Dance the dance in times of fire
Dance until the morning comes
Dance the dance until the evening
Watch the Shadowwalker burn
Song heard during the Feast of Shadows in Ka’Dal
Prologue: Out of the Shadows
The sky was the deep blue of a sleepy sea, the rising sun a mere promise on the horizon. The faint aroma of burned timber still lingered in the salty breeze, a pleasant smell, compared to the thick, biting smoke that had filled the streets of Ka’Dal, capital of L’Onia, just three days past.
Up on the hill the stink wasn’t as bad as down below, especially at the port, where galleys and fishing boats alike had gone up in flame once he had had the unconditional surrender of the city. There had been no need for fighting. He had made sure of that. And he had made sure that noone had a means to flee the city either. He chose to learn from his mistakes. Always.
A guard saw him pass across the courtyard and saluted. He acknowledged the greeting with a nod of his head and went on, toward the stables. When he entered, he heard a rustle up in the hayloft. But since he knew that there was a stable hand on duty at all times, he dismissed the noise. Let the boy watch. There was no harm in that.
He felt himself relax just a little as he took in the warmth, the smell, the low thud of a hoof on the wooden boards as one of the animals tethered in the boxes dreamily shifted its legs.
His own horse was penned in a loose box, mostly for the stable hands’ safety. Taiko was a warhorse and trained to defend himself quite viciously when not controlled by his master. Right now, the stallion was peacefully munching hay. Even in the dim light his coat, a deep chestnut brown, shone with health and vigor. Taiko was an unusual cross-breed of the fast, agile L’Onian hunters – sleek horses fit for racing – and the heavy draft horses of Pan’Desal – tall and powerful. A freak, as the Peacekeepers’ Master of the Stables back at Andenfeld used to call him.
“Good morning, handsome.”
The freak stopped chewing and snorted.
His master grinned, climbed over the wall of the pen and was nearly crushed against it when Taiko moved in enthusiastically, his body radiating heat like a furnace.
“I get you”, he murmured, put a hand on the horse’s shoulder and, running his fingers along the length of the stallion’s spine right up to his flanks, gently but firmly pushed him away. Only very little pressure was needed to have Taiko take one step back, his great body swaying like a moored ship moved by the tide. He could feel the animal’s muscles underneath its warm skin and, on impulse, put his forehead against the stallion’s thick neck. Breathing the familiar scent, he felt himself relax even further.
There was a gasp from up in the hayloft and Taiko, instantly alert, snorted a warning.
He tensed, even before a man’s voice said, “Turn around. Slowly.”
The newcomer spoke with the soft, melodical cadences of the Eastern empire, Sharad. That country, it was said, boasted endless swamps and forests thick with trees, trees tall enough to blot out the sky. Whether that was true, he did not know. He had never been there himself.
Maybe, he mused idly, that was about to change. There were, after all, only two reasons why someone from Sharad would go to the risk of setting an ambush for the Lord Commander of the Sebanian army in a city occupied by his own Peacekeepers: either to kill or to capture him. And he was not dead yet.
“I should warn you”, the man continued. “If you make a move for that dagger hidden in your boot I will have your horse shot. You would not want that.”
Indeed, he would not. So he turned around, slowly, just as he had been told, yet with all the coiled grace of a master swordsman. A shame he had left his blade back in his quarters. Of course, they had to have known that.
“Good, good”, the voice announced, satisfied.
Said voice belonged to a tall man dressed in simple yet elegantly cut clothes of a style faintly reminiscent of L’Onia’s traditional garb. At a cursory glance the stranger might even have passed for a local. He wore a severe expression on his haggard face and his eyes were studying Seban’s Lord Commander top to bottom, bottom to top. He knew, of course, what they would see: a lean man of average height, his curly hair cut short.
“Your Reverence”, he said with a smile.
“You know me?”
Ihan Rhyss, Emperor of Sharad, Blessed by the Flame, grunted in apparent surprise. “Well, then we have that much in common. I also know a little about you”, he offered. “They say Dakash Dakahr is a soldier’s son, born in the Eastern marshes of Pan’Desal. Shortly after his father’s death his mother married a lowly noble. The boy left home, became a soldier himself, served with Lord Roen’s Riders for a few years, went on to join the Peacekeepers in Seban, quickly rose to rank and caught the king’s eye.” The emperor paused briefly, favoring him with a smile of his own. “I can see why Etarion Nassagath chose you. I know what kind of men he prefers. I suspect you knew too.” When Dakash showed no sign of rising to the challenge, he continued. “They say you have a talent for war, that you are ambitious beyond measure, ruthless in achieving your goals. They also say that it is you who rules Seban, not Etarion. A shadow king.”
“Is that so? Well, they say you are a sorcerer, Reverence.”
Ihan Rhyss frowned fiercely. Whether because he deemed his calling him a sorcerer an insult or because he resented his addressing him with a title he knew he hated, remained unclear. Nevertheless, Dakash had to have hit a sore spot, for one of the emperor’s three companions actually felt compelled to speak out in his lord’s stead.
“You will kneel, scum!” the man growled and took a step toward him.
“Enough.” The emperor motioned for the guard to stand down. “Still, he is right. You are quite insolent, considering current circumstances.”
“I am just a simple soldier, Reverence”, Dakash explained, while looking him boldly in the eye. “They may call me Lord Commander to my face, but I am not one of them. Never will be either.”
This time, Ihan Rhyss laughed out loud. “Modest too”, he chuckled. “Very well. You may pretend, if you like. Yet I know that you are all the things they say about you.”
“As you wish, Reverence. And now, since we have established the facts, may I ask, why are you here?”
“Again, I am a simple man. I do not bandy words.”
“No. You don’t, do you? Your actions speak for themselves. This was why the very first thing you did, when you started this crusade, was to invade your own homeland. You crushed its capital and had Arandeth Lour, your own king, executed.”
“Etarion Nassagath of Seban is the only king I serve.”
“I forgot. You are a mercenary. A traitor”, Rhyss hissed.
Dakash ignored the half-hearted insult. Insults never won an argument. Facts did. “Omasha was an example”, he explained. “One the Council of L’Onia took to heart. There was no blood shed here in Ka’Dal, no one was executed. They surrendered before that could become necessay.”
“You are defending yourself.”
“You are afraid.”
He shrugged. “Maybe. But since I am neither dead nor on a ship bound for Sharad, in chains, mind you, I will ask again: what is it you want of me?”
The emperor’s eyes lit up with something Dakash could not quite identify. Was it the beginning of grudging respect, or merely exasperation?
“Delphir.” Ihan Rhyss paused for emphasis, which was quite unnecessary. “I take it you have heard of it?” he nevertheless continued, when Dakash did not respond.
“I know the legends”, he contended, if only because Ihan Rhyss seemed to expect some sort of answer and he did not want to antagonize the man more than was strictly necessary to flatter his own ego.
“Legends”, the sorcerer snorted. “Etarion wishes to rebuild an empire that was lost thousands of years ago. That is the sole purpose of your wars of conquest. To reunite the lands and to rule as High King, as the Djuna once did.”
Dakash smiled. “Sharad is safe from me”, he assured him.
“I am relieved to hear it. Yet you should know that the Djuna, the dynasty that once ruled all of these lands, Sharad included, survive to this day, albeit in a small way.”
He frowned. “Survive? How?”
“Think, Dakahr. Once there was Delphir, Empire of the Sun. Today, there are only petty kingdoms left. Seban, L’Onia and Mandana. Except-”
“I see.” Dakash exhaled slowly. “Two empires still exist. Kaala to the West, ruled by the Dawn, and Sharad to the East, protected by the Flame. By you.”
“Indeed. Kaala and Sharad have been ridiculed in the past, belittled. Because we choose not to interfere in your petty conflicts. We trade, we watch. We bide our time. And now, thanks to you, we will reclaim what was once ours.”
“So.” He frowned ever so slightly. “You want me to deliver your lost empire to you.”
“You are the only one who can, Dakahr. Over the course of the past few months you have proven that you are a general without equal-”
“You are too kind-”
“Do let me finish, scum.” Dakash blinked, once. “Yes. You are scum, Dakahr. A mercenary, whose price is power”, Ihan Rhyss went on coldly. “And I shall give it to you. The power to crush the only realm that would resist us. The one that defeated us, defeated the Djuna, and scattered their remains into the winds. Do you know what realm that is?”
“Yes”, Ihan Rhyss nodded. “The Dragon’s realm to the far North, beyond Civres, beyond the mountains. An ancient truce protects it, one that is ruthlessly enforced by the Shigan of Hamath. They guard the forests and passes jealously. You have, I take it, heard of their Master of the Hunt? Gora’man is more than your equal on any battlefield and he, contrary to you, cannot be bought. Do you understand now, why I am speaking to you, and not to him? For that was the question you were going to ask, was it not?”
“The Master of the Hunt will die. And once you have pacified the savages of Mandana, we will speak again.”
“I will not betray Etarion.”
“You will not have to.”
“Because”, Dakash replied, “you would not speak to me unless you knew that your own forces would stand no chance against Gora’man’s and none against mine. You came here to talk, with just a few of your precious knights to ensure your safety. Should anyone raise the alarm, Sorcerer, you are going down. So”, he continued with a wolfish smile, “you will leave, quietly. And trust this: once I have pacified Mandana, I am coming for you.”
It was an empty threat. No army could march across the swamps of the Smallwood Forest that separated Mandana and Sharad, and no fleet could match that of the Flame itself. So Ihan Rhyss returned his smile with one of his own.
“You think that boy up in the hayloft will raise the alarm? Think again.” Dakash heard noise and movement above, then the stable hand was pushed forward, right up to the edge of the loft. There was a knife to his throat and fear in his eyes. “I could have both of you killed. Even your truly magnificent steed, that I know you care for more deeply than any man or woman you’ve ever lain with. But I will not. Know that you live today only because I will it so. The next time we speak, and rest assured, that day will come, you may not be so fortunate. So I shall leave you to your conquests. But in the end, this I promise, I will have my empire.”
Ihan Rhyss turned and disappeared, trailed by his three guards. The fourth, the one holding the terrified stable hand, shoved the boy right off the edge of the hayloft, and vanished with a smirk.
Dakash immediately vaulted the pen’s enclosure and knelt down next to the youth, who was just propping himself up on his hands and knees. “Are you hurt?”
“I nearly pissed myself. But nothing’s broken. I think.”
“That’s good.” As he rose, Dakash patted the boy’s shoulder and moved behind him, to help him to his feet. “You won’t breathe a word to anyone about what you’ve seen and heard here, understood?”
The youth hesitated. Maybe he was wondering why the Lord Commander wanted to keep this meeting secret, yet even an oaf like him should realize that, if news of this encounter somehow found its way to the Court in Delvaer, Etarion would have no choice but to have his lover executed for treason.
“Yes, my lord”, the boy answered at last, but he was too late.
Dakash, still standing behind him, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and smashed his head into the floorboards hard.
Taiko responded to the sudden violence with alarm. Which was just what his master had intended.
Usually, when he sat in the saddle, Dakash needed no words to impose his will on the warhorse. In the heat of battle, though, an arrow, a blade or a very determined footman could unseat even an accomplished rider such as himself. So Dakash had made up a number of commands, both unmistakable and easy to yell across a battlefield. These commands were Atta, Kun, Ten and Cee. Noone would understand what they meant. Except for Taiko.
“Cee”, Dakash ordered curtly and he pushed the dazed youth against the pen holding his horse.
Taiko obediently stepped back.
Satisfied, the Lord Commander heaved the unresisting boy over the wooden wall of the enclosure; let him drop onto the straw.
The stallion, already tense, stuck his head out, bared his teeth and flattened his ears against his neck. It was a final warning. One the unfortunate stable hand failed to notice.
“Ten, Taiko”, Dakash whispered.
The warhorse attacked with intimidating ferocity, kicking, biting and trampling the boy, whose desperate, pained screams were quickly lost in the whinnies of a stable full of terrified horses trying to get away from the outraged stallion.
Taiko reared one last time, shook his head with a final, trumpeting cry and settled back down as if nothing had happened at all. Of the stable hand there remained only a bloody pulp of broken bones and flesh.
“Kun, boy”, Dakash murmured and offered his hand to the approaching animal. Taiko was still wary, undoubtedly upset by the smell of blood and horse sweat, but once he put his warm, soft lips against his master’s palm, Dakash used his voice to calm the animal. “It was an accident”, he murmured gently. “That boy should not have climbed into your pen. Is that right?” The stallion let out a small sigh of contentment. “I thought so. Now, let me call for assistance and have this mess cleaned up.”
Dakash turned toward the great double doors, wondering how Ihan Rhyss and his men had managed to slip past the guards. Maybe thanks to magic, he mused, and maybe thanks to something far more mundane. Like bribery. Or treason.
Had Rhyss truly believed he could be bought so easily? That he’d be impressed, awed even, by his appearing in person?
Well. As it were, the Emperor of Sharad had made a mistake by coming here and revealing his plans to him.
For Dakash knew that, while he and his troops might not be able to reach Sharad by land or by sea, the empire itself was heavily dependent on grain imports. Once Mandana fell, and with it Kondo Harbor, he would have control of every major port along the coast and a sizeable fleet of his own. Before long, they’d be forced to eat their precious trees in Sharad.
Maybe Ihan Rhyss knew and did not care. Maybe he just figured that Sharad was not Dakash’s primary concern. And he’d be right. Mandana was. Which was why, back in his quarters, Dakash summoned his secretary.
Loukan Imarra, who had been a sergeant in Pan’Desal’s army during the conquest of its capital, Omasha, arrived at a dead run. “How may I serve?”
“I found one of the local stable hands in Taiko’s pen. I do not know what happened, but the poor soul will need to be removed and his body given to his family. A compensation is in order, I think, and an apology on my behalf. Have Andres see to it.”
“I will also need to speak with Fyrebow,” he continued. “Have breakfast prepared, Mandanan style.”
“You abhor raw meat, my lord.”
“But he relishes it. And I would not want to disappoint the High Lord of Mandana, would I?”
“He does not hold that title any longer.”
“It is not titles that hold true power, Loukan.”
Imarra bowed low. “You are, of course, quite right, my lord. I shall see to it.”
Dakash watched him leave. Like many soldiers, and, come to that, many nobles of his native Pan’Desal, Loukan Imarra had been given a choice: join, or die. Arlan Fyrebow, High Lord, or king, of Mandana, who had been dethroned by his own son months ago, had also been given a choice: support Seban, or die. He had been the one who had convinced the Council of L’Onia that no aid could be expected of the Eastern clans, that Mandana would look after its own and no further. It was a lie, of course, but a convenient one. And it had made their choice that much easier.
Ihan Rhyss thought that he knew him, but, in truth, he did not know anything at all. Sharad and Kaala were footnotes in the history of what had emerged from the ruins of Delphir. They’d had no desire to interfere in the affairs of their neighbours, which was their loss, not his. Shadow king indeed!
Titles did not hold power.
But he did.
And he meant to keep it.