An uneventful week had past, the promise of coronation creeping closer on bygone days rife with talks of a new reign and the intervention of mysterious interlopers, all gossip aimed toward how the Savage Art had returned to Attoras. Since then Master Dieral had plagued Shala with all kinds of questions in preparation for the big day. They were endless in nature, and trivial detail to her mind. She did not care much about the proceedings as long as she was Queen by the end of it.
She only tolerated him to a point and then steered her path towards a flight of stairs. Any stairs would do. Sweating and breathing heavily to keep up, Dieral surprised Shala with his determination. The Princess flattered herself, thinking he would not have gone to the same lengths if it were Patrick ascending to the throne; in fact the heavy-set man did not even flinch as they passed the kitchen and the aromas that wafted from the open arches.
In accordance to Dieral’s exuberance there had been a silent resignation that Shala would be Queen and that would be the end of it. Of Swarztial she heard nothing and she thought that maybe he had taken her warning of a wrathful Queen seriously.
Her threat was obviously bolstered by the arrival of the Wolf himself and the way he’d done so made others ask; “Are there more of the Wolves left?” Nobody expected it to turn out the way it did, Swarztial must’ve seen months of planning fall apart. She was even hopeful that he had gotten it over his parasitic heart to flee Attoras in search of a new host to feed his ambitions. Shala knew better however, so she remained on her guard, even when the instinct was to relax.
In the meanwhile Shala had grown worried as to some other absences from the castle. Her father’s dogs went unattended for two days and when finally released from their kennels in the basement they rushed the length of the castle in search of a familiar touch like Shala’s. They were starved out, and the Princess saw to it that they ate. Apparently the Kennel Master, Lorrie, had disappeared without a trace, and with no wife or brood to report it, the hounds were trapped piteously. Angered at the usually trustworthy Lorrie, Shala then noticed for the first time the absence of many other familiar faces.
That said Shala woke to a strange day. For one thing she came to with a shrill draft penetrating the room and parting the bedpost curtains. It was its persistence that finally ushered her from slumber to grabbing for a mug of water at her bedside. Then she heard the commotion. She stood up stiffly, almost in annoyance that the castle could be this spirited with the sun not even in evidence yet. From her bedroom window she saw much ado in the courtyard, where almost the entire household guard had been assembled in rank and file as far as she could tell.
Marshall Gibbon was roaring commands, taking issue with the slightest flaw in the men’s presentation or alignment. Shala wondered if she’d ever meet a man with a harsher voice than he. On that thought she was surprised that deBella had not come to wake her yet. Being stirred from a warm bed by the handmaiden could never be described as gentle.
“It is about boundaries, Your Highness,” she had said one day after waking a disgruntled Princess, “I’m in a position to prod and poke, and so I must, lest you become a ruler who frowns upon good council and hard decisions.”
“Waking me at this hour is good council?”
“The best council,” answered deBella, “in the north dawn is late and twilight early, our farmers oblige to wake before sunrise and so must you.”
“I was unaware I am in the business of toiling in the dust,” said Shala to a deBella who was unwilling to turn it all into an argument.
She studied the sky, as it already promised to be a miserable day of clouds accompanied by a southerly wind sweeping through town, pulling high the chained lantern posts. Cold, she thought, it would be cold today. With no visible sun and the wind strewing a blizzard from the peaks of the Black Mountain it could get surprisingly cold even in the early autumn months.
Groggily she tidied herself without assistance, and not for the first time realized that dressing and titivating was much quicker on her own, without having chambermaids or deBella faffing over her needlessly. She did however always appreciate their tendency to light a fire in her chamber hearth on days like this, which was missing as of yet. The cold must’ve come suddenly through the night, Shala decided. Maybe deBella has decided to sleep in today? Maybe I should go wake her as a gesture of good council? thought Shala to her own amusement. But then what still of her chambermaids? It was unlikely that all of them would suddenly abscond. She shrugged the thought away.
She left her chambers and called over a stationary guard to walk beside her as she made for the stairs. The man hurried to fall in step with her.
‘Soldier, what are they doing in the yard?’
’Assembly Your Highness, the Marshal wants to march the men through town and perform a routine of drills at the barracks by the south side proper. They will be ready for a grand parade after your coronation Highness,’ said the soldier. ‘Just keeping the men sharp I suppose,’ he added, realizing the Princess didn’t like the sound of that, frowning the way she did. ‘Nothing to worry about Highness, I heard they are locking all the gates into the bailey, no one gets in or out until the guard is back, so there is no trespasser to fear.’
‘Thank you soldier,’ murmured Shala, walking slowly to the flight of stairs.
They must think me a fool to overlook the fact that the soldiers of the garrison - not the household guard, should mainstay the parade. Someone had ordered them pulled from the castle. Of course there were many stand-ins like the man Shala had just spoken to, but the essence of a guard was always the few and the trustworthy.
Not for the first time she wondered again on her mysterious champion and whether he was still close. Sometimes she just wondered whether he was real.
At first the thought of someone marauding the rooftops and watching her through windows was unsettling. Just last night she dreamt that the Wolf was sitting among the newly placed stone gargoyles on the battlements in the darkness of night, prowling the towers, watching every development, and skulking after her comings and goings with that mask of his. It hadn’t been a pleasant dream, even if the man had proclaimed himself as a Wolf and as a friend. Today however she sincerely hoped he kept his word and kept a close watch; just because Swarztial had tried every legal avenue of disposing of Shala did not mean the man would stop short of trying the nefarious. She felt this was a premonition of her own imagining, vague on specifics, but unnerving all the same.
She made of breakfast a quick affair, sitting quietly in the lonely dining room eating only half a bowl of porridge. Today it was bland, being used to Kaell mixing in a lot of extra butter. Again she wondered at the whereabouts of Kaell and why he hadn’t pestered her by now.
When she asked Peron, the guard at the table, he remarked he could have sworn seeing him making regular trips to the infirmary.
Curiosity turned to worry. ‘I warned him not to follow me there!’ she said aloud. Before she knew it she was on her way to the halls of healing. She would’ve gone there anyway, as a daily visit from her was essential to keep Pilgrim’s contained. Were it not for the duty of a long line of proud ancestors Shala would gladly leave any royal life and turn to a life of healing first and foremost, maybe even travelling the world doing so. Those are silly thoughts to have. I will never escape duty.
Some of her disciples were already occupied in the infirmary, and things were rather quiet with no new incoming patients, so she could roam from room to room without having to linger too much. The place still haunted her for taking her father, the very place her father had dedicated his life to. She suppressed such thoughts, because it didn’t help hating the place. To her great relief Kaell was not taken up and she realized her paranoid mind was going to get the best of her yet. It’s Swarztial’s fault...
She came to their longest standing patient, the bronze man. He looked much better of late, and slept peacefully as of now. With his skin clearer Shala spotted scars on his face, small white lines that come from weapons smashing through the helm. He must’ve been a mercenary, she thought. And he certainly had the build for it. It was hard judging the man’s length while he was curled up on a bed, but Shala could now see he was probably bigger than any of the men on her guard. With her father’s condition and his passing she had neglected to realize just how imposing the man seemed. Where had he come from? she thought, not having given it any consideration till now. Till now I haven’t given many things consideration. Shala realized the man might even be a criminal, but she doubted it. Besides, criminal or not, the infirmary did not discriminate until a man’s life was saved.
Shala stood rooted in the doorway a moment more; there was something enigmatic about this man, an ageless strength. It was all the more apparent with him not playing at death’s door anymore. He was not young, but he looked like a man who had survived many battles.
As though feeling Shala’s stare on him his eyes flew open, and before she could slip out of the door he sat up, looking at her intently, his eyes much too focussed for someone who had just been sleeping soundly. Thoughts of him being a criminal came rushing back, and the urge to back out of the room and flee was certainly there. Looking at him, he had a stern face, a strong jaw and a shock of dark hair that seemed naturally swept backwards.
With her dumbstruck and silent he took the liberty of speaking. ‘I was out of it for most of my time spent here, but I understand Your Highness has much to do with my well-being. I thank you kindly.’ He sounded sincere, and feeling she could risk it, approached his bedside and sat down on the stool next to his bed.
‘You recognize the daughter of the King?’ asked Shala.
’You are unmistakeable, Highness. I had fleeting moments of clarity when you cast the healing hands upon me. A more angelic experience I have not yet had.’
Shala blushed. ’I was here every other day, but I can’t believe you’ve improved so much. Are you... are you a warrior?’
‘I can hold my own,’ said the man.
Shala suspected his answer was overly humble.
‘May I ask your name?’ asked Shala.
‘You may, Highness. My name is Bhask, of no particular standing or relating to any family ties worth mentioning,’ he said with an openness that had Shala at ease.
‘And Your Highness should be resting up for your crowning, I’ve been told it can be quite taxing,’ said the familiar voice of Joshua. Shala looked up to the door, acknowledging the oldest member among her disciples with a smile as he entered. The elderly man was a tireless worker, and was more often than not to be found in the halls of healing. He joined the two of them.
‘He has made some rapid resurgence, Highness,’ said Joshua gladly, ‘we knew him to be strong, but I did not think he’d make it after struggling so long. When we brought you in here you were even bigger!’ he said to Bhask. ‘You lost some mass and strength with all this time in bed, but then I’ve never seen a man consume as much broth that was not the Master Dieral himself,’ said Joshua laughingly.
‘I find recovery often partners with great appetite. I apologize if I seemed to be the glutton.’
‘Not at all. You know, you remind of someone. And seeing you awake I notice a striking resemblance to a man I thought was dead,’ said Joshua.
The big man smiled. ‘I have walked a road long enough to tie a rope along the waist of the earth. And I might have done exactly that were it not for the Starwall. It is very possible I have met you before healer, but I cannot remember under what conditions it might be. Or where for that matter.’
Joshua nodded and they said nothing more on the subject.
‘Can I trust that we don’t have to fear you within our halls?’ Shala asked him.
‘Most certainly Highness. I am no trouble, and certainly not while I still feel as weak as a pup.’
‘Then get well soon. If my eyes are to be trusted, you’d be welcome to join the garrison of Attoras, if you don’t mind Marshal Gibbon’s insanely loud voice.’
The man chuckled. ’I have heard the praises he heaps upon your soldiers even in my less lucid moments; now there’s a man that’s sure to get even the dead marching!’
Shala snickered, but she was still surprised at the man’s sudden return to health.
‘Did you change his treatment?’ she asked Joshua, hoping Bhask wouldn’t mind them discussing it.
‘Not at all, Highness. We are mostly baffled; this recovery of his was spontaneous and sudden, and I would say it had nothing to do with our efforts.’
Shala looked curiously at Bhask and then back again at Joshua. ’We’ve never seen someone recovering without treatment, and still Pilgrim’s takes those we give the best to – and you mean to say he made it through on his own?’
‘Yes Highness, like I said, it is troubling, - good news as far as our man here is concerned, but troubling in that we now know even less about the disease it seems.’
‘I could do with some certainties,’ sighed Shala.
‘We’ll not have them in this life, Highness. The best we can do for this man is let him be, sleep will take care of the rest,’ said Joshua.
Shala nodded and her thoughts returned to the original reason for her visit. ‘Have you seen Kaell the cook, Joshua? Or even my handmaiden, deBella?’
Suddenly Joshua’s brow creased. ‘Highness, I might be raising fears for no good reason, but the castle today is devoid of familiar faces. Some of the regulars are simply missing. deBella hasn’t been here for some time and I heard both Masters Jalson and Dieral go into a fit of rage early this morning. Master Jalson rumbled adamantly that his kitchen hands should not bother returning. He mentioned Kaell’s name a few times.’
Shala stood up, worried. ‘Be on your guard Joshua, something is amiss, I do not feel safe having my guard marching through town.’
‘Let me walk Your Highness out!’ prompted Joshua, and Shala thought his bid to speak to her privately was poorly disguised. They bade farewell to Bhask, who thanked them for their visit.
Joshua stopped her just outside of the infirmary. ’I definitely recognize that man, Highness. And with the others missing, seeing him, I don’t know what to make of it.I think he was here twenty years ago. But my memory is fuzzy.’
Shala frowned. ‘Who else will recognize him?’
Joshua was in thought. ’Gremhalden.’
‘Alright. I will see if I can drag the old Knight here. He might be able to shed some light on the matter.’
Shala set off, scouring the castle. She made no show of it, but she looked for deBella and she looked for Kaell. But in searching she found the halls hauntingly lonely. Her imagination was going to get the best of her today.
It was with some relief that she had a brush with Gremhalden, who walked the corridor limply, mumbling by himself. She was not that keen to run into him but she would at least have the opportunity to ask him to escort her to the infirmary so as to validate whether the man there posed any threat.
It took her only a moment to realize he had been looking for her as much as she him. ‘Should be in your room Your Highness!’ he grumbled, ‘some fool has left us defenceless today! I will stand by your door. And since when is deBella one to disappear? That hag always has something to say when its least welcome, but dare go looking for her and she falls right off the face of the earth!’
Shala was summoning the courage to chastise the Knight for speaking so of the handmaiden when they were interrupted by Squire Rolf, running to catch up to them, and the look Gremhalden gave him would normally have let the young idiot wilt beneath his gaze. That he didn’t even pay the old Knight attention already raised some alarm.
‘Princess!’ he exclaimed breathlessly, his face an arrangement of worry.
‘What is it?’ asked Shala, almost immediately annoyed by him.
‘It is Master Dieral. I think it is his heart! He was in the lower storerooms when he collapsed. I think he is dying!’
She and Gremhalden exchanged glances, the gravity of the situation dawning on them.
‘Lead on,’ commanded Shala, habitually touching the urn at her side. They left Gremhalden in their wake, him stranded with his bad leg and the slightest dismay visible on his face after wanting to lock up the Princess in her room. She followed Rolf for the length of the corridor before grabbing him by the wrist and stopping him. ‘I may need help, Joshua keeps watch in the infirmary. Go fetch him. Tell him what has happened!’ Nodding urgently Rolf set off again in the opposite direction. Not for the first time this month Shala ran like a mad person through these halls.
In her mind all she saw was the man that was supposed to place a crown on her head in five days’ time dying. She hated herself for the selfish thought. Saving him was all that mattered. Despite her haste she noticed a few oddities. The usual servants who roamed the castle were few and scant toward the east wing, and where the storerooms were located it was devoid of any guards.
That was a problem; if Dieral needed to be transported then no amount of determination could see Shala, Rolf and Joshua carry the man alone.
It was there that she first heard the music, the faint pluck of strings puzzling her in the basement passages. But with more pressing concerns it was gone from her mind as soon as it passed beyond hearing. The corridor to the storerooms was circular, and around each new bend she anticipated seeing the hulk of Dieral slumped against the wall.
Coming full circle however there was nothing to be seen of the man. What was Rolf playing at? Did he make a mistake or did I hear wrong? Maybe I should check the storerooms themselves? But there were cobwebs in some of the passages where Dieral was supposedly stricken, telling Shala no one as fastidious as Dieral had wandered here for some time.
Hardly noticing it over her own breathing she again heard the music. It was enough to pique her curiosity, and she pursued it in hope of finding Dieral in the process.
She followed what little noise she could hear, up and down and listening hard if she was getting to closer to the source, going deeper into lonely storerooms. Then it came to her that it was indeed her very own music box, or at least a music box playing the same tune. She did not know why yet, but hearing it here terrified her.
She was roaming a windowless corridor when a shrill wind shrieked through the length of it, and snuffed out the braziers on the wall. Shala stood in abject darkness, and the hairs on her arms and neck rose. The music still played eerily. She felt strung up by fear, like a puppet. Calming herself with the cold, she fumbled her hand into the urn. Holding her hand aloft she summoned the light, the pale gleam showing her the corridor outline. She was still alone at least.
Yet staring out in front of her she realized for the first time that something was staring back, noticing that the heavy wooden door at the end of the corridor was smeared with a dark substance, and painted in the shape of a misshapen face of horns and eyes and twisted mouth. A knot formed in her stomach as her mind already came to a conclusion as to what the substance might be.
Steeling herself she marched forward. From ahead came a stink, foul and wretched, and from the little space underneath the door seeped a wind, as if the room had the need to breathe. The music stopped. With a trembling hand she turned the knob, pushed, and swung it wide open. She stepped into the room, bringing light to it.
She wished she hadn’t, that the place had rather remained dark. There was nothing to be recognized of the store but blood and carnage. A shriek built up in Shala’s throat but it collided with the impulse to wretch. She did neither, and clamped her glowing hand across her mouth, staring in mute horror and nausea, finding herself sitting on her legs. Hesitantly she moved her hand forward and away from her face to cast the light further into the room.
The bodies of Council members and servants, and many other castle residents were strewn over the floor, entrails spilled, heads spiked up against the walls and torsos hanging from hooks on the ceiling. In them she saw familiar faces; castle faces with names she could choke on seeing them this way. She saw Pasco and Lorry and Lenise... Many others were unrecognizable. The reason for their sudden disappearance became unbearably clear to Shala.
She would never forget how badly this room had shaken her, how friends could be alive one moment and then, this...
Many measures of blood had been used to paint the wall, and they all formed different insignias and symbols, telling something of the ritual that had been practiced here. “Our rite has already taken hold in Attoras,” the wraith had said. The wraith had not lied.
In revulsion her gaze could not linger on one atrocity for too long, but she was inextricably drawn to one bloody insignia in particular. On her feet again she shed light on it by coming closer, and the shape indeed was lines of blood that formed the chained hands solemnly holding a candle, perfectly illustrated by a careful hand, and yet an utter mockery of House Evrelyn’s insignia.
For whatever reason possessed her she wandered further into the room, the evil here playing so fearfully on her that she felt the light go out of her. She searched the room and found nothing alive in it, no one to even save. It was a place of death. She feared that Kaell and deBella and all the others must be among the unrecognizable, their bodies torn to shreds.
It was too savage to be the work of a human butcher, and yet no beast would have endeavoured to display the carnage so. She found the music box behind the pillar, bloody fingers having fumbled on the surface to wind it.
Her disquiet and unease culminated with the idea that someone must have wound the thing just recently and set it playing, and done so knowing she’d come here. Someone must be here, and close too. Someone must still be here. She had the overwhelming urge to simply get away.
She turned to leave, her mind struck numb by what had happened here. If only she could reach the door this nightmare would end. Then again the moment she walked into this room she knew it was all very real. She was just about to start running when men poured into the room, bearing torches of their own and showing the room in new light. Shala was relieved.
But it was Swarztial that led them, a select few council members behind him and also soldiers with drawn swords. Even then it was not lost on her that the men were of the council guard, and not her own. They were accompanied by Rolf the squire, no sign that he had ever done any effort to bring down Joshua at all. There was now a dread feeling to their arrival.
‘Your Highness!’ cried Swarztial with a tone of shock, Shala realizing they had found her standing beneath the blood-painted insignia of her own House. Suddenly his face turned into a snarl as though he gained some appreciation of what had happened. ‘Again you bring evil into this castle, what murderous demoness have you become? Guards! Take her before she can ply more of her devilry! She will be the death of all of us!’ he shrieked.
Shala had no idea whether the council guard would take her down, but either way she dashed right at them, brightening the light in her hand to make a brilliant flash. In its blinding display she weaved through the men and out the door. She heard the protests behind her and the angry shouts of Swarztial. She did not stop running, flying through the halls.
By the time she made it to the library the alarm bells in the town started ringing, loudly and unceasingly, the din much more urgent than the tower bells they rang for her father’s funeral. Through tall library windows she looked down into the castle yard and saw that all hell had broken loose, not at all confined to the castle alone.
The alarm bells were tolling and cries of goblin invaders pervaded the town confines. The guards manning the walls and towers were in utter disarray. After having watched the southern foothills for more than ten years without incident they were not prepared for what came down them. Their foe had climbed high into the hills from the shadow side, and now came racing down towards Attoras in devices not man-made. The farther they rolled, the more apparent it became that they were great wheels, like the wheel set on a watermill.
The guard named Aphelas would long after today wonder at what suspension and cushion the goblins could have used for the wheels to survive the rocky tumble, and at such speeds. The trick of it was in the bounce, for instead of smashing on the rocks they leapt and revolved with increasing velocity. Indeed some of the wheels still lost their balance, and once they tilted onto their sides and crashed they became little more than flying shards of wood, and a flailing dead body was revealed to have hidden inside it.
Gods! The goblins are riding inside those things! realized Aphelas, now seeing the wheels had seated chambers inside of them, weighted internally so that they remained upright on the inside regardless.
Yet most survived, and by some other strange mechanism (two cloth chutes erupting toward the rear and dragging on the wind) they came to an eventual halt where the foot of the mountain made a plateau, there being a strategic holdfast where the rocky foot budded into town confines in a manner that gave Attoras its star-shaped border. Two of the wheels risked going even further, vaulting clear from mountainous rock and onto the adjacent castle battlement.
Had the goblins tried to claim it by conventional means the town guard would have long since rallied and put a stop to it. But the wheels had given them speed and the guard was already attending another goblin threat at the town eastside. In what was now a spectacle to Aphelas he saw the goblins scurry, having jumped out of the devices, and two at a time, pulled at the sides of the wheels - they folded open like those clever collapsible chairs.
To them the goblins quickly made configurations, locking beams in place and winding ropes. Aphelas could not determine what they had changed into until the long wooden arms came up.
Flung fire pots burned through the sky as the wheels-turned-slings spun and released. The pots, filled with lit-oil, struck the castle yard, against the walls and the town. Where they fell they burst into flames that swept open like liquid. Aphelas knew the pots would not do much damage, save to cause terror, and that the slings of goblins couldn’t possibly throw anything heavier.
But then terror was a weapon on its own, thought Aphelas, as fires spurred on the goblins’ rampage and the remainder of the guard that was left in the castle yard could not come together to halt the goblin swarm.
Another volley of fire pots came flying, and this time they struck the scaffolding against the south-east castle wall, where the stone gargoyles would have been mounted. The wooden frameworks burst into flames and suddenly they proved to be a real threat of setting parts of the castle ablaze. Other scaffolding was left intact, and the goblins used the frames to gain access into the castle through the higher windows. This is no accident! With the guard locked out in town and the scaffolding providing the tinder and ladders, a conspiracy formed in Aphelas’ mind. If only they could survive today he would tell everyone of what he suspected.
He rushed for the trapdoor, deciding that his role as watchman was now becoming vain. But one fire pot flew high and it cracked on the tower top. Aphelas escaped the blast of flames, but his heel caught on the low wall of the crenellation, he grabbed for the battlement, but the fingertips of his gloves were slick with wear, and he fell to his death where the goblins were already ramming at the castle door, the hinges and lumbers protesting.
Shala stood transfixed looking at the chaos, the flames in the yard casting an orange glow through the tall library windows. Many of the books around her told of monsters and horrors befalling kingdoms now extinct. Is that our fate as well, to turn into a tragedy for a book?
Three orange globes sat in the sky like suns, Shala hypnotised by their approach. A strong hand grabbed her from behind, pulling her into a one-armed embrace so that she stared over the man’s shoulder, her feet lifted from the ground. For a moment she thought Swarztial’s men had caught her, until the three fire pots crashed through the windows, and the carpet, the curtains and the book cases were all swept up in flames. She had just been spared a fiery death.
Her captor did not stop until she was dragged clear of the library, leaving it behind to be consumed. Putting her down the man still dragged her by the arm and she had no choice but to follow him, her legs flailing to keep up. Some of her senses returned to her and she dug in her heels. They came to a stop and he turned to her on the landing where the staircase split east and west. The man seemed all too familiar.
At first she saw the Wolf that had defended her right to the throne, the two bone-hilted bronze swords peaking over his shoulders, yet unmasked - and then she realized it was the face of Kaell looking down on her.
His face was grim; there was no familiar smile or innocence on him, and deep blue eyes had become icy and fierce. His hair was longer and hence a bit darker, and if it was at all possible he was taller, not by much, but enough so that Shala could realize it.
She put up her hand, dumbstruck, and set it gently against Kaell’s face as though she could wipe away the illusion. She was clearly not in her right mind. There were even small scars on his mouth and cheek as though he had been a lifelong warrior, as though all of this could have happened in the blink of an eye. And the cut he had sustained against Yanci-gan on his arm was there too, stitched up; they were one and the same person.
‘Kaell?’ she asked faintly, her voice caught mostly in her throat.
’Yes Princess. It is I.’ His voice was different as well. It was the voice that had challenged Yanci-gan. Shala stood in a disbelief that surpassed any other madness till now.
‘Was I asleep for two years? What is happening? Have I lost my mind entirely?’ queried Shala.
’No, Highness. I blossomed high in the mountain. That is the short and the long of it. And that is the only explanation I can afford for now.’
Shala’s eyes widened. ‘By what agency!? You are a cook, and you have never dabbled in anything but spices and ovens! You have no place in magic,’ she said in dismay despite the evidence in front of her eyes. If she could ask but one thing of the world it would be to give her some certainty.
‘It makes no sense,’ she continued, ‘how is it that you look older and battle-hardened?’
‘Because this is what I was before I became Kaell the cook, and in fact Kaell the cook was a fabrication.’
Many things came together in Shala’s thoughts and still there was little sense to them, her mind a torrent as opposed to Kaell’s frightfully calm explanation, suggesting she was just supposed to accept the change he had undergone. ‘It was you that defeated Yanci-gan, had I but known I might’ve recognized you that day! But the Kaell I know is weak and wasn’t even fond of a kitchen knife, what still of a sword?’
’It was all part of a much needed illusion, Your Highness, not for your deception, but to those who plot against you,’ said Kaell. ‘But illusions are now to be put aside,’ he said looking up, his ears catching sounds of danger, ‘keep your wits about you Princess, we’ve got company.’
Shala turned and saw the shadows of goblins that had breached the castle play on the walls, fast approaching.
‘Let’s move Highness, keep close, and I’ll keep you safe.’ As they ran they came upon skirmishes in the halls, where the few of the castle guard that remained struggled against the goblins.
‘Where are we going?’ shouted Shala.
‘To nowhere they’ll expect us Princess, those goblins targeted your bed-chamber, the library and the griffin tower with their devices, and should anything remain they’ll scavenge through them in the aftermath.’
‘How could they possibly know where I spend my time?’ asked Shala.
‘They are informed, Highness, and I need not tell you who could provide such information for them.’ The answer was rather obvious, there was only one person who would betray Attoras like this.
Through the lower southern passages Shala followed the man she thought of as Kaell, and it seemed always that they avoided danger just in the nip of time, leaving the enemy only one step behind. From thereon Shala had no clue where the man was leading her. Only at one stage did they double back, hearing the enemy from the front. Kaell pulled the Princess into a broom cupboard, quickly closing it before the parade of goblins came streaming by.
They stood cramped, breathing on each other’s faces, Kaell listening intently to know whether it was safe outside. They stood like that for painful moments and then Kaell pushed on the door, coming out and looking up and down the corridor. He was ready to take off again and yet Shala shouted, ‘Wait, I must know, is there any consideration, for my servants and disciples and most of all deBella – they cannot all be dead!’
‘They are safe Highness, even before I caught up to you I locked deBella and all the others I could find in a pantry. They were outraged of course, but it will save their lives through this entire mess.’
‘Will we go there too then?’ asked Shala hopefully.
’Afraid not Highness, it will not be enough to save you from the evil in this castle.
’Where then!?’ demanded Shala, but the shriek of a goblin made Kaell grab her by the arm again and they took a flight of stairs that led to the servants’ quarters. Having a glance at the hand wrapped around her wrist she saw nothing of the dainty hands of the familiar cook. Rather they were rough and strong, like having worked at hewing trees or hammering metal. The transformation was alarming.
Haphazardly they fled after one another through the narrow passages of the servant’s quarters, the architecture being squeezed among a great many more important rooms, so that the kitchen hands and cleaning maids returned to their dorms through tiny passages reminiscent of those found on ships below deck. Suddenly Shala knew where they would end up next, and before she could doubt the thought they emptied out into the kitchen.
But the grand old home of pots and stoves was in chaos. The goblins were rampant across the counters and swinging from the pot holsters overhead, like apes, kicking and screaming at each other, fighting over the meals and foodstuffs they had come upon this day, their mission apparently forgotten.
Shala was ready to back into the passage again but Kaell rushed headlong into the centre of the kitchen. The goblins focused on him the moment they realized a man was in their midst, following him like dogs on a chase. Kaell set one foot across another and twirled through the air, the bronze blades cutting, and he moving through them like a glaive thrown.
In the wake of what Kaell left Shala followed, her sandaled feet landing among felled goblins, dead or dying. It was the first time Shala witnessed the blend of blades against true enemies and being as close as she was she could say it was equal parts terror and, for her at least, the knowing that she would be safe.
‘Where now?’ shouted Shala after him.
Kaell pulled her aside, and he hissed, ’Hush!’
Shala was taken aback, but it could hardly show through her already taxed demeanour. Kaell had never before uttered a single harsh word at her.
‘We’ll go to the throne room, and retrieve Erenciel, after that we may depart for the Dragonwell.’
‘Surely we can leave Erenciel behind? The goblins might not even notice it resting within the throne!’
Kaell shook his head. ‘It is not about saving the blade, Highness, but rather it saving us; my Master assured me there would be no escape for us without it.’
‘Master?’ queried Shala. ’Wait, what do you mean by escape?’
The sound of pursuit came and Kaell grabbed her by the arm once more, feeling as a doll would she imagined. By now she was sick of it and wrenched free her arm. ‘Let go of me, I can move of my own accord!’
‘Very well,’ said Kaell and ran on, not looking back to see if Shala followed.
The Princess ran worriedly. Why would we flee to the Dragonwell? Shala had no worthwhile answer for it, and she was scared she would hate the answer if she would have to ask.
Bhask breathed deeply, and despite the grim task ahead of him he was still tremendously glad to be rid of a bed. His time spent in the infirmary had been punishing to a man of his nature. He arose on the eve of the chaos, escaping the main castle confines amid panicked citizens. The goblins paid him little heed, preferring weaker targets whose eyes shone with fear, or at least targets smaller than Bhask.
Still there were those whose bloodlust were great enough to overcome common sense. A goblin leapt at him near the armoury, and Bhask smashed it with a well waited fist right out of the air. The ribcage collapsed, and it lay shuddering in pain.He stepped over it and lifted the broken armoury door, pushing it up from its hinges, and then inwards, so that it fell on the floor.
Inside a hitherto trapped goblin darted at Bhask, where the furnace was still seething hot and red as it was left by a fleeing smithy. Bhask simply caught the creature in a crushing embrace to his chest with one arm, like a father muffling the cry of a child.
The creature squirmed where he held it, trying to sink teeth and weapons into him. Bhask kept the goblin’s dagger away with the other hand, clasped over the wiry but strong wrist. He walked forward unperturbed, examining the wall where the smithy had hung dozens of well-made swords, all the while worming his arm favourably around the goblin’s neck - until he twisted savagely to snap it, letting fall the creature.
In earnest now he decided upon swords, reaching high to retrieve himself two broadswords; one for each hand. He lifted them each straight up so that he formed a wide cross; he held them there for a few seconds, motionless as their weight pulled at the cuffs of his shoulders. He was still strong at least after all that time doing nothing. Strong enough.
Over the carnage came soaring the eagle, unnoticed above the plumes of dark smoke rising from the castle fires. It saw everything, and it saw where Attoras’ destruction would come from. Rather spontaneously it dived as though it was going to bother itself with human affairs. Folding its wings in close it plummeted toward the highest battlement of the keep where the goblins had already taken a crucial foothold, from there wielding one of their devices to rain down destruction on the lower parts of the castle. The goblins, with fire and hate in their eyes, did not even notice the bird flitting through among them.
The eagle landed and was eagle no more. Metrus stood up and gave his cloak a good shake to rid it of the feathers of his transition. Not sparing a moment he unshouldered his bow. With no arrows to speak off he drew back the string, and in the glove of his hand a gem was set, on the palm. By his volition the gem shone brightly, giving the entire length of the bowstring an emerald glow of strange beauty. The goblins had noticed him by now but stood helplessly in the line of fire. Releasing the string a plethora of crackling arrows barraged from the bow, fanning like the green spit of fireworks, ghostly seeking out enemies.
Too fast to follow the ethereal arrows struck the goblins surrounding the wheel, the magical shafts burning deeply into gnarled flesh as half a dozen were struck down. The remainder stormed and swarmed at this new threat like only goblins could. From the inside of his thick tunic, Metrus’ hand brought forth a small sapling of hard oak. The Druid made an inaudible whisper and the sapling grew lengthwise, showing no patience reminiscent of nature, fashioning itself into a spear with sharp triangular wooden edges on both points. With the goblins imminent Metrus lashed out, twirling the staff furiously to ward off the pack bearing down on him.
By his fifth deadly stroke, half of the fickle creatures scurried away in horror at seeing their kin dispatched so easily, bounding from the battlements to land on places where they thought they’d be safe, recuperating in numbers as they often do. Metrus would not pursue them, even though he knew they remained a threat and saw many more of them come over the roofs of the town houses to leap onto the lower walls. The castle guard was having a hard time keeping the goblins at bay and an even harder time trying to get the gates open for the many men still isolated in town.
What a dire plot this has been, Metrus realized, knowing full well those who orchestrated it were denizens of the castle. With his tracker eyes he saw an imposing warrior emerge from within the castle, wearing no armour, but armed with a broadsword in each hand; there were very few men in the world accomplished at wielding such simultaneously and the Druid knew he was looking at an old friend. The time had come and the means to save Attoras was in place. Metrus watched as Bhask position himself on the battlement overlooking the main gate, and he addressed the stones laid down by the Masons and the old enchantment laid on them.
His voice sounded from the deep, as though stirring from the walls themselves, no point of origin to be discovered and echoing through an entire city. Metrus felt the resonating stones under his boots even where he stood.
’Answer to arms men of Attoras, the throne is in peril, and the Queen needs brave swords to guard the last of the line!’ boomed his voice. The soldiers and town guard surged toward the castle, following Bhask’s voice like a beacon, but became stuck at the gate where no one on the inside could open it. Metrus would see to it.
Many creeping plants still grew in the shadow side of the Attoras battlement and from afar he commanded them, ’Evolos Nefaras’, and the vines grew in haste, coming right over the top most battlements and slithering their way toward the abandoned Menace Wheel. The vines quickly enveloped the dead hard wood and made it one of their own, a living thing. No one man could operate the device on his own, but the catapult mechanism ordered its limbs by itself, turning its base towards the gates.
The contraption flung the fire pot, and struck the gate right where the wooden doors met. It was enough to smash the wooden beams that barred it, and the men locked outside of it kicked it wide open and they charged in desperately to defend the castle. A moment later Metrus transformed and took flight as the eagle. There was still much to be done.
In the corridor leading to the throne room another band of goblins beset them. Kaell put himself between Shala and the enemy, once more flying into them, fearless. Where most men could not defend fast enough against the high-low attacks of a group of goblins he stayed their blades with efficiency, his two sword arms playing inside and outside of their attacks to create space, then stabbing neatly, or slashing wildly to end another foe. The goblins died as quick as they came, but Shala saw many more poured from the chamber ahead. Kaell would be overwhelmed, and in an attempt to help she reached into the urn at her hip, wetting her hands.
With a swift incantation and placing her palms against each other, holding them overhead, the sheen of moist became a glowing light, as if a bright lantern was held in her hands. The light beamed fiercely in the dim hall, only catching Kaell on the back, but blinding the tiny goblin eyes, and hence they fell swift to the Wolf’s swords, him gaining an upper hand that would not be swayed. They ran to the throne, Shala eyeing the sword she must now retrieve.
Kaell stopped at the foot of the throne, looking around wildly, his face still one anticipating danger, and panting heavily for all his effort.
’Algrenach Shon De Boir!’ he spoke commandingly. Instantly the throne room lit up as a torch on every pillar went alight, and in the massive chandelier overhead every one of its candles flickered into existence.
‘How did you do that!?’ asked Shala.
‘My Master has taught me some of the castle’s magicks, Highness. I am not outright magical, but anyone who knows the words can trigger the old enchantments of the Masons.’
‘Who is this Master you speak of!?’ she asked again.
‘You have already met him, Your Highness,’ said Kaell.
‘Impossible! I’ve never met a Master of the Wolves,’ said Shala.
Kaell shook his head, as though he wasn’t going to debate the point. ‘Should we survive to meet with him, he’ll explain much – but that now seems unlikely,’ said Kaell, his voice growing grim as he saw something approach.
From the far side of the room, moving in the cover of the pillars, was a figure swathed in black. He moved onto the long golden-edged red carpet leading all the way to the throne and Kaell stared into the eyes of death. The wraith-kind approached with a scythe in his hands, the rod black and the blade gleaming deadly and silver, his strides long and patient, almost floating, while his face betrayed none of the bloodlust it had.
‘Highness, take the sword - and run! Make for the Dragonwell. By some chance an ally will meet you there!’
Shala hesitated for a moment more as she watched Kaell step forward to engage this wraith. She turned away from the fight and, standing on the cushion of the seat, did her utmost to pull the sword from the headpiece of the throne, first undoing the thongs wrapped around the hilt with desperate fingers.
Kaell flew at the enemy, striking twice on the rod of the scythe that moved alarmingly fast to protect its wielder. The wraith pushed back and then made a fell sweep at Kaell. He jumped agilely over the first attack and then danced away from a second before striking at the wraith once more. His left hand sword struck deep into the cloth of the wraith’s robe, only there was nothing to be gained by it. Instead of striking something beneath Kaell could just as well have stabbed a length of curtain.
‘Fool! Death has no flesh, all you see before you is illusion,’ the wraith hissed in victory. The torn cloth wrapped tightly around Kaell’s arm and he lashed vainly at the being’s face.
‘You are but a nuisance boy, sleep now,’ said the wraith, his voice becoming low. A dark mist emanated from the wraith, the tattered fringe of his robe becoming black tendrils that reached out, grasping over Kaell’s head, seeping into his nostrils, ears and mouth. As it did, the illusion of the wraith’s living face was gone and only a menacing skull was there below the hood. Kaell snarled and struggled to get away from an overwhelming darkness. ‘Princess, run!’ he cried weakly.
‘Sleep, embrace the slumber of death. Do not fight it...’
Suddenly Kaell fell free, landing hard as the wraith released him, unconscious. Shala was on the edge of panic and with strength she did not know she had lifted the sword free of its rest, cumbersomely gathering it into a side hold, bearing the weight mostly on her hip. Desperately she attacked the wraith; she did not think escape was plausible, but she would not give the wraith an easy victory.
With as much force as she could muster she brought the sword in overhead, but the blow was weak and the wraith merely batted the sword out of her hand with the length of his scythe, her father’s piece falling with a resonating pitch to the floor. She lost her footing and fell backwards, the wraith looming over her. ‘I told you Princess, death is but in waiting...’
Aiming the deadly tail spike of the scythe at her Shala watched the waxen face steely; she was not dying a coward in her father’s throne room. If only she could summon the light. Somewhere she heard the sound of metal striking the floor again.
A giant figure intercepted the wraith, tackling the creature from its feet. The swirl of cloak quickly became ghostly again and escaped the man’s grasp, fleeing some way before taking the shape of a human again. The imposing man rolled and came to his feet, turning on his haunches to face the wraith.
To Shala’s eyes it was the man that had lain so close to death in the infirmary, the one who had made a miraculous recovery, and right then she knew he was a warrior. And one of some skill it would seem. It’s Bhask! What is going on here? It was like some strange nightmare, only her imagination was rarely this bizarre.
With the man standing upright Shala could appreciate the size of this warrior. He was lean but very broad in the shoulder, muscles bulging on his arms, his chest deep. Healthy now he looked much like the athletes down south in Avandar, those who could run, jump and throw javelins incredible distances. Gremhalden was the tallest man in the castle at well over six feet. This man was even taller.
He was weaponless, Shala noticed, tracing his steps to where he had dropped two broad swords, mostly to give himself the speed he used to save her life. The wraith came at him in a fury Shala had yet to see and he rolled out of the way of the attack, the scythe cutting nothing but air. Moving with astonishing speed the warrior made his way across the floor and swept up Erenciel where it had fallen in a diving roll. Armed with the King’s sword he put himself between the wraith and where Shala lay. Now at least it was a contest.
They struck at each other and the engagement was fierce, the sheer power of the warrior’s strikes enough to crush through steel plate armour, the memory of Yanci-gan’s brilliance being belittled by now. The wraith however had nothing corporal to hit, nothing but the scythe it held. Shala hoped that Erenciel would cut right through the scythe and maybe force the wraith into retreat. Yet the dark being had a dire skill about it, true to practicing taking lives every other day and managed to turn even the truest strikes away, and then whenever the sun-touched warrior managed to pierce through his sword hit nothingness, merely slicing through a length of cloth that seemed to renew itself by the hand of an invisible tailor.
Surging forward the wraith attempted to entwine the man in a spell as it had Kaell, oily black tendrils emerging from the torn fringes of its cloak without warning. The warrior was not caught unawares and quickly spun and turned out of its dark embrace.
The anticipation and boldness of this unnamed warrior restored hope to the Princess.
Finding her own volition Shala rushed forward and held her hand up, her light coming to life again and the wraith instantly fled, shrieking as it darted from pillar to pillar, hiding in the many shadows.
The wraiths had an odd way of flying, one moment they stood as corporal as any man, and then they could dart off, losing shape and substance as the cloth of their being moved like a kite caught in a stiff breeze.
But for the darkness of the day Shala felt a weakness in her and she could not hold the light for much longer.
‘Why am I losing strength?’ she moaned as the light waned.
‘Darkness has taken to the castle and will no longer tolerate your magic. Your Highness, let’s end this! Place the magic of Evrelyn onto the blade!’ shouted Bhask. Though she did not know how this warrior knew her arts so intimately, Shala did not hesitate, reaching into the urn, sprinkling precious few droplets across the length of Erenciel as he held it steady. ’Aveno Enumas...’
The wraith swept in from above with a sickening speed, its wail drowning out the rest of Shala’s incantation, yet the spell took, and Bhask swung, the blade blazing white like a match struck, the light-endowed sword finding purchase that steel alone could not and tore through the wraith and all that it was. A terrible dying shriek preceded a void of darkness above, the braziers on the wall snuffed out for a second before coming to life again. Shala fell to her knees, and breathed hard as though she had never breathed before. The wraith was gone, its wail a memory.
’Is it dead?’ she gasped.
‘Dead as it will ever be, returned to its realm, but it will bother us no more,’ said Bhask, sounding as though the wraith had not frightened him at all.
Bhask hunched down next to the Princess. ‘Are you alright Highness?’ he asked.
‘Who are you?’ asked Shala. ‘I’m... I’m fine.’
‘I’m a friend, Highness,’ said Bhask, and held out Erenciel, as though he appreciated that not just any man was meant to hold onto the King’s heirloom for too long.
‘The finest sword I’ve ever touched,’ he commented. ‘I doubt many other blades can pair with your magic as Erenciel can.’
She looked at the blade in his hands, stroking the blade with her fingers. ‘Despite all my determination I can’t do justice to that sword, I can’t wield it like my father could, I can barely pick it up...’
‘My Lady, allow me then to take this sword, to bear its weight and rest it in my arm, until such a time as you can wield it.’
‘And if I grow old, never amassing the strength to hold it?’ asked Shala.
The man smiled widely, ‘Then I will have to hold it for all of my life. And not leave your side as long as I do.’
He did not say more, but Shala took it he meant his words as an oath. She had not hoped to elicit such a response and it was much more than she expected from the man. She was going to take what was offered, stranger or not.
‘You have my thanks, and I will deem you protector in the absence of my Knights. Though I still have no inkling of who you might be, save that your bravery has already told me much.’
‘I used to be the last of a kind, my Lady,’ said Bhask looking over his shoulder at Kaell. ‘But now we must flee, more wraith-kind will come and it helps little we indulge in small histories in this danger. Come!’
An eagle swooped into the hall, and even as it landed it became a man again. Shala stood in wonder as the bird quickly erupted into the figure of Metrus. It was too much for her. It was as though everyone had known what this day would entail but her, and she had but stumbled into someone else’s war.
‘Druid!’ cried Bhask as he emerged from a sudden moult of feathers. ‘Your arrival is, as always, at the most welcome of times.’
Metrus’s grin split his beard, which he did not have the last time Shala had seen him.
Shala looked wearily between the two men. ‘You know this man, Druid?’ she asked of Metrus.
‘Yes, Your Highness. And you’ll need to find trust for him swiftly, for some evil has been dealt with, but others are just emerging.’
‘But the guard will take the castle, we’ll be safe!’
‘No, Your Highness. The danger Metrus speaks off will be treachery and for the sake of Attoras we must now get as far as possible from its grasp.’
‘It is time for survival, my Lady, not comprehension. We must go!’
Metrus walked over to where Kaell groaned, slow moving dark tendrils of smoke still rising from his nose and mouth. Metrus hunched where Kaell lay, spreading his bejewelled hand over his body.
’Liebeneigh Nastatalé, wake up and rise young one, the road is yet long and tasks must be seen to,’ said Metrus.
Renewed with some strength Kaell rose gingerly, not at all sure of their current predicament. But a weak smile touched his face as he realized the Princess was safe between Bhask and Metrus, having feared he had failed. The wraith was dealt with.
‘Kaell’lam, run ahead and make sure nothing can impede or entrap us toward the Dragonwell,’ said Bhask, giving the young man no time to rest. ‘Princess, Metrus will guard the escape but you must stay at my side at all times!’
‘Okay,’ she said. She could do nothing but agree with anyone who still called themselves allies in this wretched hour. But my House is spent as my father’s note said, I’m all that’s left and it seems I will not last long after my kin.
But the others did not give Shala time for her maudlin thoughts. Kaell was off in a swift dash, Bhask in his wake, and the Princess could only follow.