By the time they finished breakfast and bid their farewells, the vibrant rays of dawn had softened to blue in the morning sky, and the cicadas were whirring as the heat settled in. Dargon found the steady clip clop of his steed’s hooves relaxing as they made their way north along the Forgoth road. Bare trunks of cypress trees stretched like fingers to the heavens, their nakedness both a reminder of the island’s past glory and of the present wasteland they called home. Other dead trees lined the landscape, rotted beyond recognition, but Dargon remembered a time when fig, olive, and pomegranate trees had once produced an inviting feast for hungry travelers and cool shade to rest under.
“The Forgoth is quiet these days,” Kelric remarked beside him, interrupting his reverie.
Dargon nodded solemnly at the empty road. “Can’t visit relatives when they’re dead,” he replied, remembering Sholen’s casualty report from the previous day: another five souls on their way to pay Hades his due.
“Yes, there do seem to be fewer reasons to venture away from the familiar hearth,” Kelric agreed. “Do you remember the celebrations we used to have? We traveled between Shallinath and Sephaleth what… three, four times a month to visit?”
“Yes, we were nearly inseparable,” Dargon said.
Kelric began to chuckle. “Gadnor was always doing something outrageous to get our attention. What an annoying little tick, you were, always needing us to get you out of trouble,” he remarked loudly, throwing a mischievous glance over his shoulder.
Gadnor smirked back at him. “Well, the heroic big brother act worked well for you on several occasions with the ladies, if I recall.”
Dargon expected some boastful retort, but instead Kelric quickly diverted the subject. “But don’t you remember the feasts we had, and the fighting competitions? So much fun! It all seems so long ago. I miss it.”
“I remember,” Dargon replied, becoming suspicious of this line of questioning.
“We should plan for some festivities soon, like the old days,” Kelric continued.
Dargon hardened his jaw to keep from saying something offensive. Leave it to Kelric to want to play games at a time like this. “Perhaps we’ll have something to celebrate after we succeed in Thellshun,” he said, instead, hoping Kelric would catch the hint from his tone and drop it. “We need to stay focused on that.”
“Actually, Dargon, I already have something specific in mind-”
“We need to pick up the pace a bit if we are to make it to Thellshun by tomorrow evening,” Dargon interrupted. “Perhaps we can talk about this later.”
Kelric’s mouth snapped shut, and without further hesitation, they spurred their horses into a quick trot.
They rode without another word until they reached Sholta, a village situated at the border of Shallinath and Thellshun. Once one of the largest cities in Shallinath and the main center of trade between the realms, its appearance now was ruinous. It was surrounded by a crumbling stone wall about four feet high, offering little protection from invaders. Previously a fine monument to allure travelers, the stone entrance had been cannibalized, and was in such disrepair that the arch was completely gone and only jagged stubs remained. No guards were at their post either, and the expected sounds of hustle and bustle were replaced with the distant crying of a child.
A hazy dust cloud lingered over the village, and Dargon’s spit turned to mud in his mouth as they entered. He pulled his kerchief up over his face to keep the dirt out as he inspected the derelict town. Bony children played about in the streets, covered in dust and wearing nothing but loin clothes and masks to help them breathe. An old man tended to a skinny sow to their right, and a few young men and women were stacking empty baskets to their left. No one even looked up from their task to acknowledge them.
Once they reached the agora, the air became clearer. Some of the stone pavings in the large market had been dug up to use for housing, but much of them still remained, keeping the dust grounded. As they approached the mall’s center, the guard sitting at the well clutched his spear and stood, nudging the slave boy beside him to do the same. “You are welcome here, friends, so long as you adhere to our laws,” he said to them, licking his dry lips. “Only one cup per traveler, we can’t spare any more than that, and you will have to share your portion with your horse.”
Dargon pulled down his mask and the man’s face turned white. “Lord Dargon,” he stammered, bowing his head. “I did not recognize you…” his voice trailed off, embarrassed at his address to the Lord of Shallinath.
Dargon waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry. We are not here to rob you. We will only take what we are allowed, like everyone else.”
The guard nodded in relief and motioned at the slave. “Draw them some water.”
As they replenished themselves, the city governor made his way over to them from the porch of his manor house. “Lord Dargon!” he exclaimed, clapping him on the back. “I thought I recognized Leontes,” he said with a grin, petting Dargon’s black horse. It pressed its nose into his hand and he stroked the unique beard that dangled from its chin. “On your way to Thellshun, then?”
“Yes, Lord Camden,” Dargon replied, taking a swig of his cup before offering the rest to Leontes. “I believe we’ll arrive there about midday tomorrow if we keep the pace. How are things here?”
Camden shook his head sadly. “Another one dead this morning, our village healer no less. Apparently, she was giving away her water rations to the sick. She collapsed yesterday and didn’t wake up. That’s three this week.” He cast a sideways glance at the boy as he drew another bucket from the well, and lowered his voice, “Some of my citizens have sold or given away their slaves to the monks at the Library or to wealthier families in Thellshun and Ninenarn.”
Dargon’s brows rose at that. Most slaves in Elandia were born bastards, which presented a dilemma to many families who wished to maintain status and prestige. To both hide their existence and ensure that they were not abused, they were usually raised by distant relatives in neighboring villages. Selling them or sending them elsewhere was shocking to Dargon. He looked around at the joyless, gaunt faces of the villagers. Not even the children at play suffered a smile. Suddenly Kelric was beside him.
“These people could use some kind of occasion to bring back hope for something better than this,” Kelric said, his tone low and suggestive.
Dargon rolled his eyes, irritated as he realized that Kelric wouldn’t drop it until he had blurted out his plan. He bid farewell to Lord Camden, and within minutes the small party returned to the Forgoth to resume their slog northward.
They rode until the sun passed its zenith, and Dargon became tired of feeling Kelric’s eyes constantly watching him, waiting for a break in their pace to begin a conversation. Might as well get it over with.
“What is it you want, Kelric?” Dargon sighed, annoyed at himself for inviting him to speak. He had a feeling he would regret it as soon as Kelric opened his mouth.
Kelric straightened in his saddle and donned an eager grin. “That poor town back there; it was horrendous. The looks on their faces were hopeless, like they’re just waiting for their turn to die,” he began.
Dargon cocked his eyebrow. Was Kelric poking fun at this tragedy?
“Our realm suffers along with them, and I think we should try to change this dark mood; remind everyone that there is something to look forward to. You said yourself last night that weddings were meant to be a celebration, a— how did you put it‘—signal for brighter futures?’”
Dargon felt a knot begin to form in his stomach. I shouldn’t have asked. As if to validate his feeling of dread, Gadnor had urged his horse closer and was watching the scene unfold intently. Was Gadnor preparing to intervene when Kelric said the wrong thing? “I see where this is going,” he interrupted, not bothering to hide the malice in his tone. Kelric’s smile vanished. “Do you think your affection for my sister has escaped my attention? That I haven’t noticed how she loses her mind around you? I’m not a fool, Kelric, and if your bright idea is an engagement celebration to her, I’ll save you the disappointment right now. It’s never going to happen.”
Kelric’s face turned crimson. “Dargon, I don’t think you’re a fool, and we weren’t exactly trying to hide from you…” Dargon’s knowing look made him pause and clear his throat. “Anyway, I thought you would be pleased. After all, you and I are like brothers.”
“Yes, and like a brother I know how you treat women, how you think of them as inferior to you, as playthings to use, and then discard when someone new comes along,” Dargon retorted.
Kelric swallowed, noticeably uncomfortable, but he met his eyes steadily. “I understand your concern, but Gonivein is different—”
“You’re damn right, she’s different, and she won’t be added to your list of trophies,” Dargon bellowed, his heart beating faster and louder as his anger at the proposal grew. “I told you to leave her alone a long time ago, and I haven’t changed my mind. You are not the kind of man who will make her a good husband.”
Kelric clenched his fists around the reins of his horse, obviously struggling to control his temper. Thoughts of what he might do to Gonivein if he ever lost his patience with her flashed through Dargon’s mind, steeling his resolve. “What do I have to do to prove to you that I will be?” Kelric asked.
Dargon was speechless. He had prepared himself for a slew of angry curses, not a genuine supplication. With everything else occupying his attention, he suddenly realized that he hadn’t given the prospect much thought. He glanced over at Gadnor who seemed to share his surprise. Calm, noble, and thoughtful, Gadnor would be a fine husband. Why didn’t she pick you? He sighed, more anxious than ever. “I don’t know if you can, Kelric,” he said honestly.
“Gonivein means much more to me than any woman ever has,” Kelric defended. “I have no desire to ever leave her.”
“What makes you think that won’t change as soon as you have your way with her like all the others?”
“Well, I’m sure you’d kill me, for starters,” Kelric joked, attempting to lighten the mood again, but Dargon was not amused.
“My sister’s happiness is not a game, Kelric.”
“Lord Dargon,” Pales interrupted from behind. “Something is coming.”
Dargon focused his attention back to his surroundings. Running toward them was a group of at least fifteen men. Once they were within earshot, it became clear they were enraged.
“I think they’re attacking us,” Gadnor said, reaching for his sword and positioning his round shield more securely over his leg from where it hung on his saddle.
Kelric drew his sword so fiercely it sang out of its scabbard, and Dargon resisted the urge to shake his head at how eager his companion was for combat, especially since their travel attire was unsuitable for battle.
Faldir nocked an arrow to his bow and waited for the word to draw as everyone brandished their weapons. “Are they carrying pitchforks?” he asked in disbelief.
“What a bunch of fools,” Rallon scoffed. “From this distance, they should be able to tell we’re far more equipped than they are. What are they thinking?”
“They must be desperate,” Pales offered, his voice laced with sympathy.
As the hoard neared, Dargon’s gut twisted in pity at how pathetic they looked. Their clothes were dirty and torn, and their limbs were as bony as the villagers of Sholta. Desperate didn’t begin to describe them, yet surely that was not sufficient cause to attack travelers. Something must be dreadfully wrong here.
“Kill them!” One of the front runners shouted as they neared, launching a hammer at them. It ricocheted off of Gadnor’s shield with a loud bang, jolting Dargon from his musings. Faldir fired his arrow at the man, who went down face first. The men behind him split to avoid tripping over him and quickly surrounded the travelers. Like ravenous wolves, they sized up their prey and prepared to strike.
With a sudden cry of excitement, Kelric spurred his steed forward and plowed through the circle, slashing as he went. Arcs of blood shot skyward in all directions, and angry war cries mingled with screams of anguish and panic. His bold maneuver caused immediate chaos as he whirled Damsel around to mount a counterattack from behind.
Three marauders lunged at Faldir, and he managed to shoot one in the shoulder before Dargon saw him wrested from his horse to disappear into a fray of crude weapons. Buthan dove from his steed to rescue him and drew his second blade, but two more intercepted him. Their stature looked almost childlike in comparison to Buthan’s abnormal height, and Dargon could see the hesitation in their eyes as they gazed up at him, but they stood their ground as he rushed forward, the afternoon sun glinting off of his polished swords.
Dargon urged Leontes to advance, anxious to get to Faldir, but he was cut off by a man with an iron rod. Leontes reared to avoid the blow aimed at his snout, and Dargon’s rage flared. With a growl, he pulled Leontes to the left and slashed downward, severing the man’s arm clean off. Blood spurted from the stump and splattered onto Leontes’ shiny mane. The man collapsed on the ground, writhing and screaming in anguish.
Dargon poised to finally go to Faldir’s position, but he was suddenly distracted by Damsel, prancing away from the battle riderless. His breath caught in panic as he imagined telling Gonivein that Kelric had been slain. That can’t happen. He quickly scanned the scene, finding Kelric just in time to witness a pitchfork plunging into his side. Kelric spun with an angry yell, grabbing the pitchfork in one hand and swiping his long sword with the other, nearly cleaving his attacker in two at the waist.
Before Dargon could react, three men closed in on him, flailing their barbaric weapons at his legs. Tendir, on foot, ran one of them through with his spear, distracting the other two just long enough for Dargon to get a clear whack at another’s skull, hewing it down to his shoulders. The third man fled in terror, and Dargon watched as the remaining four marauders still standing fell into quick step behind him. Tendir chased after them for a pace, shouting and slashing wildly at their backsides. “You filthy cowards!” he spat, stooping over to rest his hands on his knees and catch his breath.
As the sounds of battle ceased, Dargon looked for Kelric and found him beside Gadnor and Rallon in a circle of mangled bodies. He sighed, relieved that someone had been able to aid him in time. Next, he searched for Faldir, finding him splayed on the ground. His face was bloodied and his body motionless, but a thumbs up from Buthan informed him that he was alive. Pales was wrapping a bandage around an ugly wound on his left leg, while Tendir rounded up Damsel and the other stray mounts.
Dargon started toward Kelric, blinking in shock to find him in good spirits and not at all distressed from the injuries he had sustained. He looked him up and down, but it was impossible to discern how much of the blood on his clothes was his own. Kelric’s wide grin made Dargon wonder if he had imagined the whole thing.
Dargon opened his mouth to ask him if he was hurt, but a rumble beneath his feet diverted his attention north. His adrenaline returned in full force to his fingertips as he mentally prepared himself for more combat.
A small number of soldiers bearing the standard of Thellshun appeared on the Forgoth. In contrast to the angry mob, their approach seemed almost diplomatic, putting him somewhat at ease. Dargon cleaned his bloody blade as he waited, wondering why a fully armored contingent was this far from the garrison.
“After them!” ordered one, motioning his men to run down the fleeing villagers. He stopped before Dargon and removed his helmet as his horsemen thundered past. “Greetings,” he said, gold hair spilling over his black mail. He quickly brushed it out of his eyes to focus on Dargon. “My name is Aden, son of Uthnar. Are you Lord Dargon?”
“Excellent! We have been expecting you. Though, not quite so many of you…” Aden remarked, glancing around. When Dargon didn’t respond, he continued. “It looks like you found our quarry. I’m sorry for the trouble they caused.”
“Why did they attack us?” Dargon asked.
“If I was to guess, your attire. It betrays your wealth and status. I’m sure they assumed you are on your way to Lord Daroc’s celebration,” Aden said. “Some of our southern villages are protesting it rather adamantly. They’re angry that Daroc would put together such a feast when so many are starving.”
Dargon sheathed his sword, fighting the urge to give Aden his own thoughts on the matter. “That is a shame,” he answered instead. “Are there more of them between us and our destination?”
Aden’s lips formed a thin line and he paused for a long moment, contemplating his next words carefully. Too carefully, Dargon thought, wondering what he had to hide. “I wish I could say no, but there are rumors of deep unrest all over the realm. We’re here to ensure your safety the rest of the way,” he finished, the warmth in his eyes turning chill. It was not negotiable.
Suddenly, Kelric slumped to the ground, and his eyes rolled back into his head. “Pink… horses…?” he muttered, becoming deathly still.
“Kelric!” Gadnor called, rushing to help his brother back to his feet, but he wouldn’t wake. “Shit…” he murmured, turning wild eyes on Dargon as he lifted his blood stained hand from Kelric’s side. The pitchfork. Gadnor examined the wound closely before pressing his wadded cloak against it. “It’s deep, Dargon.”
Dargon could tell the boy was struggling to remain calm. The next village in Thellshun was miles away. Based on Aden’s comments, he doubted that they would be helped there anyway; and the healer from the border village was dead. That only left one option. “Help me get him on Leontes,” he commanded. “Pales, bring Faldir and come with me. I know of a healer not far from here.”
“But didn’t Camden say…?” Gadnor started, but Dargon’s warning look silenced him.
“One of my men will accompany you,” Aden offered.
“I do not require an escort in my own realm, Lord Aden,” Dargon stated, his menacing tone dissuading further discussion.
Aden’s men shared anxious looks, alarming Dargon. Something was definitely not right.
Once he had Kelric secure he looked down at Gadnor, hoping to silently warn him of his suspicion, but from Gadnor’s face he knew he didn’t need to. The boy was astute. He nodded reassuringly to him. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Chatter and laughter echoed through the great hall from the servants table, and Gonivein was glad she was seated far enough away that they could not see her glowering. Her spirits were already dampened after being excluded from the visit to Thellshun, but dinner brought her loneliness to a new height. She glanced over at Sholen’s empty seat and his plate of cold food. Where was he? He was never this late to give his report. She drummed her fingers on the table. Perhaps he forgot he was supposed to be here tonight and went home instead. Considering this possibility a moment longer, she dismissed it. He took his duties as sheriff far too serious to simply forget, something must have happened to him.
She waited until the servants were finished with their food before rising. Her chair scraping across the stone tiles rebounded shrilly off of the vaulted ceilings, alerting the others to the conclusion of supper. They hastily stood, their banter dissolving immediately.
“Thank you for the lovely dinner, Tora,” Gonivein said, and the old cook beamed with pride. She took Sholen’s bowl of food from the table and walked across the hall toward them. “Crusades, Shilok, please come with me. The rest of you are dismissed.”
Her bodyguards obediently fell into step behind her as she exited the keep and entered the quiet city. The sun was low in the sky, and she listened for the soft cooing of wild doves settling down to sleep as she made her way along the street, then sighed in disappointment. All of the birds had been eaten ages ago, but she still wasn’t accustomed to the silence. She stopped at the door of Sholen’s large house and knocked. After a brief moment, the door opened, and a young girl peered up at her.
“Good evening, Ivonna,” Gonivein greeted with a warm smile. “Is your father home?”
Before Ivonna could reply, an older woman appeared beside her. “Lady Gonivein, what an honor,” she said, stepping aside with her daughter in tow. “Please, come in.”
Gonivein smiled graciously, but stayed put. “Hello, Ephinia, I don’t wish to disturb you. I merely wanted to bring Sholen his dinner since he did not attend our meeting. Is he here?”
Ephinia donned a worried expression and shook her head. “No, my lady,” she replied.
Gonivein took note of Ivonna’s curious look at her mother, and she immediately wondered about the exchange, a bad feeling settling in her gut.
Suddenly, a bright flame engulfed the doorway of Sholen’s house and brushed past Ephinia and Ivonna. It’s center burned vibrant blue and green hues, and she felt it’s heat on her face as it sprang toward her. Gonivein leapt back, a startled scream erupting from her throat. The contents of the bowl sloshed over the edge and onto her hands and skirt, but she hardly noticed as she fell into her bodyguards, panicking as she felt her skin beginning to melt away. She screamed again and scrambled to regain her footing and escape.
“My Lady!” Shilok’s urgent tone captured her attention, and as quickly as it had appeared, the flame was gone.
She blinked, listening to the pounding of her heartbeat as she tried to sort out what had just happened. Ephinia and Ivonna were watching her, concern and shock written on their faces. A glance up at Crusades and Shilok revealed similar emotions.
“Lady Gonivein, are you all right?” Crusades asked, helping to steady her. Clearly, none of them had witnessed what she just had.
She swallowed, embarrassed that her imagination had tricked her so unexpectedly. She couldn’t shake the terror she still felt in her limbs, and it was all the courage she could muster to not run down the street as fast as she could, screaming until her lungs burst. She looked regretfully down at the food splattered on the ground. “I’m sorry, my clumsiness has caused such waste,” she muttered. “When Sholen returns, tell him to come see me,” she said, pressing the bowl into Ephinia’s hands. Tiny wisps of hot steam rose into the air from the remnants of the food, and her sudden shock made it challenging to breathe.
As terror threatened her to madness, Gonivein spun and all but ran back to the keep. She leaned against one of the porch pillars and gasped for air. Her face still felt as though it were on fire. The flame wasn’t real, and that food was not hot, she argued with herself. It was a trick of the light. You’re just tired. But she didn’t believe it.
“My lady, are you all right?” Crusades asked again, worried.
“No,” she answered. “There’s something dreadfully wrong.”
“What is it?” Shilok chimed, diverting his attention to quickly scan their surroundings for danger. Finding none, he said, “Are you ill?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know… I saw something— I just have a bad feeling…” she glanced at their confused expressions, and realized that her stammering probably sounded like the ravings of a lunatic. She straightened her shoulders and tightly clutched her skirt to steady her shaking hands. “I believe Ephinia is hiding something. Crusades, go back and find out what is going on, discreetly.”
With a bow, Crusades hurried to his task. Gonivein watched as he passed under the portcullis and into the city. The soft breeze lightly brushing her hair across her neck coupled with the eerie silence of dusk made her skin crawl. She swallowed the lump in her throat and thought her knees might give out if she remained standing there, so she hurried up to her room. After hastily bidding Shilok good night, she bolted her door shut.
Her heart was still thumping wildly in her chest as she paced back and forth at the window, trying to convince herself again that her imagination was playing her for a fool. Sleep deprivation, hunger, loneliness, worry for Sholen, that’s it, she told herself. There could be dozens of reasons why Sholen was not at dinner. Perhaps there was some crisis in Del and he had to stay behind to help. That explains these phantoms, just silly worrying. She hadn’t realized the length of her trance until the sun finally slipped beneath the horizon, pulling back it’s lingering rays and turning her room pitch black.
She froze and held her breath, half expecting Death to leap out and finish her. Several moments passed, and she finally felt her pulse begin to steady. “You’re just worried,” she said aloud this time, as though voicing it would somehow make it truer than thinking it. “Sholen will come back, Crusades will report nothing, and tomorrow will resume as normal.” She confidently took a step toward her bed.
Before Gonivein got far, the flame suddenly reappeared, bursting through the darkness and stopping her dead in her tracks. Jagged shadows trembled around the room, appearing as tethered and tormented as she found herself. Its intense heat drew beads of sweat on her skin, and her terror returned in full force. She screamed and blindly bolted for the door, but her foot caught on her vanity and sent her tumbling to the ground. She grasped the edge of her chair to catch her fall, but her momentum pulled it down to the floor with her and she landed with a loud crash. Groaning and aching in pain, she sat up in a panic, confused to find she was alone once again and accompanied only by night.
“My Lady! Are you all right?” Shilok’s sweet voice as he banged on her door brought her back to her feet in a hurry, anxious to let him in. The torch in his hand sent her heart fluttering, but its effect paled to the nightmare that plagued her a moment ago.
“Did something happen?” he asked her, searching the shadows over her shoulder.
She shook her head, too afraid to feel embarrassed. “Is Crusades with you?”
“No, he has not yet returned, neither has Sholen,” he replied.
Gonivein’s heart sank as his answers made her excuses to leave her room elusive. She peered into the corridor and found it empty, and without hesitation she pulled Shilok into her room, closing the door and sliding the bolt in place.
“My Lady…” he stammered, stepping back and dropping to the floor in servitude. “I…
“Shilok, I need you to stay with me tonight,” she blurted.
Shilok bowed even lower to avoid her gaze. “My Lady I… I am sworn to serve you as you wish but… I could be killed for such a thing…”
It took a moment for her to realize that he thought she wanted sex. If this situation had not been so dire, she would have found his assumption laughable. “Shilok, I have a terrible feeling that something bad is going to happen,” she explained urgently. “I… don’t feel safe alone right now.”
Shilok looked up at her and slowly rose, his crimson color distinguishable even in the distorted lighting. “So… you want me to…?”
“Just stay in here with me,” she answered.
“Stay with you?” he repeated.
Gonivein cringed at the humiliation her fear was driving her to, but she couldn’t face that flame again by herself. If it came back, perhaps Shilok could chase it away, or if nothing else tell her whether or it not it was all in her head.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “And I want you to wake me if I seem distressed while I sleep.”
Shilok’s gulp was audible. “You want me to watch you sleep?”
Gonivein’s stomach flopped. The only men who had ever been inside her room were Dargon and Kelric. Chastity was of great importance to maintaining respect and status, especially as Lady of the realm. If anyone saw him enter or leave her room there would be a terrible scandal, and gods forbid that Kelric should ever find out. “Can you manage that and be discreet?”
He nodded fiercely. “Of course, My Lady. I would never break your trust.”
She released a small breath of relief, feeling reassured at his loyalty and glad that she had not detected any judgment from his tone. Dargon had chosen excellent slaves for her personal bodyguards. Despite that fact, she would give anything to have her big brother here to protect her.