Chapter 5: An Unwelcome Duty
Egan, Chief Warrant Officer of Gilead’s guard, shifted uneasily in his saddle. His long, tousled, dirty blonde locks hid the worry lines that had cemented themselves across his young face. Before taking his position of authority, he’d had the look of any fair-complexioned aristocrat, but his time on duty had left him unshaven, rough, and ragged. His green eyes searched the shadowy horizon. They had grown accustomed to the darkness that permeated the landscape and marred the hilltops like a stain. The intermittent moonlight cast deep shadows across the walls and towers of the city as if to mourn the death of the sun. Only the bags under Egan’s eyes betrayed the many sleepless nights he’d had while protecting the safety of the city. He still remembered the morning that never came and the panic that slowly spread across the faces of his men as they tried to calm the fears of the people. Hours to turned to days, and days to weeks of unending darkness. Now the sun’s face was a distant memory, barely mentioned in greeting. Though tall in stature, Egan sat bent over in his saddle and, when walking, had the gait of a man three times his age, the responsibilities of his position laying heavy on his back. Two of his men had returned with nothing to report, but the third was still away. Fog rolled across the grassy moors of Gilead’s highlands that spread before him. The night mist still seemed unnatural to Egan, though all the queen’s sages said it was merely a cycle of the winter equinox. Still, men could be wrong. Enemies could hide in the gloom as well as in any bush or cave. His gut told him something more was out there. He’d learned to trust his instincts over others’ words. It’s what had helped him rise so far, so fast.
Egan wished his father was here to see him now. Youngest in the family, Egan had fought well at the Calling of Squires. He had risen in rank quickly to Warden, and then First Officer. Now he had acquired the rank of Chief Warrant Officer. At the age of 25, he was the youngest to ever do so.
“Rely on your sword arm,” his father had instructed him the day before the Calling. “You need nothing else,” Egan remembered how they’d sat on the shore and stared out across the sea. His father leaned on his notched cedar staff as Egan sat and skipped stones perfectly across the waves using his favorite leather sling. His father carefully chose his words. “You carry the family name, but you must earn the respect it brings. And remember gods fall, people fail you, but your blade will never betray you.”
“What if I fail to hold the blade? What if I falter?” Egan asked.
“When you were a newborn, we lived east of the Royal Road, in a little sod house by the Altain River. One night a pack of wild sabers surrounded our house. Normally those fierce panthers hunt alone but they’d smelled the birth, smelled you and they altered their tactics. I didn’t have a bow or arrow or steel of any kind to protect your mother and you. Nothing but this.” His father gripped the staff firmly. “I stood at the door and saw a dozen eyes staring back. They came at me, one by one, then two or three at a time, all night long. They came until their carcasses littered the doorway and the rest realized I wouldn’t move. I would’ve done it with my hands if I’d had to.”
Egan looked down at his own small hands.
“Look at me, boy.” His father gazed into his eyes. “Protect the kingdom, that is your charge. To your dying breath. Do that and I’ll always have a son.”
A third messenger broke through the fog and brought Egan’s mind back to the present. He reined in his horse and motioned to his men. “Come, we’ll meet him.”
Being young for his station, he fought for his men’s respect at first, and in time they gave it to him as they saw his hand was fair in all dealings. Unlike the Captain of the Guard, who was found in bawdry houses on most nights, while his men protected the Queen. Egan patrolled the city with his men and saw to their needs as best he could. Rumors of extra coin from merchant shakedowns and lavish quarters had drawn many of his men to the Captain’s ranks but the few that remained were loyal, or so Egan hoped.
As Egan and his riders approached the third man on the hilltop, the messenger caught his breath.
“Chief, I spotted a cottage roughly a league south of here on the cliffs . . . hidden away in a grove of olive trees. There’s a chance the old man lives there.”
Egan sighed. “Well then, I guess we should investigate.” He moved past the messenger and led his troop forward across the sloping grasslands. His official orders were to track down a zealot soothsayer, but his duty was to protect the kingdom. Not even the king’s missing daughter took precedence over capturing the prophet now. Priorities had changed, whether he agreed with them or not. As Egan lead his men to the bluffs and into the grove, he wondered if the enemies he had sensed had already breached the kingdom’s boundaries. His hand rested on his childhood sling, still wrapped around his belt. Something dark was coming in the waves, and he had no stone to cleave it.
The black galleon swayed as it pulled behind the Amorite fleet. From the Captain’s quarter, a pair of green reptilian eyes gazed out onto the distant shore. The echo of the conch was unmistakable and, even from such a distance, Dagon could hear its call. The sorcerer put a black bone whistle to his lips and gently blew a note. In the distance, he heard the conch echo its refrain. There could be no mistaking it, the horn was near. Events had played out just like his master, the Dark Lord had foretold. The sorcerer turned to leave his cabin but paused. Something else was present. Something or someone had come through from the other place. His scavengers had found the doorway again only two nights past, and he had allowed their excursions if only to sate their ravenous appetites. But someone had followed them back.
A boy. The dark whispers told him. Dagon licked his lips as a faint memory tickled his brain. The other place. . .
He shook his head. It didn’t matter. All would come to bow before the black throne. He left his cabin and called to his men.