Darius sighed. “We have been camped outside Skala for days. How do we ever get to meet the King?”
Tarvus tore away at a piece of boiled chicken. Darius couldn’t fathom how he’d begun liking the bland Halan taste. “Relax. Mad Dog’s supposed to arrive today with the last two villages.”
The villages had not seemed different than the ones on the north-west of the Empire. But their approach to the Halan capital reminded him of the barbaric nature of the tribes. Every house was lined with spears and blades as decoration and the people wore face paints that haunted his childhood nightmares.
A loud horn rang through the encampment. From all the shouting, Darius could deduce Mad Dog had arrived. To his chagrin, Rorash accompanied him and Tarvus to the edge of the camp.
Darius still couldn’t believe how large the man was. Even the fierce tribal warriors looked like toothpicks next to him.
The mountain of a man marched in with a retinue. “So you lot stuck around. Now that I have returned, we shall have that duel.” He pointed towards Tarvus.
Tarvus nodded with a smile.
Darius hoped that never came to pass. As good as the sea-captain was, he couldn’t see him defeating Mad-Dog. Maybe not even if the two of them teamed up.
“But before that, you must meet the King. He will decide what to do with you. Which of you runts is going to come?”
“Since Barak isn’t here, I am the leader of the bandits.” Rorash said, stepping forward.
Darius cursed under his breath. With the bandit around, there was no way they could reveal who they were.
“You’re not going alone. You do not represent us all.” Tarvus interjected.
“Very well.” Mad-Dog announced, cutting off Rorash’s objection. “And bring this bald-headed one too. The king loves eunuchs.”
Darius nodded. Tarvus looked at him with relief. Mad-Dog had saved them the trouble of coming up with an excuse to bring Darius along.
They headed towards the Halan capital on foot. No animals were permitted inside Skala, except beasts of burden, according to one of their many gods.
He’d read a lot about how the black and red iron and brick wall had evolved over the years. But even elaborate discussions with Tarvus over the past two weeks hadn’t sated his amazement. Skala had been the subject of many raids by various tribes but the walls had never been breached and even during the last Halan war, the Throdden army hadn’t been successful in its siege.
The tall black iron gates opened inwards and were guarded by the battle armoured Dharmon guards, who belonged to all tribes and none. While none of them reached the size and girth of Mad-Dog, each of them looked intimidating in their own right.
Skala seemed to be spread over as much ground as the lower city of Sen-Tian and the only difference lay in the sparseness of the buildings as well as the orange tiled circular houses with iron beams holding up the structure. The two crossed yellow feathers appeared garish but the emblem of the ruling tribe fluttered all over the city.
The roads in front of them sloped upwards towards what Darius knew was called the Valley of Deaths. Why a crest in the land was named a valley was beyond him but he’d never understood Halan names. At the top he could see the mammoth circular structure with several smaller mounds on top of it – Zeb Khazan – loosely translated as The King’s Hoard, where the Halan King resided.
Smaller structures with iron spikes like horns lined on the red tiled roofs were spread all around, mirroring the larger one at the top.
Surprisingly, the Halans in the capital barely gave them a look as they brushed past, though they did give them a wide berth on the road, likely due to Mad-Dog.
They reached the white picketed fence surrounding the King’s Hoard, where ten guards lined up from the fence to the doors.
One of the guards motioned Rorash to step away.
“What? Why?” The bandit objected, with a flail of his arms.
“King’s orders.” The guard barked, heavily accented.
Rorash’s further tirade was muffled by Mad-Dog who put a frying pan sized hand on his mouth and pushed him aside.
Darius looked at Tarvus. While this was advantageous but he had no idea why the King had ordered the bandit from entering. The lack of a sword by his side itched him, not that it would help amidst the Halan capital.
Tarvus shrugged and walked onwards. Darius sighed and followed. There wasn’t much else he could do.
The guards introduced it as the King’s Hold. Darius and Tarvus were ushered in through long hallways lit with roaring fires, by humongous guards almost the size of Mad Dog. Inspite of the crude outlook, the inside was as royal as the throne room back in Sen Tian. It was a long room, almost like a gallery except much broader. Animal skins adorned the walls as tapestries and some of the animals, Darius couldn’t even recognize.
The whole place was lit up with monstrous candles the size of his legs, suspended over bowls which collected the wax droppings. The smell of incense was strong. Darius suspected it was some form of tribal aboce which grew in these parts. Tables stood laid out on the sides of the rooms anywhere which didn’t have a door or didn’t have a bulky sentry standing in front of it. The floor was made of simple stone but had been brushed in a manner which gave it waves in varying shades of grey.
He could make out the image of a large throne set at the very back wall of the room and even from a distance, it looked imposing. But a man stood halfway towards them, two large yellow feathers covering his chest and the tribal warskin wrapped around his legs. His skin glistened with oil and although he did not cut an imposing figure like Mad-Dog, the innumerable piercings on his face mad Darius flinch. The current King had come into power after the previous one had been killed by the tribes for agreeing to a truce in the last war.
“Welcome to Skala, Prince Darius.” The man growled, his voice laced with malice.
Darius froze. He knows.
A sneer spread across the king’s face.
“How did you know?” There was no point denying the fact. He looked around. All the guards seemed primed to attack. I should never have trusted the Halans.
“The bandits may not know how you look. And you’ve done a fine job of shaving your head and wearing those rags. But I know each of you Throddens and your faces are embedded in my head.” The chief slammed his fist across the side of his head.
“I know there’s a lot of bad blood between Halaa and us, but I’m not here to disrupt the peace that’s been here all these years.” They had played right into Halaa’s hands. With father’s probably believing they had been lost at sea, the Halans could either kill him or hold him ransom.
“I certainly hope not.” The chief let his hands drop and a smile broke out over his round face. “Otherwise, how do I get to learn more about your Hall of Creations?”
“Huh?” Darius shook his head. Did the man just ask about the Hall of Creations? “What do you…why do you want to know…”
“Because the paintings there are brilliant. The colours, the textures…” All the menace in the King’s mannerism disappeared.
Darius blinked his eyes. “But….”
“Al’zarak kshwaihar! They had told me you bore a deep hatred of us but I didn’t know you were completely ignorant.”
“The King and the Heart – your father, who else?”
“You….I always thought…” The room swirled around him. It had to be a joke. Tarvus looked as shocked.
“Oh come...why do you think we have had peace these past two years? Because the tribes of Halaa are changing, dear Prince. No longer do we yearn for lands or wealth to hoard simply to become the most powerful chief. We are learning to appreciate the nuances of life. That is why I was appointed as the King of Halaa by your fathers.”
“You were appointed? By whom?”
The King rolled his eyes. “I just told you. By King Thaddius, of course. Have you been given kelmroot?”
“You lie. Why would Old Father appoint the King of Halaa? You’ve raided and pilfered our kingdom for years.”
“Calm down, young prince. We settled our differences since the last war. Halaa is no match for the Throdden rule. We understand that. We are scattered and divided tribes with very little to unite us. Which is why King Thaddius gave us the chance to improve our life. My people have too much honour to become part of your rule but that does not mean we cannot strive to live in peace and prosper together.”
Darius shook his head. This could not be true. Halaa was the most reviled of all Throdden enemies and suddenly, they’d become allies. This had to be a trap.
“Prince Darius, it is evident that these…revelations seem to have taken you by surprise. I have prepared quarters for you. You and your men may rest there and meet me when your thoughts are more aligned. Fret not, you have no enemies here. I shall send word to Sen-Tian about your well-being.”
Darius’ feet wouldn’t move. He had been kept in the dark for so long by his fathers. No wonder they agreed so readily to me switching places with Fabius. They knew I would ask for that.
Caranne whipped his sword out as two blurs lunged towards him. He parried six blows in sucession before spinning past them with his favourite feint, Cat Paws the Apple. But he almost stumbled, as his finishing swish arced through the air instead of hitting the men. The men twisted, blades slashing towards him in unison.
Caranne jumped back, knocking over a small table. The two guards paused and stepped forward in unison. Arbok’s twisted nails! How are they moving so fast? For the first time in his life, he felt uncertain in a sword-fight.
A loud bang distracted all three of them. Dah-Kun had burnt through the tree cage that the man in the wine-red cloak had grown around him. He tried to catch the bandit lord’s eye to ask for aid but the man seemed engrossed in his own duel. He dove and rolled as two wide arcs cut the air where he stood.
The next attack was one he could not avoid. One went for his neck while the other slashed low. Even as he parried the first blow, the second cut through his leather armour and sliced into his side.
Caranne groaned hobbled back but there was no pause from his attackers. He could no longer match swords with their speed. No! I will not die here against nameless foes under the spell of a bloody plant-pruning gardener. He leaped towards the men, dodging the two blades, and flicking his wrist. He took another hit to his left shoulder but his flick had curved his blade over into one the men’s neck.
Blood gushed out as the man dropped limp on the ground. Caranne gathered himself up, as the other man paused for a moment. So, even under a spell, they understand and fear death.
The men had unnatural speed but he held the skill advantage. He watched as the man swung his sword towards his ribs, feignted and changed direction. He dropped to his knee, no longer overawed by the blurring speed. His strike rang true sinking into flesh, right above the heart. He pulled the sword free and pushed the man down on the ground.
Caranne kept his sword down but free to swing at a moment’s notice and breathed. Pain flared in his side.
But the other fight was over as well. The man in the wine red cloak lay writhing on the floor, blood seeping from his stomach into the earth. Caranne leaned on his sword and dropped to his knees. His muscles screamed at the rigours of the battle and his lungs pained as he drew breath.
Dah-Kun looked far less exhausted. He looked up at the bandit lord.
“Don’t worry, Master Viallan. You will live. But first witness this.” Dah-Kun let out a smile. “He took an army from me. Now he will give it back two-fold.” He raised the staff and plunged it into the heart of the man, who gave out a guttural scream which petered out as he convulsed and fell dead.
The staff started emitting a pink smoke.
“What is that?” Caranne exclaimed, in spite of the pain.
“This is me claiming his abilities for my own. My land had very little magic to offer. So we devised ways to drain magic off others. Well, that’s what this had been made for. You can imagine that we didn’t use it just on the dead.”
“So now you can control those plants?”
The smoke billowed out, enveloping the staff completely. Dah-Kun closed his eyes, his face drooping as he inhaled the smoke. “Not just the plants. I control everyone the plants have intoxicated. But not as intoxicating as fresh magic. This man held close to the maximum magic I’ve ever had.”
“Wait, how strong are you now?”
“With this staff and all the fresh magic flowing around in the land, I can achieve feats which were only legends on my land. You thought raising a city was impressive? I can raise it into the sky.” The pink smoke dwindled and the staff absorbed it.
Caranne smiled through the pain. The Viallans will rise again.