a dogar, though he wasn’t sure what difference it would make. Once Azren made war and the dogar joined in, all this would be forgotten. If he thought Camerians held him in disdain now, give it time; he’d be picked up on sight as a traitor and a spy.

Pumping wings that spanned seven feet in width, he soon spied a lone horse with two riders. Haril sat behind, supporting the limp figure of the queen.

He soared ahead of the horse then came back around, swooping at the riders from the side, his flight silent, claws extended. The horse reared up in fright forcing Selgrin back toward the treetops. He swung around for another attempt. Maybe he could snatch the queen before Haril could quell his mount.

It was not to be. The horse settled quickly. Haril began making hand movements, and the wind rose.

Selgrin scythed through the air currents like a ship against the waves. The intensity of the currents increased, and he could hear squealing in his ears. Almost there.

Another hand motion from Haril and the gust turned violent, as if an air elemental had backhanded Selgrin in midflight. A fragile wing slammed into the earth, sending him cartwheeling until he ended on his chest. The throbbing in his battered wing gave evidence that he wouldn’t be doing any more flying this night.

Haril got off his horse and approached, weapon drawn. The queen remained slumped in the saddle. Sel changed back to dogar form, stumbling to a standing position as his vision cleared. He reached for his broadsword only to come to the rude reality that his right arm—the only arm with a hand—was nearly useless from the fall.

A moment later, Haril’s weapon was leveled at his chest.

“I’m honored to meet you,” Haril said, tilting his head downward in recognition.

“What do you know of me?” demanded Sel.

“You’re the Dersimeysous, the savior of our people. It is a rare treat to watch the spectacle of your natural abilities.”

Of course. “You’re a dogar.” It was a statement of fact.

“Does it surprise you so?”

He snorted. “I just didn’t expect one of our kind to be mixed up in this business.”

“We dogar are fond of coin, and Azren has bagfuls of it. This type of thing was bound to happen.”

“Our people were once the most renowned merchants in all of Draza. You’ve reduced us to mercenaries.”

“I seem to remember that you too accepted raxburies for the Afflicted One’s purposes. I’m simply following in your footsteps.”

Selgrin raised his stump accusingly. “I’d never take coin for kidnapping. It’s no wonder the humans distrust our kind.”

“I did not expect such naïveté from you, Dersimeysous. You cannot earn the trust of a human. Even in good times, they never warmed to our kind.”

It had been forty years since humans and dogar were on opposite sides of a war, yet the layers of distrust and animosity remained. Would they ever go away? The baleful glares he received in Camere and the slurs of worm-face bubbled fresh in Sel’s memory.

“You have no reply, I see,” said Haril with a touch of triumph in his voice. “It’s because you know I’m right. The humans hate what they don’t understand and fear what we can do.”

“Say what you will about them. It does not make your doings any less depraved.”

“My actions are in the interest of war, and I’ll be the hero of it. These demands of King Brelin are just the beginning. When all is said and done, I’ll have brought Durfolk to its knees. And with Azren’s help, our people shall have a renaissance. Imagine dogar caravans stretching in all directions from Feralintero. It is not too late for you, Dersimeysous, to join the cause.”

It was a tempting future. Selgrin had a feeling Velotanin would welcome him into the fold with open arms. Heck, he might even live up to his title if he took part in leading his people into a new golden age.

He shook his head. “I won’t. Not like this.”

“You think the humans rose to prominence through peace and diplomacy? It’s always been war and deception.”

Haril had a point. The quest for power had led humans down a degenerate path. Even the Council of the Alliance, a group founded on upstanding principals, had been up to no good for years. If Sel hadn’t been so wrapped up in his own duties, he’d have seen it before.

Or have I known all along?

Perhaps a part of him had turned a blind eye to their corruption so he could continue working for the Alliance, bolstering the dogar name. And if he had done all that just to engender a measure of goodwill, were the long-term fortunes of his people worthy of more drastic measures? The question was where to draw the line. Kidnapping? War? Murder? At what point is the price too steep?

“By now,” Haril continued, “I imagine the dogar have allied themselves with Azren, making my actions those of a patriot. When I return to Feralintero, I’ll be lauded more than the Dersimeysous himself.”

Selgrin couldn’t believe it. All this bloodshed, and Haril was not even certain of the dogar alliance with Azren. Perhaps he could use this to his advantage.

He crinkled his eyebrows together. “What are you talking about? Our people voted against an alliance with Azren. I was there.”

The confidence on Haril’s face washed away. “You’re lying.”

Selgrin fed him enough of the truth for it to be believable. “There was a failed attempt on the Chamber Head’s life. With Lofilyer’s survival, the opposition had the votes to thwart an alliance with Azren.”

“That can’t be. I was told by a trusted source it was a sure thing.” Haril was so agitated he slammed the blade of the scimitar down to the ground, nearly impaling Sel’s foot.

“Who told you that? Velotanin? Belatreeg?” Selgrin could tell he hit a nerve with at least one of those names by the look on Haril’s face. “You have a lot to worry about if you’re taking their word on anything.”

“I-I’m to be a hero.”

“Hero? More like a traitor. The only celebration you’ll attend in Feralintero will have to do with your head on a pole.”

“No…” Haril’s eyes bulged. “No!” Letting go of his weapon, he grabbed two fistfuls of Sel’s tunic, drawing him in.

“There’s still a chance,” Sel said. “I can bring you before the Senate. Maybe—”

“It’s too late. I cannot undo what’s been done… unless—” Haril slid his hands to Sel’s throat. “This never happened. I was never a part of this.”

Sel tried once more to lift his injured arm but nearly fainted from the blistering pain that shot down from his shoulder to his wrist. Haril’s grip tightened around his neck. Breathing became impossible.

“Only you know, Dersimeysous,” Haril cried. “Only you…”

Selgrin couldn’t risk changing forms while his neck was being compressed. His entire right arm was limp. His left ended in a useless stub. Things would be different had he another hand.

A hand. It was a ludicrous idea—but what if it wasn’t? What if instead of changing his entire self, he could simply grow a new hand? He was dubious it could work, but he attempted it all the same, imagining his stump becoming a copy of his good hand, with the same lines and crags. It seemed strange, focusing on a single body part. Haril continued to squeeze, depriving him of precious air, and still no hand appeared.

Out of sheer desperation, he imagined Haril’s hand as if it were its own entity, and he willed his stub to become like it. He choked, he hoped, he prayed. And then it happened, more amazing to him than transforming into a giant worm. He remained plain old Sel, only different. His stub elongated and widened. Fingers popped out in unison, forming a palm.

He felt light-headed—from lack of air or transforming, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter. There was only one way out of this. He curled his digits and made a fist, punching forward.

The hold on his neck loosened for a moment, allowing a sip of air to enter his lungs before they tightened once more. He punched again. This time, he found no reprieve. He grabbed at a hand on his throat and tried to peel it back, but it was like a stone claw.

Haril’s eyes were mad with intent.

Selgrin’s consciousness was slowly slipping away. His vision blurred, his mind was muddled. He reached for his dagger, shoving the point forward without power, unsure if it even found a target.

Whatever he did was enough. Haril let go. Sel sucked in air. His dagger had pierced Haril below the rib cage. It was not deep. His hand—Haril’s hand—still held onto the weapon. Seeing the hand attached to his stump was mesmerizing.

Haril too looked down, but his expression was one of horror. He began shaking his head violently. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he shrieked. “I never meant to… Not another dogar—not the Dersimeysous…”

Selgrin withdrew the dagger.

“I thought I’d be hero.” Haril swayed side to side, his fingers interlocked in a sign of repentance.

Selgrin was unsure what to do with this hardened loyalist turned guilt-ridden offender. He realized that bringing Haril back bound and gagged would give the humans just what they wanted: a dogar villain. They wouldn’t remember that another dogar had risked his life to bring Haril to justice. His people would be more despised than ever.

Selgrin tightened his grip on the hilt of the dagger.

“I’m sorry,” said Haril in little more than a whisper.

“So am I.” Selgrin thrust the blade back in, deeper this time.

Haril made a loud cry and grabbed at his wound, trying to stifle the blood cascading down his torso.

Selgrin pulled the dagger free, and the blood gushed in earnest. Haril fell forward, coughing as he pressed his hands to his gut. But he could not stop the pool forming beneath him. His skin paled as he bled out.

Selgrin felt the sprinkles of rain on his forehead. The rain could not wash away his crimes. He hid the body off the road among the brambles, pulling them into position with Haril’s own hand. Now he knew the price he was willing to pay to protect his people’s reputation.

Murder.

It was better this way, he told himself, not just for the dogar people but for Haril as well. The humans would have tortured him. He would have wished he was dead. Better to die this way rather than writhing in agony, fueling a fire of hatred.

By the time he’d secured the unconscious queen and ridden back to the mountain, Daen, Copius, and Elandra were waiting for him below. Renaldo and Dubree stayed in the cavern with the captured bandits; after what had happened earlier, it was deemed too risky to bring the captives down at night. Elandra said she would have her uncle send men-at-arms in the morning. Conveniently, this meant that Ren and Dubree would not be with them to witness the return of the true queen.

Selgrin told the others that Haril had gotten away on foot. Elandra eyed him accusingly. For once, he thought, the distrust was warranted. Daen gave him an approving nod for his efforts and moved on to attend to the safety of the queen. Only Copius seemed overly concerned for Selgrin’s well-being, overly being the key word. He put Selgrin’s arm in a sling and asked at least a dozen times if he was okay.

During their ride back, the queen recovered from whatever sedation she was under, mumbling groggily and often. When they arrived at the city gates, the guards straightened and allowed their party immediate entry. Elandra commanded the type of respect that meant no questions asked.

Soldiers roamed the inn alertly, but missing was the king and his personal bodyguards. Elandra escorted the queen into Mayalordrel’s room while the rest of them waited downstairs until they were summoned. By the time Selgrin entered the room, the queen was propped up in bed, cleaned and in fresh sleeping attire.

Maya was back in her own form with a hand on the shoulder of the queen. “It’s a good thing you didn’t arrive earlier. The king was here half the night while I pretended to sleep.”

Queen Terenda smiled at the thought. Some color had already returned to her cheeks. “My dear has a heart of gold,” she said softly.

“How do you feel, my lady?” asked Elandra.

“I’ll be fine, thanks to my rescuers—especially this one.”

Queen Terenda was looking at him. She must have been aware he had saved her. What might she have witnessed?

Selgrin grunted. “It was nothing.”

“It is appreciated,” she said, before settling back into a pillow. “I think I shall rest now.”

Elandra gave the queen a kiss on the forehead. “Sleep well, Auntie.”

Sel was almost out the door when the queen called out in a barely audible voice, “Maya?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“What have you told the king about my escape?”

“One night ago, you escaped from your abductors, stole a horse, and came to the city. I—you—have been too weak to give any other information.”

“Good.” The queen’s face relaxed, and her eyes closed before Maya closed the door behind them.

Downstairs, Elandra called for some cheese and motioned for the others to join her at a table. It was nearing dawn, and Selgrin felt like he’d been pounded by a sandbag. As he sat, his joints squealed in protest. None of the others looked much better outside of Maya, whose face shone brightly, ready for the start of a new day.

Daen slumped back against the chair. “It was a good thing we accomplished this night.”

“A good start,” corrected Elandra. “We still must find out who was behind this.”

“It was Azren,” said Sel in a dry voice that begged for a pint of ale. The others stared at him, waiting for him to expand upon his claims. “Haril told me he was paid by the Afflicted One to abduct the queen.” It was as much of the truth he could admit.

“Then it’s as expected,” Elandra said. “Azren hoped we would send our armies to the south while he swept in and looted our cities—all of which makes our next move crucial.” She eyed Daen, Selgrin, and Copius, sizing them up. “I will need to ask more of you in this fight.”

“I think we’ve done enough already,” said Selgrin. They had rescued the queen and kept Camere out of a war. Truth be told, he was tired. Tired of it all. The way he figured it, he was lucky to be alive. Only hours earlier, he had wrestled on the side of the Grogund-Dejedru Ridge then faced off against a dogar elementalist. A makeshift sling held his aching right arm, and his bruised neck felt as if fingers still clutched it.

Worse than all of that, he had killed one of his own kind. He glanced down at his stub. Not long after Haril’s death, he’d let the hand melt away. He could not stand to look at it, the hand of the dogar whose life he ended.

“Then I will not ask it,” said Elandra. “I will command it. Ignore this command, and my uncle will become aware you are not members of the Alliance. He may even come to think that you three were involved with the taking of his beloved queen. And if he believed that were the merest of possibilities, there would be no place for you to hide from his vengeance.”

“Some gratitude,” Selgrin muttered.

Mayalordrel placed a hand on his shoulder. “Help us.”

“Why? For the good of Draza? I think I’ve heard that one before.”

“How about for your own people?” she said.

He hesitated. Mayalordrel knew where his soft spot was. “If you haven’t forgotten, your Spider Sect is on the wrong side of the war for that.”

“You know what I mean. It’s up to dogar like us. You said it yourself back in Feralintero: we need to show all of Draza the true mettle of our people.”

He shook his head stubbornly. “I’ve done my part for forty years, and look at the good that’s come of it. All I’ve gotten are dirty looks and sour ale. Mark my words, when Azren brings his army and the dogar join him, we’re going to be more reviled than ever.”

“So are you just going to run away again?” Those steely gray eyes of hers peeled away at his defenses. “Sit this war out like you did the last?”

“It sure beats the alternative.” She was right. He had left Feralintero before the Great War started, and he wanted no part of any new war either. “I guess that makes me a born coward.”

“It certainly does. And I thought I was through being disappointed in you.”

And then she was gone, marching out of the room without a glance back. Done with him.

But not Elandra. “Listen up,” she barked like an army commander. “I make it my business to ferret out the cowards among our recruits. A coward can’t be trusted in the heat of battle to obey an order or protect your blindside. I’ve watched you. You may be a filthy, no-good dogar, but you’re no coward.”

Just another example of the closeness between the dogar and humans.

“Maybe I don’t know whose side to be on.” The moment he said it, he knew exactly what was bothering him. He wasn’t running away from a fight—he was running away from having to choose. War was treachery. War was murder. If he took sides, he would be asked to take part in the worst of crimes. His actions against Haril would be just the beginning.

Everyone at the table was staring at him. Elandra chuckled like she had when he had made the joke about Copius being useful at a feast. “Because of what you did—because you saved the queen—I’ll let you walk out of here alive right now, if that’s what you want. So make up your mind, dogar.”

She was forcing him to decide between the people he had spent the last half of his life with or the ones he had been born into. He remembered what Ralscap had said about humans having long memories when it came to bloodshed. This wasn’t about taking sides for this war but for the rest of his days.

“I—I will help,” Copius announced. “I’m sure The One would want me to follow the righteous path against Azren.”

And there it was: Copius piping up at precisely the wrong moment. The monk’s pudgy face sagged; he was tired too, yet the first to offer himself. Didn’t he realize what these people had already put him through?

“Fine. You can count me in as well,” Selgrin said, “but not because anyone is ordering me to do it.” He’d come this far; they all had. It was time for him to recognize the side he had already chosen.

A worn-out voice came from Daen, who was now resting his head sideways on a crooked elbow. “I agree to do whatever you want on one condition.”

Elandra turned toward him in challenge.

“I must immediately retire for the night. If I do not reach a bed soon, I will fall asleep at this table.”

“Agreed,” she said, grinning. “Get some shut-eye—all of you. We’ll meet back here in the morning.”

 

Section Break

 

Selgrin was first to be up and about—not that he had actually slept. He’d spent the night turning over the possibilities of opposing Azren yet supporting his people, without making any headway. He sipped his flagon alone downstairs until midmorning. Maya never showed up. Copius was two plates in when Daen came downstairs.

Elandra greeted him with her usual civility. “And finally, our sound-sleeping sentinel arrives.”

Lady Elandra.” Daen bowed in mock reverence.

“Any more of that and you may find yourself under arrest for insulting an officer.”

A pot that smelled of rotten meat and dishrags arrived from the kitchen just as Zeph and Cahrin entered the inn, taking opposite paths to their table.

“Great timing.” Selgrin crinkled his noise. “Was it the smell that brought you in this direction?”

Cahrin spoke over Zeph’s attempt to reply. “No, Zeph just asked around until he found the filthiest, most rodent-infested inn he could. I guess he thought he would feel most at home here with the rats.”

Ouch. Selgrin pressed his lips together to suppress a laugh. Though the insult had been meant for Zeph, it was Elandra who clenched her fists in anger.

“Very funny,” Zeph deadpanned. “Let’s just say your actions here have been noticed—at least to the point where a little coin could loosen tongues.”

“My coin, I might add,” said Cahrin.

“Where are the others?” asked Selgrin.

Zeph’s face darkened. “Demetrius’s thread was cut short.”

“He fought bravely,” added Cahrin. “He saved my life—quite possibly all of our lives.”

Daen discreetly waved away an offered bowl of soup. “I am sorry, Zeph. From what I knew of him, he was selfless in his actions.”

“The One will see his soul in Ascouth,” said Copius, tracing three circles in the air in a sign of peace for the dead.

And this is just the beginning. Sel shook his head somberly. None of the others had been around during the Great War. They didn’t know how bad it could get—how bad it would get.

“Raven left to go track a servant of Azren,” said Cahrin.

And finally some good news for a change. “Good riddance, I say.”

“I’m not so sure. He is very skilled. His methods may not be ours, but he does hate Azren—probably more than all of us combined.”

“Speaking of Azren, I say we get down to business.” Elandra’s tone was more an order than a suggestion. There was clearly no time for grieving, in her mind.

Two tables were pushed together to accommodate the larger group, and plans were debated in great detail. When it was said and done, they set to gathering their supplies. They would leave the next morning at the break of dawn as newly anointed members of the Spider Sect.

 

==> Continue Reading Chapter 35: The Hunted

 

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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