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First pages

When the day turns to night,

When the darkness claims the light,

That is when the demons come.

 

When the people sleep and dream,

When their thoughts sparkle and gleam,

That is when the demons come.

 

When the world forgets the terror,

When men stumble and error,

That is when the demons come.

 

Demons, a Winterbournian poem

 

Under the thick, suffocating blanket of Darkness there is always a glimmer of Light, for who amongst us can truly say that a man has never performed even a single good deed?

 

extract from Soren Redbeard: A Mage’s Learnings

 

“Halt! Who goes there?”

“Please, I am hungry and weary. My horse gave up on me miles ago.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Vrastor. Please, it’s late, and I’m too old to be out in the wilderness on my own.”

“Vrastor? What is your business here at Relioc Keep?”

“I was travelling to the castle, but if this is Relioc, I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.”

“A wrong turn? On the Landway? It’s one long road!”

“I beg you. My old legs won’t support me for much longer.”

“Fine, fine. What’s that staff you’re holding?”

“It’s just my walking stick. When you get to my age, you’ll need one too.”

“It’s a bit big for a walking stick, no? Okay, fine. Yaro! Pull the gate up! We have an old man out here to stay in the keep for the night.”

“Thank you sir, thank you.”

- - -

The path was dusty, dry, pocked with pebbles, his feet dragging, his toes occasionally kicking stones as his tired legs failed to raise up high enough, unable to avoid the unseen little buggers.

They were unseen because Ethan was blindfolded. They were little buggers because unexpectedly kicking a solid sphere with a bare toe is like stubbing it on the corner of a chair, but not just one chair, instead thousands, each one essentially giving him the finger as his toe squished against them, again and again.

Ethan had been trying to work out exactly where he was being taken. There was the sound of birds coming down the trees – rootdukes, baby smulps, nuzzlets – which only helped Ethan deduce that he was still in the Wolpers, which wasn’t really helpful at all. The Wolpers covered a vast expanse of land, at least a hundred miles in all directions, but the variety of wildlife was sorely lacking. His nose was as equally useless as his covered eyes, the stench of his captors dangerously pungent and overpowering. He was afraid that if he breathed in too deeply it would rapidly develop into a serious case of death. Despite the situation, he tried to stay positive.

“Where did you say we were off to again, eh lads?”

His only reply was a grunt, and a weighty slap around the back of the head.

Ethan had been a captive for six days now, ever since he had been blindsided back in the rough and dirty town of Lowchance. He had been taken far more easily than he would have liked to admit, considering his usual ability to slink away from danger, and he was feeling pretty embarrassed about it all, actually. True, he’d been rather distracted at the time by the sloshing mug of ale and the softness of that barmaid’s lips – damn, what was her name? – but he’d never been grabbed as effortlessly as that before. Damn beasts, spoiling what had been setting up to be an exceptional evening.

At least he’d been wearing his usual outfit: ruffled white shirt, black full length trousers, a belt with a hawk-shaped buckle, and thick, black boots, although he’d since been stripped of them, as his sore feet were happy to constantly remind him. If he’d been seized a short while later, while almost certainly tucked up in bed with that delightful brunette, he’d probably be walking naked right now. The scimitar tucked into the belt had been of no use during his capture and had been unceremoniously discarded, although it was a plain steel blade and so nothing magical had been lost to him.

His current frustration stemmed from the fact that not once during his tenure had his blindfold been removed. The kivvers – his captors – weren’t a particularly talkative bunch, and so Ethan was a touch lost. This didn’t happen to him very often.

“Oh come on, we’ve been walking for days now,” he said. “At least give me a hint where we’re heading.”

“Shup. No quessions.” The kivver spit the words out sharply.

“Westhook? Is it Westhook? It feels like we’re near Westhook, the wind tastes acidic.”

“No’ Westuk. No quessions.”

“Ah, Brumberly Bottom then. I’d know the way there with my eyes closed. It’s the pebbles you see, they’re smoother than usual.”

“No’ Brum’ly Bo’m. No more talk.”

“Then it must be Crinkle Hill! I’m sure I can hear the creaking of the old windmill in the dist” Ethan suddenly stopped both talking and walking, on account of an extremely sharp, cold object being pressed to his throat.

“No more talk. We dere in tree, four days.” The voice of the kivver hung loose in the air for a moment, its owner perhaps pondering how best to gloat with a limited vocabulary.

“We gon’ get reward. Yer gon’ get…” Ethan imagined the pained expression on his captor’s face as it searched its clunky brain for a word. “Yer gon’ get… made dead!”

Despite the knife at his throat, Ethan gave a slight smirk. I’ll outwit them eventually, he thought, and then I’ll make my way back to Lowchance and pick up where I’d left off, although I really should try and remember that barmaid’s name before returning…

The coldness of the steel blade at his throat brought him back to the present.

“Really?” he said, slowly, aware that a slip of the kivver’s hand could end his life in a very short, very intense, very decorative fashion. “Made dead? Come on, you’re better than that, fellas.”

The kivver grunted again. “No more,” it said.

Ethan felt the blade teasingly retract from his throat, followed by a shove to his back as a signal to resume walking.

 

The group plodded on for a couple more hours. It was dull progress for Ethan. He started to sing a little tune under his breath, one he’d picked up in Lowchance the day before his new companions had arrived.

I met a girl down Brumberly way; Beautiful, stunning, as bright as the day; She stole my heart like a loving curse; She stole my heart and my weighty purse; For she’s a pirate, a pirate, a pirate lady; A pirate, a pira–

Ethan was cut short by another wallop to his head. A kivver in front of him grunted loudly. The heavy footsteps of the entire group stopped abruptly, and a pair of hands yanked Ethan back heavily by his shoulders, so sharply that he felt a stab of pain in his neck as it whipped about.

“List’n,” he heard the grunting kivver say.

Ethan strained his ears, his feeble human sense paling in comparison to his captors. There was the familiar high-pitched tweet tweet of a nuzzlet from above and across to his right, but he highly doubted that the tiny red birds would cause a kivver to stop. No other noise was filtering through to him. He waited, curious to know what had intrigued the beasts. Then he heard it, too, an unexpected rustling of leaves low to his left, possibly about twenty paces or so away. The lack of any wind or breeze was what had drawn the kivvers’ interest.

“Have look,” said the same kivver, ordering another of the party to investigate.

The kivver directly in front of Ethan starting walking towards the noise. Its footsteps were slow, but a kivver is a cumbersome beast, and so quietness or stealth of any kind is about as effective as ignoring a spiked mace being smashed into one’s face. Besides, the stench of a kivver is simply undisguisable. Getting too close to the creature runs a risk of requiring stitches inside one’s nostril.

Ethan wished he could see the image of the stalking kivver right now. Well, he would have preferred to have not been blindfolded for any part of the journey, but now especially, even with the imminent prospect of death, or at least excruciating pain, he would have found it hard not to wear a wide grin on his face.

A typical kivver is between seven and eight feet tall, has tanned, leathery skin dotted with tufts of dark hair, is bulky and muscular, and has a temperament ferocious enough to match its size. It’s rumoured that they are the offspring of mythical giants and goblins, although no one can quite work out the biological logistics of how that came to happen. They’re dim-witted and slow, but there’s not many people who would cross them or their multitude of blades and spears, at least not more than once. Kivvers usually stick together in a pack of around five or six, and are the continent of Kramat’s expendable goons-for-hire. Oddly, they have exceptionally good hearing, which may explain why they communicate primarily through a series of grunts, although that might also be because they have all the intelligence of a common woodlouse.

Knowing this, and that the chances of a pack of kivvers masterminding a kidnapping operation are slim to none, Ethan had spent a significant chunk of his bored six days pondering whose orders they were following. From the many people he could think of who would love to rip his mouth open far enough to shove his own legs into, they were all either far away, locked up, too poor to do anything about it, or in the case of one rather unfortunate gentlemen, drifting slowly along inside a flagulla’s intestines after being polymorphed into an indigestible diamond ring (a flagulla is a long, large, snake-like creature, the unusually high concentration of magic within it capable of keeping the polymorph intact).

Ethan had made many enemies over his twenty-eight years of existence, but after the last job he had felt safer than normal, that is, there was some semblance of him not pissing anyone off for a short amount of time. In hindsight, this was a stupid thing to think. Ethan had made getting other people angry into an art form, and there was rarely a moment when someone wasn’t trying to either stab him, strangle him, or otherwise maim him until he had the good sense to lay down and die.

The investigative kivver took a few more slow, thunderous steps towards the source of the disturbance, when the rustling noise changed into an ear-splitting, shrieking yodel, followed by something landing daintily on to the dusty ground, finally ending in what could only be described as the sound of a ceramic balloon popping. Moments later, an earth-shaking thump reverberated in Ethan’s ears as the kivver’s body collapsed heavily onto the floor.

Time slowed down as adrenaline surged throughout Ethan’s body.

In his mind, he pictured himself rolling away swiftly to the other side of the road, deftly grasping a sharp stone with his hands mid-roll – which were still tied behind his back – and using it to rapidly cut the thick rope binding them, thus allowing him to finally remove his blindfold prison, shout a cheeky catchphrase out to the kivvers to let them know that they could never apprehend the magnificent Ethan for long (he’d think of something appropriate to say on the spot, he was sure) and complete his daring escape.

In reality, however, he shifted his weight to begin rolling, immediately slipped on a loose pebble inconveniently positioned directly underneath his right foot, and smacked hard into the ground, landing heavily on his shoulder, forcing a grunt as the air shot out of his lungs. Now in considerable pain, scrunching his face up in reply to his shoulder’s rapidly insistent cries of torment, he threw the weight of his other shoulder across him as he attempted to sidle to the relative safety of the opposite side of the road, and became quite possibly the most pitiful escapee ever seen.

Thankfully the other kivvers were too busy trying to comprehend how a sprightly figure had leaped out of a bush and exploded one of their heads. Naturally, for creatures of a mean temperament and a low intelligence, they didn’t think too hard, and had instead simply grunted and charged. What followed, in a surprisingly short amount of time, was a bloodbath. The kivvers, for all their size and strength, simply couldn’t keep up with the aggressor, who was bouncing around with a giant axe.

By the end of it two of them had their chests burst wide open, one was lying dead still, face down in the dirt, and another trying desperately to keep its insides inside. A fifth kivver was on its knees with a spear erupting from its stomach, who had been in the wrong spot when the kivver behind him had lunged forward with the weapon. The spear’s owner, the final kivver, was currently spinning around very slowly where it stood, its head pointed up, its eyes dazed and unfocused.

While his captors were busy being dispatched, as he was slithering his way out of the action, Ethan had actually managed to grab a stone. Unfortunately for him, it had turned out to be too smooth for anything other than giving the rope a slight polish. Lying there on his belly, his chin up in the air as if his eyes weren’t seeing only the dull black of the blindfold, he heard footsteps approach him. Not the thumping footsteps of a kivver but dainty footsteps, like a two ounce fairy trying to stomp with all its might. Ethan attempted to raise his head higher in a futile effort to appear that, yes, he did actually have some semblance of dignity still.

“Ya not havin’ a good day, are ya?”

The voice was high-pitched, feminine, and sounded quite young. Ethan tried to place the accent. She sounds like a commoner from one of the cities, he thought. Garatheep maybe? Or Pork Belly? There’s definitely a twang of Porko in there, and they all speak like everyone’s dancing around in pig shit and having a fantastic time, but that dump of the world is still hundreds of miles away.

“Not the best, no,” he conceded. “You’re from Garatheep, right?”

“Nah, Ne’ercolm.”

“Wow,” said Ethan, impressed. “You’re a bit far from home.”

“An’ ya a bit stuck.”

“So it appears, yes.”

“Would ya like me to take ya blindfold off, then?”

Ethan nodded, and felt her lean over. Suddenly, there was sunlight. Real, heavenly, golden sunlight, washing over his face and into his eyes. He blinked furiously for a couple of seconds, attempting to adjust his vision to something other than the perpetual darkness which had been his only friend for almost an entire, long week.

He felt incredible, elated. Ethan was finally free! His time on the road with his captors was over, and he was a prisoner no more! As his eyes gradually focused on the figure standing over him, her smooth, young face peering quizzically into his own, a few strands of shockingly light blonde hair which had escaped from her tight ponytail to dangle over her baby blue eyes, he found himself starting to grin.

This, he thought to himself, could turn out great.

A heavy blow to his head then knocked him unconscious, slipping him back into the darkness.

- - -

Luanna opened her eyes. Daylight was pouring in through her bedroom’s tall, glass window. She sighed wearily, pulled the thick blanket off, and sat up with her feet resting on the floor. A yawn from behind made her grimace.

“Mmm, good morning my little Lu-Lu.”

Luanna felt fingers walking delicately up her bare back. She had to stop herself from tensing up at the touch.

“My prince,” she replied, standing up and walking over to the window. She gazed out. It was a glorious day. From the height of her bedroom, higher than most other points in the castle, she could see for a few miles into the distance.

The first few hundred yards were grey stone – the courtyard and its high outer walls – but after that was a sea of green. Castle Drumond was an aged castle, not the most architecturally pleasing but sturdy and practical. Generations of kings had held it fast, using it to command a natural vantage point from on top of a hill, the otherwise predominantly flat terrain around not allowing any would-be usurpers to arrive unexpectedly. Lush fields and farmhouses stretched out to the horizon. Tall, spreading trees dotted the landscape, their branches extending outward majestically. A wide, dusty-orange road lay interwoven between them, finishing at a large steel gate in the wall over to Luanna’s right. Behind the castle, a mile from the safety of the walls, ran the Saele river, starting from high up in the Spikes to flow into the sea many miles away to the southwest. Down below her she could see people going about their daily business, their voices faint from the height of her window: market traders proclaiming their wares; hawkers dishing out food; carts of goods being pulled around by tired looking donkeys; a group of guards patrolling, their thick boots crunching on the stone and mud.

Luanna sighed again. She hated perfect days like this. They reminded her of how differently things could have been.

For four years now she had been a resident of the castle. She wasn’t a prisoner, far from it, but she hadn’t left the castle walls since first walking through the portcullis. Luanna was a fairly plain-looking woman in her early thirties: average height, average build. Her dark blonde hair, which hung down to just below her shoulder blades, had a tendency to matt at any given opportunity. She didn’t particularly stand out from the crowd, but she never really tried to, either. If there was one thing she was proud of, though, it was her glare. Luanna could out-glare anything, her piercing green eyes cutting more sharply and deeply than any blade.

A gentle groan from the bed made her turn around. Prince Darvel was sprawled out across it entirely now, fully naked, his eyes closed, a faint smirk on his face. Luanna studied him. He was young – younger than her, anyway – and in very good shape. Lean, muscular, but not overly so. His dark hair was cut short, although with enough to give it a slight bounce. He had a hint of a baby face to go with his family’s trademark square jaw, which gave off just the right effect to his admirers, who swooned far more often in his presence than should be legal. Looks-wise, he was as ideal as any woman could wish for. A classical dreamboat of a man. Luanna loathed him.

“Last night was, um, amazing. Don’t you think, Lu-Lu?”

“Oh yes, sire,” she replied tartly.

“Come now, don’t be like that. I distinctly remember you enjoying yourself.” He grinned at her. “Very, very distinctly.”

You buffoonish idiot, Luanna thought. Out loud, she said, “Indeed, sire.” She smiled at him, a sly, coy smile. The prince – a man blinded by infatuation – had absolutely no idea how fake it was.

“I know you did, formalities or not. It was extraordinary.” The prince stared into Luanna’s green eyes. “You are extraordinary. Utterly, utterly, amazingly, extraordinary.” Luanna held his stare. He continued, speaking more quietly, as if he was now afraid of being overheard, “Luanna, if you were from a noble family, I would wed you in a heartbeat.”

Luanna simply replied, “As you wish, my prince.” She smirked at him.

The prince rolled his eyes at her. “Lu-Lu, the eternal enigma.”

He abruptly stood up, threw on his crumbled white one-piece shirt and his trousers, and left the room without saying another word.

As the door closed, Luanna sneered. She waited for another minute to ensure that he wasn’t going to burst the door open in an abrupt declaration of love, then pulled out the wooden chair under her large desk-dresser and sat down. Carefully, while muttering nondescript words under her breath, she pulled out the drawer. It resisted for a second before sliding open with a satisfying shhh noise. At the very back of it was a glass vial. She picked it up and inspected the contents closely. A red sparkling liquid gently sloshed around inside.

“Once more,” she whispered to herself. She tried to suppress a smile and failed. Luanna allowed the wide grin to engulf her face for a few precious moments, filling her entire being with happiness and warmth.

When it subsided she began muttering again, and with great care placed the vial back in the drawer. The drawer closed with a click. Luanna needed the prince, was sure to play him just right to keep him interested in coming back night after night, but she had tired of his bedroom antics long ago. At the start he had been fun, but now, honestly, she was just bored, and that boredom had grown into hatred. A woman needed variety, of which Darvel was sorely lacking.

There was a knock at the door. It was the type of knock where the knocker knew that a) the recipient of the knock was awake and available, and so a loud knock was not required, b) the origin of the knock (the head knocker) was the king, and therefore a loud knock certainly was required so as not to delay him, and c) the recipient of the knock was rumoured to be a witch, and witches do not generally find being disturbed agreeable. The knock ended up being a mixture of hard and soft raps upon the thick wooden door, which came across as a rather pitiful sound.

Luanna turned around sharply and glared at the door for a few seconds, before wrapping herself in a robe. She was in a strange mood, fluttering between disdain and irritation with the prince, and barely controlled joy at almost being free to continue her life. In spite of her usual dry, formal interactions with the castle’s guards, right now she felt, only slightly guiltily, like having a moment of pleasure at this poor man’s expense.

“Come,” she commanded.

The door opened slowly. A round-faced guard was standing straight, dressed in the standard Erdantian attire of gold painted armour and helmet, with a sword strapped to his waist. Unfortunately, despite the impressive ensemble, he managed simply to look like a teenager playing with his father’s belongings. He gulped, looking not at her but at the far wall.

“The king requests an audience with the Lady Luanna.”

Luanna said nothing, but instead sat back down and crossed her legs, continuing to glare. The guard flickered his gaze briefly towards her, and their eyes met. He swallowed, hard, and returned to staring at the wall. A bead of sweat became apparent as it trickled slowly down his forehead onto his nose.

“The king requests an audience with the Lady Luanna,” he repeated. There was another uncomfortable silence.

Finally, Luanna spoke. “Why?”

The guard blinked. This wasn’t what he had expected. “I don’t know, milady.”

“I’m not your lady,” Luanna replied, sharply. The guard’s face began to slip into a mask of dread.

“Please, mila… miss… the king requests…”

Luanna held her ice-like stare, and then stood up. “What’s your name, guard?”

“It’s Yoz, milady.” He immediately tensed his body, aware of the title which had spilled out without thinking, his face now receding into borderline terror. Luanna ignored it, and returned to staring. She already knew his name, of course, as she did most other souls in the keep.

Yoz could feel his heart thumping painfully inside his chest. It felt like it was attempting to burst out and run away of its own accord. "It’s short for Yozramaklein," he blurted, unable to control himself.

Luanna kept her face immobile for a moment. “Yozramaklein, listen very carefully,” she said finally, speaking slowly, “I’m going to accompany you to the king, but only because you asked so nicely.”

She relaxed her pose slightly, and the sigh of relief from Yoz was embarrassingly loud.

“But if you come up here again without an order from me…” Luanna turned her head towards the large window. “Then we shall see if you can fly.”

Yoz started trembling. She continued speaking, still looking at the window. “Perhaps, if you flap your arms hard enough, you’ll find that you’re not actually a man, but rather a tiny sparrow. And as a sparrow you would remain.”

Luanna returned her glare to Yoz’s terrified eyes. She noticed that they were on the brink of tears.

“Give me two minutes to dress properly for the king.”

Yoz nodded and closed the door without a word, his shoulders hunched, a tear beginning to trickle down from his left eye.

Luanna began dressing, stifling laughter. She felt bad for the young guardsman. Yoz, along with most of his brethren, had little to no real experience with actual trouble, the peaceful little kingdom being as it was, and he didn’t deserve to be standing outside her door, shaking and trembling. Luanna blinked away the guilt, knowing that her time within the castle was drawing to a close.

She picked out a long, white blouse embroidered with gold trim. Over the blouse she pulled on a dark brown leather cincher, although she made sure it was loose enough to actually be comfortable, unlike the style being flaunted around Upper Westhook. Completing her outfit was a pair of leather trousers, two parallel lines of small golden studs running down the front of each leg, and dark boots.

She knew all about the rumours, which were of course ridiculous and untrue. Her? A witch? The very thought was preposterous. Luanna was amused by the absurdity of it, but somewhat guiltily rather enjoyed the response it elicited from the impressionable and stupid. To many, her abilities were an unknown factor, and therefore made people afraid.

Luanna had met a witch once, when she was younger and more prone to snap-decision making, and it hadn’t ended particularly well for either party; one was now an unwilling mistress to a prince, and the other a pile of ashes drifting along with the wind. To say that Luanna had no respect for witches was like describing a kivver’s stench as a mild aroma. As far as she was concerned, they could all just sod off and die.

When Luanna opened the door precisely two minutes later, the look of nervous gratitude on Yoz’s face was worth more than a gleaming jewel from the Basawaith.

 

As they reached the bottom of the stone staircase which led to Luanna’s chambers, Yoz motioned for Luanna to turn right instead of continuing straight on towards the throne room. He sensed her silent question.

“The king has requested to speak to you in a more private setting, mila… Lady Luanna.”

Luanna’s eyes narrowed. Although she was quietly regarded by the prince as his mistress, her official role in the castle was as one of the king’s three advisors. She spent most days sitting off to the side of the throne – after all, the king didn’t want her to look like a potential queen – listening to farmers and merchants spewing forth their inane troubles. Every so often the king would glance over at her, and she would approach and whisper her thoughts into his ear. Occasionally she would meet him elsewhere, when more important discussions were to be had. She guessed that this was one of those occasions.

They walked down the passages of the old castle, the morning light streaming in through windows cut into the stone blocks. Luanna’s chambers were situated in a tower tucked into the corner of the central keep. The king’s preferred meeting room was on an adjacent corner, and so the journey was relatively short.

As she entered through the thick oak door, she noted the king’s other two advisors already sitting around the large, rectangular table in the centre of the room. Felin was thin, lanky, and dressed, as always, all in black. Usually skulking around the place, seemingly popping out of nooks and crannies unknown to most, his nickname of ‘the shadow’ was suitably apt. He had a wispy dark beard on his chin and spoke with a slight sneer in his voice. The other man, Bylanx, was much larger and rotund, his cheeks already crimson from his usual early morning wine. The ring of white hair around the back of his head helped paint a picture of a jolly, old monk. The king, Malchour, was stood with his arms crossed, a deep crease in his forehead. He was a stern-faced man, his square jaw making him easily recognisable as a member of the line of Erdant, rulers of Erdantia. Malchour and Felin were both in their fifties, Bylanx being the senior of them by a decade.

“Ah, Luanna. Come and sit down.”

“Your grace,” Luanna replied, bowing her head slightly. She took a seat next to Felin.

“Good of you to join us,” sneered Felin as she sat down.

“I was not anticipating being summoned this early in the day,” she shot back. Felin smirked at her.

Bylanx chuckled from across the table. “Felin, you rat, you’d barely been sat down when the lady arrived. Your seat’s still as cold as your heart.”

“And do you even feel the cold any more, with all that alcohol coursing through your veins?” snapped Felin.

Bylanx grinned, and winked at Luanna. “I should hope not, otherwise my cup is evidently too small.” Luanna gave a half-hearted smile back.

“Enough,” said Malchour. He looked at each of his three advisors in turn before continuing. “I have received some troubling news. Some visitors are reportedly on their way here, and are expected to arrive sometime tomorrow. It appears that a teenage girl is carrying a man over her shoulder.” He paused momentarily before continuing. “This man was previously spotted being escorted by a group of kivvers, before ending up in the care of the girl. I have reason to believe that the kivvers were heading towards Relioc Tower.”

“Relioc?” exclaimed Bylanx, almost shouting out the word. “There’s life at the tower still? Do we know what the old man wants with him?”

“No.” The king paused. “But if he’s coming here instead of to the tower, there is a strong possibility that Vrastor won’t be pleased. I’d rather not have his anger directed at us.”

“The agreement with Vrastor still stands, does it not?” interjected Felin. “The man is coming here through no will of ours, there’s no doubt Vrastor has seen this.”

“I agree, yet I cannot take the chance,” replied Malchour.

“Sire, what reason do you have for thinking the kivvers were heading to Relioc?” asked Luanna. The king shifted his eyes back and forth between all three advisors.

“I received a message a week ago, from whom or where, I do not know. It stated simply that kivvers were escorting a man to the tower, along the road from Lowchance. It did not specify whether I should allow, stop, or accompany them. And so I sent out a scouting party, which confirmed the letter’s contents, or at least, that kivvers had taken a man prisoner. That same man is the one now being carried by the girl.”

“That is most peculiar, sire,” said Bylanx.

“Indeed. Therefore, I must accept the possibility that this man really was on his way to Relioc, which presents us with a problem.”

“Do we know anything about this duo?” asked Luanna.

“The report states that the man appears to be in his late twenties or so, the girl carrying him younger still. Their identities remain otherwise unknown. The man has no obvious wounds but is apparently unconscious. How the girl is supporting his weight without effort is unknown.”

“A strength potion perhaps, or an enchantment?” said Bylanx.

“It matters not. It is the man I am interested in,” said Malchour. “Nobody has been inside Relioc since my father, and kivvers, stupid as they are, would not go without pre-arranged business. Vrastor is expecting him. Suggestions?”

The three advisors kept to themselves for a moment. Felin spoke first.

“Vrastor must know of the situation already, and has yet to do anything to divert their course. We should grant them an audience and demand that they state their reason for coming to Castle Drumond.”

“Preposterous!” barked Bylanx, looking directly at Felin. “The less we know of their intentions, the less Vrastor can blame us when he comes asking.” He turned to Malchour. “My lord, send guards to intercept them and inform them that they are not welcome.”

“It would be unwise to let them go without an interrogation, formal or not,” Felin said, staring back at Bylanx.

“You’ve seen Vrastor’s tower, have you not Felin, you snake. It possesses still a power that would make a mockery of our lands, changing shape as it does. Challenging Vrastor by interacting with what is clearly his would be risking that power on us!”

Bylanx was leaning forwards now, his fists pressed hard into the table. He then sat back and took a gulp of his wine.

“It is a trouble we do not need,” he said, staring at the glass.

Felin continued to stare into Bylanx’s rosy face. “Information is power, Bylanx,” he said, and glanced down at Bylanx’s hand grasping the glass. “And wine is strong.”

Bylanx looked up, and smiled. “Felin, I speak for the security of the kingdom and for the flow of good wine, both of which are close to my heart.”

The pair of them held their gaze, until Luanna broke the tension.

“Bylanx, I appreciate your thoughts of safety, but I am in agreement with Felin. I believe we should send an emissary to intercept them on their path before deciding the next course of action. I can hardly imagine Vrastor taking that as a challenge upon himself.”

Bylanx looked at Luanna with a serious expression on his face. He spoke softly. “My dear lady, by virtue of being a few years older than our king, I, along with the rest of Erdantia, had the pleasure of witnessing the tower growing up from the ground, out of nothing. Of seeing with my own eyes the stone foundations of the tower rising high by themselves, created and placed not by hands but by a dark magic. That place, and that man who was let into the keep on good faith by our countrymen, are evil, and we would do well not to allow any interpretation of action against him.”

Bylanx turned to address Malchour, who was still standing up, letting his advisors work through the options. “Sire, my advice to you would be to have as minimal contact with this man and girl as possible. Kramat is a big place, they do not need to come and bother our sleepy kingdom. Let Vrastor send another party of kivvers to recapture the man. We should play no part in this.”

Felin had not removed his steely stare from the rosy-cheeked Bylanx. Luanna glanced at him to her side, knowing the tension between the two could easily explode further. Felin, however, kept his lips sealed shut, and eventually broke his eyesight away to turn to the king. All three advisors were looking at him now, having each spoken their piece. Malchour stood tall and still, as unmoving as a statue, his unfocused eyes pointing at the large, wooden table.

“We will meet them on the road at Hero’s Arch, and determine why they march on Castle Drumond,” he eventually said. “I would not let them in without good reason, but yet I am curious to know of the designs that the tower may have of this man.”

Malchour looked directly at Luanna. “Luanna, you will lead the party.”

“Sire?” replied Luanna, her face a picture of perplexion.

“For a matter this delicate I want someone I can trust to get to the truth.”

Luanna’s eyes opened wide in an obvious state of shock at the king’s decision. “Sire, I have not left the castle grounds for four years. My place is here, at your side.”

Malchour didn’t flinch, his gaze hard and unmoving. “Lady Luanna, you are an excellent judge of truth and character by word alone. I require you to satisfy my curiosity without physical intimidation.”

Luanna knew Malchour’s meaning behind these words. Felin was exceptional at retrieving information, although the subjects were anything but after the process. She did not want to leave though, so close as she was to the culmination of her true reason for staying at the castle for so long. Hero’s Arch was only a half day’s ride away, but still she had no yearning for risking it all. Truly, she thought, the gods are insufferable pranksters to take me away when I need only one more night with the prince.

“You will leave immediately,” continued Malchour. “They are not far from the Arch now. I will send advance orders to detain them for your arrival.”

“Yes, sire,” said Luanna, bowing her head. She pushed her chair back and stood up.

“Bylanx, Felin,” she said to each in turn, and walked out, back to her chamber to prepare for the ride.

“My lady,” said Bylanx, winking back at her. Felin said nothing, letting his eyes stare blankly at the table.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Richard, quite simply, enjoys writing. So much so that after bashing the keyboard for several months, a novel fell out. He sincerely hopes that it's enjoyed by others, too. See also: www.rblucas.com

Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Terry Pratchett, without a doubt. The ability to write such amazing comedy and have it feel a natural part of the world is an extremely envious talent, and one which is a great and constant source of inspiration.
Q. What books are you reading now?
A.
I always have a Discworld book on the go to read whenever I have spare time, which is currently Reaper Man. My main book at the moment is the first of the Wheel of Time series. I've also recently finished The Blood of Elves (the Witcher) and The Way of Shadows (part one of the Night Angel Trilogy).
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
The world of Ealoryn, where Relioc Tower is set, is a living, breathing entity in my mind. I have plans to release further books set in the same world simply because I enjoy spending my time writing about it!

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