Dark One Rising

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Chapter 1

Melenthia Eryn Breslin, Princess of Aaralyn, rode her horse across the meadow, the wind blowing back her long red hair which glistened in the setting sunlight.

She was dressed in her usual attire, riding pants and linen tunic, her knee high brown boots dusty from the afternoon in town, a small dagger tucked securely in her boot. Not an outfit that was most becoming a lady of nobility, but certainly more her favored attire, comfortable and plain.

The sun was going down and in an hour it would be dark. She was late getting home again and knew that her father would be angry with her for missing dinner with him again.

There were so infrequent warm days now, and she was determined not to miss any of them sitting inside a dark dank castle. Her father didn’t understand her need for freedom. He didn’t understand why she was always on the go. But then again, he didn’t understand her at all. He wanted her to be demure and ladylike, and she fought hard to be who she wanted.

The winter was hanging on, and it seemed to be getting here sooner each year. She wondered what was happening in her realm. Strange things were afoot, things she had no explanation for. Besides the shorter spring and summer, and the longer and colder than usual winter, there had been occurrences all over the realm that made her wonder just what kind of spell had been cast over Aelethia.

She had talked to some farmers in Tamerlane that showed her their fields of crops that had withered almost overnight, and she had ridden through Barden where people told her about the cattle that had died without any indication of sickness.

She reported everything she had seen and heard to her father, but he brushed it off as odd and nothing more.

There was more, so much more that she had seen and heard, but most of the other events were too weird for her to even mention to anyone, even her beloved brother Kevaan. She hardly thought that the events were normal, but she dared not spout off about them without sounding like a imbecile. Her father was already displeased with her for wandering across the realm alone, saying that she was just asking for trouble on the road without armed escort.

She was not afraid of her realm. The people loved her and trusted her, and she felt pity for them when they were suffering. She wanted to help them, and getting her father to see their plight was sometimes impossible.

He was not always like this. He had just started acting strange the past year. She would find him muttering to himself, pacing across his throne room like an anxious pup. There was something bothering him these days, but he would not tell her what it was, and when she pleaded for Kevaan to ask him, he told her that it was just normal problems of state that plagued any king.

She knew that Kevaan was wrong, but if both of them refused to see what was really happening, they would never listen to her. She was a woman after all, and although Kevaan respected her and her opinions, she knew that he would never allow her to get involved in things that only men should deal with.

Kevaan, even as much as he doted on her, still saw her as a silly girl who doodled instead of studied and rode horses like a man instead of sidesaddle which was proper.

She was educated. She could read and write, and that was only because Kevaan had allowed it to happen, mostly behind his father’s back while he was too busy to notice. She understood the laws of the land and how the realm was supposed to work. The king held the seat over the provinces, and the dukes and earls held seats over their villages and cities. But she was seeing things that did not make sense in the order of things. The Duke of Xenos, for instance, in the south western corner of Aelethia, owned more land than anyone felt he deserved but won over her father with his meticulous accounting. She knew, however, that Fallon had a cunning tongue, and he was able to smooth talk his way through most things. She had had the awful pleasure of meeting him once, and he was no one she wanted to deal with again. He could flatter and compliment, but his eyes held a menace that made her shudder. He was evil, she knew it, but proving it would be impossible.

She had heard more disturbing accounts today in town, but she would keep them to herself until she was sure she could prove them. Her father would never believe they were more than just rumors. If only he would ride his countryside more often, he would see what was happening and maybe he could deal with them.

She rode under the arched entrance just as the guards were lowering the gate for the night. She galloped into the bailey and dismounted, handing her reins to a stable boy who came out to greet her.

The Captain of the Guard, Gerard Rainer, stepped in front of her and frowned. “Being outside the castle walls without escort, Your Highness, is against the rules.”

She glared at him. “Who are you to recite the rules to me?”

“I’m the Captain of the king’s guard, and I’m here to protect the king and his family, and that includes you, Melenthia. I cannot do so when you sneak off without permission.”

“What I do or where I go is none of your concern. I will do what I feel is necessary for the people of this kingdom. I have a duty to them, to hear their concerns and needs and report them to my father. I must be out among them to do that.”

“I do not fault you for your dedication to the people of this realm, Your Highness, but on your lack of judgment. You can do your duty with armed escort.”

She had her hands on her hips now and was scowling at him. “Are we done?”

“For the moment.”

She growled and turned on her heel, stalking away. Tomas, the new young squire in the guard, saw her heading for the front door into the castle and stopped her in mid-stride.

“Coming home a bit late again, Your Highness?”

“I lost track of time, if it’s any business of yours.”

She liked Tomas. He was handsome and funny, and he always covered for her whenever she came in late, or came home from somewhere she should not have been. Unlike Gerard, he understood her need for freedom. She knew she would get an earful from her father about the late hour of her return, and she already heard it from Gerard. She did not want to hear it from him as well.

“I don’t see an escort coming back with you. Perhaps you left him behind on the road when he could not keep up.”

“I don’t need an escort. I’m perfectly able to protect myself.”

“Aye, that is true, Your Highness, but it’s best if your father knows otherwise.”

“I’m sure Gerard has already told him.”

“Perhaps, but it would be best if we pretended we didn’t know that.”

She smiled at his implication. “Well then, did you enjoy your ride into town, Squire Tomas?”

“Quite, Your Highness. ’Twas a fine day to be out and about.”

She smiled at him, and he smiled back. He would cover for her. Again. She started to head up the stairs but he cleared his throat. “I believe His Majesty is in his sitting room at this moment. It would probably be best if he was not disturbed.”

She caught his meaning and turned instead and went in the rear door through the kitchen. He called to her again. “I believe there is a trencher waiting in your room. I’m sure, Your Highness, that you are famished after your long ride.”

She smiled again. He had gone so far as to get a servant to bring supper to her room, knowing that in her father’s ire, he would demand she go straight upstairs, that dinner was over.

“As you were, Squire Tomas.”

He bowed to her and went back to his gate post. She went into the kitchen and trotted up the back stairs. Her father was waiting for her at the top. Busted.

“You missed dinner again, Melenthia. Where have you been?”

“In town, father. I have been talking to the citizens of Kingswell about how they are faring these days. I lost track of the hour.”

“That is the third time this month you have left this castle without escort and been late coming in.”

She became a bit rebellious. “I’m not a child anymore, father. I am perfectly capable of coming and going by myself. Besides, I did have escort. Tomas was with me.”

“Do not take me for a fool, Melenthia. I know Tomas likes you and covers for you often. If only you could charm a baron or a count so easily.”

She frowned. “If men of nobility were so easily charmed then I wouldn’t have a problem, but they only see what they want.”

“You are a lovely young woman, Melenthia. I wish you’d act more like a lady.” He looked down at her attire, then at her wind blown hair. “Look at you, you look like a ruffian.”

“I don’t need the pomp and circumstance that my station requires to know who I am. I have opinions and feelings, and I should not be brushed aside as if I were nothing. I am not some giddy child who follows around a handsome face like a love-sick puppy.”

“All this nonsense comes from education. Your brother had you study behind my back. Just one more thing he chose to do without my consent.”

“Maybe he felt it was important for me to know how my world works in order to understand the people in it. I’m able to help if you’d just give me a chance.”

“They are not your people, Melenthia, they are mine. I have Kevaan to help me in the affairs of state. It’s not for you.”

She scowled at him and crossed her arms over her chest. “What did mother do? Sit next to you and look pretty; a rose and her thorn. Did she not help make decisions to shape the kingdom that she shared in?”

“She was my wife, yes, and there were certain things she understood, but she didn’t overstep her bounds. She knew when to speak up and when to remain quiet, a skill you have yet to emulate. She didn’t parade around the kingdom in the open and make promises to the people that she could not fulfill. You just don’t understand the responsibilities that I have, Melenthia.”

“Yes, father, I do. Your responsibilities are the people under your guidance and protection, and they feel you’re failing them. They are suffering and are frightened, and you don’t know it. There are things going on that you don’t see because you refuse to look closer.”

“There will be no more discussions about this, Melenthia. You will not leave the grounds again without permission. Are we clear?”

“But, father, won’t you just…”

His voice rose. “Are we clear, Melenthia?”

“Yes, father, we’re clear.”

He leaned over and kissed her forehead. “I love you child, but I swear you are going to be the death of me. When I don’t know where you are, I’m scared for you. Why do you do things to make me fret so?”

“I don’t mean to make you worry, father.”

He smiled down at her with all the love in his eyes she knew he felt. “I came to tell you your brother is on his way here. He should arrive by tomorrow.”

“Kevaan is coming?” She was suspicious. “What’s wrong? Why is he leaving Charbonneau?”

“There are things I need his help with, things he and I need to talk about.”

“Why can I not help you?”

“Lord, child did we not just have this discussion. There are issues of state I need him for. Nothing you need to worry about. Enjoy him while you can, and don’t worry over the reason why he’s here.”

She was not completely convinced but knew she could get it out of Kevaan if necessary. He would tell her anything if she asked; he could never resist her.

“How long will he be here?”

“I don’t know. A few weeks perhaps. You will have plenty of time to spend with him. Now since you missed dinner, I asked the servants to bring a bite to your rooms.”

“You asked them?”

He smiled down at her, knowing exactly what she was wondering. He continued. “Next time you miss, I will not be so generous and you will go without.”

She glanced up at him, slightly embarrassed.

“And don’t think the kitchen staff will turn their heads when you steal from the larder again.”

She was busted. He knew about it all. She decided admitting the truth was better. “What about Tomas?”

Her father eyed her. “I will allow his disobedience to me to slide this one time, but I would suggest you tell him not to lie for you again, or I will find a punishment suitable. I don’t think you want anyone to get in trouble for you, do you?”

“No, father, I don’t.”

“Good. No more talk tonight. Eat and sleep, for tomorrow you and your brother will have much catching up to do.”

He turned from her and went down the hall, leaving her alone in the dimly lit corridor. She bit her lip and went into her room, closing the door.

***

King Dainard Llewellyn Grayson, ruler of Azlyn, was sitting in his private lounge with one leg thrown haphazardly over the arm of one of the chairs, one arm draped over a blond, his other over a brunette. The women were both buxom and were giggling and blowing in his ears as they fed him from a silver platter filled with fresh fruit and cheese.

His dirty blond hair was neat except for a stubborn lock that always fell on his forehead. His pale blue eyes were bloodshot, and there was a hint of a leftover black eye on his left, put there the previous week in a scuffle at a party gone awry. They also drooped from lack of sleep and nights of partying and debauchery. He wore black hosen and calf high black boots. His white shirt was ruffled down the front and his red silk brocade doublet was unhooked halfway down, showing off a good portion of his broad chest.

The women leaned on him. One had her arm looped around his, the other woman had hers draped in his lap. The brunette handed him his glass of ale and held it to his lips as he drank, then sipped the pungent Keiran ale after him. The blond plucked another piece of ripe fruit from the stem and fed it to him. He sucked on her fingers as she was removing them from his mouth. She looked up at him underneath sensuous eyelashes, and he smiled down at her, lifting her face to his. He kissed her lightly on the lips. He then leaned over and lightly kissed the other woman the same way.

The party had ended long ago, but he held these two back. He had watched them all night making moon eyes at him and blowing him kisses from across the room.

He had no intention of bringing either of them to bed, but he enjoyed their attention nonetheless. He had had way too much to drink tonight, more so than normal, and his eyes burned and his head spun.

He had dismissed his Prime Minister hours ago, and he hadn’t seen Alekzand’r Morgan, his Royal Advisor and Bounty Hunter, for days. He was restless and needed something to occupy his thoughts and his hands for a bit. These two had been eager to spend time in his favor, so he invited them to stay for private entertaining. He was getting sleepy now and wanted to retire, but the excitement of these ladies held him back.

The door to the room opened just as the blond was feeding him another grape, and Alekzand’r strode in, eyeing the ladies and his king sprawled out casually. He scowled.

“Ah, Alek, you’ve returned from yet another trek into the unknown. Welcome home.”

Alek still scowled but said nothing as he stood stiffly, arms crossed over his chest. Dain sensed Alek’s annoyance and swallowed the last of his ale. He moved his arms from around the beauties and kissed them each in turn.

“I’m afraid the night has come to a close, ladies. It seems I have some business to attend to.”

The women both pouted, standing up from the chairs they occupied and batted their eyelashes sensuously at him as they exited. He watched them both leave, their curvy forms sashaying out of the room. When the door was closed and all was quiet, Alek finally spoke.

“What is the matter with you, Dain? This is the third time in the last two weeks I have found you inebriated and entertaining company at all hours of the night. Did you forget that you had audiences to hear tomorrow?”

“No, I have not forgotten. How could I forget anything with you constantly reminding me all the time?” he said curtly, rising from his chair and going to the window. He leaned on the sill and took a deep breath of fresh pre-spring air.

The evenings were still chilly, but he did not notice most of the time, for the cold seemed to fit his melancholy mood of late. Spring was coming and the days were warmer, the nights still crisp, but the fresh smells were starting to permeate the air. It smelled of moist earth and wood smoke that traveled on the wind from the town laid out in the valley below. He could see a few twinkling lights burning at this hour from windows still stirring with life. He turned back toward Alek, who was now sitting in a chair that one of the ladies had occupied only moments before.

Dain knew that he was out of line again, but he just couldn’t seem to help himself. The affairs of state and the monotonous string of complaints and requests that came in every week made him irritable. It wasn’t that he didn’t care for his people, or want to understand their plights, it was just that he didn’t know how to help them the way he knew he should.

He had obtained the throne way before he was ready, and he hadn’t quite gotten the knack of what he should do for the province that now belonged to him. The province he had inherited too many years too early.

He sighed. If he was to be honest, he didn’t really try very hard. He rode through his cities and villages and made himself available to the people he governed, but when it came to changing laws or making edicts, he was way too inexperienced. Emerick usually handled all of that, and Alek gave him advice on what he thought should be done. Without them, he would be nowhere. Hell, his throne should have been overthrown by now from his lackadaisical way of ruling and his apathetic attitude for all of it. He looked at his Royal Advisor and best friend, and frowned. He knew Alek was disappointed in him for his behavior, but he never really ever came out and said it. It was actually worse not to hear his opinions out loud but rather to see it on his face instead.

The silence was broken suddenly, and Dain was glad for it. “I have to remind you all the time for if I didn’t, you would be late or not show up at all for your appointments.”

Dain just looked at him, his face hot with drink, his eyes bloodshot and dry. His head was reeling now, and he was beginning to even forget the names of the ladies that had been by his side only minutes before. Or maybe he didn’t know them in the first place. He berated himself for his lack of self-control and held up his hand in agreement. “I know, Alek. If not for you I would have lost my throne long ago. I owe you my life, you know that.”

“Then why don’t you listen to me? I have tried to tell you these things and have tried to get you to see the path of destruction you are on, but you continue to ignore my warnings.”

“I’m sorry, Alek. I cannot seem to be able to help myself. I enjoy hiding from my responsibilities in drink and beautiful company.”

“The responsibilities are always there whether you hide from them or not. You cannot escape from them even when you try. You are king of Azlyn, and you have responsibilities to your people, and to yourself.” His anger was abating somewhat, but his tone was still stiff.

Dain sighed. “I know.” He turned back toward the window, not wanting to endure the hard stare that Alek was giving him, disappointment gleaming in his eyes.

“What’s wrong, Dain? You can talk to me.”

“I don’t know. I feel a cold wind blowing, and I feel something coming, something that I cannot put words to. I fear there is a menace threatening to overtake us, but I’ll be damned if I can put my finger on it. Maybe it’s just the alcohol induced coma that is causing me to feel a cold wind blowing into my realm, seeping into my soul.”

“I’m glad you’re feeling them; at least I know you’re paying attention. I have felt them too. That’s why you must snap out of this mood you have slipped into. You have to be alert in order to be ready if these phantoms are indeed out there. I have much to do and cannot do my duty if I have to worry about your soul.”

Dain finally walked away from the window and placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I don’t mean to make you worry so, Alek. I’m a grown man and can take care of myself.”

“From where I stand the view is quite different.”

“All kings have indulged themselves in drink and beautiful ladies.”

“Yes, but you are indulging enough for several kings. This path can only lead to heartache and loneliness. I hate to see you so unhappy.”

“Am I unhappy?”

“Yes, whether you admit it to yourself or not, you are indeed unhappy. The drink and the ambitious women can only fill your time and your soul for so long. After it all wears off, you’re going to wonder where your life went. I want to see you strong and vibrant as you once were, with a respectable woman who will love you for you, not because you are king.”

“I don’t think there is a woman alive that’s not after the power I can provide by making them my queen.”

“There is, if you’d look in the right places, or clear your head from the alcohol long enough to see them clearly.”

“Yes, Alek, I get it. You’re disappointed in me just as my father was. He didn’t understand me and neither do you, I fear.”

Alek stood and approached his liege and friend. “I do understand, Dain. I understand you more than anyone ever has, except maybe your mother. I’m just worried for you.”

“I suppose I should listen to you more often. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m in a funk and don’t know why.”

“It will pass, but creating more havoc for yourself is not going to make it go faster. You have to want to change.”

“Okay, Alek. Stop worrying about me and I will do my best to change.”

“Do your best to change, and I’ll stop worrying.”

Dain laughed tiredly. “I think this evening is done. I should go to bed and get some rest, if I can turn my mind off long enough to do so.”

“Take the time you need. Emerick and I will take care of the requests and dispatches. We will make up an excuse for you.”

Dain looked at his friend and frowned. “It seems I make you do that quite often.”

Alekzand’r didn’t reply. Dain got the hint.

“No, I will be there. Have Emerick rouse me an hour before the first session and I’ll be there. I don’t want you and he to do my job anymore. I will hear my people and answer my own dispatches.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes. I don’t know if I can change my ways with women, but I can at least start taking responsibility for my kingdom.”

“That’s a start I guess. It will have to do.”

“Alright then, bed it is.”

Dain started for the door, and Alek stopped him. “Your Majesty.”

Dain did not turn. He didn’t want to see Alek’s face, knowing exactly what he was going to ask, even before he asked it. “You are going to bed alone, aren’t you?”

Dain winced. He knew it. He hadn’t planned on taking either of the women he had been with tonight to bed with him, but knowing what awaited him in the morning made him want to wile away the rest of the night in distraction. He could no more lie to Alek as he could his mother when she was alive. They knew him too well. Instead of turning to see Alek’s eyes boring into him, he answered from over his shoulder.

“I suppose that would be the wiser choice.”

“Indeed it would.”

Dain decided no retort was needed and left the room to head up to his chambers. He hated being told what to do, but then again he supposed no one would feel the need to reprimand him if he behaved like a civilized human being. He really was a mess. He stopped to look at himself in a mirror on his way down a corridor and frowned.

His eyes were red, his clothes were wrinkled and disheveled. He didn’t know when the dark circles under his eyes had appeared, but they were very noticeable. No wonder Alek was worried about his soul. Dain didn’t blame him. He was on his way down a road he would not be able to turn back from if he didn’t find a way to refrain himself from debauchery. He sighed and turned away from the mirror, heading to his room to get some sleep. Tomorrow would be a long day. He would get up and attend to his duties just as he promised, and he needed a clear head to do so.

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