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"A stand-out fantasy series from an author with an exceptional talent for characterization and world building."—Library Journal
"Non-stop action at a blistering pace... Vigorous and vibrant."—Kirkus Reviews
"One of the strongest epic fantasies I've read in a long time. My perfect epic fantasy novel looks a great deal like John R. Fultz's debut, Seven Princes" —Rob Will Review
"Flawless - and timeless - epic fantasy. For fans of epic fantasy, Seven Princes is as good as it gets."—BN.com (Paul Goat Allen)
The stranger came to Yaskatha at sunset.
The city had taken on the color of blood, a mound of rubies stacked beside the blue-green mirror of the sea. Shadows glided through streets and gardens. In the royal orchards weary harvesters carried bushels of lemons and pomegranates. Along the wharves a flock of trading vessels folded their sails for the night. Mariners prowled the taverns in search of red wine and the red lips of women.
In the airy palace of King Trimesqua the Feast of Ascension began with a legion of musicians, a flourish of dancers, and a quartet of fire-eaters. Before the throne sat a long table piled high with delicacies. Prince D’zan sat at the head of the board, looking far more regal than his sixteen years would suggest. Behind him, as always, stood Olthacus the Stone. The solemn warrior wore a massive blade on his back. It had served him well in three wars, but he seldom drew the sword from its jeweled sheath. A glance of the Stone’s gray eyes sent fear fluttering into the hearts of brave warriors. To D’zan, laughing at the antics of a fool who juggled flaming brands, his fearsome bodyguard was little more than a stiff-lipped uncle. Yet no man could have been safer at court than the young Prince. Not even the King himself.
In the midst of the revels, as the sun poured the last of its lifeblood into the sea, a stranger appeared before the throne of Trimesqua. No one saw him enter the palace gates or move between the ranks of armored guards. He flowed like a shadow across the motley crowd and stood before the King. When first he spoke, the music overpowered his words so that only the King could hear him.
Trimesqua set down his golden goblet, raised a hand heavy with rings, and commanded silence. All eyes fell upon the stranger. He was a tall man, gaunt, and as pale as the jungle dwellers of Khyrei. His hair fell long and gray down his back, and his robes were black as pitch. An arc of rubies hung across his chest like drops of frozen blood, mimicking the cold moon with a red smile. The nails of his fingers were long and sharp, making claws of his hands. Shadows rimmed his eyes.
“Who is this mad vagabond?” Trimesqua asked a nearby courtier.
“I am Elhathym,” said the stranger. His voice was deep and cold. “I knew this city when it was called by another name… but I have lingered a great while in distant lands. Tonight is my homecoming.”
“Say again, Elhathym, what you said to me when first you caught my eye,” said the King. “If you dare.”
Elhathym nodded. “I said that your reign has come to an end, Trimesqua.” He glanced about the crowded hall. “Step down from your marble seat. This city belongs to me.”
A flood of gasps and muttered curses filled the hall. Prince D’zan stood up from his feasting chair and stared at the stranger. His guardian, the Stone, did not move or even blink an eye. A moment of silence fell across the assemblage.
The exquisite tension was broken by the King’s laughter, which spread like bubbling water throughout the courtesans, nobles, entertainers, and servants. The stranger stood mute and grinning as the laughter surrounded him. Guards along the walls drew their curved blades and moved closer to the throne, but the King raised his glittering hand again, halting them.
“Surely you are one of the fools sent to amuse me?” said the King, regaining his composure. He quaffed red wine and chuckled again. “A rare jest!”
“I assure you,” said Elhathym, “I am no fool, and this is no jest. This land is mine by ancient right. I could bring your city to its knees with sorcery and shed the blood of all these beautiful soldiers, but I am not a cruel man. Therefore I give you this chance to surrender the throne without any deaths on your conscience but your own. I will make your execution quick. You will feel no pain. Deny me… and all will suffer.”
Now the King did not laugh. Nor did anyone in the hall. A deathly silence hung between the pillars with the smoke of feasting, broken only by the crackling of torch flames. D’zan drew the long dagger that he always wore and moved toward his father, but his silent bodyguard placed a hand on his shoulder. Despite the nervous twitching in his stomach, the Prince stilled himself.
The King stood up and tossed his wine cup down the steps of the dais, turning white marble to crimson. Guards rushed forward, but a third time Trimesqua raised his hand, and they halted. “My father, and his father, and all their fathers before them ruled Yaskatha from this high seat,” said Trimesqua. “Neither men, wizards, demons, or tidal waves shook them from this throne. Here is what I think of your threat, Elhathym the Sorcerer.”
In the blink of an eye Trimesqua, who was seasoned in the same wars as Olthacus the Stone, drew his silver sword and swept it down upon the stranger’s head. Elhathym’s skull split with a meaty crack that rang the length of the hall. He fell backward in a shower of gore, staining the fine carpet at the King’s feet.
“Remove this trash!” commanded the King. He tossed his soiled blade to lie upon the chest of the dead man. Guards rushed forward and dragged the body away; one of them would clean and anoint the sword before returning it to him. Servants exchanged the ruined carpet for fresh one, and the Festival of Ascension resumed. Music and wine flowed through the heart of the palace like blood through a living man’s body, and the corpse of Elhathym was thrown into a deep furnace. Later, his charred bones were tossed into the midnight sea.
That night Prince D’zan fell asleep after exhausting his passion with a comely courtesan. Instead of the sweet oblivion born of drink and exertion, his rest was plagued by nightmares. He found himself wandering through the ancestral burial vaults deep below the palace, where lay the bones of his grandfather, his great-grandfather, and all the generations of his family going back a thousand years. He was cold and without garments as he wandered those lightless, musty catacombs, and the eye sockets of decaying skulls glared at him from the shadows.
Somewhere among the vaults he knew his mother lay, for she had died when he was an infant, and he did not remember her face. Still, she must be here in this realm of chill darkness and creeping grave mold. Royal families throughout the centuries filled the numberless rows of niches, and sometimes favored servants and war heroes earned the honor of burial in the royal crypts. In terror, D’zan wandered this mansion of the dead, calling the name of his father into the dark. Only echoes answered him.
He called, too, the name of Olthacus, his bodyguard. Not even the Stone came to help him navigate those dark depths, and he could not find his way out. He found only chamber after chamber of mummified ancestors, the population of the city’s long history, and the crumbling, engraved sarcophagi in which they lay. Here was a city of death that slept beneath the living city, and at last he gave up looking for the exit and lay down in the dust near a pile of bones. It seemed to him then that he heard a faint laughter ringing through the tombs.
He woke to a sweltering bedchamber, lying next to the senseless girl who shared his bed. He could not sleep again so he walked along the open balcony of his room and let the ocean breezes dry his sweat. The girl joined him on the balcony and soon lured him back to bed.
The following day was like any other in Yaskatha’s thriving capital. D’zan arose early and walked the palace garden with his fair-haired cousin Lysinda. He spoke to her of his nightmares and she comforted him like a mother with gentle kisses on his forehead and cheek.
“I’ve dreamed of my mother before,” D’zan told his cousin. “But never of the place where she lies.”
“There is nothing to fear,” said Lysinda, taking one of his hands in her own. “Dreams are only passing fancies. They cannot hurt us.”
“Do you truly believe that?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said.
“But… this dream seemed so real. It was… a warning of some kind. I know it.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Lysinda, ruffling his hair. “Look about you: the sun is shining, the sea is laughing, the blooms of the garden rejoice. The stranger is dead and forgotten.”
“I’m afraid,” he whispered. She cradled his head in her lap awhile. She did not have to tell him that Princes of the royal house were not supposed to speak of fear or weakness. He knew that well enough.
D’zan forsook his studies for the day, and the two cousins went riding along the pounding surf. They rode twin mares the color of honeyed milk, and Olthacus the Stone rode some distance behind on his black charger, a single shadow for them both.
When sunset fell on Yaskatha once again, the King sat on his throne listening to reports of trading galleons from Mumbaza, Murala, Shar Dni, and the kingdoms of distant continents. D’zan reclined nearby on a lesser throne; his father was grooming him in the ways of statecraft. Behind D’zan stood the vigilant Stone, his eyes hidden beneath the hood of a heavy cloak. Olthacus scanned the throne room for potential threats among the comings and goings of the court.
Despite his keen sense for danger, not even the Stone saw the stranger’s second arrival. As before, the dark-robed Elhathym simply appeared before the King’s throne without any warning. His hoarse voice interrupted and overpowered the voice of the King’s viceroy, who read a cargo list from an unfurled scroll.
“Trimesqua,” interrupted the sorcerer, his sallow face looking even more skull-like than yesterday. “You have spurned my offer of mercy. As you can see, my death is beyond your power to grant. I give you one more chance to abdicate your throne. Since you refused my first offer, now it falls upon your people to suffer if you refuse a second time. Everyone inside this palace will die if you deny me again. Blood will flow through your streets and orchards. The shadows of your own past will tear you from your throne. What say you?”
Olthacus the Stone drew forth his great two-handed blade, and D’zan rose from his own chair to unsheathe his ceremonial scimitar. He felt again the terror of his dream… For a moment he was lost in the lightless crypts. Then he was staring at the broad back of the Stone, and guards rushed forward to encircle Elhathym in a thicket of bronze spear points and shining blades.
King Trimesqua did not rise from his throne this time, but his wrath was great.
“Charlatan! Chicanery will gain you nothing! Your fatal mistake was in returning to the scene of your previous treason. Now your death will be slow and agonizing. You will scream and beg forgiveness on the rack! Take him!” Spittle flew from the King’s lips to fleck his dark beard.
The palace guards swept over the sorcerer, a vast wave of silver and gold drowning a single black pebble. Olthacus the Stone did not move, but kept his place shielding D’zan in case the sorcerer unleashed some dreadful magic in his direction. But Elhathym did nothing as soldiers loaded his limbs with heavy chains and dragged him from the throne room. He did not even scream as they dragged him down below the living levels of the palace and into the sulfurous glow of the torture chamber. Here, among the half-dead relics of political prisoners, murderers, rapists, and traitors, he endured the worst of torments the torturers could envision. For hours the hooded ones plied their trade, but not once did Elhathym scream. Instead, he laughed. As if all the processes of his own bodily pain and dismemberment offered some private delight.
In the throne room far above, the condemned man’s laughter drifted like a fetid smoke. D’zan, sitting at the arm of his father, shivered in his cushioned chair. He recognized that hollow sound from his dream of the tombs, and a nameless terror swelled in his heart. He could not speak to his father of his true feelings. He must be as brave and valiant as his sire, as grim and unfazed as the Stone. So he hid his quietly growing horror, and stuffed his ears with pieces of silk to drown out the faint laughter of the tortured man.
That night D’zan dreamed himself into the tombs again. He wandered, naked and alone as before, looking for the sarcophagus of his mother. In the living world he had visited her grave a thousand times, and such a familiar landmark might give him some hope of egress from the nightmare maze. But he could not find his dead mother, only legions of those who had died before his birth, a necropolis of winding corridors leading nowhere. At last, he saw a pale light and ran toward it. It seemed to draw away from him in the ever-lengthening distance that only occurs in the midst of dreams. Finally, he came close enough to realize the glow came from a single face, gleaming in worm-pale moonlight. It was the face of the sorcerer Elhathym, and it smiled at him in the darkness, floating wraith-like before him, bodiless. The face laughed, and the flesh sloughed away like that of a leper, leaving only a cackling skull that hovered in the endless dark.
D’zan woke screaming, and seconds later the Stone came into his bedchamber.
“It’s all right, Olthacus… I’m fine.” D’zan waved his guardian away, but the big man would not leave the room. He stood in the corner while servants dressed D’zan. The Prince called for a cup of morning wine, but could eat no breakfast. He spent the day in the library, poring over ancient texts from Khyrei detailing legends of sorcerers and necromancers who had haunted the Old World. In one of these tomes, after hours of meandering through moldy pages, he discovered mention of a wizard bearing the same name as the one who’d come to plague his nightmares. “The Tyrant Elhathym,” said the Book of Disgraced Savants, “ruled a southern kingdom before the Age of Serpents.” Nothing more than that brief passage.
Such texts were widely discredited by Yaskathan sages, because there were no civilizations that existed before Giants out of the northlands drove the race of fire-breathing reptiles from the earth. According to D’zan’s history tutors, the Giants then claimed the north for themselves, forcing the Four Tribes of humans to flee southward to ultimately form the five kingdoms: Yaskatha, Khyrei, Uurz, Mumbaza, and Shar Dni. How could there be a southern empire before any of this happened? Unless history was wrong… a lie invented to cover up horrible truths. And why would this present-day sorcerer take the name of a tyrant from an age of mystery?
It did not matter, he told himself. The sorcerer was finally dead now, tortured to death last night by order of King Trimesqua.
Or was he?
As the sun slipped once more into the sea, D’zan closed the musty volume and walked with urgency into the lowest level of the palace proper. Behind him, a second shadow, came the imposing figure of the Stone. The Prince hated the reek of the torture chamber, a blend of feces, sweat, blood, and fear. Even more he despised the terrible sounds that resounded among the boiling furnaces and intricate devices of torment. He usually avoided this part of the palace. But the sorcerer’s laughing had finally stopped, and he had to be sure that Elhathym was dead.
The smells of scorched flesh and decay drowned all others as D’zan entered the chamber. There was no sign of the sorcerer. Only the bodies of the three hooded torturers lying across the floor, blood pooling about their split bodies, their limbs askew in impossible angles. All the racks, cages, and shackles were empty, even those that had encased rotting corpses to terrify victims.
The sound of screaming came from somewhere above. D’zan raced back up the steps and ran toward the throne room, the Stone pounding at his heels. Courtesans, servants, and soldiers fled the great hall, mouths agape, eyes wide with terror. A cacophony of shrieking filled the arched corridors, and the odor of ancient decay was everywhere. The stench from D’zan’s dreams… the acrid reek of the tomb.
D’zan raced into the throne room to see his father the King surrounded by a trio of grasping mummies. The smell of long-rotten flesh filled the chamber like a fog, and two of the mummies grasped the King by his arms, holding him immobile while the third decomposing corpse raked its claws across his flesh, spilling royal blood across the dais. D’zan heard his father scream, and his legs were frozen; he could not move forward or backward, but only stood staring at the tableau of impossible slaughter.
On the King’s throne sat black-robed Elhathym, a grim smile on his lips, his skull nearly visible through the tight, pallid flesh of his face. He bore no marks of torture on his person; not even his black robes were disturbed, and his necklace of blood-drop rubies hung gracefully upon his emaciated chest.
A legion of the dead swarmed the hall. Already several guards lay bleeding on the flagstones, their throats ripped out by fleshless fingers and the teeth of withered skulls. Swords and spears clove into dry breastbones with little effect. The mummies of previous dynasties were now ravening ghouls, splashing gouts of blood across fine tapestries as they tore the palace guards to bits. D’zan recognized the tattered raiment of the ghouls, and saw on the head of more than one a royal diadem or crown out of Yaskathan history. These were the inhabitants of the royal necropolis crawled up from the underworld beneath the palace.
The shadows of your own past will tear you from your throne.
More lurching corpses poured into the hall; the screams of women and children rang from the walls in every wing of the palace. A grinning mummy rounded the corner and reached for D’zan’s throat, but the Stone’s blade took off its moldy head. Olthacus’ booted foot crushed the corpse against the floor; as he tamped its ribcage into dust, its fleshless arms kept grasping at his legs, tearing through his leathern leggings and drawing blood. D’zan backed away, inspired by the Stone’s bravery to draw his own weapon; a reeking cadaver grabbed him from behind, pressing its rotted skull against his ear. Its jaws snapped like those of a turtle, and he dropped his sword clattering to the floor as horror suffocated him.
The Stone tore the mummy from D’zan’s back and pulverized it with blade and boot. His big hand slapped D’zan across the face, ending his paralysis. “Come, Prince!” growled the Stone. “I know a secret way.”
“No!” shouted D’zan. “We can’t abandon my father!”
“Your father is dead, boy!” said the Stone, pointing his blade at the cluster of ghouls who tore at a mess of scattered flesh upon the royal dais. Above the horrid feast sat Elhathym, the bloodstained crown on his head now, smiling at the devouring of Trimesqua. Still the ranks of blood-hungry dead things continued filling the chamber, the last of the guards falling before their voiceless assault.
The Stone grabbed D’zan’s arm and they ran through milling clouds of grave dust. They never stopped running, all through the winding corridors of the servants’ wing, the Stone’s great blade demolishing one desiccated corpse after another. Everywhere the dead feasted upon the living. None in the palace were spared the bottomless hunger of the corpses; royal and servant alike died under the raking of bony claws. So Elhathym had promised, and he had delivered on his ultimate threat.
D’zan wondered if his mother’s corpse was among the hungry dead. Would I recognize her? Would she tear out my throat with the same hands that gave me life? Stifling a bottomless scream, he drove such thoughts from his mind, closing his eyes and mumbling a prayer to the Sky God.
The Stone brushed aside a wall hanging and opened a hidden passage, leading the Prince along the dark and narrow way. D’zan, fearful of dark places now that his nightmares had come to life, closed his eyes while Olthacus dragged him along that winding route, up and down seldom-used stairwells, through crawl spaces, and finally out into the night air. Once again the screams of the dying filled D’zan’s ears. He dared to open his eyes and found that the Stone had brought him to an outer palace garden. They ran for the orchards beyond. Behind them flames danced among the towers and courtyards. The dead were heedlessly knocking over braziers and torches, spreading flame and death throughout the royal domain.
Where can we go to escape this damnation? His unconquerable father was dead and there was no safe place left in the world. The Stone grabbed his arm and pulled him onward.
Once in the deep shadows of the orchards, they seemed free of the undead plague a while, steeped in the tangy aroma of hanging citrus. But when they crossed the outer wall into the seaside quarter, they saw again the terror and panic that had claimed Trimesqua’s house. Here, too, corpses walked the streets and tore at living flesh. It seemed every graveyard and mausoleum in the capital had vomited forth its dead at the command of Elhathym. Citizens fled for the hills or locked themselves inside their houses. The Stone smashed another mummy to powder as he drew D’zan on toward the wharves, where towers of flames writhed and flickered. All across the city, walls of orange-white fire leaped toward the sky. They must be fighting the dead with fire, D’zan thought. But they will burn their own city to ash…
Many ships in the harbor had already launched, heading out to sea to escape the apocalypse of Elhathym’s making. Citizens jostled and fought one another for passage on one late-embarking galleon which flew the Feathered Serpent of Mumbaza among its white sails. The Stone hacked his way through the crowd, leaving a bloody trail in his wake, dragging D’zan by his elbow. The panicked Yaskathans gave way before the big warrior. Without a word the Stone gained passage from the ship’s captain at the point of his dripping blade.
The deck of the galleon was crowded, and the sailors had to beat back the mob with oars and clubs before they could cast off. D’zan collapsed on the deck, near the prow. The pitiful cries of women, children, and men – all doomed – filled his ears even when he clasped his hands over them. When he dared to look out over the railing, the capital was a flaming, screaming mass of chaos separated from him now by an expanse of dark water. The horned moon hung pale and implacable above the dying city. Towers gleamed brighter than rubies in the glow of the roaring fires.
Those who had escaped by securing passage on the galleon were weeping, or cursing, or both. A few had brought entire families with them. D’zan stood in the prow watching his inheritance burn, thinking of his father’s bloody crown sitting upon the sorcerer’s head. Hot tears burned his cheeks. Behind him, as always, stood the Stone, silent and still as the moon.
In the blood-spattered throne room, Elhathym drank wine from Trimesqua’s goblet as his army of undead Yaskathans preyed on their descendants. He smiled at the irony of using the past to remold the present in such a way. Among the entrails and filth littering the hall, a great white panther glided toward him. The beast licked at Trimesqua’s blood, and the snapping ghouls ignored it as they wandered off to find fresh victims.
The white panther came close to Elhathym’s knees and rubbed its silky fur against him. His thin hand caressed its head between the ears, and it growled.
“You see, my dear?” the sorcerer told the panther. “I told you my birthright would be easily reclaimed.”
“So you did,” said the panther. “But what of my desires?” Now the cat was a pale-skinned lady sitting at his feet, her voluptuous body draped in strings of chromatic jewels. A thick mane of hair, gleaming white as silk, fell across her shoulders. Her eyes were as dark as his own.
Elhathym, the new King of Yaskatha, smiled at his lover.
“Patience,” he whispered. And he kissed her ruby lips, which tasted of royal blood.
In the twenty-sixth year of his reign madness came to the King of New Udurum. It did not fall upon him like a flood, but grew like a creeping fungus in the hollows of his mind. At first he hid the madness from his Queen, his children, and his subjects, but eventually he could no longer steady his shaking hands or hold the gaze of his advisors during council.
Udurum was a city of both Men and Giants. The power of King Vod had fostered an era of peace between the two races for almost three decades. Vod himself was both Man and Giant, and therefore the city’s perfect monarch. He was born as a Giant, grew into a sorcerer, and became a man to marry a human girl. He slew Omagh the Serpent-Father and rebuilt the fallen city of Giant-kind. Now, twenty-five years after he forged a path through the mountains and began the reconstruction of New Udurum, his children were grown and he felt the call of an old curse. This was the source of his madness.
The children of King Vod and Queen Shaira were neither Giant nor human, but a new breed all their own. His first son Fangodrel was pale of skin, with sable hair and the anguished soul of a poet. These were altogether human qualities. His second and third sons likewise stood no taller than average Men, but they carried the strength of Giants in their modest frames, and their skins were the color of tempered bronze. These were Tadarus and Vireon, whom many called his “true sons.” His daughter, youngest of the brood, was named Sharadza. She took after Queen Shaira, almost a mirror image of her mother, yet in her fifteenth year was already as tall as her brothers.
When Vod began ignoring his royal duties, his court began to grumble. Both Men and Giants feared his dissolution as an effective monarch. His uncle, the Giant called Fangodrim the Gray, tried to quell the fears of the court as best he could. But even he knew that Vod’s rule sat in peril.
When the chill of early fall began to invade the warmth of late summer, Vod called for his children. “Bring them all before me,” he told Fangodrim. A cadre of servants ran along the gigantic corridors of the palace in search of Vod’s offspring.
Sharadza sat beneath the spreading arms of a great oak, listening to the Storyteller. The leaves had turned from green to orange and red; the rest of the courtyard’s lush foliage was following suit. All the colors of the rainbow revealed themselves in this miniature version of the deep forest beyond the city walls. She was not permitted to exit the gates of New Udurum, not without the escort of her father, and he had not taken her into the forest since last season. Here, beneath trees grown safely within the palace grounds, she got a taste of those wild autumn colors, but in her heart she longed to walk among the colossal Uyga trees once again. The sun shone brightly through the turning leaves, but had lost its heat. The faintest breath of winter blew on the wind today. She sat on a stone bench as the old man finished his tale.
“So the God of the Sky had no choice but to recognize the Sea God as his equal. But still sometimes the Sky and Sea fight one another, and these battles Men call hurricanes. Doomed is the ship that ventures across the waves while these two deities are in dispute.” The old man turned his head to better meet the eyes of the Princess. “Are you troubled, Majesty?” he asked.
Sharadza had been distracted by the varicolored leaves blown upon the wind. Beyond the tops of the palace walls, gray clouds poured across the sky. Soon the season of storms would be upon them, and then the crystal purity of winter. She did not mind that chilliest of seasons, but fall was her favorite. Each tree seemed hung with fabulous jewels. She smiled at the old man. It really was not fair to invite him here and pay less than full attention to his stories.
“Forgive me, Fellow,” she said. “I am somewhat distracted these days.”
The old man smiled. He ran a hand through his short white beard and nodded. “You are growing up,” he sighed. “Mayhap you do not care for my stories any longer.”
“No, don’t think that,” she said, taking his wrinkled hand in hers. “I treasure your visits, I really do. You know so many tales that I could never find in the library.”
Old Fellow grinned. “Would you have another?” he asked.
Sharadza rose and walked about the oak tree, trailing her fingers along its rough bark. “Tell me what you know of my father,” she said. “Tell me about Old Udurum. Before I was born.”
“Ah,” said the Storyteller. “You had better ask the King for stories of his youth. He would tell them better than I.”
“But you know he won’t talk to me,” she said, blinking her green eyes at him. “I hardly see him… He’s always in a meeting, or in council, or off brooding in the forest with his Giant cousins. He forgets I even exist.”
“Nonsense, Majesty,” said Fellow, rising from his stone seat. His back was slightly bent, and he supported himself with a tall, roughly carved cane. His robes were a patchwork of motley, as if he wore all the shades of the fall leaves, a myriad of colors spread across the fabric of his flowing raiment. Yet Fellow wore such colors all year round. He had very little taste when it came to matters of style. She had given him gifts of silken tunics, delicate scarves woven in Shar Dni, and other garments worthy of a nobleman’s closet, but he refused to wear any of them. He would, however, accept whatever jewels or coins she managed to wheedle from her parents. Even Storytellers had to eat, and Fellow was little more than a vagabond. Yet he was so much more.
“Your father cherishes you, as does your kind mother,” said Fellow in the tone of an encouraging schoolmaster, which he was not. Sharadza’s tutors were never so informal with her, nor did she relish spending time with them the way she savored her every rendezvous with the Storyteller. He wandered the streets of the city between visits, telling his stories on street corners and in wine shops, earning his daily bread by weaving tales for the weary Men and Giants of Udurum.
“What do you know of him?” she asked, challenging Fellow to spill any secrets he might possess.
The old man licked his dry lips. “I know that he built New Udurum on the ruins of the old city, after the Lord of Serpents destroyed it.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“Yes, but did you know the young Vod was born a Giant but was raised by human parents?”
Sharadza nodded, sitting back down on the cold bench. Thunder rolled low in the distance, like the pounding of great breakers at the edge of a distant sea. She had heard rumors of her father’s human parents, but he never spoke of them to her.
“Oh, they did not know he was a Giant at first, just a very large baby,” said the Storyteller. “But they soon found out when he grew too fast.” His voice sank to a whisper. “They say his human father abandoned him, but his mother never did. She died not long after the building of the new city.”
“She would have been my grandmother,” said Sharadza.
“Not entirely,” said Fellow, “for she was never related to your father by blood.”
“What about the Serpent Lord? Is it true my father slew him?”
“Yes,” said the Storyteller. “By virtue of his sorcery, the same powers that make him both Giant and Man, your father destroyed the oldest enemy of Giant-kind. His magic made him tall as the Grim Mountains, and he wrestled with the Great Wyrm, his flesh burned by the great fires that it spit in his face. Their battle took place right here, among the ruins of Old Udurum. Nearly all the Giants had been slain and their city toppled. When young Vod crushed the life out of the monster, he vowed to rebuild the city. That is why we have this capital of Giants and Men. Your father brought peace to the Great Ones and the Small Ones. He is a hero. Never forget that.”
Sharadza nodded. How could she ever forget the legacy of her father? But there was much she still did not understand. The wind caught up her long black curls, and she brushed them away from her face.
“Is it true the Giants are dying?” she asked.
The Storyteller frowned at her. “Since the destruction of Old Udurum, no Giantess has borne a child. Some say the dying Serpent Lord put a curse on his enemies, and that is the reason why the she-Giants are barren. If your father had not fallen in love with your mother, a human, you and your brothers might never have been born at all! The Giants who live among us now are old. Yes, they are a dying breed, and they know it. Little more than a thousand still walk the world, and by the time your own children are grown someday, they may all be gone.”
“Is there nothing we can do?” Sharadza asked. Such finality made her want to cry. Her cousins were Giants, so if they died a part of her died with them. Her father’s best friend was his uncle Fangodrim, who was uncle to her as well.
“Likely not,” said Fellow. “These things are decided by higher powers than you or I. But remember that it is not death that counts in the end, but a life lived well.”
Sharadza smiled through her brimming tears. Fellow was always saying things like that. “Jewels of wisdom” he sometimes called them. It was one of the things she loved about him.
“Fellow,” she said, “I have another question for you.”
“Of course, Majesty.”
“How did my father learn sorcery? Was he born with it?”
Fellow sat quietly for a moment. Sharadza heard the moaning wind and a peal of approaching thunder.
“I’d best tell that story another time,” said the old man.
“Because your mother is coming.”
“Oh! You must hide. I’m not supposed to be listening to your tales. She says you’re a liar and not to be trusted.”
Fellow smiled at her, the skin about his gray eyes wrinkling. “Do you believe that, Princess?”
She kissed his cheek. “Of course not. Now go. I hear her steps along the walk.”
Fellow turned toward the tall hedge and disappeared into the leaves. He would find his way back out onto the streets of New Udurum by a hidden path she had shown him months ago. She could not explain her mother’s distrust of the Storyteller, but she knew in her heart it was baseless, so she smuggled him into the royal gardens whenever she could, at least once a week. She began to think of him as her grandfather, albeit a grandfather she could never publicly acknowledge. She had learned much from his stories, and there was much more to discover.
Queen Shaira rounded the corner of the hedge maze with two palace guards in tow. Shaira was not a tall woman, but her presence loomed as that of a Giantess. Her hair was dark and her eyes bright as emeralds, both like her daughter’s. Looking at her mother, standing there in her gown of purple silk and white brocade, a crown of silver and diamond circling her brow, Sharadza knew exactly what she would look like when she was grown. There could be no doubt that she would be the spitting image of her beautiful and regal mother. At the age of forty-five, Shaira retained every bit of her beauty, and this gave Sharadza no small comfort.
Her mother called her name, and smiled at her in that loving way that nobody else could ever smile. In the warmth of that smile, the day felt a bit less cool. The blaze of summer lived in her mother’s green eyes. Maybe it was the fact that Shaira had grown up in a desert kingdom, or maybe her love itself was the source of the heat.
Sharadza ran to embrace the Queen.
“What are you doing out here, Little One?” asked Shaira. Even though Sharadza stood taller than her mother already, Shaira still called her by that nickname. She felt comfortably small in her mother’s arms. It had always been so.
“Admiring the leaves,” she answered. “Aren’t they beautiful?” She cast her gaze upward at the splendid fall colors.
Her mother gave her a quizzical look, as if suspecting that she told only part of the truth. “Your father summons you before the throne,” she said, running her hands along Sharadza’s hair, smoothing the dark curls.
“Me?” Sharadza asked, stunned by the news.
“You and your brothers,” said her mother, and the Princess saw a worried look pass across her face like a shadow passing across the face of the sun.
“What is the matter?” Sharadza asked.
“Come,” said the Queen. “We shall soon know.”
She followed her mother across the grand courtyard as big wet drops of rain began to fall. The sound of the drops hitting the leaves was a chorus of whispers. Then a blast of thunder split the sky, and she entered the palace proper.
Mother and daughter walked toward the King’s hall as the storm broke against monolithic walls built by the hands of Giants.
Not far from Udurum’s gates, beneath the branches of enormous trees, a gathering of Giants stood in a circle about two struggling figures. By the purple cloaks and blackened bronze they wore, these Uduru were known to all as the King’s Warriors. They howled and leaped and shouted curses, but their great axes, swords, and hammers hung sheathed on their backs. Their eyes focused on the two man-sized combatants at their center.
Among the brown leaves lying big as shields on the forest floor, two sinewy, broad-chested youths rolled in a contest of power and stamina. Straining muscles gleamed with sweat, and the wrestlers breathed through gritted teeth. A pulp of leaves and mud smeared their bodies. The Giants, each standing three times the height of the wrestlers, shouted and waved bags of gold above the peaks of black war helms.
“Tadarus!” some shouted.
“Vireon!” cried others.
On the ground, Vireon stared up into his brother’s face, feeling the weight of him like a boulder against his chest. Their arms locked together like the trunks of young oaks. Vireon’s legs shot upward, his heels dug into Tadarus’ abdomen, and his brother went flying. The giants roared. Now both brothers stood on their feet, coiled in the manner of crouching tigers. Tadarus laughed. Vireon smiled back at him.
“My little brother!” roared Tadarus. “You know I will beat you. I always do.”
Now Vireon laughed to show his defiance. “You are but one year my senior. And youth has its advantages.”
Shoulders slammed together and the Giants reeled from the sheer force of their collision. Once more the brothers stood locked in stalemate.
Vireon wondered who would tire first. If he could simply outlast his brother, he would win. The Giants would never underestimate him again.
They might have been twins, these two, but for Vireon’s more narrow face and slightly lesser height. They shared the same jet-black hair, the same sky-blue eyes, and the strength of raging Uduru.
Tadarus slammed Vireon’s back against a tree trunk. The monolithic Uyga trunk trembled, bark exploded, and the last of the tree’s faded leaves fell in a slow rain about the brothers as they wrestled. The Giants howled at this display of strength, and Vireon leapt forward, flipping over his brother’s head. They rolled together longwise through a debris of branch, bark, and leaf. Dead wood cracked beneath their bodies.
At the end of the roll, Vireon arose first, his arms still locked on his brother’s shoulders. He took advantage of Tadarus’ split second of disorientation and hurled him through the air, screaming after him. Tadarus crashed through a pine tree as thick as his waist, shearing it in half. Both he and the upper half of the tree fell with a double crash into the forest beyond the ring of bewildered Giants.
Vireon stood panting in the center of the chattering Uduru. The thrill of victory was a momentary sensation, replaced by instant worry for his brother, who lay somewhere in the shadows of the great trees.
“What excellence!” growled Boroldun the Bear-Fang. “The younger triumphs at last!”
“Hail, Vireon the Younger!” bellowed Danthus the Sharp-Tooth. “I knew your day would come!”
The Giants exchanged bags of gold, precious jewels, and other baubles as the supporters of Vireon claimed their winnings. Vireon payed them no attention, but leaped across the stump of the felled tree to find his brother. Tadarus lay among a knot of big ferns growing about a wedge-shaped boulder. Vireon feared the big rock had brained his brother.
Gods of Earth and Sky, let him be well.
Vireon bent low over his brother. “Tadarus?”
Without opening his eyes, Tadarus sprang up and knocked Vireon off his feet with the force of his shoulder. Vireon’s posterior met the ground, and he stared up into the grinning face of his brother.
“Did you think you had actually hurt me?” Tadarus said. A few Giants came tromping near, flattening the undergrowth with their every step. Some of them shouted to their fellows that Tadarus was fine – of course. The elder brother offered his hand, and Vireon took it. Now they stood together as the Giants looked upon them with admiration.
“I beat you,” said Vireon.
“So you did,” said Tadarus, smiling. “And you killed a tree.”
The Giants laughed, thunder among the redwoods.
“I say your next bout should be fought on the plains of the Stormlands, or perhaps the top of a mountain!” said the Sharp-Tooth. “To avoid more casualties of nature!”
The Giants and Tadarus laughed. Vireon saw no humor. He regretted the felling of the pine. He would carry it back to the palace for the woodcarvers, or at the least to stoke the fires of the kitchens. Even a tree’s death must serve a purpose.
“I am proud of you, brother,” said Tadarus. Once more he placed his hands on Vireon’s shoulders, warmly this time. His white teeth showed in the forest gloom as he looked his brother in the eye. “You have proven yourself my equal this day. And won a ton of loot for old Sharp-Tooth!”
Vireon at last smiled. His beefy chest swelled. He loved his brother. Only praise from his father could find more currency in his heart.
“I stand amazed, yet again,” said the Sharp-Tooth to his fellows. Most of the Giants wandered toward the city gates as drops of rain began to fall, but three of the Sharp-Tooth’s fellows lingered, his steadfast drinking companions, Dabruz the Flame-Heart, Grodulum the Hammer, and Hrolgar the Iron-Foot. “These whelps are sturdy as Uduru, though they could pass for Men in any kingdom south of the Grim.”
“The True Sons of Vod!” said the Iron-Foot. “They are both men and giants.”
“Perhaps we’re neither,” said Tadarus, sharing a gourd of cool water with Vireon. “Perhaps we are something new. Mother said we carry the best of both races in our blood. Perhaps there is no name for what we are.”
“Aye,” said Danthus. “You speak with your father’s wisdom. But here, Vireon, take you this hammer won from Ohlung the Bear-Slayer.” He held the great weapon out to Vireon. The length of it was greater than half the youth’s body, but he grabbed its haft and lifted it above his head, testing its balance. It was a Giant’s weapon, forged in the smithies of Old Udurum, before the coming of the Serpent Father. Its pitted head was carved into the likeness of a grinning demon, and a band of beaten bronze wound about the dark stone.
“It is a good hammer,” said Vireon, admiring the ancient signs of the Uduru carved into the back of the demon-head. “But too unsubtle for me. I think my brother should have it.”
Vireon passed the hammer to Tadarus, who grinned at him again and took the war hammer, swinging it about him a few times playfully. “A fine weapon,” said Tadarus. “But you won. It should be yours!” He offered it back to Vireon.
“And as mine, it is also mine to give!” Vireon rammed his elbow into Tadarus’ tight stomach. Tadarus grunted, then laughed. He nodded, and the argument was done.
The rain fell now in pleasant sheets, so the brothers washed the earth from their bodies while cold winds blew through the upper leaves. The Giants stood counting their loot, heedless of the rising storm.
“Now,” said Tadarus, banging his fists together with fresh vigor. “Which one of you Uduru will challenge me and my brother? Let’s have a real wrestling match!”
The Giants roared their mirth at him, and Vireon went to fetch the felled tree. “None will wrestle you, Prince,” said the Sharp-Tooth. “For there is the off chance that you might win. And no Giant could stand being bested by such a small thing.”
Tadarus laughed. “Then flee, Giants! Or face my wrath!” He lunged at the Uduru, and they scattered among the trees, laughing at his temerity, dropping coins and jewels in their wake. Vireon joined his brother, the slain tree slung over one shoulder. Tadarus took up his hammer.
“Thank you, Brother,” said Tadarus. “For the hammer.”
Vireon grinned. “It was the least I could do after humiliating you in front of the Uduru.”
Tadarus looked at his brother with a semblance of anger on his handsome face.
“Do you imply that you could best me twice?” he asked.
Vireon grinned. “Three times, even.”
Tadarus threw down his hammer, and Vireon his tree trunk. Again they faced each other, crouching ready to spring. The rain pelted them and thunder rolled among the deeps of the forest.
A different thunder, that of a horse’s hooves pounding the wet earth, met Vireon’s ears. He turned his head just as Tadarus slammed into him. They rolled through the mud for a short while until the voice calling them rose above the sound of the storm.
“Prince Tadarus! Prince Vireon! The King commands your presence!” The hooded cloak of the King’s Messenger shone brightly violet during a brief flare of lightning. A black steed, caparisoned in jewels and silk, had carried the rider to them. His name was Tumond, a good man. And he only carried important messages for the King of New Udurum. For Father to summon them in such a manner, the matter must be of great urgency.
Tadarus knew these things as well as Vireon. The brothers rose from their mud-fight, took up hammer and tree, and ran beside the horse as it galloped across the field toward the black towers of the city.
Lightning bolts hurtled madly across the black sky as the brothers ran. Orange watch-fires burned along the city wall in gigantic braziers. The Princes followed the herald onto the wide street called Giant’s Way. All eyes large and small turned to catch a glimpse as they jogged toward the spires of jet and basalt that marked the palace of Vod, living heart of the City of Men and Giants.
The eldest Prince of New Udurum stood near a north-facing window high in a tower of the gargantuan palace. Fangodrel watched the thunderheads rolling in and casting their shadows across the great forest. The rolling landscape was a panoply of colors as far as the eye could see, an ocean of autumn leaves in every shade of the rainbow save one. All the green had bled away from the world, and the myriad hues of autumn stood triumphant. A chill wind stole through the open window and raked his chest with icy fingers.
The wide chamber lay shrouded in the gloom of a small brazier topped with low-burning flames. On the bed behind him the servant girl Yazmilla lay senseless among the silken pillows. Her flesh had not been enough to quench his restless hunger. At least her ceaseless yammering had stopped, now that she was unconscious. Now he might have chance for concentration.
He turned his attention to the parchment on his writing table. The poem was almost finished. A few more lines would bring the piece to a transcendent climax. Forty-two lines were ideal. The first thirty had taken a month of agonizing introspection… long walks beneath the cold moon… a hundred meditations in the moldy air of the city graveyard. Every line was a piece of his soul, a shard of truth, jagged and dangerous to the touch. The splinters of his essential self. This would be his greatest work, a poem that would shame all the hundreds that came before it. His crowning achievement in the realm of verse. If he could only finish it.
He took up a white-feathered quill and dipped its point into a cup of black ink. The point hovered over his parchment. His mind reeled with blank frustration. He hesitated. A drop of ink fell onto the page, blotting like black blood. His left fist clenched, fingernails digging into his palm, and he bit his lip until it bled. His red eyes watered, and he threw the quill across the room like a dart. He stuffed the unfinished poem into the drawer of the table, slamming it shut.
Inspiration is a fickle whore.
The sleeping girl would wake soon, whimpering and crying, begging for more of the bloodflower. He lifted to his lips the long pipe, carved from white oak into the shape of a many-legged Serpent of legend. Touching a candle’s flame to the round bowl in the back of the Serpent’s skull, he inhaled the sweet crimson vapor. It sang in his veins and sent sparks flying behind his eyes, so that he imagined it was his skull, not the Serpent’s, to which he touched the flame. Leaning his head back, he slumped onto a divan of burgundy velvet. From his reclining position he watched the stormclouds moving toward the window. A few wet drops blew in to kiss his naked skin.
The lights of the city were kindled below as the day turned to night; a million tiny jewels spread in secret patterns far below the tower chamber. He drew another lungful of the bloodflower smoke into his lungs, and watched lightning caper among the thunderheads. He enjoyed the advent of a storm, the casting of light into darkness, the warm air growing cold, the faint stench of fear that rose from the streets as the commoners fled for shelter. He brought the Serpent’s tail to his lips once more. Now thunder rang inside his skull, shaking his very bones with its violence. He fell prone on the divan, trembling, moaning his pleasure to the corners of the dim chamber.
The girl must have heard him. She raised bleary eyes toward him and staggered to his side on the narrow couch. She placed a long-nailed hand upon his white breast. He flicked it away. He would touch her only when he pleased. She was merely a servant, and should know better than to touch him when she chose.
“My Prince,” she mumbled, her pouting lips close to his ear. “Let me taste the smoke with you again.”
He passed her the pipe and the candle. She inhaled, coughing, and lay back on the couch beside him. The candle fell from her fingers and singed the rug. He rushed to grab it, but its flame had scored a black mark into the vermilion fabric. He grabbed her by the neck and slapped her face. She awoke, staring into his black jewel eyes, timid as a cornered hare. Her fear reignited his desire.
“I could have you whipped for that,” he whispered in the breathy tone of a lover, but his threat was a bludgeon of iron. “Or thrown from the roof of this tower.”
“I’m so sorry, My Prince,” she muttered. Silly wench, nothing but a scullery maid he’d pulled from the kitchens a week ago. She made an interesting plaything for a while, but he had grown bored of her. She was barely seventeen years and knew nothing. He was Fangodrel, and had celebrated his manhood at fifteen – ten years ago.
“Perhaps,” he told her, “you can earn my favor once again.”
He took her, this time on the divan, and far more roughly than before. The rain fell in silver sheets beyond the window as the black clouds moved in to separate palace and sky. He wrapped his hands about her throat, the bloodflower singing in his veins. Flames seemed to burst from his eyes as he took his pleasure. His body moved of its own volition, while his mind floated in a miasma of swirling crimson. The bloodflower danced in his vision, telling its tale of endless secrets. He listened… at the edge of awareness… he burned… he almost, almost understood. The flames faded.
When he was finished, cold rain blew in through the window and the storm still raged. The girl lay limp in his hands. He pulled away. Her neck bore a purple ring, and his fingers were numb.
Lightning threw mock daylight into the chamber, and for an instant he saw himself in the oval mirror on his far wall. A pale, emaciated figure bending over the pink and lifeless carcass of a slain animal. He stared into his own eyes for an eternal instant. Then the chamber plunged into darkness again. The coals in the brazier had burned out, moistened by the big raindrops blowing through the window.
He stood and fastened the obsidian panes into place, shutting out the storm. He re-lit the candle with a tinder stick and held it over the body of Yazmilla. So beautiful she was, even in death. More beautiful even, for the absolute stillness of her features, the cool pleasantness of her pallid skin.
A pounding at his chamber door brought him out of the trance, and he turned from the dead girl to face the oak-and-bronze portal.
“What is it?” he bellowed.
“My Prince, your Lord-King Father summons you.” A thin, reedy voice. “Even now he gathers in the Chamber of Audience all those of his household.”
Fangodrel watched the candle flame dance in the dead girl’s eyes, twin rubies captured in orbs of glass.
“My Prince?” came the voice again, through the heavy door.
“Rathwol, is that you?”
“Yes, My Lord. So sorry to trouble you. The summons comes from the King’s Viceroy.”
He stumbled to the door and unfastened the heavy chain. Opening it just enough, he motioned his body servant inside.
Rathwol entered, a slight man with a hawkish nose, his lavender tunic reeking of turnips, sweat, and sour ale. His bald pate was covered by a leather skullcap, and his tunic bore the fine gold trim of a palace servant, though it needed a good washing. He appeared to have crawled out of a gopher’s burrow somewhere. The man was an offense to royal sensibility, but he was very useful.
“Light a brazier,” Fangodrel commanded him, handing over the candle.
Rathwol followed the order, using a fine oil to ignite some coals in a dry bowl of hammered iron. His close-set eyes immediately fell upon the body of Yazmilla, lying on the soiled couch. Another man might have screamed in shock or revulsion, but Rathwol had seen much worse. He had prowled the streets of Uurz for twenty years before finagling his way onto the palace staff in New Udurum. Most likely he had fled his native city to avoid imprisonment. Fangodrel had never asked what crimes he may have committed, and he did not care. He only knew that Rathwol was a loyal subject, and a man who could keep his many secrets.
Fangodrel scrubbed himself with a towel and bowl of lemonwater. Rathwol bent to examine the dead girl’s neck, checking for a pulse.
“Oh, My Prince,” he muttered. “Here was a tasty bit of flesh for the nobbin’…”
“Get rid of her,” said Fangodrel, pulling on a pair of doe-skin leggings and boots of black leather. “Discreetly.”
Rathwol looked up at his master. “Into the furnace? Same as the others?”
“Need you ask, fool?” Fangodrel pulled on a high-collared tunic of green and silver, fastening it along the sternum with engraved buttons. “There’s a palm-weight sapphire in it for you.”
“My Lord is generous,” said Rathwol, his eyes turning back to the dead girl’s face.
“Get rid of that carpet, too,” said Fangodrel. “She burned it.”
Rain pelted against the window panes, like claws scratching at the inner hood of a coffin. Such thoughts made him wince, but it was only the lingering effect of the bloodflower. It always made him a bit morbid.
Rathwol laid the girl’s body gently on the ruined carpet and rolled it up.
“Get her clothes too,” said Fangodrel, motioning toward the bed.
Fangodrel checked himself in the big mirror. He combed his narrow mustache and groomed his short black beard into a single point in the style of Shar Dni. He wore his dark hair short, and he brushed it back from his forehead, running a handful of lamb grease through it and wiping his fingers clean on the towel. He hung an amulet of opal and emerald about his neck, and placed a thin circlet of platinum set with a single onyx on his forehead. This was the crown of the Eldest Prince, the Heir-Apparent to the throne of New Udurum. A cloak of green and silver completed his raiment.
His pale skin did not matter, he told himself. It did not matter that his lean, V-shaped face in no way resembled the broad, rough-hewn visage of his father, nor that his physical strength was a mere fraction of Tadarus or Vireon. None of these things mattered, for he was the Eldest Prince. Let men continue to call me Fangodrel the Pale, he told himself, for my skin will never be the umber shade of my brothers. But none can deny that I am the heir to Vod, King of Men and Giants.
Rathwol carried his burden to the door. There was no sign of the girl now inside the thick roll of carpet. Fangodrel, grimacing at the faint touch of dirty nails, slipped a jewel into the man’s sweaty hand just before he exited.
The Prince waited a moment after his body servant left, lingering just long enough to drink a gulp of red wine from a crystal goblet. Lightning flared outside the opaque windows, bolts of fire dripping from the Sky God’s fingertips.
Thunder boomed above the soaring towers as he left the chamber and descended a spiral staircase. As he walked he thought one last time of pretty Yazmilla. The girl had been a simpleton but she was not entirely without charms. Tonight he must find a replacement for her.
But first an audience with his noble father.
What could the old fool possibly want of him?
The Giants of New Udurum welcomed the storm as they would welcome an old friend. They stood in the streets while the driving rain caressed their faces and shoulders, and the thunder greeted them in its booming voice. Every human soul fled toward hearth and home to put a roof between himself and the storm, but the Uduru came forth from their tall houses in great numbers. They loved the storm in all its fierceness, and they celebrated the rule of their King, Vod of the Storms, whose shifting moods often brought these tempests upon the city.
Within the black palace Queen Shaira sat waiting for her husband. The fires of twelve hanging braziers dispensed steady heat and dancing light. The walls thrummed and pulsed to the rhythm of the squall outside, and she knew the six Giant sentinels lining the hall would rather be out in the rain and wind.
Vod’s man-sized chair sat beside the Queen’s own, both of these before the single Giant throne that glittered with the light of precious stones. Vod would only take the Great Throne when some matter of weighty import was to be discussed with the Uduru; then his magic swelled him to the proportions of his Giant kin. Mostly he sat beside Shaira in his accustomed man-form. All three thrones sat upon a dais of black-veined marble. On the highest step of the dais sat Sharadza at her mother’s knee.
“Where are my brothers?” asked the Princess, taking her mother’s hand. Shaira stared into her green eyes. It was like staring into a mirror, looking at her daughter. A mirror that showed herself as she was twenty years ago, back in the days when Vod’s love for her had been an all-consuming fire. Before the weight of time and wisdom had settled on her husband’s shoulders, the heavy chains of kingship.
“Summoned from the wood’s edge,” she answered. “They will be here presently.”
“Fangodrel too?” asked Sharadza.
“Yes,” she said. “Even Fangodrel.”
As she spoke his name, she saw him enter the hall in a flash of green and silver. Fangodrel was her first-born and her greatest secret. She spent her life trying to hide the truth from him, but as he grew he seemed to sense the imperfect nature of her love, and it spoiled him. He was the fruit of a cruel man whose domination left a scar on her heart and a life in her belly. Vod had raised him as his own, but with the same reserve and detachment as Shaira. The pale, quiet boy grew into a hard-hearted and distant young man. Despite his grim nature she tried her best to love him.
“Evenbliss, mother,” said Fangodrel. “Sister.” He took each of them by hand in turn, kissing their knuckles with his cold lips. Everything about him was Khyrein; nothing of her had invested his appearance or mood. He was entirely the son of his dead father, and he could never know it. The eldest of her sons, and the weakest, yet the most human. It was not his fault that his progenitor was a tyrant and a savage.
“Why does Father call us?” asked Fangodrel. “Is some new war in the offing?”
Sharadza looked at her mother. Her oldest brother’s moods and temper had frightened her more than once. As far as Shaira knew, he never abused or threatened his sister. Yet his presence was a quiet threat, a storm that simmered behind clouds of courtesy.
“The King’s mind is his own,” Shaira said. “We must wait to hear his words.”
“Of course,” said Fangodrel, looking toward the main entry. “And here come the Twin Brutes.”
Tadarus and Vireon entered the hall side by side, broad shoulders mantled in fresh cloaks of violet and black, dark manes slick with rain. Shaira swelled with pride at the sight of them in the hall. They were heroes in every step and mannerism, every word and deed. They were her strength and her glory.
Sharadza ran to embrace them both. Fangodrel stood atop the dais, hands behind his back. How he must envy his brothers’ great strength and heartiness. How he must despise the way their father doted on them. Shaira wanted to love Fangodrel in the same way as Tadarus, Vireon, and Sharadza… and she had tried for twenty-six years. It simply was not possible.
Tadarus and Vireon hugged their mother, kissing her cheeks, and took their places next to Fangodrel. The senior brother offered a courteous half-bow that was returned by his two juniors, and this was all they ever displayed in the way of brotherly love. Tadarus and Vireon were nearly inseparable, and neither had much to do with sensitive, book-minded Fangodrel. He wrote verse while they wrestled Giants. Perhaps he feared they would murder him one day for the right to claim the throne. But Shaira knew her boys better than that. They would support their elder brother even to their deaths.
A flourish of trumpets announced the approach of King Vod. Shaira stiffened in her chair. She had not spoken with her husband since he arose in the early morning. Something troubled him deeply. For two moons’ time now he had not slept a full night. When he did sleep, he tossed and turned, rolling on the mattress like a man drowning. He mumbled strange things in his sleep, too. Curses, or incantations. At times he woke screaming, “Take the Pearl! Take it!” or, “Too deep! It’s too deep!”
When she asked him about his nightmares he grew quiet and stubborn. There was something he could not bring himself to share with her. Something that haunted him. In his youth he had demanded her body every night, and even as they grew older – he now in his forty-sixth year, she in her forty-fourth – his hunger for her had persisted. Since his nightmares began, Vod had not touched her.
What secret guilt or terror tormented him so? Would he finally share his dread tonight?
The King sent away his train of human chancellors, advisors, and attendants before taking his place beside her on the man-sized throne. His face was grim beneath the heavy crown of gold with its eight stones of onyx; his puffy eyes were dark, full of secrets. The years had turned his flowing hair from sable to gray, and his thick beard was of that same distinguished color. All these years and she hadn’t come close to plumbing the depths of those eyes. She had learned to accept his mysteries, as she accepted his twin statures, Giant and Man. Everyone knew Vod was a sorcerer, but she suspected that he did not know the true depth of his own power. Tonight’s storm, for instance, was the direct result of his troubled mood.
The King looked upon his children. Flames crackled in the braziers as the Princes and Princess sank to their knees before him. He took Shaira’s hand and looked at her with those restless eyes. It was a look that said, I love you, and I wish I could avoid what I have to say now.
Shaira smiled at him, and her eyes said, You are my husband and my love, and whatever you do I will honor and accept. But it also said, Let me share your burden.
Vod turned to his daughter and sons.
“My sweet children,” he said. “Dearest of all the treasures in my realm, I love you above all others. It fills my sad heart with pride to look upon you.”
Their eyes sparkled in the firelight, perhaps Fangodrel’s most keenly.
“For twenty-five years New Udurum’s walls have stood strong, and I have ruled from this seat of power. I watched you grow from tender infants to young men and a woman. You are the pride of giant and man alike, the future of this realm built by the hands of both races.”
He paused, as if to weep.
Fangodrel broke the silence: “Father, why speak of the future now? Surely you are not so old and feeble as to give up the throne.” Yet his glimmering eyes said, Yes, give it up now. Give it to me! I am the eldest, and I will take this great chair from you. Gladly will I take it!
Shaira dismissed this as her own distorted fancy.
Vod sighed. “Hear me, son,” he said. “You will know my mind.”
Thunder moaned above the high vault of the roof. A black hound came loping into the hall and settled itself at the carved base of a pillar.
“Many years ago,” said Vod, “when I was young and foolish… before I knew what power truly was, or the sorrow of a thing done in haste… I did a great wrong.
“Below the waves of the Cryptic Sea lives a people little known by those who walk the land. With sorcery I went into the depths of that coral realm and stole into the Temple of Aiyaia, where the Sea-Folk kept their holiest treasure. A great sea-stone it was, which some call by the name pearl. Of purest whiteness it was. It gleamed and shone like a drowned sun in that dim kingdom.
“While the guardian of this pearl slept, I… I stole it. My Giant arms carried it back toward the land, but the Sea-Folk came upon me in great numbers, assailing me with spear and trident. I hauled the stone away from them as the points of their weapons broke against my thick skin. I knew then it was an evil thing I did, but I had a reason that outweighed all proper thought. Perhaps it was only my lack of maturity. Heedless of right or wrong, I took the Pearl of Aiyaia from the Sea-Folk.
“Seeing that their tiny warriors could not hinder me, they called from the deep a leviathan which wrapped its terrible arms about me. I nearly drowned in its black embrace. But instead… instead I used this holy sea-stone as a weapon. I smote the leviathan with the Pearl of Aiyaia and shattered its skull. And I carried the pearl away.
“Yet before I left those waves there came to me one unlike all the other mer-folk. By her crown of coral and jewels I knew her as their Queen. She spoke to me then and cursed me, saying, ‘The people of the sea are now your enemies. If ever again you enter our waters, you will surely die, for such is the curse I lay upon you. By the Sacred Pearl, let it come to pass.’
“She swam away, back to her watery palace, and a great remorse fell upon me. I had never stolen so much as single coin or crumb of bread until that day. Now I was the sea-thief, the enemy of the Mer-Queen and her aqueous nation. So I would ever be.
“I gave away the pearl soon after, and for many years I forgot this curse. I brought rain to the desert, opened the course of rivers, avenged the Giants of Old Udurum by killing the Serpent-Father, and united the races of Giant and Men. I rebuilt this demolished city. I raised a family and ruled a kingdom unlike any other.
“Now… now the Curse of the Sea Queen has come upon me at last. She has stolen my sleep away with visions of the briny deep and its waiting horrors. No longer can I sit idle and pretending on my throne, wearing the semblance of an honest man. The time has come for me to accept my doom. I must go to the Cryptic Sea and surrender myself to the Sea Queen’s justice, else I’ll never know peace.”
A pall of silence fell upon the great hall, and Shaira heard the Giant sentinels rustling and restless on either side of the throne. They had heard the King’s words, and they liked it not. The children must be horrified.
He is leaving me. Just as I feared. Her eyes grew moist, but she kept her silence.
Sharadza’s eyes swelled with tears. “Father, why did you steal the pearl? What was your reason? Surely the Gods will forgive you even if this Mer-Queen never will? Surely your reason was just?”
Vod looked at his daughter, reached a heavy hand to touch her cheek. “I was selfish,” he said. “Selfish and foolish… a dire combination.”
“But…” Sharadza wiped a sleeve across her cheeks. “If you go back to the sea, will you not die? So says the curse you uttered.”
Vod looked into the shadows of the rafters. “Failing the Mer-Queen’s mercy… yes, child. I will perish for my hated crime.”
Now Tadarus leaped upon the dais steps. “No!” he said, his breath quickened. “Let us lead an army of giants and men to the sea. We’ll battle this Sea-Queen and depose her. We cannot abide such a fate.”
The six Giants grumbled, ready to start warring upon the Sea-Folk this very moment. They would march into the waves behind their King if so commanded.
“No, my brave son,” said Vod. “Such a course would only bring more dishonor. You must understand… This is a debt I must pay. I alone will go to the sea. And I alone will face the fury of the depths and she whom I wronged. It is just, and the Gods will not support an unjust war.”
Vireon the third-born stood near his brother, but his eyes were like those of his sister, wet with tears. “Is there no other way to avoid this doom?”
Vod shook his head. He turned to Shaira; she wept freely now. She finally understood his distance from her these past months. He must either do this thing, or stay here and waste away, a prisoner of guilt and visions that would drive him truly mad. She squeezed his hand.
Fangodrel stood tall, unfazed by the tragic scene. “Great Father, I respect your dedication to justice. Your abdication will bring much honor to our house. With terrible sorrow, I accept the rulership of New Udurum. I will build a mighty statue in your honor, to stand in the heart of the city. Of iron, steel, and diamond it shall be wrought, for such is the composition of your heart.”
Vod raised his hand. “I have more to say,” he spoke. “The time has not yet come for a Son of Vod to sit the throne.”
Fangodrel’s eyes flared. He breathed through his nostrils, his mouth clamped tight. His hands were fists at his side, crumpling the folds of his verdure cloak.
“Although the King of Udurum must go,” said Vod, “its rightful Queen shall remain.” His eyes turned to meet Shaira’s again. She saw him through a watery haze, thinking of the deep ocean and its harsh secrets. “Queen Shaira shall rule when I am gone. She is beloved of the Uduru, and there is much strength and wisdom in her. I ask all of you to honor your mother in this new office. She will stand above men and giants, and she will need the strength of her hearty sons. Yes, and her daughter—”
Fangodrel could contain his outrage no more. “This cannot be!” he shouted, hurling spittle from his lips. “The Uduru will not settle for a frail woman to rule them! Nor should Men, if true Men they be! I am the rightful heir to this throne, Father. I am your eldest son and I demand you name me your successor.”
Vod rose from his throne. The children stepped back from his terrible gaze… all save Fangodrel, who stood now on the top step of the dais. He stood nearly as tall as Vod, yet his bulk was less than half of his sire’s. Shaira had seen Fangodrel’s anger before, but never this blatant, never this directed and never aimed at his own family. He was at times a terror to the servants and the lesser folk of the palace, but now he stood before his father as an equal. No, as a rival.
“I have spoken,” said Vod.
“You have gone mad,” said Fangodrel. “This is a city of warriors, hunters, and builders. And I am within my rights as first-born to claim it… even before my own mother.”
Thunder broke the sky above the palace, and the walls trembled. The black hound whimpered and pranced into the shadows.
Shaira felt Vod’s rage building like a typhoon in his breast.
“You are not—” he began, then stopped himself.
Will he say it? Will he declare the truth of Fangodrel’s bastardy? Will he disown this impudent boy? Will he slay him? Oh, Gods of Earth and Sky, grant my poor husband wisdom in this moment.
“You… are not… ready,” said Vod. His anger died as quickly as it was born. He sat back in his chair and stared at his adopted son. This son who thought his blood was true.
Thank you, merciful Gods. Shaira gripped the arms of the throne to calm her trembling hands.
“Many will support my claim,” said Fangodrel. “Both men and giants will rally to the cause of my inheritance.”
“I think not,” said Tadarus the second-born. He stood now between Vod and Fangodrel. Gallant soldier versus brooding poet. “The Uduru like you not, for they respect only the strong. You have not a tenth of the strength of Vireon or myself. And you dishonor us all by standing against our father.”
Vireon stood calm at the side of his father’s chair, with Sharadza on the other side. Always it had been thus. The two youngest would never confront Fangodrel in his tantrums; it was always Tadarus who rose up to defend them, and anyone else, against the eldest.
“Enough,” said Vod. “You will both obey the Queen’s will. Someday, when she is too old and feeble to rule… then may Fangodrel take his inheritance. But there are many years of good life in your mother, boys. Your argument does her dishonor. Go to her now and beg forgiveness.”
The eyes of Tadarus and Fangodrel stayed locked together. They did not move.
“Now!” bellowed Vod, and his voice shook the flames in their braziers.
Tadarus tore himself away from Fangodrel’s gaze, and kneeled before Shaira. He kissed her hand. “My mother, my Queen,” he said. “Body, heart, and soul are yours, as they always have been and ever shall be.”
Fangodrel stood his ground. He stared first at Vod, then at Shaira.
Does he hate me now? Poor boy… poor, misplaced soul. We cannot tell you that your father was a monster and that you’ve no claim to this throne. It would destroy you.
Fangodrel said not a word, but strode across the hall, his cloak flapping like the wings of an incensed bat. He stalked through the main arch and was lost in the shadows beyond.
“Little does he care about the loss of his only father,” spat Tadarus, staring after him with disgust. Vireon said nothing.
Sharadza wept aloud, and Vod pulled her to his lap and hugged her.
Shaira did not know what to say, so she sat in her royal chair and wept as well. I will be alone now… the burden of Queenhood on my back. O Vod, my love. You have cursed me.
Vod’s sons, his true sons, stood with their hands on his massive shoulders. They wept also, though silently, as Men do to hide the shame of it.
Above the hiss of the burning braziers, Shaira heard a strange, low sound. It took a moment to recognize. Even the six Giant sentinels who stood guard in the hall were weeping. Their tears glistened like great diamonds in the glow of orange flames.
The black hound slipped quietly into the night to weep alone.
Murala was a tiny city, a collection of gray stone dwellings without a single tower or rampart to protect its inland borders. For less than a league it stretched along the western coast, a town built upon the convenience of its busy wharves. There were no other ports north of this place, so Murala was gateway to the Stormlands for the southern kingdoms. It was a passing place, a weigh station on trade routes that ran to Uurz and New Udurum, the metropolises of the north. Dozens of galleons were moored here in various stages of loading and unloading. The sky was full of rolling thunderheads. The sun rarely broke through that eternal layer of cloud, and a day without rain here was as rare as an eastern jewel.
D’zan was glad to put the ocean behind him with its endlessly rolling face and unpredictable temper. For thirty-three days he had endured the lurching decks and sodden quarters of one trading vessel after another, on a diet of dried fish, hardtack, and stale keg-water. He would never take ship again if he could avoid it. The weeks were spent in nausea and misery, nights in silent despair or nightmares. The Stone hardly left his side, and D’zan would not weep in sight of the big man. So he let his tears flow only in the dark of night, among the moldy blankets of whatever cabin they had secured. The Stone slept lightly, and sometimes not at all. For a time D’zan wondered if his guardian was human, but eventually he saw the man give in to weariness, and his snores were undeniably mortal. The one thing all their cabins and berths had in common was the ever-present odor of fishy brine. It was a reek D’zan was glad to escape along with the pitching decks and foul-mouthed sailors.
Nine days out from Yaskatha they had approached the white cliffs of Mumbaza on the merchant vessel Lion’s Heart. The capital city stood proudly atop the precipice, a cluster of pearly domes and spires glaring down at the sea with arrogant beauty. D’zan marveled at the Upward Way, the staircase road cut into the bare rock leading up to the city’s towering sea gate. The trip had been a torture, and his inability to sleep made it worse. The Stone said they would find sanctuary in Mumbaza with the Boy-King Undutu. But it was not to be.
When the Lion’s Heart drew into port, an inspector boarded the vessel. He wore a cloak of sable feathers and a helm of beaten gold. His skin was as dark as his cloak, and his eyes were nuggets of onyx, cold and hard and without mercy. He spoke to the Stone in a tone that no man of Yaskatha would ever dare to use, and D’zan thought the two would draw their blades and settle the matter right there on the foredeck. Yet the Stone only walked away, his great hands balled into fists, and came to stand near D’zan as the official continued his inspection.
“Will the Boy-King let us stay?” D’zan asked his guardian.
“No,” said the Stone, his eyes still focused on the strutting inspector. “This man serves the King’s mother, Umbrala. She is the power behind the throne of Mumbaza, and she refuses to give us sanctuary.”
“But how can she overrule the King?” D’zan asked. Even here, with the ship tied to the stone quay, his stomach churned. He wanted to sleep, but feared what sleep would bring.
“The King is only eleven,” said the Stone.
“Oh,” said D’zan. “But why does she refuse us? We have a treaty with Mumbaza.”
“She fears Elhathym… and she is fool enough to think she can maintain neutrality in what is to come.”
D’zan closed his eyes. He had almost forgotten – his father was dead. A new power set on the throne that should be his own.
“What… what is to come, Olthacus?” D’zan asked.
“War,” said the Stone.
The Mumbazans would not grant sanctuary, but they would not hinder the Prince of Yaskatha either. Therefore, Olthacus booked passage on a series of northbound galleons. They stopped at various dismal trading ports along the coast every few days. D’zan’s nightmares eventually subsided under the weight of sheer exhaustion, but his nausea never entirely faded. He dreamed of speaking with his father often, but he could not hear the words of the dead King. Visions of the walking dead still came to him, but infrequently. Sometimes he dreamed of dead men marching along the deep sea bed, staring up at the keel of the vessel in which he slept. Could there be an army of drowned sailors following him at the command of black-hearted Elhathym? He tried not to think about such things, and a cup of strong wine before bed each evening reduced his morbid night fevers. He still wept in the dark, hoping Olthacus did not hear.
The Stone’s pouchful of precious jewels served them well for passage and foodstuffs, but there was little to no luxury to be had on these austere vessels. D’zan used to stare at the ocean dreaming of adventures among the waves, discovering fabulous islands full of monsters and recovering lost treasures. But now he hated the gray-green expanse of roiling, capricious chaos. The farther north they sailed, the more storms they encountered. The skies grew black and the rain nearly drowned them, not to mention the great waves that swamped the deck. D’zan learned to stay below during the squalls.
One evening he stared at a dagger, the one his father had given him for his sixteenth birthday, and contemplated opening his throat while the waves tossed the ship to and fro. He studied the tiny jewels set into the hilt, the traceries of silver and gold in the burnished bronze. The pommel was a griffin’s head, its eyes miniscule emeralds. The blade was nearly as long as his forearm, and sharp enough to shave a man’s beard. He could draw it across his throat in one fluid motion, using all his strength, and in a few short moments his life would be over. Blood would flow out his neck, seep through the cracks in the cabin floor, and join the brackish bilge water down below. If he killed himself now, his blood would ultimately rejoin the sea, the place where all men came from, if legends were true. The sailors would likely throw his body overboard, completing his journey back to the source. He would join those armies of drowned dead who crawled along the sea bottom like brainless crabs.
It was that last thought that made him sheathe the dagger. Could he even escape Elhathym by dying? If he killed himself, might that be giving the usurper complete control over him? The thought of this deathly surrender made him set his jaw. He must stay alive, no matter what. This was the only way to defy the necromancer. The only hope of freeing Yaskatha from a tyrant who used the dead to dominate the living.
“We’ll go to Uurz,” the Stone told him. “The Emperor there is kindly and wise. He was once a soldier, a friend of your father’s.”
“Will he grant us the asylum that Mumbaza denied?” D’zan asked.
“If the Gods will it be so.”
“What then?” D’zan asked. “What can we do against someone like Elhathym?”
The Stone stared at him. His rough face was craggy, unshaven, his eyes twin diadems of blue ice. “We make alliances. We build an army. We prepare you for the role you must play.”
“What role is that, Olthacus?”
“You already know,” said the Stone. “Avenging son. Liberator. You must take back Yaskatha.”
D’zan thought on those words often during the voyage. Of course he must do these things. Of course he must slay the monster who had slain his father, and take the kingdom that was rightfully his. But how?
A few days after their conversation, he posed the question to Olthacus: “How can a mere boy hope to gather an army and oppose a sorcerer with such terrible power?”
Olthacus did something then that D’zan had never seen before, though he had known the big man since infancy. The Stone smiled. “There are other sorcerers in this world, Prince,” he said. “And there are many men hungry for glory. Men who are willing to die for a cause they know is just.”
D’zan contemplated this. “And all of this… begins at Uurz?”
“At Uurz,” said the Stone, looking across the leaden sea where stormclouds flared and rumbled. “And at New Udurum. And at Shar Dni. These are the cities of the north. The Stormlands. It is a land of Giants and legends. It is where the Gods drive us. We must trust in Their wisdom.”
D’zan could say little more about this. The Stone knew what must be done, and where they must go. Was Olthacus now his father? This common soldier, this man without a drop of royal blood in his veins? He would sacrifice his entire life to ensure D’zan’s return to the throne. There was no denying it.
A glimmer of hope showed through the churning clouds at that moment, and D’zan breathed deeply of the salt air. For a slight moment, his future seemed secure, as if predetermined. I will do this, he told himself, and his dead father.
Late that night a hail of flaming arrows set the sails alight. Under cover of a raging storm, a reaver ship drove alongside the Lion’s Heart and men boarded the galleon. From his doorway D’zan watched Olthacus draw his great sword and cleave the skull of a howling boarder. The Stone led a party of sailors against the ragged pirates, who had not expected to find a true warrior among the seamen.
D’zan locked himself in the cabin and listened to the sounds of battle, his dagger drawn in case some pirate came crashing through the door in search of plunder. He heard men die, squealing like animals, and watched blood leaking through the planks above (as he had imagined his own blood doing before). The reek of burning wood and rigging choked him. Sooner than he expected, it was over. The Stone came into the cabin, gore smeared across his silver breastplate, a smattering of brains clinging to the blade of his sword, and gulped down a bottle of yellow wine. The reavers had been a desperate bunch, he told D’zan, not a worthy swordsman among them. Still they had killed nearly half the crew. The captain survived with a wounded arm, and his men had succeeded in putting out the fires. The ship would hold together long enough to reach Murala… assuming no more pirates appeared. D’zan stayed below as the survivors scrubbed blood and offal from the deck with buckets of seawater.
Olthacus and three volunteers stove in the reavers’ ship and left it a sinking, empty hulk for the angry waves. He tossed five captured reavers overboard, each chained to the corpses of their slain brothers. They sank like boulders, screaming as their lungs filled with brine. D’zan imagined them joining that undersea army of tireless marching dead, but he kept such thoughts to himself.
A few days later they saw the green coast again, and there stood Murala, as unimpressive as a city could be. Yet she represented dry land, an end to the terrors of the sea, and D’zan had never been more elated to reach any destination. Beyond this humble township lay the Stormlands with all their mystery and promise.
The streets were cobbled and muddy, and the air stank of horseflesh, manure, and woodsmoke. Walking on solid ground felt strange, and D’zan stumbled. Olthacus’ strong hand was always there to grab his shoulder and get him upright before any of the scattered commoners noticed. They both wore black cloaks which hid their southern clothing, and the Stone impressed on him how important it was to stay unnoticed until they reached Uurz. But the busy folk of Murala hardly seemed to see them; foreign sailors and merchant crews were common here, and when they entered the central bazaar the noise and spectacle of commerce made them entirely indistinguishable among the masses.
Now D’zan’s stomach growled and his mouth watered at the smell of baking bread, roasted beef, braised pork, and a heady blend of raw spices. He wanted to stop at the first meat vendor’s table, but the Stone drew him onward, ignoring the booths of brightly colored silks, the wine shops, the armories, the spice barrels, the sweetmeats laid out like delicious jewelry. Goats and sheep bleated on the auction block, and somewhere a band of musicians played a strange northern song with drums, flute, and lyre. Dancing girls swirled in masses of diaphanous silk, smacking tambourines as eager sailors tossed them coins.
Olthacus ignored all of these temptations and many more besides. He drew D’zan into a narrow street where the signs of a half-dozen lodging houses hung from poles over wooden doors reinforced with strips of greenish bronze. Beyond each door rang the sounds of revelry, drunken sailing songs, and female voices raised to enchanting pitch, or simply the jovial bellowing of drunkards. The Stone chose a house carved with the unlikely sign of a golden skull with imitation sapphires in its eye sockets. Inside the smoky den a profusion of tables and commoners ignored their entry, and the smell of cooked food was overwhelming.
D’zan hardly remembered the Stone paying for their stay, or his long conversation with the southern-born innkeeper. He dove into a steaming bowl of pork stew with potatoes, carrots, and other northern vegetables, served with slabs of warm bread. It was the finest meal he had ever tasted. He drank too much of the wine that accompanied the meal, and soon found himself in the comfort of a warm bed, in a room whose decor he didn’t bother to inspect. The Stone laid himself down on a rug near the roaring fireplace, and that was the last thing D’zan remembered. He slept without dreams, warm and dry for the first time in what seemed like forever.
A serving girl woke him the next day well past mid-morning, and the Stone was gone. At first D’zan knew panic, then he realized the girl had run a hot bath for him. She did not speak the southern dialects, but his father had insisted he learn all the major languages of the realms, so he thanked her in her own language. This made her laugh greatly, and she left him a plate of fruit and cheese for breakfast.
He bathed before the water grew cold, then dressed in his laundered clothing and broke his fast. The girl did not return. Too bad, he thought, she was quite beautiful. A simple beauty, dark of skin and hair. These northerners were dusky-skinned like his own people, but their hair was almost always black or heavy brown. The folk of Yaskatha were fair-haired. He thought of the many palace girls whose attentions he’d enjoyed before… before Elhathym destroyed his world. How many of those golden lasses had perished in the takeover? How many had risen again as—
No. He must put such thoughts out of his head.
There are other sorcerers in this world, the Stone had said. Elhathym’s magic could be countered with another, stronger magic. But how would a deposed Prince gather such great powers to his cause? Olthacus would know.
As if summoned by D’zan’s thoughts, Olthacus the Stone opened the door and stepped into the room. His breastplate and helm were polished to a silvery sheen, the embossed standard of the sword and tree bright upon his chest. His beard was still unshaven, but clean now, and he appeared much refreshed. Yet he still seethed with that same air of urgency that had driven him since the fall of Yaskatha.
“Majesty, I’ve found us horses,” he announced.
D’zan nodded, drinking a cup of honeyed milk. “When must we leave?” he asked.
D’zan pulled on his boots. “Can we not stay here a bit longer? It is… comfortable.”
“No, Prince,” said the Stone. “It is not safe. Nor will it be safe for us anywhere until we find sanctuary. We are for Uurz, and right away. You always liked riding, eh?”
D’zan nodded. He was a good horseman. When he turned twelve his father had given him White Flame, a highbred steed. For the first time, he missed the horse. He wondered if the royal stables had burned when the palace caught fire. Don’t think of that; think of the road ahead.
The horses were pale imitations of the champion stallions bred by Yaskathan horselords, but they were strong and swift. In the inn’s muddy courtyard Olthacus loaded both animals with packs of hastily prepared food and gourds of water. D’zan climbed into the stirrups and introduced himself to his steed.
“Does it have a name?” he asked, petting the horse’s mottled neck.
“I didn’t ask the seller,” said the Stone, pulling himself up into his own saddle.
The horse neighed and stamped the mud lightly beneath D’zan, and he decided the beast was good-tempered enough.
“I’ll name him then,” said D’zan. The Stone was silent, adjusting the sword belt over his shoulder. A brand-new crossbow hung from his saddle, and a quiver of bronze-tipped bolts. Was Olthacus expecting trouble on the road to Uurz?
“You are Northwind,” D’zan told the horse, rubbing its neck.
“And mine?” asked the Stone. Every now and then he indulged the Prince in a boyish whim or two.
“Yours is Stormcloud,” said D’zan.
“Very good,” said the Stone, looking at the steed below him as if truly seeing it for the first time. “Then may Northwind and Stormcloud speed us to the City of the Sacred Waters.”
Olthacus steered his trotting horse through the courtyard gate, D’zan and Northwind following close behind.
Thunder split the air, and a soft rain began to fall. The horses carried them slowly through the crowded streets until they reached the eastern edge of Murala, and the green plain stretched away toward a gray horizon where lightning danced between heaven and earth. The wide unpaved road cut across the plain with hardly any curves. There were no hills here to speak of, hardly any trees… just wide-open flatland and tall green grasses waving in the winds. D’zan smelled fresh rain on the air. He spurred his horse and galloped away from Murala with Olthacus riding alongside him. A grassy wind caught up his hair, and he found himself smiling for the first time since leaving home.
He glanced back at the gray-green ocean and the black roofs of smoky Murala one last time. He would not miss the ocean.
But he might miss that girl in the Inn of the Skull and Sapphires.
Each day on the road, it rained. Sometimes the rain came in gentle sheets, other times in driving squalls, when thunder and lightning split the sky. They rode between blue lakes surrounded by groves of slim green trees. Often farmhouses sat near the lakes, and on the second day the road ran through a tiny village. Olthacus and D’zan did not stop to ask the hamlet’s name, or to see if there might be a dry public house in which to sleep. They slept instead well off the road, nestled among the tall grasses. The thrill of traveling on solid ground soon disappeared for D’zan. His cloak and garments were soaked through with rainwater, and at night he sat shivering by the campfire, drinking brandy. It warmed his bones, but the damp was an ever-present nuisance.
Along the road itself they met scattered traffic. Small groups of riders or single horsemen, the occasional ox-drawn caravan bound for trading in Murala. Most wagons bore the green-and-gold sun banner of Uurz. Once a merchant rode by in a chariot pulled by three white stallions, his servants riding behind on a covered wagon filled with kegs of Uurzian wine. Behind the wine wagon came a cloistered carriage where the merchant’s wife and daughters rode, a guard of five armed horsemen surrounding them. The merchants of Uurz were among the wealthiest folk in the northlands. D’zan caught only a glimpse of the merchant’s daughters, dark eyes above gossamer veils as they peered at him from narrow windows, and then they were gone.
On the evening of the fourth night Olthacus killed a hare with his crossbow and roasted it over a small fire. D’zan sipped his brandy and tried to get the Stone talking. If left unprompted, Olthacus would remain silent for days at a time. Tonight the rain had died to a warm drizzle, and D’zan was tired of silence.
“Is it true what they say?” he asked the Stone. “This place used to be a desert?”
The Stone nodded, turning the hare on its spit. Its flesh crackled and smoked, emitting a pleasant aroma. “When last I was here, it was nothing but sand and rocks for hundreds of leagues,” he said.
“You were here?” D’zan asked. “In the Stormlands… When?”
“Before you were born, Majesty,” said Olthacus. “I accompanied your father to visit the Emperor. The old one… Iryllah. They say he was killed by Giants. Some say his death caused the rebirth of the land.”
“Is it true?”
Olthacus shrugged. “Others say it was Vod the Giant-King, Bringer of Storms, Child of Thunder.”
“I know that story,” said D’zan. “Eikus, my history tutor, made me read about it in the Book of Northern Histories. Good old Eikus… he’s probably dead now.”
Olthacus ignored this last comment. “The way I hear it, the Serpent-Father burned this land to ash a thousand years ago, turned it to desert. Used to be some fairly big lizards here as I remember. Tasted terrible.” He licked some grease off his finger and adjusted the cooking hare once again. “Vod was raised by humans, or so they say. When he found out that his true father was devoured by the Lord of Serpents, he took up his sire’s axe and marched north beyond the Grim Mountains. There the Serpent had conquered the City of Giants, killing most and driving away the rest. Vod used his father’s axe to slay the Serpent, and when the beast died the rains returned to the desert, the grasses began to grow. The land came to life again. It used to be called the Desert of Many Thunders. Now they call it Stormlands. With all this rain, it’s no wonder.”
“In the book,” said D’zan, “Vod was a sorcerer. He grew to the size of a mountain, strangled the Serpent-Father, and drank his flaming blood. Then he marched southward, and his footsteps cracked open the earth. Rivers poured from the underworld and an ancient curse was lifted. In a single year the desert blossomed into a green paradise. That’s what the book said… but I never truly believed it.”
“Do you believe it now, Prince?”
A peal of distant thunder moaned across the sky. “Yes,” said D’zan. After witnessing the terrible power of Elhathym, he would never again doubt the tales of sorcerers.
“Olthacus,” D’zan said as they devoured the crisp hare-flesh. “Can we not go to this Giant-King and make him our ally? Surely he has power to rival Elhathym.”
“Aye, and an army of Giants to boot,” said the Stone, smacking his lips.
“Then why go to Uurz?” said D’zan. “Eikus told me King Vod rebuilt the City of Giants and invited men to live there. Why not go to him instead?”
Olthacus frowned and guzzled a cup of brandy. “New Udurum is much farther than Uurz, Prince,” he said. “The Grim Mountains lie between us and Vod’s city. And they say those mountains are haunted by the ghosts of all the Serpents slain by Giants… and even worse things.”
D’zan sat quiet. He knew precious little about the Emperor of Uurz. Only that he came to power twenty-some years ago, at the time of the land’s rebirth. Would Dairon give him sanctuary, pledge to aid him? For that matter, would the Giant-King be any easier to sway?
“Perhaps we will go to Vod’s city eventually,” said the Stone. “But Uurz is on our way. The Emperor Dairon rules there, and the Giant-King is his fast ally. If we gain the support of Uurz, we will gain the support of New Udurum and the giants. Be sure of that, Prince.”
“And why would either of these monarchs aid us?”
The Stone shrugged. “Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps they will. This is for the Gods to decide.” The big man laid himself down on a sodden blanket, his greatsword unsheathed and lying across his chest. “Sleep now, Majesty. Tomorrow we ride until we see the gates of Uurz.”
D’zan finished his wine and lay down. Moonlight found its way through the cloud cover, sparkling on a million drops of rain along the edges of tall grass blades.
If each of these green blades was a sword, I would have my army. Though perhaps it would be better to have a single sorcerer at my side.
At dawn they awoke and remounted. Storms gathered quietly in the pink and purple sky as they galloped the final leagues toward Uurz. Near midday, in the midst of a steady rain, they came within sight of the city’s outer wall. It rose upon the horizon and gleamed like wet gold. Above it a hundred gilded towers shone against the clouds, and the sun struck brilliant sparks against those spires.
Here the road was paved, and the first of many great estates lined the way. Orchards, grazing pastures, and croplands stretched across the plains as far as the eye could see. Giant palm trees sat alongside the road at regular intervals, and side avenues were numerous. These were the agricultural plantations that gave sustenance to the gleaming city and grew the grapes that made the famous Uurzian wines. The workers on these farms wore loose-fitting pantaloons and leather vests, though most went barefoot through the muddy fields. Their children ran free and laughing in the gentle rain.
They seem happy, D’zan thought, watching the adults at work and the children at play. How long has it been since I knew such happiness? Will I ever know it again?
Now was not the time for such thoughts, so he locked them away.
Six days on the road had brought them to the Great Gate of Uurz, and now they approached its massive open slabs. A perpetual crowd of commoners and noble folk came in and out of the wall’s single portal. The two southern riders joined the crowds seeking entry at this hour and found themselves in a great line of mounted travelers, horse-drawn carriages, and wagons pulled by oxen or wetland camels. As they waited for ingress, D’zan studied the brown faces of the guards. Their bronze armor shone like gold, and their spears stood twice as tall as the men themselves. Their swords were straight-forged in the northern manner, and they wore cloaks of green stitched with golden suns. That same emblem decorated their round shields. Along the top of the wall, guard towers watched over the surrounding lands for many leagues. The wall was taller than any D’zan had seen, and he recalled the legend of its impenetrability. Even the Giants, long ago, had tried to tear down this wall, and failed.
He saw no Giants outside the gates today, and felt a bit disappointed.
Just before sunset D’zan and Olthacus crossed the threshold of the Great Gate and entered the city proper. The first thing D’zan noticed here was the sound of music. It seemed a dozen minstrels were playing on every corner, strains high and lilting, or low and throbbing. The stone buildings were on top of each other, often literally, and roof gardens rang with merriment, dripping with vines and living blossoms. The streets were paved with flat cobbles, black stones that rang beneath the hooves of a thousand thousand horses, and the gutters ran heavy with foaming rainwater.
Gigantic palms stood sentinel over taverns, manors, and common houses. The smells of blooming orchids, spiced pastries, and perfumed ladies nearly overpowered the more pedestrian odors of animal dung and hearth smoke. Not even in Yaskatha had D’zan smelled such clean streets. Uurz might indeed be a paradise. Or as close to it as any earthly place could be.
Everywhere Uurzians walked and laughed and danced and haggled and shouted. D’zan spied a trio of girls atop a lush roof garden as he rode past, and each of them seemed to be winking at him. Olthacus ignored the women of Uurz as he ignored all the city’s wonders. His eyes were fixed upon the golden towers at the city’s hub, and D’zan knew they would find the Emperor’s palace there, at the very center of this great hive of green and gold.
Night fell softly upon Uurz, and the lights of the city came alive. A hundred thousand lanterns cast their warmth across the damp streets, and cheerful groups of youths gallivanted along the lanes. Olthacus, who had been here when the land was dry and parched, had no trouble finding the gates of the royal grounds. The palace stood taller and wider than Yaskatha’s own. Its hundreds of windows gleamed in all the colors of the rainbow, some trick of the painted glass. A half-moon rose above the soaring spires, taking on the golden hue of the edifice. Even the moon was jealous of this place and tried to imitate its beauty. The courtyards about the palace proper were thick with trees, a miniature forest rising above the spiked walls. Guards walked the ramparts in pairs, and such a pair on the street hailed Olthacus as he rode toward the barred entry.
“No sightseeing after dark,” said the guard, a phrase he was evidently accustomed to repeating. “Come back tomorrow.”
The Stone brought his horse to a halt, and D’zan followed his example.
“Olthacus, General of Yaskatha, Right Hand of King Trimesqua, seeks audience with His Majesty Emperor Dairon.”
Both guards perked up, eyeing Olthacus from beneath the rims of their helmets, then scanning over D’zan. “You carry the seal of Trimesqua?”
Olthacus showed the man his ring. The guards bowed, then opened the gate. An attendant came forth to guide them through the splendid courtyard. The scents here were overpowering, ripe fruit and flowery nectar, all the finest shrubs, hedges, and trees meticulously arranged for maximum aesthetic value. D’zan wished it were daylight so he might better appreciate the renowned gardens. Perhaps there would be time for that, if he found the sanctuary he sought in this place.
The horses were led off to the stables, and the attendant conducted them through a columned portico into an outer hall of the palace. Statues of marble and granite lined the walls, and servants brought them wine in jeweled cups. The vintage was of the finest quality, and a deep drink made D’zan’s head spin. Olthacus quaffed it like water. Eventually they were shown to a smallish chamber furnished with velvet couches, beaded tapestries, and a table of polished black wood. At the head of the table stood a young man dressed in the gold and green of the royal family, a necklace of opals on his chest, a coronet of silver and ruby about his forehead. His thick hair was black and curly, falling to his shoulders, and his face clean-shaven. His arms were brawny, and he radiated the demeanor of a soldier. A short-bladed sword hung from his wide belt in a scabbard crusted with gems.
“Olthacus of Yaskatha?” asked the soldier.
The Stone nodded and dropped to one knee. D’zan was unsure of what to do, so he stood quietly and observed. Surely this youth was not the Emperor of Uurz.
“I am Prince Tyro, son of Emperor Dairon. My father regrets that he cannot greet you in person.”
“When last I saw you, Majesty,” said the Stone, “you were a babe in your mother’s arms.”
“So they tell me,” said Tyro, smiling. His sharp eyes turned to D’zan, who felt suddenly dirty and disheveled. He hardly looked the part of a Prince today, caked with mud and sweat, smelling of horseflesh.
The Stone introduced him. “May I present to you Prince D’zan, Son of Trimesqua. Heir of Yaskatha.”
Tyro’s eyes narrowed. He bowed to D’zan, who returned the courtesy. “I am honored to welcome you to Uurz. Please sit. There is food and drink.”
Servants appeared from behind the tapestries and laid out a feast. D’zan found himself entirely without appetite. He had many questions, but he did not know what to say. So his eyes turned to Olthacus.
“We thank you for your hospitality, Majesty,” said the Stone. “Too long it has been since I’ve tasted the fare of your house.”
Tyro waved the servants away. He seemed uninterested in food or drink.
“Traders brought news of Trimesqua’s fall only days ago,” said Tyro, addressing D’zan now. “The Emperor mourns your loss.”
“I… thank you, Prince,” said D’zan.
“You have traveled far and your journey must have been taxing. You will find safety and comfort within these walls. These are the Emperor’s own words.”
D’zan thanked him again, somewhat awkwardly.
“Please… eat, drink,” said Tyro. “There will be plenty of time to talk when you have bathed and rested. My father will see you on the morrow. Tonight he is otherwise engaged.”
Olthacus attacked the delicious fare, and D’zan found his own appetite. Tyro ate little, and was polite enough not to stare as the two hungry riders sated their appetites. A second princely figure glided into the room. His broad face resembled Tyro’s, but he was skinny, his nose a tad longer, and a coronet supported a trio of emeralds above his eyes. He carried in his arms a great book bound in worn leather.
“Ah, my brother Lyrilan joins us,” said Tyro, “having found his way out of the musty depths of the library. A rare occurrence, Prince D’zan. You are met with interest.”
The thin Prince smiled at D’zan and stood at the end of the table.
“He is a scholar, you see,” explained Tyro with the faintest trace of scorn.
D’zan caught the hidden meaning of those few words: But he ought to be a soldier.
“Greetings to you, Prince Lyrilan,” said Olthacus, wiping his mouth with a silken napkin. “May I present Prince D’zan of Yaskatha…”
Lyrilan smiled at D’zan, offering the briefest of bows. “Forgive my curiosity,” he said. “Tyro usually handles matters of state. News of your arrival only just reached me, and I wanted to pay my respects. I’ve been reading, you see…”
Prince Tyro laughed. “When are you not reading?”
Prince Lyrilan ignored the question. He laid the great book on the end of the table, well away from the nearest dish. “Your father, King Trimesqua, was a great man,” he said. His fingers absently traced the engraved patterns on the book’s cover. “A great warrior. A hero in thought and deed. It is an honor to have you here. I have many questions about Trimesqua’s life.”
“Brother!” interrupted Tyro. “Our guests have only just arrived.”
“No, it’s all right,” said D’zan. The potent wine made him feel at ease, and there was something about this skinny Prince he liked immediately. Perhaps it was simply nice to hear someone speak so highly of his father. “What is that book you’re carrying?”
Lyrilan lifted the volume to display the embossed cover, its title written in the northern dialect. “Odysseys of the Southern Kings,” he said. “It lists the entirety of your family history going back three hundred years. Did you know your father slew a sea monster that devoured a thousand ships? The Beast of Barragur, they called it. He freed the shipping lanes for a generation of trade.”
D’zan smiled. Of course he knew that story. “My father told me that one several times.”
Lyrilan’s eyes lit up like twin candles. “Fascinating! This is why I had to meet you. There is only so much you can learn from a book. I’ll bet you have hundreds of stories to tell.”
“If you want to know the best stories, ask the Stone.” D’zan indicated Olthacus, who was chewing on a leg of fowl. “He and my father travelled the world together… long before I was born.”
Olthacus nodded, his mouth full of meat.
“Plenty of time for that,” said Prince Tyro, rising from his chair. “Lyrilan, don’t tire our guests any further.”
Excerpted from Seven Princes by Fultz, John R. Copyright © 2012 by Fultz, John R.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 25, 2014
Although each chapter starts with a long description of the scene, the mysteries are perplexing, storyline interesting, and battles exhilarating! I will be purchasing the next book.
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Posted February 28, 2012
Kept me interested throughout though some parts were drawn out to the extreme. On the other side of the coin, sudden turns in the book that give you a rush which just made you want to keep reading. All in all, I enjoyed the book and hope to see the next one in the series soon.
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