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Wolf Encounter   Zeph was beginning to think ...

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Ambush   The acceptance of the challenge came...

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In Search of a King   The rain started up wit...

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Tendrils of Darkness — Chapter 40: In Search of a King

By / October 17, 2017 / no comments

In Search of a King

 

The rain started up without warning, pelting the leaves and trees, reminding Daen of the sound of waves spraying the sails of a ship. It was days like today he missed the coast of Nalesc.

They waited inside the forest’s edge for Zeph’s return, past the range of droplets scything in at a slant. The dense foliage of the Huntsman Woods provided them a safe and dry shelter. Once serving as the hunting ground for the high king, centuries of war had left the woods overgrown and not easily traversed.

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Zeph had met up with them in Delween, where they were forced to abandon their horses in order to avoid capture. PIKE had eyes everywhere—in cities, towns, among the militia, and in shops and taverns. Merchant guards hid within patrols from the Western Kingdoms. The roads were watched closely, with checkpoints becoming ever more prevalent the nearer they came to the Western Kingdoms capital of Dalfeyn. It was there that King Reginald made his home at Castle Aurinbor, with walls as thick as a wagon and window slits to match the number of archers in his army.

As they neared the capital, Daen felt things had become both more urgent and dangerous. Zeph had gone ahead to find out the whereabouts of King Reginald. The success of their mission hinged on gaining Biltrin an audience with the king.

Daen was scanning for signs of trouble when he spotted Zeph jogging back toward them. He arrived with ragged breath and a more ragged cloak—which he claimed was part of his disguise. “For a second there, I thought I was spotted. Ran the length of a tourney field before I realized I wasn’t the one they were chasing. Then I just kept at it the rest of the way, trying to outdistance the rain.” His clothes were soaked through, and his hair was plastered to his head. Water cascaded down his chin as if he were drooling profusely.

“How did that work out for you?” asked Cahrin.

“I think I beat the brunt of the storm.”

Daen suppressed a grin. “Good for you. Now tell us, what did you discover about the king?”

“It turns out we came all this way for nothing. King Reginald is no longer at the castle. He left for Dirn’s Outpost yesterday. Some merchant gathering.”

“That would be the Spring Merchant Faire,” Selgrin said. “Taking the journey was once the equivalent of a religious pilgrimage for the dogar.” His face took on that wistful expression he saved for speaking of yesteryear.

“That could be to our advantage,” said Daen.

Selgrin scratched at his stump for what seemed like the hundredth time since they had entered the forest. “I guess anything is better than trying to get past six feet of stone and an army of steel. Still, the roads to Dirn’s Outpost will be doubly guarded with the king on them.”

“It appears our only option is to cut through the woods and approach Dirn’s Outpost from one of the back routes,” said Daen, pulling out a weathered map from his backpack.

Selgrin pointed. “We could use the Old Road.”

“That should work. Let us make the most of the remaining light.”

Copius looked horrified. “You can’t mean for us to stay here past dark?”

“I see no safer option.”

“But the wolves…”

Daen was at a loss and looking for an explanation.

“You don’t see them now,” said Selgrin in answer to the questioning stare, “but at night they roam in packs, even spilling out into neighboring farms. It’s been a huge nuisance to the area. The kingdom has tried to bring in poachers to clear it, but the wolves are breeding faster than they can be rounded up.”

“I should think we stand a better chance with wolves than armed warriors.”

“I’ll go toe to toe against either,” Zeph chimed in. “Personally, I’m fed up with all this dodging around.”

Copius’s voice was small. “I’m really not very fond of wolves.”

“I’ve no love for the mongrels myself,” said Selgrin, “but Daen has a point—it’s them or the patrols.”

“What do you say?” Daen asked Biltrin, figuring he alone knew what was at stake.

“Your lives, your choice,” he answered plainly.

“It is our lives, isn’t it?” said Cahrin. “I for one would like to know exactly what we’re risking them for.”

It had been a reoccurring theme since they left Meritosn. Now that they were without leadership from the Spider Sect, some of them—including Cahrin—felt they should be informed about the details only Biltrin knew.

Biltrin folded his arms across his chest. “My words are for the king’s ears alone.”

“And what if you don’t make it to the king? Should there be no one to relay your message?”

“I live by a soldier’s code. Never rat out a kinsmen, an order is an order, and all that. Us old soldiers don’t got much but our code.”

Daen hoped to avoid another confrontation on the subject. “Every moment we stand around arguing, we waste precious time. I propose we go through the forest and aim to make Dirn’s Outpost not long after the king. Unless anyone has a better idea—and we have already determined that following the road is not a better idea—we should proceed with haste.”

When no one spoke up, he marched ahead, reasonably sure the rest would follow.

They spent the last hours before dark pushing through the Huntsman Woods at a hurried pace to find an adequate area to camp. Daen had hoped to find some small game for dinner along the way, but presumably any creature with enough meat to fight over had long since been eradicated. By the firelight, they ate unappetizing provisions to the sound of baying wolves.

It was getting late when Daen squeezed between Sel and Zeph as they huddled around the campfire. Norweegee lounged unmoving on his side in front of Cahrin, resembling a balled-up tunic. It seemed one of the drawbacks of not breathing was that no one could tell if he were dead or simply resting—no one but Cahrin, who commented that the excitement of the day had taken a toll on the “poor little guy” as she patted his flaccid skin.

“I can see your point,” said Zeph. “All that lying around inside your cloak pocket must be real exhausting.”

“There’s more to it than that. Every time I worry, he worries. I can sense it.”

“You sure he’s not going to scorch himself so close to the flames?”

“He’s quite capable of knowing how far to lay from a campfire,” she said, though Daen noted a look of mild concern cross her features.

“I guess if you’re wrong, at least we’ll have a warm cooked meal. Never had xaffel before.”

Zeph avoided her angry eyes by directing his attention on Venytier. He had been rubbing the blade down with a damp cloth since they had finished eating. As someone who made his living listening for the slightest of noises, Daen wasn’t sure what was more annoying, the squeak of the cloth against Zeph’s blade or the incessant howling of the wolves that echoed from one end of the woods to the other.

“Nice knife,” remarked Selgrin.

Zeph smiled like a proud father. “Venytier can slice through steel like its ripened fruit. Have you ever seen such a beaut?” He held the dagger up so the firelight glinted off its metallic green surface.

“It’s got a name?”

“And why shouldn’t she? Venytier has done more than you to keep me upright in battle.”

“If that’s the bar to clear, I’m surprised you haven’t gone and named your boots.”

“Maybe I just haven’t figured out something appropriate.”

“Try Left and Right,” said Daen to the groans of his comrades.

Selgrin shook his head disapprovingly. “You’re a strange one, Zeph Greymoon.”

“I don’t think it is so unusual to name a weapon that protects one’s very life,” said Cahrin.

Zeph inclined his head at the rare compliment from the Northerner. “Thank you, my dear. Should I pass, Venytier will be yours.”

“Though,” Cahrin went on, “my clan names their weapons with the likes of Doom Bringer, Head Cleaver, or Eye-Gouger. What is the meaning of Venytier?”

“It’s the name of a woman, if you must know.”

“I don’t think I would flee from a blade with such a name.”

At last finished with his work, Zeph sheathed the dagger. “Oh, I do believe it could be as frightening as Blood Sprayer and all that. In fact, I know of a woman whose tongue is sharper than the finest of blades.”

“You have a point. A strong woman will always have the upper hand when it comes to men. But ‘Venytier’? That strikes me as a name given to a gaestina, a tenderfoot.” She continued after receiving blank stares. “One that does not take well to the roughness of the rocks they walk upon or the harshness of the mountain they climb.”

“A tenderfoot?” Zeph appeared supremely offended. “I’m just glad she was sheathed and did not have to hear that.”

Cahrin crawled over, her eyes glinting mischievous in the firelight. She did not stop until her flawless face was a finger’s breadth from the assassin’s. Her slender arm reached down, sliding along Zeph’s midsection before stopping at Venytier’s hilt. Plucking the dagger from its home, she brought it to her lips. “Venytier is the name of a tenderfoot, is what I said.”

She let the dagger fall to the ground.

Zeph picked up the blade and wiped it down feverishly. “For that, witch, Venytier will never be yours. Instead, she’ll pass to Daen.” He turned to Daen to make his point clear. “If I go, Venytier will belong to you.”

Daen did his best to hide his amusement with a serious tone. “You are not going to die any time soon, Zeph. Besides, I should rather stick to my hand axe in battle.”

“But someone has to take care of her.”

“I am sure your goddess Dela already has a plan for that. Now enough of this. We should get some sleep. Cahrin and I will take the first watch, Selgrin and Biltrin second, and the final watch goes to you and Cope.”

With a sour look at Cahrin, Zeph sheathed Venytier and made his bed for the night. Once he was fast asleep, Daen caught Cahrin pulling him ever so carefully, blanket and all, as near to the fire as she dared. “Now we will see who wakes up cooked,” she whispered. Score one for the Northerner.

By the time first watch had ended, Daen was exhausted. It had been a long day of travel. They had started out before the sun had fully risen, and it had been nearly dark by the time they made camp. It didn’t take long to succumb to much-needed sleep. He might have stayed that way until morning if it hadn’t been for the piercing howls of the wolves.

He rose, picking his axe off the ground. Zeph snored lightly nearby, eyes closed; he could sleep through anything. Cahrin and Copius lay on the other side of the campfire, breathing quietly in slumber.

But where are Selgrin and Biltrin? It was their watch. Even if one of them had needed to leave the confines of the camp, the other should still be here guarding their sleep. Daen heard leaves crunching softly from the camp’s perimeter.

Someone was coming.

She emerged from the trees looking so thin she was almost transparent. It unnerved Daen and at the same time comforted him, since now it all made sense. She approached close enough for him to see the freckles on her nose.

“I can’t stick around forever,” Elise said. The green stone of her necklace flashed in the moonlight.

“Where are you going to go?”

“Away.”

“You mean for good?”

Elise shrugged. Her face held a rare touch of melancholy. “Maybe there is a place for me among the gods.”

“You know I have never believed in them. Even less so now.”

“Then you better not join me, you hear? Not for a while, anyway.”

A cacophony of wolf howls came in their direction. A part of him registered them as the only sounds he wasn’t imagining. He sighed. “Why am I so tortured?”

“It’s no fun if I tell.”

“I’ll show you fun.” He grabbed at her despite himself, assuming his hands would move through her, hoping differently. Instead, she simply wasn’t there. Her body reappeared several feet away.

“Stop that, you silly, or you’ll end up like me.”

She had a point. When he had sleepwalked in Camere, he’d woken up with a knife pressed to his back. Who knew what might happen this time? He could be in the middle of the forest by now, a step away from breaking his ankle or worse. So what was he to do, force Elise from his memories for the sake of his own safety and sanity? Maybe it was daft, but he was not ready to do that. King Brelin was right. What life was there without one’s love?

“You can’t keep it up,” Elise continued, “or I’ll pull you down with me. And then you’ll be sorry.” She started skipping in a circle around him.

Daen twisted to keep her in sight. “You only think I would be sorry. Maybe that is what I want, to follow you into oblivion. And who would care otherwise?”

“One… two… three… four… five… six…” She counted in rhythm to her strides. “How many kingdoms could they fix?”

The nursery rhyme was familiar.

“The tides are coming but the tides are far, can the six that were become the six that are?”

Daen remembered Etta had said something similar: For only when the tides are at their strongest can the six that were become the six that are. “Those are the words of a seer. What do they mean?”

“How would I know?” Elise skipped faster.

He tried to decipher the old Carc’s words. Protector of the two-legged stag—that was him. To stop what should not be, speak with which does not breathe, to learn what ceases to be forgotten. That second part—could Elise be “who does not breathe”?

“Tell me what ceases to be forgotten.” He stood in her path, but she just made a larger circle.

“Now who’s using the words of a seer?”

He was losing his patience. “How about—”

“Oh, come on,” she whined.

The baying of the wolves picked up, threatening to drown out his next words.

That was the last thing he remembered before being woken up.

His eyes snapped open to the anxious face of Biltrin and the sound of wolves howling from every direction. The others were already donning their armor and strapping on their weapons. Daen helped Selgrin and Cahrin pile their gear toward the center of camp and feed the fire all but a handful of their gathered timber. They stoked it until the flames rose high into the night.

By this time, the wolves sounded as if they were hiding in the trees all around them, just beyond sight. Their elongated moans reminded Daen of the calls of the undead. Norweegee burrowed his head into Cahrin’s cloak pocket, trembling so profusely that her entire robes shook.

Daen brought a torch to the camp’s perimeter, casting illumination into the wailing darkness. Now their enemy could be seen—wolves not by the tens but by the hundreds. The light reflected off glossy eyes and salivating muzzles.

Switching hands with the torch, Daen pulled out his axe. “How many do you think, Zeph?”

“More than I can count.”

“Still counting with just your fingers and toes?” Cahrin said.

“If I used the hairs on my head, I wouldn’t have enough.”

“Wh-wh-what d-do you suppose they are waiting for?” Copius’s eyes darted from one side of the campsite to the other.

Selgrin stepped near to get a better look. “Why does any hunter hesitate? Those wolves are waiting until victory is certain.”

“Likely for the flames of our campfire to ebb,” Daen said.

“Perhaps,” said Cahrin. “But you’d think they would be testing our boundaries at least.”

Biltrin made a break for the wolves, roaring as he flailed his sword above his head. He disappeared into darkness, only the sounds of a skirmish marking his position.

Teeth snapped; foliage cracked. The sounds moved deeper into the forest.

“We have to do something,” said Cahrin.

Daen shook his head. It would be madness to go in after him. Their best bet was to wait out the night by the campfire.

A host of growls shook the trees, followed by a cry—a human cry.

Selgrin took a step, turning his broadsword over in his hand. “You know, he’s right. Soldiers follow a code, starting with you never let a comrade die in battle alone.”

And then he charged headlong into the darkness after Biltrin.

 

book-cover-with-spineReturn next Sunday to read Chapter 41: Ambush

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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